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Interpreting the commands of Scripture

In Sunday’s newsletter, I compiled a list of the commands relating to how we treat “one another” in the body of Christ. When it released, I promptly received an email asking how I interpreted the verses that command us to greet one another with a holy kiss. I’m going to do a little digging before I respond, though I have a tentative answer. 

In a text thread with some friends, I discussed this same idea. How do we interpret Scripture, knowing that we claim to take the Bible literally, and yet only take a few verses literally. How do we decide what is ours to do and where we extract the principle and apply that to our lives instead? What do we do with commands about owning slaves, polygamy, women wearing head coverings, etc?

In a short summary, I had two criteria for how I worked through interpreting Scripture. There are probably other ways of doing this that are excellent. But, so far, these two have met my needs and been helpful in developing consistent methods of handling Scripture. 

1. The scope and trajectory of Scripture. A person would have a hard time looking at God’s intent for creation before the fall and the snippets that we have about life after Christ’s second return and deciding that some people were just going to be enslaved or that women were designed to be subordinate to men, or that we were meant to live outside of a relationship with God.  When we run into these ideas or ideas like them, we have to analyze how God deals with what is true about the world versus what is God’s ideal for the world.

Contradictory information often tips us off to this struggle. There is contradictory information about slavery in the Bible. God is the God who liberates the Israelites from slavery and yet also regulates the ownership of slaves in the law. God gives commands in the New Testament about how enslaved people (and slaveowners) are supposed to behave, but in an individual case Paul encouraged Philemon to greet Onesimus as a brother. Women are created and commissioned as image bearer alongside men, though they often fade from the story. Women serve in ways that are unexpected in patriarchal societies but in small numbers. 

A truth that should be a balm to us is that God “accommodates” to us in some ways.1 God works in the cultures where we find ourselves, moving us slowly back to His design. He does not wait, withholding Himself until we meet His standards. Though in ways this is frustrating, it is also freeing because any community of people will never match God’s design for human flourishing. We know Him in our own brokenness because that is where we live for now. God is willing to do slow work. A perusal of the story of the Bible shows us this.

When we evaluate slavery and the personhood of women in Scripture, we have to remember that the early church had no power to use votes and overturn slavery. They could not just announce that women should be treated with the same dignity that men were. In fact, the power of the Roman Empire was built on a certain hierarchy of people and religious cults of any type were evaluated, and either left alone or persecuted, by how they followed that hierarchy. So Paul couldn’t demand believers to release their slaves but he could entreat slaveowners to change the way they treated the enslaved. He reminded them that they served the same Master (Ephesians 6:9). He had to follow the idea of the household codes but he could also subvert it, refusing to command men to lead or rule and instead calling them to love, the same love that was demanded of the whole church (Compare Ephesians 5:25 with Ephesians 5:1).2

God also used His law to restrain sin. When the Pharisees came asking Jesus about divorce laws, Jesus said that the laws were only allowed because of the hardness of hearts. It was not God’s design and He called the people back to God’s design (Mark 10: 2-12). Many of the Old Testament laws protected the enslaved people and women, even though the circumstances still seem dire to us.3

2. The influence of culture. This is, of course, not separate from the previous idea. Culture was the reason for the power structure of the Roman Empire or the prevalence of slavery in Ancient Near East societies. God’s kingdom is lived out in specific contexts. We exist in cultures that influence how we live and how we read the Scriptures and most of the time, we are oblivious to those influences.4  My culture might be different from yours, but both of ours are surely different from the world of the early church or the ancient Israelites.  

Many of the commands and directions we see in Scripture are how to live as a member of God’s people in a specific culture. There is much debate over the head coverings of 1 Corinthians 11, for example, but there is some consensus to the idea that only certain women with social status were allowed to wear head coverings. Other women were forbidden to. But, in church, all women were afforded the same status and dignity, even if society denied it to some because of their class. I, personally, do not believe that means that women now need to wear head coverings in church, though I graciously acknowledge that people disagree with that. I do think that same principle could be applied in churches though we rarely do it. Regardless of your class or station in society, people in the church community are treated with the same status and dignity as image-bearers of God. 

I decided to skip ahead and address the “holy kiss” greeting and found Michael Bird’s commentary on Romans where he shares the story of being kissed on both cheeks in greeting by a women from Argentina. This is normal behavior in some cultures. He suggests that we contextualize it for ourselves with embraces or handshakes. We can take the principle and apply it to our own gatherings. Use greetings that convey enthusiasm and even intimacy, but in a holy way. Maybe you haven’t experienced this, but I have received hugs that felt less holy and more uncomfortable and that should be off-limits. Our interactions with each other should be holy, not degrading or advantageous to ourselves. 

Context affects how we read the Bible. We should acknowledge that (because it does affect it even if we don’t acknowledge it) and apply principles to interpret and contextualize Scripture well. 

1 Terran Williams used this term “accommodates” in How God Sees Women.
2 Men were not expected to love their wives in that culture. Women were expected to submit. Paul gave the women no new expectation, just reframed the reason. And told everyone else that it was expected of them too (Ephesians 5:21-22).
3 Why slavery was not disallowed in ancient Israel is too big of a conversation for here.
4 This is why it is beneficial to read people from different social locations and cultures.

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