Interpreting the Bible: Distinguishing Commands from Historical Accidents

bible.jpgSome things are in the Bible to teach us and as examples we are to follow. Other things are just what happened–not as examples.

Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding. Does this mean we are to serve wine at our weddings?

Five times the New Testament writers command their readers to greet one another with the Holy Kiss? Do we have to?

Women are commanded to be silent in the assembly? Does that apply today?

We have a gut sense of what’s right, but sometimes our gut is more trained by our culture and traditions than the scriptures. So here’s a thought: if the practice is consistent with the then local culture, it proves nothing. If it’s counter-cultural, however, it’s likely a command.

Obviously, the other principles taught here apply as well, and many are more important and more powerful tools than this one. But this helps.

Serving wine at a wedding was the local culture. Jesus was no more compelling us to serve wine than he was commanding us to ride donkeys when he rode into Jerusalem.

In the Mediterranean world, then, as now, men greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek. The form of greeting was just an incident of the culture.

Just so, in many First Century cultures, women were not allowed to speak to a man other than her husband. To do so was considered grossly immoral. Thus, Paul’s command does not by itself create an eternal principle.

However, all these actions happened for a reason, and the underlying reason is generally of permanent importance.

We should have compassion on people at significant times in their lives, and if we can keep a wedding from being an embarrassment to the family, compassion compels us to help.

Just so, we should greet one another warmly in whatever manner family members greet each other in the local culture. Hugs and handshakes and even slaps on the back are appropriate. Certainly, it’s inappropriate to be stiff and formal in church.

Wives were given to their husbands by God to help them. They therefore should never engage in conduct that shames their husbands.  In this culture, wives should never criticize their husbands in the presence of others, for example. But in 21st Century culture, women are allowed to speak in public, and often do. Denying women the right to speak is actually considered grossly immoral today.

Thus, the same principles that compelled silence in the First Century compel us to allow women to speak in this century.

Now, test the same questions by love and the gospel.

Nothing in love or the gospel requires wine to be served at a wedding, in this culture, but love would compel us to help prevent a bride’s family from being humiliated at a reception.

Love and the gospel do not require that a kiss be the chosen form of greeting. The gospel does compel us to treat one another as closer than family–and thus to greet warmly.

Love and the gospel do not require women to be silent in the assembly. Rather, on these principles, we’d expect women to exercise whatever gifts God has given them. Love  requires that we, like God, be no respecter of persons and judge the heart and not the exterior.

On the other hand, when Jesus spoke to the unmarried Samaritan woman, he violated numerous social taboos. When he urged Martha to study at his feet along with Mary, he violated the culture that denied women the right to study God’s word from a rabbi. Therefore, these examples are for our instruction. Indeed, they are binding.

And, not surprisingly, they are in perfect accord with the principles of love and the gospel. All are equally invited into the Kingdom and all are saved and all are clothed with Christ. Thus, we may not discriminate. If we love women, we want them to share in the same privileges as men.

It’s a powerful principle. It has to be used carefully in conjunction with the more powerful principles found explicitly in scripture, however.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Distinguishing Commands from Historical Accidents

  1. Well said. It is good to know some people are studying God’s Word and not relying on tradition to rule the day. Tradition is only good when it is a tradition of keeping in step with God’s word. Far too often the Church has failed to study and show ourselves approved by simply accepting what someone tells us. Cracking the book and digging is always in order to get understanding. After all God has chosen His word to reveal Himself to us. If we never read the Bible we will never really know God.

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