|Series Theme: Reaching into Redemption|
PART SIX: Thinking about Practicalities for Today
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
34. Hindrances to Redemption
Jn 8:3-5 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Different Aspects: As we move on to considering various practical issues that might face us in the church today, we need perhaps, to start by considering some of the things that hinder the bringing about of practical redemption in people in the Church today. There are various things we can observe in this passage above and we'll start with the problems that arise in trying to be objective here.
First this woman IS guilty; she has been caught in adultery. We have said previously that it is important to face the reality of our guilt in all such cases. Redemption starts from a place of acknowledging guilt. Second , the Law was quite specific: “ If a man commits adultery with another man's wife—with the wife of his neighbour—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” (Lev 20:10 Also Deut 22:22) The means of death was not proscribed so that was probably something added by the Pharisees. Nevertheless, according to the Law, she did deserve to die. Third , it is only the woman who has been brought before Jesus which suggests there is an element of entrapment about this, for somewhere there is also a guilty man. So, fourth , we should watch out when we are trying to resolve the truth about any particular situation that we do not have tunnel vision that fails to see that usually, this is one sin among many in society and is no greater or no less than any other sin. Sins are only distinguished by the seriousness of the consequences. Fifth , as this situation shows us, it is easy in these things just to appear judgmental and unloving and simply be out to blame.
Jesus' approach: Jesus suggests to the accusers that, “ any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v.7) and, when none of them dares take up that challenge and they slink away, he turns to the woman: “neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (v.11) So we may add to the list above, two more things to be considered: Sixth , Jesus is not out to condemn but to redeem . We should remind ourselves of the threefold teaching from Ezekiel: “ Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord . Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek 18:23 & v.32 & 33:11) supported by “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) The Lord, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, is always looking, not to condemn but to redeem. All it needs is our repentance. Seventh , he does call for repentance and change of life. He is not being casual about her situation, he calls her to stop what she was doing and put her life right. He is giving her a second chance. The end product of redemption is to be a righteous life.
Facing the World: Very well, we've done the ‘Bible Study' but why and what does it say to us? Remember, we are only starting to work through our thinking on the practicalities of this subject. Well, before we start considering life within the Church, let's consider the state of the world. It is important to recognise the world's approach and note how it differs from our own. The biggest problem that the world has, is not that they are people who do wrong or questionable things, but they are godless, and that is a wilful thing. The outworking of that, the various things we can see and say are wrong in society, are merely outworkings of that godlessness. The issue that God has with them is that they are godless.
God has designed all humanity to live and work in relation to Him, and therefore to live contrary to that is an act of oppositional will, an act of rebellion which carries with it a whole raft of consequences, most of which are simply the logical outworking of the sin, e.g. excess use of alcohol produces loss of self-control, violence, abuses, waste of money, causing hardship to others (the social outworkings) but this behaviour becomes addictive and alcoholism causes physical damage to the body and eventually premature death (the health consequences). Rather than simply point fingers at such behaviour in society, we would do better to speak about the consequences of all ungodly and therefore unrighteous behaviour, because the consequences are there to be seen. The call, in respect of any unbeliever, is first and foremost to stop being godless and when repentance comes, and salvation follows, the behaviour will change.
Facing Ourselves: But we, as Christians, as part of the Church must see these things in the context of the Church, and our following studies must be in the light of the Church. Anything we may say in respect of this subject and the practical outworkings of redemption, must be seen in the context of God, Jesus and the Christian faith. To take this stance, we also have to recognise that the Bible is our source and accept that it is not always as specific as we might like it to be and so we are sometimes left making assumptions, and those assumptions can be suspect because they so often depend on what we've heard and the prejudices we've accumulated, and not necessarily on the complete teaching of the Bible. The difficulty that we have, and it is a legitimate and right and proper one, is that we want to uphold what we see is the Bible's teaching and we want to stop wrong behaviour. However your list of wrong behaviours may be different to mine and your way of dealing with them may be different to mine. There is often a lot of leeway to these things.
Challenging Examples: Let's put up some difficult situations. Example 1: ‘A' is a minister, a church leader. He falls into adultery and it becomes public. We all accept his behaviour is wrong, but what do we do about it? It sounds easy until you think more deeply. He should step down from his position, I hear you say. Right. For now and forever? Can he ever return to the ministry and if yes, after how long and after what conditions? These are the questions of redemption. What about the woman? Can she remain a ‘church member'? If not, why not and what do you say should happen to her? Is that going to work towards her redemption? (I'm simply asking question and not implying answers; we'll look at these things in more detail in subsequent studies).
Example 2: ‘B' is a female worship leader. She ‘comes out' and publicly declares she is a Lesbian. The world says this is fine, but you are not sure what the Bible says. Can she carry on as worship leader? What are the consequences? If not, what would you want to happen to her? Has she a special need in respect of redemption or is God fine with her as she is? Example 3: ‘C' is a Christian who married ‘D' a non-Christian knowing their approach to life. ‘C' has become Church Secretary of your local church and in the interim while they are waiting for a new minister, she appears in control. A woman leading? What did Paul really say? Married to an unbeliever? Problems? Difficulties? Messy.
It is Difficult: What are the answers here, what is the truth? These are the difficult (and maybe not so obvious) questions that face us when we seek to apply all we have seen in these studies so far to modern living. Should the fact that it is ‘modern' affect the outcome? In order not to ‘cast the first stone' maybe we need to tread more lightly than our background, church style or whatever might previously have suggested. Jesus was full of ‘grace and truth' (Jn 1:14). Can we pray for both in our understanding of these things? How can we face the truth but do it lovingly if it looks to challenge people around us? What would we want if we were in their shoes?
A Personal Example: Many years ago when I was in leadership there arose a situation where I snapped in public, responding to an individual's public criticism – obviously at a low grace level! – and walked out of the meeting. The object of my response, and it is better not to go into details, was in tears and others gathered round her to console her. The next day when several of us leaders gathered together, one of them simply declared with great hostility, “I can't work with you!” and the other one sided with him and agreed. I said I would resign. Long story short, I remained but we went through a very difficult period. Now when I view that many years later, I can say unconditionally I was wrong. However as I have pondered over the situation and reflected on what happened, I realise (and it is after years of reflection) that I wish that the response to me had been something like, “My dear old friend, whatever came over you yesterday? What has caused you to react like that? How can we help you and how can we rebuild the situation?” But crass judgmentalism reigned and condemnation flowed, and my wife and I identify that year as the worst year of our lives as I sought to continue to hold that church upright following that public conflict. There were painful lessons there.
The Lessons: Without going into details, the background to that situation, the thing that caused me to break, was an unrighteous attitude that I had never dared confront. Leaders often fear that such confrontations will cause church disharmony, people leaving, and their salaries evaporating, and so we do not confront. It is wrong and perhaps we may ponder on that in some further study. But here's the thrust of this particular study: unknowing and unthinking criticism of people, judgmentalism that refuses to step in their shoes to understand what is going on in them, can be a primary cause of hindering redemption. I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard someone say of someone they know, “Oh no, they don't go to church anymore, the church hurt them too much.” Now there are always two sides to every story, but one side, so often, is the failure of us, the church, to love the fallen and work to graciously, sensitively, and carefully, help them back on to their feet again. With a great sense of inadequacy and reticence, I hope to try looking at some of these things in yet a few studies to come.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
35. Facing my own foibles?
1 Tim 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners —of whom I am the worst.
My own heart: In the previous study we started considering the difficulties of practical redemption in daily modern life. We might summarise it here as the problem of seeing people who are apparently genuine Christians but who have seriously fallen off the tracks and sinned, and whereas we know that grace says we have to be forgiving, nevertheless how do you cope with someone who seems to be flying in the opposite direction to the dictates of the word of God? Church gossip – which shouldn't ever exist – composes of chatter about other people's foibles. If you are not sure of that word, it goes with weaknesses, faults, shortcomings, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and the fact that people do gossip is a testament to the fact of the existence of imperfection in us all. But when it comes to the redemption of others, it is my heart, what I think about them, that will either hinder the redemption process and God's will for them, or possibly help that process. This series is now about how we may think of getting into the right place to help redemption rather than hinder it.
Personal Recognition: Commentators argue over Paul's words above to Timothy because, I suggest, those words, “of whom I am the worst” can imply that he is saying that even as a Christian, even as an apostle, he still sees himself as the worst of sinners. I am firmly of the conviction that that is exactly what he is saying about himself, that in the present that is what he knows he is. Now that doesn't mean to say that he is saying he does lots of bad things but, to use the definition of sin that I often use in these notes, he is aware that he has to use the indwelling Holy Spirit to fight and overcome the natural tendencies from the past that are still potentially there, and which Satan would seek to stir up, to be “godless and self-centred'. That simply means that we each still have that tendency to wander through life without thinking of God and of working out our difficulties on our own.
Personal Realities: In earlier studies we saw Paul's teaching that we need to overcome anxiety (Phil 4:6,7) – it exists! – and we need to ‘put to death' things of the past (Col 3:5) – they still exist – and we are to consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11) and we are to ‘not let sin reign in' us (Rom 6:12) – so it is still there potentially. We have to take action against that possibility. So Paul knows the reality, which is why he cries out, “ Who will rescue me,” (Rom 7:24) and concludes, “God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v.25)
The fact of “being a sinner” doesn't mean we have to be continually committing loads of sins because the apostle John counters that one: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin,” (1 Jn 2:1) but then adds, as a good pastor who knows us, “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ.” (v.2) Again, he knows we have the propensity to trip over our feet spiritually and morally and ethically. It shouldn't happen to us as children of God, justified and sanctified, and indwelt by the Spirit, but we still have these human minds and bodies and we still live with the pressures of this fallen world and so, although we are perfect in God's sight in terms of our eternal destiny, when it comes to the reality of day to day living, He knows exactly what we are like – and still loves us.
Insecurity results in Deception: A primary problem I have observed over many years, and I know I have written about this many times – but it does bear repeating – is that although we read the words of the Bible about being loved by God, the experiences we have in this fallen world mean that we go on feelings rather than facts, and so really do often struggle to believe that I am loved unconditionally, just like I am, and I am loved so much that God has more and better for me than I am at the moment and He longs to bring that to me. Now because we allow that state of mind to reign in us it means that we feel insecure. We have this sense that, “I know I am a sinner” but so much experience on this earth tells us that when we blow it everyone around me, from family outwards, will be there blaming me, criticizing me, chastising me, demeaning me and generally pulling me down.
But of course I don't want that to happen and so I pretend that, “I'm fine,” and we dare not acknowledge the truth I've spoken of above, that we are all the same, imperfect, and we have a tendency to getting it wrong. The other defence mechanism is to say, “So I got it wrong, so what, everybody does, who cares!” This is an equal deception because of course God does and He longs to help us and set us free from guilt, shame and repetition of failure but, as we've said in the ‘Bible Studies' studies of this series, redemption starts with the acknowledgement of guilt. So many of us are happy to read it in the context of such a study but not accept and face it in daily life.
Seeing Others are like me: We started out by asking how can we cope when we see other Christians getting it seriously wrong? One answer is to realise that we have the potential to do the same. If you think you could never “do that!” beware. The apostle Paul knew the truth: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.” (1 Cor 10:12,13) You may have heard the old adage, apparently from native American origin, “Never criticize someone until you have walked in their moccasins”. Until you know what is going on in a person's mind, keep a check on your lips.
A Telling Example: Writer and trainer, Stephen R. Covey, recounts a subway experience he once had. It was a quiet Sunday morning and people in the carriage were reading quietly when a man and his children entered at the next stop. The children were loud and boisterous and yet the man did nothing. Covey eventually remonstrated with him about controlling his children and the man seemed to focus and replied, “Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died just about an hour ago, I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either.” Covey commented, “Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished … everything changed in an instant.”
Agents of Redemption? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, can we put aside our prejudices, our previously pre-packaged (probably from someone else) views on some of the lesser mortals around us, and ask the Lord to open our eyes to their plight (Christian or not), and give us the wisdom and grace to know how to be Jesus to them? Facing the truth about other people (and that includes facing the truth that is bad!) often requires immense humility, sensitivity and gentleness as well as wisdom and grace. Can we face ourselves, be honest about our own limitations and seek God to change – in ourselves and in how we view others so that just possibly we may be those who don't hinder ongoing redemption but enable it?
