Browsing articles in "The Christian Life"
Apr 13, 2014
neil

Spurgeon on overcoming your fears

Each evening before I go to sleep I read one of CH Spurgeon’s evening readings from Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (available on-line here and in audio here).

One of my favourites is April 8th, Spurgeon on fear.

‘I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me’ Psalm 23:4.

Behold how independent of outward circumstances the Holy Ghost can make the Christian! What a bright light may shine within us when it is all dark without! How firm, how happy, how calm, how peaceful we may be, when the world shakes to and fro, and the pillars of the earth are removed! Even death itself, with all its terrible influences, has no power to suspend the music of a Christian’s heart, but rather makes that music become more sweet, more clear, more heavenly, till the last kind act which death can do is to let the earthly strain melt into the heavenly chorus, the temporal joy into the eternal bliss! Let us have confidence, then, in the blessed Spirit’s power to comfort us. Dear reader, are you looking forward to poverty? Fear not; the divine Spirit can give you, in your want, a greater plenty than the rich have in their abundance. You know not what joys may be stored up for you in the cottage around which grace will plant the roses of content. Are you conscious of a growing failure of your bodily powers? Do you expect to suffer long nights of languishing and days of pain? O be not sad! That bed may become a throne to you. You little know how every pang that shoots through your body may be a refining fire to consume your dross—a beam of glory to light up the secret parts of your soul. Are the eyes growing dim? Jesus will be your light. Do the ears fail you? Jesus’ name will be your soul’s best music, and His person your dear delight. Socrates used to say, “Philosophers can be happy without music;” and Christians can be happier than philosophers when all outward causes of rejoicing are withdrawn. In Thee, my God, my heart shall triumph, come what may of ills without! By thy power, O blessed Spirit, my heart shall be exceeding glad, though all things should fail me here below.

Feb 25, 2014
neil

Can a Christian divorce an abusive spouse?

Although there are many differing views on marriage and divorce among bible-believing Christians the majority of evangelicals Christians continue to maintain that biblical divorce is permissible on 2 grounds; that of adultery (Matthew 19:9) and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. (1 Cor. 7:15).

The leading evangelical theologians of the 1640’s set forth this position in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24:6, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.

If divorce is not possible for anything but adultery or desertion then does that compel a spouse to stay in a relationship that is dangerous or abusive?

What about an abusive marriage relationship?

Having read numerous books on divorce I have yet to find an author who defends the idea that God calls on us to stay in the home when in an abusive relationship. Don Carson goes so far as to say that if a wife lives in fear of physical harm because she has been threatened or even actually suffered physical abuse the  church is ‘pastorally mandated to secure her safety.’ Indeed in certain circumstances it may even be right to call the police and to seek to have charges pressed.

I’ve personally known spouses who have stayed in abusive relationships sometimes for the sake of the children. But I want to make it clear, if you or your children are in danger of physical harm then the Bible does not tell you to stay.

But does an abused spouse have the right to divorce?

Some would say that a spouse in such circumstances does not have a ground for divorce. Rather he or she, having moved out of immediate danger, is to work with the elders of the church to seek a true repentance on the part of the guilty spouse and a restoration of the marriage.

She may change the locks, call in the police, but she is not free from the marriage. Such a view is set forth by Don Carson, John Piper and Andrew Cornes to name a few.

But that is not the view of the elders at City Church. Some appeal to the arguments presented by David Instone-Brewer from Exodus 21 (see this earlier post on his view and my concerns). For myself I am persuaded that in a situation where a spouse refuses to repent and reconciliation is humanly impossible that divorce is permitted as a logical and necessary deduction of the teaching we find in the New Testament.

How would I justify divorce on the grounds of abuse from the Bible?

I believe that an abusive relationship where there is no evidence of repentance is a form of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Theologians sometimes refer to it as constructive desertion.

In the church we are to take sin seriously and that includes sin within a marriage. Jesus instructed his disciples as to what should happen if someone refuses to repent of sin as a Christian. We read in Matthew 18v.15-17, If your brother sins against you,go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

What Jesus insists on is that sin, even sin between a married couple in their own home, is the responsibility of the church. The church’s role is to call to account those who are guilty of wilful, deliberate, and persistent sin. And those who refuse to repent are to be treated as unbelievers. Jesus says treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

We also read in 1 Timothy 5:8, If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

There will be times and circumstances where it is right and appropriate to say to someone who claims to be a Christian that by their actions they have denied the faith and they are to be treated as an unbeliever. And that would seem to apply to spouses who abuse their spouses.

Now the goal of such church discipline is their restoration to the faith and reconciliation to their spouse. However where no reconciliation is possible, for example where the guilty spouse wants nothing more to do with the church, it would seem appropriate that after a time of delay and when all prospect of reconciliation has gone then the innocent party in the marriage is free from their marriage because they have been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.

We considered the conclusion of English theologians of the Westminster Assembly earlier in this post and one of the greatest Puritan preachers of the previous of the previous generation was William Perkins. In his work on the Christian family he said:

Like unto desertion is malicious and spiteful dealing of married folks one with the other. Malicious dealing is, when dwelling together, they require of each other intolerable conditions …if the husband threateneth hurt, the believing wife may fife in this case; and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threat, are equipollent.

As elders at City we would argue that there are two grounds for divorce but the second ground of dissertion may extend to abusive reationships even where both parties profess a Christian faith.  If, after investigation by the church, we conclude that, to use Perkins language, intolerable or abusive conditions are imposed on a spouse and the guilty party is unwilling to repent the innocent party may seek a divorce.

That would certainly seem to cover incidences of violence, threats of violence, it may also include extreme or prolonged psychological abuse or emotional trauma, intimidation, alcohol abuse, perhaps even chronic gambling addiction.

Extending this second ground is fraught with difficulty and there can be few if any hard and fast rules. But as elders in our position paper we will be setting forth three sets of circumstances where we believe that the church is able to recognise a divorce as biblically sanctioned.

1. Adultery within marriage permits the believer to instigate a divorce

2. Abandonment or desertion by unbelieving spouse permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).

3. Abuse which results in constructive desertion permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).

 

Feb 20, 2014
neil

Has this one man changed our view on Jesus and divorce forever?

David Instone-Brewer is a scholar based in Cambridge who in 2002 wrote a book entitled Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible offering a radical new interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. A second, popular-level book,  Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities was written in 2003. For a summary of his views and something of the controversy it has sparked you can read his Christianity Today article here, a Time Magazine feature here and John Piper’s response here.

In essence, Instone-Brewer’s argument is that although on first reading it looks as if Jesus is setting out his total position on divorce, in telling us of one ground for divorce, porneia, Jesus is in fact not telling us everything he believes on divorce in this one text. Rather, he is, in fact, only giving his interpretation on one particular debate amongst the Pharisees over one aspect of divorce.

The key passage often debated by the Pharisees of Jesus day is Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The key phrase is in verse 1: “something indecent” (erwath dabar).  The exact meaning of the phrase is difficult to capture, and the Jews argued about it constantly. The phrase is actually used a chapter earlier in Deuteronomy 23:12-14.

You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you

Kevin De Young comments ‘it seems to mean something repulsive, something indecent.  But it’s not a precise phrase. Because of this ambiguity, two different rabbinical schools emerged. On one side was the more conservative Shammai school, and on the other, the more liberal Hillel school, both well known around the time of Jesus.‘

And Jewish history records their dispute.  For in the Mishnah we read: The School of .Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.  And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.

Essentially, in reference to this same verse the Shammai Pharisees emphasized “indecency” whereas the Hillel emphasized “anything.” For the more conservative school of Pharisees only the indecency of adultery justified divorce in Deut. 24v.1 where as for the liberal school of Hillel there was effectively no-fault divorce because this verse allowed a man to divorce his wife for pretty much ‘anything’.

Instone-Brewer argues that once we understand the debate that was raging between the two schools of Pharisees we see that what the Pharisees are doing in Matthew 19 is not asking him to give us his total view on divorce but simply to declare where he stood in relation to the debate over Deut. 24:1. So all we should conclude from Matthew 19 is that Jesus sided with the conservative Pharisees in his interpretation of this verse.

According to Instone-Brewer, when the church thought that Matthew 19v.9 set out Jesus’ thinking on divorce, the church was mistaken. We’ve misunderstood Jesus.

The second argument Instone-Brewer presents is that in the Old Testament law we find another key text for thinking about divorce. A place where Scripture gives further grounds for divorce can be found in Exodus 21:10-11.

If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Instone-Brewer argues that in the Bible we find four grounds for divorce. Adultery from Deut. 24v.1 but also forms of marital neglect as set out in Exodus 21, namely, a failure of a husband to provide food, clothing and marital rights (sexual intercourse).

We could represent, somewhat simplistically, the following views on divorce at the time of Jesus according to the thesis.

Liberal Pharisees Conservative Pharisees Jesus (according to I-B)
Deut 24 ‘Any cause’ Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex) Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex)

The picture Instone-Brewer presents therefore is one in which Jesus believed that which a conservative Jew of his day believed on four grounds for divorce (although he did disagree with them in other respects when it came to divorce and remarriage).  Which results in a view of Jesus in which he permits multiple grounds for initiating a righteous divorce; adultery and a failure to fulfil marital obligations of food, clothing or sexual intimacy.

What should we conclude about Instone-Brewer’s thesis? I find it problematic and I will sketch in outline form six reasons as to why I cannot reconcile his view with a reading of the text.

1. An argument from silence. It is as John Piper and others have pointed out an argument from silence. Nowhere does Jesus say anything about further grounds for divorce other than porneia. Instone-Brewer himself says ‘all these arguments suggesting that Jesus allowed other Old Testament grounds for divorce are arguments from silence, and so they must be treated with caution.’

