Wednesday, January 26, 2011



When I began teaching a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount, I knew that someday we’d get to Jesus’ statement on divorce (Matthew 5:31, 32):  “And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce,’ but I say to you, ‘Everyone who divorces his wife except because of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorce woman commits adultery.’”  Knowing that well over half of the class members had been divorced and remarried, I was tempted to just gloss over that part.  After all, it’s only two verses.

But it’s there, so I knew I couldn’t do that. Besides I know that many who have gone through divorce have had a hard time dealing with it.  And my experience has shown me that many, if not most of us have not been taught much about it.  It seems that churches either look the other way or are judgmental toward those who’ve been divorced.

For some, one verse in the Old Testament settled the matter:  “For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16).  However, as a member of the class pointed out, the LORD Himself was divorced!  He divorced Israel!  See Jeremiah 3:1-10, especially verse 9; Isaiah 50:1; Hosea 2.

Jesus had much to say on this issue.  So did the Apostle Paul.  We need to interpret the biblical material carefully, taking care not to apply it either legalistically or permissively.  Before I get into interpretation, I’d like to say some things about my own experience.

When I first entered the pastorate, divorce among my parishioners was rare.  I was fresh out of seminary and equipped with a well researched position paper, covering nearly every biblical aspect of the questions (I thought).  This paper served me reasonably well at first, and the material is still valid today.

However, the times they were a-changing.  In the first two years, two couples in my small church went through divorces, one of which was a man in the ministry who had been having multiple affairs.  Another divorce hit my close family.  Then I found out that the church leadership held rigid views on divorce which seemed to totally ignore God’s grace, and somehow I was being held responsible for these matters.

In subsequent ministries I have encountered all sorts of variations on the theme of divorce and remarriage.  I found myself called on to perform weddings that seemed questionable, in light of the Scripture.  I found myself counseling couples who had entered marriage for all the wrong reasons.  I have had to minister to those who were, in a sense, innocent victims of divorce.  And I have needed to explain God’s grace and forgiveness to those who may have been the guilty parties in divorce, or at least felt that they were.

So how do I deal with it? How does one minister to the divorced without condemning them or condoning sin?  Well, here are a few thoughts.

First of all, it seems clear that since the Bible, Jesus and Paul all allow for divorce in certain cases, no more needs to be said in these cases, other than that if divorce is permitted, then remarriage is as well.  The person who divorces his or her partner because of sexual infidelity (Matthew 5:31, 32), or the believer who is divorced by an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:12-16), is completely free to remarry and his or her status is no different from that of any other single or widowed person.

I believe that this could be expanded to include those who are physically or sexually abused or threatened in any number of ways.

Also, even if the divorce was not for biblically appropriate reasons, once one partner has remarried, the bond has been broken and reconciliation is not possible.  It would seem that remarriage by the second partner would not, in these cases, be seen as adultery.

It should also be noted that even in those cases where the act of marriage is considered adultery, the state of marriage is not.  Once a couple is united in marriage, they are married and they are to maintain that relationship.  Perhaps we could draw a parallel here with the issue of the marriage of a Christian to an unbeliever.  While the act is forbidden (2 Corinthians 6:14ff), the state is accepted (1 Corinthians 7:12-16; also 1 Peter 3:1).

Our God is a God of grace, even though He hates sin.  He sent His Son to take the penalty for all of our sins.  When we come to Christ by faith, He makes us new creatures.  All of our sins are forgiven – past, present and future.

Paul warns the Corinthian believers that “the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God,” and then gives a list of various persons who fit that description (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10).  All of us can find ourselves somewhere on that list.  But then he tells them (and us), “And such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God!” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

All of us were on that list, but we’re not on it any longer!  There is no unpardonable sin.  That includes a non-biblical divorce.

Friday, January 21, 2011


Winston, the hero of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984 was employed at the “Ministry of Truth … which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts.”  The Ministry of Truth’s main task, of course, was to continually realign the past to suit the present.

This sort of thing, however, does not only occur in fiction.  Many modern nations would appear to have taken their cues from Orwell’s novel.  For instance, young people in China today, I’m told, have little if any knowledge of what occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or of the horrors of the “cultural Revolution,” or other horrors of their nation’s past.  Of course, Orwell had plenty of examples in his day, on which to pattern his novel.

The rewriting of history by authoritarian regimes is repugnant to most Americans, as grounded as we are in the freedoms guaranteed to us in our Constitution – freedom of speech, of the press, of worship.

Yet a few weeks ago, as members of our House of Representatives piously read through the U. S. Constitution, those who actually listened and were familiar with the document, noticed an omission almost immediately.  I heard this pointed out, so I sat down with my copy and watched a video on the web.  The omission was in Article One, Section 2, having to do with the appointment of legislators to the House of Representatives.  The number was to “be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.”

It was this statement that was left out.  Why?  I have not heard the rationale, and I suppose that a possible reason for the omission was that being referred to as 3/5 human might offend said persons, i.e. African Americans.  So just leave it out, right?  It was like removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn (see my previous post).

