How To Study the Bible 4 – The Importance of Cultural Context

If I invited you over for barbecue at my house, what would you expect?  If you are from the south you would probably expect pork that is pulled, shredded, or chopped with a vinegar based sauce for dipping that I prepared over a hardwood grill.  If you are from the north, you would probably think I was grilling out hamburgers and hot dogs.  Northerners and southerners have different definitions of what the word “barbecue” means based on their cultural context. 

The principal of cultural context is very important when we are trying to understand the Bible.  The Bible is a compilation of history, poetry, prophecies, and letters that were written to specific people groups thousands of years ago that spoke into their specific cultural context.  The only way to really understand what the Bible means is to take the time to study out the cultural context of each book we are reading so we can understand what the author really meant and what their audience understood them to be saying.

A great example of this, where there is a lot of confusion today is around the subject of women in ministry.  There are many denominations that forbid women being involved in a platform ministry where they can speak, teach, or prophecy.  These denominations use a passage of scripture the Apostle Paul wrote to verify their doctrinal position.  This passage is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.

At first glance, these verses seem pretty clear that women aren’t supposed to speak in the church, therefore, they shouldn’t have a platform ministry and teach or prophecy.  The problem is there are other scriptures in both the Old and New Testament that talk about women having speaking ministries.  One example is Acts 2:17:

17 ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

This passage says that both sons and daughters will prophecy.  This means that women are supposed to speak.  How does this passage and many others like it then reconcile with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?  The key is understanding cultural context.  Below are some notes from renowned scholar Kenneth Bailey on the cultural context for this passage in Corinth.

  • The Corinthian church was perhaps the most diverse in composition – including those fluent in Greek and those with just enough to get by. Some of those speaking during worship may have had strong accents of a non-native Greek speaker, making understanding difficult for some hearers. So they might ask those around them to explain what they were hearing. Women often chose to respond to answer those requests.
  • In a predominantly oral culture, as soon as the speaker pauses the audience begins discussing the subject amongst themselves. It is particularly prominent in women’s gatherings. It is their way of learning and retaining information.
  • Paul’s instruction is not that women should stop participating, speaking, and leading worship. Paul’s instruction is that they should keep quiet so that everyone is afforded the opportunity to hear what the speaker is saying.
  • Men and women may have sat separately. If this was the case, wives may have shouted across the divide to their husbands to ask them to explain.
  • Therefore, the wives are instructed to respect the others in worship and remain silent and ask questions once at home.
  • If you’d like to learn more check out Dr. Bailey’s book “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians.”

Understanding the cultural context also sheds light on 1 Corinthians 11:4-5:

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved

In these verses, Paul says women are to pray and prophesy.  When they do they are supposed to wear a head covering.  Paul didn’t prohibit speaking, he just established proper protocol. When a woman wore a head covering it was a sign of submission to her husband.  This was a sign of her heart being right, which qualified her to speak publicly, the same way a man needs to have his heart in submission to the Lord and to delegated authority before he speaks.  Lastly, on the head covering, women do not have to wear one today because we are in a different culture and even Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.  Even with the head coverings, Paul was giving a recommendation an not a absolute rule!  

I hope this article has both provoked and challenged you on the importance of learning cultural context when studying the scriptures. This is the key to gaining greater understanding and ensuring that you don’t impose 21st century American norms and values on the Bible.  When we understand cultural context, we can learn what God was originally speaking to His people, which will give us a better framework to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying when He is speaking to us today.  

If you would like to learn more about “How to Study the Bible” click here to read the rest of my articles in this series.  

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