Last Tuesday night my church discussed what the Bible has to say about dating, marriage, and sex. First of all, we acknowledged that our concept of dating is foreign to the Bible. Nevertheless, the Bible still offers us insight and guidance. The greatest commands (love God, love others; see Matt. 22:34-39, Mark 12:28-34) should be overarching guides for our lives, including dating, etc.
In the area of “romantic” relationships, we (in our culture) talk a lot about love, falling in love, being in love. However, our group recognized that this is significantly different from what the Bible speaks of in the greatest commandments and the “golden rule”. It’s ironic that, though we talk so much about love in “romantic” relationships, we often don’t act very loving toward our partners. In fact, more than a few people have said that they treat strangers better than those they are closest to. What we call “being in love” often has more to do with what the object of our affections does for us (the way they make us feel, etc.) than it does us actually doing about what’s best for them.
We also talked about how Acts 15:20 (and 29) is an important verse for understanding what the Bible says about sex. As non-Jews, we’re not required to keep the entire Old Testament Law. Yet in Acts 15 we’re still instructed to abstain from several things, including sexual immorality. On a related note, we talked about how sexual sin has often been painted as nearly unforgivable in conservative Christian circles. But Christians shouldn’t shame or condemn people for not being perfect in this area. And we shouldn’t over-emphasize sexual and relational immorality beyond other harmful sins such as greed and gossip. While sexual immorality may be wrong and harmful, God certainly still forgives us for these sins and we should likewise forgive one another.
We also discussed divorce, which led us into a discussion about how we understand the Bible. First, we can’t just rip a verse out of context, apply it carelessly, and say it must be correct because it’s biblical. While the Bible does contain much valuable teaching and instruction, it isn’t a manual or reference book which can be read in isolated pieces. Jesus teaching on divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 is an example. In context, Jesus is making a point about righteousness, not attempting to create a new law about divorce. That’s not to say that we don’t learn anything about divorce from these verses. We certainly do. But from the context we understand that Jesus was arguing for the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. In other words, he was arguing against legalistic righteousness. So when people take this passage and apply it to people in a legalistic, letter of the law manner, they are actually going against the spirit of Jesus’ teaching.
Another passage which sheds light on this is found in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. In this passage, Paul talks about Christians with unbelieving spouses. He says that if the unbeliever chooses to leave (divorce), the believer is not bound. In other words, Paul is saying there is another exception to divorce. If you have a letter of the law understanding of the Bible, this is a problem. Jesus and Paul’s “rules” don’t match exactly. You could on one hand say that Paul is wrong, but then you’d have to say that part of the Bible is wrong. But this goes directly against the “rules” view of the Bible. I believe the easy explanation to this conflict is that neither are meant to be comprehensive statements on divorce. They’re not intended to be laws applied to every situation, regardless of the circumstances. The Jews understood that there is a certain amount of hierarchy to the Law. For example, Jews held that any law except for idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality could be broken in order to save a life. The hierarchy of rules or principals is necessary to understand for cases when their applications conflict. For example, someone in our group brought up the case of a lesbian married couple becoming Christian. For some Christians, there would be a conflict between instructing divorce or homosexuality, both things which they consider wrong. (They would probably work around this by claiming that since homosexuality is wrong and marriages are only between a man and woman, they were never really married in the sight of God.) The overriding importance of virtues such as love, forgiveness, generosity, justice, and mercy are not absent from the Old Testament. And Jesus certainly makes the importance of love understood in the greatest commandments as mentioned above.
Our group spent this time discussing divorce and the Bible in part because how people understand these things makes a real difference in people’s lives. For example, I know a woman whose fiancé left her because another Christian had told him that, since he was divorced, getting remarried would be adultery and that he needed to reconcile with his ex. Or the previously mentioned passage in Corinthians has been used to instruct women to stay in abusive marriages, effectively empowering their spouses to continue the abuse. If you understand the Bible legalistically, you have to say that, like it or not, this is what the Bible says and this is therefore how it must be applied. But I don’t believe that Paul intended his instructions here to be used to keep someone in a harmful situation which they could otherwise leave. For example, elsewhere Paul instructs slaves to gain their freedom if they are able.
(Our conversation obviously didn’t cover everything there is to say on these topics; it was just a one week start.)