Instone-Brewer argues that was because in Matthew 19 Jesus is answering a specific question about his reading of Deut. 24:1. But in Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the mount Jesus is not debating with the Pharisees nor answering any of their questions put to him on divorce. He is setting forth his own agenda in putting forth his teaching on divorce and he says, Matthew 5:31-32. If he had thought there were other grounds why would he have not said so here?

In Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Instone-Brewer says that Jesus ‘probably’ believed that Exodus 21 permitted further grounds for divorce. I’m always a little concerned when someone tells me what Jesus was thinking but cannot show me that from Jesus’ own words.

2. Jesus contrasts his own righteousness with that of Pharisees. In the same sermon on the mount Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard of living than that of the Pharisees. In Matthew 5v.20 he says ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ He doesn’t say unless your righteousness surpasses that of some of the Pharisees.

3. Jesus confronts the Pharisees. On a more general point from the gospels, whenever we see Jesus interacting with the views of the Pharisees in the gospel he always, without exception, opposes them. Nowhere do we find him siding with a sub-set of them.

4. The shock of the disciples to Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 19 Jesus’ teaching prompts a shocked response from his disciples (v.10). After they hear Jesus’ words limiting the grounds of divorce they say to one another ‘if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

Is it really likely that Jesus’ siding with one group of conservative Pharisees over a more liberal group sufficient reason to explain their shock and surprise? Would it be enough for them to have really concluded that it is better not to marry? Surely it is the more natural reading of the text that their surprise is best explained as a response to his prohibition on divorce for any ground other than adultery.

5. His argument has received no support. When we last looked at Instone-Brewer’s thesis as a church back in 2005 it was pointed out that because it was so new it was hard to gauge what response it would receive. A further 9 years on that is not the case. Many have looked carefully at his argument and I haven’t found a single conservative evangelical scholars who has embraced his position. Theologians, with bigger brains than me (!), such as Don Carson, John Piper and Andreas Kostenberger have carefully considered it and rejected it.

6. Our doctrine of Scripture. No-one in the church has ever advocated Instone-Brewer’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in 2000 years of church history and the reason is, according to Instone-Brewer, that we have not understood Jesus’ words in their Jewish context. He argues ‘in some cases we will completely misunderstand the text if we do not know the background’ and he sees Matthew 19 as a clear example of that principle. However, if 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is to be taken seriously then surely we must have reason to believe that Scripture is both sufficient and perspicuous. Extra-biblical material may fill in some detail when it comes to our understanding of Scripture but can it, as Instone-Brewer maintains, change our understanding fundamentally? I suggest that is a step too far.

 

Feb 11, 2014
neil

What does God think of divorce? God permits divorce

Having considered what it means that God hates divorce in an earlier post we now need to recognise that

The holiness of God means that he permits divorce ¬

Although God hates divorce we also find in the Bible that in a world marked by sin God does in certain, exceptional circumstances, permit divorce. There can be times when it might be right to end a marriage and in a future post I’ll say more on which situations God permits divorce.

In Matthew 19 we see Jesus at odds with the religious leaders of his day. As we read v.4-8 the difference in attitude is obvious.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.

Did you notice that crucial difference in the thinking and attitude of Jesus over against the Pharisees?  The Pharisees said that in the law of Moses there were certain circumstances which required a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees said ‘Moses commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.’

Now Jesus only agreed with them in part. For Jesus knew that the law of Moses did not command divorce. As John McArthur says ‘God never commands it, endorses it, or blesses it.’ But Jesus says (v.8) ‘because of the hardness of human hearts God does permit it.’ In this statement Jesus affirms that divorce is possible and it is possible to divorce without being sinful.

I guess that means it is really important to realise that if a divorce takes place between a couple who are members of the church, although we can be sure that it is as a result of sin, we are not saying that both parties are to blame. In fact it is quite possible in situations of divorce that one party is innocent of sin. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel ,1:19, we read ‘because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.’

The church has far too often been quick to condemn all who divorce and we can be quick to judge others with no knowledge of the facts. In the face of wilful, persistent, unrepentant sin it can be the most godly thing you can do to divorce and the single strongest indicator that this must be the case is the fact that God himself initiates divorce against unrepentant adulterous Israel. In Jeremiah 3:6-10 we read;

During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it.  I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.

We saw in the previous post that God’s amazing patience, revealed in his dealing with Israel in the book of Hosea, is a model for our marriages but so also is his radical holiness.

Real love is not a pitiful acceptance of others — sin and all. Lines have to be drawn and they are drawn as an expression of love. Tough love means telling the person you love that there are limits to what conduct is acceptable in your relationship. If someone seeks to mock God by deliberately breaking their marriage vows divorce is a righteous act and one the church should be willing to, with a heavy-heart, support.

The mercy of God means that he permits divorce

Divorcing a spouse does not sound like a mercy but in many instances it has proved to be the only action that has brought about a true repentance. As someone has written ‘helping others to face up to responsibility without protecting them from the consequences of their own decisions is what tough love is all about. Setting limits as to how far we can reasonably go in helping our spouses allows God to work His loving discipline in their lives.’

And that is exactly the principle we find at work in God’s own covenant commitment to Israel.  When God divorces Israel he sends her away – for a long period of separation – even as he is at work to see that relationship restored. Back in Jeremiah 3, In the very same chapter where God says he has divorced Israel, the Lord also proclaims, 3v.12 and again v.14 ‘return faithless people for I am your husband….I will choose you and bring you to Zion.. .at that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel.’

And God’s mercy is seen in relation to the innocent victim of divorce as well. God permits divorce out of loving concern for an innocent party in a marriage. We will return to the issue of re-marriage in a future post when we turn to the questions of what are the biblical grounds for divorce and when, if ever, is it right to remarry. But God’s concern for the innocent party means, at the very least, she is not bound to stay in the home with an abusive spouse, nor is she bound to her marriage if deserted by an unbelieving spouse, nor forced to stay in a marriage in which her husband is sleeping with other people.

God permits divorce out of loving concern for spouses who are victims of abuse and adultery.

But whether we are single, married, divorced or widowed – whatever our situation – the extraordinary truth that we rest upon today is that God is a God of complete faithfulness to us. Despite Israel’s repeated spiritual adultery – God’s plan to raise up a saviour for us  from the Jews – is gloriously fulfilled in Jesus. God could have given up on us – but his covenant love and covenant promises remain secure.

Feb 7, 2014
neil

What does God think of divorce?

In future posts we will consider in what situations Christians are permitted to end a marriage and if and when the Bible permits remarriage. In this post I simply want to address the question, ‘what does God think of divorce?’

1. The faithfulness of God means that he hates divorce – Malachi 2:10-16

God is a God of faithfulness who keeps his covenant promise with us his people. Would you turn back to that first reading Malachi 2:10-16.  The Lord God hates unfaithfulness in all of its forms and here in v. 11 he accuses Judah of having broken faith.

v.14. You ask why? It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her. She is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his.

God is against us when we divorce wrongly. He is against us because we are breaking faith with him when we break faith with our spouse. That is why we read v.16 I hate divorce, says the Lord. The Lord is a witness against us when we wrongly divorce.

If God hates divorce then we must do all we can to remain faithful and protect our marriages.

When Jane and I were dating, as a birthday present, she spent far too much money on me when she bought me a bonsai tree.  I was thrilled, really genuinely delighted. I admired it showed it off to others, talked about it at work, but I didn’t have a clue how to look after it. And rather than feed it and water it, prune it and tend to it – as a result of neglect – I killed it. A lack of thought, care and attention and within months it was dead.

Now marriage is a living thing and if you don’t give it the time and attention it needs and deserves you might just kill it. No-one sets out to get divorced. I haven’t met a Christian who’s got married thinking it might not survive. But we ought to fear the death of a marriage.

Look what Malachi says, not once but twice,

v.15 ‘guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.’

How do you know that out of love you fear the break-up of your marriage? It seems to me you will do 3 things

i) Prioritise your marriage.

Perhaps the biggest threat to a marriage is simply putting other things before it. In 20 years of marriage I can tell you there have been times when that has been true of my marriage.  So, block out time for each other, take regular holidays, keep date nights and please pray together.  For  Jane and I that was not always top of our agenda but for the past 4 years we have prayed together practically every day, . Make time for sex in the marriage, speak tenderly to each other – remind each other of what you really like and appreciate about each other.

Feed your marriage or you’ll kill it.  And watch out for the very subtle and hidden danger of mistaking  working in your marriage for  working on your marriage.  Many marriages give the appearance of strength because husband and wife are busy sacrificing and serving but not for the sake of the marriage but for a purpose that ought to be subordinate to the marriage.  That could be building a home, raising a family, pursuing a career. It’s not enough to have a shared goal that keeps you busy if you are not directly working on your marriage, building intimacy, enjoying each other. Being busy together is just not enough.

ii) Protect your marriage.

Protect it from other good things e.g. church-activity, work-overload, the competing demands of the children. Can I say that it is one of the most important things you can do for your children to demonstrate to them in ways they understand that your marriage comes before their demands. That could be in simple and small ways such as not letting them interrupt a conversation.

Protect it from bad things – by taking sin in a marriage seriously. Have accountability software – men in particular watch out for pornography. Think of Joseph & Potiphar’s wife. Joseph  didn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble in the form of sexual temptation found him and he knew to flee.  Be on your guard against office affairs.

iii) Find support for your marriage

Most importantly find support from God. As well as praying together it a habit to pray together, make it a godly desire to  pray for your spouse. Giving thanks, praying for spiritual growth. And find support from the church. As a church we want to offer pastoral support at the earliest possible opportunity for any marriage in difficulty.

How many people die of diseases who simply present too late to the doctor. A friend of mine had a growth on his neck. He was a bright student, physically strong, he thought he was immortal and he was naive. But he and I were also doing a summer camp together and a doctor was part of the team. Over the 10 days he kept saying to him, ‘get that checked out,’ because he kept saying it, the message stuck.He got back, got it diagnosed, it was cancer, but because it was caught in time the operation was successful and he made a full recovery.

If something in your marriage is not quite right – get it checked. Don’t be embarrassed. The most dangerous thing you can do in a marriage is think that divorce could never happen to you. In the Bible we also find a second reason why God hates divorce. Not just because he is faithful but also because he is forgiving

2. The grace of God means he hates divorce – Hosea 1 & 3

Nowhere does the Bible demonstrate that lesson more than in the book of Hosea. John McArthur in his book The Divorce Dilemma writes ‘the entire book of Hosea is a picture of God’s forgiving and patient love for his people. A love that is dramatized by the prophet Hosea’s forgiving and patient love for his wife Gomer.’

Hosea the prophet is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel and as part of his witness to Israel God calls on Hosea to deliberately choose for his wife someone who will be unfaithful to him.

In Hosea 1:2-3 we read these words ‘when the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.’ So he married Gomer.’ Israel, committed spiritual adultery against God and God is rightly angry with their unfaithfulness. He is angry, like a wife who comes home to find another woman in bed with her husband.

But God’s response to Israel’s sin is not to terminate the relationship. Rather, as one commentator puts it, his tactic is ‘the artful strategy of an ardent lover. He intends to allure her, rekindling the romance they enjoyed in their early years together…He will entice her. He will draw her back.’ The marriage will be saved because of the gracious and forgiving nature of God’s love.

And once again we see Hosea called upon to live this love out in his own marriage. So, Hosea 3:1-4

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. 3 Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” 4 For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. 5Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.

God is determined to renew his marriage with Israel.

Martyn Lloyd- Jones said ‘God has never anywhere commanded anybody to divorce’. Even after serious sin, even after repeated covenantal unfaithfulness divorce is not inevitable. Not for the Christian. You see in the gospel God has given you resources to stay in a marriage even when others who are non-Christians might leave. Now this is not to say that Christians should passively accept unfaithfulness on the part of their spouse. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to sin in a marriage. Wherever there is sin we should call on each other to recognise it, confess it and repent of it. But where there is true repentance then restoration is possible and should be worked for –to the glory of God.

Some of you know that at first hand. You’ve witnessed parents working through issues of serious sin. Maybe even in your own marriage. And you’ve found that where there is true repentance – grace triumphs over sin! Just think what a powerful testimony it is when by God’s grace we are able to forgive and forget and re-build marriages on a foundation of grace. It brings glory to God that with the grace of God we are able to overcome sin.

As elders we believe that divorce ought to be avoided if at all possible. And that means that we will always discourage divorce and work wherever possible towards reconciliation because that is our experience of God’s love for us in the gospel. You see the Bible calls on us not just to honour our vows but to exhibit the character of Christ in our lives.

In the next post we will see that although God hates divorce he also permits it.

Jan 31, 2014
neil

Sharing our faith – this diagram might help

Most Christians recognise the importance of sharing our faith with our family and friends and yet little thought goes into how we go about it. Let me suggest this simple model (adapted from some material by Oivind Augland on church planting movements.)

The two steps we need to take are to recognise 3 crucial ingredients to our personal evangelism and then consider the 3 sets of relationships between the ingredients that can help us be most effective.

1. Be spiritually available to God. The heart of personal evangelism is a heart that is ready to serve God.  We won’t make ourselves available to others unless we are already  ’available’ to God.  So make a desire to speak of Christ a measure of your Christian walk, asking that he would use us and speak through us as well as asking that we would be bold and clear, making the most of every opportunity in evangelism (c.f. Col. 4:2-6).

2. Build your number of friendships. Some of us have natural opportunities to build our base of contacts or acquaintances; maybe our work constantly introduces us to new people or we meet other parents through our kids. That said, building a friendship base require us to go beyond occasional casual conversations to the kind of relationship that marks out friendship. That could mean choosing to initiate conversation by  a) sharing more personal information, b) asking thoughtful questions, c) remembering important information eg what someone said they were planning to do at the weekend, the names of their family members, interests and hobbies,etc. d) managing your timetable so that you are more likely to cross paths eg arriving at the school gate at the same time each day, looking for the same assistant at the checkout, e) offering support, help, advice (as appropriate).

Whatever it might look like for you, it certainly means investing time and effort.

3. Spend time with friends. There’s not much point having friends if we don’t invest in those friendships. Like much of life its a choice between the best thing to do and a good thing to do. For Christians stuck into church that might mean we’ve made a default choice to spend most of our time with Christian friends (and church meetings!) and neglected our friends and neighbours around us. Unless we make them a priority chances are we’ll continue to give our energies to church-life. If Christ has commanded us to go and make disciples then maybe the balance needs addressing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 sets of relationships

Put these things in place and we’re on our way. But there is something to be said for exploring the relationship between the circles (see the diagram below).

1, Prayer is where our being spiritually available to God and building friendship circles overlap. Our commitment to build friendships and be used by God is seen in our daily decision to pray for those we would like to build friendships with. Pray for opportunity and wisdom.

