Thursday, July 15, 2004

Too hot to handle-2

4. Divorce

Traditionally, there are two grounds for divorce: infidelity (Mt 5:32; 19:19) and desertion (1 Cor 7:15). One preliminary question is why the Matthew version, with its exemptive clause, is more liberal than the Markan version (10:11-12), on the one hand, but less liberal than the Pauline discussion, which “adds” a second ground?

Of course, any answer is bound to be somewhat conjectural, but the following may be suggested. It may be that Mark took adultery for granted, since that was assumed on all side (both Jewish & Greco-Roman) as a valid ground for divorce, whereas Matthew, in order to avoid future confusion, spells out the exception.

Or it may simply be that Matthew knew more than Mark. Mark had heard of the teaching of Jesus, but Matthew had heard the teaching of Jesus. Mark’s citation is accurate as far as it goes, but Matthew reproduces a bit more of the original, quoting directly from his inspired memory of the event.

Or it may be that after Jesus completed his public address, the Twelve asked him some follow-up questions in private and elicited this additional caveat. Indeed, we know from other accounts that the Twelve often quizzed their Lord in private when a provocative public utterance of his confounded their understanding and expectations. In that event, the exemptive clause is a parenthetical gloss.

As to the Pauline expansion, it may well be that the words of Christ ought to be taken in the tradition of proverbial wisdom, where you have a statement that is formally universal, but understood to be a generality that admits a number of individual exceptions. Many well-meaning Christians have been misled by failing to make allowance for the hyperbolic element of the proverbial genre.

The next question is what the “Pauline privilege” amounts to. It is usually assumed to allow the innocent party the right of divorce and remarriage.

But beyond that is the question of whether abandonment alone is a grounds for divorce, or only in the case of an unbeliever leaving a believer. Is the unbelieving status of the deserter a necessary condition of a valid divorce, or is desertion alone a sufficient condition?

The prima facie reason that Paul discusses marriage and divorce in relation to believers and unbelievers is because that is how the question was posed, and it was so posed because that was the situation within the Corinthian church.

But it does not necessarily follow that the spiritual status of the deserter is a separate condition. Rather, this may be a special application of a general principle, occasioned by the circumstances of the Corinthian church.

Indeed, it is hard to see the moral relevance of deserter’s state of grace, or the absence thereof. The question is whether a marriage remains a real marriage without cohabitation. Marriage is a covenant with bilateral duties. Each party must uphold its end of the bargain.

A practical problem with making the spiritual status of the deserter a condition of divorce is that it puts the burden on a second party to establish that the deserter is a genuine unbeliever or nominal believer rather than, say, a backslidden believer. But no human authority has x-ray vision into the regenerate, unregenerate, elect, or reprobate state of another human being. It is difficult to see how the onus could ever be discharged.

Desertion, with no prospect of reconciliation, is easy to establish, for it depends on physical abandonment and an unwillingness to return and resume marital relations. And infidelity is often easy to establish. These conditions rest on evidence in the public domain, and can therefore be met with a reasonable degree of certainty, but whether or not the deserter is a believer or unbeliever is a condition whose satisfaction is well-nigh unverifiable.

At most, one would have to form a practical judgment based on outward conduct. And this is a legitimate basis of church discipline. If the subject acts like an unbeliever, he is treated as though he were an unbeliever, whether or not he really is. But although this is a valid distinction, it succeeds by blurring the original distinction between believer and unbeliever. In that event, extended abandonment, without prospect of reconciliation, remains a valid ground for divorce.

It is possible that there are other valid conditions for a divorce, such as battery, or premarital misrepresentations. A contract is ordinarily invalid if either party enters under false pretenses.

But we must be very guarded lest we stretch an essentially strict and conservative position into an open-ended divorce policy. Remember the shock-value of our Lord’s prohibition, where he took a position to the right of both rabbinical schools, and admitted that his position was so inflexible that some would be better advised to forgo marriage altogether.

5. Drugs

Scripture’s position on alcohol, which—on the one hand—permits moderate intake, while—on the other hand—forbidding immoderate intake, sets the boundaries for other forms of drug use.

Mood and mind-altering substances are permissible as long as they do not cause us to lose control. Various drugs, in various ways, may fall under a Biblical ban. If they are addictive. If they are unhealthy. If they are unpredictable.

6. Fornication

Traditionally, fornication is regarded as incompatible with the Christian calling. I suppose that, nowadays, many men and women in various churches, seminaries, and Evangelical colleges would regard this prohibition as a big joke or Victorian hang-up.

However, both Jesus and Paul treat fornication as a bar to heaven (Mt 15:19; Gal 5:19). It doesn’t get more serious than that.

Some people feel that the advent of contraception has made fornication acceptable. This assumes that the Biblical prohibition was based on the relation between sex and pregnancy.

But the Bible never says that, and Scripture condemns certain other sexual expressions where pregnancy is not in the cards (e.g., sodomy, bestiality, adultery with a post-menopausal woman.

