A Proper Reading
Of The Bible
Encourages Good Sense
The Bible is often treated like a list of inflexible laws, meaning every statement is applied as if it is a hard fast rule, no variation allowed.
Those who take this approach use the remarks of Jesus to reinforce the idea:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19
A quick reading might give the impression that Jesus endorses the “rule book” approach but a few verses later He said things that would challenge this idea. He actually moved a few legal goal posts.
- Not murdering someone is a good rule to follow but avoiding getting angry with them is even better, 5:21-22.
- Not sleeping with a woman, other than your wife, is a good rule to follow but not entertaining the idea is even better, 5:27-28.
- Not committing the sins to which you are vulnerable is noteworthy but avoiding the situations which tempt you to commit those sins is even better, 5:29-30.
- Taking no more than an “eye’s” worth of penalty for an “eye’s” worth of offense is a good rule to follow but taking less is even better, 5:38-39.
- Not taking revenge on your enemies is a good rule to follow but actively loving them is even better, 5:43-44.
Obviously, Jesus saw the law as restrictive not prescriptive. It was designed to limit the expression of our human tendencies and prevent us from going too far in our zeal for justice. And His remarks change our perspective entirely.
Not only should our lust for revenge be limited by the law it should be replaced by love and taking that approach helps us focus on being more like God. Jesus clearly made that point.
That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, 5:45.
Loving your enemies instead of hating them is the God-like thing to do and one purpose of the law was to help us learn this approach. It was designed primarily to inhibit our natural responses to sinful tendencies and offenses. It provides boundaries not step by step instructions. The law is a guidebook not a rule book.*
But applying the “restrictive” rather than “prescriptive” approach to what the Bible specifically says requires the use of good judgment. Why? Because there isn’t enough room in one book to list every possible way infractions can occur along with the appropriate response to each one. But that idea is hard to swallow. It flies in the face of what is referred to as a literalist approach to Scripture. As literalits – I’m speaking in the first person because I am one:
- We believe the Bible comes directly from God – inspired.
- We believe it is complete – plenary.
- We believe it is without error – infallible.
- We believe the specific words were significant – verbal.
But, reading the Bible literally doesn’t mean applying it exactly and the Bible itself teaches this idea.
Using Good Judgement
“Good judgment” is what we use to plan for the future and is the difference between what you could do and what you really should do.
You are allowed to spend most of your income each month, saving little or nothing, but you would be better prepared for unknown contingencies if you saved as much as 20%. In short, we call that wisdom.
“Good judgment” is what is used in court rooms to determine a penalty for infractions that don’t fit exactly within the written code. Making judgments in these circumstances is hard work and is often met with emotional turbulence. Those offended by the law breaker want severity but the offender’s friends and family want leniency. Good judgment may fall somewhere in-between.
“Good judgment” is also what we use when trying to apply very constrictive biblical statements to the variations of life as it happens and, as I said, the Bible encourages this. Moses mentioned this very thing in Deuteronomy.
If any case arises requiring decisions between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. 9 And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Deuteronomy 17:8-9
These types of judgments are referred to as “Case Law” today and legal journals are full of decisions made under these circumstances. What that means is this:
The Bible provides a skeletal framework of legal guidelines to reference when deciding the right and wrong of situations that fall outside the boundaries of specific regulations.
Judgments are made any time we don’t have a specific statute (law) for a given offense. There are too many ways in which one person can offend another and it is impossible to write code for every possible offense ahead of time. Therefore, judgments must on occasions be made. This happens regularly in judicial systems today.
Making Judgments Regarding Divorce
Everything I have said so far is a rather long introduction to my primary topic, divorce, or rather the judgments we make – or don’t make – about it. In practice very little room is allowed in Christian circles for judicial leeway where divorce is concerned. That is unfortunate because people are complex and when you tie two of them together in marriage the complexities are compounded. Add to that “life” and things get even more tangled.
All of our psychoanalytical research hasn’t sorted the problems out and religious ideas don’t allow for the vagaries. Common positions are:
- Everyone must get married, salvation depends on it.
- Divorce is never, ever allowed under any circumstance.
- Divorce is allowed but only in cases where one or both parties have committed adultery. Adultery being defined in sexual terms only.
- Remarriage is never allowed under any circumstance other than the death of a spouse but is discouraged – under the breath – even then.
- Remarriage is allowed where adultery has occurred.
- All second marriages, if allowed at all, must be sanctioned by the leaders that be.
These ideas are very restrictive and leave no room for judging each situation individually. Some positions give no space at all, others allow for very limited latitude and those allowances and the manner in which they are monitored can be humiliating in the extreme. Can you imagine asking your pastor’s permission to date a possible candidate?
