PRINCIPLE AND CUSTOM
Unless we conclude that all of Scripture is principle and thus binding on all people of all ages, or that all Scripture is local custom with no relevance beyond its immediate historical context, we have to wrestle with some guidelines to determine the difference.
Assume the extreme that everything is principle in Scripture. Jesus says, “Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way” (Lk 10:4). Is this a direct command for barefooted evangelism?
Other matters, however, are not so obvious. Christians are divided on the foot-washing rite (see Jn 13:3-17). Is this a perpetual command for the practice of footwashing or does it illustrate humble servanthood? Does the principle remain and the custom vanish in a shoe-wearing culture? Or does the custom remain with the principle regardless of foot apparel?
Another example is1 Corinthians 11. The New Revised Standard Version translates this to require a woman to cover her head with a veil when she prophesies. In applying this command to our culture we are faced with four distinct options:
1. It is entirely custom. The whole passage reflects a cultural custom that has no relevance today. The veil is local customary headgear; the uncovering of the head reflects a local sign of prostitution. The sign of the woman subordinating herself to the man is a Jewish custom that is outmoded in light of the overall teaching of the New Testament. Since we live in a different culture, it is no longer necessary for a woman to cover her head with a veil; it is no longer necessary for a woman to cover her head with anything; it is no longer necessary for a woman to be subordinate to a man.
2. It is entirely principle. In this case everything in the passage is regarded as culturally transcending principle. T hat would mean by way of application that (1) Women must be submissive to men during prayer. (2) Women must always give a sign of that submission by covering their heads. (3) Women must cover their heads with a veil as the only appropriate sign.
3. It is partly principle, partly custom (Option A). In this approach, part of the passage is regarded as principle and thus binding for all generations, and part is seen as custom that is no longer binding. The principle of female submission is transcultural, but the means of expressing it (covering the head with a veil) is customary and may be changed.
4. It is partly principle (Option B). In this final option the principle of female submission and the symbolic act of covering the head are to be perpetual. The article of covering may vary from culture to culture. A veil may be replaced by a babushka or a hat.1
Which of these alternatives would be most pleasing to God? We need some kind of practical guidelines to aid us in unraveling such problems.
1. Examine the Bible itself for apparent areas of custom. In the Scriptures themselves we can see that they display a certain latitude of custom. For example, divine principles from the Old Testament culture have been restated in a New Testament culture. We see that some common core of principle transcends custom, culture and social convention. We also see some Old Testament principles (dietary laws) abrogated in the New Testament.
Some customs are capable of communicating principles accross: 1) Language is fluid and open to change while the principle can be communicated. 2) Styles of dress vary while the principle of modesty remains; 3) monetary systems vary (we don’t use denarii).
A more difficult dilemma arises in cultural expressions like slavery. Is the submission of women to men merely another example of a cultural institution that needs to be abolished along with slavery? Here we must distinguish between institutions the Bible merely recognizes as existing, such as “the powers that be” (Rom 13:1), and those the Bible positively ordains.
The Scriptures command our obedience to civil authority but do not ordain and institute the exact authority structures that a Christian finds himself. Marriage, however, is ordained by God in the Word.
2. Allow for Christian distinctives in the first century. We run into danger if we think that first-century Christians were slave to culture and don’t allow for some principled behavior. Christians were not thrown to the lions for getting along.
For example, In 1 Cor 11, some have pointed out that uncovered hair was a sign of prostitution. You can get so wrapped up in the culture as an explanation that you fail to ignore Paul’s own rational for it, which transcends the culture itself and ties into Creation.
3. The creation ordinances are indicators of the transcultural principle. If any biblical principles transcend local customary limits, they are the appeals drawn from creation. Appeals to creation ordinances reflect stipulations a covenant God makes with humanity. The laws of creation are not given to a Hebrew person or a Christian person or a Corinthian person, but are rooted in basic human responsibility to God. For example, Christ appeals to Creation in Matt 19:4-6 when he rebukes the Pharisees.
4. In areas of uncertainty use the principle of humility. If we cannot determine whether a passage represents a principle or custom, humility is needed. Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being overscrupulous or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of being unscrupulous in demoting a transcendent requirement of God to the level of a mere human convention? This can easily be misconstrued as a basis for legalism but Rom 14 is an excellent guide here.
1 Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul