Culture determines much of our behavior.
I have lived in many cultures. Missionaries around the world must wrestle with cultural norms when deciding what exemplifies a godly life. What may seem common sense to us in the United States, is a different issue in another culture. It takes wisdom to decide what is a cultural phenomenon and what is the Lord’s command. One is sin. One isn’t. But it may be harmful to the reputation and good standing of the Christian who flouts that cultural rule. Sometimes Jesus followed his culture’s rules. Sometimes he didn’t.
In Papua New Guinea, men are very affectionate. If two men are great friends, they will hold hands wherever they go. They aren’t homosexual. It is not a sin for two men to hold hands. In one culture, it is considered a sign of friendship and tells those viewing them that the two men are committed to caring for each other; they have each other’s “back.” It’s to be commended. But in the US, we are well aware what this gesture signifies. We tell our boys not to hold their friend’s hand. If we saw two men in church holding hands, we’d have to question them on their lifestyle activities! Culture plays a significant part in how we act out our Christianity.
I believe how we act as men and women of God is influenced by our culture. Because I believe this is the case for today, I also believe it was the case in the various times and cultures the Bible was written in. Hence, the more we can understand about the culture of the time, the better our understanding of what the author intended his audience to hear.
In this brief on culture, it is important to note that God speaks into culture to instruct those who are listening about His ways that transcend any time or culture. Those instructions were recorded for us. God judged based on those instructions. (He judges based on cultural instructions too, especially in the Old Testament.) Jesus summed up all God’s instruction in two sentences: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love those around you like you love yourself. Two commands that transcend any time or culture.
Does the Bible instruct us on clear gender roles that transcend time and culture?
The answer to this question will determine HOW you translate gender roles in your culture. The problem is, there are very few places in Scripture that God talks about gender roles. And those places are wrapped in cultural agendas. Here’s a few of the favorites:
- 1 Timothy 2: Paul does not permit women to teach or have authority over men, is directly preceded by warnings against jewelry, braids and costly clothes. Most modern denominations agree these specific things hold a cultural stigma for the ancient reader that we don’t share today. Could the ban on women teaching be cultural? Its possible.
- Ephesians 5: Paul’s instructions for wives to submit and husbands to love, is followed by injunctions for slaves and masters, a situation all Christians agree is a cultural “sin.” Yet, Paul makes allowance for it by instructing each role how to behave in their cultural situation. I’m not saying I don’t agree with this passage for husbands and wives, I just want to make the point that the culture of Paul’s time influences his instruction, regardless of the right or wrongness of that cultural institution. Could the specific call for wives to submit and husbands to love be cultural? Sure. I don’t think spouses get out of acting in this fashion though, because there are many places throughout Scripture where submission and love are shown to be godly and the type of behavior God exhibits. This passage is one of my favorites because it follows and flouts the culture for gender of Paul’s time, but I’ll cover that in another post.
- 1 Corinthians 11: Paul states the head of a woman is man, and the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God. This confusing passage is immediately followed with instructions for the woman to pray with her head covered or shave it off; men keep their hair short, women must keep it long. Again, most modern denominations agree this instruction was for the Corinthians because of the pagan practices found throughout the city; a cultural significance that we don’t follow today. Could the teaching of headship hold a cultural significance that we don’t understand with our modern ways? Again, its a possibility.
I argue that these passages have become unclear and confusing in our modern era precisely BECAUSE cultural roles have changed. But, is that okay? I don’t know for sure. I don’t think it is as clear as the 10 commandments. I can see there is room for various godly opinions. <hyperbole> But I do think that if we wish to pound our pulpits about headship and submission and women teaching men, we should re-consider wearing jewelry, haircuts and slavery. </hyperbole>
Now on the issues of being a wife, a homemaker and a mother versus working outside the home, I can’t say I can recall one instruction. There is commentary and a general sense of “well of course you’ll act this way, everyone does it” throughout the stories of Scripture. But this is never commanded. Culture influenced gender roles, for better or worse, not the clear instruction of God. And in conclusion, I believe our present culture of gender equality should play a part in how we practice the CLEAR commands of our Lord. Love God~Love others. That is the goal.