WHEN IS DIVORCE PERMISSIBLE?

During his ministry Jesus was often questioned by his critics. Several of those questions are still relevant today, and for some the one about divorce is especially challenging.  I have had some significant discussions about divorce the last couple of months and thought a review of the back and forth between Jesus and his critics might be helpful.

Both Matthew (19:1-12) and Mark (10:1-12) record the incident, but the reports are not exactly the same. Nor is this exchange with the Pharisees the only time Jesus discussed marriage and divorce. There is a brief teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21 and 22 and another in Luke 16:18, neither of which was prompted by a question.

The questioning about divorce took place as Jesus and his disciples traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Matthew indicates “Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there” (19:2) while Mark notes “crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them” (10:1). It was typical of Jesus’ ministry that he both healed and taught, and he did so as he made his way to Jerusalem for the last time. What was also typical in the midst of His teaching and healing was that some Pharisees would test Him.

Both Matthew and Mark tell us the Pharisees came to test Jesus, but Matthew’s account of their first question has an additional phrase Mark’s does not have. Mark reports they asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (verse 2). Matthew, however, reports they asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (verse 3). While the questions are not exactly the same, both do reflect the culture of the time with regard to men and women: divorce was an option only for men. A wife did not have that option.

The additional phrase in Matthew’s record of the question not included by Mark (“for any and every reason”) reflects Old Testament teaching and rabbinic interpretation that is not immediately obvious to us when we read it today. And we need keep in mind the initial question in Matthew was intended to “trap” Jesus concerning the acceptability of divorce “for any and every reason.” The question reflected controversy at the time of the interpretation of the teaching about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. The New International Version renders Deuteronomy 24:1, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and writes her a certificate of divorce . . . .”

The question that was debated was the meaning of “something indecent about her.” The two main schools of interpretation were from two rabbis (Shammai and Hillel) who represented a strict position and a lenient position. The lenient position was represented by the phrase in the question “for any and every reason.” (The example often cited for this position is that if the wife was a bad cook she could be divorced!) The strict position limited permissible divorce to some kind of sexual infidelity by the wife. The Pharisees were drawing Jesus into the dispute about the interpretation of the phrase with the hope he would give an answer that contradicted the Mosaic Law.

In Matthew’s report Jesus did not directly answer their question, but went all the way back to the Genesis account of the creation of male and female and the establishment of marriage. Jesus reminded his questioners that Genesis teaches “at the beginning the Creator made them male and female.” And in marriage a man “is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Jesus then adds his own observation that because of that, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). With his first response Jesus seems to be suggesting there is no lawful reason for a man to divorce his wife.

The Pharisees, however, responded to Jesus’ answer by asking Him about a key provision in the Law about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They paraphrased, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7). There was indeed teaching in the Old Testament about divorce, but the Pharisees cited only the first part of it in order to press Jesus.

Jesus, of course, knew what Deuteronomy 24 said and was not surprised by their follow up question to his first response. He replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (verse 8). Note how Jesus changed their word “command” from Moses to “permitted” and again pointed them back to what he had already stated from Genesis. The “certificate of divorce” was a legal document indicating the dissolution of the marriage that allowed the woman to remarry. It was for her protection.

After Jesus’ response regarding the “certificate of divorce” he returned to their original question and in verse 9 answered it: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Jesus took the strict position only allowing divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness. While there is no unanimity among scholars concerning the exact meaning of the Greek word translated “sexual immorality,” I agree with John Stott and others who suggest it points to behavior that in itself destroys the “one flesh” covenant reality of marriage.

Something still needs to be said about the parallel account and why Mark does not have “the exception clause” included in Matthew. I confess I don’t have an answer; nor do I find any of a variety of proposals that have been put forth totally satisfying. If pressed on the matter I think the observation made by some, that everyone at the time agreed sexual unfaithfulness was just cause for divorce, Mark took it for granted his readers knew that.

In talking about and dealing with divorce today I think Christians should follow the example Jesus set in his responses to the Pharisees. Before divorce is discussed we should first make sure we give attention to the meaning and purpose of marriage. Jesus did that by going back to the creation account of the institution of marriage. In contrast to so much thinking today, marriage is not a contract, but a covenant. After the marriage ceremony “they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Therefore, God’s original intent for marriage was and still is that it be life-long.

