Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
In 1967 the United Presbyterian Church in America adopted a new confession of faith. Concerning the nature of the Bible they made the following statement:
The scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect the views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with a literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.
This statement speaks to the way many people feel about God’s Holy Word. Some people view the Bible as outdated and written for a people who lived in a different time and in a different culture.
A movement has existed for many decades, which believes that the Bible was the result of the culture of the early church. They believe the things written in the Bible applied to THOSE people, in THAT time. They view the Bible as a book about primitive Christians. This view leads them to believe that what was true for the 1st century Christians is not necessarily true for Christians today!
In their view, the Scriptures can be molded and changed to fit the fashions of today’s culture, or any future culture. It was in 1976 that a Presbyterian scholar named Sproul addressed this controversy and labeled it a “new hermeneutic.” Hermeneutics is the study of sacred scripture. What Sproul was saying is that today we have a new way to view the scripture, a new way to study the Bible! He condemned the logical approach to biblical interpretation that is taught by the scripture: command, necessary inference and approved example.
Years later the Lord’s Church faced the same controversy. What the denominational world embraces eventually finds its way to our shores in due time. So it was with this idea. The digressive Churches of Christ began to write of this idea in their journals in the late 1980’s. It only took a decade to reach their shores. It was sometime later than our brotherhood began to face this challenge.
Here’s what one of their writers said in 1989…
The historical method of hermeneutics approaches the Scripture with the understanding that the text was written in another period and from within a culture different from Western civilization. Instead of asking, “What is the meaning of the text for me today?” the historical method asks, “What is the meaning of the text to those who first read it?” The history and culture behind the text are what determine the real meaning.
The implication of this method of interpretation for the Restoration Movement is that many proof-texts which have been used to support favorite doctrines must now be challenged as to their application for the 20th century church.
Some questions are worth asking. To what extent did the culture of the 1st century affect the formation of the New Testament doctrine? Which elements of the New Testament teaching are culturally oriented so they can be altered today to conform to our situations?
A person might look at the Bible and draw a conclusion that immersion in water as baptism had its roots in the Jewish ceremonial washings. Such a conclusion would lead that person to deny that baptism is essential today.
What about the communion? Maybe we could conclude that the unleavened bread and fruit of the vine were merely cultural features of the 1st century world. After all, there was a similarity in the Lord’s Supper and the Passover. If we reached that conclusion we might also be led to believe that we could substitute other food items in their place today!
One of the primary drivers behind this movement, at least among our own ranks, is the quest to free the Lord’s Church from the perceived oppression of the 1st century culture. In other words, the Church is too exclusive and the gospel is too restrictive.
Women are forbidden from taking a role of leadership and there are some who think that’s simply outdated. Men who don’t accept the old fashioned Bible principles have been denied fellowship by saints and there are some who think that notion too is outdated. They think it’s time to change things. They say it’s time to let women teach, preach and serve as leaders in the Church. They say it’s time to include those who don’t think baptism is essential for salvation. You see, CULTURE explains all these things and when we view the Bible in the manner they want – then we can alter many, many things!
Command or Culture? How do we distinguish the options of culture from the obligations of divine command? We won’t address every possible aspect of this topic, but I hope to provide some simple ideas for your consideration.
This is an important topic because as we raise up a new generation of servants to the Lord we must realize that the landscape is different than it once was. The Lord’s Church and future generations deserve protection. Today, our brotherhood faces challenges brought about by the denominational world. Their influence is being felt all across the brotherhood.
Denominational issues abound. The class system of teaching is hardly conquered. In many congregations a regular, publicly announced gathering of select members is common. Young people studies, parenting classes and women studies are now found in many congregations in OUR brotherhood. Brethren, we have NO BIBLE PATTERN for it, but I fear an element among us will fight hard to conduct these in spite of God’s Word. How can we defend these while at the same time condemning the Sunday School system? Consistency, where art thou?
The traditions of the Lord are slipping. Young people are failing to obey God’s rule for sexual relationships and modesty. Divorce without cause is rampant. Progressive ideas and language are being adopted, but their origins can be traced to the WORLD, not SCRIPTURES. The language of the denominational world is heard in many prayers. It’s reminiscent of what happened centuries ago to God’s people. God’s people got so close with the heathen world of their day that the Bible says…
Nehemiah 13:24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people.
