Can churches be too small?

StockSnap_QVIEE1UZSXIn my last post, I wrote about the dangers of a church becoming too large. I’m sure for many readers I was simply preaching to the choir. A lot of believers have either never felt right about megachurches or they’ve become disillusioned with them. But can a church be too small? For many, that might seem like a strange question. We may immediately challenge the idea that “bigger is better,” but then just assume that smaller must always be better. But is this true? Does this best fit the biblical model of the local church?

I served as a pastor/elder of a house church for 3 years, and for most of that time the church met in my home. I’m very familiar with the joys and blessings of a simple church meeting in the home, and I understand quite well the reasons why Christians leave “traditional” churches for this kind of intimate, family-like setting. So I understand and sympathize with the thinking behind the house church movement. (I’ve had many conversations about the church’s “edifice complex,” etc.) But is a modern-day house church or a “micro-church” the most faithful way to live out the pattern of the church we find in the New Testament?

Steve Atkerson is even more familiar with house churches than I am. For over 25 years, he has worked to encourage, support and help house churches and house church leaders. But somewhere along the way his understanding changed regarding the house churches in the first centuries after Christ. He came to realize that the house churches in the early church met in the homes of wealthier members of the church (who had larger homes), and that these large, semi-public villas would have atria that could seat anywhere from 60 to 150 people. This is the kind of house church described in the New Testament and to whom the letters to the churches were written. (For more on this you can read my earlier post or Atkerson’s articles here and here.) This is obviously much different than 15 or 20 people sitting in a modern living room.

But this leads to the same question we had to consider in the last post [about abnormally large churches]: Is there anything unhealthy about churches being too small? And—as with the last post—the question isn’t whether a small, house church can be wonderful and healthy. Again, I know they can because I’ve experienced it! I still have very fond memories of our time together in the house church and the wonderful people with whom I was in fellowship. No, I’ll word the question the same way I did for megachurches (only changing “large” to “small”): The question isn’t whether a very small church can be healthy; it’s what are the dangers that all very small churches face, and is this the healthiest option for a church?

Here again I’m appreciative of the work of Steve Akerson. His reflections have confirmed some of my own thoughts and observations and caused me to think more deeply about aspects of house church gatherings that I hadn’t considered before. So what are some of these weaknesses of too-small churches? I’ll note some, but first a reminder: This isn’t a house church vs. traditional church comparison; it’s a Roman atrium-sized church model (à la New Testament house churches) vs. the current micro-sized house church model. (Maybe it would be helpful to drop the terminology ‘house church’ for how the church met in the early centuries, and instead call these villa churches!) This isn’t a call to return to a traditional way of doing church; it’s a fine-tuning of what we should understand as the biblical model of doing church. Could meeting as a very small church in someone’s home actually hinder us from living out biblical principles of church life?

Let’s start with a practical instruction to churches in Scripture. We’re told in 1 Timothy 5:17 that the elders who lead and teach well should be financially supported. And notice this is speaking of elders (plural) who are supposed to be well paid. How many house churches today are able to pay even one elder who is devoted to leading and teaching? Atkerson notes: “Even if there is an elder, the congregation is usually so small he cannot be supported. Unless he is retired or is self-employed and willing to neglect his business, time devoted to the church in equipping, leadership, training, disciple-making, evangelism and teaching is in short supply. As a result, little disciple-making occurs.”

The New Testament churches were not only supposed to financially support certain elders who devoted their time to leading and teaching, they were to be shepherded by a team of pastoral elders. How many house churches have a plurality of qualified elders shepherding the church? Far too many micro-sized house churches don’t have even one qualified elder. Because of this, there is often a lack of biblical leadership and substantive teaching of Scripture. The fellowship may be wonderful, and the people may enjoy and even genuinely benefit from spending time together. But the church is lacking the leaders and teachers God intended to be shepherding his church.

