Ethics and cultural context

Rather than taking a "shoot from the hip," sloganeering approach toward Christian ethics, we need a biblically-faithful approach that carefully considers which of the Bible's commands (ethical imperatives) are culturally limited (applicable only within certain cultural contexts) and which are trans-cultural (applicable universally). At times, such considerations are not difficult. For example, it is fairly obvious that some of the Old Testament's purity laws are applicable only within the context of Israel's Temple worship system. However, there are instances when such considerations are not so obvious.


Consider the issue of divorce. When asked about it, Jesus noted that the Law of Moses permitted divorce, but only as a concession to human weakness (Mat 19:1-9). God's ultimate will for marriage is that it be permanent "one flesh" union broken only by death. That being so, we are left asking, should remarriage following divorce be allowed in the church in our day? Some Christians say "yes," while others say "no." Either way, such determinations necessarily wrestle with rather complex ethical issues within varying cultural contexts.


Consider the issue of slavery. God permitted Israel to keep slaves, though he laid down in the Law of Moses certain rules for their care (e.g. Ex 12:44 and Lev 22:11). The New Testament seems to carry forward this legislation, applying it in the context of the slavery present in the Roman Empire of the first century. This has puzzled many people, wondering why Paul, for example, did not condemn slavery in his day. It is often noted, however, that Paul enjoins an approach to slavery that is more humane than what was required in the Law of Moses and by Roman legislation (see, for example, Paul's letter to Philemon and his instruction in Eph 6:5-9).

A redemptive-movement framework

The Bible's approach toward divorce and slavery are evaluated in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, exploring the hermeneuetics of cultural analysis by William J. Webb. Webb addresses the challenges of "applying the ancient text in our modern context" (p13). To help us do so, he proposes an interpretive approach (hermeneutic) that accounts for the cultural relativity of certain Biblical commands. He refers to his approach as a redemptive-movement framework.

This framework accounts for the "movement," or forward progress that is evident in the way the Bible views certain ethical issues. We noted above how God's instruction about divorce changed from Moses to Jesus. Did God change his mind about divorce? No, his ethical instruction on the topic was culturally conditioned--God provided instruction that was appropriate to the specific cultural setting. As the biblical account progresses and the cultural context changed, God moved his people forward in the direction of a fuller, more perfect, expression of his ultimate will with respect to this issue of divorce and remarriage. Webb refers to this as the Bible's "redemptive movement."

Webb also sees in Scripture redemptive movement with respect to slavery. The biblical account begins with Israel enslaved in Egypt--slavery in that context was horrific with slaves having essentially no rights. God delivered Israel out of that form of slavery, and gave them laws to live by as free people in the Promised Land. However, God allowed Israel to have slaves--but in a way that was vastly improved over the type practiced in Egypt (and in other Middle-Eastern cultures of the time). Here again, Webb sees redemptive movement.

Then we fast-forward to the church in the first century. Here again we find significant redemptive movement forward--slavery is not completely prohibited, but God's instruction, through the apostles, is that Christian slave-holders must treat their slaves with a degree of kindness far greater than that typically experienced by other slaves in that cultural context (and more kindly than God required of Israel under the Law of Moses).

We must ask, is the New Testament model for the treatment of slaves God's ultimate, final will concerning this ethical issue? The answer for most Christians is no, it is not. Most Christians agree that slavery is an evil that should be abolished altogether. Webb agrees, and suggests that in carefully looking at ethical issues in the Bible, we will see at times that the redemptive movement does not necessarily end with the situation in the first century church. In other words, Scripture sometimes points forward, beyond itself, to a "Kingdom ethic"--an ultimate ethic that will come after the historic situation at the close of the canon of Scripture.

Slavery is a good example. Planted in Scripture (including statements from Paul) are the seeds of slavery's abolition. It would be many centuries after Paul that Christians (William Wilberforce of Britain being notable), applying the principles found in Scripture, would call for the end of slavery.

The role of women

Webb goes on to provide a similar analysis of the redemptive movement in Scripture related to the role of women in society, the home and in the church. Again he finds significant movement from the role of women in ancient Middle-Eastern cultures, to the role given by God to women in Israel, to the role given them in first century churches and homes. This redemptive movement, which began in Scripture was continued in the church after the first century as women gained greater equality--an equality that extended out into the culture at large.

Homosexual behavior

Finally, Webb looks at Scripture to see if there is similar redemptive movement with respect to homosexual behavior. Here Webb does not find such movement--his assessment is that throughout Scripture, in various cultural contexts, there remains a prohibition of same-gender sexual activity. However, Webb does see redemptive movement with respect to the treatment of homosexuals.

Of course, the issues of the role of women and homosexual behavior are current "hot-button" ethical issues--within both the church and the broader world. Denominations, individual churches and even families and friends split over disagreements concerning such issues, often with both sides quoting passages of Scripture in defense of their positions. It is all too easy to hang individual verses of Scripture on particular ethical positions (we call this "proof-texting"). I appreciate Webb's more thoughtful approach, which holds Scripture in high regard and seeks to understand how Scripture itself addresses the relevant issue of cultural context.

This issue is, of course, explored by many authors. I'll look at some others in future posts as we continue this topic of Christian ethics from a Trinitarian, incarnational  perspective.