Calvin's Train of Thought

The Bible as a Foreign Document - January 20, 2022


This is a talk I prepared for my churches Youth Group. While this talk was written from something of an egalitarian point of view, it was written while I was beginning to question the egalitarian point of view. In part because of the extensive research done by Mike Winger, I am increasingly leaning towards the complementarian view of men and women.


Today, I want to talk to you all about worldview, and what impact that has on how we read and understand the Bible. What is Worldview? Worldview, as one book puts it, “…includes cultural values and other things we assume are true” (12). It is everything we believe - from what is polite and what is rude, to how things work, to why things are the way they are, to what is expected of us, and so on. Our worldview is like a set of sunglasses that colours how we see and understand the world around us.

Take for example some of the rotating illusions on this website.

Look at it for a minute. Which way is it spinning? If you go through enough of the examples, you will find that sometimes you can get it to switch directions.

Each culture around the world and throughout time has their own worldview which influences how they see and understand things. Just like you all saw these optical illusions differently - even though you were all looking at the same videos - people from different cultures (or even from different times) with different worldviews look at the same things we look at but see them differently.

Worldview as Part of Culture

If you travel to a foreign country, you will quickly find out that people see things differently than we do - that people have different beliefs and assumptions about what is true than we do. For instance, why do we get colds? Well, a friend of mine lived in Peru for a year and the Peruvians he lived with thought that you OBVIOUSLY got a cold by opening the fridge too fast, or by drinking something cold for breakfast. It seems pretty crazy… until you find out that our belief that cold weather causes colds is also wrong.

Bible as Foreign

Just like people in Peru and other countries have a different way of understanding the world than we do, so too the writers of the Bible had a different way of looking at the world. After all, the writers of the Bible were from a country that is foreign to us: they were not Canadians, nor Americans. They were from the middle east, and valued things differently than we do, had different stories than we do, had different assumptions and understandings of how things are than we do, even spoke different languages than we do. So even though we have translations of the Bible in English, the Bible is a foreign book from a foreign country, written by foreign people who saw the world differently than you and I do.

And sometimes, this causes us to read the Bible and misunderstand what the author means because we are seeing things through our worldview instead of through the worldview of the people who wrote the Bible. Like, if you were in Peru and when you open the fridge and someone says “woah! slow down, don’t open it so fast!”, you might think “oh, right, if I open it too fast the pickle jar will fall off the shelf and break”, when in reality they were telling you to slow down in opening the fridge so you don’t get sick. You can see how that might get confusing.

Women Passage

So, let’s look at an example of how we can misunderstand things in the Bible because of our worldview. We live in a culture where it is very important that women and men are seen as being equal or even exactly the same as each other in every way. Our culture thinks that anything a man can do a woman can do. To say that men are stronger or more capable than women in any way or that men should be the ones in charge is seen as sexist and just plain wrong. While I think there is a lot that is good about this worldview, it does create some challenges for us when we read certain verses. Let’s look at one example:

1 Timothy 2:09-15 Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man, she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

Whaaaaat? Doesn’t that seem kind of crazy to you? What’s going on here? Is Paul - the guy who wrote this - being sexist?

I think this is a prime example of a biblical author writing with an ancient and foreign world view, while we are reading this letter through our modern 21st century western worldview.

When Paul is talking about how women should dress and how they should or should not wear their hair, what do you hear? What does it sound like Paul is saying? [Expected Answers: sexual modesty, Paul is being bossy/sexist, Oppressive, etc].

As I understand it, there were a couple of cultural issues at play here. In our culture, there is - unfortunately - a lot of emphasis placed on a woman’s butt and bosem (sp?) as the key marks of attractiveness. Whereas in Rome, a woman’s hairdo played a MUCH bigger role - not only in terms of her looks but also in showing off the wealth and power or privilege. If she could afford a really expensive hairdo with lots of expensive jewelry to accent it, she was clearly someone important (or perhaps married to someone important). So among other things, to show up to church totally decked out with an expensive hairdo would be kind of like shouting “hey everyone, look at MEEEEEEEEEE! Aren’t I somebody?”, when instead we are gathering together to focus on Jesus.

