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.

A Yoke Around My Neck

tiesThey say that neckties are making a comeback. Too bad, I say. I’m not a fan.

I especially don’t like the way ties have been used in churches in developing nations. In many countries, the tie is seen as a symbol of Christianity. Schools of preaching require their students to wear ties, some of whom return to their home congregation, trying to impose the fashion there. In countries where neckties are virtually unknown, you see preachers wearing ties (often in garish colors that in no way match the clothes they wear). In Argentina, if you saw someone wearing a tie walking down the street on Sunday, you had almost certainly found an evangelical.

On Islamic websites, posters ask if the tie is meant to be a symbol of the cross, or if the imposition of ties in business settings isn’t an attempt to proselytize. One reporter who was held captive by the Taliban told of being questioned on several occasions as to what magic Christians saw in neckties.

Wear your ties, if you like. Just don’t mix fashions and faith… neither here nor overseas.

Finally, during some Bible study yesterday, I discovered that neckties are criticized in the New Testament! Note this from the book of Acts:

“Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

There you have it. Why put on the necks of the disciples a yoke that others have not been able to bear? That settles it. No neckties.

(OK, maybe I’m not totally serious on that one…)

Photo by Jane M. Sawyer via

Arizona, discrimination, and being forced to violate one’s conscience

gavelThe whole country has been talking about Arizona SB 1062. For the most part, ridicule has been heaped on the lawmakers and on the conservative Christians the lawmakers were seeking to protect.

Sadly, much of that ridicule has come from professing Christians.

First off, let me say that I’m against discrimination in general. I’m against discrimination against homosexuals. Against atheists. Against muslims. Discrimination based on race.

And from what I can tell, the language of this law was much too broad.

That being said, most of the attacks on the law have shown extreme prejudice. Rather than deal with the actual issues at stake, they’ve opposed the law with hyperbolic arguments.

The intent is not to keep anyone from sitting at a lunch counter. You should be ashamed of yourself for even making the comparison. Saying such either shows ignorance of what is going on or a willful distortion of the facts. The intent of the law is not to keep anyone from exercising any rights they have. The intent of the law is to allow people the right to not participate in things that they find violate their ideals.

Does anyone argue that African Americans print shop owners should be forced to produce signs for a white supremacist group? Does anyone argue that a Jewish theater owner is obligated to rent his property to a neo-Nazi group?

The concept behind the law, hidden behind overly ambiguous language, was the idea that a Christian who feels that gay marriage is wrong should not be forced to perform services as part of a gay wedding. That’s the thought. The baker shouldn’t have to put a same sex couple on the cake he creates; the photographer shouldn’t be forced to shoot a wedding that violates his conscience; the minister shouldn’t feel obligated to perform a wedding for a couple when he doesn’t believe that wedding will result in an actual marriage.

Someone commented on Twitter that God sides with the marginalized. In this case, in 2014 U.S. culture, the marginalized is the conservative Christian who dares stand up for his beliefs. If you don’t believe me, look at whom everyone is ridiculing. There are rational voices out there, but they are few and far between.

Christian business owners should feel compelled to offer good, courteous service to everyone. But they should not be compelled to participate in a ceremony that violates their conscience.

Holy kisses and ignored commands

320px-Flickr_-_europeanpeoplesparty_-_EPP_Congress_Bonn_(515)I lived fifteen years in Argentina. My wife is from there, as are my kids. I’ve had the privilege to learn a lot about the culture of Argentina.

80% of the population of Argentina is of Italian and/or Spanish descent. The Mediterranean culture has had a tremendous impact on Argentina. That can be helpful at times when looking at the New Testament, for it was principally written by and for people of that region.

In Argentina, no one argues that the “holy kiss” of the New Testament is something restricted to the past. As in the culture in general, Christians greet one another with a “kiss,” though in most cases only the cheeks touch. There’s nothing remotely sexual about it.

But if we examine the holy kiss in New Testament writings, we’ll find some interesting things about this “command.” It’s only found in the final section of letters, in the midst of other greetings. It took me a while to realize that this is not a command at all.

Romans 16:16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
1 Corinthians 16:20 All the brothers send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
2 Corinthians 13:12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
1 Thessalonians 5:26   Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
1 Peter 5:14 Greet one another with the kiss of love.  Peace to all of you who are in Christ.

Imagine getting a letter from a friend that says, “Tell your mom I said hello.” How would you interpret that command? It’s not really a command, is it? It’s doubtful that your friend will quiz you later on your fulfillment of that order.

When I receive letters from friends from Latin America, I often receive hugs and kisses, sometimes for other people. It’s common to end a letter with the phrase “un abrazo” (a hug) or “un beso” (a kiss). Some will write “un abrazo fraternal” (a brotherly hug). Sometimes they will send you a hug or a kiss for someone else.

When Peter and Paul ask Christians to greet one another with a holy kiss, it’s not a command for the church. It’s not some new instruction they hadn’t thought of, some sort of law that they will transgress if they don’t obey. There was no fear that (a) they wouldn’t greet one another; (b) they wouldn’t kiss; nor (c) it wouldn’t be holy. Saying “Greet one another with a holy kiss) was a courteous expression.

There are commands in the New Testament that we don’t follow. Many who obey the commandment in 1 Corinthians 16:2 to collect money on a weekly basis disobey the instruction in the same passage to save said money until Paul comes to take it to Jerusalem. And other commands are understood to not be intended for us today.

But don’t point to the holy kiss as an ignored command. That’s not what it is.

And by the way… tell the members at your church that I said hello.

photo from Wikimedia user Zil

The Bible, Culture and Gender Roles

Bible by fireplaceAll right, let’s get back to the discussion of gender roles in the church. Thanks for the discussion last time; special thanks to those who recruited others to join the conversation.

One big issue that has to be dealt with is the Bible’s relationship with its historical and cultural context, especially when it comes to gender roles. It’s hard to deny that the Bible paints a male-dominated picture of the world. You find the occasional queen, prophetess, and female judge, but overwhelmingly, it’s a man’s world. So, in such a testosterone-laden context, was the Bible merely a product of that society or did it help shape it?

It’s the question I asked before: did the Law prohibit pork because the Jews didn’t eat it or did the Jews refrain from pork because the Law prohibited it? Did the Mosaic Law establish a system of male leadership because of the society the Hebrews lived in or did the Law seek to shape the Israelites into the society he wanted?

More specifically for us Christians, when Jesus chose only men to be among the Twelve, was that a concession to society or an example for the church? When Paul told Timothy and Titus to appoint men as elders, was that merely a reflection of the world Paul knew or was that an inspired directive? (we can also ask if that was only for Ephesus and Crete or if other churches followed that practice)

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

graphic from