Three (Ethical) Hot Potatoes

So far in our study of Christian Ethics, we have looked at what the study of Christian Ethics is all about: living according how the Bible says we should live. If we take that as our starting point, it naturally follows that if we are living as the Bible says we should live, then we won’t be living the way the world says we should live. Granted, there are times when the world’s standards of ethics will be the same as Biblical standards; but many times the Biblical standards of ethical living will be very different from those of the world. As Christians, when presented with a choice of living “up to” the world’s standards or up the Biblical standards, there really shouldn’t be a choice; Christians should automatically make the Biblical choice. Sometimes Christians will choose the worldly ethic because they “didn’t know” what the Bible taught. This is a poor excuse, as are most excuses, given what the Bible itself says:

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Making the right ethical choice is a measure of Christian maturity, and it is also a measure of our dedication to the Lord in terms of our obedience. Here is where “the rubber meets the road.” Here is where we show the world (and the Lord) whether we take our faith seriously or not. Which way we choose to go will answer the questions:

  • Do I take the Word of God more seriously than my own personal views?
  • Will I follow the Bible’s guidelines for my life or make up my own?
  • Will I be guided by the teaching of Christ? Or will I be guided by the latest whims of culture?

1. Divorce and remarriage

The first ethical hot potato is the subject of divorce and remarriage. Given the high rates of divorce in the Church today, we might think this is a new problem. The Bible, however, shows us otherwise. Divorce was a big problem during Jesus’ time. The Pharisees knew it was a big problem and so, as they did often, used this big problem to cause problems for Jesus.

(a) Marriage, Matthew 19:3—6

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

When asked an exaggerated question about divorce, notice what Jesus did. Instead of addressing their question directly, He circled around and approached it from a different direction. Instead of discussing divorce, Jesus went right back to the very beginning to discuss what God intended marriage to be all about based on what Scriptures says. The way the Pharisees asked the question showed they had no idea what marriage was all about. In their minds, the man was in total control—he could divorce his wife; divorce was all about him. Jesus went right back to Genesis to demonstrate three things: (1) marriage was God’s idea; it was not an invention of human beings. If this is true, then shouldn’t God have the right to establish the rules? (2) Marriage involves both a physical and an emotion separation of adult children from their parents. Jesus mentions the man, not the woman, to present an eternal principle based on the Pharisee’s question; they asked it from the man’s perspective, so Jesus answers it the way they asked it. (3) When a man and a woman unite in marriage, their sex disappears. When Jesus says “one flesh,” He turns around and negates any privileges (perceived or otherwise) that the Pharisees think a man has.  Both partners have equal standing in a marriage, although different responsibilities.

So, the first part of Jesus’ answer deals strictly with God’s idea of marriage. He concluded this part of the answer by succinctly stating that it is God’s rules that apply, not man’s made up rules. If God unites a man and a woman in marriage, them no human being as the right to separate them.

(b) Divorce, Matthew 19:7—9

Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The Pharisees needed more, and they used the Law of Moses to corner Jesus. Based on what Jesus just told them, how would He answer a question about the Law of Moses? Was Moses wrong? The context in which this question was asked needs to be taken into account. At this time in Jewish history, there were two schools religious thought about divorce. One school taught that there was one and only one justification for divorce: adultery. The other school taught there were many reasons for a man to divorce his wife. Although Jesus’ answer sounded like He was taking one side over the other, in fact Jesus took His Father’s side.

As far as Jesus was concerned, divorce was allowable (though not necessary) only in the case of adultery. To 21st century Christians, that sounds a little strict, but positively draconian to unbelievers! Imagine if this was the “law of the land!” There would be riots in the streets for sure. However, this is God’s wish for His children; the world, on the other hand, will do whatever they want and their ethic in this matter should not be the basis for the Church’s. As strict as this may sound to us, consider how freeing it must have sounded to the Jews of Jesus’ day. The revered Law of Moses taught this:

If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22)

Originally, death was the punishment for adultery. When Jesus came, the punishment for adultery—death—was done away with. From now on, the punishment for adultery would be divorce. Most people don’t look at divorce as “punishment” for anything! In fact, most of us probably look at divorce in the opposite light; something that solves a lot of problems. But in God’s view, divorce is not good; it is a punishment.

Men and women are different; Jesus was well aware of all the differences: physical, emotional, mental, and so on. In Judaism, divorce was allowed on account of a “hard heart.” A “hard heart” is a way of saying “irreconcilable differences.” In Christian marriages, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of both partners, “hard hearts” and irreconcilable differences shouldn’t exist. In a Christian marriage, where adultery hasn’t occurred and even when it has, those issues that cause one’s heart to harden should be dealt with Biblically, being guided by Christ’s “law of love.” Have you ever asked yourself why holding a troubled Christian marriage together is so important to God? It’s because a Christian marriage is supposed to reflect the kind of relationship that exists between God and His people and between the three Persons of the Trinity. To soil those images that the world sees is to ruin our witness, and is to do God a terrible disservice; it is putting your wants and desires above those of God.

