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?
San Antonio, Texas
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 biblical writers were addressing. The text itself helps us reconstruct some of these issues, but we can fill in many other gaps by learning what cultural matters the first readers took for granted (and therefore did not need to hear explained). Various tools, such as the new International Standard Bible Encyclopedia or the IVP Bible Background Commentaries, can help in reconstructing these backgrounds. We have learned that people covered their heads for various reasons, but women in the Eastern Mediterranean especially covered their hair when they got married. Because many people considered hair the chief element of female beauty, they believed that only a husband should view his wife's hair. Many thus associated uncovered hair with seduction. More wealthy women, however, paid a lot for their stylish hair fashions and often left their hair uncovered, possibly exacerbating tension between wealthier and poorer women.
Second, we need to examine how the biblical writer deals with the contemporary issue he addresses. Granted that the author addresses a specific issue of his day, what transcultural principles guide his argument? Paul certainly would oppose behavior that could appear seductive; he also warns against bringing dishonor on one's family. Paul also opposed ostentation and class division in the church.
The third (and most difficult) step is determining which situations today are truly analogous to the biblical situations. For example, could the principles Paul uses to support head coverings in Corinth ever require some women not to wear head coverings today? What if head coverings themselves become ostentatious objects of attention or attraction (like other adornments in 1 Tim. 2:9)? What if one lived in a culture where wearing such coverings proved more of a stumbling block than not wearing them? For example, in West Philadelphia, we usually associate such coverings with Islam.
The difficulty in finding accurate analogies becomes greater as our cultures move further and further from the biblical cultures. Yet one can trace different cultures even in the Bible: an ideal ancient Israelite woman might sell clothing in the market (Prov. 31); in the Greek culture of Ephesus, however, an ideal matron might provide a better witness at home (1 Tim. 5:14). Is it possible that on some issues more than one practice is acceptable, depending on the culture we are addressing?
Doubtless, interpreters and faith communities will differ on specific cases of what is analogous and what is not, but most will agree on the principles of interpretation outlined above. That we sometimes come to different conclusions using the same methods reinforces the need for charity on secondary issues and reliance on the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. But it also draws our attention to the central messages that always remain clear in Scripture, such as the saving message of the gospel and basic ethical issues. Much of Scripture simply contextualized these central points for their first readers' cultures, giving us examples for how we should contextualize the central biblical message for our cultures today.
By Craig S. Keener, a visiting professor at Eastern Seminary in Philadelphia and author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Send your questions for evangelical scholars to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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