We were surely all shocked at the news of the brutality that swept Rwanda, and, more recently, Kenya. No doubt this bolstered the prejudices of people who had been brought up under Darwinism to see the African people as in some way less-evolved and more volatile. Groups ranging from the Mau-mau of the Kenyan revolt to the Black Muslim/Nation of Islam have profited from Mr. Darwin’s opinions on this. To look closer, though, we have to notice that the skin color does not make a person more or less human, whether that means reflecting God’s image or whether it means marring that image to near obscurity. After all- the first “race riots” in the US were whites in New York City protesting the threat of blacks being freed en masse, and a black slave on temporary contract in Boston wrote his Southern master complaining of being treated like an Irishman! In the West, many of the Native tribes called themselves by names which translated simply as “people,” “human beings,” or, “family.” Simple and noble in one way, but what would that imply about an outsider?
We have seen, in the US, violence and discrimination against people for all kinds of “other”-ness, which can all fit under the greater heading of, “tribalism.” A recent visit to Canada, where they pride themselves for their lack of prejudice, revealed that they do “reserve the right” to hate “idiots.” If a cause can be found to classify someone as an idiot, then that is not discrimination, I was told. So there is not a code against black people, but Haitians, Jamaicans, etc., are marginalised as “idiots” because of some excuse gleaned from their opinionated Press. Americans, I was told, are all idiots because “they” all voted for George Bush, “and Bush is an idiot” according to their, unquestioned, Accepted Wisdom. There is something in the human animal that demands a “lower class” to despise, or we somehow feel incomplete!
Is the Church exempt? What does “all things are new” really mean here, or is there a problem with the “in Christ” part of that promise? Does being baptised, received, confirmed, having “prayed the prayer,” “received the Spirit,” or being “wholly sanctified” make us immune to such nonsense? Is there anyone we exclude from our “tribe” of Accepted Human Beings?
Of course, there are Spiritual Formation issues- We want to make sure that a pastor has a godly lifestyle like we want our surgeon or air pilot to be reasonably sober, and it would be nice to know who is watching our children, but do we use circumstances which may be beyond a person’s control to keep them away from our fellowship, and from sharing in the grace of God? In the last count, do we only love the ones we choose? Has the Church become like the proverbial Dog in the Manger who has no real use for the straw he sleeps on, but chases off the hungry ox to protect his own comfort? If we fail to welcome someone, or somehow keep them away from the eternal life Christ died to give to us all, then are we better, or worse, than the frenzied Rwandans who denied their neighbors earthly life?
We can leave this where it is, and most readers will close the page thinking of all the ways that other people need to read this. Is that so? Today in America, millions of black churchgoers are in need of a studied theological message in their sermons, and millions of white churchgoers will leave church this Sunday with their hearts no more touched in the service than if they had been watching Mr. Rogers re-runs. Cross that line, and do not expect a call from the pastor the next week. (At least there’s not the likelihood of a midnight visit from the deacons!) How about the man who tells the pastor, “I so adored the service?” What about a single dad? How many members are actively working to care for those in need during the week? Do we think that the “Sheep and the Goats” is just a parable Jesus forgot to explain? Wouldn’t the little dog rather go rest in his Master’s lap than wear himself out snarling at other of Master’s creatures?
For a change in pace, there is an issue that has been “in the news” now for over 500, maybe a thousand years or so. What, and where, exactly, is the Church? At one time it was seen as a cooperative fellowship of Christian gatherings and communities. Then there came a trend of which bishop, province, or diocese had higher status for solving questions as they arose, and next there was a split between the Western churches “under” Rome and those in the East. About this time the bishop (pope) of Rome sent Norman English king Henry II to invade Ireland (where the Church was closely aligned with the Eastern churches) to make “good, Roman, Catholics of them.” This conflict is still in the news today!
Another five hundred years, and the Pope is excluding Martin Luther for holding to a doctrine which had been part of the Church’s dogma for twelve centuries, and Zwingli in Switzerland was declaring war on the Roman Church in the name of Renaissance humanism and Swiss patriotism. Soon there was bloody war from city to city throughout Europe, and when the smoke finally cleared there were three distinct parties, and no distinct winners.
