[I've changed the title of the series, as the topic has shifted -- but in a good direction. And it's easier to type. I'm keeping the T shirt logo because I'm still an elder.]
In 1Co 11:2-16 Paul argues on different levels:
a) Headship within the deity (V 3) – certainly not cultural
Any command regarding church order has an eternal principle behind it. The command itself, however, is an application of that principle. Sometimes the principle and the command are very closely tied (“Love one another” is essentially both principle and command), but normally there is a distinction – prohibitions on braided hair derive from the principle “love one another” in that the flaunting of wealth tempts others to envy and reflects an attitude contrary to the heart of Christ (I’m better than you.).
It’s always true that tempting others to envy or, even worse, pretending to be superior is wrong, but how one does that in a given society will vary. Hence, the behaviors that violate those principles and thus are sinful will vary from culture to culture.
Therefore, pigtails on second grade girls, even though clearly involving braided hair, do not violate the underlying eternal principle and certainly pigtails aren’t sin — even though they violate the literal words of the commands –
(1Ti 2:9 ESV) 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,
(1Pe 3:3 ESV) 3 Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–
There are other approaches to the interpretation of the braided-hair passages, such as the argument, based on history, that the real condemnation was against braiding the hair with gold and silver strands, and that may be true. But if we don’t dig into the purposes behind the command, we’ll not get the application right. Rather, we’ll simply write the text out the passage and lose the very point the apostles are making!
The “rule book” or “constitution” hermeneutic approaches the text as though all commands are of equal eternality (I use “eternal” in the same sense as “transcultural”) and then rationalizes away those commands that seem too foreign. A more thoughtful hermeneutic is to seek out the eternal purposes behind the command and ask how those same purposes should be honored in today’s culture. The task therefore isn’t so much “is the command still binding?” as “how is the principle behind the command to be honored in this time and place?”
Thus, when we speak of gold, pearls, and braided hair, we don’t stop with pointing out that things have changed and therefore these commands are no longer binding! Rather, the principles that drove these commands in the First Century remain true today, but the application will often be different. It may not be fashionable to braid the hair with gold and silver strands, but women still wear gold and silver in their hair!
Hence, we aren’t done until we ask: “How do we flaunt wealth today; how do we try to mark ourselves as superior today; and how do we avoid those behaviors?” We can thus condemn modern practices that violate the heart of those verses today and cite those verses as authority. It’s not whether they apply, but how they apply that we should be asking.
And the modern application may have nothing to do with braided hair, gold, or silver. There may be other markers of status and wealth that we use to separate ourselves from others less fortunate. The test isn’t the material used and so we ask entirely the wrong question when we ask, “Is a wedding band an exception to the rule?” That ignores the step of asking why the rule exists and the need to re-test and re-apply the rule in contemporary terms. Thus, we should rather ask, ‘”Does a wedding band violate the purposes of God behind the rule?”
The process is –
1. Determine the eternal principles that drive Paul’s conclusions in the text.
2. Ask what is it about the stated principles that cause Paul to reach those conclusions in his culture.
3. Ask whether the same principles drive the same results today.
4. Finally, ask what results we should reach in today’s culture, invoking those same principles.
This means the argument that “the command is eternal because Paul refers to eternal things” isn’t persuasive. There’s always an eternal principle. On the other hand, neither are we allowed merely to write the passage out of the Bible as no longer relevant to 21st Century life. Instead, we look for the lesson that is there.
Now, this is a more challenging hermeneutical approach because it requires us to inquire of the text how Paul reasons — not merely what he says but why he says it. What are Paul’s underlying, driving concerns? What beliefs must he have had to reach these conclusions?
And it helps to know that Paul was a Jewish rabbi who read the Old Testament Scriptures with the greatest of respect. His theology was built on the Law and the Prophets as radically re-interpreted through the gospel. We can therefore skip a lot of speculation and turn our attention to the things that Paul focused on — Jesus and the Scriptures.
Our biggest deficiency in this area is, I think, that we fail to adequately understand the gospel. Rather, we are too quick to accept a Pharisaic view: It’s a rule and we must obey it even if it makes no sense.
I find it sadly ironic when, one Sunday, we look down on the Pharisees for arguing over whether a Jew may wear a shoe with metal tacks in it on the Sabbath — for fear of “carrying a load” in violation of the Sabbath laws — and then the very next Sunday we condemn each other for building a fellowship hall, because perhaps that would be to eat in the building, if the fellowship hall is part of the same structure as the church building.
It’s the same kind of thinking applied to different passages. It’s the same mindset — a mindset that ignores God’s purposes and defends itself by claiming a great zeal for God as evidenced by the sacrifice such rulekeeping involves. And yet, it’s just not the kind of service God wants.
God is not all about testing our faith with meaningless rules, just to make life inconvenient. God has higher purposes, which we are fully capable of understanding, with the Spirit’s help –
(Rom 12:2 ESV) 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
But, of course, Paul wrote 2,000 years ago, in a culture that is incredibly foreign to us. There will be times when even the best scholars struggle to understand Paul’s conclusions just because our knowledge of the local setting is incomplete and likely will be until Jesus returns. But if we can discern the eternal principles from which Paul reasoned, well, we know our local culture very well, and so we can apply those principles as experts.
You see, this approach allows us to soundly and scripturally apply Paul’s teachings today even when we’re not entirely confident of what he was saying to the First Century church — because the eternal principles don’t change, and while Paul’s conclusions can be unclear, the principles are usually quite clear.