In addition to the divine ideal, however, there is also the reality of human failure. God’s ideal is not always carried out. And that is what is at the root of the Deuteronomy 24 passage, however it is interpreted. Jesus was clear that God permitted divorce because their “hearts were hard.” Because of the reality of human failure marriages fail and divorces take place. The dissolution of a marriage may be the lesser of two evils, but the divine concession does not cancel the divine intention for marriage.

Permission for divorce was granted because “sexual unfaithfulness” violated the “one flesh” unity and foundation of marriage. But just because divorce was permissible under such circumstances, it is not mandatory. In fact, most readers probably know couples who have experienced unfaithfulness in their marriage, but worked through it and have rebuilt a stronger “one flesh” partnership than they had prior to the breach.

I cannot answer all the questions Christians ask about divorce and remarriage. Entire books have been written about the issue, and all Christian leaders and teachers are not in total agreement. I have tried to emphasize what Jesus emphasized in his response to the Pharisees’ attempt to trap him. We have to understand that according to Jesus, in God’s eyes marriage is a permanent covenant commitment. And we need to hold high God’s divine ideal.

But I think we also have to realize human beings do not always carry out God’s ideals–we sometimes fail. That is the reason for the teaching of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Because of human hardheartedness, and going beyond sexual unfaithfulness, some marriages end in divorce. Thankfully, neither adultery nor divorce are unforgiveable. In the same way that we hold God’s divine ideal for marriage high, we also need to hold high the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. In terms of marriage and divorce my best suggestion is to begin with people where they are and go from there.

(This post is adapted from chapter 9 of my book Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses. Feel free to leave a reply below and/or share this post on Facebook or other social media.)

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LIVING BIBLICALLY

From the time I first saw a promotion for the new TV show Living Biblically I was interested in checking it out. From the promo I could tell it would be a comedy, and I was curious whether it would belittle the Bible and religion or perhaps show some respect. My first thought was that it would use humor to demean faith and the Bible, but I held out hope that a sitcom could be both funny and somewhat positive.

I watched the first episode Monday evening and was pleasantly surprised. My expectations may have been too low, but I was not offended nor did I feel the Bible or faith was being belittled or demeaned. And I found most of the humor to be funny and was regularly smiling as I watched.

The premise of the show is that following the death of his best friend, a man named Chip determines to live his life by the rules of the Bible. He goes to a catholic priest for help in carrying out his commitment. Later the priest introduces him to a rabbi and they become his God Squad. His wife is an atheist, and is pregnant, but is not against his plan.

After I watched the show I went online and read three reviews, none of which was as positive about the show as I am. One reviewer wrote the show “wastes a promising premise.” Another suggests it “Plays it Safe.” With clear reserve, Christianity Today correctly notes “the series finds comedy neither by attacking people’s faith nor presenting a holier-than-thou look at the character’s Christianity” (at least in the first episode).

I’m not recommending you watch the show, but I am interested in how it plays out in the weeks ahead and plan to watch it. Based upon what I saw last night, I think it may create interest and discussion concerning the Bible and religion. And I think that is a good thing.

I also think Christians need to keep in mind the show is intended to entertain, is a CBS sitcom, and does not have the goal of spreading Christianity or promoting the Bible. Right now I’m looking forward to next week’s episode, but realize I may be disappointed in the future.

Did you watch it? Do you think you will watch it in the future?

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GIVE ME WISDOM

Last week in our Encore Bible Study we began a new study entitled “Great Prayers of the Bible.” Our goal for this study is that we will learn more about prayer, as well as be challenged and encouraged to pray. This week we’re looking at Solomon’s prayer in I Kings 3.

In coming to the account I think it would be safe to say that Solomon’s prayer is not a normal prayer so to speak. Solomon had recently been established as king following his father David. He went to worship, and while there the LORD appeared to him in a dream and told him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” (I Kings 3:5).

Solomon thoughtfully responded to God’s offer. The first thing he did was express gratitude to God for his kindness (verse 6). Whenever and wherever we pray, it is always appropriate to be thankful. Solomon also expressed humility (verse 7). He knew being king was a great responsibility and he was not overly confident of his ability. As a matter of fact, he suggested he was inadequate for the job. Heartfelt humility is always appropriate, and perhaps especially when we go to the LORD in prayer.