Some newer networks of micro-churches plan from the beginning that all of their pastors will be—and remain—bivocational. They also often stress the surprisingly rapid training and releasing of these new pastors to plant new micro-churches. How are they able to train pastors so quickly? They remove the need for substantive teaching of Scripture. Instead of calling these leaders ‘pastors,’  they’d be better described as evangelists or small group leaders. These groups are actually either cells connected to a larger church that provides needed teaching and training (and so not autonomous churches at all) or they’re churches whose leaders don’t teach the Bible to the people in the church. When one considers the repeated emphasis on teaching the church in the New Testament, this is alarming.

luan-cabral-XVqwbImMR4M-unsplashThe biblical design for the church body is a community of believers that’s large enough to have a healthy assortment of spiritual gifts. This is the way God intends for the body to grow, building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16). I think it would be a wise thing for any small church to ask how well they’re living out being a community of believers with a healthy diversity of spiritual gifts. If this is problematic because of the church’s small size, it might be appropriate to ask if the church is abnormally small (especially in light of the actual size of early house churches, i.e. 60-150 people).

We also need to take into consideration the differences between first century Roman culture and our culture today. Not only do we not typically meet in the same large, semi-public villas that the Romans did (which were also places of business, with people often coming and going), but we also usually drive to the place where the church gathers together once a week. This, of course, means we have to park. In many neighborhoods, this can create a weekly annoyance for our neighbors, harming our relationship with those living around us and even hurting our witness to them. These kinds of problems have caused some communities to pass restrictions on regular church meetings in private homes. Instead of railing against these “godless” attacks, we need to hear the concerns of our neighbors and realize that our setting is not the same as the early church’s.

To conclude this post, I can’t do better than quoting Steve Atkerson’s excellent work on this (the emphases in the quote below are the original author’s):

“Being too small is a violation of the New Testament norm. Intent on holding to the New Testament example of meeting in homes, some house churches instead violate other New Testament patterns such as having elders and consistent, quality instruction. It is far better to not meet in homes if it means having the blessing of elders and teachers and a diversity of spiritual gifts operating. . . . In all, to accomplish what the early church accomplished may necessitate not meeting in our modern homes (but rather some dynamic equivalent). Thus, the real emphasis should be on New Testament church principles, not simply meeting in homes.”

The NIV controversy, part 2

It sometimes comes as a surprise to students when I quote approvingly from different Bible translations. They seem to think that, since our church uses the NLT, this must be the authoritative text for us. There are definitely churches that follow such a rigid adherence to one Bible version, whether it’s the KJV or ESV. But an obsessive insistence on one translation is actually a strong indicator a pastor or teacher doesn’t really know much about the translation of Scripture. The truth is there is no perfect translation. No matter how much you may love a particular Bible version, if you continue studying, you’re bound to run across places where you prefer a different reading.

Though I now teach from the NLT, I still love the NIV’s rendering of “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16. (I think the rest of the verse is even more clear in the NLT though.) In my opinion, the NET communicates the clear meaning of John 3:16 when it begins the verse: “For this is the way God loved the world . . .” rather than the traditional “For God so loved the world . . .” (The HCSB and God’s Word Translation have similar readings.) I appreciate the way the TNIV and the updated NIV clarify Philippians 4:13: “For I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength [emphasis added].”

So we shouldn’t seek the one Bible translation that has no issues and gets every reading perfectly; this is simply not a realistic expectation. And we need to understand that if we put any Bible version through an in-depth examination, we’re going to find readings on which scholars disagree and which we may not prefer. Most of us aren’t accustomed to such meticulous analysis of a popular translation. Before we begin, we need to remind ourselves that, though the wording may differ, the various translations of Scripture all communicate the same gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. So just what are the differences in the 2011 NIV?

Updated language
The NIV was last revised in 1984, and some of the wording sounds dated or has different connotations now. For instance, the word “alien” today tends to conjure up visions of beings from outer space, so the 2011 NIV now uses the word “foreigner.”  We normally don’t refer to a woman as being “with child,” so the NIV now describes expectant mothers as “pregnant.” Because of increased knowledge of Greek, we can now specify when Jesus faced opposition from the “Jewish leaders” rather than implying that all of “the Jews” resisted him. These kinds of improvement haven’t provoked much criticism.

