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Friday, September 17, 2010

Using Your Gray Matter To Understand Scriptures Gray Areas

So recently a friend posed an interesting question to me.  What is my stance on divorce in the case of a situation where the husband tried to murder the wife?  Two thoughts flashed through my mind before I answered.  The first, being emotionally charged by such a question, was "Of course she can divorce him!  How could she stay with him after that?!"  The second, being legally charged (in a theological sense), was "There are no grounds for such a divorce.  Scripture is cut and dry, and sometimes the truth hurts."  Both of these reactions happened almost instantaneously and while one of them was was technically correct, both of the reasons behind the aforementioned reactions were wrong.  I have become convinced the past few years that while it may be good to have the right belief or act in the right way, scripture is clear that God cares about the heart, and so it is equally clear that having an orthodox view or practice, it can still be sinful if carried out with the wrong intentions or wrong motivations.  There must be an emphasis in addressing the issues we come across in our context in the 21st century with thinking that is both critical and biblical.  We must saturate our minds with the truth of scripture and let that truth permeate our thoughts as we wrestle with issues that are not so cut and dry or black and white.  In the following paragraphs I will give my answer to the question stated earlier, but I will also try and develop more why we must think critically and biblically and not just flippantly run to comfortable answers to uncomfortable topics.

In short I answered the question in such a manner that defended a lawful divorce for a victim of attempted murder and I hope it proves to be a thoughtful, Christ-centered, biblically informed answer.  Here is the process by which I arrived at such a position.  On the one hand, scripture allows for two exceptions to the marriage covenant.  Adultery, and abandonment from an unbeliever.  As murder is neither adultery nor abandonment, it is possible to argue that attempted murder is no grounds for a divorce.  On the other hand, unlike all forms of abuse in a marriage, keeping two people together when one party wants the other dead could be tantamount to complicity in the death of the innocent party.  We can take neither side lightly, and there are tough questions in regard to how a strict biblicist must deal with such a dangerous situation, and also how a sympathetic compassionate person must deal with being obedient to God and submissive to the scriptures.  We are left in this murky and muddied situation in which there is a very real potential to make the wrong decision with the best intentions on both sides.  We must strive to be both biblically consistent, otherwise we are not Christian but become like ever other person who determines for themself what is right, while engendering and maintaining compassion, grace, love, and mercy toward a victim of a heinous crime.  This is the Christian's challenge, not one or the other but a 3rd way.  A path both biblically solid and yet as loving as possible.

Lets consider traditional marriage vows, which have been rooted in the Christian ideal that marriage is a reflection, or mirror, of the eternal covenant promise that Christ made with his bride who is the church.  Marriage between people, being a mirror of the relationship to Christ and his bride, cannot be eternal as we will all die while we are in these bodies and there will be no marriage in heaven.  Thus the covenant of marriage, the mirror of Christ's marriage on earth, is designed to be terminated only in the dying of the parties involved.  Death then becomes the wholly divine end of the covenant bond of marriage.  To think quite plainly about murder is to say that the one murdering someone else desires that person dies.  Furthermore, it is consistent to believe that the party committing the murder desires to be free of, or more properly desires to abandon, the covenant of marriage.  Since the clause Paul uses is dealing with the abandonment of an unbelieving party from the covenant, we have some more thinking to do.  This may seem like a stretch considering the topic is dealing with the murder of a spouse, but suppose that the party guilty of attempted murder claims to be a Christian for whatever reason.  Once again, literally speaking with the texts on divorce, the answer would be no.  But let us consider another point.  Paul also says quite plainly that one who does not provide and take care of his family has denied the faith, and then goes on to say plainly they are worse than infidels.  I would consider the desire to murder your spouse as tantamount to not providing for them, in the worst sense possible stealing and robbing them of protection and life itself.  In conclusion, in my opinion, this is a case in which a lawful divorce would be scripturally sound.

