Does culture ever play a part in helping us to understand (or misunderstand) Scripture? Should we always interpret the biblical text according to a “plain reading” of the passage?
Christians who, like myself, take a “high view” of the inspiration of Scripture believe that the prophets who wrote the Bible were given thoughts, impressions, visions and dreams from the Holy Spirit. From these sources of inspiration, they wrote, in their own words, style, and language, the literature that comprises today’s Bible. Christians who take this view of Scripture believe that God’s “word,” including the words found in the Bible, “are truth.” (John 17:17).
Understanding that the Bible is “truth” does not excuse us from seeking to understand what the Bible writers wrote, why they wrote it, and how those writings apply to us today. The vast majority of Bible stories and passages are easily understood and are not, as some would make them, “mysterious and obscure.” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 39). However, there are some “difficult” passages in Scripture (Pastor Joe Crews, founder of Amazing Facts, wrote a whole book on Bible verses that require more than a plain surface reading). Ellen White noted that “…without the guidance of the Holy Spirit we shall be continually liable to wrest the Scriptures or to misinterpret them.” (Steps to Christ, p. 110). Simply stating that we should follow the “plain reading” of scripture may not always be a responsible approach to study of the Bible when it comes to studying these difficult texts. Why? Because we often approach Scripture with baggage – our own personal, cultural and theological presuppositions and prejudices – that cause us to misinterpret what the text “plainly” seems to be saying. When we fail to understand the time, place, setting and cultural issues at play from the perspective the the biblical writers, we run a risk of misinterpreting even the apparent “plain reading” of what they wrote. (Merriam-Webster defines “culture” as the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time). Let me illustrate this with two passages from Paul’s writings.
Jesus’ Method of Bible Study
Before I illustrate, though, let me point out that Jesus Himself gives us a “method” (the theological term is “hermeneutic”) which we can follow in our study of the Bible. While walking on the road to Emmaus, Jesus illustrated His method: “Then, beginning with Moses [the first five books of the Bible] and with all the prophets [the rest of the then-existing Scriptures], He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:27, NASB).
Jesus basically did a topical Bible study. He then “explained” or interpreted the passages to his disciples. In His interpretation, He undoubtedly was faithful to the immediate context of the inspired writings that he was explaining. And also, by His comprehensive use of Moses and “all the prophets,” his interpretation was faithful to the larger context of the totality of scripture.
Jesus was showing His disciples how to study the Bible inductively. Inductive Bible study allows Scripture to speak for itself and helps to safeguard against us imposing our own presuppositions on what the Bible is saying. This method follows three steps. First we “observe” the text. Secondly we “interpret” the text. Finally, we “apply” the interpretation to our situation today. “Observation answers the question: What does the passage say? Interpretation answers the question: What does the passage mean? Application answers the question: How does the meaning of this passage apply to me?” (The Inductive Method of Bible Study – The Basics).
If we skip the vital step of seeking to understand what the passage “means” (i.e., interpretation), then we are likely to often arrive at incorrect applications. Usually, this means that because we impose our own cultural construct on the passage we fail to understand what the prophet was writing about, to whom he was writing, or the circumstances surrounding the situation being addressed. By misunderstanding the immediate cultural context, time, place or setting in which the prophet was writing we may come to incorrect conclusions about what the prophet was trying to communicate.
The Apostle Peter reminds us that it is possible to “distort” or twist the meaning of Scripture. Peter also thought that some of Paul’s writings contained some “hard to understand” passages. “…Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16, NASB).
Vitally important to all study of the Bible, is the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised to send the Spirit to “guide us into all truth” and His help is especially needed when we confront difficult passages of Scripture.
The Example of “Unclean” Food in Romans 14
One passage of Paul’s that is commonly distorted is the following: “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.” (Romans 14:2, NASB). At face value, this text says that those who are spiritually weak are vegetarians but that those who have faith believe they can eat “all things.” That is the “plain reading” of this text if you simply understand it for what it seems to be saying. Paul goes on to say: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14, NASB).
I have talked with folks who read this and immediately impose their 21st Century American evangelical Christian cultural presuppositions on this text. “See, the distinction between clean and unclean meat is no longer an issue in the New Testament. Vegetarians are spiritually weak. It’s okay to eat anything.” And, at face value, that’s what the text says and what it seems to mean.
But is that an accurate interpretation of the passage?
First, let’s observe what the immediate context of the passage tells us. In the first verse of the chapter, Paul makes clear that he is addressing “disputable opinions” with which people in the Roman church were struggling.
