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What’s the Fuss? Tell Me What’s A-Happenin’

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?

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?

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Heather Goodman received her Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary and currently homeschools her three children. Her writing can be found in If:Equip, Art House, and other publications.

10 Comments

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    Donna Conrad

    messy passages
    Being a preacher’s kid and pastor’s wife, I think the worst one has been women being quiet, or not having leadership, in the church… over men. I personally (with the help and support of my husband and father) have prayed, searched the scriptures, considered the culture of the time, and believe I have an understanding of that. IE, I have preached and taught in church, I have been on Boards and in positions of authority and leadership, and in doing so have been fulfilling God’s call on my life for those points in time. But it certainly is a relevant issue to our times and much confussion seems to still exist about this.

    I look forward to your next installment.

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      Heather A. Goodman

      Thank you for sharing,

      Thank you for sharing, Donna, about your journey with this issue.

      Too often, people see this as a clear black and white issue instead of one with many nuances and factors. I think that even in our world, different things are appropriate for different cultures (while always fighting against oppression, abuse, and belittlement, which have more to do with sanctity of life than roles).

      I appreciate that you’ve taken the bible seriously before jumping into something one way or the other–that’s what’s important. Seeing the Bible as living and active and transforming culture and people.

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    Terri Moore

    greeting with a kiss
    I have a friend who kisses people when he greets them: men, women, young, old, sometimes even on the lips! He was asked by someone in our church to stop doing that so that people "wouldn’t get the wrong idea" when they came to our church! I’ve always thought that was a unique example where someone’s contextual theology was in direct contradiction to something in Scripture…..

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    Christianne

    I, too, found this post
    I, too, found this post extremely helpful and am looking forward to your next installment. It’s been a while since I’ve thought through some of this stuff — generally sitting with passages that transcend contextualization — and you’re challenging me deeper. Thanks, Heather!

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    Becky D.

    Statement about Sabbath keeping
    How can you compare the practice of Sabbath keeping from sun-down Friday to sun-down on Saturday to sacrificing doves, greeting with a holy kiss on the lips and braiding hair??????
    I don’t see any of the last three being listed in the ten commandments (that would be the fourth commandment specifically) with the word REMEMBER being the first word stated. You better rethink that one!

    • Avatar

      Heather A. Goodman

      I’m not comparing them in

      I’m not comparing them in the sense that we don’t practice them for the same reason. We don’t practice the first two because they’re part of the Law which Jesus fulfilled and we therefore no longer are called to practice. We don’t practice the last two because they no longer have the same function in our culture.

      My point was to force us to see that we treat different passages in the Bible differently according to their time and purpose.

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    Souldier

    Why doesn’t Paul permit
    Why doesn’t Paul permit woman to teach or exercise authority over man? It’s not because of the culture, it’s because of the created order and because of the fall:

    “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man; she must remain silent. FOR ADAM WAS FORMED FIRST, THEN EVE. AND ADAM WAS NOT THE ONE DECEIVED; IT WAS THE WOMAN WHO WAS DECEIVED AND BECAME A SINNER.” (1 Timothy 2:12-14)

    God is not the author of confusion. In other words, His Word is simple and easy to understand if you’re coming to it honestly, expecting it to change YOU, instead of trying to change IT. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who seek God’s will and choose to obey Him out of Love, and those who seek their own will, and twist the truth of God’s Word to suit their own ends.
    The Church is it’s own culture, God’s culture, living as aliens and strangers within whatever culture we find ourselves. We are to be IN the world, not OF it.
    Just because the world, which is under the power of Satan, permits certain things and condemns others, does not mean the body of Christ follows suit.
    TRUTH DOES NOT CHANGE.
    We keep our eyes fixed on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday today and forever!
    Praise God!!

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    Souldier

    God is not the author of confusion
    “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness.
    But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.
    FOR IT WAS ADAM WHO WAS FIRST CREATED, AND THEN EVE.
    AND IT WAS NOT ADAM WHO WAS DECEIVED, BUT THE WOMAN BEING DECEIVED FELL INTO TRANSGRESSION.”
    (1 Tim 2:11-14)

    Paul gives the reason why woman is not allowed to be in authority over man and it has nothing to do with culture.
    Woman was created for man, to be his helper, to SUBMIT to him, not to take his place of authority and honor. The glory and beauty of woman is in her submissiveness.
    Truth does not change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. If it was against God’s will yesterday, it is still against His will today. The idea of woman being in authority over man has only become acceptable in the last 50 years or so. It is a corruption of God’s created order, it comes from the world, and the body of Christ is not to be like the world.
    Instant, joyful and complete obedience to God is the evidence that a person is truly born again, because,

    “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments ; and His commandments are not burdensome.”
    (1 Jn 5;3)

    • Avatar

      Heather A. Goodman

      This specific post isn’t

      This specific post isn’t arguing which passages/commands in the Bible we should apply today and which were directed to address a cultural problem, only that the authors of the Bible wrote within specific cultures, and those cultures influenced what and how they wrote. This is not to take away from the inspiration of God nor his authority, nor does this argument state that God himself changes (although it would be interesting to consider how Jesus changed in the incarnation). This is also not to say that nothing from the Bible is applicable to our culture today. In fact, everything is applicable in some way, although not all can follow a one-to-one correlation. (Notice these are broad remarks. We’re not yet discussing specifics, such as the passage of which you speak.)

      Following posts in this series delve into how our culture affects our understanding of the Bible, how the culture of the authors affect their writing, and how we can approach the Bible in a manner that we can seek to understand who God is and what his Story is as well as how we are to live it today in our culture(s).

      For now, I’d like to consider things in our culture that affect how we read and apply the culture. For example, do you greet your brothers and sisters in Christ with a holy kiss? Do you have an opinion on abortion or evolution or nuclear war? None of those are spoken about directly in the Bible because they aren’t issues faced by the authors or people in the Bible. However, our opinions on these matters can be guided by what we learn about God and how he acts.

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    Bible COvers

    What the Bible Says
    Yes the things in the Bible were written along long time ago. That is probably why it is interpreted in so many different ways. Whos is to say what the correct interpretation is?