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
36. Islands of Belief
Acts 17:22,23 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god . So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
Different Approaches: In Athens the apostle Paul was distressed to see the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16) and when he was given the opportunity, in this pagan city, he used an approach we see him using nowhere else – because it fitted the time and place. Today in the West, we are living in a time when the majority have put aside their Judeo-Christian heritage and basically anything goes. The result of that is that attitudes and practices are being accepted as normal in the world that a hundred years ago would have been considered unthinkable. If you read sufficiently – and I am not advocating wide reading today – you will find that much in paperback is unwholesome and literally anything goes. Some have suggested that we live in a day where there is a market place of ideas and the world believes that no one has the right to claim their ideas are better than anyone else's ideas. For this reason I believe we need to come up with a different approach to communicate with the rest of the world, ideas that just may scale down antagonism, so may I introduce you to my idea of ‘islands'.
The ‘Island Approach': Islands are a familiar tool of novelists and so there is nothing original about this. Imagine a large expanse of ocean if you like, and in it, in fairly close proximity, are a number of islands. Now in reality, in the world at large (the earth I mean) there are many different nations and many different cultures, and we accept their differences. We may struggle with some practices found around the world, e.g. the Hindu practice of a wife being required to die on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, or traditional Islamic female circumcision, but mostly we accept different countries have different cultural beliefs. In our own Western countries we take it as perfectly normal that we have different political beliefs and that it is completely legitimate to work to convert people to our particular party's beliefs. The same is not so of religious belief in the West. Perhaps we need to challenge that a bit more.
Now each of my ‘islands' are places of different beliefs. On my island we are Christians following the Christian faith. Over there, there is a small island where atheists live. (There actually aren't that many of them in the total world population). Over there, there is an island of Hindus. Over there, there is another island populated by Jews. There are thus a number of islands with different religious faiths and, contrary to the wrong beliefs of many of the non-faith islands, these ‘faith islands' are definitely not the same as each other. Over there, there is a large island of agnostics, unsure what to believe, and next them an even bigger island of people with no beliefs (they say) and who seem little concerned about it.
Remove defensive antagonism: Now I want to suggest that if we see the world as made up like this today and if the mantra of the world, that all our beliefs are all equally acceptable, is true, then I suggest that each of these islands should exist without any feelings of being under threat from other islands and equally should not feel antagonistic towards other islands. Now some of you are going to start to feel uncomfortable at this point and want to shout about the uniqueness of Christ and of our faith, and I would be the first to agree with you, but please understand I am simply putting forward a tool for communication that is not belligerently, aggressively and arrogantly antagonistic.
Sharing Dialogue: On each of our islands – and ours is no different – we will have a set of beliefs about the world and the way to live life in the light of those beliefs. In this approach it is legitimate to say, “these are our beliefs, these are the ways we live, what are yours?” Dialogue is finding out what you believe and sharing what I believe. Now I happen to believe that the system that is on my island is in fact the best, but if I do, then I need to say why it is in an intelligent and coherent manner, and then invite other islanders to explain how their islands work and show that they are equally good – or not – without them feeling threatened. I don't believe they will be able to do that, but it is a good way to communicate with openness to one another.
Beliefs on my Island: Each one of us on our ‘islands' have a system of beliefs and we are all different, but it is not that simple. For instance, my wife and I come from the same perspective, the same island, and yet if you were able to peer into our minds and see every single thing we've ever thought, every conclusion we've ever drawn, every belief in minute detail, we would not be identical. Our ‘big-belief patterns' (there is a God who made the world) are the same, and that is our island. Our island is different from someone with different ‘big-belief patterns'; they have their own island (that may be there is no God, it is all pure chance). The fact that we may inhabit the same island with other people, doesn't mean to say we will have identical beliefs. Thus, although we are Christians, you and I may have different understandings but when Jesus commanded us to love one another that meant we should be open to one another, share our hearts with one another and look for unity within diversity. That we'll need to look at in the next study as we pursue this redemption theme further.
The Faith Dimension on my island: The Bible is the basis for belief on my island. Some people are certain about that, others have question marks but essentially, we refer back to it in making our arguments. But there is something important we have to accept about the Bible. To start with, I am utterly convinced that, with all the available evidence about the Bible, it reassures me that I can rely on what I have as being as close to the original as makes no odds and is worth my hours and decades of study, and it leaves me believing it is the ultimate source of truth about the ‘why questions' of life.
However, having said that, we have to recognise that this is a statement of faith that cannot be ‘proved conclusively'. Note also that is also true of scientific conclusions about the ‘why questions' as any honest philosopher of science will agree. We have, to take a basic example, the knowledge of something we call gravimetric pull, but there is no way of explaining why such a thing exists. Coming from a faith background adds a sense of humility to our discussion. The boldly arrogant about their beliefs, also tend to be ignorant about the beliefs of others or even the outworking of their own. Arrogance and ignorance tend to go together. May we be humble and secure enough in our faith to be open to listen to those from other islands, and possibly learn something from them.
Back to Redemption: Oh yes, nothing has changed, we are still working towards redemption. On my island we believe, as this whole series has suggested, that there is a God who is in the process of redeeming all of us. From our perspective it would be lovely to think that every other island will be emptied, and everyone dwell on our island, but the lessons of the Bible, especially in respect of free will, suggest this will never be like this on this earth in time-space history. However, in this amazingly changing world in which we live today, if we think creatively, it is just possible that we might be able to cross boundaries and show others, who are no longer putting up their defensive barriers through this approach, that our island is in fact the one worth being on. As we communicate between the islands, without losing anything of our uniqueness, our goal is to communicate with grace and truth. These following ‘studies' are, therefore, not only for us, to sharpen us up in these things but maybe, as we approach these subjects with sensitivity, to win over some from other islands, or at least equip you to communicate with them without raising their defences in order that that might happen.
And So? I am simply suggesting a paradigm that hopefully enables us to dialogue with others of different beliefs and different outlooks without raising their defences. It says don't come in attacking mode but come with humility and openness that doesn't provoke others to put up resisting defences, but just possibly enable them to listen to us without hostility. This approach will be particularly valuable, I believe, when we come to consider viewpoints that are at odds with our own and I will seek to show this in some of the studies that follow. In the background, remember the words of the apostle Peter: “ Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet 3:15) or as the Message version puts that end part, “and always with the utmost courtesy.” I would thus encourage you to think about this approach and see if we can use it to achieve those ends. May it be so.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
37. Distinctives and Differences
1 Cor 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
‘Our Island': I have this general sense of direction for these studies but each morning I wake up with not a clue what today's study will be. I expected it will be one thing but as I prayed in the earlier slot of time I have with the Lord each morning, something else came, and came quite specifically. From nothing each day, something comes, and I trust it to be the Lord. Part of me wants to get on to confront major issues challenging us today, but it is as if the Lord is saying, ‘Go slowly, build the foundation carefully first' and so this morning I find myself thinking about ‘our island' that I referred to yesterday, the ‘island' where all the inhabitants are Christians. Yet I noted that even though we all (true born-again Christians) have the main foundational beliefs, we have whole varieties of interpretation of practice, i.e. the way we do church. I said yesterday that we should be open to one another, share our hearts with one another and look for unity within diversity and that we would consider, so let's do that now. It is all part of this ‘redemption package', now specifically the redemption of the Church.
‘Our Distinctives': Today my wife and I are members of a particular denomination but that is only because we are involved with this particular church in our locality. In many ways we are quite unusual because I would rather set up a new church on very basic grounds, but our community already has too many ‘churches' so, instead, we determine to be available and serve this particular expression of Christ's church. I have a young friend in the States who is just about to launch out with a new church-plant, and I thrill with him in the possibilities, but for now, we have joined a denominational church that would call itself evangelical with a tinge of charismatic leanings. Denominational churches tend to look to the denomination for ultimate ‘covering' and subscribe to the same things set by the denomination. In our existing church, there are a few people who have been there for over twenty years; in the church we found ourselves establishing three decades ago, we similarly ended up being there for twenty-three years and in such times, you establish ways of thinking, ways of working, and those tend to become your distinctives, the good things (we believe) that make you different from other churches in the locality.
‘Our Differences': And therein arises a problem, for our distinctives become our differences and the danger with differences is that they are divisive, that you can easily look down on others who are not the same as you. I have watched, over the years, various activities where local churches join together for a specific project, maybe a mission or something similar, but it seems to me that they never sit comfortably, these joint operations, and that is a shame – but quite ‘natural'. But these distinctive-differences seem to arise in three areas. First, there is our attitude towards the Scriptures as our authority. (What do we think of the Bible?). Second, there is the way we ‘do' church, liturgical or free and, third, there is our attitude towards the Holy Spirit. I won't bother to pause to spell those out, I'll leave you to think them out yourself.
Our Points of Contention: In more recent decades in the church in the West, there has been discussion, debate and disagreement, first in respect of women in leadership, and then on the subject of gays in the church (what an awful way to put it!) which has moved on from acceptance of gays to ‘marriage' of gays. In more recent days the whole issue of trans-gender has been rearing its head and is starting (very early days – mid 2018 at time of writing) to create discussion and debate and, no doubt, disagreement. Other blights on modern living in the West, marriage replacement by cohabitation, relational breakups, teenage pregnancies, are no longer actually seen as a blight but are, in society at least – and in some churches – considered normal.
Redeeming these Points: Before I return to the general subject of facing and dealing with our distinctive-differences, for honesty sake at least, I need to say that the list of things in the above paragraph are the things I believe I am going to have to consider in the studies ahead. I realise that here is both a potential recipe for disagreement while at the same time possibly creating the reaction, “Hey, where is our Bible study? Why do we have to deal with these sordid issues?” The answer to that is because these are issues that have been, are, or are about to face the church, and maybe even challenge its very existence. We need, therefore, to ask ourselves key questions about these things, such as, ‘what does the Bible say about these issues – if anything?' or ‘what is the truth about these issues – is there ‘fake news' polluting the discussion?' or ‘what are the pastoral issues that arise with each of these issues and how may we face them honestly but compassionately?' ‘Redeeming' these issues means presenting them to God to check His wisdom in respect of them, and seeing how we may better handle them, after long and careful consideration outside the white-heat of almost political argument that sometimes appears in respect of them.
Redeeming our Distinctive-Differences: Redemption, as we have seen at length in this series, starts from a lostness and is about being saved from lostness and being saved to a place of grace and truth in Christ. The ‘lostness' that I have just referred to in respect of our relationships on ‘our island' is the division we perceive in our thinking when we confront denominational differences. It is there; it is the temptation we each have when we view ‘our church' as being different (and better?) than other churches in town. Here we need to consider the theology and then practice.
The Theology of Unity: The amazing truth is that even as God loves and blesses us as imperfect individuals on a path of redemption, so He also loves and blesses imperfect church situations, but that doesn't mean to say He wants them to stay like that! The local church (or denomination) that is run more as a business (owning property, employing staff etc. etc.) is far from the New Testament model, but that is not, it seems, the big issue with the Lord; it is our heart, for Him and for people and for each other. The little inclusive fellowship that is more like an elite club is similar; He will bless and use where He will, but that doesn't mean He wants them to stay just like that.
Jesus' Desire: Jesus, in his high priestly prayer in John 17, spoke first of the disciples he had with him as “ those you have given me, for they are yours.” (v.9) The church is a work of God and belongs to God – all of us. He went on, “glory has come to me through them.” (v.10) i.e. the church glorifies God, that is our first role and we need to remind ourselves of that. He then asks his Father, “protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me.” (v.11a) The Message version amplifies this, “ guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me,” which expresses well the sense of community but not so much the power of the Father's will that constantly works to redeem and protect and take us on. The end result is, “ so that they may be one as we are one,” (v.11b) or as the Message version puts it, “ so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind.”
Paul's analogy: 1 Cor 12 is Paul's famous ‘body' chapter where he makes the points that a) the Holy Spirit gifts individuals within the body (v.1-11) and b) the body comprises many different parts, but all are brought into being through Christ (v.12-14) and we each need each other even though we may be different from one another (v.15-26). To conclude: we are one in a single body, but different as individual members of that body, and DO we need each other, even though we may not realise it, or think about it as we get caught up in our own little church world.
The Practice of Unity: Unity starts in the mind. How you and I think about each other and each other's churches is where it starts. Praying for one another is a good start, prayer laced with a good dose of thanksgiving for one another. Where there have been splits and divisions, working at reconciliation and seeking forgiveness where attitudes, words and actions had been less than full of grace, is a prerequisite. When we face the Lord in eternity will we have an uncomfortable conversation that starts with Him asking, “Why didn't you go back to your brothers and sisters and seek reconciliation?” Ministers fraternals can be a good starting place as long as they are real and not just a ritual (I've been in them!). Sharing preachers, meeting together as a whole church from time to time, both formally and informally, can also be a good thing in steering towards a realistic redeeming of the fractured church. If you suddenly feel hostile to this idea of meeting together from time to time, is it time to look afresh at everything you think and feel about ‘your church'? Just a simple reminder: it is not yours it is God's!
