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Commentary Let Her Lead Theology

Interlude: When is a Teaching Cultural or Transcultural?

It seems like a good time to address the question, “How do we know if a command applies to all Christians for all time or just to the original situation?”

You’ll see shades of this in my post on 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Watch out for that in the next day or so.

First things first: 1 Timothy is a personal letter from Paul to his protégé Timothy. Paul’s goal is to encourage Timothy to combat false teaching and preach the true gospel. He also wants to help this young minister work through some tough situations. Chapter 2 tells us about a few of them.

Because of the personal nature of the letter, we should hesitate to see any specific instructions as binding for all cultures in all times simply because it’s in the New Testament.

Beyond this, here are a few principles that can help us know if this section (or any Bible passage) is culture-bound (limited to the original audience) or transcultural (meaning a text is applicable to all cultures for all time). New Testament scholar Grant Osborne helps us out here. I’ll summarize a few points from his article, “Hermeneutics and Women in the Church,” quoting him to begin each point:[1]

  1. “Teaching that transcends the cultural biases of the author and his readers will be normative.” In other words, if a teaching stands in opposition to the wider culture, it’s likely transcultural. In 1 Timothy 2, the restriction on women reflects the cultural norms of the day. So, we’ll need to look at the context to ask ourselves why this restriction is put in place.
  2. “If a command is wholly tied to a cultural situation that is not timeless in itself, it will probably be a temporary application rather than eternal norm.” I’ll make the case in my post that Timothy was dealing with a specific, cultural situation (false teaching in Ephesus) and a disruptive woman causing problems in the church. His specific situation isn’t the same as every minister’s, so it’s likely that Paul’s command is also specific to Timothy.
  3. “Those commands that have proven detrimental to the cause of Christ in later cultures must be reinterpreted.” This doesn’t mean we neglect a command because the present culture opposes it! But it does means we must look closer at the abstract principle embedded within the practice of the original culture.

Related to number three, in his book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, William Webb (see note 1) talks a lot about the “ladder of abstraction.” By that, he means every text expresses itself in the original culture in concrete terms. But the further away we are from that situation and culture, we need to “move up” the ladder of abstraction to find the abstract principle that’s behind the concrete expression.

Let’s take a neutral example: “Greet each other with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12). Kissing as a greeting, even for men, was common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, it’s still common today in parts of the world.

The concrete expression of kissing is rooted in the abstract principle of being welcoming to each other. Thus every community of faith must answer for themselves, “How can we concretely express a warm welcome to each other?”

I’d argue that to literally obey 1 Corinthians 13:12 (that is, kiss the people who walk into your church) would actually mean you violate the text. If you actually greeted people with a kiss, no one would feel welcome and they would not stick around for the worship service! Why? It’s repulsive in our Western culture today. (Not to mention Covid-19.)

Now that’s a silly example we’d all agree on. But I hope it gives you some insight into how culture influences biblical application. Not to mention why application isn’t as simple as your Bible app devo makes it out to be.


Notes

[1] Grant R. Osborne, “Hermeneutics and Women in the Church,” JETS 20 (1977), 339-340. You should know that Osborne taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an Evangelical Free Church seminary, a conservative denomination. The “Free Church,” as it’s been called, is devoted to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Osborne could hardly be labeled as a “liberal scholar” who’s unfaithful to the Bible. See also William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2001), 161ff. If you are interested in the issue of gender roles in Scripture, Webb is a must-read.