Interpret Scripture Carefully 2: Remember the Historical Context

Some Christians believe that it is undermining Scripture to say some passages are culturally conditioned (i.e. related only to a particular historical situation and not of general relevance). 

However, in practice, virtually all Christians actually do regard certain NT passages as culturally conditioned.

Many Christian women do not wear a head covering. Yet Paul says it is improper for a woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered (1 Cor 11:5-13). She ought also to have long hair (v. 15). He adds that it is disgraceful for a man to have long hair (yet many Christian men do). Paul stresses the importance of this teaching: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice– nor do the churches of God.” (v. 16)

Not many churches act on “delivering an erring brother to Satan.” Yet Paul is quite firm about it (1 Cor 5:1-5).

Many Christians do not take Paul’s advice that it is good not to marry as generally applicable and timeless teaching. (1 Cor 7:1 cf. verses 25-38).

Christians today would not agree with Paul’s teaching that slaves should remain in slavery if they could not gain their freedom.”  (1 Cor 7:20-24)

It is interesting that many of the main opponents of women’s ordination would regard the charismatic gifts (especially Tongues) as for the apostolic age only (1 Cor 12)!

Many Christians would not regard the pattern Paul teaches of charismatic worship (with spontaneous contributions from the congregation) as generally applicable today (1 Cor 14).

Many Christian men would not obey Paul’s teaching that they should greet one another with a holy kiss – presumably on both cheeks (1 Thess 5:26 cf. 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12)

Many Christian women do not follow the teaching that they should not have braided hair or wear gold, pearls or expensive clothes (2 Tim 2:9). (It is even more interesting that many of those who take verses 11-12 as having timeless relevance in excluding women from preaching or ordination do not take verse 9 as a literal or of timeless relevance in all cultures!).

If all these passages are taken as literally relevant to our culture today then the mark of a truly biblical church would include:

  • The members being unmarried
  • The men greeting one another with a holy kiss
  • The men are all short-haired
  • The women wearing hats and clothes but no ornaments such as pearls, necklaces, ear rings, brooches
  • Those members who are persistently sinful being corporately delivered to Satan
  • The members supporting compassionate slavery
  • The worship being only spontaneously charismatic

Such churches and their supporters would be consistent in forbidding women to teach and requiring them to be silent in church (whilst, somehow, being allowed to pray and prophesy publicly). Others would not!


This article is just a warning about how not to treat Scripture. See the next study Standing Firm in the Faith Section B for a more constructive article. 

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction