(For a Word document of this article, click here)

Unity and Separation, Article #2

When Christians of all denominations and persuasions talk about the weather, cars, food or computers, there is little disagreement and only preferences tend to divide us. Some like sweetened coffee while others like it black or prefer tea. With sports and politics, it gets a little heavy at times, but nothing is taken so seriously as religion.

When it comes to religion, unity is rare and disagreement abounds. It does not just exist between Christians and Muslims, but between individuals and groups within the same religion. Muslims are a quarrelsome bunch, but Christians are not far behind them. There are a million divisions in Christianity and to name just one subdivision, there are several hundreds brands of Baptists. In my wife’s home town, three Methodist Churches within a stone’s throw of each other, have little fellowship with each other but do throw occasional stones. Of course no true Christian would separate over a triviality, however, the reasons deemed important enough to separate over appear trivial to outsiders. The Amish are seen by most as a homogenous group, but they are divided over the color of their horse-drawn buggies and as to whether buttons should be allowed on clothing.

Just as we all agree on what constitutes a healthy physical body, nearly all Christians can achieve a good degree of unanimity in what would describe good and bad persons. Good people work hard, care for others, are honest and live disciplined lives, while bad people lie, cheat, steal and kill. No argument! It becomes increasingly difficult when imperfections arise.

As a rule, divisions are a sign of spiritual weakness in the church rather than spiritual strength. If most of the membership is well grounded in scripture, different opinions and interpretations would not pose a great threat. If many members are not grounded in the scripture, these could lead to big problems and even a split.

Nothing divides Christians more than those omnipresent human imperfections which seem to abound in our midst. In dealing with these, Christians are forever dividing and forming new groups, which entrench themselves for their own protection and for the “defense of the faith”. There are numerous “friendly fire” casualties, but the victim is always guilty for placing himself in the line of fire.

Ironically, the primary force that divides Christians, is that which should unite us, love. Some Christians separate out of a love of truth and others separate out of love for one another. If you believe that personal relationships are of primary importance, you will be willing to make compromises in the truth – what God expects of us. If you believe that adherence to the truth is most important, you will be more supportive of church discipline. We name these tendencies “tolerance” and “legalism”.

Today, tolerant churches are growing in numbers while legalistic churches tend to shrink. There was a time, however, when the opposite was true. Throughout the middle ages, the slightest departure from truth was declared to be heresy, punishable by torture or even death. Human beings, peasants in particular, were cheap and expendable. Today, personal relationships claim center stage and biblical truth takes a back seat.

A similar situation prevailed in Israel when Jesus was born. Shammai and Hillel were the leading teachers in Israel during the half century prior to Christ’s birth and their influence was felt for years afterward. Both men represented Pharisaic thought, but Hillel, who died 20 years after Christ’s birth, showed a readiness to compromise on minor issues. Shammai, who died 15 years before the birth of Christ) was known to be harsh, dogmatic and legalistic.

I won’t spend much time discussing the Sadducees, the Herodians and Ascetics here, but these Hebrew sects also contributed to the general confusion and division among the Jewish people.

The question of divorce can serve to illustrate the sharp dissention between the schools of Shammai and Hillel.

According to Deuteronomy 24:1, Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife: When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

Both groups viewed the Torah as infallible Word of God, but hefty arguments prevailed among Jewish leaders as to what Moses meant by the word “uncleanness“. The school of Shammai taught that a man was allowed to divorce his wife only if she committed adultery and if eyewitnesses attested to this. He argued that marriage was for keeps and could not be divorced under any other circumstances. He used Malechai 2:14-16 to prove his point.

Rabbi Hillel taught that the Hebrew word which Moses used can be defined as “something evil” or even “disobedience”. According to Hillel, a man could give his wife a letter of divorce if she refused to obey him or burned his food. Rabbi Akiba, a representative of the Hillel school who died in 135 AD, expanded this interpretation to allow a man to divorce his wife if he found another who was more desirable!

When Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce in Matthew 19:3-9, they were definitely referring to this heated debate. Judging from their reaction, it must have caught the disciples somewhat by surprise, that Jesus supported Shammai’s position rather than Hillel’s.

The matter of divorce and remarriage is a divisive issue in Christian circles today. That is not because Christians are divided on what God’s perfect plan for man and woman is. Most agree that God created man and woman in a manner that makes them compatible and fruitful. Unfortunately, the perfect woman and perfect man existed only once and that didn’t last long. Since Adam and Eve sinned, men have been arguing about how to deal with problems and imperfections that plague marriages. Even here, the great majority of Christians agree that a couple with differences should attempt to resolve these and get on with life. We even offer them help, called “marriage counseling”.

When all efforts to save a marriage fail and the couple separates, Christians find it difficult to agree on what to do about it. The purists make it virtually impossible for such individuals to join a church and if they are already members, they are all but escorted to the exit. Because there are so many divorces and so few purists, such groups are rare. A large number of churches allows divorcees to be members, but excludes them from certain ministries and offices. Some Churches exclude divorcees from participating in communion or mass. A rapidly growing segment of Christianiy contends that God’s forgiveness is all inclusive and they make no difference between singles, married or divorced individuals.

We witness the same tendencies towards legalism and tolerance today as in the time of Christ. Consider the following scenario:
A young man loses his wife in a tragic accident and he is left with a 2-year old daughter to care for. He is a church member in good standing who serves as a Deacon, teaches Sunday School and even preaches on occasion.

Then he begins a friendly relationship with a divorced mother of two darling, well disciplined children, who is also a member of the church. Before her conversion, she endured much hardship, living with an alcoholic who was also unfaithful. She has been a faithful member now for several years and is recognized as a fine, dedicated Christian.

Both are well-liked by everyone. Although they expressed no intent of getting married, many church members secretly hoped that they do so. Some began to pray that the divorcee’s ex-husband would die so that nothing would stand in the way of such a celebration.

The divorcee’s ex-husband did not die and they eventually married. They now have two children of their own in addition to their three children from the first marriages. They are still members of the church, but he may no longer preach, teach or hold an office.

The situation I just described is true in every detail, for I know this couple personally. Situations like that are not as rare as one might think. Many pastors have lost countless hours of sleep and not a few have lost their jobs for the way they acted or neglected to act in similar situations. What would your position be? Would you show tolerance or insist on church discipline according to biblical teaching? And most important, would you put your reputation and job on the line?

Many if not most Christians today have the same problem that plagued Gamaliel in Jesus’ day. I must unfortunately include myself when I state that in theological disputes, we often fail to think logically. Our heads are stuffed with Bible knowledge and our hearts desire to know the truth, but the moment we shift our thinking to theological matters, the real world around us gets out of focus and we become all but oblivious to the obvious. Heavenly spirituality seldom gets down to earth.

The story of Gamaliel is important because his dilemma is ours. The religious leaders of his day were hopelessly snarled in theological debates which, humanly speaking, were irresolvable. Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, Ascetics and others held the scriptures in high esteem, but there was little agreement and their conflicting teachings caused much confusion among the populace.

Jesus arrived on the scene in the midst of all this and made these “super spiritual” men look like fools. Even at 12 years, Jesus confounded the religious teachers with his questions and wisdom. The scriptures were recognized as the absolute basis of authority by both Jesus and the Pharisees, yet Jesus taught as one having authority and not as the scribes (Matt. 7:29).

The difference was in the logic of Jesus’ teaching. There was little logic in the argumentations of the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, but they were not capable of recognizing the foolishness of their debates. It was quite obvious to most Jews, however. Jesus opened difficult passages of scriptures by using simple illustrations, parables and most importantly, he utilized good logical argumentation. The common people heard him gladly (Matt. 12:37).

