I suppose most Christians around the world would agree that the Bible takes precedence over culture as far as deciding what is right and wrong. At the same time I think all of us are sometimes confused, thinking we are following the Bible instead of culture, not realizing that our culture heavily influences how we understand the Bible.
I will provide a couple of quick examples. When Jesus tells the woman at the well in John 4, that she had 5 husbands and the man she has now is not her own, those of us in the western world quickly judge her as a loose woman jumping from man to man. However, in the Eastern world at that time, a woman could not divorce her husband. That means that 5 men had already left her and the man she was with now was not even claiming her. Jesus’ message was not that she was a slut. His message was that while everyone else had left her thirsting for love, Jesus, the Living Water, would quench her thirst for love for all eternity, as He would never leave her.
Another example is in Numbers 12, when Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’ Ethiopian wife. Many in the western world think they looked down on her because she was black. That’s because we live in a culture that not even 200 years ago had black slaves. But remember that was not the case at the time of Moses’ day in the eastern world. The Ethiopians were not slaves. It was the Hebrews that had just been freed from slavery. Instead of looking down on her, they were probably jealous, and were insinuating that Moses thought he was all that, because he upgraded in their minds to an Ethiopian woman. (Of course snubbing your nose at anyone based on the history of their race is nonsense in any culture. We are all equal!)
See how our culture influences our understanding of Scripture? So we need to be careful when we claim our traditions and standards are based on Scripture. I would dare say some are and some are not. I remember studying the Bible with a teenage boy, who asked for a ride to church. The family giving him a ride each Sabbath, gave him a tie to wear since he did not have one. They felt he should wear a tie. He thanked them, but never wore it. While their tradition was to wear a tie, he was not convicted that he needed to wear a tie. To the family giving him a ride, he needed to dress appropriately for church, but to him a tie served absolutely no purpose and was nothing more than cloth jewelry. Yet the family would tell you that wearing a tie was a Bible standard while he felt not wearing a tie was a Bible standard.
This reminds me of a story that comes from my extended family. My cousin’s husband was a missionary many years ago in Micronesia. The native women came to church topless. To them breasts were totally utilitarian. The missionaries gave the women shirts to wear to church. They were surprised when the native women returned the following Sabbath with holes cut out of the shirts to expose their breasts. When the missionaries asked why, they were informed that in their culture only prostitutes cover their breasts. The prostitutes were sexualizing their breasts for sale. These God-fearing church ladies were not wanting to come across as being sexually alluring, which is why they actually exposed their breasts. It reminds me of what Paul wrote to Titus,
Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure. But nothing is pure to those who are corrupt and unbelieving, because their minds and consciences are corrupted. Titus 1:15 NLT
Even in our own culture we struggle with this. A friend of mine came back from visiting a very conservative pastor and his family. My friend told me he was shocked when the pastor’s wife breastfed in front of them without a blanket. He told me, “And I thought they were conservative!” I explained to my friend that the wife was probably so conservative that she never thought of breastfeeding as a sexual thing. Like the godly women in Micronesia she saw breasts as utilitarian.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe in modesty. I have written about modesty. But like everything else, we have to stop and ask ourselves if our convictions are biblical or cultural. Fact of the matter is that godly families around the world, and often even in the same cultures, have different ideas about what proper modesty looks like. Of course this goes for many other topics too. I was just using modesty as an example because I thought my cousin’s husband’s experience fit so well. Remember we must do all of our rebuking with Scripture according to 2 Timothy 3:16. The Scriptures will tell us exactly on what day to rest, but the Scriptures won’t tell us exactly how many inches a woman’s skirt should be from her knees. If I tell someone exactly how to dress, am I teaching them from the Bible or from my culture?
Some Bible teachings have nothing to do with culture. For example the Sabbath is the seventh day in every culture. Leviticus 11 defines clean and unclean foods for every culture. But even though the Bible is clear that we should be respectful, each culture has different customs and traditions of showing respect. The same is true when it comes to modesty. As a matter of fact, I could share some quotes from the Bible with you that were totally appropriate in Bible times that would not fly today in our culture. For example, this is how David said he was going to capture all the men.
So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that [pertain] to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall. 1 Samuel 25:22 KJV.
Newer versions word it a different way now – way that we say is more appropriate. But apparently in David’s day and in King James’ day, that was a totally appropriate way to talk and write to mixed company of all ages. So even when the Bible clearly teaches us to watch our mouths, the Bible itself words some things differently than we do today. That is because culture has greatly influenced our understanding of the Bible.
A few years ago I found a children’s Bible trivia quiz book that actually had a category for circumcision. While I have publicly taught about Bible circumcision with all ages, the thought of using it as trivia in a children’s Bible game was a little too much for me, so I chose not to use that category. At the same time I did not tear the section out, as some have done, because I did not think it was appropriate. I decided not to use it myself and left it for the next person to decide for themselves.
We need to keep in mind that while Scripture does indeed take precedence over culture, that even Jesus recognizes that some things do vary from culture to culture, without contradicting the Bible. When that happens, Jesus gave us a simple rule to follow.
Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. Matthew 7:12 NLT