Our interpreter greeted us in Nigeria by holding my hand. I felt a little uneasy about that. I attempted to pull back my hand, but he wouldn’t let it go. He kept holding it as if he hadn’t a care in the world. A few more paces, and I could take it no more. I pulled my hand from his and said, “Where I come from, we don’t do that.” He got a good laugh at my expense before explaining: In Nigeria, it is normal for (even male) friends to hold hands. What I thought was an offensive gesture was, in reality, a gesture of goodwill. This was my introduction to Nigeria . . . and to “cultural norms.”
Cultural Norm Principles
Cultural norms can change over time. They also can be different in different places. For example, contracts in OT Bethlehem were executed by removing your sandal and giving it to the other party (Ruth 4:7). Such a cultural norm was unique to a specific time and place. We must be aware of that as we seek a biblical author’s intent. Here are some guidelines to consider:
- Identify those items unique to the specific time, culture, and situation of the biblical author. For instance, a certain cultural development in Rome was important to the situation the congregations faced in the 1st century. While Jews were a minority in the city of Rome, they likely were a majority in the first congregations (Rome seems to have had several house congregations; see Rom. 16). However, in AD 49, Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome. The congregations quickly became majority Gentile. Emperor Claudius died three years later, and Jews began trickling back into Rome. Whereas before, the congregations were majority Jewish, now the Jew/Gentile relationship was much more complex. There seems to be a real tension there (Paul addresses each group specifically at times; see Rom. 11:13). If you know that cultural setting, as well as the Jewish cultural norms regarding diet and calendar days, then it will affect how you understand certain passages in Romans. Romans, more than any other letter, explains precisely how sinners are justified by faith—but for a purpose: To bring both ethnicities to a place of harmony, united as a single spiritual race in Christ Jesus. Only the gospel can do that through changing hearts by faith. Paul explains this masterfully in Romans, but you have to know that specific time, culture, and situation to understand the letter’s brilliance.
- Determine what is “descriptive” from what is “prescriptive.” The first congregations were communal: There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed as any had need (Acts 4:34-35). This is descriptive–not prescriptive–because other NT churches such as Corinth (2 Cor. 9:7), Ephesus (Eph. 4:28), and Thessalonica (2 Thess. 3:10) were not communal. Other teachings, such as limiting the office of pastor to males, clearly, are prescriptive (1 Tim. 3:1-7).
- Distinguish a cultural norm from a biblical principle. Greeting someone with a “holy kiss” in the 1st century was a cultural norm (1 Cor. 16:20). In the USA today, shaking hands (not holding hands!) is the norm.
- Recognize when God offers a reason for a cultural norm to extend to all believers of all ages. 1 Corinthians 11:3 declares, “[T]he head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Because this principle is rooted in the nature of the Godhead, then the husband is to be head of the wife in all Christian marriages across all cultures.
Cultural Norm Example
Let’s explore 1 Corinthians 11:4-6 briefly. Paul speaks of the strange custom of women wearing head-coverings when they pray. When I researched the cultural norms in Corinth, I discovered the following:
- Head coverings were worn by women in public as a sign of submission, sexual purity, and devotion to their husband (or, if not married, to their father). They functioned much like a wedding ring today.
- A woman who uncovered her head was considered promiscuous or risqué.
- A woman whose hair had been shaved was a public shaming sign that she had committed adultery. It functioned much like the “Scarlett A” of times past.
When we consider these cultural norms, the passage makes more sense.
- 1 Corinthians 11:4: A local custom appears to have been for men to cover their heads (similar to Jews who wear a skull-cap when praying/worshiping). Paul informs them not to do so. Specific to Corinth’s culture, it would send the wrong message: To cover your head would be seen as a sign of upsetting God’s created, established order. Again, God had established that order and grounded it in the nature of the Godhead (see 1 Cor. 11:3, cited above).
- 1 Corinthians 11:5: Again, in Corinth’s culture this covering was a sign they were rebelling against God’s created, established order.
- 1 Corinthians 11:6: If a woman is so rebellious as to flaunt herself as promiscuous and risqué, then she may as well shave her head like the adulterer because that is how she is acting anyway.
John MacArthur says in his study Bible, “The apostle is not laying down an absolute law for women to wear veils or coverings in all churches for all time, but is declaring that the symbols of the divinely-established male and female roles are to be genuinely honored in every culture.”
Cultural Norm’s Relevance
My African interpreter in Senegal, a powerful speaker named Stephen, admitted he had never heard of this principle of cultural norms. He returned the next morning and exclaimed, “The principle of cultural norms saved my congregation!” His congregation was on the verge of splitting over the issue of head coverings. He called his congregation together that very night and explained the principle of cultural norms to them. It cleared up the matter entirely, and all went home happy and unified. They all left with the understanding that the timeless principle God conveyed is an internal heart obedience; namely, godly submission of wives to their husbands. On that, they all agreed.
All it took was understanding the cultural norms Paul was addressing in 1st century Corinth to bring a 21st century congregation in Senegal into perfect harmony.