More formal readings
One of the criticisms of the more functional translations (including the NIV) is that they are sometimes specific when the original language is not. [For an explanation of what we mean by formal and functional translations, see Which Bible version should I use?] Some feel translations should leave the wording more ambiguous and allow the reader to decide how to interpret the word or phrase. In the 2011 NIV, the translators more frequently opted for such formal readings. For instance, Romans 1:17 no longer tells us that in the gospel “a righteousness from God is revealed,” but that “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In many of the places where the 1984 NIV spoke of the “sinful nature,” the 2011 NIV relies on the more ambiguous, traditional reading of the “flesh.” While some applaud this change, others feel this is actually a step backward in clearly communicating the meaning of the text. Regardless, these kinds of changes have not been controversial. The lightning rod for critics of the 2011 NIV (and the previous TNIV) has been the changes regarding gender—how we refer to men and women. Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

Changes in gender references
Language is constantly changing. This is the very reason why new versions of the Bible are sometimes needed. Remember the purpose of a Bible translation is to accurately communicate the Word of God in the common language used by the people so they can readily understand it. Whether we like it or not, the way we use words related to gender has changed. One can still find old books that refer to Queen Elizabeth as a “man of distinction.” * This sounds silly to us now. If I were to stand up in church and ask, “Will all the men please stand,” how many women do you think would rise? None, of course. Why is that? Because most of us no longer hear the word “men” as including both men and women, but as being exclusively male.

The current translators of the NIV are not advancing these changes, but they must take them into consideration in order to provide the most accurate translation possible. Indeed, some have suggested it is irresponsible not to. If a large percentage of readers think masculine terms such as “men” or “brothers” specify males only, then these words no longer accurately convey the meaning of Scriptures where both men and women are intended. No one is claiming these language changes are universal; one can still find examples of the term “man” being used for people in general. But it’s hard to deny that such usage is becoming continually more rare, particularly among the younger generations and in more urban areas.

Should we adapt to these kinds of changes in language? Some would say no, that we should withstand cultural influences on our language. But then, how many of us would stubbornly insist on describing ourselves as “gay” when we’re feeling happy and lighthearted? By not using this word to describe ourselves are we advancing an ideological agenda? Or are we merely seeking to communicate clearly and unambiguously? Like it or not, language does change, and for a variety of reasons. We must communicate to people in the language they actually speak and understand. Let’s look at some examples:

men and women

The Greek words traditionally translated as “man” or “men” can mean either male persons or people in general. The meaning is determined by the context:

Matthew 16:26

1984 NIV
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

2011 NIV
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

1 Timothy 2:3-4

1984 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2011 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

brothers and sisters

If I were to announce Sunday, “Would all the brothers meet at the front of the church building after the service,” how many women do you think would show up? We commonly use the word “brothers” to indicate men today, rather than all of the people. We understand though the Greek word adelphoi often refers to both men and women.

Romans 12:1

1984 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

2011 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Colossians 1:2

1984 NIV
To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

2011 NIV
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

sons and daughters

The Greek word huioi can mean either sons or children, depending on the context.

John 12:35-36 (Jesus speaking to the crowd)

1984 NIV
The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.  Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.

2011 NIV
Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.

Romans 8:14

1984 NIV
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

2011 NIV
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Out of all of these examples, which ones communicate most clearly that both men and women are intended? Remember, the goal is to accurately convey the meaning of the text. At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “So what’s the big controversy?” Let’s see what the critics are saying:

Common criticisms

“They’re changing the Word of God!”

It’s not uncommon, unfortunately, to hear this charge, accompanied by ominous warnings to those who would alter Scripture (e.g. Revelation 22:18-19). Surprisingly this accusation isn’t being made only by ordinary Christians who lack knowledge, but by those who should know better. Of course, unless we’re all going to read the Bible only in the original Hebrew and Greek, Scripture must be “changed” from the original languages into the languages that people now speak—for us, English. Does this mean we’re altering God’s Word? Not if we faithfully convey the original meaning. As we’ve seen in a previous post, woodenly formal translations often obscure the original sense of a passage. If the text conveyed the meaning of “men and women” to the original readers, then to use wording that doesn’t convey that meaning today—when we can easily communicate the actual meaning—is an approach that is more vulnerable to the charge of altering the Word of God. If the original reading meant “brothers and sisters” in their context, then to render this as “brothers” is to translate Scripture in a less accurate manner.

“They’re obscuring how Scripture applies to individuals.”