The Protestant Calvinists held ground in the Netherlands and established a seminary there under none other than John Calvin’s son in law, Teodor Beza. When a Ph.D. Professor at that school questioned a fine point of Beza’s speculative theology (whether God had caused the Fall, yet without causing sin) that professor, and all who thought it was a good question were jailed, tried in absentia, and banished from the city at the cost of homes, property, jobs, and friendships. Fortunately, only one of them died.
Next, England’s Henry VIII decided to make use of the diminishing power of the Papacy by declaring the English Church independent from Rome’s influence. Over the next three hundred years the English Church would produce a string of godly divines who would devote themselves to rediscovering the core faith of the Church and, in the process, move the English Christianity significantly closer to the Eastern tradition. This did not, however, bring any reconciliation with the Irish, who remained loyal to Rome (and resentful of English hegemony) though their religion was still rather closer to the earlier Celtic Faith than to the Roman.
At this time another force was at work in England: The proud independence of Swiss Calvinism was gaining a following which would produce more wars, the “Glorious Revolution” which itself led to the senseless slaughter of whole villages in Ireland in the name of “establishing the Kingdom of God,” In time the English Crown was back on the throne and the Church of England was able to maintain control over the more deliberately, “Protestant” factions. Dissenters, generally “dissenting” over matters of prepared liturgy, the material used in building the altar/communion table (and which words were used), what the clergy wore, and how music was used in services. Many left the country over these questions, and many crossed over to North America to be free of interference with their beliefs (lit., in their own words, their “opinions.”)
Predictably, as this kind of Protestantism was being spread, beliefs and opinions became paramount in defining fellowship, and any difference of opinion was likely to spawn yet another division. Fast-forward this scene a few hundred more years, and we see not only a confusing array of “denominations” of Christianity, but subsets, breakaways, and “independent works” continually spawned off of each of them. Not that the break in fellowship is the whole picture: At every “birthing of a new movement” each party redefines what it believes in terms of its opposition to the other side of whatever the issue du jour happened to be, and rejects their what they understand the opposing party’s position had been on the issue. Of the whole of Christian doctrine “once delivered to the saints,” each successive generation receives a smaller portion. Whereas the early Church spent its energy spreading the Gospel through their towns and across the world, the main order of business today is to redefine the Gospel, and the Church’s energy is largely spent in a constant restructuring operation.
All this forces us to beg for answers: what is the Gospel? What is the Church? What, for Heaven’s sake, is a Christian, and how does one recognise them? There are answers, to be sure. Not necessarily easy ones, though…
Obviously, I have my own “opinions” about these things, but for the moment, what are yours?
“..The Husband of One Wife” An odd phrase, to our ears today. One husband to one wife, one wife to one husband, isn’t that the way it works? But the New Testament requires a candidate for Church office be that kind of husband. What does this mean?
In modern churches it is common for that phrase to mean that if a man has been divorced, or remarried, he is disqualified because he is either no longer the husband of the wife from whom he is divorced, or if remarried, then he is still actually the husband of two wives. Alimony could be a factor in this, but it is not. What is the source of this thinking?
During the monastic movement of the Middle Ages there was a strong trend toward a formalised sacramentalism. What this means is that, for instance, while being baptised is a sign of one’s having come to faith in Christ, “Formalism” would say that the sacrament of baptism causes the conversion. With this kind of thinking, reading a passage in which Jesus says, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” gives the idea that the marriage bond, that is, every marriage, is something mystically created by the will of God and is therefore more sacred to God than the lives of the people in that bond, and that it is impossible for that bond to be violated. One way of looking at it would be to suppose that at a wedding ceremony, after the vows (the covenant) have been repeated and witnessed before God and the Church and community, and the priest, rabbi, or minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” that the second sentence anulls the vows and makes his own pronouncement the grounds for the marriage. It no longer matters that they have vowed to love, honor, cherish, and be faithful to one another. Those are the conditions of the agreement, but the sacramental statement has just made the marriage unconditional. If unconditional, then in effect each partner is allowed, even licensed, to break all the vows, to break, disgrace, and endanger one another, all the time their misdeeds having no effect on the “marriage.” After all- Marriage is a “sacrament.” The Bible says so, doesn’t it?
