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Society’s Pillars

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

This year’s presidential campaign has opened a window to America’s soul, giving us a look at what is important to the citizens of our nation. As people talk about what they want in a president, they reveal what they believe to be the pillars of our society. The polls say we are looking for the candidate who will be strong on defense and an expert in diplomacy, skilled in economics and merciful to the poor, able to make snap judgments in the moment of crisis but thoughtful and open to opposing views at the same time. Character is important to us, but so are policy, energy, the environment, taxes, the war, and foreign relations.

The current dialogue does touch on some very important issues, but few polls include what is perhaps the most important pillar of our society: the family. Without families our nation could not survive.

A number of interesting articles have come across my desk over the last few months that prove family’s value to society. The London Times, for example, printed an article on the current population crisis in Russia. Russian church leaders and politicians are doing everything they can to promote traditional family life. Russia’s population has been steadily sinking since the fall of the Soviet Union, shrinking by 7 million since 1992 to 142 million. Sociologists predict that the country could lose another 30 percent of its population by the middle of this century. Much of this has to do with the breakdown of families in Russia, where 80 percent of marriages end in divorce. In 2006 President Putin described the situation as “the gravest problem facing modern Russia.

Things are a little better for Americans, but no much. Over the last 35 years marriages have suffered a tremendous decline. For example, in 1970, almost 72 percent of all adults in the U.S. were married; that number has fallen to less than 60 percent today. Thirty-five years ago over 85 percent of children in the U.S. lived with their married parents; today that figure has come down to 59.7 percent. The number of children born out of wedlock is on the rise. The Institute for American Values co-authored a major study with two other organizations that reports the damage broken homes inflict on society. One of the findings reported in the study is that the impact of divorce and unwed child-bearing costs taxpayers a minimum of $112 billion annually.

Louis H. Evans draws a helpful analogy that illustrates just how much depends on the home:

When a pier juts out into the ocean, it is utterly at the mercy of the individual pilings on which it stands. Strike out a piling from beneath it and the whole structure suffers a shock and the pier is weakened. Every nation juts out into the social sea, resting upon the pilings of its individual homes. Every time a home is destroyed, the whole nation suffers a severe thundershock. No nation can stand for long with one-quarter of its pilings gone or damaged (The Marriage Affair, p. 9).

God created family and based it upon the foundational truth first revealed to Adam and Eve and recorded by the prophet Moses: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Threats to this plan like adultery, homosexuality, cohabitation, and divorce don’t just damage one home. They affect the entire society. Knock out enough of its pillars, and any nation will fall. Even our own.

A Conversation about Divorce

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Now that about half of all marriages end in divorce, Christians are faced with tough questions as they try to reconcile Christ’s teachings with a culture that is less than serious about its marriage vows.

Few passages in the New Testament address divorce and remarriage, but those that do are quite clear regarding God’s will in the matter. One of the passages that stirs up more questions on divorce than perhaps any other is 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, with special emphasis on the so-called “Pauline privilege” in verse 15. Some contend that Paul permits remarriage under any circumstance, saying that divorcees are not “enslaved” or “under bondage.” But a careful reading of the statement in context will show that this interpretation does not suit the passage at large.

Paul uses a familiar literary device in 1 Corinthians 7 that can be found throughout his letters whereby he anticipates questions or concerns on the part of his readers and addresses them as if they were asked while he was writing the letter. In essence, he is having a conversation with an imaginary student. If we read his thoughts on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 with this perspective, we will understand God’s will on the matter.

The conversation goes something like this:

Student: “Paul, I know that you are single, and I have even heard you say on occasion that its easier for a person to devote his life to God when he does not have a family. Should I leave my husband?”

Paul: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband…and the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Student: “But what if she does? Can she marry another?”

Paul: “If she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:11).

Student: “My husband is not a Christian. I want to give my life to the Lord, but I feel that he is a bad influence on me. Should I leave him and remain single?”

Paul: “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (1 Cor. 7:12-13).

