In today’s scripture, Paul applies Jesus’ teaching about divorce to a new situation: new Christian converts who are married to unbelieving spouses. What should they do? In answering this question, Paul speaks to three problems in our contemporary culture all at once: divorce, nominal, or “cultural,” Christianity, and the need for evangelism.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 7:8-16
Matt Chandler is the pastor of Village Church, a 6,000-member megachurch in Dallas. He and his church were recently subject to some very bad publicity. See, when you join Village Church, you agree to become part of a fellowship that, unlike us Methodists, has very strict membership policies—policies that discipline church members for breaking them. Recently, a member of the church, a newly wed woman named Karen Hinkley, filed for an annulment of her marriage, under Texas law, without consulting the church first. According to church law, she was supposed to have gone through a reconciliation process with her husband, under the guidance of counselors at the church, before getting divorced. Hinkley refused, and the church put her “under discipline,” whatever that means.
The problem is, Ms. Hinkley had decided to annul her marriage because she had just found out that her husband had been hiding a decade-long habit of viewing child pornography! He admitted to being a pedophile, although he claims he never abused a child. Let’s hope!
Nearly everyone can plainly see that Ms. Hinkley was justified in filing for the annulment, which is why the church got the bad publicity. And Matt Chandler and the church leaders also see that now. They confessed that they made a sinful decision to discipline her, and they apologized. She accepted their apology.
This case illustrates a couple of things: First, we Christians need to be very grace-filled, very merciful, very slow to judge when it comes to dealing with difficult issues like divorce. That’s how Paul handles the issue in today’s scripture. He’s aware of Jesus’ strict teaching against divorce in most cases, but he applies Jesus’ teaching to a situation that Jesus doesn’t address: What happens when someone from a pagan background becomes a Christian believer; and their spouse can’t accept that fact; and their spouse wants to get divorced? Paul says in that case divorce is permissible. Following Jesus’ and Paul’s lead, we Methodists recognize that there are other cases that might justify divorce. This doesn’t mean divorce is a good thing. It might be, like the decision to go to war sometimes is, the lesser of two evils.
But having said that, you’ll get no argument from me that Christians get divorced far too often and for the wrong reasons, for sinful reasons, without doing their due diligence to save the marriage. I say that divorce should only be a gracious option of last resort for some couples; it’s clear, given divorce rates, that too often it’s not a last resort. So, assuming that Village Church’s policies are a good faith effort to prevent needless and, indeed, sinful divorce, I’m sympathetic.
But please here me say this: Even if we get divorced for the wrong reasons, and even if we remarry for the wrong reasons—our loving, gracious, merciful Lord always stands ready to forgive us. And God can and does redeem our sinful decisions all the time! Thank God!
You may recall, as I said last time, that in this part of the letter, the apostle Paul has turned his attention to specific questions that the Corinthians are asking him. And one of those questions is, “Is it better for our spiritual lives to be single, rather than married, and if so, can we get divorced?” See, these Corinthians are not like us: we often want to get divorced because we’re unhappy and unfulfilled in marriage, and we think we should be able to marry someone else in order to find true love and true happiness. While we may be unhappy and unfulfilled in our marriage, that alone is not a Christian reason to get divorced. But that’s not at all what the Corinthians cared about. They wanted to divorce because they had this strange idea that if they were only single, and celibate, and didn’t have to worry about living with someone else, then that would make them a better Christian, a holier Christian, a more spiritual Christian.
So, they ask, can we get divorced in that case? And Paul says no.
Then, beginning in verse 12, Paul addresses the issue I mentioned earlier: surely divorce would be O.K. if you were married to an unbeliever. I mean, sharing a bed with a pagan! Surely that’s wrong! Surely divorce would be justified then. And Paul says no, it’s not. If your unbelieving spouse is willing to put up with you, Paul says, then you should be willing to put up with them!
See, to these Corinthians’ credit, they do not have what we might call a nominal faith: a faith that camouflages itself, a faith that blends in with its surroundings, a faith that doesn’t bother anyone, a faith that doesn’t get up in anyone’s business, or make any demands on anyone, or call anyone to repentance. Paul recognizes that the unbelieving spouse might be so bothered by the fact that their partner has converted to this strange new faith, with this strange new worldview, and this strange new lifestyle, that the unbelieving partner might insist on divorce. In which case, then divorce is O.K.
Speaking of nominal faith, a few weeks ago, a missionary couple from Albania named Djana and Genti came and spoke to our church on a Wednesday night. They were native Albanians who now lead a campus ministry through Campus Crusade for Christ on a college campus in Albania. Albania is an historically Muslim country, with a large Catholic and Orthodox Christian minority. Under communism for 50 years, it didn’t matter what religion you were: you couldn’t practice it openly. You had to be atheist, or else face prison, torture, even death. This separated the wheat from the chaff, as you can imagine. The Christians left behind were Christians in name only. So when the dictator told his people, “I’m your god now. Obey me. Abandon your faith in Jesus and place your trust in me, or face the consequences,” these nominal Christians said, “O.K.”
And when Communism fell, in the ’90s, and it became legal to practice religion again, Djana asked her parents, “What religion are we?” And her parents said, “Greek Orthodox.” And she said, “O.K. I guess I’m Greek Orthodox now.” And that was the extent of her faith—a label, a name, a word to describe herself, a cultural marker. Her life was no different either way—at least until a friend invited her to attend a Campus Crusade event, and she began to hear the gospels for the first time, and she accepted Christ as her Savior and Lord. And then her life was changed. And then she needed to tell everyone about what Christ has done for her!
Like some of these Corinthian Christians, that’s when her faith started bothering people! She no longer had a camouflaged faith. She didn’t just blend in with her surroundings. She didn’t just keep her faith to herself.
