In my reading this morning I came across this section from a sermon on 1 John 1:1-4 by Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843). M’Cheyne is perhaps best known for his advice in a letter he wrote that the key to transformation in the Christian life is ‘For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ’. The extract from the sermon on 1 John 1:1-4 applies this call to consider Christ to the daily battle many of us face in fighting our fears and anxieties.
Learn the true way of coming to peace.-It is by looking to manifested Jesus. Some of you think you will come to peace by looking in to your own heart. Your eye is riveted there. You watch every change there. If you could only see a glimpse of light there, oh, what joy it would give you! If you could only see a melting of your stony heart, if you could only see your heart turning to God, if you could only see a glimpse of the image of Jesus in your heart, you would be at peace; but you cannot,-all is dark within. Oh, dear souls, it is not there you will find peace! You must avert the eye from your bosom altogether. You must look to a declared Christ. Spread out the record of God concerning His Son. The Gospels are the narrative of the heart of Jesus. Spread them out before the eye of your mind, till they fill your eye. Cry for the Spirit to breathe over the page, to make a manifested Christ stand out plainly before you; and the moment that you are willing to believe all that is there spoken concerning Jesus, that moment you will wipe away your tears, and change your sighs for a new song of praise.”
China already has more Christians than members of the ruling Communist Party according to the Economist. Now its set to become the world’s most Christian nation and all in a country that severely represses the church.
Fascinating article on the Telegraph web site on the intellectual bankruptcy of the new atheism espoused by Dawkins.
Worth a reading this weekend is this Spectator article on the inability of atheism to provide a foundation for morality and ethics. In Douglas Murray’s piece ‘Can human life be sacred in a post-Christian world?’ his honest answer is ‘it’s disturbingly hard to say so.’
(HT: Tony Watkins)
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.
2020birmingham will be holding its annual conference on Tuesday 3rd June in Birmingham. At the heart of our commitment to mission is a belief that to reach our cities for Christ we need to see churches planted that in turn will plant churches. We need nothing less than church-planting movements of all shapes and sizes. At our conference this year Richard Coekin of Co-Mission Network in London will share something of a vision to plant 360 congregations in London over 25 years.
But to reach the people of our cities it won’t be enough even to plant many more churches. To impact our cities we will need churches established that can creatively engage with the gospel across culture, class, ethnicity and every sphere and interest of life. The focus of this year’s conference will be to ask what might it look like for church-planting movements to engage our communities and impact our cities for Christ
If you live in a UK city (or have a heart for our cities) and want to think through what it might look like for you to work towards a church-planting movement where you are then why not join us. If you want to consider what it might look like for your church to engage through social action, the arts, politics and more then this could be a good place to meet with others who are also seeking to engage their communities in this way.
Here’s a short video introducing our conferences.
I have become all things to win all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Cor. 9:22-23 (NIV 2011).
Looking for help in buying the best commentary? Here’s an excellent resource to guide you to the best commentaries to buy on each book of the Bible. Whether you’re looking for an introductory or more technical commentary all levels are covered and each is well introduced.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
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.
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).
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.
Having considered in a previous post what God thinks about divorce the next question we face is in which situations does God permit divorce? It’s important that we recognise that Bible-believing Christians have always held a variety of views. Andreas Kostenberger’s God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation provides an excellent summary of arguments for and against various views. Recognising that godlier people than me have arrived at different conclusions suggests that a certain humility and generosity of spirit is required in presenting our own personal conclusions. In fact what gives us the freedom to disagree as evangelicals on secondary issues is constantly remembering and holding dear just how much we do agree on in relation to Christ and the gospel.
The first thing that we can say is that if we take the Bible seriously then we will accept that
1) Christians cannot divorce unless a spouse is at serious fault
In Matthew 19v.3 we read Some of the Pharisees came to Jesus to test him ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? Jesus’ reply is a categorical ‘no’. In v.8 he answers Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.
