Recently, I saw a meme on Facebook that went something like this:
“OK, grab a plate out of the China cabinet and smash it. Now tell it you’re sorry. Did that fix everything?”
The answer is obvious: the plate is still smashed. Sometimes the damage we cause requires more than an apology to make things right.
Unfortunately, there are Pharisees who take this analogy or something similar and apply it to salvation. There is, of course, a legitimate way that one could apply this analogy. For example, we can say that a Christian is forgiven but should make restitution and reconciliation for the wrongs he or she has committed to their fellow man, because, let’s face it, when we sin, we do a lot of damage. That’s not how the Pharisees are [mis]using it.
They say that we can be forgiven of our sins and have the assurance of eternal salvation, but some of us will always be damaged goods. Don’t believe me? Not quite following me? What if I bring the subject of pre-conversion divorce into the picture?
Yes, there are actually well-meaning Christians who legalistically interpret the phrase “husband of one wife” [1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6] where it concerns elders, deacons and pastors to prohibit a man who was divorced prior to salvation (or is married to a woman who was divorced prior to salvation per Matthew 5:31-32, though oddly they don’t seem to hold the preceding verses of Matthew 5:27-28 in the same regard]. I denounce the shamefully Pharisaical assertions of various commentators that this phrase forbids the placement of remarried, widowed, or divorced persons into pastoral office. Too, the position that it conveys the idea that a man must be removed from office if his wife dies or, if through no fault of his own, his wife divorces him is baseless. Equally bankrupt is the charge that it restricts the office to exclusively married candidates. On the contrary, on this latter position, Cary Perdue comments, “[The text] is not insisting that he be married although this may be ideal” [Cary M. Perdue, 1 Timothy Explained. O.M.F. Publishers (1975), p. 44]. William Hendriksen also concurs: “This cannot mean that an overseer must be a married man. Rather it is assumed that he is married – as was generally the case – and it is stipulated that in this marital relationship he must be an example to others of faithfulness to his one and only marriage partner” [William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Pastoral Epistles. Baker Book House (1957), p. 121. Emphasis in original].
It should be said that this Scriptural phrase has three possible meanings. It could be a prohibition against a deacon, elder or pastor who is re-married; a prohibition against polygamy; or it could be a figure of speech denoting marital fidelity.
Of the three, the latter meaning is the most likely. Kenneth Wuest writes that “The Greek is mias (one) gunaikos (woman) andras (man). The entire context [of the passage 1 Timothy 3:1-7] is one in which the character of the bishop is being discussed. Thus, one can translate ‘a one-wife sort of husband’ or ‘a one-woman sort of man.’ Since character is emphasized by the Greek construction, the bishop should be a man who loves only one woman as his wife” [Kenneth S. Wuest, The Pastoral Epistles in The Greek New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1956), p.53. Brackets mine]. Others agree with this assessment: “In the Greek, mias gunaikos (3351, 1135) meaning ‘of one woman’ would have been better translated ‘a one-woman husband.’ The total context speaks of the moral conduct of the bishop and deacon. He should be a man totally dedicated to his wife and not flirtatious” [The Complete Word Study New Testament with Parallel Greek. Spiros Zodhiates, editor. AMB Publishers (1992), p. 690].
A brief discussion of whether this phrase prohibits polygamy/bigamy or digamy is required at this point. Dr. Charles Ryrie believes that this phrase could not be a prohibition against polygamy (or bigamy) contending that polygamy was unknown amongst the Greeks and Romans [Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology. Moody Press (1999), p. 481]. To be fair, some commentators agree with him. For example, Cary Perdue states, “It is not prohibiting polygamy for civilized Rome outlawed multiple wives, and polygamy would be unthinkable among Christians” [Perdue 44].
Others claim that polygamy was common amongst the Greeks and Romans, even though it was not officially sanctioned [Patrick Fairburn, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles. Zondervan Publishing House (1874, Reprinted 1956), p. 428], and bring to light marriage agreements which include special provisions against multiple wives [Jay Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. Zondervan Publishing House (1980), pp. 81-82]. Likewise, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible states: “He must be the husband of one wife; …not having many wives at once, as at that time was too common both among Jews and Gentiles, especially among then Gentiles” [Matthew Henry. E-Sword.net. CD-Rom. Retrieved February 24, 2003]. Jay Adams makes a good case for the existence of polygamy in the Apostle Paul’s day:
“But we are told by advocates of the anti-remarriage viewpoints that there was no polygamy in NT times. The facts prove otherwise; they are wrong… Many of the early converts of every church Paul began were Jews of the dispersion. Josephus twice mentions polygamy in his day. In A.D. 212, the lex Antoniana de civitate made monogamy law for Romans but specifically excepted Jews! …The law enacted in A.D, 212, mentioned above, also indicates the presence of polygamy in the Roman world” [Adams 81-82].
It seems we cannot dogmatically state that the Text does not prohibit polygamy. Nevertheless, Ryrie believes that, in lieu of his dismissal of polygamy as an option (again, based on his notion that it was rare and that it was therefore unnecessary for Paul to address it), it prohibits digamy [Ryrie 481]. Since Cary Perdue agrees with Ryrie where it concerns the question of polygamy, I’ll let him address this:
“In light of 1 Timothy 5:9 , it might be a prohibition against digamy, that is, the overseer should not be married more than once under any circumstances. This would be a very high standard which would dispel any question of moral stability but it also seems too restricting. The Greek may be translated ‘a one wife kind of man,’ that is, one who has only one wife and conducts himself accordingly” [Perdue 44].
