Most Christian movements have initially placed great emphasis on a lifestyle that is separate from the world, teaching that believers should manifest holiness in attitudes, conduct, speech, amusements, and dress. Practical teachings of this nature were prominent in ancient Christianity of the first three centuries, medieval revival movements, the Protestant Reformation, the Holiness movement, and the Pentecostal movement.
Today, however, Oneness Pentecostals, or Apostolics, are one of the few groups to maintain the importance of holiness in adornment, dress, and amusements. Other groups typically argue that these teachings are outmoded or must be modified greatly because of changes in culture.
How relevant to the church today are biblical instructions? Should they be modified in light of cultural changes?
We will predicate our discussion upon two important premises: (1) The Bible is the inspired Word of God, and as such it reveals objective moral and spiritual truth to us. We hold this tenet in common with conservative Christians generally. (2) It is God’s will for us to embrace the message and experience of the first-century apostolic church as recorded in the New Testament. The teaching and practice of the apostles is authoritative and normative. This tenet distinguishes us as Apostolic Pentecostals.
Specifically, the Bible instructs us in salvation, Christian living, and Christian service. It teaches us what is right and corrects us when we are wrong. Paul admonished Timothy, “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:15-17).
Since the Bible is the inspired Word of God, our understanding of truth must be rooted and grounded in the text of Scripture. We do not have the liberty to import our ideas and philosophies into the text. Instead of adapting the Bible’s message to fit our preconceptions and desires, we should seek to understand what it says in its grammatical, historical, and cultural context and then apply its message to our context. We will call this approach grammatical-historical interpretation.
Because we are dealing with divinely inspired Scripture, we must allow for greater implications or fulfillments than the original authors realized, for enduring and fresh significance in situations far removed from the original context, and for applications in a wide variety of circumstances. Nevertheless, these implications, fulfillments, and applications must be rooted in the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.
We can and should discern principles in the biblical text in order to make new applications. For example, Jesus quoted God’s statement to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” to demonstrate the truth of the resurrection of the dead. That point was not the original purpose for the statement, but Jesus made a valid deduction from the statement and applied it to a new circumstance. (See Exodus 3:6; Matthew 22:23-32.)
The main point is that we must diligently seek the contextual, situational meaning of Scripture and let it speak to us. Instead of bending the message of the Bible to our preconceptions, we must allow it to inform and mold our thinking.
In seeking to understand and apply Scripture to the twenty-first century, we must recognize that each passage has one primary meaning but can have manifold significance and many applications. The first half of this principle follows from our preceding discussion. If a passage does not have an objectively identifiable meaning, then God’s purposes for giving Scripture as stated in II Timothy 3:15-17 cannot be fulfilled.
On the other hand, Scripture is not bound to a specific cultural or historical setting. As the eternal Word of God, it teaches principles that apply to every age, culture, society, and country. The Word of God “lives and abides forever” and “endures forever” (I Peter 1:23-25). “The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11). “His truth endures to all generations” (Psalm 100:5). The Bible is relevant to everyone.
Thus Jesus and the New Testament authors quoted Scripture in order to make new applications in their day. Jesus cited David’s eating of the showbread and the priests’ ministry in the Temple on the Sabbath to demonstrate that legitimate human needs in the pursuit of God’s will could supersede ceremonial law. From this basis, He argued that His disciples could pluck a small amount of grain on the Sabbath to satisfy hunger and that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:1-8.) He appropriated Old Testament texts to address contemporary theological issues far removed from the original stories.
To avoid arbitrary or allegorical interpretation, we should first seek the original meaning of a passage in its grammatical-historical context before expanding its significance to other situations. We should first seek the primary meaning of a text before making applications. Of course, applications of a text must not violate or contradict the primary meaning of the text but must be logical extensions of it.
Based on the nature of inspiration and the purpose of Scripture as expressed in II Timothy 3:15-17, we conclude that all Scripture is given for our admonition. Therefore, an important principle of Apostolic interpretation is to approach the Bible with the assumption that each passage is relevant and applicable. In making this statement, some basic clarifications and explanations are in order:
● Some commands and promises were specific to individuals or groups and so do not apply generally.
● Many teachings in the Old Testament were specific to the old covenant and are not in force under the new covenant. Examples are civil and ceremonial laws for Israel.
● Since God’s moral nature is unchanging, moral teachings in either testament are still applicable.
