Wednesday, June 12, 2019

More Teaching Won’t Help

Yesterday I drew attention to what at first glance might appear to be an imbalance in the teaching of the book of Proverbs. Solomon gives many dire warnings about “women on the make” to young men, but no warnings at all to young women concerning the dangers of lustful men.

This was not because God is uninterested in maintaining the virtue of women, as we will see shortly. However, ancient Eastern societies, and especially Israel, had a culture of built-in familial and legal protections for ordinary women which made them difficult for men on the prowl to access or seduce, and this without imposing on them pillbox-style face-coverings and body bags.

And of course there was no internet in those days. Where temptation is concerned, that was far from a negative.

Thus, where there was no pressing threat to morals in a particular area of human conduct, it is unsurprising that we would find little teaching on the subject beyond that in the Law of Moses, with which most Israelites were quite familiar.

Making a Public Display

Of course, as through all of history, women still managed to make a living in the sex trade, and women still cheated on their husbands, or else there would have been nothing for Solomon to warn his sons about. Social interactions between the sexes are not a major subject in the Old Testament, but the distinct impression one gets from reading between the lines is that ordinary men and women simply did not mix as freely as they do today, and marriages were not casually and regularly threatened with anything like the frequency with which they are regularly imperiled in today’s work- and play-places. In Solomon’s Israel, if a woman wished to provoke a sexual response from a man who was not her husband, she pretty much had to make an overt public display of herself in the process.

In short, in such a culture temptations to adultery didn’t sneak up on a woman. Her daily routine made it highly unlikely. If she wanted to sin that way, she had to contrive it.

That’s sure not the way it is today.

This being the case, we might ask if perhaps God failed to fully take into account the needs of our modern era when engaged in inspiring holy writ. The answer to that is “Of course not.” We may not find teaching explicitly directed toward women in three thousand year-old wisdom literature, but we certainly find it repeatedly in the New Testament epistles, where the apostle Paul and others are concerned to encourage appropriate Christian conduct.

Life in First Century Corinth

First century Corinth was a major trading city-state with two ports; a Roman colony with a significant Jewish population. David Horrell says Corinth was “a place of hybrid identities, where Greek culture, language, and religion were reshaped in a variety of ways by Roman colonization.”

Unlike the women of King Solomon’s day, Christian women in Corinth had never lived in a theocracy, not even a watered-down theocracy under the thumb of imperial Rome. Corinth was a place of religious variety. There you could worship Greek, Roman or Egyptian deities without fear of persecution, all while ordering your life more or less the way you pleased, only provided you showed appropriate deference to the civic authorities. Thus, the Gentile women in the church to whom Paul wrote probably had limited real-life exposure to the morality and culture of Old Testament Judaism, and next to no experience in learning to let the teachings of ancient Jewish religious documents dictate their daily behavior at home or in the workplace.

In fact, the experience of many Christian women in Corinth was likely closer to that of modern women than to the days when Solomon wrote his proverbs. These women did not take for granted the various protections afforded their Jewish sisters in Christ under the Law of Moses. Most would not have even known what those protections were. Depending what part of the Roman world they originally hailed from, some Christian women in Corinth may have started out with a very different outlook on sexual morality, chastity, faithfulness and submission to their husbands than that held by Christian women from a Jewish background, not to mention very different expectations of fidelity from their husbands. Some of those ancient religions had the reputation of being pretty wild.

Looking for Instruction

Thus we should not be shocked to find either these women or their husbands reaching out to Paul for clear teaching on the subject of sexual morality. There were probably a variety of opinions hotly debated within the Corinthian church. Paul replies to them with this:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Taking this as the standard, then, “sexual immorality” may be understood as any sort of pattern of sexual behavior or thought which involves multiple partners, a series of partners, sex outside the marriage relationship, non-heterosexual relations or lack of self-control. It is “his own wife” and “her own husband”, singular. It is “wife” and “husband”, not “wife” and “wife” or “husband” and “husband”. Moreover, if the wife has authority over the husband’s body and vice versa, there is no question of the appropriateness of one spouse or another flirting with allowing a third person into the equation in any capacity at all. It is automatically ruled out. Further, it follows that any habit, practice of thought or relationship which leads a husband or wife in that direction even a little bit is also wrong and should not be indulged.

That’s simple enough, right?

Well, no. Corinth didn’t have the internet.

... Sneaking Up on Me

I don’t suppose Christian women are especially susceptible to the temptations of flirting on social media. After all, for every Christian wife trolling for extra-marital intimacy via internet messaging, there kind of has to be a man at the other end, doesn’t there? All the same, I cannot keep count of the number of so-called Christian marriages I have seen or heard about that blew up unexpectedly because someone (usually the wife, though I do know of a single exception) was active on social media and “fell in love”, culminating in her moving out to be with a new partner, sometimes even leaving her children behind.

