Welcome to the Information Age. With apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we now have a window into the lives of our friends, family, acquaintances and even complete strangers. Business owners can now Google prospective employees, parents can check Instagram to vet new friends of their children, and a woman can search Facebook about a potential boyfriend. We can track down long lost friends from high school and keep in touch with family around the world. The benefits are evident in our churches too, in how we can share information about prayer requests, children’s illnesses, bus routes being late, weather conditions, and new study groups. Via these social media forums, users are connected together in an online virtual world where our interests and ideas can be shared at the speed of light to our online peers. We can share articles that we deem interesting or important, and we can take political stands on issues. With a click of the button, we can friend and follow almost anyone we want. We like or dislike our way through thousands of gigabytes of information, telling everyone our favorite TV shows, games, authors, preachers, speakers and much more. But how does our online presence reflect our allegiance? Do our likes match up with God’s own? Many brothers and sisters seem to disconnect the online version of themselves from the real (or maybe their social media presence is their true self?). Christians will watch horrific godless shows and discuss them and like them on Facebook. Some may share photos of themselves in provocative poses with minimal clothing, or share pictures of drunken partying. We’ll fight with others online, speaking wrathfully, and assume the worst of whomever we’re arguing with. Disputes with our consistory, or our spouse, will be aired publicly and captured for all eternity. We’ll speak derisively about our employers, or our minister, family members, or friends. Online Christians will use filthy language, or casually take God’s name in vain in ways that they would not in the offline world. The Bible calls this disconnect an unstable “double-mindedness” (James 1:8, 22-25) – we are trying to be two people, each serving a different master (Matthew 6:24). Not only are we responsible for how we present ourselves online, we’re responsible for what we like and follow. When we see pictures of brothers and sisters sinning and like them, when we click thumbs up to a godless show, or blasphemous musician do we understand what we are telling everyone? Though it may take little thought – just a quick click of the mouse and a friendly like or thumbs up – what we are saying is I agree, I like this, I love this, this is good. Though it seems harmless, this is encouragement. When I sin and someone says good job,they are enabling me. That is not love. That is sinful. It is wicked. We should not condone sin whether online or off. In fact, we should love one another enough to be willing to privately approach and hold our brothers and sisters accountable. Maybe we think this a task better suited to elders. But not all consistory members are on these online forums. They don’t always know what is happening on Facebook or Instagram. And it is not their job to follow every one of us everywhere we go. As brothers and sisters in the Lord, we need to hold each other accountable out of love for each other (Eccl. 4:9-12). And we need to do so out of love for our Lord – the world will get their ideas of Who He is based in large part on how we, his ambassadors, act. Finally, whether we sin in daily life or online, God sees. In a world of both hate and tolerance, filth and fanaticism, we need to be careful not only in how we behave online, but also in what we like, share and post and therefore condone, as well.
Pluralism is the belief that people of different cultures and beliefs can live together in harmony. But when their different values inevitably clash how do these differences get resolved? In this excerpt from Dr. Van Dam's “God and Government” he outlines a specifically Christian form of pluralism that allows for believers and unbelievers to live in peace together, because it recognizes that God and his law are supreme.
