Tuesday, November 17, 2009

President Obama is in China and has been given a warm welcome by people here. Upon arrival he used the occasion to lecture the Chinese people on the importance of 'universal rights' to free expression, worship, political participation and access to information.

What, of course, he did not say was that freedom of expression in the West has led to the most degrading pornography being freely available to even the youngest of children, that in some countries you are not allowed to display a crucifix in public, that most voters are so disillusioned with politicians that they won't even get out of bed to vote, and that western governments secretly keep their citizens under surveillance in a way that the KGB would have been proud of.

Western politicians need to deal with their own issues of freedom and democracy before lecturing others. I have to tell you that I feel a lot more 'free' walking around Chinese cities at night, for example, than I do in England. In England, I am far more likely to have my freedom taken away from me by muggers or drunken binge drinkers.

Anyway, back to the latest series of blogs!

The thing for me a
bout writing blogs is that while I may have a general idea for a series, the blogs themselves are not planned in advance, but develop as they go. The last few blogs on divorce have turned into a mini-series on its own within the one they were intended to be just a part of - if you see what I mean. Nevertheless, these blogs on divorce are meant primarily as a way of asking the bigger question of how we use the Bible to make ethical decisions today. I hope they are not becoming too rambling or repetitive!

8. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Three – Clarifying the Questions)

Let’s try and sum up what we do and do not know about what the Bible and Jesus, in particular, teach about divorce.

1. It is certain that Jesus taught about divorce. It is certain too that he took a strict approach and did not approve of frivolous divorces or divorce whenever someone happened to feel like it.

2. It is not clear whether he personally allowed any exceptions to this ‘no divorce’ rule. Certainly Matthew did, but scholars are unable to agree what Matthew’s exception is. The majority view seems to be that Matthew allows divorce in cases of ‘sexual immorality’.

3. Paul knows our Lord’s disapproval of divorce and repeats it. He finds himself having to apply it in a very different context, however, and distinguishes his teaching from that of Jesus, allowing divorce when an unbeliever who is married to a believer wants it.

4. It is clear that Jesus bases his criticism of divorce on God’s purpose in creation and on the fact that in marriage a man and woman become ‘one flesh’. It should be noted that this does not logically mean that the union is therefore automatically indissoluble. After all, Paul says that anyone who has sex with a prostitute becomes one flesh with her! He is not presumably arguing that an indissoluble union is formed with her.

So what happens when we try to interpret and apply Jesus’ teaching today? Some Christians think it is all very straightforward. Some such as John Piper, who is very influential amongst evangelicals in the States, argue that divorce is always wrong and remarriage is never permissible for a Christian. Other evangelicals would modify this to allow for divorce and even remarriage when one of the partners has committed adultery.

Other Christians argue that while permanent, lifelong marriage should be the norm and divorce discouraged and avoided as much as possible, marriages do breakdown for any number of reasons, not just sexual, and divorce then becomes a legitimate option with the possibility of remarriage.

In addition to the question then of what Jesus actually taught is a question that people don’t like asking. Is what Jesus taught then binding on us now? Christians don’t like to ask this because understandably they want to be loyal followers of Christ. Interestingly, they do not normally apply the same approach to other parts of the Bible. Simply put: because Paul, for example, forbids women to speak in Church would not mean for many that women shouldn’t speak in them to day.

When questioned about this difference of approach, they would, if pressed, argue that Jesus is different to Paul, and that it is one thing to ignore what Paul said today and another altogether to ignore what Jesus said. Actually, I think this is just plain wrong thinking. Not only was Paul an Apostle of our Lord, Jesus was himself incarnated in the society of his day and shared the same humanity as Paul. If there are good reasons for not following Paul’s teaching today, then there may be equally good reasons for not following our Lord’s, hard though this may be for some to accept. I am not arguing that we should not follow it today only that we need to be consistent in our approach.

We have two questions then:

1. What did Jesus teach?

2. What authority does his teaching have now and how do we apply it?

If all this isn’t hard enough, there is, I think, yet another question: what about what Jesus doesn’t teach? This is where Instone-Brewer would argue that we should assume that Jesus in keeping with others in his day would have allowed divorce in cases of abuse and abandonment. This is difficult because, in the first place, it is an argument from silence and, secondly, we don’t know if abuse and abandonment were specific grounds for divorce in Jesus’ day.

This does, however raise an important point. Jesus was asked a question about divorce in general. Many in his day favoured easy divorce; Jesus does not. That much is clear. But what if Jesus had been asked the more specific questions about abuse and abandonment, and, indeed, about adultery? Would he then have qualified his teaching? If he had qualified his original reply to the Pharisees, it would have dramatically lessened its impact, but does his reply admit to any qualification?

With some reluctance, I think we have to assume from what we have of Jesus teaching in the Gospels, as also reflected by Paul, that when Jesus spoke about divorce, he completely opposed it without qualification. There is the possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that he made an exception in cases of adultery. We are left to speculate on how he would have answered the questions we would now like to ask.

So what authority does Jesus’ teaching have now and how do we apply it today?

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