Finish this question: “Everyone likes pizza, ________?” * If you said “don’t they,” you would be using normal, everyday English. You also might be considered grammatically incorrect, at least by a small, diminishing number of English teachers. At one time, the proper way to say this would have been, “Everyone loves pizza, doesn’t he?” But no one speaks this way anymore—not even English teachers! It just sounds odd to the current English speaker. Virtually all of us use what scholars call the ‘singular they.’ This isn’t a new innovation (even Shakespeare used it), but it’s become universal in everyday speech and is being utilized even in formal English. When the context shows the text is not specifying males, the NIV translators frequently used a singular they rather than an exclusive “he,” “she,” or the ever-awkard “he or she.”

Matthew 18:15

1984 NIV
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

2011 NIV
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Now, the truth is most people use “they” in precisely the same manner the current NIV does in this verse and similar passages. Its critics, however, claim this reading obscures the fact that a sinning individual is being confronted. They say this now implies a group is involved. (This despite the fact the verse speaks of a “brother or sister”—singular—who sins, and specifies that one should point out their fault “just between the two of you”!)

If I told a class, “If anyone doesn’t have a book, they can see me after class,” would anyone infer I was referring only to groups of students who didn’t have a book? * God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 1984 NIV). Would anyone read this and assume it applies only to groups of people blessing and cursing, not individuals? In the English Standard Version, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:6 as saying: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Because he used plural pronouns, does this mean we must hunger and thirst for righteousness only as a group, and can be satisfied only as a group? Did Christ himself remove any individual nature to this promise? Of course not. And neither do similar passages in the updated NIV.

“They’re obscuring references to Christ.”

This is a serious charge, and perhaps I should devote a follow-up post to examining the passages in question. (This post is getting too long already.) In each case, what is being emphasized is not the masculinity of Jesus, but his humanity. These references are included in a widely publicized list of thousands of supposed “inaccurate translations” in the 2011 NIV. What these critics fail to mention is that each of these “inaccurate” translations are supported by a broad range of conservative evangelical scholars—often by a majority of scholars! The detractors actually represent a tiny fraction of qualified biblical translators.

“This translation includes feminist readings.”

This small, but very vocal, group of critics are part of an association focused on issues regarding distinguished gender roles in the home and church. What you may not get from their flood of articles and blog posts is that many, if not most, of the NIV translators and supporters agree with them concerning these gender roles! Yet these critics insist on decrying the translation of certain passages as “feminist.” Here’s one example:

1 Timothy 2:11-12

1984 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

2011 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This is the only place in Scripture where the Greek word authentein is used, and the meaning is hotly contested. Some say it means to have any authority and others claim that it means to usurp authority. So the NIV translators sought a neutral term that didn’t strongly imply either meaning. The critics, though, believe they’ve given away the farm with this choice. They say “assume authority” is a feminist reading, insisting that it puts the nature of the authority in a negative light. I would challenge these detractors to Google the words ‘assume’ and ‘presidency.’ Are all of these references using the word “assume” in a negative connotation of inappropriately grasping power? When we’re told that “Ronald Reagan was the oldest man to assume the presidency,” does it mean this was a “self-initiated action” as is claimed about ‘assume’ in the current NIV reading? Can these critics see why others are perceiving them as hysterical and strident? While complaining that the 2011 NIV is ideologically-driven, it becomes clear they do want the NIV to be driven by ideology—as long as it’s theirs!

I don’t have space to go over each of the other complaints in detail. They are appalled that Romans 16:7 now identifies Junia (feminine) instead of Junias (male) and that 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 changes the referent for “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people,” despite the fact that a large number of complementarian commentators have supported these conclusions for years! Even though they admit women can teach children and other women, the critics are incensed that 2 Timothy 2:2 now instructs Timothy to entrust what Paul had taught to “reliable people” instead of only men. Apparently, for Timothy (and us) to teach women the actual content of what they were to teach others was beyond the pale. (Of course, there is nothing explicitly male in the original Greek.) As an unabashed complementarian, I would have no problem teaching from the 2011 NIV translation of these passages.

