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Three Times Five

October 13, 2014

One of the realities of serving in overseas missions is the need to adapt yourself to cultural norms that may seem strange or uncomfortable to you.  When I lived in Sri Lanka I needed to accept that when two men met while being out in public, be their friends, acquaintances, or business associates, it was the custom for them to hold hands while they stopped and chatted.  It took me a long time to grow used to that custom.

Sometime later I was told by a missionary friend that when he lived in Russia he had to grow used to the fact that long-term business associates were expected to greet one another with a kiss – on the lips.  I remember thinking that the hand-holding was easier to get used to.  But the key is that both customs signaled nothing more than cultural norms.  In fact, both countries were significantly more hostile to male-to-male relationships than we are; they just didn’t see these greetings as part of that.

Culture is a funny thing.  We live with, and accept as natural, things that are simply cultural.  Modesty taboos vary from place to place.  In most of India it was shameful for a woman to expose her ankle, no big deal to expose her navel.  In some countries men where sarongs or kilts, in other countries they would not be caught dead in a “skirt.”  We are shocked by the immodesty of some cultures and others are shocked by our immodesty.

There are all kinds of instructions in the Bible and everyone wrestles with deciding which ones might be cultural and which ones are for all time in all cultures.  In I Corinthians 11:13-15 Paul addresses the issue of hair length.  He calls long hair on men a “disgrace” and on women a “glory.”  He even says that “nature” teaches this.  We have to decide what he means and how he applies it.  Was short hair for men natural for the Corinthians?  Probably.  Does that mean that it is natural for everyone, everywhere?  Who knows?  Many cultures, including many fine Christians, say no.  As a result we shunt those verses into the “that is just cultural and we don’t need to worry about that” pile.

So what biblical instructions are cultural and can be safely ignored?  What instructions are for all times and must be faithfully and literally followed?  And how do we decide which is which?  One mechanism I have heard is that the more the Bible gives the same instruction the more we know that it is for all time.  With that in mind let me give you three commands that are each given five times in the New Testament.

  1. Greet one another with a kiss. We see this in Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, II Corinthians 13:12, I Thessalonians 5:26 and I Peter 5:14.
  2. Wives should submit to their husbands. Ephesians 5:22, Ephesians 5:24, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5 and I Peter 3:1.
  3. Slaves should respect and obey their masters. Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, I Timothy 6:1-2, Titus 2:9 and I Peter 2:18.

How do Christians interpret these commands?  For starters, I have never heard a sermon or exhortation telling us that we all need to pucker up when we walk into church.  We all seem comfortable with saying holy kisses were for then and handshakes (or hugs?) are for now.

Meanwhile, whole segments of the evangelical church are adamant that, without a doubt, wifely submission is a must for all Christians at all times.  They idea that this too reflects the culture of that day, which it did, is said to be no excuse for disobeying it now.

Slavery is somewhat more complicated.  Nowadays slavery is universally condemned by Christians and these verses are dismissed as not applicable to today.  Through much of church history slavery was an accepted norm.  In the United States in the early 1800s the churches were split just about down the middle.  Thundering sermons for and against slavery rang from pulpits across the land.  It would be scandalously wrong to say that Christians were “for” slavery, many were on the forefront in opposing it.  It would be just as scandalous to say that Christians were opposed to slavery, many, including evangelical hero George Whitfield, vehemently supported slavery and quoted the Bible as proof they were right.

For me, this is the bottom line:  When you choose to apply certain verses for all time, and dismiss others as cultural and safely ignored, you are exercising human wisdom, not the authority of Scripture.  Your opinion is not, and cannot be, inerrant.  It also makes me vow that the phrase “the Bible clearly teaches” will never cross my lips.

Closing plea:  If you are of a mind to write me a lengthy comment explaining why you are 100% sure that one of the three quoted above is either cultural or for all time, please don’t bother.  I am happy you are so certain.  I am also reasonably confident that, if my opinions are wrong, my salvation is not at risk.


From → Christianity

  1. David permalink

    Re: “I am also reasonably confident that, if my opinions are wrong, my salvation is not at risk.” Are you sure the Bible clearly teaches that? 🙂

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