The Island of Redemption: This ‘island' of which we Christians are a part, is to be first and foremost an island of redemption, where people are because of Jesus' death, and the work of the Holy Spirit has lifted them out of the old self-centred, godless life and delivered them into relationship with God. Because of the things we have observed through this series, it is also an island of change where we “ are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another,” (2 Cor 3:18 RSV) and because it is a process, we are all ‘works in progress'. We are one in all this. May its outworking be, as in Jesus' words, so that “ the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. ” (Jn 17:23) Amen? Amen!
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
38. Understanding the Fallen World
Rom 8:20-22 (NLT) Against its will, all creation was subjected to God's curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God's children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Accepting the Fall: I am aware that I often refer to this ‘fallen world' which in itself refers to the Fall recorded in Gen 3 and to the fall of Adam and Eve from perfect people to sinners. Although disputed by liberal ‘believers', the New Testament affirms that it was clearly an historical event according to the apostle Paul (see Rom 5:12, 1 Cor 15:21, 1 Tim 2:14, 2 Cor 11:3). The point about the Fall for us today, is found in the consequences, both logically and in reality.
The logic of the Fall: Apart from the fact that Genesis declares it and the key New Testament scholar acknowledges its historicity, the Fall declares something so fundamental that most of us never even think about it. As far as God is concerned, the state of living after the Fall is NOT normal. Normal for God is how the world was before mankind sinned, and ‘normal' is what it will be when God creates a new heaven and a new earth eventually (Rev 21:1) with a new sin-free community (21:2). But here is the thing, if you don't believe in God and you don't believe in the Fall, all you are left with is a messed-up world that was always messed up and will always remain messed up, a very pessimistic scenario.
The reality of the Fall: As I have quoted before, one modern historical commentator has said ‘the history of the world is the history of wars' and most people have heard of Mao Tse Tung's quote: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun ." But it is not just nations, it is tribes and cultures and families and individuals who seem unable to live peaceably together. The curses of Genesis 3 show that life after the Fall was changed, it became more difficult, harder and harsher as God stepped back into the shadows and let us live our lives as we wanted – alone. (And yet as we saw at the beginning of these studies, He is still there reaching out to whoever will respond to Him).
Worldwide changes: The indications are that this change affected the whole of creation which is what makes Isaiah's prophetic analogy(?) so incredible when he speaks of the day of the Messiah when, “ The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra's den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa 11:6-9) The amazing sense of peace and harmony among all living creatures there, makes us realise how different the world is now. The Bible doesn't spell it out but there are hints of powers and forces released that cause geographical upheaval that didn't occur before the Fall – earthquakes, moving tectonic plates, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes. It is not clear and so is speculative, but it makes sense. Something else that Genesis shows us is that human behaviour deteriorates when left to itself. From a first single act of disobedience we read that before very long, “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. ” (Gen 6:5)
Why am I like this? The fact is that sickness and illness developed in the world, things go wrong with our health. Even more than that our bodies develop ‘defects'. I have a particular non-problematical skin feature that I clearly inherited from my mother and from her family. Things like this get passed on down through generations. Sometimes they can be very serious. To take one example, Huntington's disease is a rare inherited disorder involving the progressive loss of particular nerve cells in the brain, and causes a decline in thinking and reasoning skills, including memory, concentration, judgment, and ability to plan and organize. Huntington's disease comes from a genetic disorder. (Quotes from Internet). Sometimes genetic changes can cause literal physical changes and so in the modern ‘transgender debate' we find that there are some people, fairly rare, who are born with what possibly might be best expressed as mixed (both) sexual organs that challenge gender identity. More commonly in the gender debate, which we'll consider as a separate subject, we find people whose psychological and emotional identity does not correspond to their biological sex. This often creates the question, “Why am I like this?”
The truth about causes: The answer to this question is NOT, “Because you have sinned, and it is God's punishment.” It is also NOT, as some Christians who struggle personally with these things say, “God made me like this.” No, He didn't. What we are talking about here are consequences of the Fall, of the world going wrong. The fact that God allows the Fallen world to work like this is no more and no less than like a frustrated car mechanic watching a person run their car into the ground from lack of proper maintenance, who has been told to mind his own business and let the car owner get on and do what he wants. There may sometimes be a causal link between sin and a bodily breakdown – as we've suggested before, long-term alcohol abuse can result in organ damage, e.g. to the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas. Medical authorities maintain there are clear scientific links between smoking and lung cancer. Personal injuries may be caused by personal negligence. However there are times when things happen out of the blue with no apparent cause, because that is what sometimes happens in a fallen world. In respect of diseases it may be that an individual makes themselves vulnerable to catching a particular disease, but often such things happen simply because we are part of the fallen human race, not because I am more of a sinner than my neighbour. (see Jesus in Lk 13:4).
The truth about behaviour: When we come to consider behaviour, attitudes and outlook in respect of gender issues, which has been so much forced into the open in the last twenty years or more, as with any other behaviour, attitudes and outlook, we arrive at a major debate which, I believe, has not been resolved intellectually or scientifically. Feelings about gender are flexible (and we'll consider this more fully in the next study) and science has not been able to determine so far what are the definitive causes for the ways individuals feel about themselves, but however we feel, there is still a large measure of freedom as to how we act out those feelings, and therefore choice is still there in some degree.
To take a silly, nongender-issue example, on a bad day I can wake up and feel physically very low. There are probably good physical reasons why my emotions flow in that direction. However, if I am wise, I keep my mouth shut until body and emotions pick up; it is that simple. Whatever our propensity, we still do have a measure of choice as to how we will act. The Fall did not take that away from us. Genetically, we may be predisposed or inclined in one direction, but we are never forced down a particular path. As Christians especially, we can seek the Lord for grace and thus choose with His help how we will act. Taking my eyes off me when I am feeling low about myself, and simply saying in actions, how can I help others, refocuses our lives and our actions as well as our mind and emotions, so that His resources can then flow in me.
Fallen People: Now this is very significant when it comes to the way we think about other people, particularly people who are not ‘like me'! First , we would do well to see that every one of us human beings struggle in some measure with some ‘foible', as I referred to our quirks or personal idiosyncrasies, our ‘feet of clay' as I have on occasions referred to it before. But those aren't just ways of thinking, the things we struggle with can be physical or emotional. This needs to be our starting point, this recognition that because this is a fallen world we are all in some way or other ‘broken' or ‘damaged'. The more I have revelation about my life the more I see what a broken person I was (and still am in a measure), falling short of perfection, falling short of grace and goodness sometimes. Look, every time we have spoken a harsh word, thought an uncharitable thought, put self before others, acted less than perfectly, we have identified that we are fallen people.
Redeemed People: But when we look at ourselves and others around us, we have to come back to the heart of this series so, second , we need to remind ourselves that although we are fallen and imperfect, God is on our case. He has provided a new life for us in Christ through His Son's death on the Cross, and He has provided His own Holy Spirit for us, to indwell us and help us, and so although we do so often struggle with coping with these inadequacies, these blemishes, these signs of being broken, He still loves us, is there for us and is there gently working to change us, in His way, with His wisdom, with His power, in His time. Hallelujah! We will be changed, it will happen, partly this side of death and completely in eternity.
Beware jumping to conclusions: Once we get to and see the redemption idea, we can be reassured about ourselves and then we start looking at others and start thinking about how they could be redeemed, how they could be changed and so there, third , if we are not careful, we start getting judgmental; we forget so many of these truths and revert to, “why are they like that, it is wrong, they are wrong,” and other short-sighted ungracious, insensitive thoughts that are moral assessments that may be part-truths but forget the big redemption picture. Keep it simple: God loves them. Start from that point and show them His love by the way you unconditionally accept and love them. Watch Jesus' example in the Gospels as he interacted with ‘sinners'. That doesn't mean you agree with their lifestyle or life-outlook, but that you want to be there for them in case God wants to use you in their particular ‘redemption process'. Much grace needed. Let these truths sink into you, anchor you, and maybe restrain you, but may they help us each to be part of His redemption process within us and in others around us.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
39. Gender Issues
Gen 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Gen 2:24,25 a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Painting the background: There are a number of other issues that arise in modern life in the West (but not necessarily so across the rest of the world) but let's go to the heart of one of the biggest issues that is rising up and challenging our thinking, that of gender issues. (Stay with me for these following studies, they are very important in the life of the Church in today's world and really do need redeeming). Above we have God's mandate for a perfect world, how it was in the beginning, what I referred to in a previous study as what is ‘normal' for God, what was normal before the Fall, and what will be normal when He recreates a new heaven and a new earth. But yesterday we considered the reality of this ‘fallen world', a world where often things are no longer ‘normal' in the sense I used above, a world where sometimes this imperfection, this brokenness reveals itself in genetic changes.
Definitions: Let's do some defining. I am going to briefly quote from ‘Understanding Gender Dysphoria' by Mark A. Yarhouse, who clearly knows considerably more about this subject than most of us and may thus help us clarifying our thinking.
Primary Sex characteristics: Features of the body that are directly part of the reproductive system.
Gender: The psychological, social and cultural aspects of being male or female.
Gender identity: How you experience yourself (or think of yourself) as male or female, including how masculine or feminine a person feels.
Gender role: Adoptions of cultural expectations for maleness and femaleness.
NB. Wikipedia notes, “ Sexual orientation describes an individual's enduring physical, romantic, emotional, or spiritual attraction to another person, while gender identity is one's personal sense of being a man or a woman.”
The Transgender Conundrum: We may not like this subject and feel it is simply an aberration of the fallen world ‘out there' (beyond the church), but if that means we exclude certain people from the possibility of ‘salvation', and from church, we have surely moved far from the heart of God. Now without doubt, this has been forced onto our consciousness – and I don't know whether it is an enemy strategy or whether it is simply a sign of how ‘fallen' the world is getting – and so we need to understand something of this and not produce knee-jerk, hostile reactions, that alienate us from people Jesus may want to save. These may be people in our own families. How tragic if, because of our ignorance and fear, we act so hostilely towards those closest to us that they flee from us. To quote Yarhouse, “To discuss being transgender is to discuss one's experience of gender identity, one's sense of oneself as male or female, and how that psychological and emotional experience is not aligning with one's birth sex.”
Excuse me on my island: Now I suspect that most of my readers will be ‘straight Christians' and if your instinctive reaction is now to go elsewhere, may I appeal to you to stick with me, learn, understand and empathize, and see the redemptive possibilities. My experience, and that of my family has been ‘straight' but I increasingly come across those who either fit one of the transgender definitions or have family members who do. Why the increase? I don't know, but I do want to remind you what I said several studies back about ‘islands'. My island may be different from yours or, to put it the other way around, yours may be different from mine, but I am not here to attack your island , but understand it, and if you are not happy with your island find out why. If you don't want to read something as solid as Yarhouse's book, see if you can get the January 2017 special-issue back copy of National Geographic magazine titled ‘Gender Revolution' which acts as an excellent primer to this subject. I do not intend here to lay out all the many definitions found within this subject but simply to ask some pertinent questions to help us in it.
An unclear world: A distinction was made above between attraction to another and ‘gender identity'. That suggests therefore, that a person may be sexually male but feel female but not necessarily attracted to either males or females. It also suggests that someone may identify themselves as male but nevertheless be attracted to other males. We are, in reality, talking about an area of life that is more like a kaleidoscope with lots of different colours and shapes, and which often change. Now within all this, and this occurs more within the ‘attraction' area, we might be wise to observe two things. First, a person's ‘spiritual orientation' and, second, a person's sexual control, if I may put it like that. What I am about to suggest is that as far as your acceptance of individuals is concerned, these two things may be more important to you if you will think about it, than whether they are not ‘straight' in your eyes.
Spiritual Orientation: Those of us who come from an ‘evangelical' background are usually more concerned to know where a person stands with God and Jesus, have they made a profession of faith or not, say. It may surprise us that a person struggling with gender issues can have as strong a heart after God as you might profess to have, and that their struggles with their gender issues form as much a content of their prayers as maybe yours about your temper, say. They may read their Bible as avidly as you, and ‘attend church' and worship as vigorously as you. You may struggle with your temper, unkind thoughts, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or many other such common grace-struggles. They may not be struggling with such things.
The point I am making? We may all of us, empathize with the apostle Paul in his struggles in Romans 7, wanting to be one thing but being something else, but if we are struggling with something that has genetic origins (and we'll look at this in another study more fully) we cannot call that ‘sin'. Wow! A difficult theological and philosophical problem, but what I wonder is the truth about that? Don't jump to conclusions too quickly. (We will definitely look at Rom 1 soon).
Sexual Control: Now the western world has abandoned the word ‘control' when it comes to sexual behaviour and for decades now American TV (and more latterly other Western nations' TV) have been pumping out TV that says sex is OK with whoever you want to do it with, and whenever you want. Almost surprisingly, TV ‘soaps' are incredibly good at showing that infidelity and unfaithfulness in terms of relationships are recipes for hurt, anguish and upset where feelings of rejection and betrayal are abundant. And this hasn't gone anywhere near the transgender or sexual orientation areas, this has just been the rampant abandonment of tradition Judeo-Christian values in relationships, so that cohabitation is frequently more common than formal marriage. Unfortunately statistics prove that when you are cohabiting, whatever your intentions, you are far more likely to split up than if you are married.
But uninhibited, unrestricted, sexual expression is what the media have been showing us for decades so, may I suggest, any comments we may make from our ‘island' should be equally concerned whether it is in respect of heterosexual sex or say homosexual sex. The Biblical Christian standpoint says, one partner of the opposite sex, for life, after marriage. The water in the West has now become very muddied, but if you are wishing to advise or wishing to criticize in respect of this area of non-heterosexual behaviour, surely the same criteria needs to be applied and maybe some difficult questions asked: Do you have to ‘have sex'? Do you have to have many sexual partners? Does that leave you feeling fulfilled or are you chasing newer and more exciting experiences and, like drug taking, the buzz of the next experience seems to be less than the previous one? Please, these are not seeking to be condemnatory questions but simply honest questions from my island to yours. Can you be honest about them?
Integrity and compassion: Before we stop today, we should note that it is so easy to lack integrity and compassion in discussions, debates, arguments, call them what you will, about this subject. Integrity says sin in sin so if we want to challenge one area, why that area and not the bigger pool? Let's question all sexual behaviour outside the Biblical norms. Whatever we may think about the outlooks that different people have, on their individual islands, as followers of Jesus, can we be caring and compassionate, understanding and empathetic? In this area where, scientifically all is not black and white, can we restrain ourselves and not repeat the errors of the church in history that often condemned without knowledge and was shown to be foolish?
Integrity suggests we need to determine the truth and to find that we may need to ask difficult questions, and while so doing, can we always hold on to love, care, concern and compassion. God, we have been studying for weeks, desires to redeem. Remember, a while back we noted how we can be agents that hinder that process. In ten years' time, the philosophical and spiritual outlook may be very different from today and hopefully much clearer and much stronger, but to reach such a time will clearly need a move of God as well as open hearts in us today. May we be agents that help redemption and not hinder it.
40. What is the Truth?
1 Sam 18:1 Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself
Truth? For many people, truth is not important. For those of us who are Christians and who study the Bible and follow the one who said, “I am the truth”, (Jn 14:18) it is very important. It was Pontius Pilate who famously asked, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38) but it was said in a rather cynical manner that suggests that there really is no such thing. Well, let's make it very simple and say with the Internet, truth is “ that which is in accordance with fact or reality. ” So this teenage girl says, “I am a lesbian,” what is the truth about that? At a minimum she is saying she is attracted to other women, and yet many psychologists (of the past at least who had not been silenced by the pressures of media today) have agreed that all young people of that age go through a time of attraction to their own sex (hence the schoolgirl ‘crush' on older girls at school) but this is merely a developmental stage out of which they grow.
Important Questions: When that girl makes that declaration, it is more usual today that she is referring to a lifestyle that she is adopting where all future meaningful relationships (which may also include sexual expressions) will be with women. Now if I may refer back to our talk about ‘islands', can we ask questions but for them to be seen as points of enquiry and not challenges or attacks on a person. Two questions of enquiry that naturally arise here are, “What grounds do you have for saying that?” and “What do you think has brought that about?”
Personal Present Assessment: It is quite possible that she may say, “Oh, I have always been this way inclined, from when I was very little,” and that may in fact be quite true. Alternatively she may say, “It is something I have just become aware of,” which may raise the counter-question about stages of growth and development and this being a passing phase. The difficulty today is that as soon as she declares that, it is assumed that that is what she is, and will be for ever and ever, and her mental set is indeed set in that belief and subsequent behaviour. (Don't jump to conclusions, we're not saying that is right or wrong, but we'll come to that later).
Personal History: As a mere outside observer – and I may be wrong here - it appears often in say Lesbian relationships that one often takes on a semi-male role of more dominance while the other takes a more submissive ‘female' role (which is intriguing when you come to male/female role arguments). However, I assume that it is also possible that both can feel ‘female' but female attracted to female. Now the only reason I make these distinctions is that in the former case, the one playing the semi-male role can be clearer and say, “I have always felt more male and wanted to play with boys' toys, wear trousers, and take up an engineering career.” (Sorry, I am only using the stereotyping as examples of things often said). Where there is no such ‘male-leanings' we can ask, “Why are these two girls attracted to each other,” and the answer should be, why ever not?
Relational Development: Stop and think about this for a moment. I have three people in the world I would consider my best friends, two men and a woman (my wife). The thing about real friendship is that that there is a bond there whereby you (in the case of the two men) may not see them for a long time but can just pick up conversation and talk for hours on end. A sexual dimension with these two men? No way, we're just really good friends who share hearts. That I would suggest is what we find in the Bible in respect of David and Jonathan (see our starter verse above). David, from the rest of the text, is very clearly heterosexual and there is no indication of anything else. So you can have a friendship relationship, but there are also family and friend relationships that can involve a greater sense of intimacy which at the least may involve casual touches and hugs.
Modern Problems? Traditionally, it is when the two people concerned are male and female, and their relationship deepens, it is natural for it to desire further physical expression. The Song of Solomon is a celebration of pleasurable physical expression and when we remind ourselves, as we did in the last study, of early words in the Bible – “ a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. They become one flesh,” (Gen 2:24) we see sex is God's design. Now the moment we say that, we add something highly significant to the whole argument, because whenever we say that about other aspects of our lives – e.g. eating and drinking – we see that excess causes problems, and that is as true with relationships and sex as with anything else here. A close observation of modern Western behaviour as portrayed by TV, shows sex divorced from a committed relationship based on love, leads to difficulties in talking about ‘commitment', hence many short-term relationships that fall in and out of cohabitation.
Ebb and Flow: Now I realise that in this we have been flowing backwards and forwards covering same-sex relationships and uncommitted heterosexual relationships and you may be asking, ‘Hold on, what are we looking at?' and I would have to reply, ‘A community where the norms of God's design have been cast away and we are looking at ‘wetlands' that are neither quite swamp nor good solid, firm, unchanging ground. Here is the point for those of us on the traditional Christian ‘island': when the individual makes a declaration of gender identity contrary to the traditional norm, or where a couple participate in sex without boundaries, the vast majority of time there is nothing in their minds that is saying, “I reject God's design, I reject God.” That comes way before, it is a statement of living in general on these other islands. The primary call to them is to consider God first and foremost in their life and then, only secondarily, to suggest that there needs to be some serious thinking about lifestyles that are so often damaging and hurtful in the long-term.
Recap: So what have we been saying is this last part of the jigsaw?
First, truth is important to us because we have a Lord who is truth, entirely real and wants us to learn what truth is about.
Second, truth is often found by asking questions but sometimes that requires respect and care and sensitivity.
Third, in matters of sexual identity, the truth will be different for each individual and causes for an individual's feelings may be many and varied (which we haven't yet touched upon) and often difficult to ascertain.
Fourth, friendships can be naturally male + male or female + female without their being any sexual dimension and I am sure none of us would query that.
Fifth, the development of friendship into something more, desiring a physical expression, is where the ‘world' of unbelievers departs from the traditional Judeo-Christian, biblical pattern.
Sixth, the result of that, as can be seen in much modern life, creates a variety of relationship difficulties and problems, which are there to be observed in both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships but should never be observed in a finger-pointing manner but one of compassionate concern. (Perhaps we will try and identify such things in the next study.)
Clarifying the Focus: Meanwhile I suspect there are a number of you who are feeling frustrated and are saying, “But doesn't the Bible say…..?” Yes, it does, and we will look at that in the near future but for the present I have felt that our starting place, spread over these recent ‘studies', should be to check our own attitudes towards ‘people' rather than ‘behaviour'. In our studies of redemption we have seen that the work of God in redemption is to gradually change a person's outlook and then behaviour, to bring them in line with God's will for them. We have sought to recognise that while we may have different views about the behaviour of different groups within modern Western societies, in this realm of sexual identity and its outworkings, we too are people who are less than perfect and subject to God's redeeming process.
Paul's helpful analogy: In 1 Cor 13 where Paul speaks of love, he uses the expression, “ For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror,” (v.12) or as the JBP version puts it, “The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth,” and the Message expands it to, “We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” It seems to me that this expresses well how we view the present Western world in respect of its sexual attitudes and behaviours. Very often we think we've got it all buttoned up, but when we start getting close to people and really seek to determine the truth, it seems it is more like the old KJKV put it, “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” we're only looking through a dirty pane of glass and only seeing what is there very indistinctly. May we have the grace and humility to approach this subject in that light.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
41. About Desires
Rom 1:26,27 Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions.
Desires? I said in the previous study that we would consider the fruit or outworkings of the lifestyles that appear so prevalent in modern Western society (although one wonders if it is only prevalent in large cities – see later) but as I prayed about this I felt we needed to do things logically and in order, and so should confront the whole idea of ‘desires', very often the starting point for behaviour. The dictionary defines desire as “ a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” Why consider this subject because there was nothing revelatory or revolutionary there? Simple answer: because it is at the heart of all that we are thinking about.
Good Desires: Within God's design of humanity it is clear there are good and bad desires. Hunger when needing food, thirst when needing liquid, are good and natural desires. Sexual desire that continues the population must be a ‘good' desire. Good desires help maintain life. The desire to be married and have children would be considered a good desire.
Not-so-good desires! Desires running contrary to God's design for humanity must be bad. The desire to take someone else's wife – as we saw in the case of David in our earlier studies – is clearly a wrong desire, according to the Bible – and according to the wounded party of such actions. In Paul's famous verses from Rom 1 above, he uses the expression ‘inflamed with lust'. Lust = strong sexual desire. The message version puts it devastatingly clearly: “ Refusing to know God, they soon didn't know how to be human either—women didn't know how to be women, men didn't know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.” Now whatever else this passage says (and it is difficult to know when Paul was referring to, a specific time or generally in history), it is clear that such desires as are being spoken of there are ‘shameful …. unnatural… indecent …. perversions'. The gay Christian community says this speaks not about committed relationships but of wanton, uncontrolled and uninhibited sex, and there is certainly truth in that. The classic and terrible example of that is seen in the incident in Gen 19:4,5.
Biblical Limits: The Law was quite specific that having sex, male to male, was ‘detestable' and required the death penalty to act as a deterrent to prevent gradual breakdown in Israel's society (Lev 18:22, 20:13). In the New Testament ‘homosexual offenders' are categorized with ‘the wicked' (1 Cor 6:9,10) and again, the gay Christian community would argue that this applies not to committed relationships but to wanton, uncontrolled and uninhibited sex. (The problem with ‘committed relationships' is that so often they don't last and don't prove to be ‘committed' – but that can apply to poorly founded heterosexual relationships as well.)
Sexual Gratification: Without doubt lust is something that can be inflamed – or controlled! Andrew Marr in his ‘A History of Modern Britain', speaking of the 1960's to 80's and the AIDS ‘plague' as he calls it, refers to the clearly “promiscuous, wild and unprotected sex” in parts of the USA as “gay men migrated across America during the sixties and seventies to find the most liberal and liberated culture available”. Speaking of a similar drift in the UK in the major cities, he refers to “Gay clubs, gay discos and gay saunas, the latter really places for as much promiscuous sex as possible.” So is this claim to “I am a homosexual”, or “I am a lesbian” tantamount to being a declaration, “I just want to have sex with those of like gender to me?” That may appear an unkind assessment, but the wider social experience often suggests that.