Unlike some liberal translations that have been motivated by ideological agendas, the NIV translators sought only to accurately translate the meaning of the text. Contrary to the terminology of their critics, the desire was not to produce a “gender-neutral” translation, but a gender-accurate one. Where men are intended in the biblical text, the masculine forms are retained. God is never referred to as “she” or “Mother,” and Christ remains the “Son.” The improvements made in the 2011 NIV do not alter in any way how we view God, and they do not endanger the scriptural views of the roles of men and women in the home or church. But when the Scriptures include both men and women, the translators sought to do the same.

As I expressed in my previous post, a disheartening aspect of this controversy has been the methods employed by many of the opponents of the TNIV and 2011 NIV. While it is very appropriate to publicly discuss and debate new Bible translations, this opposition has focused on highly questionable and misleading claims, and has often included prejudicial comments regarding the motivations of the translators. Not only have these detractors been wrong in their accusations, they have done real harm to the body of Christ.

While I personally use a different translation, I think the 2011 NIV is a fine Bible for personal study, public worship and teaching. It enjoys strong support from a broad range of well-known, conservative evangelical scholars who have great expertise in translating Scripture. I pray that this excellent translation will be widely used by the evangelical Christian community for the glory of God, the benefit of his people, and as a witness to the world.

* I’ve taken some illustrations from Mark Strauss (see below).

For an excellent, and far more detailed, review of the 2011 NIV, see Rod Decker’s review in Themelios.

Another insightful, revealing source is a debate between Wayne Grudem and Mark Strauss.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

Which Bible version should I use?

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

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Sometimes I’m asked, “Why do I have to study the Bible? Why can’t I just open it, read it and do it what it says?” This is a good question. To help us see the need for studying the Bible, I’d like you to read the following and see if you can explain what it means:

It is now my dear Friend a long time since I had a line from you. The Fate of Gibraltar leads me to fear that a peace is far distant, and that I shall not see you — God only knows when; I shall say little about my former request, not that my desire is less, but before this can reach you ’tis probable I may receive your opinion. If in favour of my comeing to you; I shall have no occasion to urge it further, if against it, I would not embarrass you; by again requesting it. I will endeavour to set down and consider it as the portion alloted me. My dear sons are well their application and improvements go hand in hand. Our friends all desire to be rememberd. The Fleet of our allies expect to sail daily but where destined we know not; a great harmony has subsisted between them and the Americans ever since their residence here. I wish to write to Mr. Thaxter but fear I shall not have time. Mrs. Dana and the children are well. The judge has been very sick of a fever but I believe is better. This Letter is to go by the Iris which sails with the fleet. I hope it will reach you in safety. If it should fall into the hands of an Enemy, I hope they will be kind enough to distroy it; as I would not wish to see such a family picture in print; adieu my dear Friend. Why is it that I hear so seldom from my dear John; but one Letter have I ever received from him since he arrived in Petersburgh? I wrote him by the last oppertunity. Ever remember me as I do you; with all the tenderness which it is possible for one object to feel for an other; which no time can obliterate no distance alter, but which is always the same in the bosom of


In classes, I’ve had people attempt to make observations regarding this text. What is the author’s “former request”? What is the nature of the relationship between the author and the letter’s recipient? It’s surprising the range of guesses that come from such a discussion—many of them conflicting with one another!

So what would we need to know about this letter to make sense of it? Well, it would help to know who’s writing it, wouldn’t it? (I’ll give you a clue: the author’s name is not Portia.) We also need to know to whom it’s written, and what exactly this person means to the author. We have a few clues as to the timing (the mention of America, the odd spelling and grammar, etc.), but it would really help us to have a little bit more information about the historical context. (“Ah,” I hope you’re thinking, “context.”) Who is the enemy to whom the author refers? What is the “fate of Gibraltar”? Who are the allies? Is there any significance to Mr. Thaxter and to Mrs. Dana and the children? And just where is this letter being sent from and written to?

As you can see, interpreting what we read is not always a simple, cut-and-dried process. The technical term for figuring out what a text means is hermeneutics, and it’s something we do all the time. Every time we read a news article or a spy novel, we’re doing ‘hermeneutics’—we’re interpreting what we read. The more distant the text is from us historically and culturally, the more challenging the task of interpreting what it means. The Bible was written in different languages, over a wide period of time, from different human authors (all writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and in very different cultural settings.