2. Discernment might well describe the relationship between being available and growing relationships. We can’t possibly be spending the kind of time we might like with all of our non-Christian friends and relations. So as we pray we ask God to help us discern who to give our time and energies too and which relationships to pursue.

3. Action is where building the friendship base and nurturing those relationships kick in. That means being intentional and being proactive in these relationships. We need to clear our diaries, change our priorities, be proactive in extending invitations as we seek opportunities to share Christ.

Putting all of that together and we have ‘MI’ or maximum impact.

Jan 21, 2014
neil

In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box

What exactly is God’s purpose for marriage?

In Ephesians 5.31-32 we read ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.

For many people marriage is a total mystery. Maybe it’s a mystery to you that anyone would want to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires.  Some of us might question why anyone would ever want to give up their freedom it that way.  Maybe it’s a mystery for you that people still think marriage works – you’ve experienced marriages that have been painful or come undone.

When Paul uses the word mystery he doesn’t so much mean something that is beyond our understanding. By mystery he means something that is hidden and must be revealed. The word mystery could equally be translated ‘secret’.  In other words Paul wants us to know the secret of marriage. What could be more important to us not only to know what marriage is but what it is for.

So what is the secret of marriage?

Paul says the secret, v.32, is that marriage is ‘about Christ and the church.’ We can’t understand God’s purpose for our marriages, as believers, unless we look deeply at the relationship between Christ and the church. What on earth does Paul mean?

 I’ve used this illustration at a few weddings recently but I think it captures something of the idea. A 2000 piece jigsaw is hardly a wedding present many people would put on their list. But imagine I gave a couple a 2000 piece puzzle but without the box.  You know that if you can only put them all together they would make a beautiful picture. But what is a puzzle becomes more of a mystery when there is no picture on the box to look at – you just don’t know where to begin.

In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box. We just don’t know what we’re meant to be making of it. Now think what pressure that puts relationships under, when you are competing to make different things of the puzzle.  Inevitably it leads to stress and conflict.

But the Bible insists that the key to marriage is to understand that the picture on the box is here in the Bible. We know that there is a day still to come when God will have a relationship with his people so perfect, so intimate, so loving that the nearest we come to it on earth, the only way we know how to describe it is a marriage. Christ and the church are made for each other, they will share eternity together in a perfect relationship.

Marriage now is about re-creating in our lives a picture of the marriage that is still to come. The pieces become the picture on the box. Marriage and the gospel inform each other. And we see that idea all of the way through the passage. Five times our passage Paul says to husbands look and learn from Jesus (vv.  23, 24, 25, 29 and 32). He tells us that Christ is the head of the church, that Christ loved the church by giving up his life for her. We learn that he cares for the church by feeding it and sustaining it and that the living Christ is united to his church for all time. And then Paul says six times look at the church and learn, (vv. 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it and the living Christ is united to his church.

In our society so many solutions are offered to the challenges of marriage. The state might try to offer tax incentives – appealing to our pockets. Self-help books and agony aunts insist marriage works when we stand up for our rights in a relationship. Paul’s radical message is that husband and wife, by looking to that gospel, learn to give up their rights. The power for Christian marriage comes when wives give up a right to autonomy and independence and husbands give up their right to self-interest by dedicating their lives to the good of their wives.

As we grapple with this passage we find Paul’s key to healthy and happy marriage lies in God, the gospel and his purpose for Christian marriage in the world. Paul will tell us let the gospel inform your marriage and let your marriage glorify the God of the gospel.

Next time ‘why should wives submit to their husbands and what does that look like?’

Jan 17, 2014
neil

Finding God in marriage. 3 ways in which a marriage reveals God’s character

This is the third post in a look at the question ‘What is marriage?’ We began by recongising that there are at least 5 reasons why we need to look at this issue afresh. In the last post we considered the consequences that have flowed from the radical redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract that has taken place in our society since the 1960’s.

Now I want us to reflect on just how what the Bible teaches us about marriage as a covenant relationship changes the way we might think about marriage. The five headings I’m using come from Andreas Kostenberger’s  book God, marriage and family.  As we go through each one I’m going to touch briefly on how a marriage covenant points us to a better understanding of God who has made a covenant with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1.     The permanence of marriage

If marriage were merely a contract between two parties then it could be temporary but because it is covenant established by God it is permanent. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6 and in particular his conclusion ‘what God has joined together let not man separate’ makes that clear.When Christians marry we must never marry thinking to ourselves well if things don’t work out for me in this relationship, if I am unhappy, unfulfilled, or if our lives are pulling in different directions then I can always leave.

As Tim Keller saysto break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.’

James Dobson wrote a letter to his finance shortly before their wedding day and he said ‘I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter.  I have been taught at my mother’s knee and in conformity to the word of God that the marriage vows are inviolable and my entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life – the idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never be permitted to enter my thinking.  I’m not naive on this on the contrary I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering.  If such becomes the case I am resolved for my part to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear if necessary to the end of our lives together.’

How does this point us to God?