● Some of the Bible’s instructions relate to specific cultural situations and may not apply directly in different circumstances. The Bible does not necessarily endorse all the cultural institutions and practices of its day, so we must distinguish between the Bible’s instructions for coping with a cultural situation and its instructions that supersede culture.
● Even when there is a change of specific instructions, covenants, or cultures, we look for enduring principles that apply to us.
● Since the New Testament was written primarily to the church, we would expect to find very little in it that would not apply directly. We must obey its practical instructions in every area of our lives, from attitudes and values, to adornment and dress, to sexual morality and marriage.
This Apostolic principle means we should take seriously many passages of the New Testament that most groups tend to ignore, explain away on the basis of culture, or decide not to obey literally. Because the Bible is God’s Word for all time, if a passage is not limited to a different people or age we should follow its teachings as faithfully and as literally as possible.
Are there any specific commands to the New Testament church that we do not implement? If so, then on what basis do we refuse to follow them? Are we consistent in our criteria of what to obey and what not to obey? Let us look at some examples.
“But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34-37). There is some debate as to whether this command concerns private statements only or legal proceedings also, but most Christian groups do not attempt to apply this teaching in any way. But the reasons Jesus gave for this teaching—our inability to control the basis of an oath and the need for honesty in all our statements—are certainly relevant. There is no clear reason why we should not treat this command seriously.
“Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road” (Luke 10:3-4). Jesus gave this command to seventy disciples for an evangelistic campaign in Palestine during His earthly ministry. While some principles could apply generally, the specific instructions were tailored to the particular goals, circumstances, and location at that stage of Christ’s earthly ministry. Moreover, this evangelistic campaign occurred before the New Testament church began on the Day of Pentecost, and thus we would not necessarily expect the same instructions today. Indeed, shortly before His crucifixion Jesus told His disciples that they would need to take money with them in their travels (Luke 22:35-36).
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). If the command to observe the Lord’s Supper is literal, why not this related command? Some argue that the need for foot washing was tied to the particular circumstances and culture of the day, but Jesus’ action was primarily instructive and ceremonial. The principles of humility and service are still important to apply, and there is no obvious alternative for this ceremony. Possibly the greatest reasons for a reluctance to implement this command are embarrassment and pride—and these are probably the greatest reasons why we still need this practice.
“For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due” (Romans 1:26-27). Many today claim that this passage merely reflects personal or cultural opinion. It is the Word of God, however, and it is supported by other clear statements in both testaments. Moreover, it appeals to the natural order, not merely to culture. God created the woman as the suitable companion for the man, and He instituted marriage for procreation and complementarity. Homosexuality is not consistent with this precedent or these purposes.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16). This command to New Testament believers may be the only one that most Apostolics do not seek to implement literally. First, this statement occurs in the closing salutations of the epistle rather than in the teaching section and thus seems to have temporary, local application. For the same reason, we do not try to obey the similar command in verse 15: “Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them.” Second, in modern Western culture, greeting unrelated people with a kiss can convey romantic or sexual connotations that actually contradict the original intention of this verse. In other cultures today, such as in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Apostolics still observe the practice by a kiss on the cheek between members of the same sex.
This may be the only instance in which Apostolic hermeneutics results in a New Testament command being transformed by culture. It would serve as a precedent only upon the two conditions mentioned: (a) the context indicates a temporary, local application, and (b) exact duplication would actually undercut the original intention. The principle of warm Christian greeting and fellowship still applies, but the appropriate form is determined in the context of the local culture and congregation.
“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife” (I Corinthians 7:27). The apostle Paul expressed a preference for the single life, especially in his type of ministry, but in the immediate context he qualified it by saying, “I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress” (verse 26). Apparently, he referred to the chaotic situation in Corinth, including persecution in a hostile culture. In the same context he acknowledged that “each one has his own gift from God,” “it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” and “even if you do marry, you have not sinned” (verses 7, 9, 28). Christians are free to make their own decision regarding marriage, based on their circumstances, desires, and direction from God.
“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering” (I Corinthians 11:14-15). Most Christian groups ignore this teaching on the basis that it is culturally outdated. However, I Corinthians 11:1-16 does not appeal to culture but to God’s created order, to the natural order, and to the practice of all the churches. If this teaching were outmoded, then the teaching against homosexuality would seem to be equally outmoded, because the appeal to creation and nature is similar in both cases. Some argue that verses 4-6 deal with veils, but even if they did, they would not cancel verses 14-15.
