Finishing up a sample chapter for a book idea I mentioned a while back. This is the last part of one sample chapter, after going through the various things Paul has to say about sex and marriage, principally in 1 Corinthians 5-7.
It is hard to think of a force in our day to day life that is more powerful than our sexuality. What we believe about sex and marriage is far from some theoretical or idealistic matter. It is the very stuff of our day to day lives. Sex makes and breaks marriages and families. And marriages have not only to do with the two key individuals involved, but with children--humanity in its most vulnerable and damageable state. It is hard to think of another area of day to day life where a moment's self-gratification can have such long lasting consequences!
So the notion that marriage should be life-long and monogamous is not some legalistic idea foisted on society by dictatorial Christians or idealists. From the standpoint of contemporary values, it perhaps has most to do with giving our children a stable and nurturing setting in which to grow up. In terms of the values of earlier generations, it had much to do with who owned land and the prevention of wars and feuds. While it may sound outdated to say so, it makes sense to see a correlation between the stability of a society and the stability of the relationships between people. And surely the marriage relationship is one of the most important, if not the most important in society.
At the same time, it is all too easy to make these sorts of very important constants into unreasonable and oppressive rules without reasons, especially when it comes to exceptional situations. There are all sorts of landmines in making exceptions to rules. If a rule is valid, it is valid because it is the best case scenario. Refusing to allow for exceptions can unnecessarily destroy the lives of real people, but so can making too many exceptions to valid norms. By definition, exceptional situations are not the norm. They are not to be applied in the majority of cases. They are exceptions to valid rules, rules that apply in most cases.
Thus there is the landmine of using exceptions as an opportunity for self-gratification. Surely many of those who think they are the exception are not really. For example, it is hard to see where any divorce does not involve a moral failure of some sort on someone's part. It may not be a sexual moral failure, as in having an affair (physical or emotional). It may be a longstanding failure to be flexible or a chronic failure to value your spouse as much as you value yourself. It may be a cumulative failure to be willing to forgive the countless wrongs we all do unintentionally or intentionally to each other. Such failures build up over time and can break our relationships, just as they can break our relationship with God.
The fact that we know people will wrongly take advantage of the exception clause leads some people to close the door on exceptions altogether. This is understandable. But we have to remember that no one fools God. God is the one who is the ultimate policeman of the cheater. It is often a lack of trust in God that leads us to want to make sure the person who is hiding behind an exception clause doesn't get away with it. But ultimately, this is God's business.
Another landmine some will point out in this discussion is the landmine of crying "cultural" in a desire to get out of obeying what the Bible says. Is not the Bible the word of God for us as well as for them? Again, we don't want to give a loophole to those who would say the instructions of the Bible toward homosexual sex had to do with ancient cultural understandings of impurity to which we no longer subscribe. We don't want to give a loophole to those who would say that since the Bible seems so unexplicit on pre-marital sex we have to rethink the relationship between sex and marriage in the modern world.
But the distinction between the Bible as written for ancient audiences in ancient categories is something we can't get away from either. We have to deal with it the more we understand the Bible in context. The Bible was written first to them--it says so itself. The original audiences presumably understood the vast majority of what the biblical texts were saying. To suggest the contrary is incomprehensible, especially since those who have studied the ancient world find regular and thorough parallels in the non-biblical literature and artifacts of those days.
There is no question that the biblical books were in dialog with the categories of their own contexts. And yet our categories are often quite different from theirs. The amount of common human conceptuality of the world, and the degree to which an action in one culture means the same thing in another, is much smaller than many at first might imagine. This is especially the case for those who have not had a good deal of exposure to other cultures. The meanings of words and actions are more often different, rather than the same, when we compare the connotations today with the connotations then.
Again, most of these claims seem fundamentally beyond dispute. These basic factors all add up to the inescapable conclusion that the biblical teaching must be processed through some lens beyond the text, whether it be the lens of the ongoing Church, the lens of the Holy Spirit, or the rational lens of finding the points of continuity between that time and this time. Ideally, we would involve all three filters when appropriating the biblical text.
True, many will try to use "culture" and "exceptions" as an excuse to get away with something they should not. But it is our very desire to honor God by doing the right thing that leads us to take them into account. It is our desire to believe what is true, what God really thinks, that forces us to consider these elements in the equation. It is more comfortable simply to stick with a blanket rule or easy ideas we have never reflected on, especially when we are not the one having to deal with a potentially exceptional situation. It is more Christian to seek God's face prayerfully and corporately, with hearts to do whatever God requires.
The Church today is thus forced to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" on such issues today (Phil. 2:12-13). We want it to be as easy as "God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me." But the reality is "God said it to them in a particular context; I believe it; that settled it for them." And we must with fear and trembling work together as the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to join those instructions to them with what God is saying to our world today.