Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Straddling the Fence

The blogosphere is forever.

Well, maybe not forever exactly. Writers whose posts I would be happy to share with the world are being deplatformed every day, it seems, to the point where I have taken to archiving anything I really enjoy, fully expecting it to disappear the moment it attracts the attention of our new, self-appointed internet censors. And sometimes it does.

That said, when you post something online you had better be very sure you stand behind it, because there is a better than average chance it will never go away, Exhibit A being this much-maligned effort by Doug Wilson from 2018 counseling a (hypothetical) church elder’s wife about how to leave her husband.

Among the Christians who disagreed with Doug’s application of scripture to this fictional-but-all-too-familiar case of spousal abuse, Dalrock gave the post a sound pummelling here and here. Then, two-and-a-half-years after the fact, yet another social media wag linked to both the original post and Dalrock’s critique thereof, prompting me to go back and read Doug’s post again to see if his advice was really as wretched as all that.

I find myself of two minds. You know what scripture says about the double-minded man, so take the following with a grain of salt.

The Positive …

On the positive side, this is not merely another sad case of a Christian wife using a convenient opening to bolt from a less-than-completely-satisfying union after spending too many hours sniffling her way through bad Hallmark movies or trawling the internet for a sympathetic ear. The abuse is serious and substantiated by third parties, even if they happen to be the wife’s relatives. It should be acknowledged that Wilson has written the script for this hypothetical case, so it is not surprising he covers his bases scripturally in order to justify the questionable advice he is about to give. Nevertheless, he has obviously given some thought to the matter.

Additionally, Doug is very clear: (1) that bringing formal charges against one’s husband to the church with insufficient evidence is a bad idea; (2) that making one’s case to the world on social media is right off the table; (3) that separating should not be unilateral, but a move made with the prayerful support and counsel of mature Christians; (4) that the wife should not allow her personal situation to be co-opted and used by other, more rebellious women; and (5) that the wife’s “only options at such a point are to remain unmarried or to be reconciled to [her] husband”.

All these are good points. It is also unequivocal that given the current set of conditions, Wilson is recommending separation and counseling, but absolutely not divorce.

While Dalrock is not wrong about what Doug has written, he has perhaps not given quite as much credit as he might for the things Doug has done right, and even mildly mischaracterizes his position. For example, I cannot find anywhere in either of Doug’s posts where he makes the claim that the elders of a church are “prohibited from questioning” a wife who decides to leave her husband. Surely questions are a perfectly reasonable way to proceed, and the wife should welcome them if she believes in her position.

So there is another side to the story.

… and the Negative

On the negative side, it seems impossible to me to justify Doug’s rather abrupt reversal of 1 Corinthians 7:10, in which the command that “the wife should not separate from her husband” is unmistakably the Lord’s, and not merely the apostolic equivalent of a personal opinion. The fact that Paul expresses other well-marked opinions throughout the chapter does not mean this one too is merely good advice; context plainly says otherwise.

Some of Doug’s other arguments in favor of his position are almost as dubious. Drawing conclusions about how the church should respond to a member who leaves her husband by analogy from the Old Testament laws regarding the treatment of escaped slaves is surely among these.

Then there is the following counsel:
“[Y]ou want to leave, if you leave, as an act of obedience. And that’s what it needs to be — obedience. If you leave your husband, you want to do so in the will of God.”
Maybe it’s only me, but that just feels a little too close to self-justification for comfort. While the Lord’s general command is not to separate, it must be acknowledged that this can hardly be intended to be applied universally. It is impossible to imagine that there are no circumstances at all under which a separation might be permissible or even advisable. Physical abuse and child abuse surely qualify. Nevertheless, in view of the words “should not separate” and “not I, but the Lord”, it seems to me departing under any conditions at all ought to be done in a spirit of reverent fear and as an act of desperation rather than in confidence or self-justification. Referring to such a thing, especially when no physical or child abuse has been alleged, as potentially “an act of obedience” or “in the will of God” is in my estimation just a little bit too cute and convenient.

Thankfully, as I say, this is a hypothetical scenario. No real, living Christians were harmed by receiving this well-intended but questionable pastoral advice (though it is certainly possible some might be harmed by misapplying it in a slightly different context).

Separation and Church Discipline

The real division between Wilson’s detractors and Doug is this: Dalrock and others believe that a woman who leaves her husband for reasons they deem insufficient, even if she is not having an affair or planning on remarriage, should be subject to church discipline. Doug does not.

Maybe surprisingly, I’m with Doug on that one. The situations under which church discipline is to be applied are laid out for us in the first verses of 1 Corinthians 5:
“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.”
It is often argued that Paul did not intend this list to be taken as comprehensive, but simply suggestive of the types of serious offenses that call for putting someone out of local church fellowship. I’m not saying that’s entirely wrong (kidnapping and murder, for example, seem similarly serious), but the danger of leaving such a list open ended is that it allows anyone with a hobby horse or grudge to slide their favorite peccadillo in at the end so that when they set about whacking their neighbor with scripture, they can do it with a wafer-thin veneer of apostolic authority pasted over their doughty 2" x 4". I’m not sure that was the apostle’s intention either.

If a woman is obeying Paul’s command to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband, I would hardly accuse her of sexual immorality or anything else on this list. And if she is sexually immoral and the standard of two or three witnesses to her sinful conduct cannot be met, then her church would be irresponsible (perhaps even disobedient itself) to presume to discipline her on the basis of mere rumors. It should be at least theoretically possible to have doubts about certain of a fellow believer’s choices or even to consider that she may be in spiritual danger without calling for summary excommunication.

The Moral(s) of the Story

One obvious moral of the story: not everything about personal relationships is as cut-and-dried as some would like. I do not envy elders who have to deal with such cases on a weekly or monthly basis.

The other moral? If the blogosphere isn’t forever, it might as well be.

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