More Questions: So here is another legitimate question: “Why do you want to ‘come out' and declare your sexuality?” I have no sense of specifically ‘being male' except that I an incredibly aware that I am different from my female wife, physically, biologically, socially and psychologically. But I don't have to proclaim it, so why do you? Another legitimate question I believe sometimes needs asking in pursuit of truth: “You are a gay male, OK no problem, but why do you have to adopt this false persona of the limp wrist, the affected speech etc. – that you never exhibited before you ‘came out' and which I certainly never see in women (so it is not a sign of being more feminine)? Is it therefore, simply a badge, a sign, an outward profession for the sake of other gays, to attract them and say, “I am gay, I am available” which goes back to the promiscuous-sex angle?
Distinctions: Something we haven't done so far is make some important distinctions, such as between i) Homosexual orientation, having homosexual inclinations and ii) Homosexual Practice, living a lifestyle of a member of the opposite sex, or having sexual relations with a member of the same sex, and iii) Homosexual Promiscuity, regular homosexual sex outside established single relationships. Another useful distinction is between i) “inverts” (those who claim to always have been homosexually orientated) who have found it easier to express their orientation, and encourage others to do so as well, and ii) “perverts” (heterosexuals who just get involved in homosexual activities for kicks) and who have also justified the homosexual lifestyle as acceptable. The water is not as clear as we might have thought originally.
Christian standpoint: In the light of these various considerations, we may suggest that we might question a declaration of ‘coming out' and so respond graciously, “So what, what has that got to do with your faith?” Why are you wanting recognition? What is there in you lacking, that needs this affirmation?” Now if that is you, you may feel it is confrontational to ask such questions but isn't it confrontational to make the declaration in my face to start with? Do I go around the church asking couples living in the same house or apartment together, to make declarations about their sexual lives? No, of course not. Many of them are married. Do I ask them, do they have ‘good sex'? Of course not (Sadly surveys often suggest that large percentages of women do not have a satisfactory sexual relationship within their relationship with their partner (married or cohabiting)). Do I ask those who share apartments (and before I was married I shared my apartment with two other guys – no sex!), do they have sex together? Of course not, what an impertinence! So why does my lesbian or homosexual friend need to make a declaration that says, ‘I want something more than good old-fashioned friendship and I need you to know about it'?
Church failure: I have two (now) elderly ladies who live together in my street. Years ago there was gossiping, and I want to shout to the gossips, “Mind your own business! If there is something not quite right about their relationship, leave it up to God. Whoever you are in your marriage relationship, if you can say it is absolutely perfect, you can cast the first stone.” This couple opted out of church life because of the gossip and so we, the community of God, were impoverished and we failed to love and accept and perhaps help the ongoing redemption process of those two ladies. I don't know the truth about them, what they did or do behind closed doors, and neither do you! We are not called to be sexual ‘classroom monitors' for the community, making sure everyone's life conforms to our standards. That's what the Pharisees of Jesus day did, so let's not be like them.
Summary: So what have we looked at in this study and perhaps could consider further?
We all have desires and some of those are good, and some are not good, and the latter need us to exercise self-control. In the fallen world, that we have considered previously, desires unchecked can cause hurt, harm, anguish and so much more.
The gay movement has often been associated with promiscuous sex and that, before God, is the same whether it is homosexual or heterosexual. Rather than be indignant, we might feel sad for anyone who has opted to get meaning in life purely from physical sexual expression, and not knowing or experiencing the many other life-fulfilling facets of relational life.
Self-centred, godless, rampant promiscuous sex (of both varieties) is clearly condemned by the Bible as being far from the wonder of sex within a lifelong committed that is God's original design for us.
Proclamations or declaration of ‘coming out' are often questionable and self-focusing and possibly do more harm than good. As a statement of sharing experience and feelings, say within a family context, such a thing is an appeal for understanding, not of condemnation. Unfortunately they often appear as a challenge, which questions motivation.
As Christians we are not called to be ‘behaviour police' but to introduce others to the love and acceptance of Jesus, so that he may change them in whatever way he and they together, wish, in his redemptive process. Enough said!
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
42. Enough of Sex
1 Tim 3:15 you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Our Purpose: This is an area where so much more could be written but I have written what I have – and this will be the end of it – because we live in a world where confusion reigns and no more so than in the realm of sexual attitudes and behaviour. The Bible does not make a meal of it because, frankly, life in Israel was such that things such as sexual identity or sexual failures were the exception rather than the growing rule as today. Some people say that it was Paul and not Jesus who spoke about homosexuality and so it is not an issue, but the point is that it was not an issue in Israel, so Jesus did not need to speak of it, whereas Paul was addressing a much wider audience, where it was more likely to have been an issue that needed addressing. It needs addressing in our world because it is something that has been forced into the open in our world and even made the subject of law.
My concern in these four studies (No.39 – ‘Gender Issues' on) has been to ask questions that challenge some of the things that are apparently accepted uncritically as the norm, while at the same time, for Christians (onlookers and participators, if I may put it like that) face the realities here, as well as the Biblical challenges, but in a pastorally gracious and uncondemning way.
Recap & Clarification: Perhaps it would be helpful to itemize some of the things we have considered along the way, by way of recap, and maybe even seek to clarify some of them more:
The context is of a fallen world where much is no longer ‘normal' i.e. no longer like it was before the Fall and after God will remake it at the end.
We established some basic sexual definitions to do with identity and orientation.
We acknowledged that physically there can be diversions from the norm (fairly rare) that raise extremely difficult questions of identity.
Moreover, whether it is genetically caused, relationally or psychologically caused, some people do struggle with gender identity, that veers away from the norm (Never forget that the vast majority of the world's population is heterosexual, that is ‘the norm', especially in the light of the Bible's declaration that God made ‘male and female', and that clearly was His standard design.)
We suggested that a person's ‘spiritual orientation' is in fact a bigger issue to be considered before any subsequent gender issue.
Self-control or the absence of it leading to promiscuous behaviour, whether in the heterosexual or homosexual realms is an issue when we consider God's design for the world, and behaviour within a community generally.
We wondered exactly what the truth is when a young person ‘comes out'. Is this an unwise misunderstanding of a phase of social, physical and psychological development, or is it genuinely an expression of something that has been there all along as we said above, genetically caused, relationally or psychologically caused? Whatever the cause, that young person now sees their self as different from the norm and is looking for understanding and acceptance.
Part of that understanding requires consideration of the difference between friendship and a developing deeper relationship and a commitment context is needed to make sense of that, otherwise it simply becomes just a plea to have sexual experiences that vary from the norm.
Finally we considered the subject of ‘desires' noting good ones that promote life, and not so good ones that cause upset and harm.
We recognised a distinction between committed relationships and uncontrolled and uninhibited promiscuous sex. Although the latter may be what the media portray as a potential norm for western society, we see there are dangers, that are only slowly being recognised and acknowledged, that sex separated from a loving relationship creates a struggle to ever know what true love is. Trivializing relationships and making them based upon sex, and not other aspects of being human together, weakens the possibilities of long-term relationships, for when the sex ceases to be ‘good' the relationship starts to fracture.
A Lost & Confused World: While I believe our statements about how the media portrays sex and relationships, are absolutely true, I feel increasingly like the boy in Hans Anderson's story of ‘the Emperors New Clothes' who has not been let in on the belief that the con-men have produced invisible clothes that only clever people can see, and who, when he sees the naked emperor, has the temerity to shout out, “The emperor has no clothes,” and only then does everyone else acknowledge it. The unquestioning cult of promiscuity that seems to lurk in the background of modern life, whether heterosexual or homosexual, accepted and even promoted by TV script writers, largely exists without challenge in high places or newspaper columns. At the same time we have gone through several years of revelations about sexual abuse by ‘celebs' and are shocked. How can we take the brake off sex generally and then be surprised when it had bad spinoffs in so many directions?
Church, an Alternative Community: In case you have lost the thread, this series is all about redemption and perhaps we dare think about redeeming society by example. The example is to be different, and our norm is to have lasting, lifelong committed relationships of members of the opposite sex. Yet, where there is a breakdown, or breakaway from that, we should be a place of compassionate security where people struggling with their identity can be loved, and people struggling with breakup of relationship can be helped back to a good place, and we will go on to consider this latter problem n the next study.
Accepting the Different: The church I led before I retired was largely middle-class, middle-of-the-road evangelical-charismatic, with very ordinary people, and one day a middle-aged man wearing a Mohican haircut and a coat of many very bright colours, turned up. We welcomed him without reserve. It turned out that he had just been released from a mental institution following years of prison for having committed arson and murder. One of our men had visited him for some time while incarcerated and he had made a profession of faith while in prison – but he was still (and remained) a seriously distinct character who stood out among the ‘ordinary people'.
So can we ‘ordinary people' extend the mantra that we so often use – “God loves you exactly as you are, but loves you so much that He has got something better for you than what you have at present” - to include anyone who is different from us, here with gender identity issues, people who are struggling with sexual self-control, people who are abused, people who are suffering relationship breakup, and can we truly be a healing redemptive community? That is the challenge, to seek the wisdom of God to face these issues with integrity while remaining full of compassion, to be a real healing redemptive community through whom God can move to change lives.
End Goals: I don't know what the latter part of what I have called my mantra may mean for an individual – “but loves you so much that He has got something better for you than what you have at present” – but God does. In studies 28-30 we considered “Redeemed to”, the things the Lord seeks to bring into our lives and in study 33 “God's End Goals” we sought to focus on this challenge that God is seeking to move each of us on to be something better than we are today. For those of us struggling with life – in identity crises, or who are struggling with ‘being different', or who are struggling with the nightmares that still occur from past abuse, or those who are struggling with the aftershock of breakup of relationship, or maybe are struggling to prevent that breakup – we all need the wisdom, love, care, compassion and grace of God that should come through others who can stand alongside us, weep with us, anguish with us, and be there for us – and that is what the Church is supposed to be. That is how this ongoing redemption is worked out, or at least, should be worked out. May we rise to that. We would do well to end with the apostle Paul as the Message version puts it:
“There's more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.” There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modelled love, for “becoming one” with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don't you see that you can't live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20 Msg)
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
43. The Anguish of Divorce (1)
Mt 19:8,9 Jesus replied, “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 sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Starting with Jesus: As we move on to consider another area that causes anguish in modern life – and in the Church – that needs redeeming, I think the simplest thing is to note very basic things about redemption and about divorce. Now I also think we would be wise to consider the theory or the theology and then consider separately the pastoral issues that are involved, which are especially pertinent when we are considering redemption. In this study, therefore, we will consider the basic things the Bible says, and then in the next one we will look at causes and the pastoral issues that arise. Let's start with Jesus' words above. First Jesus gives us the reason divorces happen, second, he makes clear that that was not God's intention “from the beginning” and then, third, he gives a warning. Let's take those points in the order of 2-1-3.
Not God's Wish: God's famous words through Malachi, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16 RSV), which used to be bandied about so much, really apply to breaking the covenant between God and Israel, but one cannot help feeling that when, at the beginning of the Bible we find, “ a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh,” (Gen 2:24) there is an element of God's design here that was not intended to be repeated again and again. The ‘leaving-cleaving' formula that is here, suggests that marriage in God's original design, was to be a one-off thing (except when one party died and remarriage was possible). Although we will go on to see Jesus saying Moses permitted it, the feeling that comes through from him is that divorce should be avoided at all cost if at all possible. And there are reasons for that.
Divorce or Separation: We should also note, as an aside to build a fuller picture, the apostle Paul, speaking to the church at Corinth, declared, “ To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7:10,11) Perhaps he is repeating Jesus' bland teaching, “ Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery,” (Mk 10:11,12) which should be tempered by Jesus other similar words, but which add, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality ….” (Mt 5:32) also as seen in our starter verses above. We will come back to these words in the next study.
Covenant Breaking: The fact is that divorce involves the breaking of a covenant that was made in the marriage service. Is this why so many more couples cohabit and don't get married, because subconsciously they realise that if they commit themselves in a covenant, a solemn binding agreement, if they want to separate, it will involve breaking the promises they made? The breaking of a covenant is just one of the things God dislikes in respect of a divorce. One suspects that the words uttered at many modern marriage services are just words with little meaning behind them and so, it seems from experience with a number of young couples, if it doesn't work out and tensions build, then let's just part and try again with someone else. Theoretically – because the words are uttered – there is a covenant which is shortly to be broken, but in reality, one wonders how real that was?
Schools of Thought: In Moses' day, in the earliest days of that embryonic nation, the Law declared, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…. he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house ,” (Deut 24:1) the burden of honesty before God was put upon the man, but this meant that the woman had little say in the matter. The onus was on the honesty and integrity of the men leaders of the community to uphold this righteously. However, the key words translated “something indecent” were unclear in meaning and so different rabbinic schools arose with different interpretations. Thus the school of Shammai said it meant ‘marital unfaithfulness' which was the only reason allowed for the divorce, while the school of Hillel was more liberal and looked at the preceding words “displeasing to him” and said it meant he could dissolve the marriage for anything about her that he now disliked. Jesus appeared to go along with the first school, but only after referring back to the Genesis design.
