By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dave Howell, The World Service Secretary Of The YMCA, was going to give a speech on his experience in Liberia. There were three speakers before him, and the first mentioned that Howell had come from Libya to be there, instead of Liberia. Howell whispered to the next speaker that he would appreciate it if he could correct the mistake. This second man rose to speak, and referred to Mr. Howell, there guest from Nigeria. Howell nudged the speaker who was to officially introduce him, and reminded him to set the record straight. The gentleman nodded, and rose to introduce him. He said, "Now it is my pleasure to present Dave Howell from Siberia." There are some situations where it is so hard to set the record straight, because you cannot get people to be accurate by focusing on details.
Agassiz, the Swiss Naturalist, was one of the world's best teachers, and many of his students became famous, because his first lesson was on detail. New students would come to his study, and he would give them a fish in a jar. He would tell them to observe it, and he would be back. He would be gone for hours, and the student had nothing to do but watch that fish, and count the bones in the fins, and the number of scales. They would get disgusted and discouraged, but when the professor returned, he did not relieve them of their task of observing. For three days they spent hours looking at that fish, and they learned the knack of careful observation of all detail, and the rest of their lives were benefited, and they went on to become the best in their field.
If you want to be the best at anything, you have got to be an observer of detail. This is not the same as being picky, and a person who is devoted to the trivial. Paul warned about getting all hung up on foolish questions dealing with genealogies. There is also the folly of dwelling on detail. Like the man who said, "My wife and I had an interesting fight last night. She said it was five days since our last fight, and I said it was four." Detail is only crucial when our understanding of more major issues depends on our grasp of detail. This is certainly the case with this complex chapter of I Cor. 7. Paul is making all kinds of distinctions in this chapter, and if you do not give heed to detail, you will miss the essence of his whole approach, which is, a clear recognition of individual differences.
One of the first things you learn in counseling is that people who have the same problem are radically different. You can not deal with people like barrels on an assembly line. You have to deal with them as persons, and to do this, you have to reject legalism as your guide. If the church would have followed Paul in rejecting legalism, and have dealt with people as individuals, there would never have been the dark ages of the church, and the folly that has done so much harm to God's people.
Just one illustration out of many dozens reveals the point. St. Benedict, as a youth of 16, fought off lust for a beautiful maiden. So determined was he, that he cast off his simply garment, and threw himself into a thicket of brambles and nettles. He thrashed and rolled until his body was lacerated from head to foot. This crude, but successful, method of conquering the flesh made him a hero, and he founded a monastery, and gained a great following, and did great things for the kingdom of God. So far so good, but the church officials said, "What is good for St. Benedict is good for everybody," and they passed a law that said all priests were to abstain from sex. They were not to marry, or if they were married, they were to stop sleeping with their wives. All clergy were to be celibate, or lose their office. Some actually were successful. One holy man kept his wife at a distance for years, and when she approached him on his death bed to see if he was still breathing, he gathered up his strength and said, "Woman depart! Take away the straw, for there is yet fire here."
The tragedy, however, is that this legalism forced the non-gifted to live a life they were not fit for. The result was centuries of Christian scandal. By forcing everyone to be celibate, they made a mockery of all the Bible teaches about sex. Sex starved priests, by the thousands, who could have been happily married, were visiting prostitutes, sleeping with parishioners, making all kinds of arrangements with nuns, and, at one point in the tenth century, the Archbishop of Sens had the entire Abby of St. Peter filled with concubines. Temple prostitution became as common as it was in pagan Corinth.
You cannot begin to imagine the mess Christians have made in history by not paying attention to Paul's advice. He is constantly making distinctions, but legalists make no distinctions. They just cast everybody into the same mold, and say this is it, there is no other perspective. Paul says to avoid to being a fool you have got to recognize that people differ. They differ in their gifts, in their personalities, and in there circumstances. For example, in verse 8 he says it is well for the unmarried and widow to remain single, but then he immediately says it is better for them to marry than to burn with passion they cannot control. It is well to stay single, but better to marry if there is this difference in their makeup. So Paul clearly puts the burden on the individual. There is no rule here that applies to all. Which is best for you depends upon you, and only you can know what you are capable of handling. It is folly to make a rule which applies to all which does not recognize individual differences. The church has tried it many times, and it always leads to tragedy. Those who learn nothing from history are condemned to repeat it.
