Monday, June 30, 2008

A Lifetime of Devotion

Part 2 (Part 1 is below)

In my last post, I wrote of the importance of marriage, and suggested from the Scriptures some of the various facets of God’s purpose and design for marriage.  Perhaps the single most specific chapter in the Bible that discusses singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage, all in one place, is 1 Corinthians, chapter 7.  For the purposes of this post, I have chosen not to attempt to explain the entire chapter as I tried to do in my LIFE class.  Here in this brief version I merely want to touch on the aspects of this chapter that seem to me to be overlooked most often.

Paul the apostle begins that section of the letter by answering questions the Corinthian believers had asked of him.  There was good reason for them to ask questions regarding marriage:

  • Various false teachings had probably influenced the believers at Corinth to question guidelines for Christian marriage and sexual relationships. Some pre-Gnostic teaching had argued that all physical matter was bad, and therefore that all sexual activity—even within marriage—was wrong. (See 1 Timothy 4.1-5)
  • Apparently several types of legally-recognized marriages (under Roman authority) existed at the time, including tent companionships for slaves, common law marriage, the sale of one's daughter to a prospective husband, and a nobility class type of marriage.
  • Some people had become followers of Jesus and perhaps wondered what this new relationship meant with regard to their marriages.

Paul’s intent was to refocus the struggling believers with a radical concept for first century Greek-Roman culture: commitment, in lasting devotion, that ultimately reflects the glory of God.  God’s word speaks frankly to us about sexual relationships and about God’s plan with regard to singleness, marriage, divorce and remarriage.

As seen in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, what God desires from us is a lifetime of devotion.

1.  A lifetime of marriage reflects a calling from God (vv. 17-24).

To understand what Paul is talking about in this section, we have to understand his idea of a calling.  The word "calling" is often misused today, even if well intentioned.  When Paul uses the term, he often speaks of a holistic approach—one that encompasses every area of our lives.  So when Paul talks about his calling, he seems to imply his salvation, allegiance to God, and even specific ministry assignments which God has given him.  Notice how he uses the term calling in the following sentences.

He saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our own works but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began.  Now, however, it has been revealed through the coming of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and through the gospel has brought life and release from death into full view.  For the sake of this gospel I was appointed to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.
2 Timothy 1.9-11 (ISV)

So, when Paul talks about a calling in 1 Corinthians 7.17-24, we have to realize he probably means more than salvation alone, or even a vocation or career alone.  In fact, it appears that he is talking about the whole person—all that God called you to be.

In this regard, it is a little bit easier to understand why he uses the illustrations of circumcision and slavery.  Certainly, without having an understanding of the cultural context, these ideas might be confusing.  But first century readers understood what Paul was talking about.  He was speaking with reference to an individual's particular current status in life.  He does not take the time to explain to non-Jews the perhaps confusing nature of circumcision, nor does he launch into an excursus on the social ills of the practice of slavery (although he makes sure to note that if a slave has the opportunity to be freed, he should happily take it!).  He simply says for the point of this discussion, "as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk."

Paul is encouraging them not to be obsessed with changing their status.  Instead, the point is, now that God has called you, live out your calling wherever you are in life.  Twice he says (7.20, 7.24), each one should "remain in that calling in which he was called."  And the immediate preceding context is that of staying married even in tough circumstances.  God's goal for us is not that we would be absorbed in trying to change our status or condition or calling, but instead that we would grow with Him in whatever place we find ourselves.

So unless you are called to singleness, marriage is an aspect of our calling from God, and He desires that we would demonstrate to others—through the lifetime of devotion in marriage—our lifetime of devotion to Him.  A lifetime of marriage reflects a calling from God.

2. A lifetime of singleness reflects a commitment to God (vv. 1-9; 25-40).

Paul has much to say about singleness in 1 Corinthians 7.  He first speaks of singleness at the beginning of the chapter in terms of abstaining from sex.  He says that abstaining from sex is good, but not so simple (vv. 1-2).  It is certainly an honorable thing if you never marry and thus never have a sexual relationship with anyone; however it is not easy at all for human beings to keep their passions in check (see v. 9).  He then says that abstaining from sex is a gift, but only for singles (vv. 3-9).  Abstaining in singleness is so honorable that Paul even considers it a gift from God for those who possess it (including himself); however, for those who are married, sex within marriage is God’s design, and abstaining within marriage should be limited to reasons dealing with spiritual growth.