We in America don’t have an official “Ministry of Truth,” although many of our political leaders would seem to be engaged in similar activities.  But we don’t need to look to Washington for such truthiness.  It seems to be a national pastime.

It seems to be considered a matter of patriotism to exalt our past.  We want to promote our founding fathers and other leaders of the past as great heroes, as righteous, godly men.  Those historians who point out the sins and injustices of America’s past are termed “revisionists.”

But I believe a true patriot is not a person who believes myths and half-truths about our nation, but one who loves his or her country enough to desire to know and reveal the truth about it.

And the truth is that our nation was a nation of racism from the start.  Many of our founding fathers held slaves.  Slavery was written into our Constitution.  Our “Manifest Destiny” of ruling the continent from sea to shining sea included the suppression and sometimes slaughter of indigenous and other minority peoples.

We’re told by some that the past is the past and we can’t change it, that we in this generation are not to blame for the status quo, that we’re not responsible for the evils of our ancestors.  I suppose that’s correct.  But if that is so, then why do we want to take credit for their good accomplishments?

So let’s face our past.  Let’s not sweep it under the rug.  Let’s do what we can to right the wrongs of the past, including our own.  And let’s try to make sure that future generations – our children and grandchildren – won’t have to cover for us.

“Our country, right or wrong!  When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right!” – Carl Schurz, 1872

Monday, January 10, 2011


Last week we learned that an Alabama publisher announced that it was going to release a new edition of Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which “the N-word” will be replaced by the word “slave.”  Twain uses the N-word, we are told, 219 times (which according to Stephen Colbert, qualifies him as a rapper).
I personally loathe the N-word and realize that its use is offensive to many African-American young people and children.  But really – do we need to clean up an American classic to keep from offending?  If we start here, why don’t we also move on to re-writing other classics to remove language that is offensive to other racial groups, ethnic groups, religious groups and women?  How about violence and sex?  We’d have enough work on our hands simply going through Mark Twain’s writings (except for sex – I don’t recall much of that in his writings).

And isn’t the word “slave” itself offensive?  Would Huck’s friend Jim feel better being called “slave Jim” rather than “N…. Jim”?

What is truly saddening is that Mark Twain stood out in a nation and century that accepted racism as a normal fact of everyday life.  This book – a tale of the friendship between a runaway slave and a runaway white boy – is not racist; if anything, it is anti-racist.

I first heard the book read by my fourth or fifth grade teacher. Interestingly, the number of years since I first heard about it is about equal to the number of years from its publication in 1885 till I first heard it. In my day, in an all-white school, the N-word didn’t seem as uncomfortable as Huck’s relationship with his “Paw.”  The story, however, was one of my first exposures to the concept of equality of the races.

Perhaps the action of this publisher is symptomatic of our refusal in America to honestly view our past.  It is only one of many efforts to clean up our history and literature, to make them compatible with our American mythology and not with the truth, to get rid of the skeletons in our closets and to refuse to admit that we are a nation of sinners and members of a race of sinners.

Perhaps it is also symptomatic of our failure to see adult literature as what is and of our viewing of much of our literature as simply cute kids’ stories.  This is nothing new.  It happened in my childhood days as it does today.  I read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Dickens’, and many of Twain’s works as a child or young teenager without always comprehending their deep thought and truth, which was often hidden beneath a veil of satire.  I guess I sort of blame my teachers for not helping me to read beneath the surface.  And I fault today’s teachers for not finding the teachable moments in the reading of Huck Finn.

And I believe that the same is going on not only with literature, but with history and even the Bible.  The great stories of literature and history are Disneyfied to make them cute and compatible.  Those in the Bible as well, are cleaned up and made cute; this has been going on long before Veggie Tales (I remember the flannelgraph stories – Uni).

What is ironic is that today’s kids are exposed to sex, violence, sexism and racism – even the N-word, in all aspects of our cultural media: music, TV, movies and games.  An exposure to good literature, honest history and accurate Bible teaching would seem to be what’s needed for them to get it all in perspective.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


The question on the cover of the January issue of Sojourners’ magazine grabbed my attention.  It was the title of an article by Brian McLaren.

As one who has struggled for years with the problem of war and violence in the Old Testament as well as in the world, I read the article with eagerness.  I thought that this article might answer some questions I’ve had or help me clarify my positions on these issues.  What a disappointment!  It seemed to me to be condescending and based on false dilemmas and red herrings, as well as a selective reading of Scripture, I felt it wouldn’t have been worthy of a C as a college paper.  So I dashed off a letter to the magazine giving some of my views.

When I first read the article, I didn’t know who Brian McLaren was, though I had heard of him through conversations and other articles I’d read.  The magazine informed the readers that he is an author and speaker whose new book is entitled, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith.  Pretty heavy sounding.  Anyway, I looked up his book on and read some reviews and a short bio.

Mr. McLaren is apparently one of the chief intellectual spokespersons for the “Emerging (or Emergent?) Church.”  The reviews that I read were mostly positive some actually gushy, though a few questioned the author’s arguments and logic.