Is this background information really all that important? Only if we want to genuinely understand what we’re reading in Scripture! Here’s a principle worth remembering:

The Bible can never mean what it never meant.

Scripture can’t have some unique, esoteric meaning to me personally that is completely divorced from its historical and cultural setting. It can’t mean something to us now that it never meant to them then. To understand what the Bible means to us today, we first need a sense of what these letters and books meant to the people to whom they were originally written. If we don’t know any of this background information for the Scriptures we’re reading, then we’re as in the dark reading the Bible as we are deciphering the mysterious letter above. And I know that’s just how many of you often feel.

Does this mean we all have to become seminary students just to understand our Bibles? Not at all! Thankfully, we can benefit from the work of dedicated biblical scholars every day. Remember a couple of weeks ago when I recommended using a good study Bible? This is a handy, convenient way of carrying around a handbook on the historical context of Scripture—right in your personal Bible. A study Bible gives you an introduction to each book of the Bible, telling you who wrote it, to whom it was written, when it was written, and a little about why it was written. By simply reading a brief intro, you’re now miles ahead of where you were before in your ability to truly understand the text.

A study Bible will tell us that Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (and that he was a Gentile). This gives us much better insight into both books. A study Bible can explain what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah have to do with each other, helping us to better understand both. A study Bible will help us sort out just who the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) were writing to and what they were writing about.

Who were the Galatians, and why did Paul so quickly get on their case in his letter to them? A study Bible will help you understand what’s going on in their letter. Why was Paul wanting so badly to get back to the Thessalonians? (Who were they anyway? Where did they come from?) Who was Timothy and why did Paul feel such a close, fatherly bond with him? Why in his first letter to Timothy does Paul speak of coming soon to where Timothy was (Ephesus), but in his second letter to him Paul speaks of his own impending death? What happened between these letters?

One of the most important things we can do while studying the Bible is to ask these kinds of questions. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? A study Bible is like a gifted scholar sitting down beside us explaining how everything fits together. If you’re reading the book of 1 Corinthians, it will help you understand the situation in Corinth, why Paul wrote to the Corinthians rather than go immediately to them, why he wrote to them the way he did, and how 2 Corinthians relates to 1 Corinthians. In a few brief paragraphs, it gives you the lay of the land and helps you see everything in perspective. As you can tell, I’m enthusiastic about study Bibles!

I once heard of a competition between two woodcutters. A young woodcutter had been boasting he could out-cut the older pro. So they had a competition. The morning of the contest, they were given identical axes. It didn’t take them long to discover they both had the same problem—the axes were dull. The young kid just worked harder, thinking he could muscle his way to victory. But the veteran woodcutter stopped and took the time to sharpen his axe. When he finally got to actually using the axe, he was far behind his young opponent. But as the day went on, he caught up with and surpassed the challenger. When the competition was finished, the young upstart was so exhausted he could barely lift his arms, but what he had produced paled in comparison to the older, more experienced woodcutter.

I think the lesson is clear. We can’t simply muscle our way through the biblical text and expect to get much out of it. We need to take the time to sharpen our axe. A crucial part of any job is making sure we’re using the right tool, isn’t it? And we need to know the tool is in proper working order, and that we know how to operate the tool correctly, don’t we? One of the best tools we have in understanding God’s Word is a study Bible. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the study Bible I recommend to most believers who are just beginning to dig into the Bible is the Life Application Study Bible. If you’re a little more experienced at studying Scripture or if you’re going to be teaching others, I love the NLT Study Bible. I don’t have any connection to the publishers; I just love all the helpful features these study Bibles have, and I’m excited about getting them into the hands of Christians who can then use them to better understand the Bible.

If you choose a different study Bible—great! Just use it! Take the time to sharpen your axe. To mix our metaphors, don’t be satisfied with me or anyone else giving you fish—learn to fish for yourself. Sharpen your skill in studying the Bible for yourself and being able to understand it. My responsibility as a pastor isn’t just to feed you; it’s to teach you to feed yourself. That’s the whole point of our current series. Once you get a taste of digging into God’s Word for yourself, it will just make you hungry for more!

(PS: For those who are still wondering, the letter I quoted at the top is from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams [who would later become the second president of the U.S.], and it was dated December 23, 1782.)

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? [see above]

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

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