This costly sacrifice that comes from committing ourselves by way of covenant is what we see demonstrated by God in the gospel. He made a covenant to love us and he has kept that covenant even though it caused considerable pain to do so.

2.     The sacredness of marriage

Because marriage is a relationship not just ordained by God but as John Stott says ‘sealed by God’ only God can end a marriage. It is not for us to decide that a marriage is finished but for God to say it may be finished. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:1-12 address marriage, divorce and singleness and in this series we will spend quite a bit of time in this passage.  In his comments on divorce we read very sobering words that tell us that if we end a marriage for reasons that God has not permitted then any subsequent remarriage is sinful and adulterous.  Jesus says, Matt. 19v.9, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ What Jesus teaches in this declaration is that there might be divorces that, whatever we might like to think, are not divorces in God’s eyes. For him the first marriage is not over.

Sealed by God, our marriages are sacred. As his children so we must therefore  work on my marriage, invest in it, nurture and feed it.

How does this point us to God? In the gospel we see God practicing what he preaches. However weak our love is and however many times we may fail God his covenant loyalty means that he will not break promise with us or himself. It is a sacred bond. Our relationship with God is not performance-based and he will not withhold his love or his affection because we struggle to honour our commitments. That said, Scripture’s warning is also clear that if we deny Christ and forsake him our covenant with God is broken.  ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’ (2 Tim. 2:12).

3.     The intimacy of marriage

In the beginning God says everything in his perfect world is good. That is the constant refrain of chapter 1. But there is one thing that is not good and that is that the man is alone. Now, interestingly, God says it is not good before Adam appears to have noticed that it is not good. There is no evidence in the passage that Adam is lonely. As Christopher Ash points out in Married for Godmarriage is not there to solve the problems of loneliness.’

Our culture tells us that we will be unfulfilled unless we one day marry. That is not so. In heaven we will not be married, the Lord Jesus never married and many Christians down the ages have testified to lives lived fully for Christ as single people. We will return to this theme later. Rather it is the job that God has given Adam to do that means it is not good for him to be alone.

Marriage is a gift of God to help us fulfil the work God has given us to do. In Genesis 1v27-28 we read ‘so God created man, in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number

Part of God’s purpose for marriage is godly offspring. Christopher Ash says ‘we ought to want children in marriage because we want to serve God. The Creator entrusts to married couples the awesome privilege and responsibility of pro-creating.

There are many ways to serve God but the distinctive way in which couples in marriage are to serve God is bringing up godly children. Ash says ‘never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially mothers what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering careers in the eyes of the world.’

God’s purpose for marriage addresses two big questions of our day.

Why would God not approve of same-sex marriage?

If marriage is about companionship then it might be that a stable, loving, committed homosexual relationship would be considered equal in God’s eyes with a heterosexual one. But, whilst not the only argument against that conclusion, a key one is that God’s purposes in marriage are pro-creation. I want to point you to this little book called Is God anti-gay? It’s written by a friend of mine, who is a church leader and whilst preferring not to use the title ‘gay’ to describe himself he is someone who is attracted to other men. Drawing on those words of Genesis 1 he says ‘God’s purposes in marriage depend on hetero-sexual relations.’ Marriage is designed to bring children into the world.  

Whilst in a perfect world God’s design for every marriage is children, living as we do this side of the fall, sadly, not every marriage enjoys the blessing of children. Jane and I know something of that pain personally having waited 12 years to have kids.  If this a personal struggle for you or friends can I commend the book Just the two of us written by a friend.

Why is sex outside of marriage wrong?

God’s design for marriage is that Adam and Eve should express their perfect intimacy through the union of their bodies. In Genesis 2:24 we read ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Sex is the body-language of perfect self-giving intimacy that befits marriage. Sex outside of marriage is to tell a lie with our bodies because when we give our bodies to another – when we are united to them – and yet are not commitment to them through the marriage bond we make one promise with our bodies that we are not ready to make with our whole lives.

How does the intimacy of a marriage point us to the gospel?

The intimacy of marriage does point us to the greater intimacy that God offers to us in the gospel. At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:4, we read ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’  Our need for close, intimate relationship will be fully met in Christ. What many of us are looking for from a marriage is actually to be found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the next post two further ways in which marriage as covenant changes our view of marriage.

Jan 15, 2014
neil

Marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant

What is marriage?

There can be no doubt that one of the most significant events of 2013 was the passing of legislation by Parliament re-defining marriage. At the heart of the debate, whether acknowledged or not , was the question ‘what kind of relationship is marriage?’ And the reason that Christians and our non-Christian friends have found ourselves talking past each other and have failed to find any common ground is simply this; in our society there has been a silent revolution that has taken place over the past 40 years or more in which marriage has ceased to be understood as a covenant and come to be understood as a contract.

What is the difference?

At the heart of the idea of marriage as contract, Tim Keller argues, is the idea that personal fulfilment and individual happiness. So much so that therefore ‘we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs.’  Many might talk of a marriage being over because ‘we have fallen out of love,’ or ‘have drifted apart.’  Marriage vows still give the impression that marriage is a covenant – huge life-long promises are still made – yet the change in mindset that has also seen the introduction of no-fault divorce demonstrating the reality that marriage in our culture is a contract masquerading as a covenant.

