Sunday, April 29, 2007

Pauline Privilege (Liberal Democracy in the Church, and Biblical Hermeneutics)

A church governance that is a "liberal democracy" (look it up, I mean nothing about liberalism or "liberal" churches per se) will by its nature gravitate toward a permissive interpretation of scripture when faced with hard personal situations.

Consider the "Pauline Privilege" that comes from 1 Corinthians 7:15:
"But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. "

The argument goes something like this: If a man (for example) is abusing his wife, or addicted to pornography, and he refuses church discipline, then the church can find him an unbeliever and (at least emotionally,) a deserter. Then under the "Pauline Privilege" the wife is entitled to divorce and later remarry another.

It helps, I think, to read this string of Paul's writing in context (read 1 Cor 7:10-23).

Paul gives the commandment as initially from the Lord. We know what Christ teaches in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18. Putting away your wife (or husband) and marrying another is adultery. Elsewhere Christ tells us that in marriage the two become one flesh. What God has joined together, let not man separate (see Matthew 19).

Christ says explicitly that we are not to divorce (arguably with an exception for 'fornication'), and to do is adultery. Paul says the newcomer to the church is not "under bondage" if their unbelieving spouse deserts them.

I give weight to the specific rule over the general, and the unambiguous over the ambiguous ('lex specialis derogat lex generalis' or something like that). So when Christ says 'do not divorce', it seems that anyone claiming Paul's Privilege bears the burden to justify a derogation from that rule.

Furthermore, Paul's message seems clearly to be to newcomers of the new church. 'Come as you are' Paul says, 'do not become circumcised, do not divorce your wife just because she doesn't believe with you!' This was a big question in the early church, and he was addressing it head on.

American churches often seem to pull out a string of Biblical text and state it as a rule, out of context, binding (or permitting) believers today. Such a reading is unfair to scripture; it misconstrues the Bible as some kind of Holy Ouija Board. We must guard carefully the underlying principle in Paul's sacred message to the Church at Corinth: the Lord has said DO NOT DIVORCE, and if you do, STAY UNMARRIED, or RECONCILE. If you're new to the church, do not depart from your unbelieving spouse. If they depart, let them go, for we are to live in peace.

He does NOT qualify Christ's message in the Gospels about divorce: remain unmarried or RECONCILE.

The 'remain unmarried or reconcile' rule seems true to the allegory between Christ/Church and Husband/Wife. When the church (or individual Christian) sins, Christ does not divorce us and take up a new bride. He always waits faithfully for our repentance and reconciliation. To me this is more than a nice thought, it's the moral (natural) rule and state of things, binding on husbands and wives. By remaining faithful and ever open to reconciliation, it seems the Grace of Christ is fully lived out. Such an interpretation makes for hard teaching!!!

No one wants to tell someone in a bad marriage, 'sorry, your shot at happiness just vanished.' This is why so many voters in America are uncomfortable saying (without qualification), "if you get pregnant, abortion should never be an option." People get sympathetic - 'gee, if I (or my daughter) were 17 and had my whole life ahead of me, I might want that option'. Same for the church and divorce, 'gee, if my husband weren't faithful, and I've got these kids to raise, who's to tell me I can't try again to get a good husband?!' In a liberal democracy (such as the Presbyterian polity) leaders will tend to err on the side of a permissive interpretation of their Constitution (our Bible) when times get tough. We make horrible arbiters of right and wrong when the wrong seems so right (or right seems so hard).

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