The Bible and Cultural Challenges – Part 2

posted in: Bible, Tony Thompson 0

In my previous blog I challenged the church culture that elevates marriage over singleness in a way that the bible doesn’t. In this blog I want to challenge a Western perspective on money which is at odds with a non-Western, Biblical viewpoint.

Outside the West wealth is often viewed as a limited resource. There is only so much money to be had, so if one person has a lot of it, then everyone else has less to divide among themselves. If you make your slice of pie larger, then my slice is now smaller. In those cultures, folks are more likely to consider the accumulation of wealth to be immoral, since you can only become wealthy if other people become poor. This is contrasted to the Western view that there is unlimited wealth and so everyone can accumulate as much as they want without impacting anyone else.


Wealth as a limited resource underpins the way biblical authors viewed the world, for example in Psalm 52: 7 where it describes the wicked man who “trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!” In our Western mind, this man demonstrated his wickedness in two ways: he trusted in wealth and he destroyed others. Yet the psalmist considers these to be one action. This is a type of Hebrew poetry scholars call synonymous parallelism, in which the two clauses say the same idea with different wording. In other words, hoarding and trusting in wealth was destroying others. 


This is a powerful challenge to our perspective on individuals and nations accumulating wealth.


Another challenge to mine and the Western churches perspective is regarding the encouragements we find in the bible to “dress modestly”.


Westerners routinely misread instructions about modesty in the Bible by assuming sexual modesty is of greater concern than economic modesty. Where sex and money collide, we see which is more important to us, sex. We therefore understand Paul’s exhortation that women should dress modestly to mean only that their clothes should not be sexually revealing. If we recognize that his concern might instead be economic, then the exhortation is timely for most Western churches, in which everyone keeps their shirts on but in which some dress in ways that say, “We have more money than you.” This is the way to understand 1 Corinthians 11 where what we wear in worship and how we celebrate the Lord’s supper as addressed. In both cases the issue is that rich people were flaunting their wealth in the context of worship.


The costly challenge to cultural ways of thinking is brought out when Peter is told to eat “unclean” animals in Acts 10.

Peter’s reaction to the vision is probably not simply righteous indignation; maybe it is nausea. No doubt Peter would have been disgusted by the very idea of eating the animals presented in the sheet. Restrictions against eating pork and shellfish are legalities to us. But for first- century Jews, they were deeply entrenched dietary (cultural) ways of life. Peter would have felt as we would if we were confronted with a sheet full of puppies and bats and cockroaches and “Kill and eat,” says the Lord. Like Peter, we would almost certainly reply, “Surely not, Lord!” 


It is reasonable to assume that the faithful Jews who were Jesus’ first followers felt much the same way to Peter. That means deciding whether Gentile converts to Christianity should follow Jewish dietary laws wasn’t simply a theological debate. How were Jewish Christians to share a table of fellowship with people whose breaths stank of pig fat? 


This is all very challenging to us, to allow the Bible to properly challenge us and to be willing break some cultural practices that are barriers to the gospel.


Written by Tony Thompson

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