Culture: The Uninvited Guest

Three_wise_monkeys_figureWe’ve been talking about Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience as they speak to us about religious matters. They form part of what is come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But as David noted last week, there’s another voice that speaks loudly as we discuss spiritual things: Culture.

If Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience are we voices that we accept and choose to listen to, Culture is all too often the uninvited guest. I’ve come to believe that when someone says, “Culture has nothing to do with this discussion,” that’s when Culture is playing its biggest role. Its influence is most effective when it goes unseen and unnoticed. Culture thrives on denial.

The hot topic at my home congregation is the role of women in worship. Everyone wants to claim that culture has nothing to do with their viewpoint. And that’s a big part of the problem. Let me explain:

  • Culture is a big part of the Bible. The Bible was revealed in cultural contexts, across many years. It was written in human language, not divine language. It addressed people living in a cultural context and expressed itself in ways they could understand. The New Testament letters, especially, were occasional documents, written to address a specific situation. That situation almost always had something to do with culture: misunderstandings of doctrine due to culture, churches following cultural practices, churches deciding how to resist cultural practices. Then add to the fact that we read the Bible in a translation in the language of our culture!
  • Some of the instructions about women were specifically tied to cultural things. The discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is an obvious example.
  • Those of us who read the Bible read in terms of our culture. When we read “church,” we think of a group of people that gather in a large auditorium, even though such things almost certainly didn’t exist when the Bible was written. We read “preach” and think of a man standing before an audience. We read “Scripture” and think of the bound Bibles that we hold in our hands.
  • The traditional view of the role of women is full of cultural influences. We’ve made standing in front of the assembled church, such as standing to pass communion trays, a sign of leadership. We’ve created, please note, we’ve created a Sunday assembly where there are song leaders, communion leaders, prayer leaders, and preachers. That’s not straight out of the pages of the Bible. That grew up out of culture.
  • The move toward an egalitarian stance has been heavily influenced by culture. Had there been no shift in the view of women in our culture, these discussions would not be taking place. It’s silly to deny that. I wouldn’t argue that the influence has been greater nor lesser than that on the traditional side; both sides have gotten where they’ve gotten with the aid of culture.

That’s just one example. The same happens with almost every Bible discussion. The question isn’t whether or not Culture will influence. The question is to what degree we will recognize and try to temper that influence. We don’t want to be led or controlled by Culture. But we do want to take a message from thousands of years ago and apply it to our current cultural situation.

Maybe Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience can lend us a hand.

2 thoughts on “Culture: The Uninvited Guest

  1. David Cabe

    From my limited travels outside the U.S. I’ve seen “church” and “Christian community” played out in cultural ways that could seem unsettling to us as Americans. But, to God’s glory, the ancient faith and things that we have in common with Christians shined through. Perhaps I’m strange, but being in the presence of God and fellow Christians in nationalistic and cultural settings completely foreign to me is comforting and even exhilarating. I remember standing in the plaza outside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, lamenting to my wife how the faith has largely been abandoned in France, when, to my surprise, we came upon a group of teenagers under a tent, singing and playing guitars, and inviting passers-by to come learn of God. Hardly the cultural setting I’m used to, but it brought tears to me eyes. That all being said, maybe one of the biggest positives of cultural continuity at the local congregation level is that it helps to minimize distractions and divisiveness that can arise over superficial differences in how to “do church”, differences over what is expedient. Whether a change in the culture of a local church is good or bad, its usually not worth it if it becomes the focus and center of identity of the congregation.

  2. George Mearns

    I agree with you on culture. It amazes me that people attempt to divorce scripture from the culture it was created in. I have thought about this for a number of years and you have expressed it well. Thanks.

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