Going It Alone

1 Corinthians 7:32-40 (NLT)

I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.

But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. So the person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord. But in my opinion it would be better for her to stay single, and I think I am giving you counsel from God’s Spirit when I say this.

You may have heard jokes about unmarried marriage counselors not being particularly useful. As a man married for more than three decades, I similarly may not be of much use as I try to explore what Paul has to say about celibacy. I’ll do my best, though.

Perhaps the biggest problem any of us will face when processing this text is that our culture sees little value in celibacy, which is the voluntary decision to forgo a sexual relationship. As a people so deeply immersed in the idea that sexuality defines our very being, we see celibacy as a negative state rather than something positive.

Paul clearly was taking early Christians in the other direction. He certainly affirmed marriage and the sexual relationship naturally occurring within a marriage, but he also saw high value in the decision to put aside the sexual aspect of life in order to better serve God. This assumed, of course, that people choosing celibacy were convinced of their ability to live without this powerful drive taking them down the path of sin.

I wonder if that kind of certainty was more easily achieved in a time when sex was not so heavily a part of daily experience, when the world had no advertising or other media so determined to draw our attention through an appeal to our most basic drives.

That is mere speculation. I don’t know the answer. The story that Thomas Aquinas needed a special waist cord brought to him by angels so he could avoid sexual temptation might argue otherwise.

I do know this. People who find themselves drawn to celibate lives because of their love for Jesus Christ have much to offer the kingdom, and should be highly valued in any church setting. They have received a special gift from God, and they may astonish us with their works.

Lord, we thank you for the gifts you pour out on our church, especially the ones we sometimes have a hard time recognizing. Amen.

Seven Churches: False Teachings

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Revelation 2:12-29

As we continue our exploration of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation, let’s deal with the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira together.

In appearance, they were significantly different cities. Pergamum officially was the provincial capital of the Roman Empire, described in other sources as a wealthy and beautiful city. Thyatira lay about 45 miles to the east, and while not considered a great city, it was very commercial, undergirded by a network of trade guilds.

The churches within these cities had the same basic problem. False teaching had made its way inside.

Paganism surrounding the churches exacerbated their situations. Pergamum was a city known for pagan temples set aside for the worship of the Roman emperor and other supposed deities. Several of these temples offered sex with temple priestesses as part of their rituals. No wonder John the Revelator referred to Pergamum as the “city where Satan has his throne.”

In Thyatira, the trade guilds each had a particular patron deity, and their festivals also emphasized sexual revelry. In both cities, there also would have been the consumption of food sacrificed to idols, which implied participation in unholy worship.

These were tough places for Christians to try to live out their basic commitments to marriage as described by Jesus and the apostles. Most people around them would have questioned the Christians’ unwillingness to participate in premarital and extramarital sex.

I have no doubt that at some point, more than one person said to the Christians, “Hey, everybody is doing it!” In our sex-saturated culture, we should certainly understand the struggle, assuming we take our own commitments to Christ seriously.

It’s also not hard to see how dynamic, alluring liars could begin to deceive these churches, convincing their members it was okay to hang out at the temples, fully enjoy the festivities and still be in good standing with Christ. As in any era, it was a message some church members were itching to hear.

In Pergamum, the lies seem to have been carried into the church by organized heretical sects, while in Thyatira, Christ’s condemnation fell upon one false prophet in particular, a woman referred to as “Jezebel” in an Old Testament allusion.

Regardless of who led these Christians toward sin, the solution was simple, these letters said. Repent—stop doing what Jesus and his apostles taught is wrong. And then cling to doing what is right, knowing you will receive your eternal reward!

As old-fashioned as the formula may sound, it remains the best advice for today.

Lord, thank you for the well-established Scripture we now have to clearly instruct us about your will in all things. Where we have been wrong as individuals and churches, may we repent, and may we follow your teachings closely as we proceed. Amen.

The Unloved

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor
“Jacob Urging Rachel and Leah to Flee Laban,” Pieter Symonsz Potter, 1638.

Genesis 29:31-35 (NRSV)

When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, “Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also”; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons”; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord”; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.

Desperate sadness surrounds this part of Jacob’s story in Genesis. If you don’t know all the background, I would encourage you to find a plain-English translation and read Genesis chapters 27 through 36—it’s just a good story!

Leah was married only because her father tricked her husband Jacob into taking her, when Jacob really wanted her younger, more beautiful sister, Rachel. Within a week of marrying Leah, Jacob married Rachel, too, making Leah the ultimate third wheel in her own home.

Jacob wasn’t reluctant to use Leah for breeding purposes, but clearly, there was no affection. Undoubtedly, he held her father’s deception against her, even though there was no way in her day she could have defied her father. It’s not hard to imagine Leah weeping over her circumstances, crying out “Why?” to God. All she wanted was to be loved, too.

