Culture and the Authority of God
When I graduated from high school I had no doubts about what was considered popular. As a teenager I was “plugged in” to what pop culture had determined as the standard for what was acceptable dress, entertainment, communication, and behavior. As a naive adolescent I was shocked with how quickly new fads replaced my generation’s code of cool. As each year passed my favorites became old favorites.
Undeniably we live in a world where culture is always changing and it’s changing faster than ever. With more frequent changes come more opportunities for us to question whether the church should change its methods in working for the Lord. How does our ever-changing culture affect the authority of the word of God?
Culture Does Not Change the Word of God
The word of God does not change and meets the needs of every culture. The entirety of the revelation of scripture is a timeless work of art, perfectly and powerfully crafted to meet every need of the disciple of Christ in any and every era. Consider what Peter has to say about Christian living in II Peter 1. In this great chapter Christian qualities are listed and the summarized message is that everyone can live holy and acceptable lives because God has spoken to us and delivered a standard that is not up to “any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:5-8, 20). He teaches that we have been given “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Peter taught that the word of God lives and abides forever in his first letter (1 Peter 1:23). God’s standard, the faith, was once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3) and Jesus said that His words would never pass away (Matthew 24:35).
Because such a permanent and perfect standard has been left, Christians must remain steadfast upon its principles. The church is described as the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Pillars are firm, unmoving, and steadfast. Neither congregations, nor individual Christians, should be swayed by changing doctrines because they can remain firm in the flawless standard of the word of God (Ephesians 4:14). We are to be “rooted and built up” in Christ, meaning in His death, His doctrine, His faith, His resurrection, and His conduct (Colossians 2:7).
Culture Does Matter
Culture does impact the way a Christian applies God’s word. A good example of this is found in the first letter to the Corinthians where Paul instructed the women to have their heads covered (1 Corinthians 11:6). In examining the text we should wonder why Paul would say it was a shame for a woman to have her head uncovered. Study of the historical context will reveal that Paul was addressing an issue that existed because of the pagan culture in Corinth. The temple prostitutes of the goddess Aphrodite would present themselves without veils openly in the city. Paul was not teaching that it is inherently sinful to go without a veil, but that it was sinful for the Corinthian women because the principles of God’s will dictated it in their current situation.
Today the way we dress can still symbolically indicate the way we behave or things we believe. Recently social causes have been promoted simply by wearing clothes with slogans such as “Black Lives Matter” or “#bullyfree” written on them. Whenever you see someone with clothing such as that, you know something about where they stand on an issue. Similarly when someone wears clothing with offensive language or clothing that is immodest you can draw some reasonable conclusions about their behavior regarding their speech or modesty.
The principle of 1 Corinthians 11:6 still applies today. Any clothing that would associate Christians with sinful activity would itself be sinful. The specifics of this binding principle can change. Women in America who dress without a veil in our day are not seen as lascivious in any way. If such were the case, the specifics of 1 Corinthians 11:6 would still be binding. However, do not make the mistake of believing the culture can loose what the word of God has bound. Those who believe the Bible’s stance on homosexuality are routinely called “old-fashioned” today. The modern culture’s acceptance of homosexuality does not change the sinful nature of that act in God’s eyes as revealed in His word. The Bible clearly delineates sinful behavior from righteous behavior, and the honest discerner can rightly divide the truth on these issues (2 Timothy 2:15).
Even though the word of God never changes we must change the way we make application because of changes in the culture. I should never change in my fervent obedience of the command to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15). However instead of boats, donkeys, and sandals, I should change to use more expedient methods of transportation than my first century brethren used. I can change the application of the command that is revealed in the Bible, never the command itself. I should be excited about the opportunities that modern technology provides in sharing God’s word in a way that looks better, arrives faster, and is more accessible. The truth doesn’t change but the presentation can.
Traditions are not to be bound as God’s law (Mark 7:7). However, traditions are not inherently evil and are often good, time-tested ways of applying the commands of God’s law. As long as the old standby traditions remain effective I should use them to God’s glory, but if I stubbornly stick to tradition for traditions’ sake I’ll lose my ability to teach God’s word in a relevant way.
Culture changes might dictate that we change traditions to better follow the commands of scripture. You cannot improve on the word of God but you can certainly improve on man’s traditions. If there is a scriptural, expedient improvement to be made to a tradition then God is glorified and the work of the kingdom is helped. How can the child of God know which changes are acceptable and which lead to apostasy?
To Change or Not to Change?
Change should never be made for change’s sake. Progressives in the church are in love with change and so many changes are made without any problems with the old ways of doing things. These changes are not productive and do not make a good use of the time and efforts of Christians (Ephesians 5:16; 1 Peter 4:10).
Change should never be made to the law of God. When God says there is one body of Christ,that is a fundamental truth that will not change even if the culture wants it(Ephesians 4:4). Those who change the doctrine of Christ should be marked as false teachers (2 John 9-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14).
Changes are sometimes impossible to avoid if we are to remain faithful. When Paul wrote “Flee fornication,” he set in stone a command of God that is never to be changed (1 Corinthians 6:18). However we must make changes to the application of that command if we are to follow it. In Paul’s day there were no pornographic films or magazines. We must add the avoidance of those things and others to the list of applications necessary to meet this apostolic command. If we fail to change the application, we will be disobedient to many commands.
Changes can be authorized and helpful. As mentioned, changes in our culture can provide better ways to follow the commands of God. Instead of the sandals traditionally worn by our first century brethren I can decide to break away from that tradition and use the benefits that our modern advancements in footwear have to offer. I should use my car or an airplane for my travel in taking the gospel to the world. I should use the internet and audio/video recordings to promote the gospel of Christ. Christians should not oppose the use of technology to change how the unchanging gospel is shared. Preachers are commanded to preach the word and the scriptures offer many qualities and attributes a preacher is to exhibit. A sermon should contain illustrations and references that are relevant to the hearers while remaining true to all that God commands of His preachers. Even sermon style changes with the culture.
“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Colossians 1:9).