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Q. How Closely Are We Obligated To Follow All New Testament Commands?

What do you make of the scriptures that Paul wrote of a head covering for women in a worship service…and also the kiss of charity that he referred to; were these just cultural things that were practiced, or commands? I grew up in a very conservative church that taught these things must be obeyed…as well as modesty in dress, especially for women…seems like most churches ignore this...what are your thoughts? Thanks


Dear Friend,

Thanks for your question. It is a good one, and very much an issue of our day.

First of all, I am committed to address biblical issues by using biblical terms. When there is no biblical term (or synonym) I seek to find biblical texts which address the issue, directly or indirectly. But in this case, I believe that when the Bible speaks of “the world,” this term very closely approximates our contemporary term “culture.” Thus, when thinking in terms of the church’s response to the culture in which it exists, I believe texts like these apply:

1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, NAU).

18 “And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, 19 but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18; see also John 17:14).

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:20-21).

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God (1 Corinthians 2:12).

But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-- our faith. 5 Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5)

One can also deal with larger texts of Scripture, such as Ephesians 4:17ff. Paul there urges the saints to stop thinking and acting as they once did, but to have their minds renewed, so that the thinking and behavior that characterized them as unbelievers is replaced with that which we are taught in Christ (see also Colossians 3).

So the question is, “When does the Scripture encourage us to be shaped by and conformed to the culture of the unbelieving world in which we live?” Strangely, the very same things which Christians are seeking to set aside as irrelevant to Christians today are those which are greatly disdained and opposed by our culture. If our culture embraced and valued the things which the Scriptures instruct, how much effort would we expect to find in the church to set them aside, as it is now doing?

Several issues come to mind which shape the way we interpret and apply Scripture.

First, Do We Approach Scripture With A Predisposition And Commitment To Obey God’s Word, Or With A Mindset Which Seeks To Avoid Obedience To Him?

33 Teach me, O LORD, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall observe it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law
And keep it with all my heart.

35 Make me walk in the path of Your commandments,
For I delight in it (Psalm 119:33-35).

I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes
Forever, even to the end. (Psalm 119:112).

“If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17).

Second, Do We See Ourselves As Over God’s Word, Or Under It?

Are we the one’s who pass judgment on what God says, or does what God say judge us?

12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).

The words of the LORD are pure words;
As silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times (Psalm 12:6).

Your word is very pure, Therefore Your servant loves it (Psalm 119:140).

So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).

“For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.
“But to this one I will look,
To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2).

When we arrogantly think we can pass judgment on God’s Word, picking what parts to obey and which parts to set aside, we are placing ourselves over the Word.

Third, We Must Not Approach God’s Word “Legalistically.”

In the New Testament we can easily see that legalistic Judaism sought to narrow the scope of God’s Word, so that its obligations and applications were minimal.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21 “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22 “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it (Matthew 23:16-22).

When we approach God’s Word, we must seek its meaning and application as that which is broadly applicable, rather than narrow and limited in its scope. If this were not the way God intended it, how could the psalmist possibly look at the Old Testament law as something extensive in its implications and applications?

97 O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. 98 Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. 99 I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts. 101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. 102 I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, For You Yourself have taught me. 103 How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 104 From Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way. 105 Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path (Psalm 119:97-105).

Judaism and Jesus interpreted the Law of Moses in radically different ways. Judaism (at least legalistic Judaism) approached the Law as a collection of very specific and precise rules and regulations, a collection to which they felt compelled to add. They sought to create a system of laws that would address every conceivable situation. Thus, when the Law taught that one should not muzzle his ox when it was treading the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4), it was thought to apply only to those who owned oxen which they used to tread grain. But for those who saw these specific laws as teaching much more general principles, the law about oxen and grain was meant to teach that “laborer was worthy of his hire.” That is the way Paul handled the Old Testament Scriptures:

9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:9-14).

If we interpreted Scripture legalistically, we might suppose that these commands have no relationship to us and to how we live our lives:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet [a safety rail] for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

“You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the LORD your God. “You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; also 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21).

When interpreted in terms of the principle underlying the law about parapets, one can see that we are commanded to seek to prevent harm to others by eliminating potential sources of injury or harm to our neighbor. [This is why we put a glass barrier on top of the low upper balcony railing of our church, even though the city building code did not require this. We also installed an elevator for the elderly and infirmed, to prevent falls, and to facilitate access.]

You may wonder why God repeated the command not to boil a kid (a young goat) in its mother’s milk. I believe that these are the kinds of laws that prompted the psalmist to spend much time meditating on God’s law (Psalm 119:97).

