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7 Guidelines for Discerning Cultural Relativity in the Epistles — An Excerpt from "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth"

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9780310517825Should we Christians insist on head coverings or long hair for women today? How about practicing the "holy kiss" during the Sunday morning meet-and-greet? Is the injunction against women teaching merely a first century issue? Is same-sex partnership?

Inevitably, readers of the Epistles must wrestle with these questions. Thankfully Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart do much of the heavy lifting in their classic book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, newly released in its updated fourth edition.

In it they suggest “the recognition of a degree of cultural relativity is a valid hermeneutical procedure and is an inevitable corollary of the occasional nature of the Epistles.” (85) 

But they also believe for one’s hermeneutic to be valid it must operate within recognizable guidelines, which we’ve provided in the excerpt below.

Here are the 7 guidelines Fee and Stuart provide for distinguishing between beliefs and practices that are culturally relative and culturally transcendent.


This is the area where most present-day difficulties — and differences — lie. It is the place where the problem of God’s eternal word having been given in historical particularity comes most sharply into focus. The problem has the following steps: (1) Epistles are occasional documents of the first century, conditioned by the language and culture of the first century, which spoke to specific situations in the first-century church. (2) Many of the specific situations in the Epistles are so completely conditioned by their first-century setting that all recognize that they have little or no personal application as a word for today, except perhaps in the most distant sense of one’s deriving some principle from them…(3) Other passages are also thoroughly conditioned by their first-century settings, but the word contained in them may be “translated” into new but comparable settings. (4) Is it not possible, therefore, that still other texts, although they appear to have comparable particulars, are also conditioned by their first-century setting and need to be translated into new settings, or simply left in the first century? ...

We suggest the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times. We do not contend for these guidelines as “once for all given to the saints,” but they do reflect our current thinking, and we would encourage further discussion and interaction.

1. One should first distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent on or peripheral to it. This is not to argue for a canon within the canon (i.e., to elevate certain parts of the New Testament as the norm for reading other parts); it is to safeguard the gospel from being turned into law through culture or religious custom on the one hand and to keep the gospel itself from changing to reflect every conceivable cultural expression on the other hand…

2. Similarly, one should be prepared to distinguish between what the New Testament itself sees as inherently moral and what is not. Those items that are inherently moral are therefore absolute and abide for every culture; those that are not inherently moral are therefore cultural expressions and may change from culture to culture.

3. One must make special note of items where the New Testament itself has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences. The following are examples of matters on which the New Testament bears uniform witness: love as the Christian’s basic ethical response, a non-retaliation personal ethic, the wrongness of strife, hatred, murder, stealing, practicing homosexuality, drunkenness, and sexual immorality of all kinds.

4. It is important to be able to distinguish within the New Testament itself between principle and specific application. It is possible for a New Testament writer to support a relative application by an absolute principle and in so doing not make the application absolute. Thus in 1 Corinthians 11:2 – 16, for example, Paul appeals (apparently) to the divine order of creation and redemption (v. 3) and establishes the principle that one should do nothing to distract from the glory of God (especially by breaking convention) when the community is at worship (vv. 7, 10). The specific application, however, seems to be relative, since Paul repeatedly appeals to “practice” or “nature” (vv. 6, 13 – 14, 16).

This leads us to suggest that one may legitimately ask at such specific applications: would this have been an issue for us had we never encountered it in the New Testament documents? In Western cultures, the failure to cover a woman’s head (especially her hair) with a full-length veil would probably create no difficulties at all. In fact, if she were literally to obey the text in most American churches, she would thereby almost certainly abuse the spirit of the text by drawing attention to herself. But with a little thinking, one can imagine some kinds of dress — both male and female — that would be so out of place as to create the same kind of disruption of worship (a man in his swimsuit, for example, would be so noticeable as to distract others). 

5. It might also be important, as much as one is able to do this with care, to determine the cultural options open to any New Testament writer. The degree to which a New Testament writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there is only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position.

6. One must keep alert to possible cultural differences between the first and twenty-first centuries that are sometimes not immediately obvious. For example, to determine the role of women in the twenty-first-century church, one should take into account that there were few educational opportunities for women in the first century, whereas such education is the expected norm in our society. This may affect our understanding of such moments as the one on women’s dress and demeanor in Paul’s first letter to Timothy (2:9 – 15). Likewise, a participatory democracy is radically different from the government of which Paul speaks in his admonition to the believers in Rome (13:1 – 7)… These differences should surely affect how one brings such a moment into twenty-first-century English speaking North America. 

7. One must finally exercise Christian charity at this point. Christians need to recognize the difficulties, open the lines of communication with one another, start by trying to define some principles, and above all else have love for and a willingness to ask forgiveness from those with whom they differ.


Know the Creeds and Councils

How to Read the Bible for All It's Worth

By Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart

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