Rev Stephen Brooks reminds believers that they must seek to interpret scriptural directives correctly, always bearing in mind the cultural context in which they were delivered, and how to apply them in today’s world.
The Bible is written in many literary styles that communicate in ways that we are not used to in the modern world. Many books – especially the Book of Revelation – use analogies, figures of speech and symbolic language that don’t immediately make sense to us today.
We have seen the Bible come under much criticism by many Black people, and understandably so; it has often been portrayed as a White man’s religion, as Black people’s presence and contributions have been erased, diminished or distorted. For instance, some theologians, in an attempt to explain the origin of Black people in the Bible, argue that Cain was born White (The Cainite view), but after he murdered his brother Abel, he was turned Black as punishment, and became the originator of all Black people. Stories vary, but it became a common European-American belief that God cursed and marked Cain by turning him Black.
One of the most respected Old Testament scholars, Martin Noth, states in his book, The Old Testament World, that the biblical writers knew nothing of any Negro people. These and other dreadfully-distorted ideas have been propagated, and some still have a degree of influence even today.
The Bible does not claim to tell us everything we need to know about all subjects. It does, however, claim to be a trustworthy guide for establishing our relationships with God and with others. It gives us truth about faith, worship, salvation, morals and ethics in a way that can be understood by all people throughout the ages (2 Timothy 3:15-16).
The ‘truth’ about a subject does not require that we accept every biblical comment as historically or scientifically precise. Most alleged discrepancies in the Bible do not alter the essential message of the story. God is not primarily concerned with whether we understand astrophysics, botany and chronology, and we make a mistake if we try to use it for purposes for which it was not designed.
Some parts of the Bible are designed for a specific situation in a specific culture, and it would be wrong for us to take them out of that context and universally impose our modern situations and ways of expressing ourselves on them.
First-century Christians were advised to pray with their hands raised (1 Timothy 2:8); virgins were advised to remain virgins and not marry (1 Corinthians 7:26), and the Bible says you must destroy your house if it has persistent mildew (Leviticus 14:43-45). Similarly, people were told to greet one another with a kiss. These behaviours were suitable in first-century Mediterranean culture, but are not necessarily for us today.
Today, because of different traditions and experiences, sincere people come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches, especially in regard to the details. For example, recently I have grown a beard and, to my surprise, I have been repeatedly asked about it by people who have been taught that it is wrong for a man to have a beard.
A study of the Bible regarding beards and the Jewish history simply proves that the normal thing for a man is to have a beard.
The Bible shows us the long history of the beard in Christianity. The most clear biblical passage to condone beards comes from Leviticus 19:27, “You shall not cut the hair on the sides of your heads; neither shall you clip off the edge of your beard.” To cut off another man’s beard, according to Samuel (2 Samuel 10:4) is an outrage.
In Acts (19:12) we learn that Paul, arguably one of the most revered figures in Christian history, owned ‘head bands’, indicating that he had long hair, which he had to tie back.
Roughly 200 years after the death of Jesus, Clement of Alexandria wrote that it is immoral ‘to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness’. Writing in AD 195, Clement also stated, “But let the chin have the hair … For an ample beard suffices for men. And if one, too, shave a part of his beard, it must not be made entirely bare, for this is a disgraceful sight.” Even today, Christian clergy in Greece, Russia, Romania and other Orthodox communities wear untrimmed beards and hair.
We must continue to work to rise above stereotypes, by learning more about biblical traditions as well as our own traditions, and challenging misunderstood truths. There is a fine line between faith and foolishness. We must be careful not to place restrictions upon people in our churches which God has not.
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REV STEPHEN BROOKS is National Development for Excell 3