Two tired donkey's came to a stream on a hot day. One carried a load of salt, and the other a huge pack of sponges. The one carrying salt went in first, and when he came out the other side he called back and said, "It was easy and delightful," for his burden was lightened as the salt dissolved in the water. The second donkey plunged into the stream and the sponges filled with water and he drowned. The point is, do not assume that what is a blessing for you is a blessing for others in Christ. It may very well be a burden to them. Celibates who feel all should be celibate, and marrieds who feel all should be married, are dangerous legalists, for if they had the power they would impose their preference on everyone. History is full of this kind of nonsense.
Paul will have no part of it. He recognizes distinctions, and honors individual differences. We see him maintaining the same spirit as we come to his dealings with divorce. He makes a distinction between marriages of two Christians, and marriages of a Christian and a non-Christian. His point is, divorce in never good, but it may, in certain cases, be the only alternative that makes sense. The case he deals with is a non-Christian mate who refuses to live with his Christian spouse. If the non-Christian gets a divorce, Paul says in verse 15, let it be so, for the Christian mate cannot be bound in such a case. It is obvious to all that a non-Christian can just say, "I refuse to try and save this marriage," and go off and get a divorce. The divorce Christian, in this case, does not need to have the slightest guilt for being divorced, unless, of course, they were terrible mates.
For now, let's focus our attention on verse 10-11, where Paul deals with two Christians who are married to one another. He first addresses the wife, and gives a clear word of warning that it is not just his authority, but from the Lord. The Christian wife is not to get a divorce. By not paying attention to detail, I always saw this as a warning not to separate, as if the mere act of separation was itself wrong. Paul is not writing here about separation, but about divorce. This is clear from the 11th verse, where Paul says, if the wife goes ahead and does what he says not to, she should remain single or unmarried. Obviously, a mere separation does not make her single or unmarried. She has gotten a divorce, and so Paul is saying the same thing to the wife as he does in verse 11 to the husband-don't get a divorce.
The one thing that is clear in the Bible is that divorce is never the best way to go. Divorce is negative. Nobody ever rejoices that a divorce is a part of their life. The most liberal Bible interpreters recognize that divorce is a sad ending to a beautiful dream. The cults even agree, there is no praise for divorce. Paganism, and even secularism join in the universal agreement that divorce is not success, but failure. But the fact is, it is a reality. It always has been, and always will be. It is a growing menace in our culture, and Christians can no longer be smug about it, for it is no longer a problem of the world only, it is a major problem of the church. The church can never escape the changes in the culture, and the result is, Christian marriages are breaking up at a faster pace than ever in history.
It is not new, however, for Paul dealt with a culture where the same problem existed. He is writing to Christian couples, telling them not to divorce each other. You may think Paul knew very little about women, but he proved you wrong, right here. He told the Christian wife she was not to divorce her husband. Then in the very next sentence, he tells her what to do after she ignores that first command. Don't let anybody ever tell you that Paul did not understand women. Paul knows some of the problems in Christian marriages are so bad that it is superficial to assume there will never be a divorce. Instead, he assumes there will be, and so he goes on to say what the next step is after a Christian wife does get a divorce. Paul was a realist. He would like to see all obey the first rule, but he knew he had to have a back up plan, for those who would ignore it.
For example, let's get back to the Corinthian husband who is still going to the temple prostitute. Paul knows he will not prevent this sin among all the men. The result will be, some of the wives will be divorcing their husbands. They have a right to do so, for Jesus made it clear, this is a valid reason for divorce. If a mate cannot be faithful, God does not demand that anyone live with such a person. This explains why Paul does not lay it down as an absolute law, that the Christian wife should never divorce her Christian husband. To do so would be to rob her of a God-given right, and Paul knows he cannot do that. All he can do is go on to urge her to remain single, and try to bring about a reconciliation. Paul is hoping that Christian wives can be channels of God's grace, and rise above their rights to a divorce, and strive to forgive their husbands, and keep their Christian marriages alive.