To offer an answer to this, we have to consider two things. First, we need to see that a sacrement, as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace,” is an indication. It is not in itself the cause of anything. But how do we have the idea that Marriage is sacramental? We read in 1st Corinthians thp at the marriage relationship is a “musterion,” a puzzle or a revelation, which reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. While the Greek New Testament called it, “musterion,” the Latin which the monks in Europe would use translated it as “sacramentum.” This was a fair translation in the 4th century when Jerome used it, but words do change their meaning over time, as reflected in the way in which the word shifted over the next 800 years from what could indicate a grace given to being the grace itself. In other words, God taught Paul that he could use the love between a husband and wife as an example (musterion) of Jesus’ love for the Church, and about a thousand years later that became the ground for so many mystically-minded celibate men to presume a kind of “sacramental” aura over each individual marriage which had nothing substantial to do with any marriage in particular. But did Jesus say that marriages could not be broken?
If that had been the case, then Jesus, Whom Christians know and experience as the Word, Incarnate, was contradicting himself. He had given instructions, through Moses, that a marriage could be terminated, for the sake of the wronged party, as a means of protection and for the continuation of the nation (“Be fruitful and multiply.”), and in His Sermon, He had said that, “not one jot or tittle (of the Law) will pass away until all things have been fulfilled.” Divorce, which was instituted in the Law as a “way of escape (2nd Corin. 5:17),” guaranteed the right to remarry, thus declaring the former covenant null, void, and unenforceable. The (former) husband of the first wife was free from that bond and could go on to build a family with another wife, with no disgrace, but rather with the support of the community. In his second marriage, he would still be, “the husband of one wife.” But what about the Corinthians, and the Church today?
The Greek culture had developed, according to Philo, largely from the Jewish wisdom brought there by the Diaspora from Babylon, or possibly from the Samaritan dispersion. Their understanding of divorce, then, was similar to Moses’. For someone to remain single was unnatural. Such a one was not upholding their civic duty to provide children for the next generation and might be taking an unhealthy interest in other’s mates. Why would someone want to remain single, anyway? If someone were divorced, it was in order to have the right to remarry at some point, and probably with little delay. What was Paul’s response?
In 1st Corin. 7 Paul was responding to a letter which had proposed that a celibate life was a good thing (v. 1). Indeed, he said, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (v. 2)” While he does spend some discussion in this chapter on the practical advantages of celibacy he then goes back (vv. 25- 28) to point out that, for betrothed or divorced, marriage is yet an acceptable choice. How should we understand this today?
In short, today we have a church culture which, because of a mistake by celibate mystics some 1,000 years back, puts divorced people in an undefined category somewhere between regular fellowship and irredeemable. Though they may have divorced as a last-ditch effort to save their lives or the lives of their children, they, being divorced, cannot be a regular part of the fellowship and, on the other hand, must surely never remarry! No Scripture supports this approach, though many reprove it. To make matters worse, if a candidate for ministry has a divorce in his past, and especially a remarriage, this same superstitious misreading of Scripture bars him from doing what God has called him to do, and so bars the Church from hearing the messenger God has sent. In a culture in which nearly everyone is affected in some way by divorce, the preacher most qualified to minister to such is the one preacher denied the opportunity to do so. It is hard to imagine the pain this kind of policy creates and prolongs; it is hard to imagine the number of called and qualified pastors whose ministries are cut short and destroyed; it is hard to imagine the number of people who are denied Gospel ministry; but most of all it is hard to imagine how God is glorified through such a confused sense of “obedience.”
In Western society the Church is in the minority. In even the “Bible Belt” only a minority of the population is actually in church on a given Sunday, or is even nominally active in a church. This much is known and noticed. Yet there is enough of a minority that it should have a significant influence- far more than it does, especially in terms of real evangelism. What is the problem?