I recently read two books that are as different as one could imagine, yet they have one important thing in common. One of the books is titled “CODE”. It was written by one of Microsoft’s top men, Charles Petzold in 1999. The second book was written in 1724 by a man better known for his prolific hymn writing, Isaac Watts. Watt’s book is titled, “LOGIC”. What both authors have in common is the importance they place on logic. Both computing and Christian thinking depend upon good logic if the outcome is to be deemed reliable.

A prominent evangelical church leader in Europe recently made headlines, when he gave a speech on the subject of divorce and remarriage. He contended that it is permissible for divorced persons to remarry under certain circumstances. Several other European church leaders responded by writing long rebuttals of his proposal. Both sides of the debate make generous use of scripture and give examples to underscore their positions, but they will probably never come to any agreement. Their arguments fail to follow the rules of sound logic. This was also the problem which divided the Jewish leaders in the time of Christ.

It is important that we follow the basic rules of logic when debating an issue. Logic is a process of deductive reasoning. It might be better understood if we say that it is the opposite of irrational and arrogantly dogmatic argumentation. We are all familiar with the latter!

First of all, logic expects all sides to agree on the rules of debate. If Christians involved in a debate on divorce agree that the Bible is the sole basis for determining a matter, then it is not allowable to depart from a clear scriptural teaching, nor to treat other sources of information as equally legitimate. In order to do this, all parties must agree on a different set of rules.

Secondly, terminology must be defined. When a politician promises to take “meaningful and significant measures”, we know that this statement means nothing measurably significant. Christians too, have a tendency to use complicated and unclear terminology when dealing with difficult subjects. A clear definition is necessary if a word used can have more than one definition or usage. In such cases, logic requires us to decide which definition fits. It is not logical to twist meanings to fit our own agenda.

Thirdly, logic is consistent. Consistency is closely related to being consequent. A striking difference between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day was his consequence and their inconsequence. Over and over, Jesus called on them to be consequent. “You ask me a question; I will ask you a question. You answer mine and I will answer yours”. Logic is consequent.

The Bible says on several occasions, that keeping two sets of weights is anathema to God. We are not to entertain double standards. This characteristic of religious leaders in Jesus’ day evoked the harshest words of judgment that were ever uttered by Jesus. He had a special name for those who used double standards. He called them “hypocrites”.

The Sermon on the Mount is basically a sermon about consistency in interpreting scripture. To the people, he said, “You have heard it said…; but I say…” If God is perfect, then He must expect perfection of us. If you think you are pretty good because you haven’t committed adultery, think again! Even evil thoughts are sin and if you think it, you commit it in your heart! You lust and you are an adulterer. You think evil of someone, you killed him! Peter thought it would be very generous to forgive a person seven times for the same offence, but Jesus said we should forgive seventy times seven times. You may want to stone me for saying this, but when it comes to sin, God is absolutely intolerant! Religious leaders of Jesus’ day tried to stone him as well. Consequent teaching is not always popular. The “gospel” means “good news”, but it sounded like bad news to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and most people still don’t like it.

Fouthly, logic demands that all participants in a debate be considered equal. I call this aspect “a humble heart”. The word “humility” comes from the root word, “human”. The so-called “golden rule” says, And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Few Bible scholars realize that this saying did not originate with Jesus. He was quoting a rather obscure verse included in a long list of seemingly trivial laws in Leviticus 19. It was the famous Jewish Rabbi, Hillel, who made this quote famous, but his disciples had difficulty following the rule when involved in theological debate. Jesus re-formulated this rule in John 13:34, giving it a powerful new twist. He said, A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. This was henceforth called the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).

Love of man was considered by Hillel as the kernel of the entire Jewish teaching. When a heathen who wished to become a Jew asked him for a summary of the Jewish religion in the most concise terms, Hillel said: "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary" (Shab. 31a). With these words Hillel recognized as the fundamental principle of the Jewish moral law the Biblical precept of brotherly love (Lev. xix. 18).