I believe that a part of what Paul is doing in this chapter is to raise the perceptions of the value of singleness—if that is in fact one's gift and calling.  Later in the chapter, Paul outlines several arguments for staying single:

  • Problems in the world (vv. 25-27)
  • Difficulties of married life (v. 28)
  • The passing nature of this life (vv. 29-31)
  • Preoccupations in marriage (vv. 32-35)
  • Problems with parental consent (vv. 36-38)
  • The binding covenant of marriage (vv. 39-40)

So his point is not to minimize marriage, nor to minimize singleness.  Instead, he elevates both, and encourages his readers to pursue whatever gift and calling God has given individually to each one.  For most people, it seems, marriage is their calling.  However, if one's gift happens to be singleness, Paul argues that he or she is able to be undistracted in devotion to the Lord.  A lifetime of singleness reflects a commitment to God.

3. A lifetime of faithfulness reflects the compassion of God (vv. 8-16).

It is unfortunate that so many Christians miss the power of what Paul describes here.  He encourages those who are married to stay married, and even specifically says that a believer who is married to a nonbeliever should remain married, because of the positive influence the believer may have on his or her spouse.

Paul could have been writing to a variety of situations that existed then and now.  Perhaps there were some situations where believers had married nonbelievers.  In other cases, perhaps two nonbelievers were married, and then one of the two came to faith in Christ.  And there may have been still other situations where two believers married, and but later one of the two decided to abandon the faith.

From the way Paul answers their questions, it seems they were asking about reasons they thought might warrant their leaving their spouses.  For example, in light of present difficulties (7.26), perhaps they wondered if they should no longer consider themselves married—except with respect to being "married to Christ."  But Paul says they should consider their fidelity to their spouses in the highest regard.  As long as the nonbeliever desires to remain married, he says, then the believing spouse should not pursue divorce, because he or she might be able to point the nonbelieving spouse to God.  The bond of marriage is extremely important, and Paul is careful to remind his readers about the significance of faithfulness in that bond.  In the letter to the Romans, look how he uses marriage to illustrate the principle of being "bound."

Don't you realize, brothers—for I am speaking to people who know the Law—that the Law can press its claims over a person only as long as he is alive?  For a married woman is bound by the Law to her husband while he is living, but if her husband dies, she is released from the Law concerning her husband.  So while her husband is living, she will be called an adulterer if she lives with another man.  But if her husband dies, she is free from this Law, so that she is not an adulterer if she marries another man.
Romans 7.1-3 (ISV)

Faithfulness to one's nonbelieving spouse can serve as a huge—and perhaps  primary—influence on that spouse to help keep them from further sin, and to help point them to the grace and compassion of the Savior.  A lifetime of faithfulness reflects the compassion of God.

Ultimately, marriage was instituted and designed to show us, as we mentioned in the previous post, God's loving, permanent relationship with His chosen ones—those who would place their faith and trust in Him.  To put it another way, marriage shows us the gospel.  Notice this wonderful principle in the letter to the Ephesians:

…For we are parts of his body—of his flesh and of his bones.  “That’s why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a great secret, but I am talking about Christ and the church.  But each individual man among you must love his wife as he loves himself, and a wife must respect her husband.
Ephesians 5.30-33 (ISV)

Although it's never easy, a lifetime of devotion and faithfulness, whether in marriage or singleness, reflects the glory of God to a world that is watching.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

So, What's the Big Deal about Marriage?

Part 1

For readers outside my LIFE class at our church, this post (and some subsequent ones) may need a brief explanation.  In the class we are looking into what is happening in our culture and in what some have called Christian subculture, with regard to the shift away from marriage as it has been defined for centuries.  One recent example that occurred after our study began comes to us from California.  When four individuals on the state Supreme Court can redefine marriage for the entire state, it should cause us to pay attention and to graciously respond.

As our class delves into this topic, we plan also to examine singleness and dating, and what is best for society when it comes to divorce and remarriage.  If we are indeed ambassadors for Jesus, then with careful attention to how Christians act in the world today, we want to thoughtfully consider how these areas impact the perception of God in society.

Each week in class I lead off these messages with a statement of hope, not condemnation.  As we look at the Scriptures to see what God intends, we also immediately acknowledge that the vast majority of us have been affected in an adverse way either by broken relationships, abandonment, emotional separation, or divorce—all against a cultural backdrop that devalues meaningful sexual relationships that last.  The purpose for our class study, and for publishing these thoughts here, is not at all to condemn, but to provide hope.  It is the hope of genuine, fulfilled, joyful life with God through Christ.  It is the hope of grace, mercy, forgiveness and restoration.  It is the hope for a new day.

