Is Jesus giving us a rule that we’re to follow regardless of circumstances? Should a wife who’s discovered that her husband has been sexually abusing her children, for example, stay with that husband because Jesus indicated that divorce + remarriage = adultery?
Answer: no, of course not. God hates divorce, yes. He created marriage for a reason, and He doesn’t readily accept the right of human beings to nullify it. But Jesus’ point goes deeper than this. He’s addressing not the legal act of terminating a marriage but the motivations behind it.
He’s saying: If adultery is in your heart, you don’t get to use divorce as your guilt-free way of making it happen. You don’t get to capitalize on a legal loophole to indemnify the lust you've been harbouring for someone who isn't your spouse. The Message paraphrase’s this nicely:
If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
Matthew 5:32 (the MSG - emphasis mine)
This point is made, and should be seen, within the broader context of a sermon that is designed to get us to align our hearts with the spirit of the law, rather than arranging our lives in accordance with the letter of it. He's trying to write the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33); he's trying to get us to clean the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:26).
Yes, generally speaking, divorce is a terrible idea. I hate the fact that it's readily seen in our society as an unhappy but legally convenient way to terminate what's proven to be an unfulfilling relationship (as if the purpose of marriage is self-centered satisfaction - it's not). Many Christian marriages have survived terrible times and went on to become wonderful unions in great part because both partners declared divorce "off the table" from the wedding day forward.
But let’s not miss the point Jesus is trying to make. When we align our hearts with the spirit of God’s perfect law, we are always free to do what’s right.
It’s said that those who stand for nothing fall for everything. Is Paul preaching moral ambiguity here? Or is he saying, “because I’m not under the law, I can do whatever I want and I’m saved anyway?” Should we follow his example, and just “do whatever”?
Yes and no. Yes, we would do well to follow Paul’s example; no, we should not just “do whatever”. This isn’t what Paul is advocating. While Christians fiercely debate what it means to be “not under the law, but Grace” (see Ephesians 2:8-9), I submit that we get a glimpse in 2 Corinthians:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6
This passage is saying that we have been freed from the letter of the law so that we are free to abide by the spirit of the law. Practical example?
I have daughters who are not yet of an age where we need to discuss curfews. When we get there, however, my wife and I are going to have two choices: enforce the letter of the law (“you are to be home by 9:00 PM, no exceptions”) or, communicate the spirit of the law (“be home at a reasonable hour so your mother and I don’t worry”). An obedient daughter would use this freedom to do the right thing. She would often be home well before 9:00 most nights, and would ensure that she phones in if circumstances put her home later than usual. Why? Because the spirit of the law (the “why”, if you will) is so your mother and I don’t worry. As a loving and obedient daughter, she loves us and doesn’t want us to worry, so she makes sure we don’t have to.
The narrative of the Bible, taken as a whole, paints a picture in which the letter of the law (enforced by legal compulsion in Israel) fails to produce this kind of loving obedience. It achieves, in fact, quite the opposite.
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
The remedy? God voluntarily offers up His Son’s life to pay the price of our sins and remove the compulsion of the law, so that we may voluntarily submit to His rule in love and obedience.
Now, while there are still things that God clearly does not like and should be avoided, period, we would do well in this context to avoid viewing “right and wrong” as binary concepts. Scripture is filled with what outsiders believe to be “contradictory” teachings, not because they actually contradict, but because the right thing to do is often situational. What do I mean by this?
Think of doing the right thing in the context of playing a piano (full disclosure: I didn’t invent this concept, CS Lewis did). Is playing the key of E right or wrong? Stupid question, right? It depends on the song and the specific chord progression.
Is it wrong to lie? Most of the time, yes, but what if you were living in Nazi Germany and hiding Jews in your home; if the Gestapo came by and asked if you were harbouring Jews, would it be wrong to lie then?
There are those who would say “absolutely, a lie is a lie is a lie” and accuse me of being morally ambiguous because I suggested otherwise. But I would submit that the person who insists on such a binary approach is the morally ambiguous one. Why? Because they believe that in this situation, you’re in the wrong no matter what you do. It would be wrong to turn Jews over to the Gestapo so they can be shipped off to a death camp, but it would also be wrong to lie. In this instance, Grace may be a “get out of jail free card”, but it’s hardly liberating, is it?
However, if we take the piano approach, you always have the opportunity to do the right thing. Think about that. You can always decide to obey the Spirit of the law, the purpose of the law, the heart of the law, which is to love God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself. In this context, Grace does more than get you out of hell, it liberates you so you can do the right thing.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean you always will do what’s right (you’re still wrestling with the flesh, after all), but it does mean that you’re free to pursue the work of the Gospel with vigour, free from having to wrestle with ethically uncertain situations (must I decline an invitation to dinner with receptive unbelievers because they have a buddha statue in their home?) because the letter of the law is no longer a constraint.
Should we translate this into “I’m free to attend this drunken orgy because I might have an opportunity to share the Gospel”? Don’t be stupid, of course not. Why? Because:
Heavenly Father, your ways amaze us. You used your Son’s sacrifice on the cross to create a new Kingdom, one in which every single citizen is there, and obedient, not by compulsion but by choice. Who else has done such a thing? Make us fitting citizens of your Kingdom so we may continually offer you ever more fitting praise and honour. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Colin McComb is a sincere and committed Christian living in Edson, Alberta.
If there were an objective test you could employ to measure the love in your church against the kind of love the bible commands, would it pass?
Most North American churches run like volunteer organizations with optional programming that all in attendance can (and typically do) take or leave at their leisure. The commitment level is roughly correlated to any given family’s ability to “fit in” whatever bible studies or church activities they enjoy. 10-20% of your average church family runs the whole show – overextending their personal commitments well past the point of burnout – while the remainder pick and choose their activities like finicky eaters at a buffet. Disaffected parishioners can often be found waltzing out on a Sunday morning with whispered complaints about the music selection, critiques on the sermon, and general comments about “not feeling fed”.
But how does the bible tell us to approach the church, by which I mean the biblical definition of church, your fellow believers? It tells us to approach it with a love that imitates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. It calls on us to be prepared to die for one another.
But if we're to be honest, most of us treat our fellow believers with no more deference than we approach our colleagues at work. We hang out with those we like, ignore those we don’t, and make soft cooing sounds of support (but not much use) when we’re informed that someone is suffering.
But here’s John: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love”, and Jesus, for that matter: “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them”. (Luke 6:32)
Love that isn’t willing to sacrifice? It isn’t love.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.