“I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress…” (1 Cor. 7:26a)
The situation was not always going to be the way it was then. Paul knew that, but do we? He was instructing the Corinthian believers on such interpersonal subjects as celibacy, marriage and divorce, and the servant-master relationship. During those trying times for the Early Church, when husbands, wives, and children were being separated and persecuted, it might be better for unmarried men and women, he suggested, to remain unmarried, something contrary to accepted Jewish teaching. Staying single, however, would not break any of God’s perennial laws; therefore, present circumstances could influence present actions.
As a matter of fact, to insert cultural practices of the past into present day dogma is to repeat the mistakes of the majority of the New Testament Jews. They were so fixated on the outward ritual of the past that they didn’t recognize the Lamb of God who stood behind it all, and who now stood before them. I say this reverently: they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
For instance, we trivialize our submission as Christian wives if we gauge it by such things as the length of our hair, the quietness of our speaking voice, or the number of children we have produced. Believe me, it reaches much farther and deeper than that! When I read about the virtuous woman in Proverbs thirty-one, is God trying to tell me to make my own clothes or make a godly, loving home for my family? Is it about the wool, and the flax, and the coverings of tapestry, or the trusting heart of her husband and the earned admiration of her children?
Again, shall the early churches’ practice of greeting one another with a “holy kiss” make me fair game for any man in our congregation? This is where I echo the words of Paul: “We have no such custom”! That’s exactly what I’m talking about here: customs. As my husband says, “Customs are not commands.” And, frankly, I have found it to be the case that those who focus on the former tend to let the latter slide. You know, “strain at a gnat and swallow a camel”?
God’s moral commands are timeless, as we know time. They are binding in any culture. Customs change, however, and when they do, as long as they don’t impinge upon God’s laws, they can be good—sometimes better—than what they replace. But, one way or another, it isn’t the way it was then; and it wasn’t the way it is now. And if you and I cannot get hold of this truth, we’ll spend our lives as a Pharisee or a hypocrite—probably both.