Paul has as great faith in women. He believes that they can let the grace of God triumph over sin, and win a victory. You notice, he does not have any elaboration after telling the husband not to divorce his wife. It is almost as if he is saying, if a husband disobeys, and does divorce his wife, the game is over. He does not ask him to stay single, and try to be reconciled to his wife. I don't know how much we can read between the lines, but it seems as if Paul is saying, he has more hope of a wife seeking reconciliation then a husband. In the Corinthian context, and in much of history, the wife usually gets a divorce because she is hurt and betrayed. She can be persuaded to forgive and try again. The husband usually gets a divorce because he wants another woman. He is not likely to be forgiving and be reconciled, for he has nothing to forgive, in that he is the guilty party.
Whatever the case for the divorce, Paul is confident the wife is most likely to still save the marriage by not getting married to another, but remaining single, and seeking reconciliation. Paul does not add another verse saying what this Christian wife should do if she ignores his second command, like she did the first. What if she not only gets divorced, but then, instead of remaining single and seeking reconciliation, she goes off and remarries another Christian? Paul does not say, here is what you should do if you do what I told you not to do, after you did what you shouldn't. In other words, Paul is not covering all the possibilities by any means.
What he is doing is establishing a pattern for Christian counseling, based on grace rather than law. If a Christian does not chose the ideal, then you have to deal with them where they are, and shoot for another goal which is best on that level. The Christian counselor is not to be concerned so much with punishment for sin and failure in marriage, as with trying to gain victory over them. Christians are making wrong choices all the time, and in the area of divorce and remarriage they make a lot of mistakes. They often chose to ignore God's will, and deliberately sin, and get their lives messed up.
Paul's approach to life is the Christlike approach. It often can be misunderstood as being soft on sin, but in fact, it is the key to victory over sin. Jesus could have justly had the woman taken in adultery stoned, but instead, he told her, go and sin no more. That was quite a light sentence for so serious a sin, but Jesus knew you can bless people out of sin more effectively than you can blast them out. Grace experienced by the guilty in forgiveness and acceptance saves people from more sin than does condemnation.
The goal of Paul is to help the Corinthians get out of the vicious circle, where sin runs their lives, and enter into an orderly and godly pattern of life, where they can experience peace. He does not once hint at any form of punishment for those Christians who are still trying to live like pagans in the realm of their sex life. He does not mention excommunicating this Christian wife who goes ahead and gets a divorce. He does not suggest that the single who struggles with fornication, or goes to the temple prostitute, should be rejected. Is Paul being too soft on sin? He is, if the goal of the church is to punish sin, but if the goal of the church is to win people out of a life of sin, and help them live a life pleasing to God, then Paul is doing what has to be done. Loving the sinner, and accepting the sinner, while condemning the sin.
The legalist, in contrast, is not as concerned about the person as he is about the sin and its punishment. The goal of the legalist is to see that the law is obeyed, or the penalty is paid. Churches, like individuals, tend to operate on a value system that is guided eitherby legalism or grace. The result is, you have many churches where this Christian wife that Paul writes to, would be made to feel rejected, and would be forced to leave. Listen to the testimony of one such contemporary wife.
"Its been 19 months since I've been a member of church,
and it will probably be 19 years before I am again," said the
young woman angrily. "I sang in the choir, attended every
worship service and worked in the Sunday School. When my
husband began to have trouble, we went to the pastor. He gave
us a lot of advice and tried to help, but it didn't work. We were
divorced. Right about that time the pastor was saying from the
pulpit that divorce was the biggest sin in America today. Well,
I didn't want to mess up his precious little group of saints, so
I just quit going to church. And no one asked me back. The
church isn't for the divorced."