So, what is the big deal about marriage, and why do followers of Christ care so much about the institution of marriage?  We believe that ultimately God’s purpose for marriage is that His glory would be portrayed to a watching world.

God's Purpose for Marriage: His Glory Portrayed

Here is a basic definition.  Marriage is, and always has been, intended to be a lifelong covenant relationship in which the glory of God is portrayed in the joining together of one man and one woman for life, as they grow together in oneness and unity through love and respect (Genesis 2.15-25, 15.7-18; Malachi 2.14-16; Matthew 5.31-32, 19.1-12; 1 Corinthians 7.1-40; Ephesians 5.15-33).  Listed below are some of the various facets of God’s purpose and design for marriage, with some scriptural clarifications.

  1. To demonstrate the gospel in the permanent relationship of God with His chosen ones

    • Ephesians 5.15-33: As shown by the analogy of Jesus Christ as groom, and the church (all genuine believers in Christ) as the bride
    • Genesis 15.7-18: As shown in the beginning of God's covenant with Abram (who became Abraham)

  2. To mirror the image of God

    • Genesis 1.26-27: To demonstrate their mutual value, both men and women are created in the image of God
    • Genesis 2.15-25: The image of God, then, is also portrayed uniquely in marital oneness as man and woman are joined together

  3. To complete and compliment (and at times compensate for) each other as husband and wife, and to experience companionship

    • Genesis 2.18-20: To demonstrate their complementary qualities, in the beginning, God designed a woman for the man who would be a helper corresponding to the man (translated into English, the Hebrew reads "...a helper corresponding to..." or "...a helper next to...")
    • 1 Corinthians 11.11-12: At a very basic level, men need women and women need men

  4. To promote holiness and purity

    • 1 Corinthians 7.1-9: God designed sexual intimacy to be wonderfully enjoyed in the special covenant of marriage
    • Romans 1.26-27: To preserve the pattern of God's design for the healthy pleasure inherent in marriage, God intends that sexual intimacy would not take place outside of a covenant relationship between one man and one woman

  5. To multiply a godly legacy

    • Genesis 1.28, 9.1, 9.7: Procreation to populate the earth
    • Deuteronomy 6.1-25; Ephesians 6.4: Affirmation of God’s word and work from generation to generation, training children in His ways

Often misunderstood by many today, God's design for marriage was never intended to put a restraint on us for the sake of killing our joy.  Far from that, His intended design has always been for His glory, and for our good.  When we treat marriage the way God designed it, He provides an exquisite joy for us—in Him, and as husbands and wives.  And therein is great hope!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Shack?

At the outset, I must admit that I have not yet read the book, The Shack, by William P. Young.  But recently while in a large gathering I was attending, the speaker recommended the book with unspecified caveats.  I was curious and perhaps even intrigued at the speaker's enthusiasm for the book, and thought I should promptly check it out.  With other books on my to-be-read list, I thought maybe I would try to find a good review or two, to see what made the book so special.  One such review actually found me.

I was forwarded (hat tip: Blake Derrick) a review by Tim Challies.  His review is well worth your time.  On his blog he has posted a brief explainer, and then his review in PDF format.  With care and respect, Challies writes a cogent piece wherein he specifies several points at which The Shack, even in its genre of fiction, communicates an understanding of God that seems foreign to the Bible.  Perhaps Young never intended to write a theological treatise.  But whatever his intent, when people are seeking to understand God through The Shack instead of The Bible, we have a problem.

If you have read the book or plan to read it, I encourage you to take the time to read Challies' review.  Even if you do not agree with everything in Challies' wording or argumentation, his central warning is well placed.  He calls the book "dangerous," due to the extent of error.  Quoting from the book in several instances, he articulates problems in what Young communicates about God in the theological concepts of revelation, salvation, and the Trinity.

Both Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll agree in calling parts of the book heresy, so you know that major lines of orthodoxy appear to have been crossed.

When I disagree over a book's premise or content, I usually let it go.  However, of grave concern to me is the widespread appeal, not of the fictional story, but of the perceived theology of this book (just check out the many "this changed my life" and "this is the best explanation of the Holy Trinity" reviews on Amazon.com).  As of this writing, the book is #8 on Amazon's sales rank list.  It has become a phenomenon of sorts, and thus I sensed the need to flag these concerns here.