Is Divorce Equivalent to Homosexuality?

This week my denomination, through its executive committee, voted to “disfellowship” a congregation in California that has acted to affirm same-sex sexual relationships. This sad but necessary move is hardly surprising, since this network of churches shares a Christian sexual ethic with all orthodox Christians of every denomination for 2,000 years. One of the arguments made by some, though, is that this is hypocritical since so many ministers in our tradition marry people who have been previously divorced.

The argument is that conservative Protestants already embrace a “third way” because we’ve done so on divorce. Couples divorce, sometimes remarry others, and yet are welcomed within the congregation. We don’t necessarily affirm this as good, but we receive these people with mercy and grace. Why not, the argument goes, do the same with homosexuality.

The charge of hypocrisy is valid in some respects. I’ve argued for years and repeatedly that Southern Baptists and other evangelicals are slow-motion sexual revolutionaries, embracing elements of the sexual revolution twenty or thirty years behind the rest of the culture. This is to our shame, and the divorce culture is the number-one indicator of this capitulation. The preaching on divorce has been muted and hesitating all too often in our midst. Sometimes this is due to what the Bible calls “fear of man,” ministers and leaders afraid of angering divorced people (or their relatives) in power in congregations. Sometimes it’s due to the fact that divorce simply seems all too normal in this culture; it doesn’t shock us anymore.

A recovery of a Christian ethic of marriage will mean repentance, and a strong commitment by churches to courageously say, where applicable, what John the Baptist put his head on a platter to say to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” In that sense, the charge is correct.

But divorce and remarriage is not, beyond that, applicable to the same-sex marriage debate. First of all, there are arguably some circumstances where divorce and remarriage are biblically permitted. Most evangelical Christians acknowledge that sexual immorality can dissolve a marital union, and that innocent party is then free to remarry (Matt. 5:32). The same is true, for most, for abandonment (1 Cor. 7:11-15). If the church did what we ought, our divorce rate would be astoundingly lowered, since vast numbers of divorces do not fit into these categories. Still, we acknowledge that the category of a remarried person after divorce does not, on its face, indicate sin.

The second issue, though, is what repentance looks like in these cases. Take the worst-case scenario of an unbiblically divorced and remarried couple. Suppose this couple repents of their sin and ask to be received, or welcomed back, into the church. What does repentance look like for them? They have, in this scenario, committed an adulterous act (Matt. 5:32-33). Do they repent of this adultery by doing the same sinful action again, abandoning and divorcing one another? No. In most cases, the church recognizes that they should acknowledge their past sin and resolve to be faithful from now on to one another. Why is this the case? It’s because their marriages may have been sinfully entered into, but they are, in fact, marriages.

Jesus redemptively exposed the sin of the Samaritan woman at the well by noting that the man she was living with was not her husband. “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (Jn. 4:18). It could be that her husbands all died successively, but not necessarily. Christians are forbidden to marry non-Christians. This does not mean, though, that these are not marriages, or that, after repentance, these marriages are ongoing sins. Instead, the Scripture commands a repentance that looks like fidelity to that unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-17; 1 Pet. 3:1-2).

Even if these marriages were entered into sinfully in the first place, they are in fact marriages because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union (Eph. 5:22-31), embedded in God’s creation design of male and female together (Mk. 10:6-9).

Same-sex relationships do not reflect that cosmic mystery, and thus by their very nature signify something other than the gospel. The question of what repentance looks like in this case is to flee immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), which means to cease such sexual activity in obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). A state, or church decree of these relationships as marital do not make them so.

We have much to repent for in the accommodation to a divorce culture in our churches. And if we do not articulate an alternative gospel vision of the definition of marriage, we will see the same wreckage we’ve seen on so many churches’ capitulation on the permanence of marriage. But our attitude should not be that so many have shirked their churchly responsibility in some things, so let’s then shirk our responsibilities in everything. That would be the equivalent of someone saying, “Since I have had lust in my heart, which Jesus identified as root adultery, I should go ahead and have an affair” or “Since I am angry with you, which Jesus identified as springing from a spirit of murder, I should go ahead and kill you.

Instead, our response ought to be a vision of marriage defined by the gospel, embodied in local congregations. This means preaching with both truth and grace, with accountability for entering marriages and, by the discipline of the church, for keeping those vows. We don’t remedy our past sins by adding new ones.

The Church and Violence against Women

Male violence against women is a real problem in our culture, one the church must address. Our responsibility here is not simply at the level of social justice but at the level of ecclesical justice as well.

