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Why We Still Must Pay Attention to Culture

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head.

1 Corinthians 11:

When I was a young boy, my family and I attended church with friends who were Roman Catholic. That was when most of the service was in Latin, which certainly confused me. But the strangest thing of all, as far as I was concerned, was that the mother and daughter of the Catholic family put Kleenex on their heads and wore it during the church service. This seemed silly to me, though my parents tried to explain why they did it.

In retrospect, I realize that my friends were trying to be faithful to a tradition that began with chapter 11 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. There, he urges women to cover their heads if they are going to pray or prophesy in church. This discussion is one of the hardest in the whole New Testament for us to understand, partly because we are not familiar with the cultural setting for Paul's writing. A couple of weeks ago, as we began looking at the issue of eating meat offered to idols, I made the case for paying attention to culture. Today I'd like to strengthen that case, because we will not be able to understand Paul's discussion of head coverings unless we know something about first-century Corinthian culture.

First, we need to understand that women's hair was sexually provocative in that time. Honorable women covered their hair with scarves when they went out in public. Prostitutes, on the contrary, left their heads uncovered in order to attract business. So, if women were uncovering their heads in Christian gatherings, it would be like if women in our world wore skimpy bathing suits to church.

Of course, this raises the question of why the women in the Corinthian congregation would dress immodestly. This brings us to the second cultural matter that is essential for our understanding of Paul's argument. In some of the pagan religions of the first century, women would take off their scarves as a part of an orgiastic worship experience. Such behavior was often associated with drunkenness and sexual immorality that were part of pagan religious celebrations. So, when Corinthian women converted from paganism to Christianity, it was natural for them to assume that they should uncover their heads in the church gatherings. What was considered immodest in polite society was common in religious celebrations, or so they thought.

When we grasp the cultural dimensions of women's headscarves, we can understand why Paul says that a woman dishonors her head if she prays of prophesies without a covering on her head. Though she is free in Christ to participate in the corporate gathering, she is not to act immodestly by engaging in behavior that was common for pagans but inappropriate for believers in Jesus.

As you and I seek to live out our faith in the world, we too must pay close attention to culture. Only then will we be able to act in ways that effectively communicate the Gospel without causing unnecessary offense.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you ever witnessed or participated in behavior that created cultural confusion or tension? What happened? What were the cultural dynamics present? What behaviors come to mind that are acceptable in today's world outside of church, but would be inappropriate in a gathering of Christians? PRAYER: Dear Lord, you have chosen to make yourself known to us, not outside of culture, but within culture. You revealed yourself, first of all, in the world of the Ancient Near East. Then you became human as a first-century Jewish man living in the Roman Empire. The good news of what you did in Jesus exploded throughout the multicultural Greco-Roman world. Thus, if we want to understand you, Lord, we need to pay close attention to culture.

This is also true since we seek to live out our faith in today's world. Our words and actions will make sense in light of our culture, or, more accurately, our cultures. Give us wisdom, Lord, as we seek to make sense of the places we work and live, of our neighborhood and our church. May we find effective ways to speak and to live the Gospel, so that people around us will be drawn to you and so that your church will be edified. Amen.

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