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“Certainly, we recognize the authority of God’s word and the absolute truth of Biblical principles, but the way in which we apply them to our lives will vary according to our cultural context.”
When I went back home to Texas for the summer after my first year at USC, I had a conversation with a close friend of mine that has stuck with me to this day. We were catching up on our college experiences, and she shared with me how she had recently felt convicted about her addiction to caffeine. She worked for a coffee shop, and had noticed that her love for coffee had morphed into a need for coffee, even a reliance on it to get through her day. So she had decided to fast from coffee for the foreseeable future.
I felt crushed. How could I tell this girl, who once looked up to me as a leader in our youth group, that my struggles out in California were much more insidious than drinking too much coffee? I was at the beginning of an identity crisis, what would become some of the darkest years in my personal narrative, as I wrestled with my faith and the constant pressures of parties, struggles with eating, depression, and boys who felt they had a right to my body. I scoffed at her innocence, at the silliness of a struggle with sin that was barely sin.
But I was wrong. What I see looking back now are two girls, living in two different worlds, both combatting issues of the heart that played out differently in our cultural context. While my friend struggled to lean only on Christ for sustenance and not look to the world for energy or comfort, I fought the same battle of the heart, just on a divergent stage.
Sin is tricky in that way. It begins with a heart that listens to lies instead of the truth and manifests distinctly on the exterior for each of us. This is why I find it important to consider culture in the conversations we have about the truth of scripture and its individual application. Certainly, we recognize the authority of God’s word and the absolute truth of Biblical principles, but the way in which we apply them to our lives will vary according to our cultural context.
If you’ve taken a Bible study methods class, you are familiar with the interpretive arc that is so important for proper Biblical understanding—first you consider what the passage means for the original reader, then extrapolate the overall truth statement, and only after you hone in on a larger theme do you figure out how to apply it to your own life. Some passages are quite literal—“Do not murder” means “do not murder”—but others require a bit more nuance.
Much of Paul’s specific instruction for women—like wearing headcoverings and being silent in church—falls into this category. For instance, in 1 Timothy 2:9, Paul teaches that women “should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire.” On a cursory reading, one might think that there is something inherently shameful about braids or gold (and if so, is that why James Avery jewelry is almost exclusively silver?). But if you consider the culture to which he penned this letter and the larger context of this particular passage, a bigger idea emerges. Paul gives instructions to Timothy about orderly worship, and his encouragement that women dress modestly is aimed at preventing distraction or cause for judgement from outsiders. So where a community of believers in New York might apply this passage in the context of extravagant spending on clothing or what makes for a modest sundress, a group of believers serving in the Middle East may choose not just to avoid braids, but to cover their hair entirely.
In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, Paul explains, “...I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
I have to imagine that in Paul’s missionary travels, he encountered a wide swath of cultures and was constantly on his toes trying to learn the social expectations and unstated rules with each new city. Missionaries since Paul have continued to feel this struggle—whether it’s a pressure to omit the fact that their Bible study meets in a pub in their letter home to the dry county supporting church or maybe a self-consciousness about sharing vacation photos from a beach resort nearby that is cheap as a local but might seem too extravagant for someone stateside.
Paul understands the challenges of culture, and rather than say, “Well this is just who I am—get used to it,” he gladly imposes certain restrictions upon himself so that he might be salt and light in each city. His focus is not on proving his freedom by living without regard to others, but rather to put the needs of each group before his own.
So when a pastor in Texas suggests that my children shouldn’t watch a particular movie or a theologian in the Midwest argues that Biblical dating should look a certain way, it is important to examine the arc of their argument. What does the Bible say about this topic? And what is the universal truth? And does that truth require the same application in my culture as in theirs? If it’s a rule or restriction that will edify my fellow Angeleno, then most certainly I should comply. But we are called to consider more than our personal convictions to ask what might best love our city.
“‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
-1 Corinthians 10:23-24
I’ll give another example. In my hometown in Texas, there are three very large women’s health clinics, all nonprofits that thrive thanks to generous donations from local churches. There are more than enough resources for women to receive healthcare from one of these facilities that it actually made our local Planned Parenthood obsolete. They closed down and diverted resources to another city. But here in LA, if you are poor and need women’s health services, there is only one pregnancy clinic you can visit that does not perform abortions. Over 4 million people and only two locations to receive care. So when conversations arise about defunding certain companies that focus on services for women, I must pause. How would it impact poor women in my community? And could there be a better solution?
In Texas, Christians are the majority culture and wield a different kind of influence on society, which comes with its own set of responsibilities. But in LA, where we are the minority culture, to “seek the good of the city where I have sent you into exile” might look different (Jeremiah 29:7). I might not be able to establish my value system with a vote, so maybe I need to get scrappy and put my money and time toward things that matter to me. I might allow my children to read about or see examples of unbiblical behavior at an earlier age—not to normalize sin, but so that I can be the first to talk to them about why our family lives God’s way. Because our worldview is the minority here, I may apply certain Biblical ideas differently than my brothers and sisters in other parts of America or the world. I have also learned to reserve judgement in conversations about how each person strives for holiness.
Thanks to the internet, we can read the writings of wise men and women around the world and throughout history with a few thumb taps on our smartphones. This access is incredible, but where it can fall short is in the way we advise about applying scripture to our lives. My faith is shaped and challenged through Bible teachers from different times and places, but I recognize that God has called them to pastor a different flock, in a distinct culture, and I’m thankful for the local pastors he has called to shepherd me.
It is amazing to have access to solid teaching online through podcasts, blogs, and books, but it is also crucial to commit to a local church. We need a community of believers on the ground, who live in our culture too, to wrestle through applying God’s word together, and to encourage each other to live faithfully where we are called.
Meredith serves Cornerstone with the Women’s Ministry and as a Global Liaison.
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