By Steve Gregg
This recent correspondence might clarify some issues for some people. I received this email today:
I have read your article on 1 Corinthians 11, and the head coverings for women, at your website. I believe you place too much emphasis on culture. In one of your lectures (I forget which one) you talked about a certain point where people excuse because they believe it is a cultural thing. I don't believe it is consistent to say it's cultural on one point, then not cultural on another.
But, if it is cultural, I don't really see the point of including it in the Bible because it then would not apply to us, or anyone other than those people.
Well, when you do get time, I would love your insight...but I'll leave it with you.
Thank you for writing.
" I don't believe it is consistent to say it's cultural on one point, then not cultural on another. "
It is not inconsistent at all to say that certain things in the Bible are cultural and others are not. In fact, in documents like the epistles, this is the only responsible way to read them. To avoid what you call an inconsistency would require either that we recognize nothing in the scriptures as a reference to contemporary, local culture, or else that we take everything as merely cultural, and nothing as stating transcendent, eternal truths.
If we recognize that the epistles have the specific cultural situations of their readers in view, and that they teach eternal truths, requires that we must decide, case-by-case, which instruction is reflective of local culture, and which ones embody transcendent truths to be applied in every culture.
Paul frequently tells his readers to greet each other with a holy kiss. He tells them to lift holy hands in prayer, etc. If you practice every cultural practice mentioned in scripture, that is fine. I don't believe that the Bible is written in a vacuum, but to people in an actual historical situation. That’s why Paul told Timothy (but not you or me) to visit him before winter and to bring to him his personal library of books and parchments. Paul also said that he had to get to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and he took a Nazirite vow. That is because of his Jewish culture. There is no New Testament command to do such things.
"But, if it is cultural, I don't really see the point of including it in the Bible because it then would not apply to us, or anyone other than those people."
Paul did not include this book, or any of its contents, in the Bible. That was done without his knowledge centuries after his death. In Paul’s day, “the Bible” was the Torah and the Prophets. Paul did not expect his writings to be included in the Tanakh. Paul was not writing to anyone other than his readers. He identifies them at the beginning of the epistle. They were Corinthian Christians living around the middle of the first century in Greece. This is the same for every epistle of his. He didn't write a Bible. He wrote epistles, which are letters addressed to churches and individuals. The New Testament canon did not exist in his day, and there is no indication that he knew that it ever would.
Reading the Bible in such a way as to understand its authors' intentions requires us to let them speak for themselves. Paul says that the household of Chloe reported to him that, as he put it, "there are contentions among you," and that he "baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius." Since he says "you" in these verses (1 Col.1:11, 14), am I to understand that he is addressing me? Did Chloe's household inform him about contentions in my church in Southern California, and did Paul baptize Crispus and Gaius in my city? He obviously did not know that I would be reading this letter, nor did he address it specifically to me. When he tells the Roman Christians to greet Priscilla and Aquila, should I assume that I am also supposed to greet this couple when I see them?
To study the epistles responsibly requires that I know something about the identity of those to whom the letters are addressed, what they were going through, what the author's concerns were about their situation, and what transcendent principles the author might appeal to in framing his counsel to them. Once I have managed that, I may claim to understand his words. The next task is to understand how the principles used to address their problems might be applied to the problems in our present situations.
I can see from your arguments that you have a very different way of approaching these ancient letters than I have—or than any responsible Bible scholar would. But that is all right, if you are satisfied with the level of understanding that this method yields. I believe that we need to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." So that is the way I will approach the biblical texts. God bless you.