Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Culture Creep

Early this year, Crawford Paul wrote about how local churches can change to promote growth. One commenter gently took him to task:

“Post what changes you want, and what it means to open discussions (women speaking?) and be more specific.”

Short version: I jumped all over the commenter, who seemed generally opposed to change in the church and suggested Mr. Paul’s posts were fostering discontent. It seemed to me he was reading things into Crawford’s appeals for change that simply weren’t there (the subject of women speaking was never addressed in the post). I even suggested the commenter might be jumping at shadows.

Now I’m wondering if maybe I owe the poor guy an apology. He may not be so paranoid after all.

The Pauline Position

See, Crawford is back, with more to say about the local church and how it ought to conduct itself, and this time the role of men and women in church meetings is front and centre:
“In regards to men and women, it’s very clear that in the church men are to be the public prayers, teachers and leaders when the whole church is come together (1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim 2). Outside of that parameter things get a lot more open and flexible.

Home studies, conversation studies, group prayer times etc. do not fall under that condition as long as the whole church is not expected to attend or be gathered in one corporate setting. In these cases, men and women are free to participate in those activities.”
Okay, let’s reflect on that a bit.

Culture and Churches

Crawford starts by reminding us that dismissing the apostle Paul’s instructions to first century local churches on the subject of church order as “merely cultural” is a slippery slope.
“I’ve never liked that argument because it’s pretty shaky and falls apart when applying it to other areas of Scripture.”
Here I thoroughly agree with Crawford, for reasons too numerous to reiterate in a single post. This post and this series of posts set out my position on headship and authority in home and church. It’s not just that the argument falls apart when applied to other areas of scripture, it’s that the cultural interpretation doesn’t even satisfactorily deal with the very passages it purports to explain.

The tendency in churches to accommodate trendy modern ideas by interpreting scripture in ways previous generations would never have even considered is something we may refer to as “culture creep”. Culture creep may be deliberate, or it may be entirely unconscious.

So we are agreed that interpreting New Testament church instruction through a cultural lens is a bad idea, aren’t we?

Apparently not. There is more than one kind of culture creep.

The first kind is obvious:

 Cultural Accommodation

The tendency to dismiss apostolic instruction demonstrably intended for all churches everywhere as being merely relevant to an immediate local situation has become so widespread as to constitute a pandemic. Evangelical feminists and their enablers are pushing for the passages Crawford mentions in Corinthians and Timothy to be reinterpreted so the roles of men and women in the church more closely resemble the current social and cultural environment in which we live.

F.F. Bruce warns:
“When the Christian message is so thoroughly accommodated to the prevalent climate of opinion that it becomes one more expression of that climate of opinion, it is no longer the Christian message.”
This danger of this sort of culture creep is glaring. We’ve banged on about it here many times. Crawford Paul recognizes this and wants to avoid pandering to sensibilities that are more modern than godly. Good for him.

 Cultural Blinders

But there is a second sort of culture creep that is not so frequently observed: in seeking to apply New Testament principles to ourselves today, we have a tendency to read our own evangelical baggage right back into scripture where it manifestly does not exist. Our own church “culture” creeps into the text so subtly that most of us never notice.

Frank Viola warns:
“We are conditioned to read the Bible with the lens handed to us by the Christian tradition to which we belong.”
So the second cultural danger is this: our own spiritual tradition and practices affect how we view the New Testament and predispose us to imagine that we are closer to living it out than we actually are. When we put on our church-culture blinders, we are ill-equipped to see what the scriptures actually say.

Parsing the Meaning of “Whole Church”

In this case, Crawford and others (unconsciously, I think) seem to default to an understanding of the term “whole church” that may not in fact be scriptural — or, I would contend, even logical.

And it’s this second sort of culture creep that is to blame.

More on this tomorrow.


  1. I think you are touching here on an important topic that applies not only to the topic of religion but to almost every other topic humanity is dealing with as well.

    It's the idea of what constitutes legitimate (acceptable) change in human conduct, interaction, tradition and even thinking. And is there such a thing as legitimate in the first place and what does it mean compared to not legitimate? Nowadays the trend is to have legitimate ultimately defined by the judiciary, especially the supreme court. The Christian religious scholar will instead argue that legitimate must be defined by what is taught in the bible and its traditions. Legitimate has become so entrenched that we (humanity) forget that all such notions always had to originate with a single individual at some point in time, in history or even currently. So it is therefore perfectly legitimate, if you will, to question and reevaluate the legitimacy of established ideas, traditions, rules and concepts because, indeed, why should any individual's definition and understanding of legitimacy be any better than my own?

    To establish therefore why something should be more legitimate requires the introduction of the concept of best value or greatest benefit for the individual and/or society arising from legitimacy. And this is where religion makes its mark.

    First, one must agree that a great value and benefit is derived from the religious concept that the human being is not only a material construct but also, and especially so, a spiritual one as well. And it is understood that the latter is what lends life to and animates the former. Since that is the case, greatest value and benefit for the individual is therefore obtained by those spiritual values that motivate and provide the greatest benefit for individual and societal growth.

