We’re considering Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien — an excellent book.
America and the rest of the West has an individualist culture. We are all about the individual, even at the expense of the family or church.
It’s not unusual for children to live thousands of miles from their parents to pursue a career. Few people will turn down a promotion to avoid leaving their congregation. Our culture just assumes that the good of the individual overrides the good of the group.
However, the Middle Eastern culture of First Century Judea was quite different. Sons followed their fathers’ trade in their home village, living in a very small room built adjacent to their parents’ home.
Many a First Century Jew would have left his home town only for the occasional pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His wife would be from his home town and selected for him by his parents.
The birth of Jesus
Our cultural assumptions color how we read Bible passages. To a Westerner, Mary gave birth in a manger with no there to help except Joseph, the angels, and the animals. Why do we assume they were alone? Well, the Bible mentions no one else. We fill the gap with our cultural assumptions.
It seems clear in the text that Mary and Joseph were traveling during festival time–that’s why all the inns were full. Bethlehem was what we might call a bedroom community, or suburb, for Jerusalem. … But why take Mary when she was “great with child”? It wasn’t ignorance; ancients knew how to count to nine. … in antiquity one’s relatives were the birthing crew. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem when they did because everybody else was going. We imagine Joseph and Mary trudging alone up to Jerusalem, in the quiet of night. Nope. They were part of two large clans–his and hers. (This also explains how Mary and Joseph could “misplace” the twelve-year-old Jesus later. They assumed that he was with his perhaps hundred cousins as the extended family headed home. Only at evening did the boy Jesus go missing.) The birth of Jesus was no solitary event, witnessed only by the doting parents in the quiet of a cattle fold. It was likely a noisy, bustling event attended by grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
(Kindle Locations 1057-1064). Is this provable to an absolute certainty? Well, no. But the culture of the day made it unthinkable that Joseph and Mary would have gone to Jerusalem alone, without family, especially with her 9 months pregnant.
I mean, if you were Mary’s mother or sister or cousin, wouldn’t you have gone with her? And imagine what it was like in a culture much more centered on family than we are! I mean, do we really think Mary intentionally delivered her baby far away from home with no family to help, no aunt to serve as midwife, no sisters and brothers there to celebrate the birth with them, no fathers and mothers to attend the circumcision?
Westerners can imagine a lonely birth, although even we will normally be surrounded by family and friends. First Century Judea was all that times 100. This was First Century Judaism. Someone had to dance in celebration.
We Westerners like to emphasize our “personal relationship” with Jesus. For us, the decision to be saved, to have faith in Jesus, is intensely individual. But in Acts, we notice that entire households made the decision together.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are miraculously freed from their chains in prison. The jailer, apparently recognizing what happened as an act of God, asks the men, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Their response is striking: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved you and your household” (Acts 16:31, emphasis added).
(Kindle Locations 1095-1097). Notice that Paul and Silas assume a household conversion before they even get warmed up with their gospel sermon. Well, the jailer would not have wanted to join the Christian community without his family. If the invitation had not been extended to the entire household, Paul and Silas would have received no hearing.
Choosing your family
The New Testament is filled with examples of references to the local congregation as a “family” or “household.” Older men are “fathers.” Older women “mothers.” Fellow members are “brothers” and “sisters.”
To us Westerners, this is a quaint, kind of old-fashioned way of talking. We don’t take it seriously. But in the First Century, some converts lost their physical families when they converted. It would have been much harder to go against one’s family then than now, and it’s hard now. The church would have become the only real family many of the converts had.
Moreover, in the First Century, you didn’t get to pick your congregation. There was one per town. The church might divide to meet in separate houses. A house couldn’t hold more than 30 or so. It was similar to our modern “small group” practice — a large church meeting in several private residences.
While we can be quite particular about which church we join (“the music’s too loud!” “the song leader waves his arm too much!” “I wasn’t fed!”), the First Century Christians had but one congregation to join, under but one eldership. And for a collectivist culture, this was quite okay. They were accustomed to submitting to the larger group. You don’t get to pick your family, and so no one would be surprised at not getting to pick his church.
In fact, in Europe, most villages had only one church for hundreds of years. Even during the Protestant Reformation, most villages were either Catholic or Protestant. The idea of having a choice was unimaginable. It’s only been in the last few centuries that a villager could meaningfully choose a denomination, and it’s only been in the last century or two that a denomination would have two congregations in the same town — other than in a very large city.
The idea of having four or five Churches of Christ in the same town, with people driving past one to attend another, was unthinkable to David Lipscomb, who lived and wrote only about 100 years ago. He considered it divisive and sinful to attend any congregation other than the nearest Church of Christ.
The result of our extreme Western individualism is a highly divided Christendom, and even highly divided denominations, where churches of even the same denomination see each other as competitors — rather capitalistic, actually — rather than sister congregations of the same church.
Worse yet, this willingness to divide means we aren’t exposed to contrary views and we feel no pressure to change. If we don’t like the elders’ decision on X or Y, we’ll just move down the road to a competing church — treating our God-given household and family like Wal-Mart or Target. The consumer is king in a capitalistic society, and we’ve rebuilt our church identity based on our preferences rather than any real sense of community and family.
We don’t choose who else is a Christian with us. But we are committed to them, bound to them by the Spirit. And we are not free to dissociate our identities from them–mainly because once we are all in Christ, our own individual identities are no longer of primary importance.
(Kindle Locations 1142-1144). Imagine what church would be like today if we felt so much loyalty to our congregation that we’d turn down a promotion to stay with our “family.” Imagine that it was unthinkable to change congregations, not for doctrinal reasons but because your congregation is your household, your sisters, your brothers, and your parents. And just like your physical family, it doesn’t even occur to you that you should get to pick who is part of your “family.” After all, we all have the same father. We’re all begotten by the same Spirit. We all have the same big brother.