The Contemporary North American Church and Middle Eastern Customs

I live in an area with a large Arab population, and I’ve seen two customs that they have which are also reflected in the New Testament.

The first custom which also existed in the world of the New Testament was the head scarf. This is mentioned in I Corinthians 11:2-16, and long ago, when investigating this custom, I came to the conclusion that this was a common sign of a married woman and a sign of modest dress. This was why Rebekah put on the veil when she first saw Isaac, since it signified her acceptance of him as her husband (Genesis 24:64-65 – I think that the explanatory note in the NIV Study Bible is opposite to what the true meaning of the custom was). In other words, it seems to have been the cultural equivalent of a wedding ring in New Testament times. This custom should seem less strange to us in the West when we realize that the same kind of custom was commonplace in Biblical times.

The second custom is that men may show physical affection to other men by a kiss on the cheek or holding the hand of another man. For instance, General Norman Schwarzkopf, a man’s man if there ever was one, wrote how in his dealings with US allies in the Middle East he had to get over his discomfort to befriend the men that he had to get to know to fulfill his mission. And yet we may forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Matthew 26:49), a false sign of affection that was not wrong in itself, and that believers were admonished to greet each other with a holy kiss (I Thessalonians 5:26).

There are two lessons that I can find here. The first is that Jesus and the apostles would probably have been more comfortable and effective in sharing the Word of God with those from a Middle Eastern background than many of us may have been. The Old and New Testaments are largely set in a Middle Eastern milieu, after all. The second point is for us to know the Old and New Testament as thoroughly as we can, so that we can deal with the world around us as it is and get beyond our cultural blinders to deal with non-Western cultures and people. Maybe if we looked at those from a Middle Eastern background more from the point of how Jesus and the apostles lived and ministered, we would find more understanding, opportunities and effectiveness in ministry to them.

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