Almost the same thing was taught by Paul, a student of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel (Gal. v. 14; comp. Rom. xiii. 8); and more broadly by Jesus when he declared the love of one's neighbor to be the second great commandment after love of God (Matt. xxii. 39; Mark xii. 31; Luke x. 27). It may be assumed without argument that Hillel's answer to the proselyte, which is extant in a narrative in the Babylonian Talmud (comp. also Ab. R. N., recension B., cxxvi. [ed. Schechter, p. 53]), was generally known in Palestine, and that it was not without its effect on the founder of Christianity. It must not be forgotten that Jesus gave his answer to a scribe, whereas Hillel answered the question of a prospective proselyte, to whom it was necessary first of all to show how the teachings of Judaism are to be practised by him who wishes to accept them. The Pharisaic scribes who approved of Jesus' answer evidently belonged to Hillel's school. It is interesting to note that Jesus restated Hillel's Law from the negative form ("Do not do unto another that which you would not want done to you.") to the positive form ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.").

Philip and Stephen were among the seven deacons selected in Acts 6 to meet the physical needs of needy believers. “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4) Shortly afterwards, we find Stephen and Philip preaching the gospel. After Stephen was brutally murdered, begins to preach and a great revival breaks out (Acts 8:6-8). When the Ethiopian Eunuch needed someone to explain the scriptures, God sent Philip. Why not Peter, James, John or one of the other apostles, who had given themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word?

In our Bible Institute, we recognized the danger of placing the value of academic prowess above humble service and instilled the importance of the latter in our students. In church history as well as in the church today, the most effective ministers of the Word are those who have a heart for people and their needs.

Even if we are absolutely certain that we are right and the other is wrong, we must be willing to listen and even be open for correction if we expect this of the other side. The learning process can not function if we think we already have all the right answers. People who are simply pushing their agenda do not have the right to be heard. Without consideration of and concern for the other person, our debate is heartless and will prove to be ineffective.

If you have ever argued with representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, you probably noticed that they only seem concerned about winning arguments. They are seldom willing to listen to what you have to say. I usually remind them politely, that they are two persons while I am only one. They come fully prepared in what they want to say and say it, but they are not willing to listen to my impromptu arguments from the Bible.

In Philippians 4:2, Paul admonished two quarreling sisters to be of one mind in the Lord. He didn’t say that they were to agree. There will never be total agreement in a church if there are more than two members. But we can and should seek to be of one mind in the Lord. We must honestly seek the mind of the Lord in any matter even while arguing our position.

The humility of Jesus set him apart from the Jewish religious leaders and won the affection of the common people. His popularity caused Gamaliel and company much stress. Jewish religious leaders built themselves up, loved high sounding titles and prestigious positions. The son of God preferred to call himself the “son of man”. He showed himself to be human, with a heart for people and their needs. He said, Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

In order to illustrate how sound logic would relate to the divorce debate now or 2000 years ago, I will make a few statements that you may or may not agree with.

The Bible (Moses) allows divorce. The Bible (Jesus) says that divorce is sin. We must conclude that divorce is sin, but allowed.

Jesus did not allow for divorce nor could he because divorce is wrong. He merely said that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts.

So now we need to define terminology. What did Moses and Jesus mean by the word “allowed”? If we think about this logically, we must concede that both Moses and Jesus are equally opposed to divorce and consider it to be wrong. Moses makes a law concerning divorce because the hardness of men’s hearts. This condition demands action on his part. Couples separate and that is a fact. It is not logical to insist that a couple is married when by every definition of the word, they are no longer husband and wife. The law of Moses “allows for “ divorce or recognizes the condition, but in no way permits or condones it. We are all sinners and God doesn’t prevent us from sinning. Does that mean God gives us permission to sin? Is that a logical statement?

No matter what we believe, the fact remains, that people who do not resolve their differences get divorced. And some of these people get married again. The Bible clearly states that divorce does not please God, but we are in the same position that Moses found himself in. What can or should we do about it? Ignore it? Tolerate it? Should these people be excommunicated or perhaps stoned? Should they in some way be ostracized as a warning to others who may consider following their example? Or should we consider each case on its own merits and circumstances and decide accordingly on a course of action?