*****When God gathered his chosen people, his demands were clear. They had to be completely dedicated to his service. However, God recognized that within his kingdom of Israel, there was not only his holy nation, the church, but, as noted earlier, there were also others who did not really belong to the assembly of God’s people. They nevertheless lived within the kingdom of God on earth as established in Israel. To these people the Lord showed great forbearance. They were not forced to become worshippers of the God of Israel nor did God give any command to that effect to Israel’s rulers. However, they were expected to obey the prohibitive commands of God’s moral law. They could not, for example, indulge in sexual sin (Lev. 18:24–30), blaspheme God’s name (Lev 24:15) or sacrifice their children to the false god Molech. (Lev. 20:2). The people in whose midst they lived, as well as the land, was holy and they had to respect that. Indeed, God had expressly commanded that all the idolatrous nations living in Canaan had to be wiped out for the land was to be holy (Deut. 7; cf. Ps. 78:54; Zec. 2:12). There was, however, no such command for territories outside Canaan that were later conquered to be under Israel’s rule. It is noteworthy that after David defeated Moab, the Aramaean kingdoms of Hadadezer (Damascus and Maacah), Edom, and the Ammonites, there is no hint anywhere in Scripture that he worked to remove all idolatry and false worship. Also no special attempt was made to compel these people to become worshippers of the true God. Since David’s office as a godly king over these gentile peoples roughly parallels the office of government today, this tolerance points to a principle that can apply to government today. Tolerance of false religion Indeed, state tolerance of false religion is not in disagreement with Scripture. God is long-suffering and patient. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). He allows the good grain as well as the weeds to grow together, until the time of harvest. Then God himself will separate the two in the final Day of Judgment (Matt. 13:36–43). Government can tolerate what the church cannot endure. Each has its own office and calling. In a modern pluralistic society, the following words of Christ are relevant: “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). If one asks freedom of worship for oneself, then it should also be granted to others. As head of the church, Christ tolerates no ungodliness and sin. The church on earth must act accordingly. As head and ruler of his kingdom Christ is patient and bears with the weakness of the sinful human heart. His servants, the civil governments, must do likewise even as they are obligated to seek true righteousness and justice for the country entrusted to their rule. State is not the Church Besides the principle of toleration, there is the related principle of the civil authority being distinct from the religious authority in Israel. Even though church and state were very closely related, they were not identical. Each had its own jurisdiction. This has important implications. Even in Israel, which was a theocracy, there were clear limitations to what the king as civil ruler could do. Although the theocratic king had priestly and prophetic aspects to his office, he nevertheless remained in the first place the civil ruler in charge of the judicial and political affairs of the nation. Although the priests were vital in the theocracy, Israel as a theo cracy was not a priest state as found in other ancient near Eastern countries such as Egypt. Priestly authority was limited to all things related to the administration of the sacrificial service of reconciliation, including instruction in the ways of the Lord. And so there were clear distinctions. Religious matters were in the province of the priests and the civil ones were the responsibility of the king. Accordingly, in the time of King Jehoshaphat the civil courts were organized specifically along the lines of religious and civil matters (2 Chron. 19:11; cf. 1 Chron. 26:30, 32). We need to value the biblical principle that is involved here. Scripture gives no justification for a modern theocratic state such as we find in some Islamic jurisdictions. The Bible indicates that there is to be a clear separation of what we today call church and state, or spiritual authorit y and civil authority. Christ’s teaching affirmed this when he said “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Such thinking is completely contrary to, for example, the Muslim idea of a jihad or holy war that is necessary to establish their kingdom in the here and now. All of this underlines the fact that the state is not given the duty to force people to love God and to worship him. The state is permitted to tolerate things that the church cannot tolerate. There is, however, more to this larger issue. Rule of Law Another important principle in considering the relation of church and state is the rule of law. The Davidic king was not to be autocratic and self-seeking, thinking himself to be more worthy than those around him. He was God’s representative in the theocracy, sitting on God’s throne (1 Chron. 