Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

[Updated November 19, 2020]

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 live it out in our daily 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 live out this principle? 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 lived out in one’s cultural setting.

The biblical principle doesn’t change, but the way we live out the principle 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, living out 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 way of living out this principle, 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?

How did they faithfully live out this principle in their cultural context?

How can we most faithfully live out this same biblical principle in our cultural context?

Exploring these questions can help us sort out many seemingly difficult issues. In 1 Corinthians 11, what’s the deal with people covering their heads when they pray or prophesy in the church gathering? And why were women supposed to do this, but men were not? Again, in order to understand exactly what biblical principle is being taught we need to do a little digging to see what this would have meant to the 1st century Corinthian believers. We learn that men covering their heads in prayer was a distinctive pagan practice. (It’s surprising for most of us to learn that 1st century Jewish men did not cover their heads when they prayed; they didn’t start doing this until centuries later, possibly to distinguish themselves from common Christian practice.) So for a Christian man to cover his head in prayer or prophesy would be to import a distinctively pagan practice into the church gathering.

We also learn that the only women who publicly uncovered their heads in Corinth would have been prostitutes or women who were brazenly promiscuous. It’s possible that women were becoming a little too comfortable with the home-like, family nature of the church gatherings and were uncovering their heads when gathering with their Christian brothers and sisters. But this was still a shameful practice in their culture and dishonored themselves and their husbands (or fathers).

So what’s the biblical principle being taught here? Is it that there’s something intrinsically evil about hats (or the absence thereof)? No, the principle is that we shouldn’t assume the freedom to import into the church gathering a practice that communicates something shameful in our cultural context (especially practices that have distinctively pagan connotations).

How did they live out this principle in 1st century Corinth? By men not covering their heads when they prayed or prophesied (unlike the pagans), and by women covering their heads when they prayed or prophesied (unlike prostitutes). Do these applications communicate the same thing today? No, they don’t. For a man to cover his head when he prays no longer has any pagan connotation in our culture. And head coverings for women don’t have any specific significance in our culture, either. In one class, I asked what they would think if they went into a Christian church and the women were wearing head coverings. One woman replied, “I’d think it was some kind of cult!” There just is no common understanding of what this practice is supposed to mean in our cultural context.

So, to rigidly use the same method of application today that they used then (wearing or not wearing head coverings) won’t fulfill the unchanging biblical principle (which is not importing into the church gathering shameful or pagan practices). Instead of woodenly, unreflectively copying the method of application followed in the 1st century, we need to prayerfully seek to faithfully fulfill the biblical principle. [This passage gives a restriction to the Corinthian women when they pray or prophesy in the church gathering. It’s ironic that most groups who still today insist on women covering their heads in this kind of setting also don’t allow them to pray or prophesy in the church gathering!]

God has sovereignly placed his people in different times and cultural contexts. And—regardless of our contexts—we seek to faithfully live out the truth revealed in his Word. But Scripture gives us both the core principles and also ways his people were to live out these principles in their 1st century context. So how do we most faithfully live out these unchanging biblical principles in our current context? The questions above give us a way of determining which methods of application are most faithful to the scriptural intent. They help us go beyond a mere religious, woodenly literal obsession with the letter of the law, and instead help us truly honor God by faithfully living out the actual principles he has given us.

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