Think about it for a moment. The milk of a mother goat is specifically designed to sustain the life of her offspring (this applies to many other animals and their milk as well). Do you see the inconsistency of using that very milk to prepare her offspring for you to eat? So what does that have to do with us, today? A mother’s womb is designed for the purpose of sustaining the life of her unborn child. An abortion uses this as the point of access from which the fetus is torn, in order to kill it. It is like using a life preserver to beat a drowning swimmer to death. These interpretations and applications require meditation, and this is precisely what we find described in Psalm 119.

Coming to New Testament commands, let us think for a moment about the five-fold command to “greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). We should begin by noting that this kiss is said to be a holy kiss, rather than a Hollywood kiss. Many churches observe this practice of kissing one another in a wonderful way, as a few do in our church. But our society has so corrupted the act of kissing that it could be abused or misunderstood. In this case, as with all commands, we would do well to consider the principle underlying the command. I believe it is clear that Christians should openly demonstrate their love for one another by means of a godly symbolic act. Could that be a handshake? Perhaps. But it should be an act that communicates godly love, as well as one that is consistent with other Scripture (see 1 Thessalonians 5:22)

We should be aware of the fact that not all “commands” or instructions in the Bible have the same priority (“weight”):

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:22-23).

Some commands such as these may outrank others:

“Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother” (Zechariah 7:9).

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The commands to submit to those in authority (for example, Romans 13:1-7) do not require us to disobey God, so submission to God outranks submission to men:

27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:27-29; see also Daniel 3 and 6).

It is rare, but possible, that obedience to one command in the Bible may require apparent “disobedience” to another. This is particularly evident in those instances where Jesus or His disciples were accused of violating the Sabbath. Note the occasions where “violating” the Sabbath was justified:

1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” 3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4 how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5 “Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? 6 “But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 “But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 “For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:1-8).

1 Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answering them said, “Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, 4 how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?” 5 And He was saying to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” 6 On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. 8 But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And he got up and came forward. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at them all, He said to him, “Stretch out your hand!” And he did so; and his hand was restored. 11 But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. (Lk. 6:1-11 NAU)

11 And there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.” 13 And He laid His hands on her; and immediately she was made erect again and began glorifying God. 14 But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites, does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him? 16 “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:11-16)

All of this is prompting me to reconsider my own understanding of our Lord’s instruction in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5-7). I used to think that Jesus was saying something like this: “The Old Testament Law taught this, but I’m raising the bar. I am setting an even higher standard than the Law.” I am now inclined to think that Jesus is saying something like this:

“You have always restricted the application of the Law so that you can escape its demands, or satisfy yourself that you are keeping it, and are therefore righteous. When you interpret the Law as God meant it to be, you will see that its application is much broader, and also much more extensive and demanding, so that you can’t escape its requirements or meet its standard of righteousness. For example, you take the Law in its most limited application when you believe that the command “not to kill” only applies to actual murder. But this is not the case. If God forbids murder, then His command goes further, to get to one of the root causes of murder – hate. Since the command not to kill extends to hating, it is sin to hate, for it leads to murder. So, too, with adultery and lust. The Law forbids and condemns lust because it leads to adultery. The Ten Commandments, then, are very broad in their application, so broad that no one should dare to think he meets God’s standard of righteousness.”

The “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees was measured in terms of a very narrow obedience to God’s commands. When limited to the absolute letter of the law, the scribes and Pharisees could claim to have obeyed the whole law, and thus they concluded that they were righteous:

18 A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” 21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich (Luke 18:18-23).

Legalistic Judaism had (and still has) literally hundreds of specific rules and regulations, because they required a specific, literal, command for every situation in life (which we should know is impossible). God summed up the entire Law in Ten Commandments, and then Jesus went on to sum up these Ten Commandments in two commands:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus distilled the essence of the Law down to two commands, something Judaism could never do; they could only expand the law with more and more rules. So, did the rich young ruler really obey the Law, the entire Law, as he claimed? No, not by our Lord’s interpretation of the Law and its application. If the Law boils down to loving God with one’s whole heart, and one’s neighbor as himself, then out of love for God this man would give up his wealth to meet the needs of his poor neighbors. This man’s narrow and restrictive (legalistic) interpretation of the Law gave him the false impression that he was living in full obedience to the law. But when viewed through the broader meaning and application of the Law, this man failed badly. He was not righteous, and he was not willing to embrace what the Law required.

