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Thursday, June 02, 2016

“We Should Only Allow …”

I’m reading a twenty year-old article on the subject of divorce written by a Christian whose judgment and understanding of scripture I respect and whose personal conduct as a believer is excellent.

So it’s hard to explain why I feel a bit irked as I work my way through it. I think it has to do with the phrase: “We should only allow …”

I wonder, who is “we”, and what is the biblical mechanism by which we choose to “allow” or “not allow” certain sorts of choices to be made by other believers?

Correct About Interpretation

Now I should be clear that I’m not in disagreement with what my friend believes the scriptures teach. He does a very thorough job of scouring the New Testament for references to divorce and synthesizing these individual bits of divine wisdom into a set of principles, most of which I would have difficulty arguing with. Then he applies those to some typical mucky marital and post-marital situations with which elders in local churches today find themselves confronted, much like Uncle Remus’s famous tar-baby (from which, if you recall, Br’er Rabbit was unable get himself unstuck).

So no, it’s not the specific conclusions my friend draws about divorce at which I find myself raising an eyebrow, nor its seriousness in the eyes of God or its long-term consequences in the lives of everyone affected by it. It’s the question of who is responsible to apply these principles and how they are to be applied.

Never mind divorce: my question is to what extent a church is to “allow” or “not allow” anything of which it disapproves that goes on in the homes of those who consider themselves in fellowship there.

Who Is “We”?

In fact, I’m not the least bit interested in attempting to apply the Lord’s teaching or Paul’s about divorce to specific hypothetical (or even real-world) cases. I don’t intend to get into that at all. I’m not an elder, so it’s not the sort of question I’m likely to deal with any time soon, and I thank the Lord for that. The “we” in “we should only allow” is definitely not me.

And yet it’s also not my friend the writer; he’s not an elder either. And he’s far from a denominationist, so he is surely not using a sectarian “we”. He is not presuming to dictate rules to the Church, per se, or to a group of churches under a denominational umbrella.

I trust what he’s really saying is, “This is what the scriptures teach, and I think we should all think this way”.

What is “Allow”?

But there’s that problem of “allowing”.

Much of the Lord’s teaching on divorce was given in the context of a Jewish theocracy which, despite the sad state into which it had fallen (having diminished from theocratic rule to a kingdom, then to a divided kingdom, then to a pair of exiled, kingless nations, and ultimately to a couple of vassal Roman provinces), was nonetheless still governed to a large extent by the Law of Moses. The teaching on divorce was also given prior to the Lord’s death, which ushered in an age characterized by grace rather than law.

That it not to say for a moment that God hates divorce any less than he did so in Malachi’s day. It is to say that churches cannot approach the issue of divorce today on the basis of law.

We have elders to shepherd us, but they are not little Oracles handing down edicts to be viewed the way Israel viewed the Ten Commandments. The New Testament church (even the church in Jerusalem, which was full of apostles) does not appear to have functioned that way.

The Example of the Lord

In fact, even the Lord doesn’t appear to have functioned that way. In confronting the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar, while laying bare her conscience with respect to her dealings with men, he does not prescribe any definitive solution to her mucky personal issues:
“Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.’ ”
John’s narrative makes it clear the discussion about the woman’s marriage (or rather, the lack thereof) ends here: “Just then his disciples came back”. The woman left to share her story. There is no off-the-record set of instructions from the Lord as to which “husband” (if any) the woman ought to be with.

Monkey Wrenches

Also, note that the Lord is using “husband” [anēr] here in a way that ought to make aspiring Christian legalists wriggle. If the true husband is the first person with whom a woman has been “one flesh” and all other relationships afterward are “adultery” (unless the earlier husbands have all died), how can she possibly have had more than one legitimate husband? The phrase five husbands is a theological oxymoron by some modern standards. The Lord is using language that is perfectly understandable to the woman, but it does not help us much in developing dos and don’ts for Christian marriage.

I point this out not to throw monkey wrenches into the the gears of those looking to run their churches decently and in order, but to point out that the matter of the woman’s resolution of her marriage situation was left to her newly-awakened conscience, not dictated. Though the woman accepted that Jesus possessed the authority of the Christ, he did not act as her judge. He did not tell her what he would or would not “allow”, though he certainly had the best idea of what should happen. She had to work that out for herself.

Channeling Uncle Remus

I mentioned the tar-baby story at the beginning because it’s an awfully good illustration of how certain kinds of sin affect us. Back in my twenties, I think I had the vague idea that sinning was like taking a wrong fork in the road. I suppose some very individual sins are like that: you realize you’re on a path that goes where you don’t want to go, and you turn back to the place where you left the right one before going forward again.

But sins that lead (or have previously led) to the dissolution of real families and the inevitable human-engineered attempts at quasi-replacing them are not the least bit like forks in the road. There’s nothing simple about them. They’re more like getting tar all over you. The divorced Christian is no longer dealing with “good” and “bad” outcomes: all outcomes are varying degrees of bad, though some are definitely better than others.

Elders vs. Dictators

I think most elders who deal with such uncomfortable and complicated situations take a tack similar to the one taken by the Lord. They recognize their role as shepherds and advisors, not dictators. They may respond to the expressed needs of a struggling couple (legally married or not) by sharing their collective understanding of the scriptures on the subject. They may suggest what they believe is best for the couple and best for the church they attend. They may even ask that the couple do certain things and refrain from doing others. But rarely have I seen a situation in which orders are given, and the few instances I have heard of second-hand in which elders did so (or much more often, “pastors”) do not appear to have ended well.

I don’t think that’s because elders who decline to ‘lay down the law’ are cowardly or afraid to exercise authority (though I suppose that can happen), nor do I think they are all liberal-leaning apostates that hate marriage. Rather, it is the appeal to the individual conscience that is most in keeping with spirit of the New Testament.

Now of course it may be necessary for elders to formulate an appropriate biblical response to decisions that have been made unilaterally by couples, whether in legally parting or in legally binding themselves together in an unchristian manner. To fail to do so is to invite more of the same, I think. But each situation needs to be evaluated individually, based on the circumstances and the spirit in which the couple have conducted themselves.

And that’s very different from “allowing” or “not allowing”, isn’t it?

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