Christ and Culture

What is culture? A culture is the language, beliefs, habits, ideas, customs, values, and politics of a social environment. Is male spiritual leadership only a reflection of first century culture? If so, does this mean the requirement for male leadership is not applicable today since our culture is different? Today, many seem to think so, but the teaching about male leadership cannot be dismissed simply because one can find parallels in the culture of the first century. If this is the only criterion needed to reject a practice, then almost anything in the New Testament can be rejected as binding on Christians today. For example, Christian baptism has a parallel in the practice of first century Judaism. One can visit Israel today and actually see the immersion pools utilized by the Jews in Jesus’ day. Other examples would be the Lord’s supper, which has similarities to the Passover meal, and congregational meetings, which find a parallel in the meetings of the Jewish synagogue. These are but a few of the links to the environment surrounding early Christianity. Few, however, would argue that baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church meetings are optional simply because there are some parallels in first century culture.

Although some practices in the New Testament have parallels in their cultural environment, they also have significant differences. The baptism of Acts 2 was different from the practice of first century Judaism, or even the baptism of John (Acts 19:3-5). Jesus indicated that authority in the church was to be unlike the authority practiced in the world (Matthew 20:25-28). Although husbands in the first century were authoritative figures to their wives, they did not practice the headship that Paul described: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:23, 25, 28).

Some principles in the Bible transcend culture and have an application in any age while others can be expressed differently in different cultural contexts. The goal of this chapter is to separate the abiding principle from what is incidental because of the cultural context. I freely admit that it may not be possible to meet this goal to everyone’s satisfaction. Some of these issues are so complex that they may never be solved. Making a modern day application is especially difficult when interpreting a text like1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Some actions in the New Testament express a divine principle for all time but the actions themselves do not transcend the culture of the first century. For example, in some cultures, kissing a person or object is a way to indicate homage or affection. Many in the early church practiced the “holy kiss” as a form of affectionate greeting (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12). The holy kiss was not a church ritual and there were probably other ways the brothers greeted one another that were also acceptable, but the kiss was an acceptable form of greeting in the first century. This form of greeting, however, may not be appropriate in other cultures.

Dress is another item that can be influenced by culture. In Ephesus, certain clothing was inappropriate in the assembly because it sent the wrong message: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9). What is modest and decent in one culture may not be in another. There is nothing inherently wrong with women braiding their hair or wearing gold, but it seems that some women were doing it in a way that was inappropriate for a Christian assembly. Not only the culture of the day, but the specific situation would affect how this instruction would be received. Perhaps another example of the way culture affected women’s dress in the assembly was the wearing of head coverings or hair styles (1 Corinthians 11:5-16).

Other practices may be more the result of the times than the culture. In first century homes, the washing of feet was important because of the conditions that existed in that day. Guests would arrive with dirty feet because of the lack of shoes that protected the feet from dirt and also the scarcity of paved roads and trails. This circumstance is not normally found in North America since most people wear socks and shoes and drive to their destinations in automobiles. Since guests in our home today do not have dirty feet it is impossible to perform this humble act of service. However, the principle of humble service exhibited in the washing of feet is for all time.

Some conduct in the Bible is a concession to the common practice that already existed within a culture. For example, Paul’s instructions regarding slaves and masters should not be taken as an endorsement of slavery (1 Timothy 6:1-2). Instead, he is regulating a condition that already existed. In the first century, many who were converted to Christ were slaves and some even had Christian masters. How were they to conduct themselves under these circumstances? The message of the gospel would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery, but until that time, Paul gave instructions regarding this circumstance. Likewise, the concession regarding divorce in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; cf. Matthew 19:3-9) must not be taken as an endorsement of this practice. The law in Deuteronomy was intended to regulate an already existing sinful practice. Jesus said of this practice: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8).

Many view the limitations placed on women’s role as culturally biased, or simply a concession to an already existing practice like slavery and divorce. Others place male leadership in the same category as the holy kiss and the washing of feet. As a result, it is argued that these limitations are irrelevant for today.

The usual scriptural justification for rejecting any limitations on women’s leadership role in the church is Paul’s statement about equality before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This text is applied to leadership in the church and is made the norm by which all other passages are judged. Those who use Galatians 3:28 in this way err on at least three points: (1) The context of this text is not about the role of women or leadership in the church. Instead, it is about the basis of salvation; namely, we are saved on the basis of our faith in Christ. Salvation does not involve other factors such as gender, status, race, or one’s relation to the Law of Moses. (2) Those who believe Galatians 3:28 applies to the role of women in the church are confronted with a contradiction with what Paul says elsewhere (1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 14). (3) They cannot explain why Galatians 3:28 should not also be dismissed since it is from the same cultural environment as 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

If Paul were culturally biased, then how do we know that the feminist interpreters themselves are not prejudiced by their own cultural environment? Furthermore, to say that Paul was culturally biased in 1 Timothy 2 and not in Galatians 3 makes us the judge of what is and is not the word of God. Ultimately, the whole issue becomes a matter of religious authority. We must be willing to place ourselves under the control of Scripture even when, because of the influence of our own culture, we find ourselves saying, “It can’t really mean that.”

Male spiritual leadership is not based upon any aspect of first century culture. This is the case because, as we have already noted, Paul’s restriction on women teaching men is based on the created order (1 Timothy 2:13). Note also that Paul appeals to the Law as a reason for the restrictions on women leadership in the Corinthian assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:33-34). The appeal to the teaching of the Law and the created order is an indication that role distinctions in the New Testament are inherently significant and not a reflection of culture or circumstance. But if this is the case, how do we explain such things as Paul’s instructions regarding head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16? They also seem to based on the created order (vs. 8-9). What makes these instructions different from those in 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14? If the head covering is not the abiding principle, then what is?

J B Myers


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