29:23) and therefore a servant of God who needed to submit to God’s law. The Lord even stipulated that when the king assumed the throne of the kingdom then he “is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left” (Deut. 17:18–20). In this way God’s will would be done for his chosen nation in his kingdom. With all the plurality that may have existed in Israelite society, above it all was the law of God. It needed to be heeded for the well-being of the people. Israel’s rulers were not the only ones who were accountable to God. Pagan ones were as well. For example, Daniel told King Nebuchadnezzar that God had put him in power (Dan. 2:37–38) and so God warned the monarch through Daniel that unless he acknowledged God’s supreme place and repented of his sins in ruling, he would be driven from the throne to live with the wild animals (Dan. 4:24–27). There was accountability that had to be acknowledged. Today, rulers are to be servants of God in the first place and as such also have an obligation to heed the abiding principles of God’s Word for the good of society. Thus, when government makes decisions pertaining to morals and issues on which the Word of God gives clear direction, it should not set itself above the norms which God has revealed. It is the duty of government to restrain sin and evil (Prov. 14:33; Rom. 13:4). How does the calling of the church factor into this obligation of the government? Church is not the State Clearly the task of the church is to preach the gospel and administer the reconciliation that God offers to humankind. The church’s “job description” was given by the risen Christ prior to his ascension when he said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). The church is to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation and gather God’s people together. The state must give the church the freedom and opportunity to do its calling of spreading the gospel. That gospel includes the proclamation of Christ’s kingship, a message the state must hear from the church or its members so that it understands its servant role. The church’s task with respect to the state is not to make official pronouncements about the political issues of the day and to get involved in crafting government policy. The church as an institution has neither the charge nor expertise to do so. It is also not the task of the church to try to rule over the government (the Roman Catholic ideal). The state has its own God-given responsibilities. However, the church does have the duty to train and equip its members so that they can function meaningfully in today’s secular society as citizens of Christ’s kingdom and so influence also politics. Scripture is certainly relevant for the affairs of the state, but it is not the calling of the church as a corporate body to interfere in the political process and attempt to apply the biblical principles to the government agenda. That is the responsibility of Christians in all walks of life, also those involved in politics. All of this does not mean that the church should always remain silent. There can be unusual circumstances when the church needs to speak up by means of the pulpit or otherwise in order to protect its God-given mission to preach the gospel and condemn sin where sin needs to be condemned. There can also be occasions when the government invites input from interested parties on new legislation which is of great interest to the church. Churches should then participate and make a case for the application of biblical principles on the issues of the day. In summary, the church’s duty is to preach and safeguard the gospel and seek the spiritual well-being of its members. The resources and gifts of the church should focus on these central concerns. With respect to its task over against the government, the church must also lead the way in instructing its members to be good citizens and to be obedient to those in authority over them. Furthermore, the church is called to pray for those who rule over them (1 Tim. 2:1–4). Such prayer includes the petition that the state may continue to protect the freedom and ministry of the church so that the gospel can continue to be proclaimed. When that proclamation is blessed, it will eventually have a salutary effect on society and government. In our current age of secularization, it is easy for the people of God to grow weary in seeking the best for those who rule over them. But, one must realize that there are usually no quick fixes to the dilemmas of evil and sin in society and often incremental change is all that is possible. But the church need never become despondent. It has every reason to be encouraged for an important truth is that God is supreme ruler over everything already. In a broad sense his kingdom encompasses the entire universe. The battle against evil has been won (Col. 1:13–20; 2:15). One day God’s kingdom will arrive in full perfection when all will recognize him as Lord and Master.
This excerpt is reprinted here with permission. To get a copy of “God and Government” email info@ARPACanada.ca for information (the suggested donation is $10). Or you can get a Kindle version at Amazon.ca or Amazon.com.
