Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Parallels between the honor/shame culture of the New Testament world and our present age

I have heard several times over the past few years that the times we live in are like the times of the early church. Something I read today confirmed that once again for me.

I recently started reading David A. deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. I have seen it referenced in blogs and in other books on the cultural background of the Bible, and decided it was time to read it myself.

The first chapter is about honor and shame in the world of the New Testament. This passage really jumped out at me:

The law of Moses forbids any kind of dealings with idolatrous worship, and so the honorable Jew never frequents a Gentile temple. The rest of the world, however, regards the paying of proper respect to the gods (namely, the deities depicted by the idols loathed by the Jews) as an essential characteristic of the honorable person—the pious and just person who gives the gods their due.... Moreover, strict observance of Torah means keeping watch over what one eats and, as it came to be applied, with whom one eats. Between the prohibition of idols (which would be present and honored even at a private dinner party given by a Greek or Roman) and the dietary and purity laws of Torah, Jews were severly restricted in their interactions with non-Jews. The majority culture, however, placed a high value on civic unity and on participation in the life of the city in all its aspects (e.g., religious festivals, business guilds and the like), with the result that Jews appeared to them to keep strictly to themselves and to harbor barbaric suspicions of (or even hatred of) other races. This became another source of ridicule and insult directed against Jews, whose very way of life (the Torah) came to be despised as a body of xenophobic and retrogressive laws (pp. 38–39).

It doesn’t take a PhD to see the parallels between the first century Greco-Roman world and the twenty-first century in the western world.

Torah-observant Jews refused to participate in—or even be remotely connected to—pagan temple rites, going so far as to avoid eating in the homes of Gentiles where there might be household idols (and the meat almost certainly came from animals sacrificed in the local temple). These faithful Jews were labeled xenophobic and backwards. They were excluded from trade guilds (which often had patron gods or goddesses who would be honored at guild meetings), and some people refused to do business with them because of their lack of participation in the civil religion of the day. The broader culture tried to shame God’s people into conforming to its values.

Bible-believing Christians today not only don’t participate in the sexual activities prohibited by God but widely practiced and accepted in the wider culture—homosexuality, bisexuality, pre-marital or extramarital sexual relations, polyamory, transgenderism, etc.—they also refuse to approve of others’ participation in these activities. For refusing to pay homage to the god of the age (sexual license and perversion), Christians are labeled homophobic, out of step with the times, puritanical, and hateful. Some lose their jobs, such as Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich, who supported California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 (a measure banning gay marriage in that state that was later overturned by courts), and was forced from his new CEO position shortly after his appointment in 2014 due to online outrage from pro-gay groups about his support for that measure. Others, such as bakers, florists, and photographers, are threatened with losing their businesses due to lawsuits filed because they decline to provide their services for a same-sex wedding (which to these business owners would amount to implying their approval of practices that go against their Christian morals). The broader culture tries to shame God’s people into conforming to the culture’s mores. Even if we don’t participate, we’re expected to look on approvingly.

In the first and second centuries, however, those who held firm to God’s revelation “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6 KJV). Churches today that capitulate to the culture (accepting homosexual/lesbian practices, even among their clergy) are dying, when conventional wisdom would say that giving the culture what it wants should result in more popularity and growth. But the opposite is true. It is churches that have the courage of their convictions that are growing, because they are willing to stand for something, even at the cost of being looked down on by society.

May all we who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ be like Moses, who “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25, NIV). Let us be willing to be left “outside the camp,” bearing the disgrace Jesus bore (Hebrews 13:13).

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