Principle or Custom?

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (vv. 14–15).

- 1 Corinthians 11:1–16

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.

Coram Deo

When we and most of our tradition has been uncertain about whether a particular command is a principle or custom, then it is wise for us as individuals to treat it as a principle. We should not, however, bind the consciences of others who think the same command is only a custom when there has been much dispute over it. May we be faithful and honest to our own consciences but not look down on others who may honestly disagree.

Passages for Further Study

Ruth 4:1–12
1 Samuel 2:12–17
Malachi 3:6
James 4:17

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