"And I knew there could be laughter On the secret face of God" – G. K. Chesterton
*****Nothing is quite so ironic as to talk seriously about humor. Yet it would be perverse to treat the subject of Christian humor with irreverence or anything approaching vulgarity. And by Christian humor I do not mean those harmless puns and riddles that are often classified as Bible jokes. Who is the shortest person in the Bible? Who is the only person in the Bible who doesn’t have any parents?1 If Christian humor ended there, then we might feel slightly cheated. There must be more. And indeed, humor is more than an occasional joke; it is indicative of a broader attitude to life. We see this most clearly in the word “comedy.” In literature, the term means simply a story with a happy ending – it doesn’t even have to be funny. You might say that the story of salvation is a divine comedy, for it promises a life happily ever after. Of course, to unbelievers this faith in the afterlife is itself a joke. To some extent, then, the question is who will have the last laugh. So let’s take a closer look at this comedy of salvation. Does the biblical narrative include any humor, and what role should laughter play in our life of faith? Humor in the Bible When I was still growing up – a process that may not have ended – my father sometimes liked to refer to “humor in the Bible.” But looking back I had no recollection of what he actually meant by that. Was he referring to some of those funny names in the Bible, like the ones the prophets gave to their kids? Was he thinking of Joshua, the son of Nun? I wasn’t sure, and so I figured that writing this article would be like discovering a forgotten corner of my childhood. Childhood is, of course, an appropriate metaphor for thinking about humor. Those who have studied humor in the Bible suggest, for instance, that the sober attitude of grown-ups obscures the comic aspects of Christ’s rhetoric. Elton Trueblood, in The Humor of Christ, tells how his son burst out laughing at Bible reading over the idea that someone might be so concerned about seeing a speck in someone else’s eye that he failed to notice the beam in his own eye.2 The child has not yet become accustomed to all that is at first glance merely preposterous or grotesque. Trueblood – whose views we’ll focus on here – believes that Jesus is not only a Man of Sorrows, but also a Man of Joys. Jesus’s humor comes from the incongruity of his sayings (particularly in his many paradoxes) and from his sense of irony. Surely, says Trueblood, there is an aspect of comedy in the blind leading the blind, in the notion of “saving by losing,” in the thought that a camel should go through the eye of a needle, in giving Peter the nickname “Rocky.” It is frequently the contrast between the literal and the figurative moment that provides a space for laughter, or at least for a smile. When Christ asks “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?” our trained inclination is to answer “No, because then no one can see the lamp.” A child might respond, “That would be funny, because then the bed might catch on fire.” The examples can be multiplied – at least according to Trueblood. They show Christ not merely as an ascetic and acerbic preacher – as we sometimes imagine John the Baptist – but as a man who drank wine in genial conviviality and spoke in surprising and shocking language. Whatever reservations we may have about this slightly irreverent view of the Savior, the resulting picture actually fits surprisingly well with the general Reformed worldview, which sees Christ as restoring and renewing life and culture. We all know of Luther’s hearty humor and his penchant for beer. What is humor? There are of course problems as well. If humor encompasses everything from outright jokes to fine shades of irony, then where do we draw the line? In addition, humor is fiendishly difficult to trace in written documents, for so much depends on tone and context. Take, for instance, Trueblood’s explanation of the following words of Jesus from Luke 12:58:
As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.Trueblood is surely right that Jesus treats miscarriages of justice with a touch of sarcasm, but he pushes the argument too far when he tries to find the passage humorous: “What Christ seems to be advocating is a clever deal or a bribe. . . . Translated into our language, ‘It may prove to be cheaper to pay the officer than to pay the court, so why not try?’ . . . If this be humor, it is humor with an acid touch.”3 It seems more likely, though, that the adversary is not an officer of the law at all, but is rather a fellow citizen; what Jesus advocates is what we would call an “out of court settlement” – a common practice in ancient societies – and represents prudence, not humor. In the Old Testament There are two other sources of humor that require some attention. The first is, of course, the Old Testament. There are a number of places where God is said to laugh (Ps. 2:4, 37:13, 59:8; Prov. 1:26). This is the laughter of poetic justice: God laughs at the wicked. Surprisingly, the Psalms also suggest that the proper response to God’s laughing judgment should be joy: “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:8-9; cf. Ps. 96). Judgment is no laughing matter, we instinctively feel. However, as the Philistines found out when they placed the ark of God in the temple of Dagon, God will have the last laugh: “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord!” (1 Sam. 5:3). The man most famed for wisdom in the Old Testament also had a wry sense of humor, something that is often missed. Consider the following ironic passages from Ecclesiastes, that book that we take such pains to explain away:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2).
All things are wearisome more than one can say (1:8).