In actual fact, the “active” Church is far smaller than what is recognised. We start with recognising that 80% of the work, as in any organisation, is done by 20% of the membership, but then let’s look at that membership.
In any given church today, between 55% and 80% or more of the congregation is women. Church traditions vary from one group to another, but it is safe to say that of the roles most directly linked to the ministry of the church, most of them are closed to women’s participation. Without getting close to approaching the Women’s Ordination question, we do well to ask of the Lord had the same policies when He chose women to announce His Resurrection to the men and defended a woman’s right to sit at His feet to learn theology. There were men and women receiving the Spirit in the Upper Room, Philip’s four daughters preached (one may preach (proclaim) without prophesying, but prophesy without preaching?), and it was not uncommon for Paul to recognise female “co-labourers” in his epistles.
Due to factors better discussed elsewhere, the Church has over a 60% divorce rate to a 50% rate outside. In many churches, divorce is seen as a permanent disqualification for service in the Church, except maybe something behind the scenes like knitting or taking a turn cooking for the men’s breakfast. This, of course, is seldom a problem since once a person does divorce they generally become an unwelcome stranger to their best friends, and are gone within a month. This is a majority of the Church’s adults, lost to their churches. Very often, these are people who have risked all they had to save their marriages, and possibly survived the break-up only at the very highest cost, only to see their best friends all to ready to believe any bad thing heard or imagined against them. Not only does this cost the churches some good people, but the ones who stay are poisoned by the violence they have done to their hurting brothers and sisters.
So, then, before examining the increasing marginalisation of seniors and the all-too common practice of giving the “prominent” members full reign in church matters, and before bemoaning that the noble 20% are carrying the load, we have already reduced the number eligible for much else but parking cars down to 20%. If only 20% are allowed to serve, and the 80/20 rule applies, that means that the churches are presuming to carry on with the talents not of 20%, but of closer to 4% at best. And that 4% can’t even claim any great dedication, since they’ve reduced themselves to such an “elite” group by running off all those who wish they could serve. Now if we take that 4%, and divide out the ones holding to an authentic Christian faith in the face of so many innovations, and find what part of that group is not affected by a sense of prejudice and elitism in their having “attained” that status, we might be close to identifying the actual, living, Church.
Faithful Reader, if you’ve read this far, please take this as it is intended: Not to build a spiral of ill-feelings, but to encourage, exhort, beg everyone to examine ourselves in light of the revealed truth and love of God, and apply ourselves to be “part of the solution,” regardless the cost. The Gospel went out to the known world, at first, with no more than what meets at your church on a Sunday. That was with all the technology of a scribe’s brushes and the back of a strong mule. Once the Christians are right with God, once we’ve turned from our own prides and prejudices, and been transformed and anointed for the work we can finish the job, but not before. The time to repent, to learn, and to act is now.
We looked earlier at the fact that God provided for the first divorce documents under the Law, and that the purpose of that document was to show that the marriage covenant had been broken beyond repair, and that the bearers were each free to make their own living arrangements. Remarriage was not only allowed, but presumed, based on Genesis’ “It is not good for man to be alone,” and, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Without some particularly good reason, their not remarrying would have been a sin against God and against their nation.
Even into the days of Jesus and St. Paul, marriage was the normal state for adults in society, Jewish and Greek as well. When Jesus spoke of divorcing and remarrying, or marrying one who is divorced, the conversation He was speaking to points to it being about people who were divorcing one in order to marry the next in line. This, of course, is abuse and hypocrisy, and Jesus never had a lot of sympathy for either one.
As Paul was carrying out his teaching ministry, developing the Hebrew Bible teachings and Jesus’ words to address the lives of the growing Gentile churches, he provided a third witness to this. The church in Corinth had been dealing with teachings from their own pagan backgrounds. Some of the key issues they were facing dealt with the family and sexual integrity, and since his time and culture are more akin to our own we will look at the way in which he answered their questions.
