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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The “Cultural” Argument

What do we mean when we say a particular passage of scripture is “culturally limited”?

It’s a pretty common argument these days, used to dismiss everything from apostolic teaching about the respective roles of men and women at home and in church to New Testament instructions about sexual purity.

The assertion at its core is that any particular command, principle or example being debated was intended only to address a particular local situation for a limited period of time, not as a directive for the church throughout its history.

But the cultural argument is a powder keg. We need to be careful how we handle it.

Important Questions and Culture

Some of the New Testament issues in which culture is a consideration are much more important than others.

The question of circumcision, for instance, was debated by the apostles in Jerusalem. Culture certainly has a place in the discussion, and if it were merely a debate about whether circumcision is permissible for believers, culture might be the basis upon which consensus could be achieved.

But what is really at stake is the question of faith vs. works, as Paul makes clear in Galatians. Is circumcision permissible? Certainly. Is it necessary for salvation? Absolutely not. In fact, if you think it is, you had better not be circumcised. Paul says clearly to those who might elect to be circumcised in the hope that it would save them, “Christ will be of no advantage to you”.

What looks like a relatively innocent cultural question takes on a much greater significance. But the critical importance of the issue was not obvious to the Galatians, which is why we have Paul’s letter. It mattered much more than his audience thought it did.

Defining Terms

When we talk about culture, we must remember that the term is somewhat elastic. Some Christians refer to cultural limitations when they really mean dispensational limitations. Most evangelicals acknowledge a fairly sharp line of demarcation between the period during which God’s kingdom was revealed through his chosen people in a righteous law and the period we are now in, of which grace is the salient feature and faith in Christ the only means of reconciliation to God.

You may not like the term “dispensation”, and many don’t. But if you fail to observe major distinctions in God’s dealings with mankind under Law as opposed to Grace, you are simply not reading very carefully.

There were significant differences between Jewish and Gentile practices in the first century. It is certainly fair to label some of these differences “cultural”. Others, however, had much more to do with changes in God’s dealings with his people under the New Covenant. These differences were dispensational in nature.

We might be better to use the terms “local” and “general” than “cultural” or “dispensational”. After all, when we ask if a practice or command is “cultural”, what we really want to know is this: Does it apply to us today?

So how should we handle objections from culture?

Cavalier Dismissal or Cavalier Acceptance

On one hand, cavalier dismissal will not do. It would be a gross oversimplification to say all arguments that a particular instruction in the New Testament is local rather than general should be ruled out, or that those who make such claims are necessarily unspiritual.

On the other hand, accepting cultural limitations to New Testament commands on flimsy or non-existent evidence because we “know better now” in our enlightened, modern era is a slippery slope, and relativist to boot. Sure, we have made major technological advances since the time of the apostles. But in the moral realm, given the current state of western culture, families and the laws of our nations, it is quite debatable whether we have learned very much at all.

We need more than easy dismissal of these arguments from culture, and considerably more than simplistic acceptance. We need to look carefully to the New Testament context for answers, assuming the supremacy of the word of God, not the diktats of relativism.

An example: I would argue that tongues, the interpretation of tongues, prophecy and miracles were spiritual gifts intended for a particular time in church history, and that the Holy Spirit is no longer giving these gifts to new believers. There are sound reasons to believe this: textual, dispensational and observational reasons. I take the position that certain instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 — the ones in which tongues and prophecy feature prominently and the value of the prophetic gift is lauded by Paul — were intended to govern for only a short period. They are useful to us today by application only. They are “local”, if you will.

I would also argue that Paul’s instruction that women are not to be teachers in church meetings should still be observed today, and I believe there are sound reasons for that to be found in scripture. I consider that instruction to be intended for the church generally rather than locally or for a limited period.

That’s not having my cake and eating it too, by the way. There are Bible students who lean the other direction on both subjects.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is that in the absence of solid evidence that a New Testament command or practice was only intended locally, we ought to assume it is to be taken generally and has application today, not the other way around.

