To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Remaining As We Are

1 Corinthians 7:12-24
Preached Sunday morning, September 17, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our study of 1 Corinthians, we are in what might be called a practical section of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians. Paul is addressing specific problems in the church, and then, as now, many of those problems had to do with human sexuality. As we’ve seen, there appears to have been two factions with conflicting but equally wrong ideas about sexual practice: one group approved of prostitution and fornication while another taught that all sexual activity is bad. This week’s passage is part of a larger section where Paul says no to both factions. Sex is good, Paul tells them, within proper bounds—the bounds of marriage as established by God. This week we will see how the Apostle expands his explanation a little. He begins with practical questions but ends with a profound truth.

Last week, in our study of 1 Cor. 7:1-11, we saw how God has created marriage. His plan goes back to his instructions in Genesis 2:24 in which God establishes marriage as one man, one woman, one lifetime. When people really believe that image, that God intends for men and women to marry only once, and for life, we begin to take our marriages more seriously. We also discussed—although Paul does not deal explicitly with the subject in 1 Cor. 7—that the marriage of a Christian man and woman is an image of Christ and the church. In this week’s passage the Apostle reminds us of wider implications in a specific circumstance: what if a Christian is married to a non-believer? Should that Christian remain married? The answer Paul gives is a simple one: don’t try to change your station in life.

Our lesson text today begins with the topic of marriages between Christians and unbelievers. While the idea of divorce and remarriage is only one part of this passage, it is the one that has been the focus of a great deal of heat in recent years. What this passage does or does not say about divorce and remarriage is currently the focus of a great deal of debate and even division in Churches of Christ. For that reason, it makes sense to take a few minutes and examine the debate.

Basically there are four positions in the church regarding divorce and remarriage. Three of those positions have at least some support from the New Testament. Before we begin looking at those positions, however, let’s remember that this topic has been the focus of serious division in many churches, including this one. Let’s then approach the Word with faith, discipline, peace, and a willingness to sacrifice anything for the Kingdom of God.

Generally speaking, those who look to the New Testament for determining God’s will on divorce and remarriage rely on different “ruling texts” to determine what is permitted and prohibited by God.

The most restrictive text is the words of Jesus in Mark 10:11-12: “So he told them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” Some Christians interpret that passage in its simplest form: those who have been divorced commit adultery if they remarry. Period. There are Christians who still hold to that principle, although it is a minority view.

What we might call the middle position takes its cue from Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, either Mt. 5:31-32 or 19:3-9. In Mt. 19:9, Jesus says, “Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (italics added). Matthew includes words Mark does not record: except for immorality. Christians disagree on what exactly immorality involves in this case. Most Churches of Christ, however, interpret it to mean adultery. By this reasoning, if a man or woman cheats on his or her spouse, then the offended spouse has grounds for remarrying after a divorce. This is the position most of us in this congregation hold.

The third, more permissive position, is found in this chapter of 1 Corinthians. Here Paul talks about marriages in which one spouse is a Christian and the other is not. The Apostle tells Christian spouses to remain married to unbelievers as long as the unbelieving spouse wants to stay married. Then Paul says in 7:15, “But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place. In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound” (italics added). A growing number of Christians look to this verse, particularly in light of Paul’s later words in 7:27-28, as a ruling text on divorce and remarriage. According to this position, a Christian may remarry after a divorce, even if it was not on the grounds of adultery, provided the other spouse was not a Christian.

A fourth view, also increasingly found in churches today, puts no restrictions on remarriage after divorce. There is no reasonable support for this view, however, in the New Testament.

So what are Christians who hold to the authority of the Scriptures to do? As much as we may cherish our own position on this matter, how are we to determine which is truly most faithful and obedient? Typically, when the New Testament is ambiguous on a certain item of doctrine and practice, we can look to church history for help in interpreting the text. The church has done this, for example, in developing our doctrines of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and praising God without using instrumental music. As we look back at the early centuries of the church, we see that our doctrines on these matters are in line with both the New Testament and church history.