In I Corinthians chap. 7 we can read that they asked him about what seems to be a motto from the ascetic religions of that day: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” He agreed, to a point, but said it is better for every man to have his own wife, and every woman her own husband, and went on to emphasise that within the marriage each one’s sexuality is dedicated to the other. In this he was merely confirming what had been part of the marriage covenant (wedding vows) since Moses, and is yet today.
He did point out that he was not commanding that all be married or not, but that marriage is the more practical state for most Christians “to avoid fornication.” To borrow from another passage, he warned Timothy to “flee youthful passions” and, as we recognise that not only the young have passions, he was then saying it is better to live with someone for whom we can be passionate than to be facing them alone.
But what about divorced people? Modern “wisdom” tells us, “They’ve had their chance. They blew it, so too bad!” God, however, Who created marriage in the first place, knows that every person and every marriage is different, each married person has a different spouse, with every one coming from a fallen background, is Himself a God of grace. We recognise that grace in other areas, but do we make our marriage ethic a holdover from an age of public stonings? Paul goes on to say,
I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (verses 26-28, ESV)
Having earlier framed the question of whether to marry in practical terms of freedom from sexual desire, he now counsels for contentment. Some had been persuaded to divorce their unbelieving spouses, in a picture akin to Nehemiah’s in the Old Testament. Paul advised against this. For those already divorced, he advised not to be seeking out a wife, but then quickly assured them that if they did marry, male or female, they had not sinned. They would not enjoy the kind of freedom Paul had, they would have “trouble in the flesh,” but marriage did not / does not separate us from God. In fact, the way in which he lumps the widowed, divorced, and betrothed together indicates that the modern taboo against remarriage did not exist in his day. Paul dealt with what today is the one sin for which people are driven out of churches and pulpits as a mere fact of life, and not more a matter of blame or discipline at all!
But should the divorced remarry?
As a moral issue, we see that the main point is to avoid immorality, not protect one’s status. But we do find a paradox that even shows up today in secular counseling: “Are you loosed? Seek not…” vs. “But if you do, ..you have not sinned.” The first prerequisite for marriage, and especially remarriage, is contentment. Subsequent marriages have an awful reputation, and it may be from this one thing. No matter how harsh and abusive the wrecked marriage was, the person is accustomed to having a mate, and to seeing themselves as part of a married “social unit.” The harsh shock of freedom often drives people back into “more of the same.” Before thinking about remarriage, then, it may take some years for a person to establish a healthy knowledge of themselves (and of God!),. It is important to be at home in the single state before assuming we will be more content should we remarry?
Some years ago I was looking into settling in Canada. One of the first things I noticed was that if somebody were working in a trade for which the government saw a need for talent, that person was welcome as long as they kept working in that field and kept buying work permits. In practice, no secure status, and not far from slavery. If, however, that person had a few hundred-thousand to invest with the government, that person was welcome just as long as the money stayed in Ottawa. In the same way, the best marriage, or remarriage, is going to be one entered with established capital rather than the intent to work at building some. “Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says, “and be at peace with one another!”
This question has plagued people now for centuries. The consensus in many “Bible-believing churches (should this be redundant?)” is that Jesus said it was an absolute no-no because God has decreed that every marriage is forever, end of discussion. But is this the case?
Before going farther, there is no intent here to encourage anyone to take the marriage vows any less seriously. “Til death do us part” still means the same thing and, as many of us know, divorce can be even worse than death for those so-affected. If you are married, then unless your life is in real danger, that is, if at all possible, make it work, please! Many go running out that “back door” only to find themselves slammed through the brick wall on the other side of the doorway.
If Jesus said that divorce is a sin, and that those divorced must stay single, then we have an interpretation problem. In the Sermon on the Mount He had said that He would not be changing “one jot or one tittle” of the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. As a body, it is “fulfilled” when every figure and prediction has come to pass. At present count, the 2/3 which covers the Second Coming and the Kingdom Age is yet to happen. The Law, then, including the parts in which God gave the statutes for divorce as well as the parts for honoring parents, respecting others’ property, and loving God with our all, are still in effect.
