All of Scripture is Holy, Divinely inspired and true, but it was also written by men and the personalities of the writers shine through in the passages we read as much as the universal Truth of what’s written. It’s one of the reasons pet doctrines and whole faith traditions built on one verse of Scripture fail miserably to reach people with the gospel.
Our internalization of Biblical personalities rather than Biblical truth is easily seen when you’re attentive. It’s a natural outgrowth of our desire to “Christianize” lifestyle choices at the expense of deeper truths. The differences in the focus and personality of certain writers makes it all too easy for us to latch on to the personalities that most closely align with our own and validate our position on the basis of a narrow interpretation of the truth. This is clearly seen in the ascetics who elevate the words of Paul over the words and lifestyle of Jesus; on somberness of living, on marriage, and perspectives on women, to name a few.
Those more inclined play now and work later are naturally drawn to Jesus’ example: open to all people, not one to shy away from a glass of wine at a wedding celebration or to kick up his feet in the homes of tax collectors and “wine bibbers”. Whatever He did, He pleased God, but clearly He enjoyed life while not giving himself over to sin and vice. His love of people was evident in the way He went about His life.
Party people who come to faith tend to latch on to the life and example of Jesus as the ultimate example of being a Christian and still enjoying life. They have a point. Our Savior was not an ascetic. He lived this open and enjoyable life while maintaining a chaste and upright life, which many Christians conveniently forget. He was also busy about His Father’s business, preaching the gospel to the poor, the broken, and the lost, reaching them where they lived.
When a friend recently use the word revelry in a derogatory tone to describe any kind of fun or good times, I know she was spending most of her time poring over the words of St. Paul, who was too busy preaching, building churches and doing jail time to be bothered with fun and relaxation. There was persecution all around and saints to encourage in the faith. Fun could wait. Type A people love to quote verses about the seriousness of our calling to Type B people.
Those who relax the commitment of marriage and permission to remarry are much more likely to quote the words of Paul than the words of Jesus, as if the two contradict themselves in some way that makes divorce somehow acceptable to Paul in a way it wasn’t to Jesus, who said:
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 5: 31-32
Jesus clearly states that marriage is a binding and lifelong commitment that is not to be dissolved. Nowhere in these verses or any others when Jesus spoke on the topic do we see provisions for remarriage. Rarely do we hear believers in struggling marriages or those already divorced quote the words of Jesus when contemplating the subject.
Instead we hear about Paul, who was rather fond of the single life and encouraged single believers to embrace a life of celibacy and service:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9
In other words Paul’s position was: “I think both you and the kingdom would be best served if you’d present your bodies to the Lord in service. Marriage is full of all kinds of hassles that I’d spare you if I could. But if you cannot control yourself and your sexual desire is threatening to overtake you, go ahead and get married. It’s the only way you can fulfill this desire in a godly way.” Clearly however, both Jesus and St. Paul were fine with the idea of men (or women) going their own way so long as they do so chastely.
Historians have concluded that while Paul was unmarried for the duration of his Christian ministry, as a Jewish Pharisee it was highly unlikely that he was single his entire life and was likely a widower. If this is true, Paul’s understanding of the distraction marriage can prove to be from the perspective of ministry commitment was not borne in a vacuum.
Despite Paul’s insistence that marriage is for life and that we are not to leave our spouses, there is one statement in his writings that creates a level of ambiguity that divorced believers and those who desire to divorce have latched on to as justification not only for divorce, but for remarriage:
But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? 1 Corinthians 7:15-16
The questions I have always pondered is: What exactly is the believing spouse free to do now that he or she is no longer bound to the unbelieving spouse? Does it mean they are free to remarry, or just freed from any obligation to the spouse who left? It isn’t as clear to me as it is to many of my fellow believers, so I decided a long time ago that if the unimaginable happened, I would live my life as a single woman. And what if the spouse who departs isn’t an unbeliever? Do these verses still apply?
Marriage is my go-to example mainly because it’s the role that dominates my life right now, followed closely by motherhood. I harbor tens of secret neuroses about my mothering skills but very few about how well I do as a wife. This isn’t because I don’t care if I am a good wife, but because I am married to a man who would pull no punches, making it crystal clear to me if I wasn’t.
But these examples, marriage and zest for life, are just two among many. I have encountered believers who have decided to simply give the words and example of Jesus more weight than the words of Paul when in doubt. This manifests itself in different ways, from abstaining pork to worshiping on the seventh day rather than the first day of the week. The big change I’ve seen? More believers abandoning their teetotaling ways. As walls come down in one area, others are erected in others. We seem incapable of Christian freedom and unity.
Oddly enough this increased polarization in the church comes just as I am evolving to embrace people of different Christian traditions as opposed to condemning every believer who sees things differently than me to hell’s fire.