Should we listen to the culture or to the Holy Spirit?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: (From Africa) Should we interpret the Bible based on culture or based on the Holy Spirit's interpretation of the Bible? The Bible says men should not wear clothing that belongs to women (and vice versa). Now, if we were to interpret based on culture, in some parts of Africa, men are not supposed to be wearing a suit and trousers! According to the Bible then, what clothing belongs to man and woman?  

Answer: Greetings friend. It will be my pleasure to respond to your question today… and how wonderful to hear from Africa! I live in the USA — but we both live in amazing times. We can share God’s truth across the globe nearly instantly. That being said, I need to qualify quite a bit before I answer your question; it contains a false dichotomy. But of course, I will explain what I mean by that.

It is true that we must continually weigh the pressures of culture against God’s word (which the Holy Spirit illuminates), but there are mitigating factors in the world itself — and in the world of exegesis — that remove this question from the “either/or” category. Therefore, I cannot answer your question by choosing only one of your offered answers — “the culture OR the Holy Spirit.”

The true answer is more complicated, and it lies in the methodology of interpreting the Bible (your method of exegesis), but it is further complicated by the fact that the Christian culture — as opposed to the Bible itself — can be seen as insisting upon certain specific behaviors which the Bible does not mandate.

For example, the USA has many fundamentalist pastors who act as if their dress codes came down from Mount Sinai — and some insist that women always wear dresses (and never wear slacks or trousers). But the Bible does not teach this. This is merely a cultural preference that is propped-up by Bible-flavored reasoning — and that’s what you are dealing with now: personal preferences taking the form of scriptural emergencies. Never allow this type of thing to “suck you in.” We need to let the Bible speak first — and in the context of its original culture. Only then may we understand what it is saying to our culture… and only then may we bring it forward as God’s word. Let us look at an example.

“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” (Deuteronomy 22:5, NIV).

To assess what this passage has to do with your question, you must ask, does this verse (and/or its context) specify the particular clothes that one must wear? No, it does not. Neither the verse nor the context speaks of specific garments — let alone speculate on the garments that might be worn in future millennia! What does it teach then? It teaches that the way we dress should never cause confusion in identifying one’s gender. Furthermore, this verse is located in the context of other verses that teach separation as an Old Testament mandate (which will become New Testament teaching). One could legitimately expand, then, and teach: maintaining an overt separation in the appearance of men and women points to God’s desire for his people to separate themselves from the world (2 Corinthians 6:17).

As you can see, we must take that idea forward… not the details — and it is the idea that travels across time and across the standards of dress in all cultures. As such, it does not matter that in different parts of Africa that men do not wear trousers, because the burden for the Christian is to perform God’s ideals in a culturally effective way… and in whatever culture we find ourselves. God never intended that the ancient garments be copied and worn by believers thousands of years later. If this were true, we would all be wearing robe-like garments and not culturally appropriate attire. Indeed, only the priests wore trousers at that place and time! But even the flintiest fundamentalist pastor wears trousers today — and he does this in spite of the fact that the Bible neither models, recommends nor condemns them for non-priestly attire.

This is why I could not accept the premise that we were pitting the Holy Spirit against the culture. Every Christian believer lives within a culture — and it is within that culture that we must serve. We do this by understanding God’s word in its original context and then interpreting his precepts as faithfully as we can for our contemporaries. This requires being faithful to the original word of God… but being faithful to his word does not require being brittle with its details. Details in the Bible are like physical archaeological artifacts: they have value within themselves — but as artifacts. Their purpose is to teach. It is wonderful to let God’s truth consume you… but never allow yourself to be consumed by the details of his true accounts. They point somewhere else — that’s their job.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul was very concerned that men and women maintain their gender identities. Paul wanted men and women to play their traditional roles in society because male headship symbolizes the headship of Christ over his Church — which is the central relationship in our age. Therefore, until Christ comes back for us, we are to behave in certain ways to best communicate this truth: We must remember his sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, and we must continue in our separate male and female societal roles until his return. Please note, however, that Paul was not saying that women were intrinsically inferior. He knew better than that.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV, emphasis mine)

But Paul was saying that certain symbols were not yet fulfilled — and as such, the Christian obligation was to keep pointing to the Christ by maintaining clear gender roles — and particularly within society and within the Church. This social structure is God’s “native tongue;” the Bible makes no sense without it, and as such, it is the bedrock of all communication.

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22–24, NIV)

“And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” (Colossians 1:18, NIV)

It is interesting to note that the USA’s Supreme Court has just ruled against God in this matter. Same-sex couples may now marry in the USA. This is the law-of-the-land… one which even Christian must obey. But it is not of God. The social tide in the USA has ebbed… and it has lowered all our boats. Is this a big deal since freedom has been preserved? Certainly. The symbolism of Christ and his Church will be lost when God’s native tongue fades from the social memory — and that is what the issue of maintaining gender identity in dress is really all about. If Satan can confuse the vehicle (the symbolic vehicle — the male/female identity), then he can confound the tenor (the symbolic tenor — Christ’s headship over the Church) — and that is Satan’s job: he’s a “big picture” kind of deceiver.

“The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (Revelation 12:9, NIV, emphasis mine).

So, I commend your alertness… because the world does indeed have this problem. But the problem does not involve any particular culture’s dress as compared to another’s. The problem is one of society’s abandoning traditional gender roles within the family. When people are anything but sure as to what a “husband” might be, the biblical figures lose their punch. Where once these figures were efficient modes of speech, they will soon be considered “old and odd” — of interest to scholars… but of no practical use.

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