The conversation you rather wouldn’t be having
“I just don’t think we can go on. We’ve tried everything. It’s time to go our separate ways.” With those words, you are asked to give your blessing to divorce. Or, you’re sat talking with a young member. They’ve recently started dating someone who is not a Christian. “It feels so right” they tell you. “Why would God allow me to have these feelings if they are wrong?” they ask. “Perhaps over time I can lead him to Christ” they suggest hopefully.
These are some of the questions that we find ourselves dealing with in everyday life. I hesitate to use the word “pastorally” partly because it is a word used rarely outside of church discourse and partly because it can leave the impression that these are questions for pastors, for the professional clergy. But they are not. Whilst pastors up and down the land will be facing those questions and issues, so will many other Christians. It might be one of your youth club members, dropping the bombshell over the table tennis net; a colleague at work, during the tea break; your own son or daughter at breakfast.
Let’s find out together
The thing is that when these questions come we can be left floundering and searching our minds for appropriate, non-inflammatory, wise answers; we offer every bit of advice going, except what the Bible says. Yet, over the past few weeks, we have been arguing that the very place we need to turn to for truth on these matters is the Bible.
So I want to suggest another way of approaching this. Now, one of the reasons why we risk missing out on what the Bible says is that we are afraid of coming across as judgemental and preachy. Well, let me make a suggestion. If we go to what the Bible says, then there is a great opportunity here to depersonalise and defuse a potential confrontation. It is no longer about what I think but about finding out together what God says. In fact, this is discipleship as modelled by Jesus’s first followers. Remember in John 1 how Andrew and then Phillip met with Jesus and then went to find their friends to introduce them to Jesus as well?
My initial response to the person is to say something along the lines of “Well, it’s not really my opinion that counts. Why don’t we find out together what God’s Word has to say on the matter?” If they are willing to take this further, then we sit down and talk through how we are going to approach things. In effect, we are setting out our terms of reference and an agreement or contract about the way ahead.
I make some promises. The first one is confidentiality. However, confidentiality is not secrecy and I never promise this. Information will only be shared with those who need to know and to the extent that they need to know. The second is honesty. I will not shrink back from talking truthfully from God’s Word, even if at times they may feel hurt or offended by what God’s Word says. However, I will be doing this not to harm them, but out of love and concern for them. The third thing I promise is that I am with them for the long haul. I’m not just going to offer some pat answers and then leave them to it. I will keep travelling with them.
The Big Picture
Now, when it comes to looking at what God says, this does not mean that we collect a few proof texts to support an argument. In fact, there may not be any immediately obvious verses and passages about the situation, or at first glance you may think that you can come up with apparently contradictory passages to support different answers.
So the first thing we need to do is get a feel of what the overall sense of Scripture is on a matter. In other words, how does what we know about God, Us, Creation and New Creation affect the way in which we approach the question. That’s why it’s important to have a grasp of Systematic Theology which attempts to sum up the whole Bible’s teaching on any given matter. If I believe that God is Sovereign and loving, then how will that affect my approach to my marriage? If I believe that a good creation, including us, has been corrupted by sin, then how does that affect my trust in my own feelings? If I believe that there is hope of New Creation, then what does that say about my momentary struggles and suffering?
The Big Story
The other dimension to getting a sense for Scripture’s overall tenor is the Bible story-line. So I find it helpful to remind people about the story of redemption through the Bible. In Scripture, we read about the loving God who made a good creation, about humans who sinned and rebelled and then about the God who acts to redeem us, choosing a people to be his own, disciplining them when they sinned, sending his Son as the substitute for sin, proclaiming the good news of salvation to all through the church, promise that one day the Son will return and make all things new.
We want to think about where the situation we are facing fits into that storyline. For example, the person contemplating separation is reminded of two things. First of all, that part of the story is about God making man and woman and bringing them together to complement each other. Secondly, they are reminded of the bigger narrative of the God who chooses a people for himself to be his Holy Bride.
There’s still the hard work to do. Finding out what God’s Word says means sitting down and studying Scripture carefully together as we identify relevant Bible passages. It means making sure that we understand a Bible passage in context. It means working through it line by line to grasp its meaning. It will mean doing homework before we meet up!
So as we come to the marriage situation, we begin to talk about the fact that the Bible does have some things to say about divorce and circumstances in which it may or may not be permitted. Scripture tells us what a good relationship should be like where reciprocal love exists. But Scripture also has a lot to say about how we live and witness in relationships (both in work and the family) where love and good will are not reciprocated. Scripture talks about the grace and hope that makes it possible for us to keep going even when we feel like giving up.