Do you know one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last 15 years? Of course, you don’t so I’ll tell you. It is about how radically different life in first century CE, throughout the Roman Empire, was from life in our twenty-first century global society. That being true, how can the teachings and practices of Jesus and his earliest followers serve as an absolute blueprint for what twenty-first century followers of Jesus must believe and practice? Yet, so often we act as if life in the first century CE is not just analogous, but virtually identical, to life today, and therefore, every instruction given to the earliest followers of Jesus is universally binding on all who would follow Jesus today. But there are some things about the Bible that we need to keep clearly in mind.
First, the Christian Bible (in its various forms – i.e, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) is an ancient anthology. It consists of texts which were written, independently of each other, over a period of one thousand years (from approximately the tenth century BCE through the first century CE). These texts were brought together gradually into one volume over a period of a few hundred years (from approximately the second century BCE through the third century CE). The cultural contexts in which the authors, later scribes, and their intended audiences lived were not only different from each other, but radically different from the cultural contexts in which the vast majority of humans live today.
Second, this ancient anthology, that Christians refer to as the Bible, consists of texts that are occasional. In other words, these texts were written independently by an author (or authors) for a specific purpose, to a specific audience (and often quite varied), at a specific time and place. Most biblical scholars acknowledge that many (if not all) of these texts were edited over time so as to better speak to the times in which the editors lived, thus keeping the texts relevant. For example, Paul was not writing to Christians in twenty-first century North America. What he had in mind were the first century Christians whom he addressed in order to speak to the needs of those specific recipients. In some cases, Paul did say that what he was teaching in a given context is what he taught in all the churches. However, that’s not necessarily accurate for every word he wrote, whether to the saints – Paul never referred to his readers as “Christians” – in Rome, Corinth, Galatia or Philippi.
Therefore, given that the Bible is an anthology, which is ancient and occasional, does it make sense for us to see these texts as containing specific and rigid practical instruction that is universally binding across all generations and cultures? It doesn’t make sense to me. Now, before you write me off as some kind of liberal heretic, I put to you that we already consider specific sections of these texts as NOT universally binding across all generations and cultures. For example, Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians about how women should behave in their assemblies – I refuse to call them “worship services” – is something that most denominations and individual Christians treat as culturally limited and thus not applicable to us today. In case you don’t have the passage to which I’m referring on speed dial…
“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.” (1 Cor 14:33–37, NIV, emphasis mine)
Many say, “That’s cultural. The saints in the first century lived in a patriarchal culture. This is not binding on modern day Christians.” Yet, to me, I don’t know how much more clear Paul could have been. This was not a suggestion; this, Paul wrote, “is the Lord’s command.” Others say that this was a later addition to Paul’s letter by some unknown scribe or editor. Yet, to me, it seems to fit seamlessly into Paul’s overall instructions to the saints in Corinth and is used as an example of how their meetings together needed to be conducted in an orderly fashion. Consider this passage in light of a previous passage in 1 Cor 11:2–16, where Paul ends that section of his letter by saying, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.” This is just one of so many examples, where the vast majority of Christian denominations and individuals understand the ancient cultural context in which the biblical texts were written.
So, my “Aha” concept that has led to many “Aha” moments in my ongoing reading of, and reflection on, all things biblical is this: Instead of mining the scriptures for rigid beliefs and practices that are universally binding across all generations and cultures for all time, we ought, instead, to be searching the scriptures for truth principles that can be variously applied to our specific cultural contexts. For some, this is unpalatable, as it is a concept that leads down that dreaded slippery slope into relativity, creating Christian doctrine and practice that is culturally acceptable, rather than true to the will of God. Do the biblical texts contain truth that is universal applicable? I do believe it does. I just don’t believe that everything written in these texts is universally binding nor, in all probability, do you. If you think you do, then how are you obeying Paul’s commands in 1 Cor 11:2–16 and 1 Cor 14:33–37? For as Paul wrote, “What I’m writing to you is the Lord’s command” and thus, “we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”