So, though I have no plans to read the book, here are some of my thoughts on the article.

It begins with a note from someone that the author says, “we’ll call Pete.”  It concerned the previously mentioned book. Pete, while agreeing with much in the book, said, “I do think you are doing disservice to this argument … when you shun the ‘violence’ of God and the subsequent need for the cross’ justification, which was also quite violent.”  Pete spoke of the “plethora of biblical examples (of violence)” and continued, “The fact is the Old Testament is a God-ordained bloody mess, and the cross is the ultimate expression of it.”

McLaren’s comment is “I don’t know which shocks you (i.e., the reader) more – that I would question God’s violence, or that Pete would defend it.”  Here is the first of his false dilemmas.  As I read Pete’s comments I did not see him “defending” God’s violence, simply stating its factuality which, it seems, McLaren denies.

McLaren goes on to discuss religious violence in the post 9/11 era and violent language by Muslims, Israelis and U.S. Televangelists.  “A lot is at stake,” he tells us. I (and I suppose Pete) would agree.  However, it seems to me that the implication is that our interpretation of Scripture should somehow be a reaction to others’ misinterpretation.

McLaren gives a pretty clear definition of violence, which Mr. Webster would basically agree with:  “force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death.”  He then gives what he says are “four primary responses to the question of God’s violence.”

1.  God is violent and as humans made in God’s image we’re free to use it.
2.  God is violent, but in a holy way.  So it’s generally prohibited to us except to those whom God has designated.
3.  God is not violent, so human violence is never justified.
4.  God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden.

McLaren chooses option 4, but can accept option 3.  He thinks Pete would choose option 2, but be tolerant of option 1.  This whole “choose your option” thing is a frustrating oversimplification.  It’s a false dilemma times two!

He then tells us that non-Christians are “interested bystanders” in this conversation.  Their perception of us as violent or non-violent is important to their perception of the Good News we present.  Agreed!  But need we reinterpret Scripture because of others’ perceptions?  Another false dilemma!  He returns to this warning at the close of the article.

He gives us a bit of autobiographical material concerning his own growth in understanding of this topic.  Much of what he speaks of is similar to my own pilgrimage, though we somehow didn’t arrive at the same conclusions.

McLaren then goes on to discuss “the plethora of biblical examples” of violence.  Again I would agree with him that they are indeed troubling and admit that though I have sought ways to deal with them, I am still uncomfortable – as I am with the violence that I see outside of the Scriptures.

But McLaren’s solution is to recognize that “there was another plethora of verses that present God as kind, reconciling and compassionate …” and that he was “going to have to choose one plethora over another …”

Wow!  I never thought of that!  Just pick and choose whatever Scriptures I like and reject the rest.  He tells us that he no longer reads the Bible as “an inspired authoritative constitution” and now reads it as “an inspired and authoritative library.”  Now I have no idea what this means or what the difference is, and I suppose I need to read his book to find out (this view is mentioned in many of the book reviews).  But whatever it means in theory, in practice it appears to mean one can select whatever volumes agree with one’s position and leave the others on the shelf.

McLaren acknowledges “tension in the Scripture” but seems to look down on those who look to other authorities to help resolve their conflicts; he says, “I first turn to Jesus.”  “When in doubt consult Jesus” is his mantra.  He tells us that “the staggering reality is that Jesus didn’t kill anybody … He didn’t hit anybody.  He didn’t hate anybody.”  Wait a minute!  This is the same WWJD argument I’ve seen on many poorly written college papers.  Jesus didn’t speak exhaustively to these issues and we should be wary of putting our thoughts into His mouth.  (Although Jesus did speak of hellfire and outer darkness and that sounds pretty violent to me!)

McLaren frowns on “the theory of penal substitutionary atonement.”  He asks, “Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?” and concludes that “God is located first and foremost with the crucified one.”  I agree.  But what does it mean that He was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God”? (Acts 2:23; see also 4:27, 28.)  Whose wrath was propitiated by Christ’s death?  The work of Christ on the cross can only be explained in the light of the doctrine of the threefold person of God and the incarnation of the Son.

The Bible presents a multi-faceted and inscrutable God.  We aren’t given the right to pick and choose those facets of His character that we prefer.

McLaren ends his article with a paragraph that begins, “I probably agreed with Pete when I was his age.  Now my journey has taken me to a place to which Pete may never come, or even want to come.”  This sounds a bit condescending, like Job’s friend Zophar:  “What do you know that we do now know? … Both the gray-haired and aged are among us, older than your father” (Job 15:9, 10).  Perhaps McLaren should read Elihu’s rebuke:  “The abundant in years may not be wise, nor may elders understand justice!” (Job 32:9).

I am in my seventies and have been wrestling with these questions for more than a half century.  My journey has taken me to a different place than McLaren’s has.  I have come to understand that I may never understand God’s ways.  I have come to realize that God ways are inscrutable and while I may continue to seek and gain wisdom, I will have to be content with a limited knowledge of God and His ways.

For some of my other posts on this topic see: