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The Commands of Paul: Universal or Unique?

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul recalls a misunderstanding the people had concerning his first letter. They took a unique command Paul had given them which addressed a specific situation and tried to make it universally applicable.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral personsnot at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 1 Corinthians 5:9–11

1 Corinthians 5:9–11

“Sorry bud, I can’t eat with you. Paul said not to associate with immoral people. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

He had told the church not to associate with immoral people. They interpreted this as a universal declaration, which is understandable, but Paul had in mind something else: he didn’t want them to associate with Christians who were behaving immorally.

It’s my opinion that if Paul were to write letters to us today then he would have to offer similar corrections. These corrections may look something like this:

  • “When I said to greet each other with a holy kiss, I didn’t mean that is the only way one can greet another believer.”
  • “When I said to sing, I didn’t mean that you should condemn all who use instruments.”
  • “When I said for the women to keep silent in the church, I didn’t mean that every women of every age would not be able to speak.”

On this last point, I want you to notice an argument Paul uses in another situation. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul requires women to wear head coverings. His reason is simple:

For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.

1 Corinthians 11:7–9

In other words, the order of creation implies that women ought to wear head coverings. Of course, at the end of this passage, as Paul does in several places in 1 Corinthians, Paul backs up and says, “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). While I know of some wonderful brothers and sisters who insist that women should wear head coverings in the assembly, but most believers I’m familiar with believe that this was a culturally relevant command which isn’t applicable to us in a literal sense.

Craig Keener observed,

Thus Paul provides a series of brief arguments, each of which relates directly to the culture he addresses. His arguments do not work well in every culture (he is not completely satisfied with all of them himself—11:11–12), but it is the Corinthian women, not modern women, whom he wishes to persuade to cover their heads.

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Print. Introduction to 1 Corinthians 11:2

Now, notice what Paul’s argument is in 1 Timothy 2: “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:12–13). His reason for requiring women in Corinth to wear head coverings is the same reason he forbid women in Ephesus to speak. One we recognize as a culturally relevant, unique command which addressed a specific situation, but the other one we apply to all churches for all times.

Why is one interpreted as cultural and the other not when the same argument from creation is used to justify both conclusions? I believe it’s the same reason that men do not lift holy hands and why we do not forbid women to have braided hair and gold. It has more to do with tradition than consistent application of Scripture.

When we take statements from Paul out of context and attempt to apply them to all generations for all time, we might miss out on cultural or situational cues which would lead us to a deeper understanding of the spirit of what Paul was getting at instead of the surface level reading which may not be applicable or relevant to ourselves.

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