Paul has an interesting analysis of fornication in 1 Cor 6:12-20. Here he argues that fornication consummates a common law marriage. This would lead directly to adultery, for if the fornicator then had sexual relations with anyone else, he would be an adulterer in relation to his very first sexual partner.

In addition, Paul says that fornication is in a class by itself, for it commits a sin against the sinner. His reasoning seems to be that the body is both the medium of sexual and social intercourse. When you form a sexual bond, you become one with another, not merely in the flesh, but on a plane of moral transference. If you unite yourself to a whore, you become the moral equivalent of a whore. You exchange your own identity with whomever you unite yourself to.

7. Incest

Incest takes two different forms:

(i) Vertical incest, between one generation and another (e.g. mother/son; mother-in-law/son-in-law; father/daughter; father-in-law/daughter-in-law; grandparent/grandchild; aunt/nephew).

(ii) Horizontal incest (brother/sister; brother-in-law/sister-in-law).

Vertical incest is always condemned. Horizontal incest is generally condemned, but allowed in the case of Levirate marriage. Horizontal incest was implicitly permitted, even essential, for the first few generations of the human race.

Horizontal incest was licit according to the nomadic and less regulated lifestyle of the patriarchs, but illicit under the Mosaic law—except for Levirate marriage, which is a customary carryover from the patriarchal period.

The implication is that vertical incest is intrinsically wrong, as involving an unnatural transgression of the social hierarchy.

Horizontal incest is not intrinsically wrong, but it is imprudent, and thus is ordinarily forbidden, except under special circumstances.

Because Israel was a tribal society, a certain amount of inbreeding was inevitable, so it came down to prohibited degrees of consanguinity.

And because Israel was a tribal society, the land belongs to the clan. Hence, inbreeding was a way of keeping property within the family.

This also accounts for the custom of the kinsman-redeemer (e.g., Book of Ruth).

Assuming that Scripture took tribalism into account on the subject of horizontal incest, the same allowance cannot be made in the case of cultures where tribalism has broken down.

8. Marriage

What, exactly, constitutes a valid marriage in Scripture? It is a little difficult to sort this out. On the one hand, you have a Biblical theology of marriage. On the other hand, the concrete examples of marriage in Scripture are situated in the social conventions of the ANE. So it's a bit tricky to separate the theology of marriage from the incidental cultural customs.

One way of broaching the answer is to approach the question from the opposite end of the spectrum by asking what makes for a valid divorce. In Scripture, there are two stated grounds: (i) infidelity (Mt 5:31; 19:9) and (ii) desertion (1 Cor 7:15).

That implies that at least two conditions of a valid marriage are fidelity and cohabitation. This figures in broader ideas of commitment and companionship.

Positively, Scripture defines marriage as a covenantal arrangement (Prov 2:17; Ezk 16:8; Mal 2:14). And consummation is certainly a prerequisite of a valid marriage—based on the one-flesh principle.

OT marriage took place in tribal societies where you married into an extended family or clan. That is not the essence of marriage, but that is how the institution was observed in OT times.

Love is not a necessary precondition of a valid marriage. Many marriages in Scripture were arranged marriages. Also, the betrothal customs did not allow for the kind of physical contact we take for granted in dating or engagement. In the OT, marriage was more of an economic institution—a social safety net.

So there was not much opportunity to fall in love before the marriage, although that might or might not happen afterwards. Romantic love is obviously an ideal to work towards, but not a condition of marriage.

Moving to our own time and place, our culture discourages early marriages for economic reasons. But there's no Biblical reason why a good many teenagers shouldn't marry, and putting off marriage until one's 20s or beyond naturally ratchets up the sexual pressure and temptation.

At the same time, economic stability is important to a solid marriage. If there's not enough money to pay the bills, or a regular source of income, that's a steady source of friction.

As far as the Bible is concerned, I don't think you need a big ceremony with a lot of guests and a minister to officiate.

At the same time, marriage is an inherently social institution. Unlike Adam and Eve, we bring preexisting relationships to the table (parents, siblings), and when we get married, we acquire in-laws and we have children of our own.

The Bible also has a theology of the state, and so we ought to pay at least a minimal degree of deference to the laws of the land. And that is also to ensure that the children will have some legal rights as well.

In principle, if a single man and woman were shipwrecked on a desert island, with no prospect of rescue in sight, I see no reason why they could not marry each other in the eyes of God.

However, we're not castaways on a desert island, so other considerations come into play. Thus it would be a mistake to treat marriage as a self-contained unit between one man and one woman.

9. Masturbation

This once went under the quaint name of Onanism. How it came to be associated with sin of Onan is puzzling. If you read the Biblical account, Onan achieved a state of sexual climax by having sexual relations with a woman, which is hardly the textbook meaning of masturbation.

At most, this would be a prooftext against contraception, but in that case we’d have to say that contraception is a sin, but polygamy is not. The account is really about Levirate marriage.