We must teach from our pulpits, our Sunday school classes, and our Vacation Bible Schools that women are to be cherished, honored, and protected by men. This means we teach men to reject American playboy consumerism in light of a Judgment Seat at which they will give account for their care for their families. It means we explicitly tell the women in our congregations, “A man who hits you has surrendered his headship, and that is the business both of the civil state in enacting public justice and of this church in enacting church discipline.”

Church discipline against wife-beaters must be clear and consistent. We must stand with women against predatory men in all areas of abandonment, divorce, and neglect. We must train up men, through godly mentoring as well as through biblical instruction, who will know that the model of a husband is a man who crucifies his selfish materialism, his libidinal fantasies, and his wrathful temper tantrums in order to care lovingly for a wife. We must also remind these young men that every idle word, and every hateful act, will be laid out in judgment before the eyes of the One to whom we must give an answer.

In the public arena, Christians as citizens should be the most insistent on legal protections for women. We should oppose a therapeutic redefinition of wife abuse as merely a psychological condition. And we should call on the powers-that-be to prosecute abusers of women and children in ways that will deter others and make clear society’s repugnance at such abuse.

Whatever our views on specific economic policies, we must recognize that much economic hardship of women in our age is the result of men who abandon their commitments. We should eschew obnoxious “welfare queen” rhetoric and work with others of goodwill to seek economic and social measures to provide a safety net for single mothers and abused women in jeopardy. We should join with others, including secular feminists, in seeking legal protections against such manifestations of a rape culture as sexual harassment, prostitution, and sex slavery.

An abusive man is not an over-enthusiastic complementarian. He is not a complementarian at all. He is rejecting male headship because he rejecting his role as provider and protector. As the culture grows more violent, more consumerist, more sexualized and more misogynistic, the answer is not a church more attenuated to the ambient culture, whether through a hyper-masculine paganism or through a gender-neutral feminism.

Instead, the answer is a truly counter-cultural church, a church that calls men to account for leadership, a leadership that cherishes and protects women and girls.

On Wednesday, the trustees of our SBC International Mission Board elected my friend David Platt to serve as president, and I am radically happy. Here’s why.

I have been praying for a long, long time that he would be elected. Our IMB president must be one who can drive our missions focus in a new way for a new era. It’s not enough that Southern Baptists’ global missions leader motivates us all to give and to go (although he must do that). He must be someone who can connect from the Scriptures how the Great Commission, and especially our global Great Commission responsibilities, are the urgent concern of all of us. Most Christians know that Matthew 28 and Acts 1 command us to go, to reach the unreached with the gospel. We need though to be constantly reminded how every text, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is connected to the mission of reaching the nations.

In a rapidly shifting American culture, this means modeling a vision of why it is that cooperating together for this task is connected to everything else that we do. We need to activate and enthuse a new generation for the adventure of reaching the world with the gospel.

Look at the latest Pew Research poll of Millennials. The primary problem there is a mistrust of institutions–from political parties to marriage to church membership and beyond. We cannot simply say, “Look, we have the greatest missionary organization in the history of the Christian church” (although I believe that to be true). We must speak to a generation wary of institutions of why cooperation together is part of the eternal purposes of God in Christ.

We need leaders radical enough to make changes, but radical in the right, biblical sense. We need a radical, not a revolutionary. Someone radical enough to build up, not radical in order to tear down. That’s precisely what David is.

We need leaders radical enough to work together, against the headwinds of a secularizing American culture and a global persecution of Christians that is, if anything, only just beginning.

I have friends who were concerned because David’s church, The Church at Brook Hills, though they heavily supported world missions, didn’t do so mostly through Cooperative Program channels. I understand that concern. If I didn’t know David, I might be just as concerned. I believe in the CP, and always have. As the president of an entity funded through the CP almost entirely, I would be insane to celebrate the election of someone I thought wasn’t committed to CP.

David believes in the importance of CP. He does not want the mess that we came out of before 1925: a missionary force having to spend inordinate time at home fundraising. The society model doesn’t work in reaching the world for Christ, and he knows that.

The CP will thrive and flourish in the future. I firmly believe that. And I believe that’s the case not because Southern Baptists will feel guilty if they don’t. I believe that because there is a new sense of energy, excitement, and focus. A new generation of Southern Baptists will give, and I think give sacrificially, to CP because we believe, together, in a common cause, despite all our differences.

In 1964, the Republican Party signed up a leader to argue for its principles around the country. Many were suspicious (and understandably so) because he had always been a Democrat, had supported Democratic presidential candidates over Republican ones, even was a labor union activist. The Republicans could have punished him, I suppose, and worried that this would send a bad signal, encouraging other people to support the other party. But instead of policing boundaries, they embraced this man, with his vision and enthusiasm, as their own. That man was Ronald Reagan.