In this story, we see early evidence of how God notices and blesses the unloved. God gave Leah what a woman needed most in those days to be relevant, male sons, heirs for her husband. And in her case, she ultimately delivered the progenitors of six tribes of Israel, including Judah’s tribe of kings and Levi’s line of priests in the first flurry of four sons. Jacob may have failed to love Leah, but God honored her mightily.

In Matthew 1, the lineage for Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, traces back to Judah, making Leah very much a part of Jesus’ family memory. I wonder if the boy Jesus, sensitive to the stories of his world, was moved by his ever-so-great grandmother’s need to be loved. Did her story echo in his mind as Jesus reached out to the unloved of his day? Jesus spent a lot of time with untouchably ill people, traitorous tax collectors, prostitutes, and other outsiders, ministering to them in ways supposedly holy people would not.

There’s a lesson here for the church today. Filled with the Holy Spirit, we act on God’s behalf. And there’s no doubt we are called as the church to love the unloved as God loves them. There’s plenty of evidence of this call in the New Testament. Matthew 25:31-46 alone should be enough to convince us.

We are led to a simple question. Do we know the unloved around us?

Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear so no one in our community is left unloved and alone. Amen.

The Lovers

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Song of Songs 2:8-13 (NLT)

Preachers and theologians have struggled through the centuries to interpret the biblical book Song of Songs, sometimes called Song of Solomon. Why is the book even in the Bible?

If you read it in a straightforward manner, there is very little instruction about God or humanity’s relationship to God. Traditionally, preachers have “allegorized” Song of Songs, reading it as if it is all symbolic of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s pursuit of God.

Some modern preachers, myself included, struggle with that approach, however. While I respect my predecessors’ efforts, I find it a huge leap to consistently turn what is sometimes very sexual imagery into allegory. When we do so, we dodge the direct meaning of the text.

And then there are all those unanswered questions about the lovers. Who are they? (Traditionally, one of them is King Solomon, but that seems a bit of a stretch, too, as we’ll see shortly.) Why do they speak so boldly of their passionate desire for each other? Did they or didn’t they? (Yes, I’m talking about sex.) And if they did, were they married? (There’s no clear evidence in the text.)

I’m going to offer you my conclusion about how to read Song of Songs. It’s an opinion I formed after marking up the text, making some observations about speakers, characters, and the nature of Hebrew poetry, and then consulting the writings of a lot of scholars I respect. Your eternal salvation is not dependent on your agreeing with me—I just want to share with you what I think.

First of all, I doubt Song of Songs was ever intended to be read as a cohesive story. Instead, it’s a collection of sexually charged love poems. Think of Song of Songs like a box of snapshots from a relationship. The pictures tell us much about the relationship, but they’re likely not in chronological order, and there are lots of details missing.

That’s not a radical idea; it simply makes Song of Songs more like the collections of psalms, proverbs and other wisdom literature preceding it in the Bible.

We also can glean a few interesting-if-vague details. In at least some of the poems, the woman is a working girl. She makes it clear her family has forced her to work in the fields, the sun tanning her so deeply that she describes herself as very dark. Her beloved is fairer-skinned and described as her “king-lover,” but that may just be poetic language, a deliberate effort to juxtapose him with King Solomon rather than make him out to be King Solomon.

Of course, I still haven’t made it clear why Song of Songs belongs in the Bible. Again, I’m having to trust the research of better-trained scholars.

What’s particularly helpful is that in modern times, researchers have found that Song of Songs is not unique. There were lots of similar collections of sexually charged love poetry in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites. The major difference is the polytheistic approach to sex these cultures took. (Polytheists worship many gods; monotheists, like the Israelites, worship one all-powerful God.)

Sex in polytheistic cultures tended to be about control. All sorts of sexual rituals evolved in these cultures to encourage the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the livestock to multiply. Sex often was ritualized at temples with prostitutes in some of these cultures, and it certainly served as a way for men to control women.

The Israelites were radically different from their neighbors because they officially followed the One True God. Song of Songs is a good indicator of how the Israelites’ understanding of God affected their attitudes about sex.

The poems here consistently talk about passionate, long-term love between one man and one woman. They seek each other not for control, but for mutual satisfaction and ultimately, procreation. (The woman speaks of mandrakes in 7:13, a plant associated with fertility.) Sex is not to control a god; sex is a gift from God.

Marriage may not be a definable event in these poems, but it is easily assumed considering the deep commitments the lovers are making to each other. Their love takes us back to the creation story in Genesis, where one man and one woman are depicted as dependent on each other, inseparable.

King Solomon may even appear in these poems now and then as a kind of literary foil, present to make the lovers’ commitment to each other more commendable. We cannot forget King Solomon’s downfall in the eyes of God. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon is condemned for his many foreign wives and his willingness to introduce their polytheistic worship to the Israelites.

Song of Songs reminds us that proper worship of the One True God changes our relationships for the better. This includes our sexual relationships, the most joyous physical gift God has given us, a gift that is celebrated in Jewish tradition and now Christian tradition.

Lord, may we live out all our relationships as reflections of holiness and in appreciation of the tremendous grace we are given. Amen.