One of the biggest complaints one often hears by opponents of the death penalty is that the manner in which it is administered in the United States is unjust. Low income criminals, because they can’t afford high profile lawyers, are more likely to be sentenced to death than wealthy criminals. Statistically, black defendants are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white, causing some to fear that racial injustice is also at play. Also unnerving is the fact that many defendants on death row have, since the advent of DNA evidence, been proven innocent.
What the complaint boils down to is this: It’s not possible in this corrupt world for capital punishment to be administered fairly; it’s inherently liable to be misused and unjust. This complaint is voiced at times by both Christians and non-Christians alike.
One hears similar complaints when the debate about homosexual marriage comes up. Some argue that in this elitist world of ours, it’s simply not possible to preserve marriage as between man and woman without at the same time doing harm and causing bullying to homosexuals. Of course, it is tragically true that some professing Christians have been unloving to people with same-sex attraction.
1. Is what God commands unrealistic?
What do both of these complaints have in common? Both assume that God’s law, as it is articulated in Scripture, cannot be upheld in our fallen world. God has apparently given us laws that are altogether unworkable.
Of course, capital punishment can be, and certainly has been, misused. That is an argument not against the death penalty itself, though; it is an argument for reform. Christians may legitimately disagree about the appropriateness of capital punishment in our day and age, but if capital punishment can’t possibly be administered rightly in our world, then Yahweh was naïve in giving such a law to Moses. Similarly, God commands sexual purity in Scripture and he also commands humility. The two are not contrary. If one couldn’t uphold Biblical marriage without succumbing to abusive arrogance towards those engaged in unhealthy sexual practices, then Scripture would be short-sighted for commanding the unworkable. God is holy and God is love; none of his commands contradict either his holiness or his love.
2. What is legalism?
There seems to be a confusion of terms among evangelicals today. Legalism, historically, has meant adding to God’s law, making up rules of conduct that God has not spoken. When Christians say that a certain hair length or a certain length of skirt is prescribed, or that certain foods or beverages are categorically forbidden, one is encountering legalism. To uphold God’s law as it is delivered to us in Scripture, though, is not legalism.
For example, saying that divorced people, whether the innocent or guilty party, may not under any circumstances ever get re-married is legalism. Biblically, there are exceptions. A man whose wife abandons him or commits adultery against him is free to divorce his wife and re-marry because he has not broken his wedding vows; rather, the vows were broken against him. However, it is not legalism to say that people who divorce for unbiblical reasons must not re-marry; it’s simply affirming what Christ said. Christ said to divorce and re-marry for any reason other than marital unfaithfulness was adultery (some argue that Paul, in his epistles, sanctioned abandonment as another possible exception; in the early church, when the husband or wife in a pagan couple converted to Christ, sometimes the unbelieving spouse would leave, and Paul appears to have permitted Christians in such circumstances to re-marry). Some also acknowledge abuse as a legitimate reason to, if not divorce, at least separate.
In any case, telling people who divorce for reasons not sanctioned in Scripture that they must not re-marry is not legalism. It sounds legalistic in our culture just because the evangelical church, decades ago, “caved in” on this issue, just as mainline denominations all around us are caving in when it comes to redefining marriage altogether.
3. Consistency needed, not double standards
Homosexuals resent Christians telling them to be celibate when there are so many in the church who are Biblically called to be celibate who are ignoring that call. If a man divorces his wife for some reason other than adultery (or possibly abandonment/abuse), Biblically, he must spend the rest of his life celibate. That standard can certainly be communicated in a hateful manner, but the standard itself is not hateful, and if we say it is, we’re calling Christ hateful. Scripture says God will always provide a way to escape sin, and if we embrace a false dichotomy of saying that we can 1) either bend God’s standard about marriage or 2) fail to show charity, we’re saying God has given us an impossible lose-lose dilemma.
Why do we encounter so much “no-fault” divorce even within the church today? Because Christians to often feel entitled to drop an unsatisfactory spouse and find a new one, unaware that divorcing and re-marrying is adultery. In its Book of Confessions, the PCUSA actually revised the Westminster Confession, allowing divorced people to remarry for reasons in addition to adultery and abandonment, saying that such a revision was consistent with the gospel’s emphasis on forgiveness and acknowledgement of human frailty.
Yes, people can make mistakes, and divorced people shouldn’t be permanently stigmatized. However, the church can show love and forgiveness to someone whose marriage has collapsed without allowing the person to re-marry. It’s not inherently unloving for a minister to refuse to preside over the wedding ceremony of a divorced person, if the grounds for the divorce were unbiblical. To say that it is means that Christ gave us a law that can’t be upheld lovingly—that Christ implicitly commanded something that requires being uncharitable. God forbid that we say such things about Christ.
An evangelical church that winks at the divorced and re-married elder or deacon has no credibility to call on people with same-sex attractions to commit to celibacy. If the evangelical world has bought into the idea that divorced people, regardless of the reason for the divorce, must be allowed, in the name of Christian charity to re-marry, is it any wonder that homosexuals argue that, in the name of charity, they too should be given an outlet to express themselves sexually, and that to deny them this right is gross hypocrisy? Biblically, God calls people in numerous stations of life to be celibate, and we can’t pick and choose which standards are enforceable. The Body of Christ needs consistency.
Humanly speaking, God’s standards are altogether impractical and counter-intuitive. No one naturally feels inclined to turn the other cheek when slapped or to pray for enemies. But we can’t excuse ourselves from affirming God’s standards simply because human beings have distorted and abused them. May God enable us to seek after holiness and love with equal fervor, never chasing after one at the expense of the other.
* Click here to view a YouTube video in which Dr. Ligon Duncan, pastor of Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church, discusses Reformed theology.