Student: “But my husband is already talking about leaving me. We have so many differences that I fear it will impossible for us to work them out. Will God judge me if my marriage falls apart? Will I be placed in a state of perpetual sin through no fault of my own?”

Paul: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15).

Clearly, Paul is not discussing grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage. He is responding to an entirely different issue–that of a Christian who has been abandoned by her spouse. A “Pauline privilege” would put Paul in conflict with what the Lord has already said on the matter. Remarriage following a divorce is allowed only when the divorce took place on the grounds of sexual immorality (i.e., unlawful sexual intercourse) (Mt. 5:31-32; 19:9).

An interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15 which allows remarriage under any circumstances will not work in the context. If that is the interpretation, this is what we make Paul to say in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15.

Married couples should not divorce, but if they do, they should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to one another.

If marriage does not work out, and a couple gets a divorce, the former partners are no longer bound to each other. They are free to remarry, no matter what.

Was Paul saying nonsense? Only if we try to project unlimited remarriage privileges on his statements. A better approach is to acknowledge the concerns of Paul’s original audience and interpret his words accordingly.

Questions & Answers

Monday, June 4th, 2007

“Please explain the ESV’s translation of Malachi 2:16.”

Technically speaking, this is the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. In truth, it was asked sometime late last year, and I have put it off until now because I didn’t really know how to answer it.

Since the English Standard Version of the Bible was published in 2001, preachers, elders, and Bible class teachers have been comparing it to their translation of choice. Some, such as myself, have even chosen to make the ESV their default translation for preaching and writing. As it is the case with all translations, the ESV has its strong points and weak points.

But I may never understand why it decided to break from every other major translation in its rendering of Malachi 2:16. Here is the verse, as the ESV translates it, within its context.

…the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by convenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yoruselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless (emphasis has been added to the wording in question, D.K.).

A comparison with other translations (e.g. KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, and NIV) shows that the ESV separated itself from the herd by ascribing hatred to the man who divorces his wife; the rest ascribe hatred to God towards divorce. While this is a significant difference, it should be pointed out that none of the translations casts divorce in a positive light. Thus, I can detect no ulterior motives on the part of the ESV translation committee.

The problem is that Malachi 2:15-16 is very difficult to translate. Without getting too complicated, the subject for the verb “hate” is not named in the original. And it appears to be in the third person, although the statement is attributed to the Lord, making the translation “I hate” grammatically awkward. The ESV was evidently shooting for a clean rendering, complete with subject-verb agreement by assigning the hatred to the man who divorces.

A defense of this wording can be found in the footnotes. The Septuagint, and early Greek translation of the Old Testament, is mentioned. Like the ESV it connects the hatred in Malachi 2:16 to the husband. Rendered in English, it reads, “But if thou shouldest hate thy wife and put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, then ungodliness shall cover thy thoughts.”

The footnotes also allude to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the classic Old Testament text on divorce, where Moses permits the Israelites to issue a certificate of divorce (cf. Mt. 19:3-9). In that text “hatred” is used in connection with the husband who divorces his wife.

It appears that the ESV translators felt that these two ancient witnesses built a strong case for making a departure from centuries of English translation. This is strange, because the ESV prides itself as being a word-for-word, literal translation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. As I have pointed out before on Truth and Repose, there have been times when the ESV has refused to lean on the Septuagint and other biblical passages. Why, then, does it choose to do so here at the expense of breaking a centuries-long translational tradition?

Since most authorities render the passage “I hate divorce,” ascribing the hatred to God, that is the best translation in my judgment. If the concept of hatred seems incompatible with a loving and merciful God to some, they should know that there are many abominations of the Lord (cf. Lev. 18:22; Prov. 6:16-19). The capacity to love deeply necessitates a capacity to hate that which threatens the objects of one’s affection. There are two sides to every coin.

I still prefer the ESV to other English Bibles because of its devotion to a word-for-word translation, its readability, and the dignity of its style. If there is a lesson to be learned out of this discussion, it is that all translations are from man and that we should keep several versions on hand for study, so that we can know we are discerning God’s will for our lives.