What Jesus insists upon here is that God does not recognise the category of ‘no fault’ divorce. His words also rule out divorce for what we might call ‘irreconcilable difference.’ Indeed, if ever there might be permission granted to separate from a spouse on grounds of irreconcilable difference we might think it would be found in the situation where someone comes to faith in Christ and their spouse does not. In addressing this question Paul insists that the Bible calls us to faithfulness to our marriage vows, even if we made them before coming to faith in Christ. Paul says to Christians – stay married to your unbelieving spouse.
1 Corinthians 7:12-14 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Every marriage will go through difficult times but if a marriage can be honouring to God even after one spouse comes to faith in Christ then the gospel calls on us to work through circumstantial changes and remain faithful.
Having seen that we are not free to divorce simply because marriage is hard or circumstances change, what Jesus does affirm is that
2) Christians can initiate a righteous divorce if their spouse is sexually immoral in marriage
In Matthew 19v.9 Jesus says ‘Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ The word ‘marital unfaithfulness’ is the Greek word porneia and it is the word often translated elsewhere in the Bible as sexual immorality.
Why does Jesus use the word porneia? It is a catch all term for any kind of sex outside of marriage – heterosexual sex, homosexual or bestiality. So Jesus rules out any form of sex outside of sex with our spouse.
Why does Jesus single out sexual immorality as the one ground for divorce? The most likely reason I suggest is that sex with someone who is not my spouse is a unique violation of the ‘one-flesh’ union. Kevin De Young has said ‘Sexual sin breaks the marriage covenant because sex is the oath signing of the covenant. Having sexual experiences with someone other than your spouse is like trying to sign on someone else’s dotted line. That breaks the covenant and is a ground for divorce.’
So, what should we conclude from Jesus words in this passage? Two important conclusions flow from Jesus’ teaching here.
Firstly, it is vital to healthy church life that we remember that whilst every divorce is the product of sin, not every divorce therefore sinful because Jesus permits divorce under this one exceptional circumstance.
Second, Jesus words also mean that marriage is not indissoluble. Never God’s design but A marriage really can end. When Jesus says “What God has joined together, let no man separate” he implies that the couple can be separated. This will become important when we consider in a future post whether or not God permits remarriage.
Is this all that the Bible teaches on divorce? Most evangelicals believe that this is the only ground under which Christians might initiate a righteous divorce. But in that second passage read to us this morning we find Paul giving a second ground in which a marriage may come to an end in God’s eyes. Not one in which the Christian has initiated divorce but one where the Christian has in effect been divorced by an unbelieving spouse.
3) Christians may accept an unrighteous divorce by an unbelieving spouse
Having called on Christians to stay in their marriages with unbelieving spouses Paul goes on to say 1 Cor 7v.15 ‘but if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.’
Under the Roman law of the first century it was not necessary to consult a lawyer and go to court to get divorced. It was enough to simply abandon the marriage. Walking out with no intention of returning was to divorce your spouse. In our culture we differentiate between separation and divorce but neither the Bible nor Roman law made such a distinction.
Paul teaches that if a spouse is abandoned by their unbelieving partner, and if it is clear to all that the deserting spouse does not intend to return, the church should recognise that a marriage has come to an end even if the innocent spouse is the one who has to legally begin the divorce proceedings.
Some have tried to find an irreconcilable contradiction between Jesus and Paul at this point. But a closer examination of the two passages reveals that far from contradicting each other they complement each other because they address two distinct questions.
Jesus is answered the question ‘when can I as a Christian, under God, initiate a righteous divorce?’ Paul is answering the question ‘what should I do as a Christian, if I have been wrongly divorced by my unbelieving spouse? ’
Evangelical Christians agree that these are the only New Testament texts that address the issue of divorce but in our next post we will consider the work of David Instone-Brewer and his contention that Jesus held to certain other grounds for divorce found in the Old Testament.
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