Secondly, observing the immediate passage leads us to “note that the word translated ‘unclean’ here is not akathartos, the usual word for unclean meats, but rather koinos, a word normally translated ‘common,’ sometimes referring to that which had died of itself and had not been ritually slaughtered and bled.” (Romans 14: Does It Abolish the Law of Clean and Unclean Meats?).
Have issues of clean and unclean animals ever been left up to personal “opinion” in the Bible? In fact, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was clearly established at or prior to the time of Noah (see Genesis 7:2) before any association of this distinction with the directions given to the Jews (see Leviticus 11). “It’s worth asking ourselves whether the apostle Paul would ever have referred to Old Testament injunctions as ‘doubtful things.’” (Ibid).
Interestingly, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was followed with a command from God to avoid the eating of animal blood (see Gen 9:4; Leviticus 17:14) This command to abstain from eating blood was explicitly reaffirmed for believers by the New Testament church (see Acts 15:29). It seems logical to conclude that the reason that the distinction between clean and unclean animals was not mentioned in Acts 15 was because this distinction was well known in the Greco-Roman world of that time, and therefore it was an understood thing that Jewish and Gentile Christians alike were to avoid the eating of unclean animals.
This all points to the assertion that the health guideline of avoiding the eating of clean and unclean animals, as well as blood, was still understood in New Testament times. Therefore, the issue of clean and unclean animals was not merely a matter of “opinion” like the issue that Paul was addressing in Romans 14. Rather, the issue of clean and unclean animals was something clearly dealt with in scripture (see Genesis 7:2; Leviticus 11) and therefore would not be a disputable issue.
Additionally, observing the larger context of scripture gives us a very good clue as to what Paul was addressing here, namely whether Christians should eat foods that had been sacrificed to idols. Those foods that were sacrificed to idols were the “unclean” foods that he was referring to here. How do we know this? Because Paul addressed this same issue with the Corinthian church in his first letter to them: “But some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.” (1 Corinthians 8:7, NASB). This perfectly explains Paul’s statement in Romans 14 where he said that “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14, NASB, emphasis mine).
After observing both the immediate and the larger context of Scripture, we interpret Paul’s statements in Romans 14:2, 14 and conclude that Paul is dealing with a cultural issue of that time, namely whether someone’s conscience considers food to be unclean based on their belief about an idol’s power to make the food unclean. He is not dealing with the inherent clean and unclean designations that God made between animals back in Genesis.
Finally, we discover a principle here that we can apply to “disputable matters” of personal opinion and conviction in the church today – matters which, like food offered to idols in New Testament times, are not clearly addressed in Scripture.
“The context here is not of foods defined as common in the Bible, but of those foods judged to be common by the conscience of the individual Christian. ‘To him who considers anything to be unclean [koinos], to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food [broma, the general word for food, not the word for meat] the one for whom Christ died’ (verses 14-15).” (Ibid).
The above example illustrates, however, that it is easy to come to misguided conclusions that are out of harmony with the rest of Scripture if we fail to observe and interpret what a passage is saying. Many people simply read the words or Romans 14 but fail to understand what Paul meant when he wrote those words.
Clearly, understanding the “culture” of the society in which the New Testament church lived is vital to understanding the issue Paul was addressing and therefore what he meant by what he said in this passage. Following Jesus’ method of Bible study will help us to understand what the prophet meant to address in their time, place and culture and how the principles in the prophet’s message applies to our situation today.
The Example of Women Not Teaching in 1 Timothy 2
“But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:12, NASB).
Most who say that they believe the “plain reading” of this passage is to be followed, without taking into consideration what Paul meant to say and why, still do not actually advocate following the “plain reading” of the entire passage. They eventually have to admit that some interpretation of the text needs to happen in order for it to harmonize with the rest of Scripture.
Basically their reasoning goes something like this: “Paul said women couldn’t teach, but what he meant was that women can’t teach as an ordained pastor.” (But of course, this passage never mentions the words “ordained” or “pastor”).
They continue: “Women don’t really have to be silent in church, they just can’t exercise ‘headship’ authority over men.” This is really an admission that we can’t take the admonition for women to “remain silent” at face value but need to try to “interpret” it in the larger context of scripture where women are allowed to speak about spiritual things and can even teach men (see Acts 2:18; 18:26 and 21:9, for example). Pretty much everyone agrees that at least the command for women to remain silent in church deserves a closer look than merely a “plain reading” understanding gives.
But then they continue. “But a part of this passage should still be understood in it’s “plain meaning” – the part that says that women cannot exercise authority over men.” However, once again we must look at the rest of scripture to see if this admonition to not “domineer” is one that only applies to women or one that Paul would apply to men as well (does the rest of scripture command either men or women to domineer each other?).