Brethren, we are at serious risk of becoming the people of “Ashdod” rather than remaining God’s people. The elders of Fossil Creek are intent on doing everything possible to maintain the old paths of God’s Word. It shows in the preachers we call to conduct our Gospel meetings. It shows in the public teaching of our worship services. It shows in the standards we try to maintain among our members. We must NEVER forget that the goal and objective is to REACH HEAVEN! Seeking to please ourselves is not our purpose or command.
John 14:15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.
Recently, at the Texas Labor Day meeting there were many parents who were shocked by the apparel of many of the young people. Satisfied to appear just like kids of the world, many young ladies were not ashamed to wear garments so tight that every article of underwear was apparent. Not to be outdone by any fashion show of the world, too many of these young ladies appeared far too interested in looking like Britney Spears than in appearing to look like a Christian. Brethren, we have to set the standard in our homes. That standard must be God’s standard – not one set by the world!
Skintight apparel, revealing the midsection, short skirts, low cut tops and other worldly garments dominated the scene of this recent meeting. More than immodesty was revealed – it’s apparent that the culture of our society has too heavily influenced our homes and our young people!
There was once a time when we didn’t have to worry about the vast number of dangerous Bible translations. Today, the shelves of religious bookstores are run over with translations that have very little to do with what the Holy Spirit inspired. We have to be leery. We have to be careful. Brethren, read the American Standard Version for accuracy. Read the King James for poetic language. Read the New King James for a slightly easier translation to read without sacrifice to Holy accuracy. You can’t go wrong with any of these. They will not lead you astray. Step outside of these and you are at risk of being taught false doctrine. Rely soley on the NIV, New Century or a variety of other versions and you may eventually get yourself in trouble! There was a day when we didn’t have to worry about this, but today the NIV is the most widely distributed version of the Bible. Satan is has abandoned old-fashioned tactics. He’s made adjustments in his point of attack and it’s working.
Various Other Issues
Gone are the days when virtually all our women adorned themselves with long, uncut hair as commanded in 1 Corinthians 11. Today too many of our young people don’t understand sex outside of marriage is wrong. Gone are the days when divorce was rarely named among us, and then only for fornication.
Brethren, the world has changed and our young people can only view us as dinosaurs UNLESS we teach them the Truth of the Gospel. We seek to provide you with some understanding of the obligations you have toward God in spite of the culture you live in. Whether you’re black, white, poor, rich, born in America or in communist China…the Scripture applies to you. The text reading is true…Christ hasn’t changed. Neither has His Word.
Well, let’s take a closer look at the issue of command or culture. Are the precepts in the Bible commands that apply to us today, or are they culturally based and directed only at the people of Biblical times leaving us lots of room for self-application in our modern world?
First, nobody has the right to assume that a divinely given instruction or practice is culturally conditioned unless there are contextual considerations that are clearly indicated.
For example, let’s look at Matthew 10:7-15 And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. And when ye come into an house, salute it. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
Christ sent the disciples out to preach of the coming kingdom. In these verses Jesus forbids them to preach to the Gentiles and Samaritans. Are we to believe that this is a universal command, good for all time? Of course not. How do we know that? Because after the Church was established, both Gentiles and Samaritans were granted entrance to the kingdom by obedience to the Gospel.
Over in Acts 8 we find Simon the Samaritan sorcerer being converted to the gospel. He responded to the preaching of the gospel. There was a time when God limited the preaching, but that was during a period of time when He was preparing the Jews to accept other people. Today, we’re not in that phase of God’s plan. Today, under the teaching of the gospel ALL men can be saved.
Over in Acts chapter 16, during Paul’s 2nd missionary journey, the Bible says Paul came to Lystra. It was at Lystra where Paul had Timothy, his young student and traveling companion, circumcised. Was that a divine ordained command or was it some culturally conditioned decision? How can we know?
Let’s look at the context and the story. Clearly, this was a decision the apostle Paul made because it was culturally expedient.
Acts 16:1-5 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek. And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.
Listen to what the scriptures say. First of all, Paul did this because certain false teachers in the early church attempted to bind circumcision as a matter of religious obligation, but the teaching of the apostles rejected the doctrine. Secondly, when the false teachers – men who tried to hang onto the Old Law, which did command circumcision – demanded circumcision, Paul refused to yield to their demands. In fact, he wrote to the Galatians that he wouldn’t give place to them, no not for an hour. Thirdly, the New Testament expressly states that circumcision done as a matter of salvation voids the work of Christ. In Christ, it’s a useless physical ritual.
