The same thing can have such a different meaning across cultures. Our understanding is colored by our morphing social tides, so the same gesture could be positive in one place and negative elsewhere.
For example, honoring your parents is an awesome principle. I honored mine by moving out and seeking financial independence. In our society, parents want their kids to launch on their own. It's the mark of successful parents. When kids don't leave the house, many parents become frustrated. They highlight areas where the child isn't trying hard enough to get a job.* Not moving out is, in some ways, a sign of disrespect.
Other places don't see financial independence as a sign of honor and respect. In some cultures, to break off from your parents is the ultimate dishonor. How you honor your parents looks different everywhere and everywhen.
The beauty of Biblical principles is that Jesus wasn't aiming for monoculture. He. Loves. Diversity. He gave general commands, his overarching one being, "Love the Lord your God...and love your neighbor as yourself. This sums up the law..." (Matt. 22:37-40). He knew that would look different in each culture. Instead of trying to make every culture look the same, he sought to make every culture loving in its own unique and beautiful way--loving in ways that make sense in that culture.
We know cultures differ. When we read the Bible, we automatically reinterpret cultural gestures into modern understanding. There's a lot of bowing down that happens in the Bible, which isn't something we do; kneeling in front of someone has >ahem< a very different cultural understanding these days. We don't say, "How gross." We understand it's respectful in the Bible.
Sometimes we can reclaim those cultural gestures. A lot of people kneel during worship. But we also do other things, like put Christian bumper stickers on our cars. Should we avoid doing so because there's no Biblical precedent? No; we take the overarching principle and apply the new context (is the bumper sticker loving or divisive?).
Cultural context is everything. It defines whether people interpret a gesture as kind, confusing, or rude.
Our difficulty with various passages usually results from not understanding context. Many women take umbrage with "Wives, submit to your husbands." It's not because we don't love our husbands. "Submit" (a poor translation choice) has negative connotations nowadays. People have used this command to justify domestic abuse, which is not what Jesus wanted. Our cultural idea of submission isn't loving and doesn't line up with the overarching messages of Scripture.
We could dig into Ephesians, pointing out how Paul first tells everyone to submit and how he tells husbands to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." But at the end of the discussion, we're no closer to understanding what it really means to "submit to your husband" today.
May I have a job? May I make more money? Do I have to work from home? Do I have to do a certain majority of the chores? May I help in the decision-making? May I voice my opinion?
I wondered about this passage a lot when I was single. When I got married, I stopped worrying and got down to figuring out reality. We looked at models of lasting, loving marriages around us and figured out how to make that work for our particular temperaments.
We split the chores 50-50, except that I'm a neat-freak so I inevitably do some of his jobs before he can get to it. He does all the cooking. We both work 40 hours a week. We make all financial decisions together. We dream together. When we disagree, sometimes he affectionately lets me have my way, and sometimes I suck it up and trust him.
It doesn't look like marriages in the first century. It doesn't look like Greco-Roman marriages, even less like medieval, Puritan, or Victorian marriages. But it's a loving marriage, fulfilling the overarching command to love your neighbor.
When I look in Ephesians, I don't see Paul enforcing sexist gender roles. He's answering a pressing question heterosexual couples everywhere are asking: how do I love this alien I married? Men and women don't understand each other. Jesus wants us to love--great, me too! But how do I do that when my loving gestures are misinterpreted half the time?
Paul's answer? Women, give your husbands your respect and trust. Husbands, give your wives your time and attention. It sounds an awful lot like Emerson Eggerichs' love and respect principle. Men want respect and women want affection. This is how we show love to each other. We don't become limp and lifeless partners; we love each other with trust and affection.
There are plenty of people who read the Ephesians passage as-is and have no problem with it, but for many others it's a stumbling block, leading us to wonder if Jesus really is the God of love, when he's advocating "stuff like that." When that's the case, we can't just "read the Bible." We have to study, wrestle, pray, and interpret. (Yes, interpret: figure out what it means. Just like everyone does when we read passages like Proverbs 29:25**.)
My rule of thumb is that God loves. If I read something I think goes against that, I'm probably not understanding the context of what's being said. I can either ignore it, or study the history and read the original text to better understand what's going on. Either are viable options.
At some point you have to decide what you believe in. I believe that God loves me and everyone else so much I can't conceive of the scope. I won't let anything, even my probably-faulty interpretation of a Bible verse, tempt me to believe otherwise.
Word count: 964.
* Unemployment rates are still more than 3x higher for the 18-24 age group. Please be patient with your child. >gets off soapbox<
** What does "fear of man" mean? Is it literal social phobia, fear of bodily harm, or fear of what people think of you and how their opinion affects your life? (The last seems most likely to me, but that's because I know the Hebrew culture's interpretation of "fear" was different from ours, meaning more what you put stock in.) What does "safe" mean? We know we still face hardship in life, so what kind of safety does God provide us?
I chose this verse at random. My point is that any verse you read requires you to interpret. We have this idea that you can read "literally," but a literal interpretation is still an interpretation, and not more likely to be correct than a culturally-aware interpretation.