Authority, Part 8: Custom
Genesis 29:26 And Laban said [to Jacob], “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.”
I Corinthians 11:16 But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.
Acts 16:3 Paul wanted to have [Timothy] go on with him. And he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek.
God is eternal and unchangeable, and he lives in heaven. We aren’t, and don’t. According to His wisdom, He’s placed us in times and cultures that have a great deal of influence on us. Some of the conventions of all cultures need to be overcome or replaced by gospel truths. Other things are simply a matter of custom, and those customs often need to be respected—especially if the gospel is at stake.
There are customs of worship and preaching, and the length and order of church services. There are traditions of clothing, make-up, and recreational activities. There are styles of celebrating that vary greatly from culture to culture. Our own customs are simply that—our customs. Stripped of sin and idolatry, every culture is a reflection of the creativity and imagination of our God, and should be honored as such.
It’s a historical cliché that many a missionary attempt has failed because of insensitivity to the customs of the group that they were trying to reach. British attempts at missionary work have the historical reputation of trying to impose culture alongside the gospel in a way that confused both. For instance, as important as it is to British culture, tea is not the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.
There are customs in other cultures that are not moral issues, and are simply a reflection of that culture’s history, weather and/or geography. Christians need to be flexible in such matters, so as not to give offense (see Paul’s actions in Acts, above) and so as not to confuse the message of the gospel. It can be a powerful witness of the love of God to respect the customs, and therefore the culture, of a person or group we are trying to reach.
In the author’s own history, an international gathering of spiritual leaders in Europe featured lunch breaks with a bottle of wine on each table, something that would be anathema to many American Christians. Not only was wine at lunch the custom, but also a nearby Christian church expressed its thanks to a sympathetic government official who was retiring by gifting him with a case of wine. It wasn’t the author’s responsibility to challenge that.
Jacob didn’t argue with Laban about Leah and Rachel; his only problem was with the withholding of information about that custom. Paul put aside his strong opinions on faith in Christ alone and had Timothy circumcised because of custom, and perhaps even more astonishingly, made his final appeal in regards to head coverings to the custom of the age. We need that same understanding and ability to stay focused.
Prayer: Lord, give me spiritual eyes and a heart to honor the customs of everyone I minister to. Help me to see the real issue at stake that goes deeper than some tradition or convention. Help me to “become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22)