The Bible gives us examples, but I doubt if many Christians would resort to stoning someone and few churches would be so kind and considerate as Jesus was, to a woman who had gone through five husbands and was living out of wedlock with a sixth. If we can think logically, it should be possible to find ways to deal with the problem of divorce.

One of the European church leaders, who objected to divorcees remarrying, conceded that this is sometimes the “lesser evil.” A young mother trying desperately to raise her children with no father and forced to work long, hard hours in order to provide for them, is a pitiful situation. It is possible for a young man who is divorced to remain sexually abstinent for the rest of his life, but experience teaches that it seldom happens. For one thing, there are many single young women who are desperate for a husband and don’t care if he was previously married.

I have not mentioned the hundreds of other difficult constellations that present themselves in the matter of sexual relationships. If a couple lives together for a few years without marrying, does this prevent them from marrying someone else? And if they do, could they hold a church office? Or if one partner is converted, do we encourage the couple to marry or separate? What if they have children? And what about adultery? Does this constitute remarriage in a biblical sense (I Cor. 6:16)? Or to put the question differently, can an unmarried person who has had a sexual relationship marry anyone other than that person?

One of my roommates in Bible College was engaged to be married to a fine Christian girl. A Dean of the school spoke with him and asked if he had ever had a sexual relationship with someone else. He said that he had. To this, the Dean said, that according to scripture, he was already united in marriage. If he married any other person, he would be living in sin. My roommate was devastated. He confided to me that the girl with whom he had committed this act was his own sister who was now happily married. If the Dean had known the details, he may have ruled differently, but would that have been consistent and logical?

I am bringing all this to our attention in order to show how difficult it can be to interpret scriptures without good sound logic. God created us with the capacity of thinking rationally and logically. Logic can in no way cancel or replace scriptures, but it is sometimes our only recourse when the Bible is silent or unclear.

A classic example of inconsequence is the Roman Catholic teaching on transubstantiation. Although the church fathers often ignore clear teachings of the Bible when it serves their purposes, they claim that this teaching is based on a literal understanding of the words of Jesus. If they were really consequent, they would teach that the cup and not its contents becomes the actual blood of Christ (in Luke 22:20 Jesus said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood which is shed for you”).

People who deny the reliability of the Bible sometimes use arguments that are just as silly. One self-acclaimed scientist (he took a couple of science courses) told me, “Who would trust a book which declares that the world has four corners!” If this “scientist” is consequent, he can never refer to “east” and “west” as geographical areas, because this would be unscientific. We have a north and a south pole, but where does east and west begin or end? Nor could he speak of sunrise and sunset, “raining cats and dogs” or a thousand other things. When lovers stand gazing at a full moon, they are being deluded. The first astronauts landed on the moon and brought a few rocks back to earth. We can conclude that there has been no full moon since the first moon landing.

These may be absolute truth, but is it logical to make an issue of this and accuse people of lying when they talk about the full moon? Or should we say, “what is left of the moon is full”?

When logic is removed from either science or faith, the result is confusion and foolishness. We do not need to understand everything that the Bible says in order to believe it. I don’t fully understand electricity, but I believe it. Human logic is a great asset in understanding the truth and to dispense with logic places us in danger of believing falsely.

This was the situation among the religious leaders in Israel of Jesus’ day. The silly rules that these people concocted and the arguments resulting from them would make a great comedy. But before we scoff too much at their nonsense, we should honestly ask ourselves if we are guilty of similar illogical statements or beliefs.

Unfortunately, there is much illogical argumentation and interpretation of scripture in Christian circles. Some teach that we should have regular foot washings in our churches because the Bible tells us to do this. Of course no one would show up at one of these services with dirty feet! Other churches require women to cover their heads in church because the Bible commands it. Like the Pharisees, these church leaders have further refined and defined the rules. Ladies may take off their head coverings during certain parts of the service.

