Accepting the Literal Meaning of Scripture, But What about Its Cultural Context?
The Lord created heaven and earth in six literal days and rested on the seventh. There literally was a flood in Noah's day that covered the entire earth. There literally was an Abram whom the Lord directed to leave his father's home and go to a place that He would show him, and so forth.
Furthermore, there are things that literally took place which seemed to be okay in the past but which we no longer approved today. Abraham took Sarah's maidservant in an effort to produce children. He had servants which appeared to be slaves. He owned them. When reading these passages in their context it is, generally speaking, not so difficult to accept that the people of the past lived in a different culture than ours, doing things differently from what we do today. To make sure that historical passages are not simply transposed as things we must do today, when working with these kind of passages a distinction can be made between what is descriptive and what is prescriptive. Many historic passages simply describe what took place. Those things that were done do not necessarily become things that we are prescribed to do today. Also when speaking about things the Lord prescribed in the past, there are things that are clearly historically bound. We need not only think of all the ordinances the Lord prescribed concerning the temple service which have now become superfluous due to the better sacrifice we have received in Christ, but also the more practical things of daily life.
Multiple wives and slaves
In the past the Lord had prescribed ordinances regarding more than one wife, which included the inheritance of their children. Ordinances were also given concerning slaves. Neither of these are directly forbidden in the New Testament Scriptures either. Concerning multiple wives, from the directions given in 1 Timothy 3:2, where we are told that an overseer is to be the husband of one wife, we conclude that it is better not to have more than one wife. Furthermore, in view of the revealed history of the Lord creating Eve from Adam's rib and giving her as his one and only wife, we understand and conclude that this is the Scriptural norm. This is how the Lord intended it to be from the beginning. More can be added here regarding what the Lord teaches in the seventh commandment and how later the Lord Jesus speaks directly about Moses permitting divorce in the past but that it was not so from the beginning. All this makes us conclude today that while multiple wives were not strictly and directly forbidden in the past, it is not a practice in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. It was a cultural practice that was Scripturally tolerated. For this reason, when past missionaries came across families with multiple wives there was no requirement for a man to rid himself of all his wives except one. Instead, these men did not serve as elders in the churches and this practice was discouraged and with time abandoned.
Likewise, there is nowhere in the New Testament where the Lord directly and strictly forbids slavery. At times it has been suggested that it is a cultural practice that is Scripturally permitted. In Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:22 slaves are told to obey their masters. The letter to Philemon is about the Lord's servant, the Apostle Paul, sending Onesimus back to his master Philemon. In the context of American slavery emancipation, some argued about how Scripturally wrong it was for those who hid and harboured run-away slaves. Instead, they argued, Scripture teaches that slaves must obey their masters and those who harbour run-aways are guilty of protecting disobedient slaves. From hindsight we may continue to wonder whether this entire cultural structure was abandoned in the best possible way. Nevertheless, even though slavery was never directly forbidden, it is clear from Scripture that the Lord did not create man to be enslaved. He had forbidden the children of Israel to enslave each other. The only opening for an Israelite to become a slave was if due to economic failure he sold himself into slavery. Even then, he could always be redeemed and had to be set free in the Year of Jubilee. Foreigners could and were enslaved. Here too, there were added stipulations regarding the striking and killing of slaves. That they are specifically mentioned in the fourth commandment, and were to be given rest on the seventh day, shows how the Lord had directed His people not to abuse these slaves.
Especially the ordinances concerning the Israelites among themselves indicate that this cultural practice of having slaves should not be considered a norm. In 1 Corinthians 7:20 the slaves are advised to use the opportunity to become free if it arises. However, they are not to rebel. If they are a slave they are to be a slave faithful to the Lord and thus faithful to their master. Although it is clear from this that the revolutionary way in which slavery was abandoned was no good, the fact that there is no slavery today is certainly a good thing. It is in harmony with what the Lord teaches in Scripture.
From these examples it appears to be quite evident that some practices that were culturally acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable today. The question is: how do we apply this further? Are there practices that are culturally bound which we hold onto today? At times it has been suggested that the churches have been a bit arbitrary in choosing and picking just what has become culturally outdated.
Hats, veils, long hair and submissive women
In 1 Corinthians 11:4 we are told that: Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. Consequently, we have insisted that men do not wear hats during prayer. In practice this has extended so that men do not wear hats in church at all. In the following verse we read: But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. But we do not insist that women wear a hat or covering while praying. Generally, in practice, they are free whether or not to wear a hat in the church services and during prayer. In this same context we are also asked, in a rhetorical like way, verses 13-15: Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. Consequently, at least to some extent, men cut their hair shorter while women leave theirs longer. One might suggest that the practice in this matter has been a bit arbitrary and relative.
Still later in this same letter we read, chapter 14:34 35: Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. Consequently, women do not speak during the church services. It may be a little different at a congregational meeting. The question is: are all these things culturally bound to a certain time and age, or are these permanent ordinances that apply at all times and in every way? When reading commentaries on these passages, you will be able to find different opinions and conclusions in this regard.
It is not so much the purpose of this article to exegetically examine the meaning of these passages as to look at how we should go about interpreting them. The temptation is always there to examine the cultural practices of the time in which these passages were written and draw the meaning from these practices. Although things can be learned from examining the cultural context in which these passages were written and first read, it must be kept in mind that this is God's Word. Scripture is given in a historic context and much history is revealed there, but it is not to be considered a book that is historically and culturally determined or bound. Our understanding and perception of history and culture should not determine the interpretation of a Scriptural passage. Rather, it should be the other way around. Scripture should determine our interpretation of cultural activity.
In his book, Christ and Culture, K. Schilder1convincingly argues from Scripture that culture is not to be considered something that just happens but is a God-given task that we must apply. In other words, culture is not to determine the meaning of Scripture but Scripture is to determine what our cultural activity ought to be. In the past the Lord God was central to Israelite culture. This is evident in many ways: in the temple service and the art-work there; in politics, where kings and rulers were chosen by God: in economics, where each man was given his inheritance and needed to pay the tithe; in singing and the leaders chosen for this task. It was all put in the context of Israel being the Lord's people.
When reading Scripture it may be suggested that the practices concerning multi-wives, divorce and slaves lingered while the Lord was busy transforming a people from being dead in sin to being alive in Him. This transformation took time. We may conclude from what we read in Scripture itself that these practices did not flow from the perfect beginning that the Lord created.
Any effort made to make the Scripture and its meaning conformable to modern day culture is not only wrong but an offense. It is an effort on our part to impose our human cultural understanding on God's Word and thus in the end on God Himself. This is done, for example, in some modern Bible translations that are motivated by inclusive language. To mention just one point here, a number of these translations simple add sisters to Scripture where brethren are addressed (for example in Romans 1:13).2It may be suggested that this addition is minor and not so significant because Scripture is addressed to all people, including women. However, it is often in these little things that God's Word is undermined. Without going into details, it may initially be suggested that by this culturally motivated translation it is specifically the brethren, as the designated leaders and primarily accountable persons in churches and homes, who are addressed in these passages. This is offensive, for by doing so the sovereignty of God is undermined as if we know better what the Bible should say than what He has told us.