Most of us recognize that certain things in the Bible were written for certain times, certain cultures, and we don't practice them today. For example:
- do we practice the Sabbath from sun-down on Friday to sun-down on Saturday?
- do we sacrifice doves at the birth of a child?
- do we greet one another with a holy kiss (on the lips, no less!)?
- do we refrain from braiding our hair?
Contextual theology not only recognizes that we approach the Bible through our own cultural understandings or lenses, it recognizes that the Bible was written in particular cultures. God expressed and revealed himself through these different cultures. His chosen people glorified and honored him in their cultures.
This is not to say we relegate everything in the Bible to being merely cultural and therefore not applicable to us today. It is to say that transforming our culture does not mean returning to any of the cultures seen in the Bible, including the culture of the first-century church.
This gets messy. How do we understand God's revelation of himself and how we are to live as Christians today?
The Bible is living and active. It's a story we enter into. It has a beginning, middle and end--God created (the set-up), man screwed up (the problem), God saved in grace (the solution), and God will re-create (the happily-ever-after). Most of the Bible (as well as the cultures in which we live) fall in that middle "God saved in grace" part. God longs to be with his creation and worshipped by his creation, and he takes extreme measures to do so. In Scripture, we see these measures in different stories. We see him revealing himself time and time again that his people might recognize and praise him.
But what does this mean to us? Do we don head-coverings when praying and prophesying in church? Does our Christian life affect how we wear our hair? Does it matter if we meet in catacombs, homes, warehouses, or cathedrals? What about music? Or politics? Can women have authority over men in the workplace? What about in church? Can we trick-or-treat at Halloween? Or tell Santa what we want for Christmas?
Because the Bible was written in and to specific cultures, we recognize that they show us particular expressions of Christian living, particular reactions to situations in their day, particular choices that transformed their culture.
We even have biblical examples of Christians already seeing the need to adapt the Christian life to different cultures. In Acts 15, a council meets to determine what Gentiles need to do when they become Christians (a different response than what the Jews had been doing). Paul says he'll be a Jew, Gentile, Roman--whoever he needs to be to communicate the gospel in the way it needs to be heard. (This is known today as contextualization and communication theory.)
Some of the passages, we easily understand how they apply to us. We may not have cloaks and tunics to lend a man when he asks without regard to his motive, but we have clothes, money, and work hours. Love your enemy, submit to one another, and not give up meeting together--these are deeper principles we transfer into our Christian life (or should transfer).
But other stories in the Bible demonstrate a group of God-followers honoring him in specific ways, perhaps addressing issues such as modesty or respecting their government or welcoming each other into the fellowship or honoring one another (and relationships) within the church. We recognize these sections and are able to understand the deeper meaning behind them by studying the culture in which they were written.
And therein lies the hard work of contextual theology. It's laziness to ignore these passages. It's also laziness to pluck them and set them in today's culture without understanding the deeper meaning behind them.
Next time, we'll look at the ideas of form and function in discerning meaning in Scripture and how to apply them to our culture(s) today.
In the meantime, what are some of these messy passages you've personally struggled with or you've seen churches struggle with?