Q: Most evangelicals don't ask women to wear a head covering when praying or expect slaves to obey masters—because "that was just their culture." Yet many do forbid women to preach—because "this is a spiritual principle not bound by culture." How do I determine which directives are culture-bound and which are not?
A: Everyone would agree that Paul's request for Timothy to pick up his cloak in Troas was a one-time request not addressed to all Christians always and everywhere.
We also agree that biblical guidance to slaves addressed a specific cultural context and does not require us to reinstitute the practice so we can obey it. But we still disagree over women's ordination and even the head covering. Why? Because distinguishing transcultural principles from the cultural setting in which the Bible communicates them is sometimes difficult.
Some students I taught in Nigeria affirmed the practice of the women's head covering as described in 1 Corinthians 11. "The Bible commands it," they noted. But when I asked why none of them had greeted me with a holy kiss that day, they laughed. The temptation is to appeal to "common sense" as to what is time-bound and what is not. But our "common sense" often proves time-bound as well. In a sense, everything in the Bible has a cultural setting; yet everything in the Bible also remains God's Word. God inspired the biblical writers to address the issues of their day, and we will hear God's message when we properly apply their message to analogous situations today. This requires several steps. I will apply them here to the question of the head covering.
First, we need to understand what issues the ...1
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