Traditionally, the church has frowned upon masturbation. One reason is the relation between masturbation and lust. This cannot be denied. On the other hand, lust is also aggravated by the absence of a sexual outlet. That is, indeed, in the nature of sexual tension, of a tension between sexual desire and sexual release. Unrelieved sexual tension only builds.

Another objection is the view that sexual activity is illicit outside the context of procreation. Yet if sex were impermissible outside of procreation, we would expect Scripture to forbid sexual relations with a barren, pregnant or postmenopausal woman.

The Bible does not directly address this issue. The Bible has general prohibitions against the sin of lust, but this takes external subjects, such as homosexual lust, incestuous lust, or adulterous lust, where a particular individual and a particular relation are in view.

It is striking that the Bible is silent on the subject of masturbation—striking, both because the Bible is quite specific and explicit about a number of other sexual sins, and because masturbation is extremely widespread. The argument from silence is always a bit tricky, but if masturbation were intrinsically evil, you’d expect of find a warning to that effect somewhere in Scripture.

Since the Bible doesn’t address the question, either directly or by necessary inference, we cannot be dogmatic one way or another. So a few suggestions are in order:

i) Since we are responsible for the revealed will of God, and he has not disclosed his will on this particular subject, I don’t think that Christians should go around guilt-ridden if they engage in this practice.

ii) On the face of it, this seems like a natural sexual safety value for single men—especially younger men in their sexual prime.

iii) Like learning how to walk or perform other athletic activities, this form of sexual experience and physical experimentation may train an unmarried young man in attaining some degree of mental and muscular control so that he is not a total novice on his wedding night.

iv) But, by the same token, it is generally illicit for married men—except for periods of prolonged physical separation. Likewise, it should not become a permanent alternative to marriage, unless marriage is not an option.

v) As with any appetite, it runs the risk of becoming addictive or sinful if wrongly directed.

So I can’t say absolutely if it is right or wrong, but I tend to deem it permissible under some circumstances.

10. Obscenity

Traditionally, Catholic morality frowns upon profanity, but is indifferent to obscenity, while Protestant morality frowns up both.

We might begin by asking why obscenity is so popular. The answer, I submit, is that we inhabit a sacramental universe. The sensible world is a metaphor for the moral order. That is why human speech is laden with figures of speech. That is why a well-chosen metaphor is meaningful. It conveys insight because there is a genuine point of analogy between the visible and invisible, moral and material.

Now the human body is a master metaphor, for we inhabit a body. Our body is the medium by which the immaterial soul is able to interface with space and matter. Because the body is quite literally our fundamental point of reference in relating to the world, the body is also a figurative frame of reference by which we position ourselves in moral space.

Hence, all the members and organs, aptitudes, appetites, illnesses, products, and by-products of the body constitute a warehouse of handy metaphors by which we orient our moral compass. And this runs the gambit from both the honorable and dishonorable features of the body—to borrow a Pauline distinction (1 Cor 12:22-25).

The next question is whether obscenity is sinful. As a rule, Scripture forbids obscenity (Eph 5:4; Col 3:8).

Obscenity can be both verbal and visual. A graphic instance of the latter is found in Mal 2:3. A classic example of the former is found in 2 Kg 18:27, where the red-faced rendering of the average translation fails to do it justice.

Because the Bible occasionally employs a few choice expressions, usually in quotation, which never make their way out of the translation committee, this has fostered a somewhat prim piety.

The exceptions are just that—exceptional. But it does suggest that obscenity is not always a sin.

It would be impossible to do personal evangelism if we blush at blue language.

One of the problems with obscenity is that it breeds a bitter view of life. Expletives are used to express rage, or to demean embodied existence, or to demean our fellow man. These are not healthy habits of the mind. They reflect and reinforce a thankless view of life—a view of life characterized by murmuring rather than gratitude. Ugly words are a window into an ugly soul. Unless we wash the windows of our life, we cannot see the beauty of God’s gracious providence.

Christians should avoid obscene humor, but not all sexual humor is obscene. Because life has its humorous side, and because so much of our social life revolves around the male/female dialectic, a certain amount of sexual humor is inevitable, and not all of it is in bad taste. Is there anything funnier than Gen 29:25?

One subdivision of sexual humor is derogatory humor about homosexuals. On the one had, a Christian should avoid demeaning homosexuals as subhuman, of indulging in self-righteous pride, or resorting to obscenity.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with making fun of homosexuals. It is a good thing to stigmatize sin, to make sin an object of shame and ridicule, as a deterrent to others.

Christians ought to avoid obscene slang, but not all slang is obscene. There is a place for somewhat rough, earthy language that falls short of obscenity. Medical nomenclature will never displace colloquial usage.

It’s somewhat mysterious why some synonyms are obscene, and other not, but that’s the nature of language, with its contextual connotations.

It is my impression that obscenity comes more naturally, or at least more normally, to men than women. When you hear women swear, is says more about the kind of men they hang around.


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