So what about divorce and remarriage? What does history tell us about this matter? Before I tell you, I want to say that I for one was very surprised with what I found. Looking back to the earliest generations of the church after the New Testament, we find that Christians were instructed not to remarry after a divorce regardless of the reasons for the divorce. In other words, Christians, at least in the second century and after, held that Jesus’ teaching in Mark were the ruling text for divorce and remarriage. In fact, it was not until the sixteenth century that a Roman Catholic theologian named Erasmus first proposed that Jesus’ words in Mt. 5 and Mt. 19 allow a Christian to remarry if a divorce was on the grounds of adultery.

So history, it seems, gives little support to the position most of us hold on the issue divorce and remarriage. In fact, the position that most of us hold to be traditional goes back only about a quarter of the way to New Testament times.

At this point we’ve gone far afield from the text we’re supposed to be looking at today. The topic of divorce and remarriage is an important one, and one that each congregation must address. What’s more, every Christian must be aware of Scriptural teaching on this matter, and each of us is answerable to God. So, you may ask, why this big explanation? Why not simply come out and tell you which position you ought to take? Well, the preacher’s job is not do think for you, but to present the Word that helps you learn to think with the mind of Jesus Christ. If this congregation, all of us, will commit our lives to God and allow his Word to transform us, then we will come to a right knowledge and practice on divorce and remarriage.

So, now that we’ve made a side trip across the very hot sands of divorce and remarriage, lets look at the broader message of this passage. As we saw earlier, God’s plan for marriage is one man, one woman, one lifetime. Most Christians agree that God provides for remarriage in certain circumstances; we argue mostly about exactly what those circumstances are. But the main point in our text today is not remarriage. In our culture today too much time is spend on how to divorce and remarry than on keeping marriages together in the first place. Paul’s message to the Corinthians is that it’s better to stay together, and he gives at least one reason why. First, however, let’s work through another difficult verse.

In studying this passage, many people have trouble understanding verse 14: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.” To understand this verse, it helps to remember that Paul wrote in a less literal time. He’s not saying that a spouse or child of a Christian can be saved by having a Christian family member. He’s simply saying that having a non-Christian parent doesn’t make a child dirty or spiritually defiled. In other words, a Christian may not use the welfare of his or her children to divorce an unbelieving spouse.

In fact, there may be an eternal benefit in staying with an unbelieving spouse: the Christian may be a vehicle for saving that person’s soul (7:16). I hope Paul’s words here are an encouragement to our brothers and sisters in this congregation who are married to unbelievers. God may use you to save their souls.

The next thing Paul says shines light on an even bigger picture. His words here go beyond marriage to illuminate life in the Kingdom of God. And what he has to say has the potential to rock our whole world. In verse 17, Paul tells the Corinthians to stay in the position in which they were called. Initially he is writing about marriage. A Christian is not to spend time looking for a way out, even if he or she is married to a non-Christian. Don’t you think the church would be better off if more Christians followed Paul’s instructions? How much better would Christian marriages be if we spent more time looking for ways to stay together than to break apart? Christians are called to stay in the marriages in which they find themselves.

In the following verses, Paul expands his instructions on staying as we were called to include circumcision and slavery. Both of these conditions were issues in Corinth. Circumcision is used in 7:18 as a symbol for Jewishness. Some Jews in the first century were ashamed of their ethnicity and tried to hide it; Paul tells them to be content with being Jewish. Being a slave was considered shameful, not on the grounds of a lack of freedom, but because slaves usually had little or no status in the Roman world. So despite a Christian’s marital status, ethnicity, or social class, we are called to stay as we are. By extension, the list doesn’t end with those three but can be applied to nearly any condition in life. Paul urges Christians not to work on changing our worldly relationships because ultimately they are not important. Our status in the world has no meaning compared to our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. How strong would the church be if Christians really believed and followed that principle?

