Is Cultural Relevance a Fallacy?

Consider the following statement:

"Jesus calls Christians to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Our culture, however, believes this to be an outdated statement that will hinder our personal development. To be relevant to our culture we have to realise that Jesus was speaking for his time and our culture teaches that it is not relevant in our time. To be relevant in our time we must allow the values of our culture to decide whether Jesus statement applies today."

Any Christian will see the flaws in the argument. It is a short step away from saying that the Bible is written to a completely different culture and therefore none of it should be taken at face value in application today. We all realise that the argument is false.

Here is a more provocative statement:

"Surely what the Bible teaches about men and women having different respective roles is conditioned by the society and culture of its time. To be culturally relevant today we have to downplay those texts that merely affirm a 1st century cultural view of the respective roles of the genders and decide for ourselves, with our more egalitarian worldview, whether there should be any distinctions."

I don't intend to say what I think on this matter, but I use this as an example because a thoughtful Christian said it to me recently. Is cultural relevance a helpful interpretive principle? It sounds like a sophisticated argument on a first hearing, an attempt to see how the Church can adapt to new challenges and different cultures. But the argument is exactly the same as the first one.

The obvious question to ask is "how do you know?" Deciding what is relevant for today using contemporary culture alone as our guide is clearly non-sensical. It just doesn't give us that kind of information. It only tells us what people today do, or do not, like. Using contemporary culture alone many churches of the 19th century decided that God cannot do miracles, because it seemed culturally incredible. Using cultural relevance as a hermenutical principle for deciding meaning or application of biblical texts can be profoundly flawed. Here are some reasons why:

1. It makes our culture absolute and supreme, and the Bible's culture relative and secondary. If we adopt the principle then we will decide to change what the Bible says whenever culture changes

2. It makes our culture absolute and supreme and every other culture relative and secondary. It means that if another  culture disagrees with us on the roles of the genders, we may well be forced to conclude that the Bible text means one thing in one culture and another thing in another culture

3. What we will try to adjust will be all the texts that our culture finds offensive at a particular moment in time. There is a great danger, therefore, in only letting the Bible say what our culture will allow it to say. If we write off anything we disagree with as merely cultural in its time, then the Bible will never challenge our own cultural assumptions. We will capture the Bible within the gravitational field of what we already think or are prepared to hear. If Jesus had decided he could only say what was culturally acceptable then he wouldn't have been crucified. He wouldn't have been offensive enough.

In short, if we start with a principle of cultural relevance, it is all too easy to justify not obeying the parts of the Bible I find uncomfortable. I merely have to say "that was for then, but its not the same now" to remove its challenge and only read selectively.

Culture Helps with Application, not with Meaning

None of which is to say that we don't have to work very hard at applying the Bible to our day. Nor is it to say that applications may differ according to circumstance. But while culture may - and must - determine differences in application - to bring the text relevantly to the hearers for their obedience, the culture doesn't - and must never - determine either the meaning of the text or whether it is relevant to us. Everything God has put in the Bible is relevant to us, it is idolatry to claim otherwise.

Why should we think our culture is absolute and the Bible's relative? Unless there is very strong reason, our normal instinct should be that the Bible's worldview is normal and ours is relative to it. Otherwise our culture will adjudicate on whether scripture is good or bad, valuable or useless, when in fact scripture has to be authoritative over the values of our culture. If our culture disagrees with what God says, its our culture that needs to change, not God's word.