Picking & choosing from Jesus’ commands

The following is a portion of an e-mail exchange I had with a long time friend. Let’s call him B Lamb…actually Benjy L…better yet we’ll just call him BL to protect his identity. Anyway, BL’s questions surround a church’s seemingly arbitrary application of Jesus’ teaching in Mat 5:27-45 (take a quick read for yourself if you’re not familiar w/ the passage). BL’s questions/comments lead off (italicized) w/ the first half of my response (w/ minor editing) following. The 2nd half of my response will follow in a subsequent post.

Why do we take the words about divorce so literally when we do not take anything else taught in that passage literally? No one cuts out their eye or cuts off their hands. We make promises all the time instead of just letting our yes be yes. We fight back against those that hurt us. And we kill our enemies instead of praying for them and doing good to them. But we have strict guidelines about who we allow to get married in our church based on this verse!?! So the only logical conclusion that I come to based on how we practice these verses is that everything Jesus taught in this passage was metaphorical except His teaching about divorce – that is literal.

1) Sadly, it’s easier to hold a literal interpretation on a teaching that doesn’t affect you personally. Many (most?) of us don’t think they have to worry about divorce so it’s easier to take a hard line there than on persecution, swearing, etc. where we’re more likely to be confronted w/ Jesus’ teaching in real life.

2) Christian obedience will always be a progressive work. To a certain extent I shouldn’t find it shocking to find inconsistency in our application of Scripture. Our objective is to commend Spirit-led obedience where it’s found and to challenge ourselves in those areas where we lack. The church’s fidelity to Christ’s teaching on marriage/divorce can be used as a platform to promote greater fidelity to swearing & persecution teaching. (see, for example, Jesus simultaneously commending & convicting churches in Rev 2-3). As we commend & challenge we serve the church well to pray for a greater work of the Spirit to get our eyes wide open.

3) Cultural setting can affect how we interpret & implement certain commands. “Pray for those who persecute you” has a radically different meaning for a constitutionally protected American Christian when compared to an Afghan Christian. It can be difficult to chart a path for living out Christ’s commands when society affords me additional privileges and protections—especially when those protections are God ordained. In certain instances even Paul took advantage of civil law rather than take a beating or suffer a miscarriage of justice (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11).

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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