This is not an isolated case. There are many thousand who have felt the same way, and many have their testimony in print. June Carter Cash, the wife of Johnny Cash, wrote about her life, and the fact that they were both previously divorced. They both became Christians, but they were hurt most by Christians who could forgive thieves and murders, but who, for some reason, felt divorce was unforgivable. She wrote, "There are those in the Christian church who will never forgive us for those broken marriages. But Christ died for people like me. People who mess up their lives and stand shaking in their boots with guilt, wondering if they're really going straight to hell. But he tells us to repent, and if we really do this and know in our hearts that He has forgiven us, then the sin is no longer ours. That's what I did. And if they cannot forgive me, they must answer for that.
Please remember-we are justified in Jesus when we believe, but it can take a long time to be sanctified." Never once does Paul single out the Christian caught in the tragedy of divorce for special punishment.
The plea of Mrs. Cash is the very thing that Paul is responding to in this chapter. He is dealing with Christians who are justified by faith, but who are not yet sanctified by a life of obedience. Without the loving spirit of Paul in striving to guide such people, the church tends to become legalistic. They say that now you have fallen short, you cannot teach any more, or be an officer in the church. There are times when violating God's will does demand severe discipline. In chapter 5 Paul does demand that the man living with his fathers wife be excommunicated. But in this chapter he does not suggest any such thing for those who are divorced. In fact, he has compassion for those in circumstances beyond their control, such as the Christians married to a non-Christian who wants to leave. In verse 15 he says if the non-Christian spouse divorces the Christian, the Christian is no longer bound. In other words, Paul does not expect a Christian man or woman to be a slave to a non-Christian, and their life style. If they go off and end the marriage the bond is broken, and the Christian is free to remarry a Christian.
This merciful treatment of the divorce has been a part of Christian history. Let me share with you a brief outline of the history of acceptable divorce in the church. By acceptable I mean, one where there is a right to remarry and be blessed by the church.
1. Jesus said if adultery enters a marriage, this can be a legitimate reason for divorce.
2. Paul says, a non-Christian leaving a Christian is a legitimate reason for divorce, and the Christian mate is not bound, but free to remarry.
3. The early church added that abandonment by a mate leaves one free to remarry.
4. When barbarians raided the Roman Empire, and carried people off to be slaves, if a mate was so taken, after a period of waiting, there was freedom to remarry.
5. When a mate joined a convent or monastery, the other mate was free to remarry.
6. If one, unknowingly, married someone they found to be near of kin, they were free to divorce and remarry.
7. If one discovered they were married illegally, such as being married to a bigamist, the right to divorce and remarriage was granted.
8. In our day it is common for a Christian wife to discover she has married a homosexual. Even the most conservative churches permit her to divorce and remarry.
There are no doubt others, but these are those I have picked up in reading Christian history. What they reveal is that the Bible does not give us all the possible problems we may have to face. It gives us principles that can be applied in all ages and circumstances. What God has joined together let not man put asunder is true, but all agree that there are many marriages that are not God's doing, and so man is free to put them asunder.
The divorced single is no different than the never married single, or the widowed single. They all either have self-control, and can remain single, or they burn with passion, and must seek a marriage partner. Those who put divorce people into another category that Paul does not mention, become very superficial in their dealing with the sex drive. There are those who say that a divorce person must stay single, even they do burn with passion. Paul says it is better to marry than burn, but they insist it is forbidden that they marry, and so they must burn. These legalists, because of their stubborn resistance to all remarriage, reverse Paul, and say, it is better to burn than to marry.
Paul wants the burning passion of the Christian wife to drive her back to her husband, and be reconciled. But for the Christian who is divorce by the non-Christian, there is no going back. He, or she, if they do not have self-control, are free to seek a new mate. The encouraging thing to see in our day is that more and more churches are developing Paul's attitude. The goal is no longer to punish, but to help people overcome guilt and grief, and begin again.
The six thousand member South Main Baptist Church is the largest of Houston's 222 Southern Baptist Churches. They have 700 singles, many of whom are divorced, in their active membership. They have a program for healing, and helping the divorced to start over. This is just one of many, and we see that Paul did not write this chapter in vain. In spite of periods of legalism, the church has been able to catch his spirit of love for the fallen and failing. Paul's message has gotten through to millions. Divorce is always a negative thing, but God works in all things, even the negative, for good, and this should be our goal in relating to all who have experienced divorce.