Herman Melville is best known for his novel Moby Dick, but the author wrote other works as well, including the novel Redburn. This novel tells about a young sailor who sails from Massachusetts to the city of Liverpool, England. When he arrives in Liverpool, the young man attempts to find his way around town using a map of the city his father used when he traveled. Yet the city has changed much since that day, so it is hard to follow the map as a guide.
Sometimes we can relate very well to the sailor in Redburn when we try to apply the Bible to our situations today. Scripture comes from a time that seems very different from our own. It is, in many ways, a foreign world, which complicates our attempts to follow the Word of God.
Obeying the Lord’s revelation, however, is not impossible, as long as we remember that the original meaning of the biblical text determines faithful application today. Otherwise, we can twist Scripture to make it sanction anything. Determining the original meaning requires us to study the background of each biblical text. This makes it easier to distinguish between principles and customs. A principle is a Godgiven standard valid in every time and place. The Ten Commandments are excellent examples of principles. Unlike principles, customs are not eternal. Let us illustrate the difference with the example of paying the tithe. We use money to pay our tithes and offerings, and tithing is a principle for all times. However, the currency used to pay a tithe is a custom — we do not use shekels in the United States today (see Num. 18).
Separating principle from custom is hard at times. For example, Paul, in today’s passage, apparently argues in principle against men having long hair, but he does not specify what counts as long hair, probably because hair length is a custom (1 Cor. 11:1–16). Length is a measurement relative to a standard, and what might be long in one culture could be short in another. A man who has hair that is one foot long, for instance, does not have hair of excessive length if most women in his culture have hair that is three feet long. In any case, determining biblical principles is not always as easy as we might like, so let us not dictate to other believers what they can and cannot do in matters that are unclear.