Hardness? Almost certainly Jesus was eye-balling the key feature within the circumstances leading to divorce when he says, “because your hearts were hard.” This was key then and so often is today. Consider. Marital infidelity is one thing, but for a man to callously put away his wife for anything less than her leaving him for another man, actually meant the man had to be hard-hearted in respect of her and should the elders of the community remonstrate with him, he would have had to disregard their pleas. Today an over-simplistic (possible) parallel might be to say, “If you are so hard-hearted that you cannot receive counsel and help to restore your relationship, then you might as well go ahead and get divorced, for there is little hope for you as you are now.” Now I will come back to this in the next study because there are obvious questions that will arise.
The Warning: This takes us to the last part of Jesus' words in our header verses: “ anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Now consider this carefully. I have heard great scholars take entirely opposite views of what this means. If she (and remember he was speaking into the Jewish context) has committed adultery, that is grounds for divorce. If she hasn't, then you have no grounds for divorce and therefore if you force the divorce you are doing it for your own immoral reasons – to have a relationship with another, and that then makes you the adulterer. Today we could say (outside the Jewish context) this could apply either way with the roles reversed. In God's eyes, divorce for any other reason is thus wrong. But is it that simple? We need to go on to look at causes and the pastoral concerns that arise and so we will shorten this study to go on to that in the next study.
A Challenging Example: However, perhaps to save space in the next study, can I give you an example of a marriage deterioration that comes in a novel I have come across – yes, fictional but so often true. The chief character of the story recounts, “Between Sarah and me there was no joy left, no springing love. Eight years of marriage and nothing to feel but a growing boredom.” Later he explains that they had been unable to have children so that “Where once there had been passion there was now politeness; where plans and laughter, now a grinding hopelessness; where tears and heartbreak, silence.” Further on he says, “I daresay it was a marriage like many another. We never quarrelled. Seldom argued. Neither of us any longer cared enough for that; and as a total, prolonged way of life it was infinitely dispiriting.” Fictional but telling, story but real. But it didn't lead to a divorce, at least not in the story, but they just existed. Some people say, “We just fell out of love,” and so now they just tolerate each other. Sometimes such people do end up divorcing, what is there to keep them together?
Alternative Possibilities: Now of course this novel was not about Christians and so we might hope that if it had been, there would be a different long-term outcome, but often it isn't. My subtitle in the paragraph above has the word ‘challenging' in it. Why? Because I believe such a scenario, set against our background of redemption, should raise challenging questions in us, such as:
If we see our own relationship moving into something like the above story, is there someone we can turn to, apart from God (because we want God-incarnate, in the flesh, in front of us, talking to us, listening to us) who might be able to help us redeem our situation?
Do we as church, work to create a community of people who truly know one another in such a way that we can spot the signs and draw alongside and take action before it is too late?
Do we as church talk about these things, put on days where these things are put out front to help us face them and steer away from them?
When we see these signs in the marriages of our leaders, do we have the courage and boldness to eyeball them and say, “Can we help?”
Redemption, we said, is all about God delivering us from bad situations into good ones. The area of relational breakdowns has got to be something we address and no longer allow to continue as it has done in recent decades, so that no longer can the comment be made, “There are as many divorces in the church as outside it.” That comment and the truth behind it is a scandal and shows that what we have as ‘church life' must be way off target if this sort of thing happens with the people of God. Tomorrow we will look at this more fully.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
44. The Anguish of Divorce (2)
Mt 19:8,9 Jesus replied, “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 sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Recap on Divorce: Let's quickly recap what we said yesterday. Jesus showed that divorce was not God's wish, even though He permitted it. He permitted it only because it was the second-best option in the light of hardness of heart in one or other of the couple. He declared that the only permissible reason for granting a divorce was the infidelity of one partner and divorcing for anything less, leading to a fresh partnership meant that was adultery. Divorce also means covenant breaking. I also gave an example, fictional admittedly, of a marriage that had lost its love and then asked questions about us, the Church, being the redeeming community that God wanted.
Divorce or Separation: To reinforce this general teaching we also noted the apostle Paul's words, “ A wife must not separate from her husband…. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor 7:10,11) There can be, therefore, no hiding the New Testament teaching that we should do all we can to avoid divorces in the church. Why are there so many divorces in the Church therefore? The answer has to be because of a threefold failure. Dare we face this I wonder?
1. Personal Failure of the Guilty Party: Now I say these things, not to heap guilt and condemnation but simply because one of the key things we have observed time and time again in the whole subject of redemption, is that it must be started with an honest facing the truth about what we have done. We are all failures and we all need to accept that to receive Jesus' salvation, but we also need to accept the truth that we remain imperfect this side of heaven, if we are to create a secure community of God's people. Us failures need to stick together! It isn't just that we are failures who sit around moping, muttering, “I am a failure, I am a failure,” but it is that we recognise, accept and confess it, so that God can work His redemption in us. Now for some, the acceptance has to be, “I was guilty of lust, I was guilty of forgetting my partner, I foolishly gave way to temptation, and I foolishly had a sexual encounter that was wrong, (and maybe) and which continues as wrong.” We'll come to that latter part later. It maybe also that “I was too busy with my career so that I neglected my partner and our children and that contributed to our downfall.”
2. Personal Failure of the ‘Innocent' Party: Being honest, I have to admit as a husband, I don't always live as a husband in accord with Paul's teaching which has to be the norm here in the New Testament, “ Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) The New Testament picture for Christian husbands is that they (we) live lives that are sacrificial, laid down for the good of the wife, just like Jesus laid down his life for the church to come into being. This means that I am there for her, often putting her first (and nowhere does this apply more than in bed). If I fail to do this, I make her vulnerable to temptations when other men try to make themselves attractive to her. Now, ladies, this is a two-way street, so there is corresponding teaching for wives: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord .” (Eph 2:22)
Now I am not going to get into arguments about whether Paul was a misogynist, or whether this was just a cultural edict, but simply ask, if you were doing this in the spirit that is perhaps best encapsulated by the Message version – “Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands,” – don't you think being with you is going to act as a means of overcoming temptation when other (younger) women appear attractive to him? I know you will want to exercise that escape clause, “not by domineering but by cherishing”, and you are quite right (men hear it!) but it doesn't give you excuses to nag him, on one extreme, or simply leave him to his own devices, on the other extreme. He needs encouraging to take responsibility and take leadership in being the grace of God to the world (your world) that God wants.
If you are both Christians (and if that is not so I will deal with that in a later study), are we in need of a fresh look at what that means, and especially as what it could be for us as a couple. We go to church together (I hope – if not, consider the instructions above), we worship together at the very least. Praying together, at least occasionally, helps bond and focus us together.
Picking up on the paragraph above, where I said he needs encouraging, you both need encouraging and that will only come about when you spend time together, sharing in what you each like, and when you talk together, sharing the things on each of your hearts and minds. Taking interest in what your partner likes and does – and maybe sharing in it with them – is the mortar that bonds together and strengthens and builds relationships. I have a problem with anything that divides couples and so a ‘gender-mentality' (e.g. hen nights, men's nights) is all very well if it is not something that cultivates a sexist attitude. I hear comments made by women about men and vice-versa that are frankly demeaning. It is supposed to generate a ‘club' or ‘group' atmosphere, but it happens at the expense of the relationship. Couples need to be together (not all the time) but purposefully making memories and opportunities for closeness. Very often ‘work' or ‘career' is something that detracts from relationship building and we have to ask ourselves, in the long run, what do we want, to be lonely and successful or content and fulfilled with your partner? Be warned, the statistics say that once there has been a divorce there is more likely to be a second breakup, (and as a counsellor I would add,) unless positive steps are taken to deal with the personal causes of the previous breakup.
3. Failure of the Church: Obviously if we have people who come to Christ and are added to the church after they have had a divorce, there is little you can do, but I wonder how many churches there are that offer counselling for those who have been through a divorce? I wonder how many churches there are that provide counselling for children involved in family breakups. If being a deserted and abandoned partner in a divorce situation is bad enough, being children of divorces is worse. Many a school will testify to dozens of examples of children who were fine in school but then started playing up, dropping out, or failing classes, and when checked out, it was found the parents are just going through a bad breakup and the children are witnesses.
There is a danger that parents going through a breakup try to be ‘very civilized' about it and the breakup is seen as a ‘good divorce'. The lie is seen by reading Elizabeth Marquardt's book, “Between Two World – the inner lives of children of divorce”. Acknowledging that a ‘good amicable divorce' is better than a bitter one, she tells of the problem of almost losing your identity, as you get passed backwards and forwards between the worlds of the two separated parents and their differing or contrasting lives, and you never can become one or the other, and thus become like ‘lost souls'. Divorce, however you look at it, is not good for children, with challenging and conflicting loyalties, loss of self-esteem, feelings of guilt and shame, hurt, feelings of rejection, and much more. My son-in-law counsels such children but his is a lonely ministry and I cannot help wondering why we, the church, are not training people regularly to minister into this tragic, damaged and shell-shocked area.
Help Questions: To sum up this part, there are obviously two main questions from which all others follow: First , what can we as the Church do to head off divorces, being ‘failing-marriage spotters', helpers and wise friends and, second , how can we heal up those who are suffering from the pain of rejection when they have been abandoned by a partner, either to another person or to a career, or when their marriage just went sour for a variety of reasons and they have been left feeling failures putting on a brave face? I come to the end of this second ‘study' on divorce, feeling very unsatisfactory. It is like we have just touched on the tip of the iceberg above water while nine-tenths of it remains out of sight. We will have to continue this in a third study.
To conclude: Acknowledging that this is not the end of this subject, in the light of our starting point – about facing failure and guilt – we must conclude by emphasizing that such a start is just that, a start, and that the conclusion must be that given time, love, and grace, we come out of such devastating passages of life, no longer desiring vengeance, no longer feeling guilt-burdened, and freed to start to rebuild a life that is at peace, feels fulfilled and is going somewhere without fear, hurt and pain. That is the goal of the next study.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
45. The Anguish of Divorce (3)
1 Cor 15:9,10 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect
Can I step into your shoes: No, don't be confused with the above verses, we are staying with the subject of relational breakdown and divorce; we'll come to those verses in a moment. For those of us who have not walked in the valley of rejection, it is perhaps hard to understand the depth of hurt that can come and has been experienced by many around us, especially when it is a marriage breakup, yet we are called to, “ Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn ,” (Rom 12:15) and, “ there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other .” (1 Cor 12:25) We must not sit on the fence of indifference.
A Bad Dream: There have been two occasions in my life when these realities crashed into my awareness. In the first one, many years back, I had a dream, a very real dream (and I believe, God-given dream), and in it my wife just turned to me without any warning and said, “I am leaving you and going to live in America.” I was absolutely devastated and woke up in tears, sobbing my heart out with the anguish I felt, and grabbed hold of her arm and cried, “You won't leave me will you?” This was in the early years of our life (no it wasn't my insecurity – listen on!) together. She quickly woke and asked whatever was the matter and reassured me, and I went off to work in my office in the City of London. I had been at my desk only a few minutes when a Christian friend, who worked elsewhere in the building, appeared in my office and said, “Can I talk to you?” I looked at his face and said yes, and we found somewhere quiet and as soon as we sat down, he burst out, “…. has left me,” and poured out how a man in their village had enticed his wife to leave with him. I looked at him, with my dream still very vivid in my mind, and said, “I do know how you feel,” and we wept together and for six months prayed together until his marriage was restored.
An Angry Letter: The second occasion was when one of the ladies in our church, who was in a group I was leading at the time, shared her feelings in the group about her broken marriage. She too had suffered from a husband who had abandoned her and her two children and gone off with another woman. She showed me a letter she had written to him, expressing her feelings, a letter she had not actually sent. To say it was angry and vitriolic would be a massive understatement but it showed me the immense depth of anguish at rejection she had felt. It is one thing to have a ‘one-night stand' as the media popularly show happening, or even to cohabit for a while and then breakup, but that can in no way compare to the devastation of having years of intimacy thrown in your face as your marriage partner walks out for ever.