We begin to see that the most literal and consistent definition within the context of this passage and the Bible throughout speaks of fidelity and faithfulness in a monogamous marriage, and nothing more.
A prohibition against those in ecclesiastical “office” having been divorced seems unlikely in light of Jesus’ allowance for divorce in cases of marital infidelity [Matthew 5:32; 19:9] and Paul’s allowance for divorce in the case of a new convert whose unsaved spouse wishes to break things off because, well, frankly, you’re no longer the person they signed up for [1 Corinthians 7:12-16]. The only option remaining that is consistent with both Paul and Jesus’ allowances is that “husband of one wife” is a figure of speech denoting marital fidelity, akin to the usage of today’s phrase, “one-woman man.”
To make it mean anything other than what the original Greek and the over-all context would allude to is simply adding opinion, speculation and the traditions of men to the Word of God, for where do commentators see prohibitions against divorce and/or remarried persons in these offices? It is only by abandoning a plain interpretation of the text in favor of inference. Hendriksen speaks wisdom on this subject:
“The attempt on the part of some to change the meaning of the original – making it say what it does not say – is inexcusable” [Hendriksen 121]; and again, “One cannot excuse an attempt to make a text say what it does not actually say in the original. The original simply says, ‘He must be… one wife’s husband’” [Hendriksen 122].
We must be cautious in dogmatism in areas of doctrine in which the Holy Writ is not explicit. As Henry Alford warned in his closing comments on this passage in his Alford’s Greek Testament, “It must be as a matter of course understood that regulations, in all lawful things, depend even when made by an Apostle, on circumstances: and the superstitious observance of the letter is often pregnant with mischief for the people and cause of Christ” [Quoted in Wuest 55]. Yet such wisdom goes unheeded. Some have taken upon themselves the error of the Pharisees, making a hedge of traditions and prohibitions around the Law so that no man can transgress it, rather than allowing men to use discernment, good sense and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in these matters.
Those who hold to the hyper-literalist interpretation of “husband of one wife” (or else deny a man divorced prior to conversion on the basis of the “above reproach” qualification for a deacon, elder or pastor) are saying that some believers are damaged goods. They are saying that 1 Corinthians 5:17-19 is a lie, for in their minds some old things have NOT passed utterly away and God certainly counts some sins against us, so that we’re disqualified from serving in some ministries and offices. In their minds, those divorced prior to conversion [or who married someone else who was divorced before conversion) are neither fully new creatures nor fully reconciled to God. This hyper-literalist interpretation of “husband of one wife” as applied to pre-conversion divorce makes a shipwreck of the gospel of reconciliation, for some start not with a clean slate, where all their sins are cast as far as the east is to the west (Psalm 103:12). But rather begin with a black mark on their record. This very idea that a man can be forgiven of his sins but still disqualified by them would require God to be a respecter of persons in that He will forgive a man and qualify him to be a pastor if he stole, lied, cheated the poor, committed adultery or even murdered someone on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness, but He will not give equal treat meant to those who are… divorced?? Such a translation also makes nonsense of Paul’s allowance for divorce for new converts whose spouses wish to break it off, but stay if they’re OK with the new us. The implication is that we make this allowance to keep the peace. But why? Well, because we are in fact new creatures.
So there we have it. According to the Pharisees, a man or woman divorced prior to conversion (or who married someone divorced prior to conversion) is forgiven, but damaged; made new, except for one abiding flaw that disqualified them from ministry; saved, but only partially reconciled to God. And if the Pharisees have their way, such persons will never escape the stigma of this one sin they committed. The unforgettable sin will force you to either lie about your past or live as a second-class citizen in the kingdom of heaven. This is the sad reality of Christians in this state who live in churches dominated by such spiritual abuse, however “well-meaning” the abusers are in holding forth such man-made traditions.
Fortunately, the legalist is just dead wrong on this matter. His traditions make the grace of God of no effect, but the truth of God sets us free. This interpretation of “husband of one wife” not only flies in the face of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, but also Romans 8:31-34. Truly, if God gives us all things freely and justifies us, who but a Pharisee would dare to condemn us? When one is saved, it is not just that one’s sins are forgiven, but that the penalty for sin is satisfied. If part of that penalty remains, even the stain of divorce, it is tantamount to saying one is forgiven but grace will not be imparted for some portion of the penalty; we are yet unclean. Does that make sense to you? Jay Adams has it right when he warns, “We must say, therefore, that what God has cleansed no man must call unclean. Christ is bigger than our sin – even our sin of adultery and divorce. We minimize Christ when we speak and act as if it were not so. These sins are truly heinous; we must not minimize that fact either. But Christ is greater than sin – all sin. We don’t minimize sin or its effects, then; rather we always maximize Christ and the power of the cross” [Adams 94]. In this way, we affirm that we believe the truth of Romans 5:20: “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
We must never forget that gospel is not just a gospel of grace and forgiveness, but also reconciliation to God. The same God who will one day reconcile the heavens and the earth to Himself does not change. God created the heavens and the earth and everything in it and then declared His originally perfect creation “very good.” There was no death, suffering or disease. No sin or imperfection. Our Creator didn’t fashion a universe that was marred by these things. Judgment for man’s sin in the form of the Fall and the Flood have altered the world to how it exists today, but originally it was perfect (and will be again when He restores all things) because God doesn’t make damaged goods. Likewise, no matter what the Pharisees of today claim to the contrary, God takes the broken pieces of our lives and makes us completely whole again. Love is the bond of unity that holds us together, the supernatural glue that makes broken people whole and new again [Col 3:14]; legalism divides and damages [Romans 16:17].
Let the Church say amen
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