It is, after all, the obligation of believers everywhere to “find out what pleases the Lord” and to be “fully convinced” in our own minds about those things we choose to practice or not practice, not to scramble around madly for every conceivable scriptural loophole like a bunch of leftist constitutional law students.

Or, to put it another way, do you recall any punishment in scripture for being too obedient?

What is “Bible Culture”?

The cultural argument often depends on colossal ignorance among believers of what actually went on in New Testament times outside of that which is described in its pages. I have heard Bible teachers explain away the plain text of scripture from a single obscure reference to Origen or Josephus that is alleged to argue for an alternative point of view. This is nonsense, and makes the average believer dependent on the shifting sands of historical scholarship rather than the words of scripture.

What history does show those of us who care to read it is that the notion of a single “Bible Times culture” is only plausible to the illiterate or unread.

The New Testament was written to Jews and Gentiles all over the known world of the day; to churches sprinkled all around the Mediterranean hundreds and even thousands of miles apart. The Roman Empire could no more be said to have a homogeneous culture than Canada or the U.S. today. Ask yourself what the “American Dream” means to a Muslim in New York or a native Mexican living in Texas and you begin to get the picture. At the time of the apostles, the Greek view of homosexuality and the Orthodox Jewish view were poles apart. The role of women in ancient Rome differed markedly from the role of women in Judea.

The “patriarchal culture” enthusiastically caricatured by our modern relativists is actually any number of diverse cultures, some of which believed many of the same precepts to which modern western society subscribes. This is evident throughout the book of Acts and into the epistles.

Unsubstantiated appeals to culture are questionable, but appeals to culture that ignore the social diversity in which first century Christians lived are doubly suspicious.

How Can We Tell Which is Which?

Local correction or general instruction: how do we know what was intended? Here are three questions that point us in the right direction:

·         What Rationale is Given? Should we obey the commands of God when he doesn’t explain his reasoning? Of course. He’s God. But most of the time, a reason is provided. If that rationale predates the Law of Moses, concerns timeless heavenly realities or the character of Christ, then the instruction it justifies cannot possibly be either cultural or dispensational: it has to do with the character of God and the essential nature of his creation, old or new. This is true of the Lord’s teaching about divorce, Paul’s teaching about submission of wife to husband, the woman’s headcovering in church, homosexuality (referred to as an abomination and judged by God prior to the Law of Moses) and the husband’s obligation to love his wife, among many other instructions, all of which are regularly attacked as being cultural.

·         Is it Specifically Noted to be Universal? When an apostle mentions that something is of general relevance, it would be unwise to argue. The silence of women in church meetings falls into this category, as does the woman’s headcovering (again).

·         Is It Hard to Understand? This sounds like a negative, but it’s actually a plus: if an instruction makes us angry or violates our sense of what is socially appropriate, rather than reject it, we have an opportunity to exercise faith. God has a track record of challenging his people with such things to see who really trusts him. Abraham and Naaman, among others, learned this lesson. In fact, we are told by Peter to expect this. He describes some of the things written by Paul as “hard to understand” and then adds that it is the “ignorant and unstable” that distort these difficult sayings (which Peter also calls “scripture” and therefore “breathed out by God”). Obedient believers thrive on tests of faith.

Bottom Line

It is absurd to suggest that the Church could not please God in its treatment of homosexuals or women until it acquired a twentieth century understanding of genetics, the family or “optimal” social order. Yet this is essentially the package culturalists in the Church are selling us.

They insist the God we worship was content to be served and worshipped in a superstitious, inferior way for millennia until society and man’s evolving wisdom finally caught up to him. Now that we “get it”, we are free to reorder the Church to finally rid it of the temporary accommodations made for it by the apostles.

Put that way, the cultural argument seems just a tiny bit arrogant, don’t you think?

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