Women in the Text: What part does culture play?

Culture determines much of our behavior.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Women in the Text: What part does culture play?

  1. Linda, you claim that in first mention the women gets the man’s name, Adam.

    No. In first mention, God gives man and woman the name Adam., for them both. After the fall, Adam himself gives Eve another name and steal God’s name for both … for himself.

    I think it ties in with getting dominion over the animals and the right to name them- he seemingly acts as if the woman is his and not God’s, if he can name her while God’s name can be taken for himself.

    By the first mention rule: In first mention, Gen. 1:26-28, both man and women are created in God’s image to have dominion. By second mention, woman is made as an ezer kenegdo (Hebrew), the first a word that usually refer to God’s strong, rescuing help to an inferior,the second to equality.

    I think Adam’s theft of the name God gave them both, mirrors the theft of church men of God’s authority given to both sexes in Genesis 1.


    1. Thanks Retha, you summed up nicely what I’ve been mulling over, but it would have taken me a long post to get it out. I may still do one so I can firm up my own thinking. The creation order is central to the “biblical” teaching on gender roles and its never made sense to me, so I need to get it down on paper to keep it straight! 🙂


  2. Just got time for one comment now. The law of first mention is important in gender roles (I believe the “beef” is more on the line of authority rules, though). The culture which God Himself established for the genders began in the garden. In the perfect world God created (and before the fall), He placed woman into her identity with her husband when God called them both Adam (man’s name) – granted, this applies for husband and wife, except that we also see that the lineage charts, for the most part, only record the male’s lineage. It appears that even in God’s established culture (again, if we are to believe that God INSPIRED His very Word through Moses – II Peter 1:20-21), He chose to principally identify the woman within the man’s lineage. Yes, it could be that this lineage identity began after the fall – and probably so, but it was first established by God Himself. Very possibly, women are complaining about the curse we are under (Gen. 3:16) – not always easy to bear, but lightened much when Scripture taught the rolls of the husband and wife (Eph. 5) – loving authority vs. cruel dominion.

    Although we have been freed positionally from the curse of sin and death, its consequences are still ever present. We are still living under the curse; otherwise the whole creation would no longer be groaning for relief (Rom. 8:20-23), AND we would no longer need to HOPE for deliverance (Rom. 8:24). The context for these verses IS speaking of future deliverance from the bondage of corruption (written to Christians) – see vs. 21. Thus, GOD’S order of dominance (as a result of the curse) is still effecting consequences, though (as you stated) the law of love should temper it considerably.

    Other authorities women tend to bristle against: church leaders (I Tim. 2:11-12). If we truly believe that God inspired His Word through Paul, then we must be careful not to chalk up the teaching to Paul’s leanings, especially when the Holy Spirit in this passage in Timothy was clarifying God’s intentions back in the Garden of Eden. It appears God has chosen to protect woman AND the church (pillar and ground of Truth) when He established the authority of men within the church (I Timothy 2:13-14). Of course, that’s not to say men will be perfect (not by any means), but woman must not usurp that authority which is not hers (God-given) in order to make things better in this life (or hope to) – TWO sins don’t make things any better. That relief from man’s dominance, that HOPE, will only fully come upon the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23) – a FUTURE event (Rom. 8:21 – “shall be delievered”). Even if a husband and wife lovingly apply the truths of Eph. 4, I believe there will still be dissatisfaction/unrest on the part of the wife sometimes (again, the effects of the curse).

    Culture, indeed, should be looked at when studying Scripture, but God established gender role culture in the Garden of Eden – even then, woman’s identity was wrapped up in the man’s – and it was good!


    1. I’ve been working on how best to reply. As a post or here ? There is much I want to say so maybe a post is better. A few points to show how our thinking differs, which is what makes a response difficult to form.

      *I’m not sure what the law of first mention is? A method of Bible interpretation?
      *The two creation accounts are viewed differently in different circles. While conservative Christians holds to the man having inherent authority because both sexes were called “man” and because Adam named Eve, Judaism differs. Now, I’m not saying they have it perfect, but their view holds some value (imo) and shows that our interpretation isn’t as solid as we like to think it is.
      * I don’t think I believe that 1)the Christian teaching of male headship is a consequence of the fall or 2) even if it is a consequence, we should be blase about it. We fight disease and injustice and abortion, right?
      *I believe in the authority of God’s Word. And the Spirit’s help in understanding it. There are a few sections we don’t follow. (no braids, head covering…) Does that undermine its authority?

      I have a lot more I’m wondering about in more posts.


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