Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Divorce

Lately, I have had several conversations with folks about divorce. They want to know what the Christian response is, how we should act towards someone who is going through a divorce, and what the Bible teaches about it. So here are some of my reflections on the subject.

The first thing I will say is that divorce is always regrettable. I don't think anyone should be happy about divorce, no matter who may benefit from it. Sure, divorce may be inevitable should a marriage be irreconcilable, a child's happiness be at stake, etc. But it should not be a joyful occasion that God has "joined together" two persons only for them to be "rent asunder". Even though divorce may be the first step to healing, there was some initial rift that has lead to this brokenness, and that is worth lamenting. In our world today, it seems that divorce is routine. We go to the supermarket checkout every week and see that some 30-year-old starlet has divorced her third husband. 60% of marriages end in divorce (I am including here second marriages, in which that rate increases). I have even been to wedding receptions where groomsmen have set odds and taken bets on the success of a marriage. As a pastor, I despise the sin that has made the rupture of divorce so normal and expected in our world. And I wholeheartedly believe that Christianity has a response.

Scripture indeed takes a hard stance against divorce. Matthew 5 and 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16 all speak out against it (although Matthew adds the stipulation that divorce is acceptable in the case of unchastity). Other texts that speak to divorce include 1 Corinthians 7, Malachi 2, and Deuteronomy 24. Nowhere does the Bible insinuate that brokenness in a marriage is good and that God is OK with us reneging on the covenant vows we have made- mostly because, in parallel, God has not reneged on God's covenants with us. You will also often hear the valid exegetical point that a united marriage is a crucial tool for Christian discipleship and witness to God.

But since you've probably encountered all of that before, here is another crucial theological and pastoral point that I think is often overlooked: marriage is also the church's participation in sin. In our world, we are accustomed to thinking about divorce fundamentally as a rift between two persons. But I think we all know (when we really think about it) that marriage doesn't happen with a couple in a vacuum- it involves families, friends, children, exes, etc. And the New Testament speaks to that. It sees the church as pivotal to the formation and maturity of a marriage. The Gospel writers and Paul were all concerned to create a community in which sin could be combated by the power of the cross made manifest in the body of Christ. The church often stresses that the wedding ceremony as a three-part covenant between the couple, God, and the church. When a married couple joins a new congregation, implicit in that is that the church will help to bear their burdens. So there are important communal components to marriage that frequently go unnoticed. That is because the church is called to be the place where we recognize that and where the couple grows in its discipleship and in unity with God and one another. In today's church, this includes practices like premarital counseling and Sunday Schools and small groups geared towards mutual support in marriages.

And we have admittedly failed, myself included. We have allowed an environment in the church where couples do not feel like they can be open and vulnerable about the issues affecting their marriage- such as sex, money, and deep friendship. Discussing and being open about such things are signs of weakness on the part of the one sharing these things. And if you're like me, you are tempted to roll your eyes and cry "TMI" when someone opens up with such information.

But weakness is what we are all about in the church, because weakness is what the cross was all about. And the sin and brokenness that infects a marriage will easily break our own attempts to be strong. Instead, sin and brokenness in marriage cannot penetrate the weakness and vulnerability shown through the strength of a community shaped by the cross, the cross the overcame all sin and brokenness. It takes a community of disciples devoted to the shaping of not just themselves as followers of Jesus, but also their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am aware that my perspective may be naive. I have a very healthy marriage, my parents never divorced, and I am thankfully wed to a committed disciple of Jesus, so what do I know? Admittedly and by the grace of God, I don't know much from my own experience. But I have stood by in the church for far too long and watched marriages of good people dissolve, while the folks in the pews gossip and go about their own lives. I do not mean to imply that all Christian communities of faith do a poor job of promoting environments for a healthy marriage- there are many that do a great job of it. But I will not be satisfied to continue to see divorce accepted blithely in the church. I just hope that my fellow Christians and I can work on fostering an environment where marriages can thrive and that, maybe, we can start to take the logs out of our own eyes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hold On, Wait Atonement!

Over the last few days, I have been researching atonement theories (i.e., the doctrine of what Christ did for us on the cross) for a lecture I will be giving in the fall. Sad to say, but I realized during my study how limited my knowledge of the various atonement theories is. I understand the basic differences between the approaches in Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, but, over the last few days, I have been enlightened as to the subtle differences between atonement theories in the Western tradition (i.e., the tradition in which 90-some-percent of us in the U.S. lie).

Of the various theories, the one with which I was most familiar is the Penalty Satisfaction theory, championed by the Reformers. This theory basically says that Christ paid the penalty of sin due to God instead of us humans doing so. This gift of Christ then sets us free from owing anything to God for appeasing God's wrath. This theory is built upon prior theories by Anselm and Thomas Aquinas in terms of Christ fulfilling some kind of "satisfaction" to God that we could not fulfill, but focused more on how this justifies and saves individuals.

Another theory of which I had heard, but was largely unfamiliar was the Moral Influence theory, attributed to Peter Abelard. Abelard was troubled by Anselm's assumptions that God needed to be satisfied, so he claimed that the cross was an instrument to calm our fears about God, to know God's love, and to respond to others.

Similarly, I was somewhat familiar with the Ransom theory, but largely unlearned as to its nuances. Essentailly, this theory details how Christ on the cross dies, goes to Hell, tricks Satan, and frees humankind from the power of sin in the resurrection.

Although there are several other theories in Western Christianity, I note these because of their particular influence upon John Wesley, our Methodist theological godfather. Wesley certainly stood squarely within his 18th century Protestant context in explaining the abstract componenets of the atonement, but he also wanted to explain how it effects us today in the church and as a response to God's grace. As Wesley scholar Randy Maddox states in the greatest book about Wesleyan theology ever written, all three of these theories had a profound influence upon Wesley: "One is tempted to describe [Wesley's approach to atonement] as a Penalty Satisfaction explanation of the Atonement which has a Moral Influence purpose, and a Ransom effect." (109)

That said, I have two serious problems with Western explanations of the atonement. First, almost all of them seem to overlook both the incarnation and the resurrection. Western theologians have certainly emphasized Christ's two natures, but they have mostly done so in order to see Christ as a divine substitute for humanity and not as the God who sympathizes with our human condition. And the primary highlight of what God does with that humanity is not just to kill it and then all of a sudden, something magic happens to people who "believe". Instead, God resurrects that human nature, thus redeeming it. In essence, my beef here is that we have focused so much on Christ's death as an end in itself, not as a means to its overcoming for the benefit of all humanity.

The second point is this one I found during my study by the theologian Robert Jenson. Jenson reminds us that God does not need satisfaction from the human side. God does not try to be reconciled to us. God is not a long-lost parent who tries to rekindle a relationship with estranged children. Instead, God has been there all along. What Christ did on the cross was pure grace- in other words, free gift. We can take it or leave it. It was an attempt to reconcile us to Godself- to show us lost children the way back. It is us humans who then are able to participate in the divine life thanks to the God who also took on and knows quite painfully our human nature. (see William C. Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, 191-205)

If that doesn't resonate with you or if it doesn't make sense, let me simply leave you with Paul's words from Romans 6. I think he says it much better than I:

"What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can he who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."