Anguish: This one with whom you made plans, this one with whom you stood before an altar and made vows, this one whose bed you shared for years and uttered the deepest intimacies, this one who bore your children or fathered your children, this one who went on holidays with you and helped make them such joyous memorable times, and now this one who says it means nothing, you mean nothing, and your life together means nothing – and walks off for ever with someone else. This is reckless abandonment, this is absolute rejection, and this is, without doubt, the most painful thing that can happen to you. Losing a partner to death is indeed an anguish-filled experience, but marriage breakup carries so much more with it. Yes, as we noted in an earlier study, there are two people in every partnership and no doubt each one of us can think of things we've said or done that did not contribute to building our relationship, but that is not an excuse for abandonment and rejection.
Redemption? But this is all about redemption, not just the tragedies of modern marriage breakups, this is about possibilities with God, this is about grace, and grace comes in some strange ways sometimes. In that first story above, I said we prayed for six months, every night on the phone and amazingly, I don't know how, she came back, but so did the man to the village where they all lived. All I know was we prayed, and she came back. But there was still the threat of this man. As we prayed one night, I suddenly had a word of knowledge and without any thought simply said, “The man will not trouble you again.” Sometime in the next week I think it was, this man had a serious accident and was in hospital for months and never went near her again. With the passing of time I lost track of them but trust the long-term outlook was good. All I know was that in that period of time God was working to redeem their marriage in ways beyond my understanding. In the second case, the lady in question has been enabled to get on with life with her two daughters and has been able to move on.
Grace: I have used that word above, and in this context it simply means the resources of God that may involve comfort, reassurance, courage, strength, perseverance and a lot more that enables us not merely to cope but to change. Now back to our header verses: “ For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” We have said a number of times in these studies, we are sinners redeemed by God and ‘sinner' is as much a generic description of us as ‘human' is. The apostle Paul always had it in the back of his mind that despite all his human qualifications for good, he had been a persecutor of the church of God – he had been working against the will of God in his previous life before encountering Christ on the road to Damascus. Now he had given his heart to the Lord and his goal was to serve God every day of his life. It was a wonderful transformation, yet he was still aware that any good that was coming, was coming by the grace of God and it was that which was having ‘effect' in him.
The former slave-trader, John Newton, who had obviously been a source of misery for many before he came to Christ, said, “I'm not what I ought to be, I am not what I would like to be, I am not what I hope to be, but I'm not what I was and by the grace of God I am what I am.” It is not said lightly, but that can be true of each of us, whatever anguish we have been through, whatever nightmares we still suffer, and whatever hopes we wonder about fitfully.
Practical Steps: There are some obvious steps towards redemption here:
If you were the one who committed the adultery, admit it as sin; you blew it, you got it wrong, you hurt and damaged others by your self-centred behaviour – but that was not the end. It was sin and sin has consequences. If you have a gracious openhearted spouse who might even countenance reconciliation, understand that it is no easy process; you have to rebuilt trust and that may take a long time. If it is now far past and divorce has occurred, you still have a duty to ask for forgiveness. Time and God's grace can heal up the damage you caused but He requires your humility and willingness to face what you did. Then the way is open for a new day.
If you were the one abandoned and rejected, if you are a Christian, in the midst of your hurt I have a healing word for you: “pray for your enemies”! (Mt 5:44) You are still a child of God and I realise the impossibility of what I ask, but God's grace will enable you to do it, even if it is legalistically at first without any feeling, and you will be surprised at what might follow. I am not talking about reconciliation here (they might have gone too far away for that) but I am talking about your freedom, your ability to be you and carve out a new God-blessed life, filled with wisdom and grace to see you through.
If you are ‘the church', let these things touch you and reach out to this couple. It is possible you know the ‘offender' who has left; keep links open, maintaining friendship does not mean accepting their folly, but it does mean you might be able to speak words of grace and truth in the days to come into their life. If you know the damaged, remaining partner, reach out in love and friendship, listen and don't try and give advice, just be there for them. Seek to understand what they feel and pray for them regularly. Give support if they have a family that is also struggling with what is happening.
A final word: I think this needs saying: whoever you are in such situations, don't jump to conclusions, don't go on your own prejudged assumptions. I have often puzzled over the story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah. There are some fundamental lessons there that maybe need picking up here:
God may be warning us, but He doesn't overrule our free will and so lets us do stupid things. Sin will happen, we're human beings. (We can resist that path.)
There will be consequences and they will involve God's discipline and He does look for repentance.
When it comes to the practical outworking it almost seems, if I may put it like this, that God seeks to make the best of a bad mess. Uriah was dead, Bathsheba was pregnant, and God does not try to put the situation back as it is was before it started, it was too late for that. He allows Bathsheba to continue as David's wife; she, after all, is relatively innocent, a simple girl taken by a king. Sometimes we cannot get situations back as they were; in this fallen world we have to opt for situations that are less than perfect, but which can yet be redeemed and have good brought in them. For example, a previously married couple who part under bad circumstances and end up divorced, can yet get remarried by the grace of God and good can yet flow in both of their situations. This is God's grace so I dare not suggest how much good, how limited that good might be, or anything in between!
When Jesus said, ‘God permitted divorce', it was an acknowledgment that the best could not be followed, but an alternative could yet come about that would not exclude them from the grace of God. Avoid it at all possible, but if that is not possible, look to God's grace and mercy to see what is yet possible. If there is no adultery, just a lacklustre marriage, receive counsel, receive help, receive grace and try for something better. Let's aim for that together.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
46. The Unequal Yoke
2 Cor 6:14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?
1 Pet 3:1,2 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.
The Principle: We move on to another of those problems that exist in church, that of being married to an unbeliever. This will come about in one of two ways. First, one of the partners in the marriage comes to Christ and the other doesn't. Second, by wilful disobedience. But let's consider the principle first, that the apostle Paul spells out so clearly: don't become yoked or tied by marriage to an unbeliever. Some have suggested his words apply to business, but I suggest it is wider than that. See what he says: there will be a conflict between righteousness and wickedness. Oh, I sense your righteous indignation – my boyfriend/girlfriend is not wicked! If they have not surrendered to God through Jesus Christ, the Bible says they are. They think differently to you, their goals are different to you, their absence of desire for spiritual things is different from you.
The Great Challenge: This, for many, is the great challenge of faith. “But there are so few Christian men in our church,” I hear the cry. Listen to a lady in our church, now in her sixties, as she spoke to me a little while ago: “My father warned me not to marry ---- because he wasn't a Christian, but I went ahead and married him anyway and a day hasn't gone by since that I haven't regretted it.” She goes to church. He has no interest in church so every Sunday she goes out alone. They have a divided life. She reads her Bible and prays but he has no interest in spiritual things. She attends a house group and he does something else. It just goes to accentuate the division in their lives. So many women, and it does tend to be women, marry a non-Christian in the hope of saving him. It happens only occasionally – but we'll come on to what to do about that in a few moments.
A Challenging Example: While my wife was at university, she came across a zany girl living in the same college house as her, who she was instrumental in bringing to the Lord. The only problem this girl had was that she had a boyfriend and they were intending getting married sometime. However this girl read Paul and turned to her boyfriend and said, “I'm very sorry, but we can no longer go out because I've become a Christian and you're not, and it just won't work.” She was devastated but did it. He was shaken and went away to investigate Christianity and was well and truly saved. Sometime later I had the privilege of being their best man. Now many years later, they have a lovely family, have been leaders within whatever church they have been in, he prospered marvellously in his career, and they have a most blessed life, these long-term friends of ours. Why? Because she was obedient to God.
The Challenge of Singleness: I did not marry until my late twenties. I recognise it is a challenge for many: Suppose no Mr. Right Christian comes along? It is possible but consider the positives: first, as you are at the moment you have a freedom to do what you like, go where you like and be what you like; rejoice in that, make the most of it for the moment and get God's grace to cope like that. I know you may be yearning to have a partner but if it is the wrong one, a non-believer, you are simply storing up anguish for the days ahead. I know a number of those who would testify to the truth of this. (An aside: a word to the wise – sex doesn't win partners. If you try to win a man this way it simply says you know little about male physiology and psychology.) Do we have to settle for singleness? No, and I'll come to redeeming this area later, but in the meantime, you do need to have a heart at rest and peace for God's apparent will for you at the moment. That is the starting place – His will and your being willing to submit to it. Obedience opens the door for blessing to flow.
The Guilt plus Hope: My friend in church who confessed her disobedience feels guilty. Why? Because she is, but that should not be the end of it because this is all about redemption and God delights in redeeming the bad and turning it into good. Good here is nothing less than the salvation of your partner and we'll come to that shortly. Redemption starts with confession of guilt; it is a good starting place, but it is only the start. There are, I believe, two areas to consider, to bring change to this situation, and I do not mean divorce.
Before we get there, let's consider Paul's teaching again: “ 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.” (1 Cor 7:12-14) He does say they can part if it doesn't work (not divorce) in the following verses, but in those verses above, there is hope. The paraphrase versions struggle to put meaning to “has been sanctified through..” so the Message says, “The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband,” while the Living Bible says, “perhaps the husband who isn't a Christian may become a Christian with the help of his Christian wife. And the wife who isn't a Christian may become a Christian with the help of her Christian husband,” and the JBP version says, “the unbelieving husband is, in a sense, consecrated by being joined to the person of his wife; the unbelieving wife is similarly “consecrated” by the Christian brother she has married.”
What further adds to this is his comment that follows about children of the ‘mixed marriage': “ Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy,” (NIV) and “ Otherwise, your children would be left out; as it is, they also are included in the spiritual purposes of God,” and “ if the family separates, the children might never come to know the Lord; whereas a united family may, in God's plan, result in the children's salvation,” (Living) and “If this were not so then your children would bear the stains of paganism, whereas they are actually consecrated to God.” (JBP) What all these verses hint at is that somehow the Christian in the marriage somehow brings the presence of God into the marriage in such a way that He is able to impact the family. There are also those enigmatic words of the apostles to the Philippian jailor, “They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household .” (Acts 16:31) In jail they were clearly speaking just to him, so there must be a presumption that his salvation would so impact his family that they too would be saved. Whatever the truth of that situation, there is a clear indication that God does want to move in and through Christian spouses to the rest of their family. That must be out starting place for what follows. We said before that there are two areas to consider.
The Actions of a Believing Wife: Our starter verses apply here: “ Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (1 Pet 3:1,2) I think what Peter says to Christian wives should also apply to Christian husbands in a similar situation. Yes, if you communicate in your marriage, at some point you will have shared your faith with your unbelieving partner, either before you married (if you insist on marrying them) or after you came to Christ after you were married. Whatever we say, we need to recognise that such words are likely to appear threatening to your partner who will need reassuring. You are putting forward a life outlook that is foreign or alien to them. The challenge for you is that you should appear as a ‘new improved partner' who should be more of a blessing to your partner than you were before.
As I say, a challenge to get God's grace. What now follows is an even greater life of grace for it is, I believe, quite natural and thus legitimate, to share the things that bless you in your faith, but it must be in such a way that you are not being seen to be pressurising your partner. That is the spirit behind Peter's words - win them by who you are, not by what you say. So often in marriages we try to change our partner (and I believe it fair to say that women do this more than men) by the use of words. We call it nagging. Ladies, your brain is better developed than men on average to communicate using words, but words used on men merely make them defensive and rarely bring about change. Acts of love, care, understanding, and support are the things that change men. When you wake up in the morning, your best prayer in this context at least is, “Lord help me to bless my partner today.”
The Actions of a Believing Church: I have said it in our own church and I would declare it worldwide, if in our church we have men or women who have unbelieving partners, the TOP of God's agenda is, I believe, how can we win those partners? Now I have to deal with a phenomena that appears often in well-meaning churches, that of men or women's groups that appear social and relaxed but then hit the unsuspecting unbeliever with the Gospel. If you are going to have such groups, have some integrity and say what will happen at those groups so people know what they are coming to. Having said that, the starting place is a regular, consistent and persistent prayer meeting that focuses on unsaved partners. We need to name people and partners in love (not superiority) crying out to the Lord for them AND seeking God's wisdom to know what to DO in terms of building bridges to these partners and making opportunities for them to question, query and get answers in ways that are not threatening.
And So: Not to make any more of a meal of this than I already am, hold on to certain truths: a) God wants unsaved partners to come to know Him. b) He wants us to pray, for it is in prayer that spiritual strongholds are broken. c) He wants to give us wisdom to know how to bless unsaved partners, so their hearts will be opened, their minds informed and their will helped to come to a place where they are open to submit to Him and receive Him. Finally, ask Him to release faith in you to believe these things.