Whatever you think of Reagan or of the Republican Party, we can agree it would have been reasonable to keep him out of leadership, but that wouldn’t have punished Reagan. It would have punished the Republican Party, for generations to come. Reagan resonated with the principles of the Party, and he also knew how to articulate those principles to people, like he had been, who had connected with the legacy of Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy.

We’re not a political party. We’re a convention committed to missions. And David was never “on the other side.” So it’s a very imperfect analogy. But I think a similar situation is at work. David Platt, the other entity presidents, and I plan to work hard, together, to say to the generations that gave sacrificially and built this great denomination, “You were right. This is the best mechanism for cooperating that can be found.” We also plan to say to those churches that want to reinvent the wheel, “How can you say the SBC isn’t committed to change, to innovation, to generational connectedness? Look at the unity, the purpose, and the cooperation together. Now, let’s work, all of us, together.”

I know and love David Platt. We have prayed through this, together and separately, and I am enthusiastic. I understand how those who maybe don’t know him, or who don’t know his heart here, might be concerned. The Cooperative Program is too important a legacy to ignore or to undermine. The Apostle Paul himself had to prove himself to the apostles at Jerusalem. Paul reflected that James, Peter, and John “asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10).

Southern Baptists expect us, all of us, to guard our legacy of cooperation, and that’s the very thing David is eager to do. And, together, we want to do more than just protect the legacy. We want also to build on it to meet the crushing burden of global lostness.

I think what you’ll see in the years to come is an IMB that is just as cooperative as ever with the rest of Southern Baptist life. You will see a dynamic and close working relationship between the entities. And you’ll see the Cooperative Program proving the legacy right: as a new generation joins together to work, together, to see the gospel cover the face of the earth.

In my view, that’s the right kind of radical for radically challenging time.

The violent scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, are not what most Americans expected to see in 2014 America. The simmering tensions in this town, following the shooting of an unarmed teenager, ought to remind the Body of Christ of our responsibility to model reconciliation in Christ.

We don’t yet know everything about what’s happened, or is happening, in Ferguson, but here’s what we do know. Michael Brown was shot and killed by police Saturday. Protests in the wake of this horrible death have been met with a virtually militarized response from law enforcement in the area.

Moreover, we know that the the myth of a “post-racial” America is contradicted by a criminal justice system in which young African-American men are, by almost any measure, disproportionately more likely to be arrested, sentenced, or even killed when compared to white peers. It’s not just the situation in which there’s disparity, but also even in the perception of the problem. A Pew study showed that when asked the question “Do police treat blacks less fairly?” 37 percent of whites said yes while 70 percent of African-Americans said yes.

Whatever the particulars of the horrific situation in Ferguson, racial division is far from resolved in America.

As Christians, we ought to weep for the loss of life in this situation, and we ought to pray for peace in the streets of Ferguson and for justice to be done in this case. The mandate from God to the state in Romans 13 is to wield the sword with impartiality and with justice. As citizens, all of us ought to seek to ensure that this is the case, across the board.

We ought to be reminded though that in a racially divided world, the church of Jesus Christ ought not simply to advocate for racial reconciliation; we ought to embody it. We ought to speak to the structures of society about principles of morality and righteousness, but we also ought to model those principles in our congregations. The quest for racial reconciliation comes not just through proclamation but through demonstration.

That’s because racial and ethnic division and bigotry are not merely historical vestiges still existing in the United States, or in the often even more violent scenes we see elsewhere in the world. These divisions and hatred are older than America, and are rooted in a satanic deception that tells us we ought to idolize “the flesh.” The gospel doesn’t just call us individually to repentance, but also congregationalizes that reconciliation in local bodies of persons who may have nothing else in common but the image of God, repentance of sin, and the redemption found in Jesus Christ.

The church, the Apostle Paul said, is a sign of God’s manifold wisdom, to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10). When God joined together in one church, those who are both Jewish and Gentile, he was doing more than negating the bad effects of ethnic strife. He was declaring spiritual warfare. When those who the world thinks should hate each other, instead love each other, the church is testifying that our identity is in Jesus Christ (Col. 3:11). We cannot be pulled apart from each other, because we are one body, and a body that is at war with itself is diseased.

If we start to see more churches so alive to the gospel that they are not segregated out as “white” or “black” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” or “white collar” or “blue collar,” we will start to reflect something of a kingdom of God made up of those from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language (Rev. 5:9). And as we know one another as brothers and sisters, we will start to speak up for one another, including in the public square.

Ferguson reminds us that American society has a long way to go in healing old hatreds. Our churches are not outposts of American society. Our churches are to be colonies of the kingdom of God. Let’s not just announce what unity and reconciliation ought to look like. Let’s also show it.

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