Regarding the issue of women remaining silent, Dr. Angel Manuel-Rodriguez has observed the following about the immediate context of this passage:
“There is no doubt that Paul is concerned about controversies in the church [in this passage]. In verse 8, he exhorts men to pray “without anger or disputing.” In the case of the women, the apostle is also concerned about behavior and attitudes that could be disruptive.
In order to avoid problems, he exhorts them to “learn in quietness and full submission” (verse 11), something expected of a first-century disciple (male or female). The implication is that women are described here as students, disciples, and they are being reminded of their duties as such. Paul is forbidding the speech of a student that disrupts the learning process, thus protecting the rights of others to hear and learn. The phrase “she must be silent” (verse 12) does not mean that she must remain speechless, but that controversial speeches are unacceptable, because they create unrest. This agrees perfectly with the use of the noun and the verb in the rest of the New Testament.
Why did Paul single out women? Possibly because some of them had become the target of false teachers and their instructions (2 Timothy 3:6). As a result, they were bringing controversies into the church. Paul forbids this type of controversial and divisive speech when he says that “a woman…must be silent.” (Should Women Remain Silent in Church?).
As we observe the wider context of scripture, we find that Dr. Rodriguez’s observations of the immediate context agree with the rest of scripture on the issue of women speaking in church. There is no universal command for women to “remain silent” in church or in settings with men, nor is there a universal command for them not to teach men. In fact, we see women prophesying to men (to “prophesy” is to bear a message from God to others) (see Acts 2:18; 21:9; Judges 4:4; etc.) and teaching men (Acts 18:26, etc.) elsewhere in scripture.
Clearly, a “plain reading” of this passage would lead to opposite conclusions of what the rest of scripture teaches on the issue of women remaining silent. So, we then interpret our observations of the passage and all other scripture on the topic of women remaining silent and must conclude that Paul was addressing a specific problem with the women of this particular church. What could that problem be?
The rest of the passage gives us a clue. As Dr. Rodriguez has noted above, there is indication that the women were causing some conflict at the church at Ephesus. Paul therefore admonished them, “…I do not allow a woman to…exercise authority over a man.” The word for “exercise authority” in the passage comes from a unique Greek word, authenteo, which is used only once in the New Testament. Here, the word means “to control in a domineering manner” or “to bark at.” (For those who seek to make an argument in favor of “male headship” with this verse, keep in mind that no where in Scripture are men commanded to “domineer” (authenteo) their wives).
Could it be that something was going on in the Ephesian church where the women were literally domineering, barking at, and drowning out the voices of the men in the church?
Should our understanding of the passage perhaps be informed by the cultural situation of the church at Ephesus? It appears that we must have at least some understanding of the culture and situation of the church at Ephesus if we are to correctly understand this passage and harmonize it with the rest of Scripture.
The writers of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary long ago recognized how an understanding of culture may help us to better understand the meaning of a biblical passage. Speaking of another difficult passage written by Paul (requiring women in Corinth to cover their heads), they write:
“…We may understand Paul, in 1 Cor. 11:4-16, to be reasoning with the Corinthians as to the principle of propriety and religious decorum in terms of the particular customs of the day. Though ancient sources fail to give us unequivocal testimony as to custom in headdress in Corinth or elsewhere, it seems evident that custom have considered an uncovered head as proper for a man but improper for a woman….Proceeding, then, on the reasonable assumption that Paul is here dealing with the application of a principle to the custom of the country and the times, we are able to take laterally and meaningfully his words without following on the conclude that his specific application of the principle then, requires the seam specific application today.” Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, edited by Francis D. Nichol (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1957), p. 754.
Others more qualified than me have written extensively on the meaning of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and I do not have space here to do much more than raise questions about the passage. Hopefully, it is clear that a “plain reading” understanding of the passage needs to be informed with an understanding of the time, place, situation and culture that the passage addresses. (For an excellent exegesis of this passage in 1 Timothy 2, I heartily recommend Dr. Angel Manuel Rodriguez’s excellent book, Jewelry in the Bible, which includes a chapter on the above passage. You can purchase the book by clicking here).
Does biblical culture ever play a part in helping us to understand Scripture? Yes. Should we always interpret a biblical passage according to a “plain reading” of the text? Not always. Sometimes a mere plain surface reading of Scripture will lead us to conclusions that are inaccurate and, as the Apostle Peter warned, this could lead to destructive beliefs.
We need to be careful, prayerful and intelligent in our study of Scripture. According to Peter, the writings of Paul contain some passages that are difficult to understand. We should exercise caution so that we do not twist the meaning of these passages out of their proper context of the time, place and culture in which they were written.
Stephen N. Allred is lead pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Yuba City, CA. Follow him on Twitter at @allredesq
“Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.”