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
1 Tim 5:1,2 Treat younger … older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
Introduction: Sometimes we naively think the Bible will cover any and every misdemeanour in life. You won't find a verse that speaks specifically about not abusing your body with nicotine, alcohol or drugs generally (or even with over-eating or over-working or any other excess). The nearest you might get is, “ Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 6:19) Those who quote this verse imply we should look after our bodies for this reason. But you may guess that in this section where we have been considering areas of sexual confusion or failures, the abuse we are referring to in our title above is that which has sexual connotations (and no we won't be touching the area of pornography although it is really a problem for many Christian (mostly) men) but of sexual abuse.
The Range of Considerations: At the least difficult end of the spectrum of sexual abuses (but it is still abuse) is that of the husband or partner who ‘demands' sex. I'll come to this in a moment. At the other end of the spectrum is rape and in between there is a range of ‘inappropriate' sexual behaviour where one person (the more dominant) takes advantage of the other by touching, caressing or other physical behaviour that demeans the weaker member of the couple. This can involve masturbation or sodomy. Where this occurs between an adult and children we call the adult a paedophile and such activity, according to Wikipedia is considered a mental disorder which involves persistent sexual thoughts, fantasies, urges, or behaviours. Now this is the point here: this series is about redemption. If a rapist or paedophile, say, declares repentance, is God's grace (and ours) big enough to receive him into the church? As unpleasant a subject as this is, it does require us to face what is not an uncommon problem in modern society.
Beware the kneejerk reaction: There have been sufficient number of occasions when there has been public outcry about say a known paedophile moving into the district, that we know this is a subject that produces very strong reactions. As much as I understand this and would be there against such threats against any of my grandchildren, grace asks that we give some calm intelligent thought to the realities. So, yes, there are men (and it is mostly men) who store child pornography pictures from the Internet and because such pictures are illegal (in the UK at least) they are guilty of criminal acts. Because I have been a pastor and have twice had men come to me in respect of child abuse issues, I have had some cause to think through some of the difficulties. The first difficulty is that sexual infidelity in whatever form seems to create a tendency to tell lies, and therefore it is very difficult to know the truth unless the individual is actually confessing what he did.
In one of my cases the young man confessed touching his teenage step-daughter inappropriately while she was asleep, and in the other one the man denied the accusation that came from his two dysfunctional grand-children, that he had inappropriately touched them on the settee in their front room. Without going into detail, the whole family background was so dysfunctional that the accusations seemed to me to be likely to have been fabricated. Both men served prison sentences, and from what I know of both men and the situations, I was left feeling that justice had been seriously heavy-handed. Please don't get me wrong, I believe that what are crimes deserve to be punished, but I have been left wondering about the appropriateness of crimes that are not major. Similarly with reports of celebrities in the media being accused of pinching a woman's bottom or touching her lightly elsewhere inappropriately, I am left wondering why we do not teach such victims to slap the face of the perpetrator loudly and publicly. Perhaps fear is the answer. In whatever form abuse takes, it is very difficult to get to the truth and to determine what is justice that will change the future.
The Grace of God: I worry sometimes about the whole so-called counselling arena because it seems so often that counselling goes on for months if not years. My wife and I used to pray quite often for the people within our church context and perhaps the greatest expression of the power of God changing a life, came to a particular young woman who was married and had two young children and who came to the Lord. We spent a whole morning listening to her story and then a whole afternoon praying over her. To cut an unpleasant story short, she had been frequently abused by her father throughout her younger years, who forced her to have sex with him. She thus found it incredibly difficult to let any man near her. Amazingly she had been wooed by a man who became her husband and then had two children by him. How, we enquired, did you manage that, as you wouldn't let this man touch you? I got drunk both times, she replied. We listened to her and prayed extensively for her and she went home. A week later her husband contacted me and said, “Whatever have you done to my wife? She's become a raving sex-maniac!” No, just making up for lost time, with the help of the power of God, I answered his exaggeration. But God had delivered her – in just one day! If the power and wisdom of God is there, we should not need weeks or months or even years. This is redemption.
Who Needs the Counsel and Prayer? Now the situation may have changed but when the young man came and confessed to me his inappropriate behaviour we sought to find specialist counsellors but again and again when we contacted counselling organisations, we found the same response: “No, sorry we only counsel the abused.” Where the Holy Spirit brings conviction, all of our studies about redemption say there is a need for counselling for the abuser as well as the abused. I do not in any way want to diminish the anguish felt by those who have been abused, but if we are to have a safer society then both abused and abuser need help in changing and becoming whole again.
The overbearing husband: May I just go back to the situation of the overbearing husband who ‘demands sex'. I say again, that is tantamount to abuse. Now before anyone quotes the apostle Paul out of context, “ Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time,” (1 Cor 7:5) this should not be used to excuse unloving and uncaring for one another in bed, and especially by the husband. Communication is essential, gently and with care, finding out what gives pleasure to each other, and the message to the man is go slow. As one counsellor put it, foreplay begins earlier in the day and by that they meant the way they cared for and spoke to each other throughout the day has a very real impact on what happens at the end of the day. The traditional, “I have a headache,” should not be necessary if the husband carries out the apostle Paul's injunction, “ Husbands , love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5:25) Christ sacrificed himself for the church so husbands, put your wife first, show loving tenderness and care, and watch for the changes, but don't count days, earn your rights in bed.
Redeeming the mess of sexual wrongs: What have been the primary lessons we have learned in the earlier studies about redemption? Redemption starts with honesty, and facing failure, and repenting from the heart. If we have been a perpetrator, if we want to proceed in God's redemptive process, we need to come in repentance. If we have been abused, this is not the place to receive ministry; seek out counsel, receive God's cleansing and healing. If we are the church, dare we be a people who are open and available to both the abused and repentant abusers, with hearts of gentle love, care and compassion, who can create a secure environment in which they can meet God and receive that redemptive work we've been speaking about in this series, where God delivers us out of a bad place and into a good place with Him. May that be so. (PS. There is so much more that could be said on this subject, but I think we have covered the things the Lord wants here. If there are things here that resonate with you and which you wish to progress, may I recommend you speak to your own spiritual leaders).
Reaching into Redemption Meditations:
Gen 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Introduction: Before we come to the end of this particular Part where we have sought to deal with particular issues that confront the modern church, I think we would do well to confront an issue that still, in some quarters at least, causes a lot of hot air – the role of women in the church. I think – but I may be wrong – that I have some things to say that are, I believe, the truth as seen in the Bible. Now don't jump to conclusions. I am simply going to say what I see in the Bible and I hope I am going to put aside prejudice or partisanship, both of which have harmed the proper working of the body of Christ.
Equality? Often the water is muddied by talk of equality. Equality requires measurement using the same units of measurement. When it comes to gender that is decidedly difficult. If you do an identical job for an identical length of time, justice demands identical pay; no problem. An area of injustice that needs righting. Observe the verses that follow our header verse above: “ God blessed them and said to them , “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28) The ‘them' indicates that this call to multiply is (obviously!) a joint thing, but so is the ruling over the earth part that follows. Man and woman are to share in this mandate but how they do it may differ. The curses of Gen 3 after the Fall clearly show that child-bearing would be the primary (but not only) role of the woman, while working the ground to provide food would be the primary (but not only) role of the man. The picture of an industrious woman in Prov 31:10-31 show her as potentially far more than a mere child-bearer. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul says, “ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) As far as the facts of salvation are concerned there are to be no distinctions.
In the Body of Christ: The concept of the ‘body of Christ' is all about different gifts and ministries. Old and New Testaments make a number of statements that sometimes appear contradictory but in reality are not so, I believe. Let's pick up some of the things the Bible shows us, by way of narrative and by way of specific teaching.
The twelve apostles: Twelve men, why not women? Be real and imagine the homes of the people involved. It was bad enough, for the family, that Jesus called the ‘bread-winner' away. To call away a mother and wife would have been twice as bad. (The wife is the key to nurture of the family). The culture of Israel permitted men to go off after a traveling rabbi but not women; that would have been scandalous – unless they were more elderly, no longer have family duties, were single or came from such dubious backgrounds that they just didn't care. I suspect Jesus would have avoided adding further causes of opposition than he already had. In the culture – for the obvious reasons given in Gen 3 – women bore and raised the children, men were the breadwinners (although as Prov 31 shows her role was potentially much bigger, even overshadowing that of her husband.) Those who are wise and observant will know that often in such societies where ‘the men are men' the power within the family is in reality often with the wife. There clearly were a number of women who travelled with Jesus (e.g. Lk 8:1-3) but the apostles (‘sent ones') had to be men because it would be inconceivable for women to be sent out in pairs knocking on doors in the evangelistic task (see Mt 10:5- and Lk 10:1)
The later ‘body': The case for ‘only men' in ministry falls down when we observe the four daughters of Philip the evangelist who all had prophetic gifting (Acts 21:8,9) but the argument for female apostles in Rom 16:7 is uncertain and scholarship suggests these were men (but hold on for later). I tend to agree with those scholars if only for the reasons given above for men travelling on their own. The gifts of the Spirit are given irrespective of gender, hence, “ I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.” (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17) There is no reason to suppose that prophecy is the only gift available to women and so, as moved by the Spirit, the implication must be that wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation are open to all. Indeed in 1 Cor 12:1 and 1 Cor 14:6,26 and very specifically with gift-encouragement in v.39, Paul does address “brothers and sisters ” and makes no distinctions in the three chapters about gifts.
What about silence in church? When he has just encouraged women as well as men to prophesy in church, we need to be careful about his injunction: “ Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Cor 14:34,25). The meaning of the text in addition suggests this is a matter of order rather than of ministry. Why should Paul single out women in this way? Have you never watched a congregation of God's people? In the left brain versus right brain argument, the message is always the same, and is clearly observable in any group: women are better interpersonal communicators (they talk more!!). If a church leader has a problem, it is how to get the room to come to quiet to start a service… and why? Just watch. It is a simple matter of order, not ministry.
I want to be a church leader? You must be out of your mind! Yes, Paul did say to Timothy, “Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1 Tim 3:1) and we should observe his teaching about such overseers in the next verse, that they be husband of one wife, but that doesn't mean to say the leadership is easy stuff; it is not. The leader is the first in line for attacks from the enemy and they can come thick and fast. Few of the many leaders I know in my area are unscathed. What is the balance here? I believe if you want to be a leader because you want to be seen to be out front, it is a wrong motive. If you feel an urgency to love, care for, and minister to God's people, do it, and then be recognised for the gifting that God has obviously given you. My own understanding is that mostly God calls men into leadership, but where there is a dearth of men or He sees a particular heart and particular gifting in a woman, He goes for it. I have observed a number of women preaching and been much blessed by them. Having said that I have seen an equal number of women leading or preaching and have cringed at the lack of servant-heartedness (and yes, I've seen the same in men) and anointing. Anyone who does it like another job or vocation has got it wrong, male or female. Leading (and preaching and teaching) is a calling and requires the anointing of God.
A Godly Example: I love the example of Deborah in Judges 4. She is a prophet (v.4a), she is married (v.4b), and she was leading Israel (v.4c), but when it comes to battle, unlike some of the other judge-leaders, she gets a word from God and calls for someone else, a man, to lead the army, Barak (v.6). He is half-hearted and wants her to go along with him (v.8) and her reply is, “ because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (v.9) She wanted the honour to go to a man, not her. What humility before God. Does God choose women leaders? Yes, clearly.
There is an issue of ‘authority' and divine order here that is not understood by many. Authority comes from God. If He gives it to a woman, go with it. If it is absent (in man or woman) we're in trouble. If men are not rising up to the task, He will use women. On average, men have certain characteristics that I believe make them better equipped to handle the opposition better. However some won't, and some women will – but it is always God's choice. If we try to be legalistic about it, we will get it wrong. Look at the character, look at the gifting, look at the grace, look at the anointing. What is the Holy Spirit doing? If we ignore Him and His calling and His equipping, we will be in trouble. Grace, humility, anointing and gifting. If they are absent, whoever you are, get out of the pulpit!
Redeeming this area? Redemption, we have been saying is about God taking us out of a bad placed into a good place. Can we redeem leadership of the church, whether male or female, from human choice and career ambition and put it into the Spirit-led, Spirit-inspired, Spirit-anointed realm? May we honour our anointed and God-called men and women irrespective of gender. Can we look for and encourage servant-hearted humility that is devoid of human ambition and through it, may our men and women bring honour and glory to God through the church. And may we dare risk saying, where calling, anointing and grace are missing, may present leaders have the courage to seek God for something they have lost, or have the courage to step down and move into a more fruitful area of life where those things are missing and have never really been there.