There is yet another way that some seek to narrow the application of Scripture, in order to avoid its requirements, and that is by seeking to view the instruction through a cultural lens. When it comes to those texts which set limits on women—so that they are not permitted to lead men in the church gathering (1 Timothy 2:9-15; 1 Corinthians 14:33-40)—great effort is made by some to restrict or set aside that instruction. They reason that while Paul’s instructions applied to the people to whom he was writing, the circumstances we find ourselves in today are different, and thus the commands do not apply to us. Somehow Paul’s instructions are dealing with a unique (cultural) situation, they claim, so that his instructions do not apply generally.[1]

This simply does not square with the Scriptures. For example, we frequently hear it said that Paul’s instructions regarding the dress and conduct of women set forth in 1 Corinthians applies to women there and then, but not to women now. But listen to Paul’s words, which surely broaden the application of his words, rather than narrow it:

1 Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours (1 Corinthians 1:1-2).

16 Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17).

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17).

But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16).

33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:33-38).

When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16).

One further note regarding the attempt to set aside Scripture by linking Paul’s instructions (or any other author of Scripture) to the culture of a certain time and place is worth pointing out. Paul does not seek to validate his instructions regarding women in 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Timothy 2 by appealing to culture. His instructions are based upon the creation (1 Corinthians 11:9) and fall of man (1 Timothy 2:12-15), or the fact that angels are looking on (1 Corinthians 11:4-10).

Indeed, as I read the account of the fall of man in Genesis chapter 3, and then observe the efforts of those who seek to set aside Paul’s instructions which prohibit women from leading men in the church it seems to me that the current uprising of women today against God’s Word is strikingly similar to the rebellion of Eve in the garden. (And, of course, this is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Timothy chapter two.)

God situated Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden, with a vast assortment of desirable edibles. The trees and their fruit were all desirable. Eve was at least partially right to conclude that even the forbidden tree “was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6; see also 3:22). Satan convinced (deceived) Eve that God could not be good to forbid the two of them to partake of this one tree, since its fruit appeared to be so good. She, like Satan (Isaiah 14:13-14) aspired to be “like God” and she trusted in her judgment, rather than in God Himself, and thus chose to disobey God by partaking of the forbidden fruit. The results were disastrous, and the consequences, in part, are reflected by Paul’s instructions regarding the participation of men and women in the church.

Think about it for a moment. Is it not true that some women resist and reject Paul’s teaching in the same way that Eve rejected God’s “restrictive” command not to partake of the forbidden tree? From our point of view, there was no reason for Adam and Eve to refrain from eating of the forbidden fruit other than the fact that God forbade it (and He did indicate why—if they ate of it they would die). Women are not forbidden from leading the church because they are easily deceived (more so than men), or because they do not have equivalent leadership abilities. They are forbidden for the same reason that God forbade eating certain “unclean” foods – God forbade it. And so the test of our obedience is whether or not we will obey God when it does not make sense to us, when we cannot understand why we are prohibited from that which appears good to us.

What we fail to recognize is the symbolic lesson in all of this, a lesson that God intends angels and people to observe and ponder (see 1 Corinthians 11:10). The submission and silence of women is symbolic of the fall and its consequences, just as baptism and communion symbolize salvation.

Think of what opportunities for witness obedience to Paul’s instructions could provide. A person asks a woman whose head is covered, or who is silent when others speak, “Why do you wear that covering, and why don’t you speak in the gathering of the church? Why are you not an elder, and why don’t you preach? What an opening! She could say something like this: “Well, it is all a reminder of the original sin in the Garden of Eden and its consequences. Because Eve led her husband, God requires that men now lead in the church, and in the marriage. And while my submission is symbolic of the fall and its consequences, God provided for forgiveness, and for fellowship with Him. Because I do not speak or lead, I have more freedom to focus on listening to God, through His Word and through others who proclaim it. The penalty for sin, which began as a result of the fall, has now been taken on by Jesus, who came to the earth, who lived a sinless life, and who died and was raised from the dead, so that trusting in Him my sins could be forgiven and I can have eternal life in fellowship with Him. . .”

My challenge is that we embrace things as God’s Word presents them, and use the position in which God has placed us to proclaim the gospel, to His glory and to the eternal good of mankind.


Bob Deffinbaugh

1 I will not seek to deal with it here, but there are those who would seek to convince us that Paul’s instructions are also his personal opinion, and not God’s command. This flies in the face of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:33-38. We should also observe from 1 Corinthians chapter 7 that Paul is careful to distinguish God’s instruction through him (1 Corinthians 7:10) and his opinions or personal convictions (1 Corinthians 7:6).

Related Topics: Christian Life, Ecclesiology (The Church), Scripture Twisting, Teaching the Bible, Women

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