After expressing gratitude and humility Solomon made his request: “give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (verse 9). I’m impressed by what Solomon did not ask for, but more importantly, so was God (verse 11). As impressed as I am by what he did not ask for, I’m more impressed by what he did ask for. But again, so was God. “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this” (verse 11). God was so pleased that he told Solomon he would grant his request by giving him a wise and discerning heart, but he would also give him what he did not ask for (verses 12 and 13).

I’m thinking asking for wisdom is a request you and I should regularly be making in our prayers today. Who doesn’t need wisdom? Or perhaps better yet, who doesn’t need more wisdom? There is an interesting promise in the New Testament in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Wisdom is available to us if we seek it and ask for it.

Here’s my takeaway from this for your consideration: Solomon’s thoughtful request for wisdom tells me he was already somewhat wise. His request shows that, doesn’t it? And the primary wisdom book of the Old Testament tells us in Proverbs 9:9, “Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

Most of us have heard the saying “The rich just get richer.” If that’s true, and it often is, I want to add another similar phrase that is also true: “The wise just get wiser.” If we are wise it seems to me we should humbly ask for more wisdom, always remembering that it will be difficult to grow in wisdom if we think we already know everything.

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CAN WE ALL GET ALONG?

Many people are familiar with Rodney King’s question asked in light of riots and unrest in Southern California on May 1, 1992, “Can we all get along?” It seems the answer is obvious, but my sense is that even if we can’t, most of us would agree we could do better with our conversations, discussions, and debates.

In my reading the past two or three weeks I have noted thoughtful observations from a variety of authors, that if put into practice, would greatly improve the quality of our discourse. All the authors I will be citing are writing from a Christian perspective about how Christians should interact, and Christians certainly need to hear what is being said, but the points made speak to all our interactions regardless of with whom we are speaking or whatever the subject.

The initial quote that grabbed my attention was in an article by Mark Galli in Christianity Today concerning disagreements among believers about biblical interpretation. He suggests, “We are not asked to be right but to be faithful to the truth we believe God has revealed to us. And to be charitable toward those who believe God has led them to a different conclusion.” While Galli is writing to people who believe the Bible, his basic point about being charitable to those who think differently than we do covers a lot more than just Bible interpretation.

A second article from Christianity Today by Mark Alan Bowald is about the death of longtime professor of historical theology at Yale Divinity School George Lindbeck and what evangelicals can learn from him. Bowald relates Lindbeck’s answer to a question about what holds evangelicals back: “Their unwillingness or inability to be self-critical about the ways in which they undertake and express their commitment.” Again, while Lindbeck was talking about Christians, his point about an unwillingness or inability to be self-critical covers a lot more than just matters of faith. A second lesson Bowald underscores evangelicals might learn from Lindbeck is to be more generous towards those who come from other traditions. I hope it is obvious how this lesson also has a much wider application.

What struck me last week was a couple of comments from John Dickson in his new book A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus. Encouraging readers to take a strong stand in certain matters, he also implores “but do so humbly and graciously.” He concludes the paragraph by cautioning that we should not make our case with smugness on our part or with disdain for those who do not agree.

I realize I am not the first person to raise this matter of how we talk with, to, and about one another. Lots of articles have been written as well as entire books dealing with the subject. As much as I wish we all would get along, I don’t think we all will ever completely agree on much. I think the authors I have quoted give us some real challenges for our discourse and interactions with those with whom we disagree in the Christian community as well as at large.

Part of the reason I am writing about this and citing these observations is that I needed to hear what these writers are saying. How about you?

Do we need to be more charitable to those with whom we disagree? I do.

Do we need to be more self-critical about the way we express ourselves? I do.

Do we need to be more generous towards those who come from a different background? I do.

Even when taking a strong stand, do we need to be more humble and gracious? I do.

Do we need to guard against being smug and/or showing disdain for others? I do.

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(Photo courtesy of the boy’s grandmother, my wife–staged!)

 

THE POWER OF WORDS

It would be difficult to overstate the power of words. Sometimes we forgot that; and it is good to be reminded just how powerful they can be. The Bible’s book of wisdom, Proverbs, gives us a lot of practical help. The book contains over 100 references to the tongue, mouth, lips, and words.