This includes adornment and dress: “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (I Timothy 2:8-10). Most Christian groups ignore the teaching on adornment (verse 9) on the ground that culture has changed, but there is no objective basis for doing so. Obviously these cultural practices existed in Bible days, but the Bible speaks against them. Why would greater cultural acceptance by the world change the opinion of God and His church? Moreover, since the passage links verses 8 and 9 with the words “in like manner also,” if the church should not follow verse 9, then by the same logic it should not follow verse 8. Finally, other scriptural passages in both testaments support the principles and the particular statements of this passage.
“Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (I Timothy 2:11-12). Feminists conclude that this statement is an outdated cultural and personal opinion, but Apostolic interpretation must deal with this statement as the Word of God. As such, it is still necessary to ascertain the meaning within the immediate grammatical-historical context as well as the larger context of Scripture. In both testaments, God used women in spiritual leadership, and the New Testament contains specific endorsements of women in ministry. (See Acts 2:18; 18:26; 21:9; Romans 16:1-12; I Corinthians 11:5; 14:31.) Therefore, this command is not an absolute prohibition but has a particular situation and purpose. The central thrust of the passage is that a woman should not usurp authority over men and should not seek to become an authoritative teacher of men without accountability to male leadership. As long as a woman follows the godly leadership of her pastor and, if married, her husband, she can exercise a divine call to public proclamation and spiritual leadership.
“Honor widows who are really widows…. Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man” (I Timothy 5:3, 9). This passage speaks about assisting needy widows along certain guidelines if their families cannot. The same circumstances may not exist in countries that have a financial plan for social security, but if a need exists the church should implement a plan based on this passage.
“Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (I Peter 2:18). The Bible does not endorse slavery but gives instructions for how Christians should work in this cultural situation. The teachings of the Bible actually undercut slavery. In both the ancient Roman Empire and in modern Europe and America, it was Christian opposition to slavery that finally led to its abolition. Since slavery does not exist in our society, the verse is not directly applicable, but the principles still apply to the employee-employer relationship.
The only way God could reveal His Word was through a specific cultural setting, but this does not detract from the truth of His Word. We cannot attribute scriptural authority to the customs of Bible days. That is, just because the Bible records a custom or practice does not mean that it is binding upon us. We must ascertain what the Bible teaches as binding universally.
We also recognize that the Bible speaks in light of specific cultural conditions. When culture changes, we must ascertain how this change affects our understanding of scriptural statements. Let us look at some guidelines for applying the message of Scripture in light of cultural changes.
1. Biblical principles do not change, and God’s moral law does not change. As we have discussed, the Bible is the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God. It is truth, and truth is absolute, immutable, and constant. Moreover, God’s nature does not change (Malachi 3:6). Thus, moral laws based on God’s holiness remain invariant in all times, places, cultures, and circumstances. God has abolished Old Testament types and ceremonial laws—such as dietary laws, blood sacrifices, sabbaths, and feasts—but He has never abrogated moral law. Let us look at some examples.
● Dietary laws (Leviticus 11). These laws are ceremonial and typological, and thus not binding upon Christians. They taught the principle of separating the clean from the unclean, so that God’s people would learn to follow His instructions rather than their own ideas and preferences. These laws also had the practical effect of protecting the ancient Israelites from some foods that could be dangerous if not properly selected, cleaned, and cooked with modern knowledge of germs, disease, pollution, and sanitation. God said that certain foods would be an abomination to Israel, but He did not say they were an abomination to Him. The New Testament explains that these laws were typological and are abolished in Christ (Mark 7:18-19; Colossians 2:16-17; I Timothy 4:1-5). The NIV rendering of Mark 7:19 is especially clear: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’”
● Homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22). The teaching against homosexuality is moral, so the principle still applies. The moral character of this command is evident from the following points: (a) Homosexuality is an abomination to God—something He hates—and His character does not change. (b) It is contrary to God’s creative plan, for He made man and woman as companions for each other. (c) It is contrary to nature, because it cannot fulfill the purposes of procreation and complementarity. (d) The New Testament reaffirms this principle.