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body (12:12).Who writes a book to explain that everything is meaningless? The Teacher sounds tired before he even begins. In fact, in an amusing turn of phrase, he explains that he is too weary to explain weariness. Perhaps the appropriate response when faced with such irony is laughter. There is a bad sort of biblical humor But there is also a negative type of humor. There are hints of it in the nervous laughter of Sarah. This is the laughter of those who sit in the seat of scoffers. The man who suffered most from such mockery was Jesus. All those involved in crucifying him try to turn him into a joke. And the joke is always the same: how can a crucified man be king? The soldiers dress him up in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns before they torture him. Pilate practices his own version of the laughter of judgment by placing a placard above his head that reads: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). The joke then gets passed on to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, who focus on the final paradox of Christ’s ministry: “‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’” (27:42). The laughter of the cross is the laughter of Sarah magnified; it is the laughter of skepticism, and it is at heart a nervous defense against the laughter of faith and judgment. As Paul realized, the Christian faith is foolishness to the world, because doubt manifests itself through mockery and laughter. Laughter and tears, comedy and tragedy – the two poles are actually not as far removed from each other as we sometimes think. Since laughter lives on the border with terror and tragedy, it is not surprising that we also find it at the cross. True joy What does this all mean for our life of faith? An elder of mine once pointed out that one of the great gifts of the Christian religion is the joy it provides. And this joy is not simply confined to a kind of internal spiritual peace, although it is that too. The writer G. K. Chesterton suggests that, compared to the Christian, the secular man is generally happier as he approaches earth, but sadder and sadder as he approaches the heavens.4 True – but the happiness of the Christian also extends downwards – to the earth renewed in Christ. There remains one obstacle, however. Franz Kafka once said – in a comment about Christianity – that “a forced gaiety is much sadder than an openly acknowledged sorrow."5 I think this is exactly the problem we face as Christians today. How can we demonstrate the happiness that comes with the good news in a spontaneous way? Laughter is something that you shouldn’t force. So, how can you purposefully live a life of laughter and joy? I think it has to start with something further down in your heart; it has to start with faith and hope. If you start here, then laughter will inevitably come bubbling up. And this is not a nervous laughter, like the laughter of Sarah or the mocking of scoffers – this is a wholesome and healthy laughter. This is the joy of Christ. Endnotes 1 In case you haven’t heard these groaners: Bildad the Shuhite (i.e. shoe-height) & Joshua, son of Nun (i.e. none). 2 Elton Trueblood, The Humor of Christ (New York: HarperCollins, 1964). 3 Ibid., 66. 4 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in Basic Chesterton (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1984), 127. 5 Quoted by John F. Maguire, “Chesterton and Kafka,” The Chesterton Review 3.1 (1976-77): 161.
This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue. Conrad van Dyk is the author and narrator of the children's story podcast "Sophie and Sebastian."