“Giving divorce?” Yes, before the Giving of the Law divorce did not exist. A man had all rights in the marriage, including to expect a deserted wife to wait for him indefinitely in case he wanted to come back in a few years and sell her and her children on the auction block. God, through Moses, changed this for His people. “For the hardness of your hearts it was given” Jesus said. To protect the injured party from continued neglect, abuse, or infidelity the Law allowed a clean break, with a certificate to show that person was free to remarry or, as Moses wrote it, “free to go where she will.” Marriage, even remarriage, was the norm because of God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” and the male-driven economy which made it nigh-to-impossible for a woman to strike out on her own. This would have been the exception, not the rule.
If we but recognise that Jesus is, Himself, the Word, the Logos, of God, then we see that for Him to change course with any detail of the Law would be for Him to contradict Himself as the Law-Giver. It was not His purpose to outlaw divorce, or any other detail of the Law. As much as it can hurt, and yes it can be about like an amputation, if the amputation takes years to complete and the anesthetic is in short supply. But like an amputation it is not done for cosmetic purposes unless one is either incredibly dense or psychotic, but to save a life. In like manner, for the Church to marginalise the divorced would be like a handicapped parking spot being open for all but amputees.
Is this the whole story? Not by a long shot. There is more- We have yet to touch on Jesus actual words on the subject, or the implications in the Church for leadership, or the charge given to modern pastors and leaders for dealing with the situation as it stands. But this is a good spot to stop for questions. What’s yours?
Please accept this letter in response to your questions. Although I’m sure they were meant well, many people do not realise that divorce is rated as possibly the one most painful event a human being is apt to endure. The death of a loved one is hard; the death of a spouse can be much harder than most; divorce, to at least half of the people who go through it, mixes the sense of loss experienced in bereavement with the combined sense of betrayal and moral failure even in those who did nothing to cause the divorce, who were possibly blindsided by a sudden revelation that their life mate had developed “other interests” and had launched a vicious attack on their “dearly beloved” to provide a smoke screen for their sin. All kinds of such scenarios happen every day, so to ask someone for details about his or her divorce circumstances, though possibly motivated by a sense of religious obligation, is no less callous than presuming to rip someone’s heart scars open to “better understand” the nature of their injury. In fact, the religious angle tends to make the pain all the worse, because the victim feels some obligation “for fellowship’s sake” to submit to such probing at least long enough to allow a good grip on the scar in question. I honestly think that to probe in such a way is much more painful even than to ask a woman, with no warning, to describe to all present all the details surrounding a past abortion.
On the religious part of the question, there is a long-accepted belief that it is a sin to divorce. Nowhere does the Bible support this. Malachi describes a man who is abusing and neglecting his wife, while still married to her, and calls his behavior, or attitude, “putting away,” which God does hate. In Exodus we read that divorce is authorised (even) in the case of a slave woman who is not treated with the full entitlements of a wife, so we can easily expect that a wife had such rights if they were spelled out as applying to the slave as well. Before the Exodus there was no such thing as divorce. Men had the right of property over their wives, even to beat, neglect, or starve them. Today, too often, men are the property of their wives in much the same way. Jesus said, “for the hardness of your hearts it was given.” God, not Moses, gave the ordinance as a relief against the hardheartedness of an abusive, neglectful, or adulterous spouse. The point of the divorce was not to “authorise” a lifelong separation, but so there could be remarriage, as it is spelled out in the Law, both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, so to impose a rule against that in the church is to go against what God’s mercy has provided. Readings of Jesus’ words which seem to be to the contrary overlook the historical / cultural context in which He was speaking, and the fact that, if He had said what many believe, He would have been going back on His promise not to change “one jot or one tittle” of the Law.
If you have any more questions, I will be glad to email you a paper I did on a pastoral approach to the problem. I would prefer not to be interrogated on this matter: not that I have anything to “hide” but, at the same time, I would prefer not to be dealing with a combination of the divorce trauma and that of being categorised and “lovingly” interrogated as someone somehow unworthy of the grace of God at the drop of a hat.
Thank you for your kind consideration.