● Clothing of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:11). This teaching is ceremonial. There is no indication that God hates the practice, that it violates His plan in creation, or that the teaching furthers a moral purpose. The New Testament is silent on the subject. Its purpose was to teach the principle of separation. It is a type—a foreshadowing of greater truth. Under the new covenant we do not need to practice the type, but we fulfill the type through our separation from things that are spiritually and morally unclean.
● Distinction in dress between male and female (Deuteronomy 22:5). This teaching is moral, so the principle still applies. We can discern its moral character because blurring this distinction is “an abomination to the Lord your God” and a violation of the separation that He established in creation. Moreover, the New Testament upholds the principle of distinction between male and female in outward appearance (I Corinthians 6:9; 11:1-16).
The foregoing examples show that we cannot disregard teachings in the Old Testament simply because they are under the old covenant. These examples also illustrate that we might view two teachings differently even though they are in close textual proximity. The reason is that the legal passages frequently switch from one subject to the next, with each passage standing independently. Thus the relevant context may be only one verse or a few verses. We must examine each teaching separately to see how it fits into God’s overarching plan.
2. God has progressively revealed truth from the Old Testament to the New Testament. (See Galatians 3:24-25; Colossians 2:16-17.) This point explains why ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are superseded in the New. They point to greater spiritual truths, and once we have the reality we do not need to reenact the types.
This point also explains why the New Testament teaches a higher standard of morality and holiness. The New Testament does not contradict Old Testament truth but unfolds God’s will more completely and calls Spirit-filled believers to a higher level of perfection in many areas. In such cases, the Old Testament usually contains indications of God’s higher plan. Examples are the teachings concerning incest, polygamy, divorce, warfare, and ornamental jewelry.
In this regard, let us briefly look at the use of alcohol. Some passages in the Old Testament seem to endorse or at least allow its use. “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more” (Proverbs 31:6-7). In the historical and biblical context, this is not an endorsement of drunkenness but a factual statement about human practice at the time and an explanation of why God’s people should not drink strong alcoholic beverages. Verses 4-5 warn leaders not to drink wine because it adversely affects their judgment, and as further support of this admonition verses 6-7 point out that it is only deemed suitable for those in severe pain and hopeless misery. The same book issues a general warning against drinking of alcoholic wine: “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper” (Proverbs 23:31-32).
In Bible times, the word wine could refer to the juice of the grape at any stage—while it was still in the grape, freshly pressed out, or fermented (Isaiah 65:8; Mark 2:22)—although it usually referred to fermented juice. For typical use, wine was greatly diluted with water so that it was not intoxicating. Moreover, distilled beverages such as whiskey were unknown. Thus the Old Testament speaks of wine positively as the fruit of the harvest (new wine) and as a table beverage that would not intoxicate. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 7:13; 14:23; Psalm 104:14-15.)
The New Testament warns that drunkenness is sinful (Galatians 5:19-21). Moreover, it tells us that we should not practice anything that is not beneficial to us, that could gain mastery over us (which includes intoxication or addiction), that could be a stumbling block to others, or that would not give glory to God (I Corinthians 6:10, 12; 10:31-33). We should not allow ourselves to become drunk with wine, but we should only be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). In view of the evils of alcohol in our day and the negative effects of even one drink, an application of these principles leads us to abstain from alcoholic beverages.
3. God gave His Word in a specific cultural setting, but He did not thereby endorse all the practices of that culture. Thus, we must distinguish essential truths from cultural expressions or temporary social conditions. Christians are not bound to follow the culture of biblical times unless it expresses eternal truths endorsed by the Bible. Abraham arranged the marriage of his son Isaac, because that was the ancient Eastern custom, but this practice is not mandatory for all cultures and times. The New Testament instructs slaves to work diligently for their masters, not because God endorses slavery but to provide practical guidance for Christians who were subject to those conditions.
Many believers in the early church in Jerusalem pooled their assets for the common good as a response to temporary, local conditions. Thousands of people from many lands received the Holy Spirit, and many apparently remained in Jerusalem for a time. Moreover, many of the Jerusalem saints were very poor, and all no doubt expected the Lord to return in a short time. As the church grew and spread to other areas, this practice did not continue, but instead believers gave weekly offerings (I Corinthians 16:2).
We must be careful not to use cultural change as a reason to abolish New Testament teachings, however, as most modern commentators do in certain areas. We must preserve biblical principles; otherwise, we could justify any deviation or violation on the basis of cultural change by the world.
