Thursday, September 20, 2012

No Scarlet Letters


Recent circumstances have brought the subject of divorce to our collective minds and discussions.  Specifically, the question has been whether a person who has ever experienced a divorce, even when not sought by that person, and occurring in a situation of unrepentant, continuous adultery on the part of the "leaving" spouse, can ever meet the "husband of one wife" qualification listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in order to serve a church as a pastor/elder/overseer or as a deacon.  Past pastors here have taught, along with other Bible teachers I respect, that the answer is "no, he cannot."  I teach, along with a significant number (and what appears to be a majority) of conservative Bible teachers among evangelicals, that the answer is "yes, he can."  I will make that case in coming weeks, most likely in a sermon series on a number of important matters, sometime early next year.

Unfortunately, this has caused some here who went through the pain of divorce to experience the reopening of wounds, and wonder if this is somehow a statement that we hold "divorced people" under some sort of reproach that will forever mark them as less than full participants in the life of the church and the experience of grace.  One person mentioned that, in churches, one never escapes the label of "divorced"--as if wearing the scarlet letter (since most people don't read books anymore, that's a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel of the same name.  I aim to educate as well as exhort). And it is not treated as a neutral fact, but as a negative deficit.

This is wrong.  When we say, by way of describing someone, "he was divorced" or "she is divorced," we are labeling someone with a tragedy, not an identity.  If you were mugged five years ago, and the way I describe you is, "he was beaten to a pulp" every time someone asks about you, I have a pretty warped view of who you are.  There may be isolated circumstances where that information might come up, but it should not be equated with who you are.

Now sometimes a Christian may have divorced for reasons the Bible doesn't say are acceptable.  I would argue that what I just said in the previous paragraph still applies.  If you were dismissed from a job for stealing company property, repented, and now are living a godly life, it would be wrong of me to describe you as "that guy in the church who got fired for theft."  It is a true statement, but it is not your identity in the Body of Christ.

We don't ignore the realities of our past.  We may have to deal with some very real consequences of our past in our present.  But it is not the place of fellow Christians to make sure that someone's past continues to define them in the present.


I suppose this isn't the only "scarlet letter" that churches might apply.  In the novel, it was an "A" for adultery that the heroine had to wear on her clothing.  Her baby was not, apparently, proof enough of her sin.  In our day, we have other sins that make us uncomfortable enough that we don't do a very good job of showing the forgiving grace of God when redeemed sinners from a certain past are around.  Adultery is certainly one of those--however, if a divorce did not occur, and a couple stays together, we tend to use a lower case "a" and we seem to be willing to let time prove repentance, and as we do, the letter can disappear, or at least fade.  Frankly, it should be banished whenever, as Spurgeon said, a person's "repentance is as notorious as his sin."

Perhaps the greater "A" today would be abortion.  A sad fact that you can learn from our Miami Valley Women's Center is that a number of young women who come to them with an unplanned pregnancy and who may be considering abortion are from Christian homes.  They know that pregnancy outside of marriage is evidence of sin that we do not easily forgive, and rather than pursue confession and forgiveness, these girls often feel as if abortion is their better option for any sort of future.  And undoubtedly, our church family has women who have experienced abortion and feel guilt so great that they do not feel free to share their story because they doubt our ability to forgive.


These three letters are some of the hardest for evangelicals today.  It stands for "same sex attraction," and doesn't refer only to those who act upon it, but those who struggle with it.  Let's face it, churches are not easy places for a man or woman to say, "I am battling same sex attraction--I know what the Bible teaches, but these feelings have been with me as long as I can remember."  While we know that with God all things are possible, we also have lots of studies and data that indicate that for a person to move from same sex attraction to the biblical ideal of full and exclusive heterosexual attraction is uncommon, though not unheard of.  It is possible, but not always achieved, and sometimes it may not be achievable.  How do we show love and acceptance to a Christian who acknowledges such a struggle, wants to live in holiness, and desires accountability and fellowship in the church?  Right now, it seems that they can only have that fellowship as long as they struggle in secret.  An open struggle brands and isolates in most churches.  

Have you noticed that all of these "scarlet letters" have to do with sex?  I haven't even listed all of them that fit the same general category--sex outside marriage, unwed pregnancy, pornography, and the list goes on.  So does that mean that other sins are not as serious as sex sins?  Well, 1 Corinthians 6:18 does warn that immoral sex does have unique and hurtful personal consequences as opposed to all other sins.  Some also point to Malachi 2:16 and say that it says the LORD hates divorce.  That is a disputed translation, and the better rendering does not say that (look at it in the ESV, NIV, or HCSB for what I believe is the more literal and better translation).  However, look what God clearly says he does hate:

      There are six things that the LORD hates, 
      seven that are an abomination to him: 
            haughty eyes, a lying tongue, 
      and hands that shed innocent blood, 
            a heart that devises wicked plans, 
      feet that make haste to run to evil, 
            a false witness who breathes out lies, 
      and one who sows discord among brothers. 
      (Pr 6:16–19 ESV)

Now, there is no sex anywhere in those verses.  But there is pride, deceit, violence, evil plans and evil actions, false witness against others, and divisiveness.  I've seen all of these in church, but seldom had someone pointed out and be told, "oh, he's a false witness" even if he has borne false witness in the past.  And when was the last time someone was disciplined in church for causing people to become angry with one another?  

Please hear me, I am not looking to label liars or prideful people, or even divisive people who are repentant and seeking to live in holiness.  The whole point of grace is that sin is forgiven and no longer enslaves or holds us.  In the same way, these sins that we have elevated should not be labels of repentant believers, either.

One more thought.  If you have been a liar all your life, and now you are repentant and seeking to be a truth teller, does one failure after days or weeks of truthfulness mean you are still the same liar you have always been?  Should we give up on you as someone who will never change?  Should we get out a scarlet "L" for you?  Of course not.  Change is often slow, and seldom perfect.  Perhaps we should be equally tolerant of repentant sinners still seeking to walk in the Spirit, but whose flesh occasionally gets the upper hand.

We need to work hard to overcome the human (fallen) tendency to label people by their past when God does not.  Scarlet letters must be banished from the church.