It never ceases to amaze me how deeply our cultural expectations color our Biblical interpretation. It is so easy to read the Bible, especially the New Testament, as if it were written Christians in a suburban local church in modern day America. The sheer volume of assumptions we make based on what we just assume to be true is staggering.
As an example. When we read what Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5:
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
...here are some of the assumptions we often make.
An evangelist is a professional minister who is sponsored by some local churches or by a denomination.
We know who evangelists are because we have glossy color postcards from them with a picture of their family saying “Greetings from the so-and-so family”, often on a billboard in the foyer to declare that this local church is serious about evangelism. Or in Baptist circles an evangelist might be a guy who comes to churches to do "revivials" and get "decisions".
Oddly enough, that is not exactly how the Bible describes it. We read in Acts 21:8 that Paul stayed in the home of “Phillip the evangelist”. We also read that Phillip was one of the seven chosen in Acts 6 to care for the widows. That is also the passage that is supposed to refer to the selection of deacons, so we have an odd situation where we see evangelists and deacons as separate in the modern church but Phillip was clearly fulfilling both roles (assuming again that Acts 6 is speaking of deacons, which I don't see any evidence for). Perhaps one can do the work of an evangelist without being officially titled “evangelist” or “missionary”, and in fact we can do the work of an evangelist while working a regular job and holding no official title in the local church? Here is another example from that same passage:
The ministry Timothy was fulfilling was vocational pastoral ministry
After all, Paul’s letters to Timothy are called the “Pastoral Epistles” so we should apply anything we read in those letters to the traditional idea of being a pastor as an employee of the local church. Of course the problem here is that Timothy was never, at least as far as the Bible describes, anything like what we traditionally think of as a minister. It is amazing that an extra-Biblical title, “The Pastoral Epsitles” leads people to apply what they read in 1 and 3 Timothy and Titus to a professional, vocational clergy even though that is clearly not what Paul was talking about since there was no professional clergy in the days he was writing. Timothy was recognizing men as elders in local churches, I am not at all certain that he was even an elder in a local church at all so I think there is limited value in applying the "Pastoral Epistles" to our notion of pastors.
Or Acts 2:42 which is one of the most quoted passages in the Bible for how church is done:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Apostles teaching means listening to a sermon or two each week. Fellowship means going to church and perhaps a potluck lunch afterward once in a while. Breaking of bread means a passing a plate with oyster crackers and a small cup of grape juice once a quarter or even once a month. Prayer means listening to the pastor pray while we bow our heads reverently
Now I am not saying that there is nothing in what traditional churches do that even vaguely resembles what the early church was doing in Acts 2:42. My bigger point is that we just assume that when we read these words, it matches up with what we already know. We form an image in our head that is formed more by tradition and experience that what we find in the context of the text. The early church was far more than a “twice a week meeting, once a quarter bread breaking, meager offering Sunday morning, one man leads and the rest listen” kind of experience. The early church was a true set apart people, people who lived their lives daily with one another. As Joseph Hellerman argues in his book, When the Church was a Family, becoming a Christian meant that your brothers and sisters in Christ became your most important relationship, more so even than family. Culture notwithstanding, we cannot reduce the church fellowship to a couple of scheduled, rigidly organized observances per week.
Or my favorite from the Ten Commandments:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 ESV)
Remembering the Sabbath means going to church for a couple of hours on Sunday and relaxing at home the rest of the day
I am not saying that Christians shouldn’t “remember the Sabbath” but clearly Christian worship services and the way we normally approach Sunday has virtually no similarity to how Jews observed the Sabbath. In spite of that we still often view Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” even though the Bible doesn’t make this link. In other words, we reinterpret Sunday as a replacement of the Sabbath and have created all sorts of rules about what that means without a shred of solid Biblical proof. Do we “remember the Sabbath” by going to church or by staying home with our family? Do we honor the Sabbath by serving others or do we abstain from doing anything at all? We have decided that “remember the Sabbath” means “going to church” and doing certain things while we are there (singing 3-5 songs, listening to a couple of prayers, putting some money in the offering plate and listening to a sermon) even though that bears a) no resemblance to the Jewish Sabbath that God ordained in the Ten Commandments and b) doesn’t look anything like what the early church did.
I think we all can fall into this trap because our religious culture is so powerful and the culture in the ancient times the Bible was written seems so foreign, so togas and sandals, that it can be hard to interpret Biblical principles without overlying contextualizing them in a modern setting. Compounding this, many Christians take what they are told at face value. Given a simple explanation for a troublesome passage, it doesn’t seem that many people are willing to dig into the text to be sure that what they are told by the experts in a local congregation is really what the Bible is saying. It also seems that we are trying to export this cultural hermeneutic to other countries by trying to plant Western churches in countries that barely have running water.
So how do we avoid this? Is it unavoidable? Or maybe it isn’t really a problem at all?