Galatians 5:2,3 Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
It’s clear to us from these teachings that circumcision wasn’t performed on Timothy because Paul was enforcing doctrine or command. It was something he did for cultural reasons and in doing so he did not violate any teaching of the Truth.
Remember, the apostle Paul is also the inspired writer who talked of not laying a stumbling block in front of his brother. Paul was mindful of innocent people who might believe in circumcision because they hadn’t come to the full understanding of the gospel of Christ.
He didn’t have Timothy circumcised because of the demands of false teachers, but he did have it done out of deference to the Jews. Paul anticipated objections from Jews. Knowing Timothy’s father was a Greek, they would have assumed that Timothy had never been circumcised, even though his mother was a Jew. Furthermore, they would have raised trouble for Paul over that issue wherever he went. As a matter of expediency, Paul met it by having Timothy circumcised.
But Paul adamantly refused to circumcise Titus (Gal. 2:3). How can we discern the difference? Titus, a Greek (thought by some to be Luke’s brother), had no Jewish connection whatever. There could have been no excuse at all for circumcising him, except to comply with the demands of the Pharisee Christians. The Pharisee Christians were attempting to bind circumcision as a precondition of salvation. Paul wouldn’t tolerate that so he refused to have Titus circumcised!
What about water baptism? Can it be argued that it’s culturally based and not a command?
Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Scriptures teach us that baptism is for the remission of sins. That’s hardly cultural. The need for remission of sins is UNIVERSAL. People are in need of forgiveness of their sins. Forgiveness is also PERPETUAL, that is, we continue to need it.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ are always at the heart of the gospel.
1 Corinthians 15:1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
The very ceremony that PICTURES the historical events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection is BAPTISM. Romans 6:3, 4 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
Romans 6:17, 18 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.
Baptism is the only means we have of contacting the shed blood of Jesus. If the blood of His sacrifice can wipe away our sins (and we all believe it can), then we must come in contact with it. There is no cultural consideration to baptism.
These few illustrations prove that when we study the Bible we have to consider the context of the verses we’re studying. The context proves whether a teaching is doctrine or if it’s culture.
Second, there are biblical passages that indicate the basic forms of New Testament doctrine were to be everlasting. As a result, they weren’t cultural.
In the great commission Jesus declared: “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Matt. 28:18-20)
Looking at these verses in their context we see the Lord authorized baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The authority of this command is found in His authority, not culture.
In addition to that, the promised blessing – that Christ would remain with His people unto the end of the world – was conditional on the responsibility of each individual person to submit to baptism in His name for the remission of sins.
This means that baptism is a divine duty until the end of the world. It wasn’t temporary. It wasn’t culture. It was a divine decree set forth for all time.
Are the emblems of the Lord’s Supper – the cup, the fruit of the vine and unleavened bread – relics of the past or are they divinely commanded? Let’s let the apostle Paul give us the answer. To the Corinthians he wrote a letter of correction and admonition. He corrected them for improperly observing the Lord’s Supper. Toward the conclusion of this topic in his letter he wrote these words.
1 Corinthians 11:26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
It’s clear that Paul intended for the bread and fruit of the vine in the cup of blessing to be observed until the return of Christ was accomplished! For anyone to destroy that pattern with modern innovations is a violation of the scripture. It’s command, not culture.
Third, there is growing contention that the limit of a woman’s role in the public worship was cultural, not command. People ignore the creation and the role God gave men and women.
Think about the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Matthew 19:9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
Was this command an accommodation to the culture of the day? Quite the contrary. If you look at it, the culture of the day was very liberal about such things. The Jewish, Greek and Roman attitudes toward divorce and remarriage were very loose in those days so it couldn’t have been culturally based.
The Lord gave instruction based on the way God designed things, not the way men wanted them to be. The very creation reflected God’s plans for man and woman.
Matthew 19:4-8 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
When the New Testament teaches a thing based on historical fact – in this case the very creation of the world – then it can’t be dismissed as culture.
In the same fashion, when the apostle Paul affirms that a scale of authority exists over in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, then we’re foolish to dismiss it as culture!
In the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 the apostle is very clear on the chain of authority in God’s plan. Man is the spiritual head of the woman. She is to respect that position. Secondly, her subordinate status is shown or displayed by wearing her hair UNCUT, or long. In addition, according to what Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy chapter 2, she displays it by her silence in the public assembly and by not usurping the authority of the man. Third, these ideas have a creation-based background. God created it this way when He created man and woman.
Women, cutting your hair is no more a culturally based right than your speaking aloud in the assembly or in your having leadership over men in the Church. It’s a sin to cut your hair. It’s a sin to speak or teach in the public assembly. It’s a sin to usurp authority over a man. Culture cannot be argued in any of these and the creation is a fundamental basis for that conclusion. God established it His way. He didn’t permit culture to formulate it.
Brethren, it’s important for us to remember that when we remove a divinely stated command, and then we inject our own assumed rationale as the basis for instruction – we’re no longer practicing logical study of the scriptures. Instead, we’re putting our own opinions into the Bible.
There has been a strong movement afoot in the religious world that has touched our brotherhood. It’s the HISTORICAL method of biblical interpretation. They offer several arguments for why they are right. Before we conclude I’d like to examine a few of these.
First, they argue that the early church never possessed the entire New Testament. As a result, they argue, a NT pattern couldn’t have been established and required as the norm for the whole family of God. There are some serious problems with that argument though.
One, it’s an argument that is based on ignorance. We simply don’t know how much complete revelation was present in the 1st century church. A variety of spiritual gifts were present, among them the ability to prophecy and discern whether a teacher was of God or not. Beside, the 1st century Christians may have had more copies of the scriptures than many scholars think. We just don’t know.
Two, we have to take into account that God may have been more tolerant of weaknesses in knowledge in that period than he would be now given that we have the whole revelation in the form of the New Testament. Yet, we cannot discount the fact that knowledge of the revelation was insured by means of the inspired writers and by means of spiritual gifts.
Three, it’s clear the early saints did practice living after the scriptural pattern. The Bible proves it.
Acts 2:42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
Romans 6:3, 4 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
The early church knew about doctrine. They knew what the apostles taught through inspiration. They followed those things by living them. But a question is worth asking right here: if a person could accept Christianity to his personal or cultural preferences, how could he ever depart from the faith?
2 Thessalonians chapter 2 and 1 Timothy chapter 4 speak of falling away and departing the faith. How could that possibly happen if we can inject our own culture and bias into the scriptures? You can’t depart from your own culturally based religious doctrine because it’s not absolute truth. It’s relative truth based on every generation’s own views and cultures.
But, another point regarding the false notion of HISTORICAL interpretation of the Bible is this: it’s alleged that we have to honor the principles in the commands of the NT, but we’re allowed to alter the ways to accomplish those things to fit our present world. For instance, they use the “holy kiss” found in Romans 16:16 and modern women teachers to make a parallel. They say that if we have to honor the greeting of a holy greeting today (without it being a literal kiss), then women can still respect the principle of Bible teaching while publicly teaching in the assembly of the Lord’s Church.
There are a few things wrong with that logic. One, there is no evidence that the saints of the early church were ever commanded to kiss one another as a method of greeting. I know of no scholar who thinks so. Kissing, as a method of greeting, had been practiced for centuries. You can read of it in Genesis chapter 27 and 29. The thing commanded by the Bible in the NT is for the greeting to be holy and in love. There isn’t a single passage that mentions the holy kiss where it’s not termed “holy.” It’s as binding today as it ever was. The fact is, it was never binding. What is binding is that no saint has ever been allowed to great a brother or sister in lust, treachery or hypocrisy.
Another thing wrong with this logic is how would we honor the principle of obedience while we do something that has been specifically forbidden, or by failing to do something that was commanded? It doesn’t make sense. How can we uphold righteousness by permitting women to speak when the Word specifically forbids it? How can we uphold multiple communion cups on the Lord’s Table when the record clearly signifies a single cup was used? How can we permit a woman to cut her hair when the Bible clearly says it’s a “shame” to her if she cuts it? On and on we could go with this very logic. It makes absolutely no sense!
More could be said and more specifics could be discussed, but I hope we’ve spurred you on to study the notion of command and culture. I further hope we’ve proven that God’s Word is everlasting and was written for people of all ages, through out all time! Awareness of the religious trends is important so we can warn the saints of the dangers associated with leaving the Old Paths.
A revolt is underway in the Lord’s Church. Many are working very hard to soften Biblical authority by encouraging us to read the Bible with our own culture in view. They claim the book is really no law at all, but a book that can be fashioned after the culture of each era. If we don’t oppose it, it will take our children away from the Truth. It will rob us of future Christians. Generations will come after us who don’t know the Truth if we don’t stand fast in the Truth.