Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Some Christians—driven by a zeal to be faithful to Scripture—seem like they’re trying to escape the present day and somehow return to the 1st century. This can not only be frustrating for them and off-putting to those who love them, but it doesn’t really work. Like it or not, God hasn’t put us in the 1st century, but the 21st.

On the other hand, some believers take what the Bible says and reinterpret it to fit the latest trends in psychology, politics or cultural fads. This, too, can leave observers scratching their heads. Can the New Testament letters to the churches legitimately be used to teach pop psychology, Republican or Democratic party platforms, or ‘I’m-okay-you’re-okay’ spirituality? Clearly, we need some balance in how we approach the teachings in Scripture.

Thankfully, how we handle these historical or cultural differences can often be determined with just some healthy common sense. For instance, we read these instructions in 2 Timothy 4:13:

When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers.

Is this an instruction we must obey? How can we? With a little digging, we learn this was written from Paul to Timothy. The more we think about these kinds of passages, the more we become aware of an important truth that can help us avoid error when reading the Bible:

All Scripture is written for us, but it’s not all written to us.

The above verse from 2 Timothy is a perfect example. The instruction was given to Timothy—not to us. We instinctively know this already. I’ve never heard of any Christian who sought to obey God’s Word by trying to get Paul’s books, papers and coat to him. We immediately recognize that this passage doesn’t apply to us. It’s impossible for us to apply this passage to our lives the same way Timothy did to his.

But then we read a passage such as Romans 12:2:

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

When we read this, we naturally assume it applies to us just as much as it did to those who first read these words. The behavior and customs of our 21st century world may look different than those of the 1st century, but we understand there’s a lasting principle being taught here.

For passages such as this one, the biblical principle and the way we apply it to our lives are essentially the same thing. When Jesus said to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind,” what is the biblical principle? It’s to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds, right? And how do we apply this principle to our lives? By loving God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. Many passages are very straightforward this way. But others include an element in the instruction that reveals a cultural difference between their world then and ours now. When that happens, we need to:

Learn to distinguish between the biblical principle
and the way it’s being applied in its cultural setting.

The biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we apply the principle to our lives often must change for the same principle to be consistently applied. Let me give you a classic example. Some of the letters to the churches include the command: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” What was Paul’s primary concern in giving these instructions? That a lot of kissing would be going on? No, there’s a deeper principle here, isn’t there? In their culture, a kiss was the common way of greeting someone with both warmth and acceptance. The principle that Paul was establishing was that fellow Christians should greet each other in a way that communicated both warmth and acceptance. A kiss was the culturally appropriate way for them to do this in the 1st century.

In some cultures today, applying this biblical principle in our churches by kissing each other still makes sense. Here in Puerto Rico, it’s common to greet each other with a kiss. (Although men usually don’t kiss each other! So this would be one difference between our culture and theirs.) But in other churches, the culturally appropriate way to greet one another is going to be with a ‘holy hug’ or a hand shake.

Of course, we could insist on not merely observing the principle but following the 1st century application as well. We could go into a gathering of relatively reserved saints in Minnesota and immediately start kissing everyone. We’d definitely be communicating something to them(!), but would they interpret us as greeting them with ‘warmth and acceptance’? By woodenly adhering to the 1st century application, we’d actually be violating the biblical principle. Remember, the biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we apply it to our lives will change from culture to culture. We can never just ignore the biblical principle, but we must seek to be wise in the way we live out these principles.

The more we understand what a passage meant to them,
the more we’ll understand what it means to us.

Last week, I referred to Paul confronting the Galatians. As you read through his letter to the Galatians, you’ll see there’s a repeated focus on the issue of circumcision. Some teachers were trying to convince the Galatians they needed to be circumcised, and Paul is strongly opposed to this idea. What did this exactly mean to them back then? To understand the significance of this book for us today, we need to know more about what it meant to Paul and the Galatians. (This is another time when a study Bible can be invaluable.)

If we do just a little digging, we learn that by accepting circumcision, the Galatians would be committing themselves to observing the Old Covenant Law. They were being taught they first had to become Jews before they could be disciples of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Paul vehemently opposes this teaching. He explains in his letter to them that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled in Christ; the Old Covenant has been superseded by the New Covenant in Christ; what they are being taught is such a serious departure from the truth of Christ it amounts to an entirely different gospel; and if they seek to be accepted by God through obeying the Old Covenant Law, they will be denying Christ and the grace of God!

So what does this mean to us today? Do we have teachers trying to pressure us to be circumcised and become Jews in order to be disciples of Christ? Not very often (although some groups come close to this in the way they merge the New Covenant with the Old). But do we face comparable challenges to add something to the pure gospel? Absolutely. We have people telling us we need an additional experience to enter into a relationship with Christ, whether it’s baptism, being filled with the Spirit, or receiving sacraments from a priest. We also have people insisting we must follow their list of rules and regulations to be a child of God. In Galatians, Paul has shown us that any added requirements for salvation perverts the gospel and must be vigorously opposed. The principles we learn in this letter to the Galatians equip us to handle these challenges.

So whenever you run into a passage that seems to involve a difference in culture, ask yourself these questions:

What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage?

What did this mean to them back then? How did they apply this principle to their lives?

What does this mean to us today? How do we best apply and communicate the same biblical principle?

Exploring these questions can help us sort out many seemingly difficult issues. Should Christian women today cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in the church as it describes in 1 Corinthians 11? First we ask: What is the main biblical principle being taught in this passage? We find it in 1 Corinthians 11:10 “. . . a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.” The principle Paul is teaching in this passage is that when women speak publicly in the church, they should show they are under authority.

How did they apply this principle to their lives? By the woman wearing a head covering, which communicated to people in their culture that she was under authority. Does this application communicate the same thing today? No, it doesn’t. Head coverings for Christian women don’t have any specific significance in our culture. In one class, I asked the students what they would think if they went into a Christian church and the women were wearing head coverings. One student replied, “I’d think it was some kind of cult!”

So, to rigidly use the same method of application doesn’t fulfill the biblical principle (Christian women clearly showing everyone they are under authority when they speak publicly in the church). How can they accomplish this today? There’s currently no form of dress that communicates this idea. The best way to show this is probably in the attitude one demonstrates when speaking in the church.

The questions above give us a way of sorting out what practices apply to us today, which practices don’t, and why—while remaining faithful to the same unchanging biblical principles.

(One final tip for the week: I’ve repeatedly encouraged you to use a study Bible, but it’s important to recognize the difference between studying the Bible and reading the Bible. Checking out every study note, map and chart can be a good way to study a scriptural passage. But sometimes you just need to read. If you try to look at every note while you’re reading the Bible, you’ll end up losing the flow of thought. One way to handle this is to first read without looking at anything but the text itself, trying to get a feel for the flow of thought. Then you can go back and explore all the additional information that will help you understand the details. Remember, you want to see both the forest and the trees. Happy studying!)

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches [see above]

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

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