4. In applying a biblical principle to a modern situation, we must take culture into account, but culture never abolishes the principle. For example, to some degree modesty is culturally relative. In the nineteenth century it was improper for a woman to expose any of her leg in public, so Christian women of that day did not wear knee-length dresses. For the biblical teaching on modesty to have meaning, however, there must be a minimum absolute of modesty. Otherwise, if society condoned total nudity, so could Christians.
As another example, the Bible tells us not to let any “corrupt word proceed out of your mouth” but to have “sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Ephesians 4:29; Titus 2:8). One aspect of wholesome speech is to avoid offensive, vulgar words. To some extent, culture determines this characterization. Certain words dealing with sexuality or bodily functions have immoral or vulgar connotations, while other words are acceptable as proper medical terms. Even within the same language, the connotations can vary according to time and place. Certain words in the King James Version are no longer appropriate for public conversation. Certain words are offensive in England but acceptable in America, and vice versa. Thus a conscientious Christian will take into account the cultural connotation of words when seeking to fulfill scriptural admonitions about speech.
5. How can we determine what is culturally relative and what is not? (a) The biblical principle involved will point to a minimum standard regardless of culture. (b) The Bible often makes specific applications. If the Bible speaks of something approvingly or neutrally then apparently it is not wrong under all circumstances. If the Bible always speaks disapprovingly of something, then apparently it always violates biblical principles. Here are some examples:
● Modesty of dress (I Timothy 2:9). (a) Immodest dress promotes lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life (I John 2:15). The exposed body tends to arouse improper thoughts in both wearer and onlooker. This indicates that clothes should basically cover the body—the torso and upper limbs. (b) According to Isaiah 47:2-3, God considers baring the entire leg and uncovering the thigh to be shameful exposure and nakedness.
● Men’s facial hair. (a) Whether shaved or allowed to grow, facial hair is part of the natural appearance that distinguishes men from women. (b) The Bible speaks of beards favorably or neutrally (e.g., Psalm 133:2; Isaiah 50:6). Therefore, they are not inherently evil but are wrong if associated with a sinful lifestyle, rebellion, or pride, as in America generally during the 1960s and 1970s.
● Makeup. (a) Colored makeup promotes lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life, artificiality, discontent with God’s original creative plan, and false values. (b) The Bible always associates makeup with wrong values and never speaks of it favorably (Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 23:40). Even when the wearer does not intend to promote wrong values, it still undermines the biblical teaching to be modest and shamefaced and to reject ornamentation (I Timothy 2:9).
● Hair length. (a) Scripture teaches the need for a clear distinction between male and female in outward appearance. (b) The Bible always links women’s having short hair or bald heads with shame and unnaturalness, never mentioning it favorably (Isaiah 3:17, 24; Jeremiah 7:29). I Corinthians 11:1-16 teaches that women should let their hair grow long while men should cut their hair short.
Change affects all human life and all human institutions. We do not have the option of preventing change, but we can manage change by exercising our God-given power of choice.
If we pretend that change is not taking place or is not affecting us, we simply deceive ourselves and lose the power to choose how change will affect us. But when we recognize the inevitability of change, then we can choose how to respond to change and its effect on us.
Humans have always had choice, even in the Garden of Eden. God created humans because He wanted fellowship and communion, which requires love, which in turn requires choice. Choice means that there can be both right and wrong choices.
We cannot eliminate choice. Instead, we must discipline ourselves to make right choices. As leaders, we must teach our families and churches to make right choices that will limit temptation and avoid sin, but we will never be able to eliminate all temptation. It would be futile to make this our goal. Instead, we must prepare ourselves and those we disciple to deal with choice. We must lead them to maturity in Christ so that they have discernment and discrimination and can make wise choices.
Let us discuss some ways in which change affects the church.
First, the culture around us continues to evolve, and as culture changes, the church must respond. If we refuse to address certain cultural issues, in effect we make a choice by default.
Many aspects of culture are sinful or tend toward sin, and we must resist such worldliness. If we resist all cultural change, however, we risk becoming irrelevant or, perhaps worse, postponing change until its pent-up force bursts like a swollen dam and inundates us with indiscriminate, radical destruction. In the former case, we lose the opportunity to influence our world. In the latter, we lose the opportunity to influence our destiny and our legacy.