Another part of this passage that we miss in part because of our worldview and our cultural assumptions: the part that says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man… For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” What does this mean?

[Expected Answer: Men are better?]

In our culture, in our worldview, we tend to associate being first with being better. The book “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes” talks about this, and points out how we have sayings like “second place is the first loser” and “nobody remembers second best”. So it is no wonder that some of us might look at this and think that Paul is saying that men are somehow better than women because they were made first.

But, in fact, in the Israelite culture there was this thing called “Primogeniture”. Basically, it meant that the firstborn got a bigger inheritance than the rest of his brothers, but he also had more responsibility than his other brothers, looking after the family and his sisters if and when the father died (Source). As that book “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes” points out, in saying that “Adam was formed first”, that Adam was the firstborn, Paul is suggesting that men have a different responsibility in the church than women, and NOT that men are somehow better than women.

Finally, the other thing that MIGHT be at play here (I would need to do more study to be sure) is that in ancient athenian culture - and I THINK (but I could be wrong) that this is the case for Roman culture too - women received ZERO education until after they were married. They were basically given to their husbands as a blank slate for the husband to educate as HE saw fit. For this reason, it is possible that part of why Paul is saying that women should not speak in the church is that they did not have an education like the men and so whenever they would have spoken up about the Bible, prophecy, or other matters of the church many of them would be speaking without really knowing what they were talking about. Whether that is what Paul had in mind or not, I am not sure.

Because of what our modern worldview says about women, I have to admit that I WANT Paul to be talking about something like the amount education women had. In fact, I feel a LOT of pressure to interpret it that way, which means I have to be extra careful to not jump to conclusions or read my own assumptions into the Bible, but to study this CAREFULLY or I will probably misunderstand what Paul is saying, because strange passages in the bible are look very different when viewed through our worldview than if viewed through the worldview of the Biblical writer.

OLD Books

In fact, a good idea would be for me to read really old books, as well as books from other countries, to ask “how did Christians all throughout history and around the world understand these verses?” Because we are all going to make mistakes in how we understand the Bible, but not everyone at all times is likely going to make all of the same mistakes.

To partially paraphrase C.S. Lewis: Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own [time]. And that means the old books. All [writers from a particular time] share to some extent the [way people of that time look at things]… To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

If our worldview is like a pair of sunglasses that colours things, we can begin to understand HOW the sunglasses colour things by looking through different sunglasses. In the same way, we can start to see HOW our culture and worldview shapes how we read the Bible by seeing how other people in other places and other times understood it and how they understood the world around them. Which means I think there is a lot of value in reading old books - even books not about the Bible - written long ago and even newer books written in cultures different than our own - as those can help us get an outside perspective on our culture.


To wrap up: when we find something in the Bible weird, difficult or offensive, we need to be humble and ask with humility, “what am I missing”? Sometimes, we are missing something or misunderstanding something, and its no big deal once we know it. But sometimes, the Bible does challenge our worldview, challenges us to believe the Bible instead of what the people on TV or at school are saying. Because a lot of what is in the Bible, all the stuff about repenting from sin, about Jesus being the only way to get to God, about people going to Hell… a lot of that IS offensive to people who don’t like the truth and want to do things their own way and ignore God. And so sometimes the Bible will offend us - and that is not a bad thing.

At the end of the day, the Bible is a foreign book, written from a foreign point of view, by a foreign author in a foreign country in a foreign language. And if we want to be able to better understand it, if we want to be prepared for when nonbelievers accuse us of believing a crazy book that says crazy things about women, about slaves, about… everything, we need to be aware of this fact. Otherwise, the satan can use our lack of understanding against us to trick us into believing this world’s lies rather than the truth of the Bible.