This was a situation I do not believe we should be dogmatic or hard-lined on.  Any time an exception is made in a law, in our depraved and sinful world there will be a great deal of "what if's" that creep into practical situations.  We must acknowledge that we are human and we have very narrow views of things and limited knowledge.  We are not omniscient and therefor when there is no clear biblical answer on a topic, we must use our intellect and deal with clearly pre-existing biblical concepts.  To deal with the areas not clearly addressed in scripture with dogma is to bind the conscience to human regulations.  But as humans we will naturally perpetuate problems by guarding against one error by swinging to it's opposite while often the truth is neither extreme.  The danger in thinking conceptually about scripture is that you abandon the literal meaning of scripture.  Where scripture is clear, it is non negotiable.  Where it is unclear, use the clear ideas of scripture to understand scripture.  And where it is silent, deal very carefully in biblical concepts that are related to the topic in question.  While places where there is clear scriptural teaching on might very well require a very blunt hard-lined, non negotiable response, many of the issues and complications we get ourselves into because of our sinfulness, and the presence of sin and evil and this world, we must be vigilant and liberal in our application of grace to each other when we disagree on what is unclear, or not addressed.  Think biblically, develop on opinion, hold it as tightly as you need to in any given situation, and then come along side people with different convictions of scriptures teaching on that subject and move on understanding that we are all trying to give practical answers on a very muddied situation.  When you have messed up people with messed up issues living in a messed up world, there's going to be some muddied situations.  Apply grace if they're trying to be biblical, share your insight in love, and then move on as brothers/sisters in Christ.

We must not be afraid of confrontation while we live in this world because we will not be able to avoid it if we live holy lives.  Engage in dialogue.  Find fellow Christians you trust, and get into topics that make you think critically.  Be open.  Be honest  It is among the safety of friends that we are free to practice developing our biblical ideas, learn different points of view, and then develop appropriate and loving reactions to the adversity that will probably come up outside our safe friendly engagements.  Whether the forum be among friends, in the local church, or in some other context among Christians that have a serious disagreement on a topic, if each party is willing to listen, is open to being taught and learning something new, is willing to be stretched and is willing to be gracious to each other when convictions differ.  After we embody that, then the scriptures are fulfilled and we will have our wits and our knowledge sharpened by each other.

Think critically.  Think biblically.  Develop biblical opinions and firm convictions.  Be gracious.  Listen.  Love.  Learn.


  1. A thoughtful and though-provoking post. I could see the question at hand becoming more complicated in various ways (if, for example, the murderous "Christian" husband were to come back the next day and say "I'm so sorry! I don't know what came over me! I love you, won't you forgive me?"), but I think your method would still hold true, using biblical principles and wisdom to get to the true heart of the situation. It is good to be hard-line sometimes, but sometimes even good laws can be twisted into shelters for hypocrisy and sin, and it takes wisdom and discernment to apply the laws rightly to avoid this.

  2. Very interesting and well thought out. When you first gave me your answer I was pleasantly surprised at how Biblical and loving it was for the poor woman that might ever marry a man that would want her dead. Our world is full of gray areas and I think discernment and prayer and thinking critically are the best tools to deal with such things.

  3. I don't think it's such a stretch to say that attempted murder indicates abandonment (a 'breach of contract,' as it were).

    And yep, I'm all for thinking. "Situational ethics" gets a bad rap, and often rightly so, but life is actually pretty full of these grey areas that need to be addressed with humility, compassion, and thoughtfulness.

  4. My thinking is this.

    First, repentant or otherwise, dude needs to go to prison for a good long time. So once the civil authorities have done their job, the woman's life is safe again. That's where things need to start.

    Second, I think that the Church needs to be involved in the question of divorce. Specifically, I think the pastor and elders need to be involved in talking to the now-imprisoned husband. If it's clear (or even probable) that this guy is an unbeliever who was trying to get out of his marriage (which is, I think, the considerably more likely scenario) then I think it's actually an easy call. Divorce is legitimate at that point.

    But what if he's a genuine believer who, on the spur of the moment, made a very bad decision? That's not the most likely scenario, but it's a real possibility! And at that point, I'm not at all sure the abandonment-by-unbeliever clause applies, since the guy is... not an unbeliever. I don't believe in mortal sin,* and even attempted (or successful!) murder is not, IN ITSELF, proof of unbelief (though it's a strong hint in that direction).

    Now, I would still be sympathetic if the wife opted for divorce, but I don't actually think it's that simple. If the man is a repentant believer, the officers of the Church, and the wife, need to exercise a lot of wisdom before deciding on divorce--more wisdom than I have at the moment!

    It's good to have rules to go by. And when they are rules God has established, they are bound to be good rules! But in the hard decisions of life, there's simply no getting around the need for wisdom. As well as humility, compassion, and thoughtfulness, as Jordan rightly notes.

    Which is a substantial part of why Proverbs is in the Bible. :)

    * There is a sin that's unforgivable, but it doesn't appear to be murder, or David and Paul would not have been forgiven. It's not clear to me what the unforgivable sin is in practice, and I agree with my systematic theology professor that it's wisest for humans never to judge someone guilty of a sin that God will not forgive in Christ, even though that sin exists.