It is easy to identify many negative developments in North American culture, as our society moves away from scriptural principles that were once generally embraced. And it is easy to be pessimistic about the future of the church when we observe these negative developments. We should consider, however, that the New Testament church flourished in the pagan, immoral culture of the first-century Roman Empire.
It was a struggle for early Christians to overcome the negative influences all around them. For instance, problems in the Corinthian church included factionalism, drunkenness at church fellowship meals, lawsuits against fellow believers, incest, fornication, abuse of spiritual gifts, and false doctrine. Nevertheless, Paul wrote to this congregation, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (I Corinthians 1:2). He recognized their spiritual identity and their potential to be victorious, and he extended this expectation to all Christians of all locations.
Second, technology continues to change, and as it does, the church must adjust. For thousands of years, humans basically traveled in the same ways: by foot, horseback, cart, or boat. The Industrial Revolution harnessed the power of steam, allowing rapid transport by steamship and train. The twentieth century brought us the automobile, ocean liner, airplane, supersonic jet, and spaceship. Communication has also accelerated and proliferated, with the arrival of telegraph, telephone, radio, television, cable, satellite, Internet, email, cell phone, text messaging, podcasting, and video conferencing.
In the midst of radical change, we must remain committed to the apostolic faith, which includes experience, message and doctrine, fellowship and unity, signs and wonders, prayer and praise. (See Acts 2.) Nevertheless, we must admit that many specific ways in which we operate would be quite foreign to the apostles—as well as to the Pentecostal pioneers of the early twentieth century.
To illustrate, in the twentieth century popular hymns and choruses such as “The Royal Telephone” and “Jesus on the Main Line” made reference to the latest technology of the day. These songs would have been incomprehensible to the apostles, and they do not relate to the current generation either. As these simple examples show, our modes and means of worship and communication are culturally relative, even though our message is not.
In the midst of radical change, we must also follow the principles and practices of holiness. We derive the principles of holiness from Scripture, and these principles remain the same regardless of cultural changes. Some applications of holiness principles can be culturally relative, however, as in our previous example of wholesome speech.
Another example is the avoidance of places that have an excessively worldly atmosphere or association. Sometimes the world corrupts otherwise wholesome and enjoyable activities. A spirit of lust, pleasure madness, or mob violence permeates them to such a degree that Spirit-filled Christians are uncomfortable participating in them. Some parties, shows, concerts, spectator sports, and places of amusement are characterized by lewdness, drinking, drug use, violence, obscenity, or gambling. For instance, while there is nothing wrong with eating at a restaurant, Christians avoid some restaurants because they advertise immodestly dressed waitresses as a major part of their appeal.
Years ago in North American culture, it was relatively easy to identify places and events that were excessively worldly. Thus, pastors instructed youth not to attend certain places of amusement—such as pool halls or bowling alleys—that were known in their locality for having a worldly atmosphere that was significantly worse than what the youth would otherwise encounter in everyday life.
Unfortunately, the type of atmosphere that was once isolated to certain places of amusement has now permeated our entire society. Simply going to a public park, shopping mall, high school, or college campus may expose us to a degree of lewdness, immodesty, and profanity that previously we did not encounter.
How should we respond to this cultural shift? Should we limit ourselves to the statements of a previous generation while ignoring equal or greater dangers that have arisen since then? This response ignores the reality of change and can result in an inconsistent legalism. Should we abandon all attempts to address these issues? This response surrenders completely to the culture and can result in an unholy license. Should we establish prohibitions to cover all conceivable problems as they proliferate in society? This approach can become impractical and eventually irrelevant, leading to cultural isolation.
God does not expect Christians to remove themselves completely from the world in this manner. His plan is to preserve us in holiness while we are still in the world and to send us into the world as witnesses for Him. Thus Jesus said, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-18).
So what is the solution? In cultures, times, and locales where we can identify a certain type of place or activity that harbors a worldly atmosphere distinctly worse than the community experience at large, then we should abstain from such a place or activity. But when the atmosphere is essentially the same as the typical places we need to frequent into order to live in this world, then a simple prohibition does not have the same effect or value.
In this situation, we must take greater care to follow principles of holiness, make wise decisions based on individual circumstances, and trust the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. (See Romans 5:20.) God’s grace is sufficient for every circumstance. (See II Corinthians 12:9.) When we do our best to follow godly principles and make godly choices in areas under our control, then we can trust God to protect and preserve us from the evil influence of the world around us.