A pastor with a Master of Theology degree claimed that Jesus never made any mistakes. After the service, I suggested that this was a misleading statement. Certainly Jesus never sinned, but he probably stumbled when learning to walk and bent a few nails when helping in his father’s carpenter shop. It is doubtful that he spoke perfect Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic from day one. The educated pastor was horrified that I could even insinuate such a thing! So much for logic.

In 38 years of missionary service, I served as pastor of several churches, baptized believers, married couples and conducted funerals. I ran a printing and publishing operation, worked with drug addicts, helped start an international youth organization and founded a Bible Institute. But few people know that I am not an ordained minister. I did once appear before an ordination council, but I flunked.

In my ordination council, a pastor asked me if it was possible for a person who never heard the gospel to be saved. I quoted the passage, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed ? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard ? and how shall they hear without a preacher ? And how shall they preach, except they be sent ? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans 10:14-15). I was repremanded to give only “yes” or “no” answers unless prompted for more. I then shocked the pastors present by answering in the affirmative. This time, I was asked to explain myself. I said that with God, all things are possible and that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:20).

The men were obviously not happy with my answer. Another question asked was, “How many chapters are there in the book of Isaiah?” I said that I thought there were 65, but the questioner chided me for my ignorance. I should have known that Isaiah proves the canon of the Bible because it has 66 chapters and is divided into two parts. I argued that to my knowledge, chapter and verse divisions were not necessarily inspired of God. Furthermore, I said that using the same logic, someone could claim that Psalms proves there are 150 books in five testaments! He then said I was a heretic! The council refused to ordain me as a minister, but decided that I could be ordained as a missionary! Is that logical?

We plan and build churches according to popular architectural standards and our own tastes and claim that it is God’s house. We then lock our churches at night to keep drug addicts or other criminals from stealing valuables or desecrating the interior. We argue that we are protecting God’s property. What must unbelievers think of our gospel which declares that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere present, but we have to protect his property?

Why can’t we be honest with ourselves and others. Is that building really God’s house? Certainly, God answered many prayers in the process of planning and building, but in reality it is our church, which we built, where we worship God. Why do we feel that we must put a spiritual coat of paint on that which we build? The real reason we lock the church at night is because our insurance plan would not cover incurred losses. Is there something wrong with saying that?

We must learn to subordinate human logic to the power of God. Earthly logic tells us that someone with a highly contagious disease should be quarantined and dangerous animals should be kept away from little children. But Christ healed the sick and even touched lepers in the process! When he sent the seventy disciples out in Luke 10, he said, I send you as lambs among wolves.

There are two opposing forces at work in this world, the forces of fallen nature and the forces of God’s saving grace.

If we don’t pull weeds out of our garden, they will soon take over and destroy the entire harvest. Jesus gave us a parable with a different twist. The evil one sows tares among the wheat. Both are left to grow side by side until the harvest.

There are times and situations in which we should use church discipline to rid the flock of a dangerous influence, but generally, the influence of God’s people should be greater. All too often, church leaders remove the “tares” when they should spend more time counseling with them. God says, My Word will not return unto me void, but will accomplish that for which I sent it. If we believe this, then logic would teach us to make good and frequent use of God’s Word. In regards to the above parable, someone has said that wheat is merely hybrid tares.

Logically, church decisions should be based on the power of God and His Word, but this is seldom the case. We hire a youth pastor to keep our children off the streets and in a safe, healthy and spiritual environment. If the church functions like a worldly institution, this is perhaps a good idea, but not if the gospel of Jesus Christ which we purport to preach, teach and believe is valid. A youth leader should train and prepare young people to be witnesses in a hostile environment. In the world, darkness prevails, but God’s Word teaches that we are to be the light of the world. The smallest light is stronger than the greatest darkness. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me! What appears to be logical, may not be true logic if we do not consider the power of God.

Ralph V Harvey