The power of words can be seen in their potential for destruction. Proverbs 18:21a declares “The tongue has the power of life and death” and Proverbs 15:4b reminds us “a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Most of us probably know and have recited the saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but it simply is not true. Every one of us has been hurt by words.

Words can do damage at either close range or at a distance. We’ve all been hurt by words spoken directly to us. Sometimes what is said to us is worse than a physical blow–things like “I never should have married you” or “I wish you’d never been born.” We’ve also been hurt by words at a distance.

Author Roger Thomas notes eight specifics in the book of Proverbs of how words can be destructive:

Lying – Proverbs 25:18, “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow is the man who gives false testimony against his neighbor.”

Deceit – Proverbs 4:24, “Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth” (The Message).

Slander – Proverbs 11:2, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” (Slander goes beyond the truth, but has a grain of truth.)

Gossip – Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.” Proverbs 20:19, “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.” (Gossip rejoices in the flaws and failures — or rumors of such — of others.)

Thoughtless Words – Proverbs 29:20, “There is more hope for a fool than for someone who speaks without thinking” (NLT).

Flattery – Proverbs 28:3, “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue.” Proverbs 29:5, “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.”  (Flattery is insincere compliments to gain favor.)

Boasting – Proverbs 27:1 and 2, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.”

Too Much Talk – Proverbs 18:2, “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” Proverbs 10:19, “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow” (NLT).

The power of words can also be seen in their potential for good. Again, Proverbs 18:21a declares “The tongue has the power of life” and Proverbs 15:4a that “The tongue that brings healing is the tree of life.” Proverbs 12:25 reminds us “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up” and Proverbs 16:2 “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Through words we express our love and concern for each other — our deepest feelings. Words can cheer us up and provide encouragement. Who does not remember a time when the right word was spoken and everything changed?

With the reminder of the power of words in mind, let’s consider some advice for the use of words from Proverbs (and other selected Bible passages).

Learn to listen. James 1:19 challenges us, “Everyone should be swift to listen and slow to speak.” It’s not wise to assume we know what someone is saying before we hear them out. I like the directness of Proverbs 18:13 in the Message, “Answering before listening is both stupid and rude.”

Think before you speak and thereby choose your words carefully. Proverbs 17:28 warns us, “Even a fool is thought to be wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” And Proverbs 29:20 presses the point, “Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Be honest. Proverbs 6:17-19 tells us seven things God hates, and two of them are “a lying tongue” and “a false witness.” Paul’s related instruction in Ephesians 4:15, “Speak the truth is love,” has always presented a challenged to me. Even though some speak of being “brutally honest,” I think situations that call for that description would be rare. We are to speak the truth, but to do so in love.

Finally, Use words to build others up. We need to take Ephesians 4:29 seriously: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs , that it may benefit those who listen.” Other verses deal with crude talk, but “unwholesome talk” in this verse is the opposite of “building others up according to their needs”—talk that is caustic and sarcastic, that attacks, and is negative and rude. To take Ephesians 4:29 seriously is to use our words to express appreciation and to be encouraging.

Words are powerful — let’s use them wisely.

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COMPLIMENT HIM OR CRITICIZE HIM?

Most people, whether they go to church or not, know something about the New Testament account of Jesus walking on water. We all have probably heard jokes that assume we have some knowledge of Jesus doing so. Many of those who know something about the account of Jesus walking on water also know that Peter joined him.

Both Matthew and Mark tell about Jesus, but only Matthew tells us about Peter. Both tell how the disciples went ahead of Jesus in the boat, how they were having trouble going into the wind, and how Jesus walked on the water to them. Both tell how the disciples saw Jesus, thought he was a ghost, and were afraid. And both quote Jesus as saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.”

Only Matthew tells that after Jesus identified himself, Peter answered, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invited Peter, and he responded by walking on the water to Jesus. Matthew 14:30 and 31 report, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’”

Here’s a question to ponder: should we compliment Peter or criticize him? In my experience I have heard a lot more criticism of Peter than I have compliments. And I don’t think that is fair, do you?

No doubt, there is a note of scolding in Jesus’ words to him afterwards: Peter’s faith shrank and doubt entered. And there is certainly a challenge for us today in hearing what Jesus said to him. All of us probably need to cultivate more faith and chip away at our doubt.

But I want to compliment Peter. He did ask Jesus to call him to come to him. And Peter did walk on the water. I admire Peter’s courage for getting out of the boat. There were 11 others in that boat that night who did not ask Jesus to call them and who did not walk on the water. Peter’s faith was not as strong as it could have been, and the wind did cause him to doubt, but he walked on the water.

I’ve tried to imagine the discussion in the boat later that night among Peter and the others. I seriously doubt if anyone was critical of Peter. I’m confident they wanted to know what it was like to walk on water; and other than Jesus, Peter was the only one who could tell them.

Should we compliment Peter or criticize him? I’m perfectly willing to let Jesus do any correcting that is necessary, and I’ll compliment Peter.

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REAR VIEW MIRROR WISDOM

For our recent church staff retreat our senior pastor asked me to reflect on my 44 years of ministry. He asked me to share what I would do the same, and what I would do differently, if I had it to do all over again. I settled on four things I would do the same and four I would do differently. I thought some readers, whether working as a member of a church staff or not, might enjoy reading a shortened version of what I said.

If I had it to do all over I would make the same moves I made. During my 44 years of ministry I made two moves and a third one following what I thought was the conclusion of my work as a pastor.

My first ministry was as a part time youth minister while a student. Upon graduation I became full time, stayed just over another year, and then after five years moved to Philadelphia to lead a small church. In some respects my years of youth ministry were the most exciting and fruitful.

I stayed almost 10 years in Philadelphia with a loving congregation and had the privilege of continuing my education at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Temple University. Although the church did not grow numerically as much as I would have liked, our 10 years in Philadelphia were great years for me as a pastor and for our family. We left the East Coast and moved to Southern California to plant a church.

I had the privilege of planting Discovery Christian Church in Moreno Valley, and after 30 years as senior pastor, I stepped down as I thought it was time for a change in leadership and I was running out of gas. We stayed two more years and then moved to Amarillo to be close to our grandsons. There are no adequate words to summarize our satisfying and fulfilling time in California.

In looking back I don’t think I stayed too long or left too soon in any of my three ministries. I do, however, think it is interesting that there were a few people who were negative about each of our three moves — not about our leaving, but about where we were going. (I am currently the part time pastor to seniors at our church and also the Bible teacher at our local high school.)

If I had it to do all over I would show more grace and more quickly admit when I was wrong. With the passing of time I did become more gracious, but not as early as I should have. I also matured to the point of being willing to acknowledge mistakes. One of the greatest examples we can set for others is to admit when we were wrong and ask for forgiveness.

If I had it to do all over I would again make my personal growth and learning a priority. I was committed to reading as much as I could to keep on developing professionally in ministry, intellectually, and in my walk with the Lord. I was pleased that every former staff member who spoke at my retirement thanked me for challenging them to keep on reading and growing.

If I had it to do all over I would do less; I would not preach as much as I did or feel the need to be involved in so much that was taking place in our church and ministry. I would share more of the load with the competent staff members who were a part of our team.

If I had it all to do over I would again make my family a priority. I never told them they had to do something, or couldn’t do something, because I was a pastor; I challenged them to do or not do certain things because they were Christians.

While our children were young Friday night was family night and we stuck to it. Jan and I went to every game or event in which our children participated that we possibly could. We wanted them to know they were important to us. We also regularly planned and took family vacations.

If I had to do it all over I would be a better son to my parents. One of my regrets is not being more involved with my parents as well as being more intentional about having our children involved with their grandparents. Of course, distance was an issue, but I could have done better and wish I would have.

If I had to do it all over I would again deal with church staff the way I did; showing them respect and love as well as supporting, protecting, and caring for them. I was not too open to receiving criticism of them and tried to give lots of public recognition for the good God added to our church and ministry through them.

If I had to do it all over I would make sure I defined success appropriately. In looking back, I’m not sure I always did. Sometimes pastors focus too much on what bigger churches are doing and rob themselves of the joy of their own church’s progress.

As we all know, we don’t get to do things over. The challenge, and our hope, is that we don’t do too much damage, and that we learn along the way. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in ministry and for the request to look back and reflect on them. I hope my observations are helpful and thought provoking.

(If you would like to read more about my experience in ministry you may be interested in a book I wrote after I stepped down from Discovery entitled A Pastor and the People: An inside Look through Letters. Click “my books” on this site to learn more about it and/or how to order it. Let me know if you would like to read the introduction and I’ll email you a PDF.)

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