Today’s guest post comes from my friend Ed Cyzewski. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of his brand new book A Christian Survival Guide which is free today on Amazon.
Some days I sit around imagining what it would be like if the writers of the Bible had the resources (and culture) of today’s Christian publishing industry at their disposal. What if they started publishing books that essentially turned their letters into “how-to” guides for church practice and Christian living?
It’s a ridiculous line of thinking, but don’t we read the Bible like that sometimes? At least some Christians read certain parts of the Bible like that. “What kind of church leadership should we have? Well… let me just thumb my way through the epistles to find out…” “What is ‘God’s standard’ for Christian marriage? Let’s just see what Paul had to say about SUBMISSIVE wives…”
What if we ended up with a church-planting manual like this?
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In this deeply practical and instructive book, Paul provides the final answers to the most pressing questions in the church today, including qualifications for pastors, circumcision guidelines, household roles, marriage instructions for widows, and effective insults for false teachers. The final chapter provides an advanced series of teachings on how to pray in tongues, visit heaven in a vision, and how to hand sinners over to Satan.
Of course we recognize that my little parody here is ridiculous, but haven’t Christians done a bunch of picking and choosing over the years when it comes to applying the Bible “literally”? Don’t we run the risk of adopting another culture’s faulty standards when we try to follow a “biblical” practice?
We talk about biblical marriage, but there were many aspects of “biblical” marriages that we would never consider for a modern marriage today, such as a young man marrying the widow of his brother, a victorious Israelite army “marrying” female captives, or a man taking multiple wives—why hello there David, the man after God’s own heart.
We talk about biblical preaching, but every sermon recorded in the New Testament is quite short. In light of this, did God intend for sermons to be short? Keep in mind that the one time we hear about Paul preaching into the night, someone died. I, for one, would far prefer that churches work on getting this biblical preaching business set straight.
We talk about biblical manhood or biblical womanhood, but can we really compare modern, industrial, and digital society to an agrarian world where most every family worked from home, scratching out an existence together? When it comes to “biblical” families and gender roles, can an ancient, patriarchal culture where women had no rights offer up specific and definitive guidelines for us today?
All of this relates to the thorny issue of the Bible and culture. While we can all agree that God reveals “himself” in a particular time and place, even my use of the male pronoun in this sentence hints at the limits we face when describing God with our finite languages, categories, and experiences.
In other words, the appearance of God in a particular culture does not necessarily consecrate that culture’s standards and practices as the norm for all time.
For some, this is an obvious challenge that comes up when reading an ancient book in the modern world. For others, the thought of leaving behind the mindset “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” can feel like jumping into an abyss.
The connection between the Bible and culture determines some extremely important decisions that include where we go to go church, what career we choose or don’t choose, how we raise our children, how we live day to day in our homes, and whether we feel liberated or oppressed by the Bible. For many white men like myself, this hasn’t been quite as urgent an issue. However, for many women, this is a defining issue that can alter the course of their lives and define their relationship with Christianity.
Hold the Lobster
Cultural issues can be some of the most troublesome interpretive issues for certain Christians and would-be Christians today. Can women teach in church? Do men and women have prescribed roles at home and work?
We have no problem today sorting out certain cultural aspects of the Bible. We can set aside the Jewish dietary laws that prohibit lobster, shellfish, and other restrictions because the Spirit told the early church to remove them from the Christian life. We have also finally figured out that slavery is, in fact, quite wrong. It took us a couple thousand years and the Civil War in America to make up our mind on that one.
It’s far more difficult to sort out what to make of the Bible’s commands for families, morality, and churches. Did the writers of the Bible really intend to set up a systematic, internally consistent guide for all of life over the course of thousands of years? Or did they seek God in the midst of their daily lives, growing up, marrying, worrying about foreign invaders, harvesting their crops, praying, celebrating with neighbors, mourning over tragedy, and seeking God’s direction for their lives? How did the writers of Scripture intend future generations to read the events, prayers, and prophecies they recorded?
How do we discern what is “right” if we’re trying to balance the influence of the values of the Bible’s culture and our values today?
How do we “distill” a key lesson from Bible stories that took place thousands of years ago?
Spiritually Guided, Community-Centered Bible Reading
We should rightly be concerned that this discussion of the Bible and culture could open too many possibilities for reshaping the Bible according to an individual’s personal taste or permit a particular time period from the past to determine how we always interpret the Bible. We don’t have a clear blueprint for how to always arrive at the right conclusion for the study of Scripture. There will always be some tensions.
We want to let God have authority in our lives. Therefore we use the Bible as our source of guidance for church, daily choices, and spiritual living. However, no one is consistently “biblical” or able to follow the Bible like a blueprint. Otherwise, women would be wearing bonnets to church (1 Cor. 11:13–16) and lobster would be off-limits.
All is not lost—especially if you’re from Maine.
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead his followers into the truth. Paul backed him up on this as well. In addition, the Holy Spirit has been given to every follower of Jesus, and so we can interpret the Bible in community and run our interpretations by one another. This happened in Acts when Peter had a vision that God had declared all food clean and then later when Paul and Barnabas argued that circumcision and the Law of Moses were no longer necessary for Greek converts to Christianity.
Can we imagine anyone proposing today that—gasp—parts of the Bible no longer applied? That’s exactly what the Holy Spirit did. And while I’m not suggesting that we should start chopping away the verses of the Bible that we dislike, the Holy Spirit will guide us toward how to apply the truths of Scripture in today’s culture.
Keep in mind that when presented with a perfectly lawful opportunity to stone a woman caught in adultery, Jesus chose mercy instead of the Law’s mandated punishment of death (Lev. 20:10). We can’t question Jesus’ commitment to the Bible, and so we have to acknowledge that there’s something else going on with Scripture beyond providing the biblical blueprint for living.
We read the Bible in communion with the Holy Spirit and our communities so that we can draw near to God and be transformed. We’re not looking for loopholes. We’re hoping that God will write his laws on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 10:16) rather than handmade bindings across foreheads.
The guidance of the Holy Spirit and the Christian community isn’t as neat and tidy as simply “taking the Bible literally,” but then left to our own devices we may confuse an older culture’s standards with God’s perspective or we may read the Bible selectively, permitting our current values to always trump the guidance of Scripture. In the end, we may end up only misleading ourselves or hurting someone else. However, the community of believers teamed up with the Holy Spirit provides a far safer way to go. As we learn to listen to the voice of the Spirit and submit our readings of Scripture to one another, we’ll be challenged to rethink our interpretations and will place ourselves in a far better position to spot the challenges of the Bible and culture.
Perhaps we need a new motto: “God spoke through my Bible-immersed, Spirit-led community, I am in dialogue with it, that settles it . . . until our next conversation.” I may need to work on the wording for that.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology and A Christian Survival Guide. He writes about imperfectly following Jesus as www.edcyzewski.com. He lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and two sons where they obsess over New York style pizza and organic gardening. Connect on Facebook or Twitter.