Dear Janelle, I received your letter yesterday, and had already heard from your brother and sister-in-law. They confirmed for me the very difficult and challenging situation you are in with your husband, and they said that they had encouraged you to write to me with your question. I was glad to hear from you. From what you wrote, and filling in details from them, you really are in a terrible spot – and I hope this letter is a real help. One of the things I like to do, if you don’t mind, is repeat back the presenting problem when I am asked about something like this. I do this to make sure that I have understood properly and, if I have, I want the person I am counseling to know that they were heard. This is often a problem that people in horrific situations have – they don’t feel like anybody could possibly be listening. You know that you need to leave your husband, but you don’t want to find yourself leaving God behind also. You know that your husband is behaving like a domestic tyrant, and so leaving him seems straightforward. But you have certain questions about some passages of Scripture, because you want to leave, if you leave, as an act of obedience. And that’s what it needs to be – obedience. If you leave your husband, you want to do so in the will of God. You don’t want to settle for some level of tolerated disobedience, or some Protestant version of venial sin. Two and three witnesses That said, your problem is that your husband is well-respected in your Christian community. He is an elder in your church. You believe that if you just “up and leave,” everybody is going to demand an accounting from you, and not from him. You have good reason for thinking that everybody would sympathize with him, and not with you. He is well-connected and well-liked in your church. You are not, and nobody knows that this is because of the insane restrictions he has placed on you. Now you know your Bible well enough to know that if you were to bring charges against your husband, the threshold to convict him would be two and three witnesses (Deut. 19:15, Matt. 18:16, 1 Tim. 5:19), and you don’t have that. Your brother and sister-in-law would be willing to testify, because they have seen a small portion of all this, but you believe that they would simply be dismissed. They don’t live in your town, they are related to you by blood, the elders who would be hearing this testimony are your husband’s close friends, and so on. In short, the deck is really stacked against you. But then, on the other side of the coin, you are not sure how much more of your husband’s heavy-handed hypocrisy you can take. Some days you feel like you are going to crater under his brow-beating, and other days you are simply exasperated by the two different faces he presents – to you on the one hand, and the world on the other. Sometimes you think you can go for two more days, tops, and other times you think you can manage it indefinitely. It all depends. He has never struck you, but there are times when you think he might. His fits of anger are unpredictable, and seem to you to be getting worse. You think that he is out of control, but if he answers the phone in the middle of one of his rages, he can turn off the anger like a switch. That indicates to you that there must be an element of deliberate malice in it. He is requiring more arbitrary and very difficult things of you, and you think it might be because he is trying to provoke you into doing something that is manifestly ungodly so that you will clearly be the one in the wrong, and will give him something to point to if the whole thing eventually blows up. Have I got the problem right? You know what his problem is, and it is an intolerable one, but you are not in a position to prove an accusation against him. Because you are dedicated to the authority of the Word, the fact that you can’t meet the standards for public charges (that justice requires) troubles you. Does that mean that you are not allowed to leave until you can prove it? The testimony of just one So this issue revolves around what justice requires in bringing a formal charge against someone, as distinct from what justice requires when a victim is simply getting out of range. But think about this for a minute. If you were attacked by a mugger or a rapist, you wouldn’t be thinking about the trial, and whether you had two or three witnesses available. You would just be thinking about getting away. Let me take an illustration from a law in the Old Testament concerning runaway slaves.
“You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you” (Deut. 23:15).While the circumstances are obviously not identical, they are comparable – close enough to provide us with an a fortiori argument. If this principle applies to slaves, and it does, then how much more would it apply to a Christian wife? So here it is. Suppose for a moment you lived in ancient Israel, in a time when slavery was practiced. A runaway slave shows up on your doorstep, and he tells you a horror story about what caused him to run away. The law here is straightforward. You may not return such an escaped slave to his master. Suppose a couple days later the master shows up and demands that his slave be returned to him. He says that the charges and accusations made by the slave are entirely false. The master denies them all, but even if he does this, the law nevertheless requires that the slave not be returned. This is the case even if it is just one person’s word against another. The escaped slave does not need to show up on your doorstep with two or three witnesses in tow. And this is where things get “curiouser,” as we might read in Alice, and this is where I want to derive a principle that we should apply to your situation. Suppose the slave wanted to press charges against his master, and let us suppose further that all the abuses he alleges against his master were in fact against the law, even against slaves, and were very serious – felonies, in fact. The slave still does not have two or three witnesses, and so this means that he cannot bring a charge against his (former) master. The master cannot be charged with crimes apart from independent corroboration, but it is nevertheless possible for the master to have a pay some kind of penalty for his behavior—that penalty being the loss of the slave. Now let’s translate. Your brother told me that they have already told you that you are welcome to come and stay with them. You have a safe place to go. Your kids are both away at college, and so you don’t have to worry about leaving anyone behind. You show up on your brother’s doorstep, and you say that your husband’s behavior has been ungodly and intolerable. According to this principle found in Scripture, they have every right to take you in, even though they have not heard your husband’s side of it. Let me say that again—there is a lower bar for a reception of a refugee than for charges to be filed against someone. This is not because we suddenly don’t care about Proverbs 18:17, about which we’ll have more in a minute. One of the first things that will happen – given what I know about your church’s practices in these things – is that one of the elders will contact you and say that you need to return. If you feel you need to bring charges against your husband, he will say, they will schedule a meeting for you to do so, and so on. At this point you should say that Scripture prohibits entertaining a charge against an elder if you don’t have two or three witnesses (1 Tim 5:19), and in fact you don’t have two or three witnesses. You are the only real witness. If you were to come back to charge him, it would simply be your word against his, and you know that they would be scripturally bound not to convict him, not to excommunicate him. You would support them in not convicting him. Because of your commitment to justice and due process, you have no intention of bringing a charge against anyone that cannot be independently verified. You also have no intention of putting up with it any further. Now if your departure shakes him up, and your husband acknowledges his fault, acknowledges what he has been doing, then your position has been independently verified, and it might be worthwhile returning in pursuit of some kind of marriage counseling and reconciliation. But if he does not humble himself, and simply denies everything, and you know that he is denying what you know to be undeniable, you are in no way required to return. But let me include something else here that really needs to be emphasized. Because I am saying that a wife in your position can simply “go,” then it follows that all any woman needs to do is just say she is in your position (whether she is or not), and there she has her automatic “get out jail free card.” What is to prevent a woman from applying this principle in a way that grotesquely wrongs an innocent husband? This is a fallen world, which means we must take risks. This is one of them. The biblical approach is that it is always to be preferred to allow a guilty person to go free, a guilty person to “get away with it,” than to ever penalize an innocent person. This is what necessarily happens whenever you insist upon two and three witnesses. What happens when just one person sees a person do some awful thing? You have to let it go; it is not actionable. You cannot convict anyone for anything on the basis of just one person’s say-so. It is the same kind of principle here. It is far better to let one lying wife go free without penalty than to keep an innocent wife in the penalty of living in a terrible situation. In the worst-case scenario, an innocent man loses a wife, but keep in mind it was a lying wife. When one person knows But let’s take that one-person-as-witness situation one step further. I am going to make up a very unlikely scenario simply in order to highlight the principle. Suppose I get called out in the middle of the night – as sometimes happens to pastors – in order to fetch somebody out of a place he ought not to be. I do so, and am escorting a straying sheep out of some nightclub and back to the parking lot. It is 2 am, and the nightclub is attached to a hotel. As I am helping him down the hallway, a room door opens and I see another one of my parishioners standing there behind a woman who is very much not his wife. He reaches over and slams the door. I know that I did not mistake him for somebody else. I go to confront him the next day, and he denies everything. In the interim he has lined up some other people to lie on his behalf. He was someplace else. His word against mine, and yet I know he is an adulterer. Would I have a problem serving him communion the next Sunday? No, I would not. He should have a problem with it, but I do not. I have no authority as a pastor to act publicly on the basis of individual knowledge that I cannot independently verify. But there is more to the story. While I cannot excommunicate anyone on the basis of one witness, even if that witness is me, there are any number of other things I can do. I have the authority to arrange my personal relationships on the basis of personal knowledge. I can refuse to go fishing with him. I can leave his employment. I can decline to go into a business deal with him. I can configure my own decisions on the basis of what I know. Someone might guess that there is something disrupting my fellowship with this man, but not because I am making a public charge. The person who guesses is drawing an inference from personal decisions. Application and misapplication This is what your elders will do if you leave. They will say that even if you are not making a formal charge of “abusive tyrant” against him, people will infer that you are alleging something very serious against him, and this is why they say you must come back and make your allegations in some public way. And they will say that if you can’t prove your allegations, such that he is excommunicated, then you have a responsibility to remain with him. But this doesn’t follow. It is possible that they will move to discipline you for leaving him without adequate biblical grounds. This is why I think they would be unjustified in doing so.