What about us?
I wonder how different Christians in our country—in our state, in our city—are from those Albanians. Is being a Christian just a label, a name, a word we use to describe ourselves, a cultural marker, but we may as well be atheist for all the difference our faith makes in our lives?
When I heard Djana and Genti tell their story, I felt indignant—that so many professing Christians could abandon their faith so easily. Surely that wouldn’t be me! But then I thought, “Well, suppose someone put a gun to my head and said, ‘Are you a Christian? Because if you are, I’ll shoot you”—well, what would I say then? What would you say? How would we answer that question?
Listen: if our faith in Jesus isn’t making a difference in our lives right now—and if our faith isn’t making a difference right now in the lives of non-Christians that we know—and if it isn’t obvious to others that Jesus makes a difference in our lives—well, if someone were holding gun to our head, I’m pretty sure I know how we’d answer that question!
Remember those frightening words of Jesus: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” We don’t just deny Jesus by the words we say when someone asks us about our faith; we also deny Jesus by the words we fail to say—when we have the opportunity to share our faith… yet remain silent.
Now we get to the most important reason that Paul wanted Christian converts to stay married to their unbelieving spouses…
Paul begins to tell us why with some strange-sounding words in verse 14: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.” That can’t mean, “Because I’m saved, my spouse will automatically be saved too.” No. Not only would that contradict the gospel that Paul preaches, it would contradict Paul’s own words in verse 16: “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”
So there’s no guarantee the unbelieving spouse will be saved. Paul says that the unbelieving spouse will be “made holy” in the sense of being “set apart”—Paul is saying, in other words, “Because your unbelieving spouse is married to you, he or she is now part of your mission field. One important calling that you have is to convince your spouse of the truth of the gospel—through your prayers, through your words, through your example, through your actions.” I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: The most important work of evangelism, the most important work of witnessing, the most important work of ministry that any of us does is that work that we do in our own families!
Parents, the top priority for your children isn’t to ensure that they get into the right schools, and make the right grades, and do well on all the standardized tests, and excel at sports or music or any extracurricular activity, so they can get the right scholarships, so they can get into the right colleges, so they can get good jobs, so they marry the right person, so they can be successful and productive members of society, so they can make a lot of money, so they can support us when we move in with them after we retire—no matter how important those things may be!
No, our top priority—listen to me now—our top priority is that we save our children, so that they will find happiness and success and love, not merely on this side of eternity—but that they will know the lasting, eternal kind of joy and success and love that comes from knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord!
I used to bristle at evangelistic Christians who talked about “saving” a loved one, or a friend, or a neighbor, or a coworker. “We can’t save anyone,” I’d say. “Only Jesus can save! Only the Holy Spirit can bring someone to saving faith!” And while that’s theologically accurate as far as it goes, Paul says right here that we can save people through our witness. If that language is good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me. And it does something else: it puts responsibility back on our shoulders. See, I wonder if we resist the language of “saving” other people because we look at our lives and we see that we don’t have anything to show for ourselves! Our lives aren’t bearing the kind of fruit they ought to! People aren’t coming to saving faith in Christ through our witness—not because God isn’t doing his part—but because we’re not doing ours!
Can you point to someone’s life and say, “I played a role in saving that person.” If not, why not?
There’s a journalist named Kirsten Powers you may have heard of. She worked in the Clinton White House. She’s written for USA Today and Newsweek. And she’s most famous for being the Democratic commentator on Fox News. She wrote an article in Christianity Today in 2013 that began: “Just seven years ago, if someone had told me that I’d be writing for Christianity Today magazine about how I came to believe in God, I would have laughed out loud. If there was one thing in which I was completely secure, it was that I would never adhere to any religion—especially to evangelical Christianity, which I held in particular contempt.”
And she goes on to give her testimony. She grew up nominally Episcopalian with lots of doubts. She lost her faith in college. She moved to New York, surrounded by what she calls an “aggressively secular” culture, surrounded by a circle of atheist friends. So she became an atheist, too. She writes,
I sometimes hear Christians talk about how terrible life must be for atheists. But our lives were not terrible. Life actually seemed pretty wonderful, filled with opportunity and good conversation and privilege. I know now that it was not as wonderful as it could have been. But you don’t know what you don’t know. How could I have missed something I didn’t think existed? ¶ To the extent that I encountered Christians, it was in the news cycle. And inevitably they were saying something about gay people or feminists. I didn’t feel I was missing much.
But then she began dating a man, she said, who was “into Jesus,” which she thought was really weird but everyone has their faults. So she ignored it. Until one day he asked her: “Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?” She said no. He asked, “Do you think you could ever believe it?” She said no. He said, “Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?” She said she would try.
So he invited her to his church—pastor Tim Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. To her surprise, she was very impressed with Keller’s sermons: they were “intellectually rigorous,” she said, “weaving in art and history and philosophy.” She thought, Why does he have to ruin a perfectly good talk with this Jesus nonsense.
But the Holy Spirit was working on her heart. And even after she broke up with her boyfriend, she continued to go to church, until one day she was studying the Bible when she thought, “It’s true. It’s completely true.” “The world looked entirely different,” she said, “like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy… The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me, whether I liked it or not.”
And just think: it all began with a friend’s question, “Do you believe that Jesus is your Savior?” Followed by an invitation to church. And God took it from there!
Her friend didn’t do much. And he didn’t do anything that any of us couldn’t also do.
A lot of Christians would have thought that Kirsten Powers would be a lost cause as far as reaching her with the gospel of Jesus Christ. One Christian didn’t think so. One Christian made a difference in her life for eternity.
Brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us to do the same. Amen?