As tragic as many cultural changes are, in the end they may actually force us to become more truly apostolic. Like the first-century church in a pagan culture, we learn that we cannot survive merely by depending on religious traditions, human efforts, or a system of rules. Instead, we must rely upon the eternal principles of God’s Word and the work of the Holy Spirit, and we must disciple believers to make responsible choices in all aspects of life. In doing so, we will offer a biblical alternative to our secular society in a culturally relevant way through the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
As Apostolics, we must uphold the inspiration, authority, and enduring relevance of the Bible. The basis of the modern Oneness Pentecostal movement is the restoration of the message and experience of the first-century church. Therefore, we must take seriously the instructions of the New Testament to the church and apply them to our culture and time.
We must be willing to examine and evaluate modern Pentecostals traditions and practices as follows: (1) If they are contrary to the Bible, we must discard or modify them as needed. (2) If they are compatible with the Bible but not required by it, we must grant Christian liberty according to the teachings of Romans 14. (3) If they are appropriate expressions and applications of biblical teaching—whether specific statements of Scripture or valid implementations of scriptural principles—we must uphold them regardless of the shifting opinions of modern culture, philosophy, and theology. (4) Finally, if we are lacking in our adherence to biblical teaching, we must be willing to conform our thought and conduct to the Word of God.
Let us for a moment consider the personal experience we shall have with death. One day our hands will be folded across our lifeless breast and our eyes will be closed as our body takes its last ride to the cemetery. The purple curtains will be drawn. "The black camel of death," said one, "will kneel for each of us at our door, and we shall have no choice but to mount and ride off into the desert of darkness." Death is no respector of persons.
We may only speculate on certain aspects of the future, not knowing much that it holds, but we do know the One who holds the future in His hands. And it is He who has revealed much of the future to us.
He who knows the end from the beginning, the future as well as the past, reveals in His Word that at death the body returns to the earth, while the soul goes to a temporary destination to await final judgment. Each of us determines in this life what our destiny will be; it will depend upon our response to the redemptive plan that God designed for the sinner's deliverance from eternal doom.
We may ascend to a place of peace in the presence of God, as Paul declared in II Corinthians 5:8. It is possible for us to dwell eternally in a place of happiness, bliss, and contentment, knowing that our redemption has been completed, that we have finished our course in faith, and that we are being rewarded. Or we may descend into a place of suffering, there to be detained until the final judgment and then to be sentenced to the everlasting punishment of the lake of fire. (See Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:22-26; Revelation 20:11-15.)
Both places are, in a sense, temporary, for we shall wait until our souls are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection. Jesus described the resurrection in John 5:28?29, and Paul spoke in detail of the first resurrection in I Thessalonians 4:16-17.
The resurrection of the just and the resurrection of the ungodly are separated by one thousand years of peace on earth (Revelation 20:2-7). The just of the present age will be those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb-baptized in His name and filled with His Spirit; the ungodly will be those who have refused to surrender to the terms of the gospel.
For those who are saved, there will be the city not made with hands-the New Jerusalem. This city is described in Revelation 21 as the eternal home of the redeemed.
Missing in this city will be the evil things that are found in every large earthly city. Gone will be all crime and violence. God's people will walk the golden streets without fear of molestation.
Revelation 21:18 describes the wall of this city as jasper and the city itself as pure gold. There will be no need for the sun or moon there, for the Lamb will be the light of the city (Revelation 21:23).
And, wonder of wonders, the redeemed will enjoy the blessings of this city eternally. The poet exulted:
When we've been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise Than when we'd first begun.
In contradistinction, for unbelievers there is "the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 21:8). The only emotions there will be agony and regret, and from that place there will be no escape.
Eternity-never-ending ages! A person's state there is totally dependent upon the present-what he does during time. His eternal destiny will be decided by whether or not he trusts m the redeeming blood of Christ and avails himself of its merits through faith and obedience.
Let us consider today the nearness of our souls to the rendezvous with death. David solemnly declared, "There is but a step between me and death" (I Samuel 20:3). Death is a certain step, and yet it is an uncertain step as to time, place, and manner. It is, further, a solitary step so far as other human beings are concerned. Only Christ can go with us through that dark valley.
Are you ready for that moment and for the eternity to follow?
The Bible proclaims how to prepare for eternity and enjoy eternal life with Christ: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38).
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