We’re considering the broader principles of how to distinguish an eternal command from a culturally limited command. In the last post, we considered the basis for concluding that slavery is wrong even though the Scriptures do not condemn slavery, that is, for finding that the Scriptures’ references to slavery are culturally conditioned and not meant to permit slavery for all time.
We next need to consider another principle: Commands that run contrary to the then local culture are unlikely to be culturally conditioned.
Obviously, if the authors of the Scriptures are making concessions for the sake of culture, they are moving in the direction of culture. Commands that run contrary to culture aren’t culturally conditioned — unless they are made for the sake of someone else’s culture (such as requiring Gentiles to make accommodations for the sake of the consciences of the Jews).
Thus, as noted in the previous post, the condemnation of homosexuality was not an accommodation to local culture, as homosexuality was largely an approved practice in First Century Rome.
Just so, the Mosaic commands to care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner run contrary to the surrounding culture, which was often quite cruel to the least fortunate members of society.
Sometimes, the point is made explicitly in the Scriptures —
(Mat 20:25-28 ESV) 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Thus, the requirement that elders be servant-hearted men is eternal — and we should read “gentle” in 1 Timothy and “not overbearing” in Titus in these terms. Indeed, the requirements to be gentle and not overbearing should be emphasized as the same thought is found on the lips of Jesus.
On the other hand, the fact that a command is consistent with the culture does not per se make it temporary. After all, the culture is not always wicked and sometimes celebrates righteousness.
In the case at hand, the commentaries note that the requirement to manage one’s household well is a fairly common sort of requirement in First Century Rome. Moreover, Barclay, in the Daily Study Bible, says,
A writer called Onosander has a description of the character of the ideal commander. He must be prudent, self-controlled, sober, frugal, enduring in toil, intelligent, without love of money, neither young nor old, if possible the father of a family, able to speak competently, and of good reputation. (86-87).
Thus, being a father was considered important for leaders in that culture. And so I think we can pretty clearly conclude that Paul wasn’t writing against the culture in requiring fatherhood — meaning this test offers no answer. There is no implication either way.
The next test has to do with the purpose of the command:
Is the command an example of a temporary application of an eternal principle or always required by an eternal principle?
At first, this test sounds like the original question restated, but there’s an important, subtle point here. Commands are the application of eternal principles. You can’t understand the command until you figure out what principle behind the command is.
For example, “Do not kill” or “Thou shalt not kill” is clearly a command. It’s repeated a few times in the New Testament. It sure seems eternal. I’m all for it being eternal — but only if properly understood. You see, under Moses, “Do not kill” really means “Do not murder,” because capital punishment and killing in wars approved by God were certainly allowed. Self-defense was allowed. Therefore, the eternal principle is not “All life is sacred and can never be taken.” No, the principle is given to us plainly —
(Rom 13:9-10 ESV) 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Hence, the boundaries of “Thou shalt not kill” are defined by the eternal principle: “love your neighbor.” And we draw conclusions from that fact. We will, I’m sure, disagree as to those conclusions, but we only argue from Scriptural premises when we are discussing love rather than the sanctity of life.
Just so, when we consider a command such as “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss,” we have to ask what eternal principle underlies the command. And this approach takes us away from the false notion that the Bible is a rulebook, such as a constitution or blueprint. Yes, there are rules in the Bible, but the rules are the eternal principles — and the commands are applications that sometimes never change and sometimes do. The principles drive the decision.
There is no eternal principle from Eden to Revelation that we must greet with a kiss. However, there is a principle that the Kingdom is like a household or family filled with love. And in First Century Rome (and some parts of the world even today), greeting with a kiss is how family members greet one another.
This same line of reasoning takes us a long way toward finding that slavery is sin, because there is no eternal, God-given principle insisting that we may enslave one another. Indeed, the command to love our neighbors makes slavery as practiced in 19th Century America impossible.
Now, getting this right requires some serious theology — and a serious re-reading of the Gospels and Paul to see how they reasoned. You see, biased by the constitution/blueprint approach to the Bible, we’ve read it to find the rules: the conclusions. We’d have learned much more about the Scriptures and God if we’d read the Bible to find the principles and how the authors reason from principle to application. That’s a lesson we need to learn.
Pull out 1 Corinthians and rather than looking for rules, study how Paul reaches his conclusions. What does he reason from? Where do his commands come from — a secret rulebook or as applications of the gospel? And you’ll find that Paul reasons over and over from the gospel and from Eden.
(1Co 1:11-13 ESV) 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
When the question of division arose, Paul immediately turns to the gospel for guidance. Since there is but one Jesus, one person crucified for the church, one person into whom they were baptized, they must be one.
(1Co 7:4 ESV) For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
While Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, he’s plainly alluding to —
(Gen 2:23-24 ESV) 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
He also frequently reasons from the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You see that Paul reasons from the nature of baptism in 1:11-13 above. From the Lord’s Supper he reasons —
(1Co 10:16-17 ESV) 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Again, the theme is unity, but it’s unity found in the nature of communion. Communion is a given. The nature of communion teaches certain lessons, one of which is unity.
Now, regarding whether an elder must have children, it’s a hard question. There is certainly no eternal principle that God’s leaders must have children. Jesus didn’t. Most of the apostles didn’t. Paul recommended celibacy as beneficial to serving Jesus. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were likely eunuchs (Dan 1:3-18. They were supervised by the chief of the eunuchs, strongly suggesting that they were eunuchs.)
Then again, the fact that raising children teaches valuable lessons and shapes the heart of a man is eternal, too.