    So, the question is, which individual(s) in human history proposed and defined the best rules and concepts producing the greatest benefit to the individual and humanity on the spiritual and material level. Once that is established, those ideas and concepts should therefore acquire the mantle of legitimacy and be adopted as the basis of human conduct and law. Now, it is perfectly clear that if you were to prepare a spreadsheet listing and summarizing the ideas and benefits of spiritual and secular concepts, the preponderant weight comes down on the side of Christ's teaching and not on the side of, let's say, what ideas the current supreme court judge thinks have the greatest benefit. A summary of the benefit obtained by following Christ's teaching is provided by his proposal that if everyone acted on it instantaneously than there would simultaneously be heaven in the human heart and, by implication, in the human psyche and consequently in this world. Try to improve on that real and concrete insight and you will find that you can't if you are honest.

    Therefore, it is indeed OK to question the benefit of ideas, concepts, traditions, rules and laws provided they are evaluated against the best historical proposals, which mostly happen to be based on the bible. This does not mean that biblical traditions are necessarily immune to contemporary influence and change provided the spreadsheet benefits still line up and the idea and goal towards a heavenly state of the human heart and psyche is not diminished.

  2. Just wondering why you would write these public blogs criticizing and questioning Crawford Paul's Biblical-ness and intent. Wouldn't it be better and more Biblical to speak with Crawford directly about your questions/concerns? It also seems unfair that you put Crawford's name out there and yet I have no idea who you are. All I can see is that your name is apparently "Tom". I've searched the blog site and I can't find any info about who you are. Tom who? At the very least you could have commented/asked questions directly to Crawford in his Assembly Hub article. Thanks. Grant

    1. Hi Grant. Thanks for your frank comment. As to your questions:

      First, I don't think I mentioned Crawford's intentions. Happy to walk that back if you can furnish an example. I don't know Crawford personally, so I can't go by anything more than what he has written. As for whether that is biblical, have a look at the verses I cite in the next part of this article and see what you think. I'm happy to hold myself to the same standard I would hold any other Christian with an online opinion: What does the word of God say?

      Also, you may note that I have many times here agreed with and defended Crawford, including at least twice in this post. The post I refer to in the third paragraph above is another example of an occasion in which I defended Crawford's position on a subject more comprehensively than Crawford did. This is not a one-sided thing, and I have no particular agenda with Crawford.

      Second, no, it would not be better and more biblical to speak with Crawford directly. If he'd expressed his opinion in my living room, or his own, I'd do just that. However, he has expressed it in a public venue, which is where the response belongs, just as Paul rebuked Peter "before them all" when Peter's public actions were inconsistent with his faith (Galatians 2:11-14).

      (Note: I'm not saying that the things about which I disagree with Crawford rise to the level of the Law vs. Grace debate, of course, and I wouldn't even use the word "rebuke" to describe what I'm doing here, but you take my point, I'm sure: brothers in Christ who undertake to teach publicly need to be prepared for a public response. That is both reasonable and biblical.)

      Third, I have commented numerous times at assemblyHUB, and Crawford has commented here as well. I did so as recently as last week, and Crawford certainly knows where to find me (we have exchanged emails). When I can agree or disagree with a post in a few lines or paragraphs, I generally do it there. When the response requires some research, prayer, scriptural backing and runs to an unreasonable length for a comment to someone else's blog post - or when I think it would be of interest to our audience at ComingUntrue - then I do it here. I always link to his posts and, like all bloggers, Crawford can see who's linking to him and what they're saying. If he cares to respond here, I'll happily give him his say, perhaps even as a guest post if he prefers.

      Finally, Crawford is most welcome to use his own name online if he pleases. Perhaps his current employment situation is bulletproof. I blog anonymously as a result of policies implemented by a previous employer - which could potentially be implemented overnight by any secular business these days - that are designed to insulate them from having to deal with the business repercussions of things their employees do and say online.

      The internet is eminently searchable, as you know, and we have taken considerable heat here from time to time for expressing what we believe the Bible says about homosexuality and other lifestyle and religious choices, as do most other Christians who write about such things. My employers over the years, not to mention my family members, are not responsible for what I write and I have no interest in putting them on the block with me, which is the inevitable result of making one's identity public.

      Also, I'm not suggesting you post your own last name here as it doesn't matter to me - I'm only concerned with the substance of a man's arguments - but the irony of you asking my last name while identifying yourself only as "Grant" is probably not lost on anyone ...

      All the best, and thanks for your interest, Grant. I've thought about posting about these things now and then, but didn't think anyone was necessarily interested.

    2. Grant, this I can tell you for sure: I know Tom. He wouldn't hesitate for a second to say anything in person that he has said here. That much I know. So you needn't worry that he's firing shots from behind a "stalking horse." He means what he says, and would say again to anybody what he says here.

      But I can't help but note that you're savvy enough to use "Grant" instead of your full name.

      Now, that's just smart. When online, it's wise to be careful how much information you volunteer about yourself, whatever you're doing. In fact, my recommendation would be that pseudonyms are a good idea, if for no other reason than to make identity theft and personal attacks more difficult. Those that do not take that precaution are running the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention, I would suggest.

      But that's just my opinion. Maybe I'm being overly careful. (I've never liked things like Facebook, Linkedin, or other kinds of personal pages, for that very reason.) But if you feel otherwise, then perhaps in future you may decide to post your own full name with every comment, to certify your belief that that is the right way to do things. However, please let me advise you against it. These days, it's just not wise to put yourself out there that way. We wouldn't abuse the knowledge, but I sure can't vouch for everyone on the internet.

      It would be much better if you simply stood by what you said, regardless of whether you used a pseudonym or not. After all, the Lord always knows who we are: and it's to him we're all really accountable, right? But it's best we don't invite trouble we have no need to incur.