(c ) Unequal marriages, 1 Corinthians 7:10—16

The first part of this passage deals with Christian marriages, and Paul’s teachings are pretty simple:

A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (verses 10, 11)

Paul’s position seems to go a step further than Jesus’. While Jesus taught the importance of working out problems and remaining together, Paul’s taught the Corinthians that if a wife left her husband for reasons other than adultery, then she, the one who left, needed to remain single. This was Paul’s solution to an ongoing problem that existed in the church at Corinth; apparently Christian wives were leaving their husbands right and left. Verse one is a qualifier, which seems to limit the strict interpretation of this admonition to the historical, local problem in Corinth:

Now for the matters you wrote about…

It is difficult to imagine this particular admonition applying in every situation where abandonment occurs; when only one partner remains, there really is no marriage. Paul’s point for all generations: work at restoring the marriage no matter what. However, at some point, other measures need to be prayerfully considered when the abandonment issue cannot be resolved. This would seem to indicate the presence of at least one “hard heart” in the marriage, and that brings us back what Moses taught regarding the allowance of divorce on account of that hard heart.

The remainder of this passage concerns mixed marriages, where one spouse is a believer and the other is not. Again, Paul is addressing a problem in the big and busy church at Corinth, but the principle is one that endures, because it is a mixture of common sense and Biblical truth:

  • Where one spouse is a believer and one an unbeliever, if they can live in peace within the bounds of marriage, then they should remain together. An unequal marriage does not have to result in divorce.
  • If an unbelieving spouse decides to leave his believing spouse, the believing spouse is free from the marriage.

The key to Paul’s theology of marriage/divorce/remarriage is summed up in verse 15:

God has called us to live in peace.

2. Christians and government

(a) Government, Romans 13:1–7

As Christians, we are called to set the example for others to follow. This extends into our relationship with society around us, and in this case, with the governing authorities. The essence of Paul’s teaching on this subject can be found in a couple of locations in the New Testament, but here the issue is that of living in an orderly society. Paul’s teaching here is pretty remarkable when we consider that he and his people were living under the domination of a corrupt Roman regime. To make matters worse, the corruption of the government was well-known. In spite of that, Paul was able to write what he did. In summary form, here is what Paul taught:

  • People need some form of governance, God understood this even at the beginning. While self-governance and very limited government may be good things, anarchy is not. People, all people, need laws and officials to enforce those laws for the good of society. Many of our elected officials may fall far short of their responsibilities, but that does not negate their divinely ordained purpose.
  • There are no exceptions to the rule. If you live in an orderly society, then you must obey the rules of that society or face punishment. For example, you may not agree with how your town spends your tax dollars, but you still have to pay your taxes.
  • Even if your country is being run by corrupt officials, you are obligated to respect their office, if not their person. Why? Because God has ordained that office, if not the person who occupies it. Ethically, we have no option. Granted, that can be difficult to do. Fortunately, in America we have elections, and we are allowed to register our disappointments with our elected officials at the ballot box and, in fact, we are able to hold peaceful demonstrations in the interim. So, there are lawful ways in our culture to remain faithful to the teachings of Paul but to also to demonstrate how we may feel about our elected officials (or elected dictators; take your pick).

Now, there may be times when it is impossible to respect and obey governing officials. For example, if their laws contravene the Law of God, a Christian has a sacred duty to obey the holy Law of God and face whatever the consequences may be. We have a Biblical precedent for this. One time, Peter and John were ordered by the authorities to stop preaching and teaching Jesus. When they refused to do so, they were hauled before those same authorities where they said this:

We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29)

(b) Rulers, 1 Timothy 2:1—4

If you think what Paul told the Romans is a big pill to swallow, what he told Timothy is really hard to take:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Pray for your elected officials; that is the best thing you can do.  That obviously does not mean that you ought to pray for their success if their policies are anti-Christian or harmful to society as a whole.  In such a case, the Christian ought to pray that such a leader be frustrated in his attempts to implement his agenda and at the same pray for that leader to seek wisdom and have a change of heart.

3. Worldliness and stuff

(a) Materialism, inside and out, 1 john 2L15—17

It can be tough to live in a society that places such a value on “stuff” when our mandate is the exact opposite. The guiding principle is found in 1 John 2:15—17:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

While there is nothing wrong with ambition, finding ultimate fulfillment in anything or any person other than God is wrong and is unethical for a Christian. The principle John lays out is this: our lives on earth are less than a drop in the bucket of eternity. Our lives are temporary and the things we so often covet and obsess over are just as temporary. From possessions that break and wear out, to success and fame which are so fleeting, there is nothing of permanence on planet earth. It is so easy to get caught up in worldly philosophies and pursuits that make us forget where our priorities should rest and where our citizenship really is—heaven.

(b) The key is contentment, 1 Timothy 6:6—9

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

Land, houses, cars, swimming pools, clothes, investments, and all the other things human beings work so hard to obtain are not sinful or wrong in and of themselves. In fact, a thing like wealth can be good for the individual who has it because he can do more for himself, his family, and the kingdom of heaven. The problem is when the acquisition of wealth (of any form) is all we think about it.  When we start to do that, those sometimes very worthy and worthwhile things become little more than idols and the means of our destruction.

The secret, as Paul told Timothy, is simply contentment. Contentment is not settling for less for the sake of laziness or some kind of perverse satisfaction brought about by depriving yourself of something. Contentment is understanding the difference between what we need and what we want. It is recognizing that God can and does provide all we need to live and all we need to do is put our lives in His care.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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