Recent Posts
In Matthew 27:8 and Acts 1:18–19, a Field of Blood is identified with an explanation [more]
Week 29: Turn to God Weekly memory verse: Acts 3:19 – “Repent therefore, and turn [more]
Kevin T. Bauder In my first presidential election—that is, the first one I voted [more]
Week 28: Elisha’s Continuing Ministry Weekly memory verse: Ephesians 2:8–9 – “For by grace you [more]
Kevin T. Bauder There’s a lot of talk about gluttony out there. I [more]

Manners and Meaning

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series

"Mind Your Manners: Rude to God"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

What do widely varying manners tell us about ordinate affection? Some reason this way: since some cultures regard eye-contact as respectful, and others regard eye-contact as impudent, these opposite understandings of reverence show the relative and subjective nature of manners. These outward expressions are adiaphora – indifferent, neutral things. The morality lies in the person giving or withholding eye-contact: the person is either seeking to be respectful or not, and this is what gives morality to the action.

No argument that one’s intention to be respectful is a major part of the meaning of the manner in question. But is that all that is needed? If a young Zulu man decides that eye-contact ought to be regarded as respectfulness by his elders, should his sincerity count as reverence in a Zulu culture? However much sincerity the man may have, he still has to grapple with the meaning of eye-contact in his culture at the time.

The fact that one culture regards eye-contact with a superior as rude, and another regards a lack of eye-contact as dishonest evasiveness does not make these gestures amoral or meaningless. It simply means that the meaning of these gestures in different cultures comes about in different ways. Some of it will be stipulative: at some point a particular gesture is simply designated to have a meaning, which the members of the culture will observe. Sometimes meaning comes about through associations and through use: the obscene hand and finger signals are quite different between cultures, but they have come to have a conventional meaning in each culture. In the case of some gestures, something is intrinsic to the meaning of the motion. For example, there is no culture in which bowing or kneeling before someone is a sign of dominance, aggression or suggested superiority.

READ
Distinguishing Between Affections

These various influences shape the meaning of manners, so that their applications can look very different, and even opposite, between cultures. What we cannot miss is what all the cultures hold in common: expressions of reverence, courtesy, and appropriate love. All cultures have manners: and the manners of some cultures have been more influenced by Christian thinking than others. Every culture has its code of gestures, tones, and responses that incarnate its idea of appropriate responses.

This all puts the lie to the idea that in the current melting pot of cultures, any and all responses to God count as reverent, so long as the worshiper feels it is so. Though we are confronted with differing cultural gestures like never before, these each have meaning. The challenge (and it is a large one) is to understand the meaning of certain tones, gestures, terms of address, surroundings, technologies, musical forms in the culture you worship in. What is their meaning? The meaning may well be in dispute, which should come as no surprise in a world which uses meaninglessness as a cover for its sin. This does not absolve us from the responsibility to find out. If something has obtained a meaning through association or use, what is that meaning? If the meaning is shifting, how is it changing and in what direction? Is it consonant with reverence and respect? If the meaning has come about through its created form, what is that meaning? Among those who believe in meaning, what is the consensus regarding its meaning?

READ
Sincerity or Profanity - 2

Certainly, the post-mods will want to assign meaning arbitrarily: it means what I want it to mean. But if the Zulu father will not accept the young man’s revision of eye-contact merely because of his sincerity, is it altogether implausible that God may not regard certain actions as reverent, however much we may wish it to be so? Certainly God is omniscient, and not confined to the meaning found in one culture only. He understands and knows the meaning of all things, whether that meaning has come about by use, association or naturally. He knows how meanings change in a given culture. He knows if that meaning is understood by all, most, some, or hardly any in a culture. He understands how sincere a person’s heart is, and He understands how diligent a person has been to understand the meaning of his offered worship. Which brings us to our last question: if a person does not understand the meaning of what he is doing, is he culpable for that action? If he sincerely means something one way, but it means another, which meaning prevails, in God’s eyes? Or to summarize: is it possible to be unintentionally irreverent towards God?

Series NavigationPreviousNext
David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn currently pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

2 Responses to Manners and Meaning

  1. What you are writing is self-evident. It is true. It is axiomatic. It must be denied, however, and probably as a "doubtful disputation," by many out of some self-interest. I appreciate your attempts either to persuade or to encourage. One thing I've wondered is, why won't what is so self-evident persuade a wide swath of professing believers? Are they not saved? They will conform to the image of His Son. Why are so few conforming, who profess to be saved? Is there an answer for this? I have one instinct not to assign them all to unbelief, but because of my view of sanctification, I find myself regarding them as unbelievers, because I see believers characteristically able to be convinced of the truth.

  2. Kent,

    Impossible to say. I do know that John ends his epistle with a warning to genuine believers that idolatry is a real threat to them. If this idolatry is understood and chosen, we are dealing with apostates. If this unwitting idolatry persists without chastening, we are dealing with illegitimate children. What is scary is that I think much of the chastening and judgement rests upon the 21st century church, and goes unrecognised as such.

Leave a reply