Unlike a contract, in covenants we bind ourselves to another ‘come what may.’  The relationship, rather than personal fulfilment, is the centre.  Keller argues that perhaps the only covenantal relationship that we can still relate to in our culture is that of parent and child. Parents put the child and the relationship ahead of individual happiness and comfort. Parents sacrifice and serve and seek the well-being of the other ahead of their own. It’s practically unthinkable to imagine someone coming into work announcing that their relationship with their kids was over.  Well until relatively recent times it was almost as unthinkable that the marriage relationship could end.

Here’s a table showing how the change from covenant to contract has impacted marriage. In 2011 there were 117558 divorces, in 1860 there were 103. After the 1969 reform act the figures grow exponentially.  Why was divorce so rare for so long? Because in our culture marriage was regarded as a binding covenant.

At least three things flow from this biggest redefinition of marriage away from covenant to contract.

1. Falling marriage rates. The reason people say marriage is ‘just a piece of paper’ is because they are viewing it as an economic contract. Whether or not to marry at all is now really no different from going into the phone shop and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of a contract phone vs. pay as you go. Co-habitation is simply pay as you go. So the table tracks that general decline over 40 years.

2. General acceptance of no fault divorce ad steep rises in divorce rate. Again, that’s what the table shows us.

3. Freedom to redefine marriage and therefore who may enter the relationship.  Why should we exclude same-sex couples who wish to make their commitment to each other if marriage is a contract the terms of which we define. And now that same-sex marriage has been accepted by society it’s not surprising that growing numbers of people want polygamous relationships recognised too. Why should we limit a love agreement to 2 people?  So in Brazil last year a civil union was established between a man and two women.

What does this mean for Christians and their view of marriage?

The real danger for us in establishing healthy marriages will probably not come from the challenge presented by the re-definition of marriage that took place last year but the cultural shift that represents the redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract over the past 40 years. What tv and Hollywood have done to redefine marriage is far more likely to shape the way you think about marriage, even your own, than recent events.

Tim Keller writes ‘the very idea of ‘covenant’ is disappearing in our culture. Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we must take time to understand it.’

For, as we will see in our next post, Jesus says marriage is not a contract but a covenant.

Jan 14, 2014
neil

Why our church is looking at marriage, divorce and singleness

This Sunday at City Church we started a nine week series entitled Marriage, Divorce & Singleness.  I  gave the following 5 reasons for  making this our focus at the start of the new year.

1. Understanding for a world in confusion.  In our times no-one seems really sure as to what marriage actually is. We need God’s word to shed light on this topic with some urgency and in doing so we will find that God’s word constantly challenges the values and wisdom of our culture.

2. Preparation for the future. We need help to make wise choices and decisions about marriage.  Whether we are in a marriage or thinking one day about marriage we need to understand God’s purpose for marriage. What should we be working towards to fulfil God’s ‘mission for marriage.’

3. Healing for the past. For some of us the very thought that we will be tackling subjects that are the cause of much personal unhappiness is a reason to be concerned. Maybe you have been a victim of divorce. For some of us it will be hard to be caused to reflect on an unhappy singleness (through all this talk of marriage!) after having worked so hard to learn to accept it. Well, the series is not here to dredge up hurts of the past and this series is certainly no witch-hunt designed to highlight past sins that have been repented of, but we do want to bring to God our past and seek understanding and a gospel perspective that allows us to move on with renewed joy in our hearts that the gospel is bigger than our past.

4. Wisdom for living well today. We need practical wisdom and advice on getting it right. We will be thinking through how we should live whilst maybe wanting to be married and waiting to be married and yet being single, how to know whether and when to marry. In what ways we should invest in and strengthen our marriages if we are married. What to do if we are struggling in marriage and how to resolve difficulties. Whether and in what situations we might even end a marriage.

But I want to say right at the start that it would be a big mistake to think that the reason we’re looking at this topic is to focus only on human relationships.  Our real goal in this series is that we might all say by the end of it we know our God better and that we have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gospel.

5. Insight into the gospel.  We need to understand how the themes of marriage, divorce and singleness point us to the very character and purposes of God in Christ Jesus. The truth is, whether we’ve ever thought about it or not that marriage, as a gift of God is given to teach us about our future.

The Bible might begin with a wedding between a man and a woman but it ends with a wedding between Christ and his bride, the church. Whatever our views on marriage for this life, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that if we believe the Bible then one day, perhaps very soon, we will all be married.

In Revelation 19 we read these words

Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was give her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

The Christian life IS marriage preparation. Our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ in the new creation is one of perfect union, intimacy and blessing that the only way we can get close to it in this life is to understand God’s gift of marriage.

In the next post we will look at why marriage is in crisis in our culture and how the real and radical redefinition marriage took place not in this past year but 40 years ago.

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