One of the primary motives with many ‘Christian’ groups in making changes to worship derives from a desire to modernize the worship and plan of redemption to accommodate current world views. Many suggest that baptism has its roots in Jewish ceremonial washings of purification, and therefore, a cultural command of the time. Others proclaim that the silencing of women in the church was based on first-century cultural roles of women, and therefore, no longer binding today. Some aim for women worship-leaders, lady preachers, and female elders/bishops. In campaigning to modernize God’s worship and doctrine, how do these ‘progressive Christians’ deal with a Bible that so obviously contradicts the changes they want to make?
In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in America adopted a new confession of faith. Concerning the nature of the Bible, the following statement was made, “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect the views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current.” The statement reflected what is known as the “historical-critical” approach to biblical interpretation, and it is based upon an “existential” attitude toward the scriptures. The United Presbyterian Church continued their statement in voicing that “as God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.” This view contended that what was true in the first-century church may not necessarily be true for today’s church.
While this church reflects one perspective, many churches implement similar stances and theologies to embrace the theme of the 20th century, modernization. Churches fear they must create a church and doctrine amenable to all lifestyles if they are to survive in a rapidly changing and multicultural world. If denominations foresee a problem with a doctrine or practice, they simply dismiss the command in scripture as a cultural fad. For Christians who fight for the unchanging and unadulterated message of God (Heb. 13:8; Mal. 3:6), how can they make an argument and defend the difference between a cultural matter of expediency and a universal command for all time?
First, no one has the right to assume that a divinely given instruction or practice is culturally conditioned unless there are contextual considerations which clearly indicate that such is the case. Examples in the Christian dispensation are clearly cultural when the examples are not consistent from place to place or from time to time. When Christ sends His disciples to preach the coming of the kingdom, Christ forbids them to teach to the Gentiles and Samaritans (Matt. 10:1ff) This is a time limited command and clearly conditional upon the situation at hand because later Christ commands His disciples to teach all nations and every creature (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15). When Paul comes to Lystra, he has Timothy, a young evangelist, circumcised (Acts 16:3). This is a culturally conditioned decision because later Paul refuses to yield to any dictates of circumcision from the Judaizers who were trying to validate salvation under the Law of Moses (Gal. 2:3-5). In some situations, Paul blatantly spells out the command is a custom (1 Cor. 11:16).
Second, commands that are obviously consistently obeyed and carried out and that are based on the unchanging nature and morality of God within the one doctrine of the Christian dispensation are not cultural variances. The Lord presents one universal doctrine for the Christian dispensation that is not to be changed (Eph. 4:4-6; John 14:6; Rev. 22:18-19). If the gospel plan of salvation is cultural, then there would be many forms of the plan of salvation taught in different places throughout the ministry. However, there is only one universal command given to the salvation of souls. The Lord did not teach five ways to receive the remission of sins. The command of baptism is not culturally derived because it is the doctrine of reconciliation, and God gives no other form for the remission of sins. Christ commands that baptism is to be taught and practiced “unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). Christ is the Word that He taught (John 1:14). The unified commands that Christ teaches will be with humanity to the end of the world.
Finally, when one removes practices or teachings of salvation and worship from the Bible because it is considered cultural, then where does the new or modern directive derive? Obviously, it comes from man and not from God, and therefore it has no authority, which is the biggest problem with making direct commands of God cultural! If one goes through the Bible picking and choosing without an objective standard of interpretation, any command of God could be called cultural, and therefore, irrelevant because all the commands in the Law of Christ were given within one era and within the Judeo-Greco culture. The new confession of faith previously mentioned states, “the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.” How does one know if these new speakings derive from God if they cannot be found in the Bible? It cannot be through majority consensus or popularity (Matt. 22:14), it cannot be through a church council (Matt. 28:18; Col. 3:17), and it cannot be through modern miracles (1 Cor. 13:8-10). There is no divine authority behind the modern changes to worship and doctrine.
God did make cultural commands that were specific for the time and not relevant now, but finding these commands requires a consistent and objective standard of interpretation, which many religious groups refuse to embrace. The aforementioned standard of interpretation for determining cultural commands is not hard to understand and can easily be consistently used, but Bible readers and believers must put aside their biases and accept reason and reliability to find the true difference culture and command.