“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” – 1 Cor. 7:10-11If you could prove that your husband were unfaithful (Matt. 19:9), or that he was utterly unwilling to have you as a Christian wife (1 Cor. 7:15), then the scriptural permission to divorce carries with it the permission to remarry. The innocent party is not bound in such circumstances. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But if you cannot prove either infidelity or a rejection tantamount to divorce, then your circumstances vary accordingly. If he were proven to be guilty of either of these sins, and either unrepented sin would result in him being excommunicated, and declared not a believer, then that would leave you free. But if you cannot prove this against him, then the full extent of the action you can take is that of simply leaving. But, with that said, you can leave with your head held high. Your only options at such a point are to remain unmarried or to be reconciled to your husband. It is interesting here that Paul advises a woman not to leave if she can help it – “the wife should not separate from her husband.” That is his apostolic counsel, but it is clear from the context that it is merely advice. If she sees that his generally good advice is not pertinent to her situation, she is left free to leave without being hassled about it by the apostle. So if he would leave you alone in this decision, then so should the elders of your church. It is also interesting that Paul does not here get into the grounds for the separation. If there are not grounds for a divorce that allows for a subsequent remarriage, the church doesn’t adjudicate it. If the parties are willing, the church must provide pastoral counsel, but if there is simply a separation over intractable differences, Paul just allows for the separation, even though it may be one that has gone against his counsel – he did in fact urge the wife not to separate from her husband. Note also that it is the wife he is exhorting in this passage, meaning that in the larger scheme of things, he is assuming that wives could have plausible reasons for thinking they had to go. Husbands can be brutal, as the apostle knew. At the same time, I have known situations where the wife thought her husband was her central problem in her walk with God, but then after she left, her walk with God really fell apart. It turns out in that the husband wasn’t the big problem after all. You should also know that there is a cottage industry of busybody counselors, bitter women, who will want to swoop in order to enlist your grievances into their causes, whatever they are. Beware of them. Steer clear of them. One of your biggest challenges will be that of staying free from resentment and bitterness, and not only is their counsel usually bad, their resentments are contagious. That is the last thing you need. Running it by objective eyes One last thing. The Westminster Confession, in its teaching on divorce, says something profound and wise that I believe applies to your situation. They say that the corruption of man is such that we are liable to “study arguments” that would justify ungodly divorce, and they then go on to repeat the two standard justifications for a divorce – those being adultery and willful desertion. The word used in Corinthians for an unbelieving husband being willing to remain with his wife, or an unbelieving wife being willing to remain with her husband is suneudokeo – “pleased to be together with.” The semantic range of that word does not include your reports of what your husband does – constant anger, outbursts of wrath, sexually degrading behavior, ongoing manipulation and gaslighting, treating you like a slave, total control of all things physical and financial, and so on. You have no biblical obligation to put up with things like that. In a situation like yours, they say “the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case” (WCF 24.6). I believe you are in a position to leave – you have run it by others who are outside the circumstance, and who have an objective set of eyes. You have done this with both your brother and with me. Having done so, you should make a plan, and then pack your bags and go. The plan should include a list of your husband’s ongoing offenses against you, a list that should be shared with your counselor/s, and with the elders of your church when they contact you. Because you can’t prove them, you should share them with no one else, and above all you should not publish them online in any way. And so, given what you have described, my counsel would be for you to go. If you are concerned for your husband’s salvation – as you should be – you are far more likely to be used as an instrument to bring him to repentance as you pursue obedience to God this way. For the rest, leave the consequences to God. “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband” (1 Cor. 7:16). We will be praying for you, and God bless. Cordially in Christ, Douglas Wilson
This a fictionalized account, which first appeared on Pastor Wilson’s blog dougwils.com and is reprinted here with permission. It addresses some of the issues raised by readers after the article "Justin Trudeau, and what the need for two witnesses would have us do" appeared earlier this month.