Well, Paul introduced some ideas that can clear the air on the “divorce judgment” issue if we are open minded enough to see it.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul made several judgments about marriage in answer to questions from the Corinthians. The specific judgments made isn’t as important as the fact that he made them. In each case he assessed the situation and where specific commands did not apply he made a ruling or judgment:
- But I speak this by permission and not of commandment, v. 6.
- And unto the married I command, yet not I but the Lord, v. 10.
- But to the rest speak I, not the Lord, v. 12.
- Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord yet I give my judgment, v. 25.
In context, the Christians of Paul’s day were dealing with two issues which the Old Testament couldn’t allow for.
One, was persecution. Christians were persecuted by non-christians and it was escalating. Getting married under those circumstances may not be the wisest thing to do and Paul said that. He made this “judgment” because there were no specific Bible commands addressing the issue. He also moderated the judgment. He said if it is more difficult to maintain morally as a single person then get married.
Two, was mixed marriages. If a couple was married before they heard the Gospel and only one became Christian there was the possibility of friction around spiritual issues. What should the Christian do in this situation? Good question but one that the Bible has no direct answer for so Paul made a judgment.
The believer should stay with the unbelieving spouse if at all possible but if the unbelieving spouse leaves the believer is free to marry if they marry a Christian.
In both cases there was no specific command that applied exactly so Paul made judgments.
The point is, Paul wasn’t just regurgitating verses from the Bible, forcing life situations to fit within stated commands. He used commands as guidelines and made judgments where they did not apply. In every case he was just using good sense.
Unfortunately, most people tend to take Paul’s remarks as additional commands and see no need for making further judgments.
Paul’s judgments allowed for a bit of flex where commands are concerned and by sharing them he modeled the “judge-each-situation-individually” approach to commands. Even more to the point he didn’t cover every possible situation in which marriage-divorce-remarriage could apply. There will never be a time when judgments won’t need to be made.
Paul wasn’t making a final statement on divorce issues, he was encouraging us to use “good judgment” when dealing with problematic situations.
When arguing with Pharisees about Sabbath rules Jesus said:
The sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.
We would do well to use that same principle when making judgments about marriage and divorce.
Many couples work very hard planning their wedding, buying how-to books and consulting professionals. Well, the same should be true when planning a divorce. Both require diligent, intelligent planning. Don’t let pain or sadness keep you from doing the smart thing. Learn from your past and plan your future.
And DIVORCE 101: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO DIVORCE is a book that can help you do that. Tracy, the author, having gone through divorce without suitable resources decided to put what she learned in writing. She’s experienced the feelings, personally considered the issues, had the meetings, organized the details and made the decisions and that experience is shared in her book. It is mostly practical but contains great emotional insight and support as well. Divorce 101 is a compilation of all the pertinent information you will need in planning your divorce.
If you prefer a digital copy, Tracy’s book can be downloaded here and the download comes with several free bonuses to help you get through your divorce wisely.
Tracy also put together a website, WomansDivorce.com, which provides helpful articles from a wide range of professionals – and variety of perspectives – relating to every stage of divorce. She also has a blog in which many ladies share their experiences.
If you are a young woman, only a few years into marriage and facing inevitable divorce…AND you need a friend, this book is for you. Reviewers have painted it as food and solace for the hurting soul:
“This book was like an old friend, comforting me, guiding me through the process, assuring me that everything I was feeling was normal and to be expected.”
“It gave me hope that I might one day be happy again.”
“I was looking for something that spoke to me, in a girlfriend type of tone, not a preaching tone and this (book) was perfect.”
“Reading this book is like having my best girlfriend sitting next to me encouraging me that what I’m about to go through will only make me stronger and that I WILL in fact survive and be better off for it and a MUCH happier person!”
The book doesn’t claim to take the place of therapy and doesn’t encourage divorce but provides real support for those who find it unavoidable.
If your marriage is failing and you don’t feel loved but you aren’t quite ready for divorce court yet, your problem might be more solvable than you think. In The Five Love Languages Dr. Chapman departs from academic definitions of love, which are mostly intellectual and therefore cold, and discusses a love he refers to as “emotional.” This is the romantic love often portrayed in novels and movies and rooted in our psychological makeup.
He explains that even two good partners can easily fall out of love if they don’t learn how to love each other properly, in the right”language.” The adjustments are not difficult and languages are easy to understand. Many call his approach miraculous. Get the book. It’s a small price to pay to save a marriage.
* Another purpose for the law was to help us see how sinful we are but that is a topic for another post.