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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Letters from the Best Man (3)

The following is absolutely fictional and increasingly common. There is no Brad and definitely no Jill, in case that is not obvious. There are, however, way too many people in their position.

Dear Brad,

Your question about participating in the Lord’s Supper during your separation from Jill is a good one, especially as the weeks pass and your wife shows no signs of coming home or even of being willing to talk things through with you.

Still, perhaps the answer is not quite as complicated as you are making it.

First Things First

Of the verses you have quoted, I think Matthew 5:24 is probably most relevant to your situation, and I believe that’s the one that’s sticking in your craw a bit. You’ve looked it up again, of course, but I’ll quote it to remind myself:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Okay then. First, let’s talk about your conscience.

I agree that the passage occurs in the context of Judaism, not Christianity. That said, it is a reminder that worship is acceptable to God only insofar as men and women have first discharged their earthly responsibilities to one another. That’s a principle that finds its basis in the character of God, and I think we can reasonably apply it in your circumstances.

Our old youth group leader was fond of saying, “It’s not ‘If you have something against your brother’, it’s ‘If you remember that your brother has something against you’. Jill certainly has “something against you” — or so it appears to the world — and on the face of it, that would seem to oblige you to seek reconciliation.

But does it really?

Reconciled or Restrained

As I cautioned in my second email, it is prudent to avoid overtures that might be perceived as harassment, which today can mean almost any contact at all if a woman finds that contact “threatening” or “intimidating”. This is especially true when your spouse has told you in writing that she plans to initiate legal proceedings. I know of at least one instance where a well-intentioned young Christian man determined to “sort it out” with the love of his life found himself on the receiving end of a restraining order.

Brad, we both wish a quick reconciliation was possible. But you’ve let Jill know that you love her, that you want her back and that you want to talk. To date, she’s shown no inclination to do any of these things, even through lawyers. That’s on her, not on you.

Paul tells the Roman Christians:
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
The important phrase here is “as far as it depends on you”. Brad, I think you’ve taken reconciliation with Jill as far as you can at present in our legal system, and certainly as far as she will allow. I trust your conscience is clear about that.

Free-Floating Guilt

Now, sure, down the road it may dawn on you that you have sinned against Jill in some way of which you are currently unaware. If so, I have every confidence you will deal with it appropriately. In situations like these, the sense of free-floating guilt can be overwhelming. Many evangelicals, especially those of the complementarian bent, teach that if a wife is unhappy in her marriage it is because the husband has failed at his job of loving her like Christ loved the church. (More on that in a future email, but it will suffice at present to note that such a standard indicts every husband in human history while conveniently ignoring the reality that there are two parties in a Christian marriage, both of which are responsible to God for how they behave toward one another.)

So while it is certainly possible any given wife’s unhappiness is due to her husband, this is far from the only reason modern Christian women become discontented. There are some women who cannot be made content no matter what their husbands do for them, because contentment is something you choose, not something that falls on you like the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. So I’ll repeat myself here: there is no spiritual value in repenting of things you didn’t do. Save the agonizing for the times the Holy Spirit convicts you of something tangible and specific.

Bottom line: our fellowship with the Lord does not turn on our ability to guess what we might or might not have accidentally done wrong, but on agreeing with God about the sins we ARE aware of. Paul told the Jewish council in Jerusalem, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” This is what we aim for.

Examined By Whom?

Second thing: your elders. Communion with the Lord Jesus and with one another is a critical part of the Christian life. Your elders obviously understand this or they wouldn’t schedule a weekly Lord’s Supper. Your local church is blessed in that regard.

I do not believe you need anyone’s approval to remember the Lord. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It is not the responsibility of elders to evaluate the condition of your heart, and I very much doubt they want the job.

That said, your elders are getting two different stories about the circumstances surrounding your separation: one from you, the other from Jill’s mother. Dorothy is doing her best to make sure her daughter remains free to come back to church with her reputation intact if she decides she wants to, and it seems to me like she might be doing it at your expense. So give your elders time to sort things out. Truth is not always instantly obvious. I believe you have every right to share in the Lord’s Table, but sometimes we Christians elect to waive our rights for a time in order to better serve our Master. Paul certainly did.

Here’s what I’d suggest: ask your elders if they are comfortable with you participating in the Lord’s Supper given the present circumstances. Let them know you want to enjoy the fellowship of the Lord Jesus and his saints around his table. You shouldn’t have to ask, and I don’t see any reason they should seek to prevent you from breaking bread. But leaving the matter in their hands shows humility, good will and a desire to submit to your brothers and sisters in Christ in the fear of God. Most importantly, it allows the Lord to speak to you through the spiritual authority he has placed over you. The Lord will surely honour that — if not this week, then shortly.

Love in Christ,

Tom

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