Instead, we approach the issue backward. We care more about improving our position in the world than about growing in the Kingdom of God. We try to “get ahead” by earthly standards while stagnating in our discipleship. We take the attitude of, “Well, I’ve been baptized. I’m saved. Now I can devote my attention to getting a promotion and earning more money.” Do you see how completely backward that attitude is? Our attention should not be on our place in the world but on growing in the Kingdom. As Paul told the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Pau; also told the Corinthians, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18). While we are not to care about getting ahead in the world, we are called to grow in discipleship and in the Spirit.

Caring more about our social status than our spiritual status is worldliness. It’s investing time and energy in something that will pass away—it’s investing eternal capital in a big, fine house that is already on fire when we pay for it. Worldliness is a waste of our limited time and resources on this planet. Did you see this week’s Time magazine? The cover story is titled, “Does God want you to be rich?” If Christians have any doubt as to the answer, we should remember Paul’s words about earthly status here in 1 Cor. 7. And these verses are by no means the only ones on the subject. Jesus himself told his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys” (Lk 12:33). Things of this world are a waste of time, because they’re already passing away. But the Kingdom of God endures forever.

So let’s stay as we are in the world and focus our minds on Kingdom business! Of course, Paul’s words here are not an absolute prohibition about caring for worldly matters (as we’ll see next week). Concentrating on the Kingdom is no excuse for abuse. It’s acceptable for slaves to seek their freedom. It’s permissible for Christians to marry. The church should help the poor in the church and not allow them to continue suffering. In all cases we are called to give up our sin, and sometimes that involves taking up new work, as Paul did when he became an apostle.

But we should ask ourselves some hard questions on how we’re using our earthly resources. Are we investing as much on our eternal future as we are on our earthly retirement? Are we spending as much on our spiritual home as on our earthly dwelling? Are we entertaining strangers in the name of Jesus Christ as much as we’re entertaining ourselves? As we think on these questions, it helps to keep a vital truth in mind.

Let’s look at verse 23: “You were bought with a price.” In the Bible, repetition is key to what’s important. Paul has already reminded the Corinthians of this vitally important fact (1 Cor. 6:20), and now he tells them again: You were bought with a price. The Apostle has been writing about practical matters, issues of faith in practice. Now he goes back to the heart of Christian discipleship: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.” He’s not talking here about physical slavery. “Men” here is a symbol for worldliness, and Paul does not want Christians to be enslaved by the world.

Paul’s instructions here bring to mind something similar he told the Romans:

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Rom. 6:16-18)

Remember from our study of Romans that we have a choice of whose slave we will be. We really don’t have a choice of not being a slave. As the Apostle Peter said, “Whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). Will we be overcome by the world or the Word? Will we serve the King of Heaven or Prince of this world? Each one of us here is a slave of one or the other domain. One is eternal; the other will be destroyed.

In those simple words, “You were bought with a price,” Paul reminds the Corinthian of what saves Christians from a perishing world. It’s not their wisdom, their obedience, nor anything they could do for themselves. What saves Christians is the grace of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The consequences of our sin is eternal death (Rom. 6:23). But Jesus Christ lived a perfect life and died on the cross to pay the price for our sin (Heb. 4:15). We are washed clean by the blood of Christ and saved through faith in him (Rom. 3:24-25). In baptism we join Christ in his death and resurrection, to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-6). Our old lives have been crucified with Christ, and we have been given new lives in Christ (Gal. 2:20). We are new indeed creations (2 Cor. 5:17). Everything is new (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s why even in the most practical discussions, Paul always reminded Christians of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18)

If we truly remember the cross and how we came to be saved, then every aspect of our lives will be changed: no more looking for reasons to get the upper hand over others; no using doctrine as an excuse to bite and devour one another; no mining Scripture for excuses to sin. Instead, we will humble ourselves, glorify God in our lives and love one another with pure and faithful hearts. We will spend our lives wisely on the only truths that really matter.


(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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