But let’s be realistic: all temptations need to be dealt with the same way, whether they be the temptation to steal from your employer, the temptation to stuff your face with an unnecessary slice of pie, or the temptation to indulge thoughts about what life would be like if you were having sex with somebody you’re not married to. The operative biblical principle is this: flee it. Run in the other direction. Don’t entertain it for a moment. Don’t even think about it, because the thoughts themselves are inextricably related to the actions they will later produce if you keep indulging them.

Put candidly, it shouldn’t take a special series of sermons from the apostle Paul, or James, or Peter to make it perfectly clear that married Christian women cultivating intimate friendships with men over the internet cannot possibly lead to anything good.

Unlike in ancient Jewish cultures, today’s online world offers plenty of temptations to Christian wives that do not announce themselves as intrinsically evil when they show up at the door. They sneak up on you quite craftily. So we may not see them coming, and I am not sure making extra-scriptural rules for ourselves to head off these kinds of desires helps much. What is important is that the moment we DO realize we’re headed down the wrong road, we hit the brakes with a vengeance and turn the car around pronto.

Turning the Car Around

For example, several years ago, by sheer accident I found myself playing internet Scrabble with a Christian woman from the U.S. who was roughly my own age. I know all that about her because, in case you haven’t played it, internet Scrabble includes a messaging function which enables you to discuss the game and say things like “Good move!” or “Aaargh!” or “How’s life?” I was off work, sick, and unattached with plenty of time of my hands, and Scrabble was a fun way to pass some of it. This woman seemed to have a similar amount of free time and we were at a similar skill level, and we began to enjoy the competition and each other’s company. She told me her real name and I told her mine. We shared pictures. We talked about where she lived and where I lived, and about getting together sometime if it turned out to be convenient. It was quite obvious she was becoming more than a little bit attached, and I absolutely didn’t mind. Where was the harm, right?

I’ll shortcut this because you already know where it’s going. It’s always the same place in the end. Turns out after almost a year of corresponding nearly every day about the daily events of our lives and spending hours playing and talking, she just happens to mention a husband. I just about fell off my chair. How does anyone talk daily about her mother, her daughter, her relatives, her workplace, her breakfast of choice, her taste in music, the TV shows she watches, where she goes to church and what she thinks about this, that and the other doctrine without at some point having one of those subjects ever-so-fleetingly intersect with the fact that there is a great big hulking male living under her roof and doing most of the same things she is doing every day? Can you explain it? I can’t … or at least I can’t offer any good, Christian explanation for it.

I extricated myself politely and abruptly, deleted my Facebook account and have never spoken to the woman again. Not because I had intentionally done anything wrong, but because it was very clear what was happening at her end was not right, whatever the specific details might have been. It may not have started out like that, and it may not have presented any flashing red lights to her along the way, but it definitely ended up as something I regretted being any part of.

Nothing New Here

Now, the verses I’ve linked to above about temptation are not unfamiliar verses. Every man or woman who’s been saved and going to church for more than a year has read (or heard read) each and every one. Yet what strikes me as funny is that for most of my life I’ve been hearing people (again, mostly women) complain that they never get any practical teaching in church about real-life issues.

I’m pretty sure for most of us that’s not the real issue. We don’t need more specific teaching devoted to the exact problems we are facing. We just need to start applying the principles we already know, and applying them hard and fast, in the very situations where we are least inclined to apply them, which would be the situations in which they act to restrain us from doing the very things we naturally most want to do. Hey, if you cannot grasp the meaning of a two-word instruction like Flee temptation! without the assistance of a seminary-accredited interpreter, I’m not sure a series of carefully assembled PowerPoint slides of potential applications would help you much. You’re toast. Moreover, you’re probably self-toasted.

If we have not already determined before God to live out the practical instruction he has given us in the daily interactions of our lives, I absolutely guarantee more teaching won’t help us. Not one bit.

1 comment :

  1. This is a good illustration of the point I made previously that the problems we see and face nowadays can only be remedied by teaching, acquiring, and practicing a greater sense of personal responsibility. Here are two characters where the correct action was taken by the one who adhered to a sense of responsibility, possibly self-taught but sought out and applied out of principle.

    To my chagrin this totally encapsulates what is wrong today, namely, that only your own rules count and nowadays they really do not come from established, tested and proven (as in Christian) principles. For that you have to be willing to listen and seek them out instead of the easy deception that is offered up everywhere by irresponsible self-seeking and self-important people. The ominous trouble is that our political leaders now more and more cater to this false sense of self-importance spread by ultimately ignorant and shallow characters bent on imposing their horrid and shallow thought processes on the rest of society. It is clear that without principled responsibility things will get worse and worse until the control curcuit of divine intervention has to kick in once again, which is usually quite unpleasant.