How do we pick and choose?
By brother Rob Hyndman
It should be obvious to any Bible reader that some commands we take at face value and some we appear to ignore (or dismiss as no longer relevant or applicable).
For example, the Bible tells us to greet each other with a holy kiss on no fewer than five occasions (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:24). Almost nobody in Australia obeys these commands. (Remember, this is speaking of men kissing men, not men kissing women.)
We are told to relieve the suffering of the poor by feeding them beer so they can forget their misery (Proverbs 31:6-7). I am yet to hear of a beer ministry for the poor.
Women are told not to wear braided hair, gold jewellery, pearls or expensive clothing (1 Timothy 2:9), yet I see women in church every week disobeying this command. Three verses later, women are told to not to “teach or exercise authority”. On what grounds do we take these commands on teaching and authority to be binding today, but not the commands on braided hair and gold jewellery?
Some people will cite Leviticus 19:28 as an injunction against tattoos, ignoring the previous verse which says “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lev 19:27).
A pick-and-choose approach to Bible verses is prevalent in many churches. The problem is that it ignores context. I don’t just mean the context of the surrounding verses — I mean all the various contexts. We need to consider the textual, literary, historical, geographical, social and cultural contexts when we read scripture. In short, we need to first understand how the passage was first understood. What did it mean to those to whom it was first written? How would they have heard it and applied it? We cannot begin to consider how to interpret and apply scripture in our lives until we first consider how it was originally interpreted and applied.
Let’s look at the four examples above and see what context tells us.
1. Greet each other with a holy kiss
It was the custom throughout the Mediterranean region (and still is) for men to greet each other with a kiss. Jesus refers to it in Luke 7:45. It was a sign of friendship and peace. So when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Luke 22:47) he was being treacherous in using a sign of friendship to betray a friendship.
The first hearers of the New Testament letters would have understood the social and cultural context of the instruction to greet one another with a holy kiss. It meant that they should welcome one another in friendship and peace, using the common custom of the day to demonstrate their love for one another. If I was to kiss a male member of my church, it would not be interpreted in that manner because it is not our custom. Instead, we shake hands. When I lived in America, we greeted one another with hugs. The intent of the passage is to greet each other warmly, and the mechanism of the greeting is not important.
2. Give beer to the poor
It isn’t for kings, Lemuel,
it isn’t for kings to drink wine,
for rulers to crave strong drink.
5 Otherwise, they will drink and forget the law,
and violate the rights of the needy.
6 Give strong drink to those who are perishing
and wine to those whose hearts are bitter.
7 Let them drink and forget their poverty
and no longer remember their toil.
The literary context is important here, and would have been obvious to the first hearers. This is in the book of Proverbs and proverbs are not instructions. “Look before you leap” is not an instruction to long-jumpers, but a pithy saying that summarizes the wisdom of planning and caution. Similarly, the comments on alcohol in Proverbs 31 should not be read as instructions, but a commentary on the role and use of alcohol.
In other words, be careful of alcohol when you need to making important decisions, but alcohol can be useful in relieving suffering and distress.
3. Braided hair, gold jewellery
1 Timothy 2:9-12
I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
This is in a letter from Paul to Timothy who lived in Ephesus in the first century AD. It wasn’t written to us, although it has been preserved for us. So we need to first consider what it meant to Timothy and the Ephesians.
Apparently the women in Ephesus were trying to turn heads by what they wore. There are several similar Jewish, Greek and Roman writings from the same period, condemning wealthy women who showed off their expensive clothing as a public demonstration. Hair braided with gold seems to have been particularly attractive to some men of the period.
So the social and cultural context is important here — the emphasis is on women behaving and dressing appropriately within their society, without bringing the Christian gospel into disrepute. Gaudy clothing would have been inappropriate for a woman of God. It would also be considered inappropriate in that society for a woman to teach or have authority over a man.
The context leads us to the idea that we should behave and dress in ways that bring credit to Christianity, rather than giving the gospel a bad name. Ironically, some behaviour that would bring credit to Christianity in first century Ephesus brings disrepute to Christianity in 21st century Australia.
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
28 Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.
How would this have been understood by the Israelites in the wilderness? Shaving the sides of your head, wearing a goatee beard, ritual cutting and tattoos were all marks of pagan ritual and associated with pagan idolatry. The cultural context here makes it clear that the Israelites were not to adopt customs associated with pagan worship, even if those customs were not themselves wrong.
So in applying the verses today, we should not adopt customs associated with pagan worship. That means, for example, that men in India should avoid dressing in orange and wearing long hair, or they could be mistaken for Hindu swamis. But in today’s Australian society, goatee beards and tattoos would not be misinterpreted as pagan customs.
There is more to be said about all of these examples. All I want to say here is that contexts matter. We are not at liberty to pick and choose what we obey and what we don’t. We need to carefully consider what the words meant to the original hearers, and seek the underlying principles that can be applied today. In some of these four examples, we have correctly determined the context and applied the verses appropriately (e.g., the holy kiss). In some other examples, I think we have ignored the context and have misapplied scripture.
Before citing any verses as instructions to be obeyed, let us first understand how they were first understood. Only then can we confidently interpret and apply scripture today.