Solomon warns us in his song, to beware the little foxes that gnaw at the roots in the vineyard of love. Little foxes are an excellent metaphor for small slights, that chip away at the foundation of relationships. There is nothing new under the sun and as just as in the days of Christ divorce is on the table for reasons as ridiculous as Rabbi Hillel’s, “if she burns your food.” right down to Rabbi Akiva saying if you just find another woman attractive. Ecclesiastes is not wrong in saying everything comes back into fashion. Here’s looking at you no fault divorce and shacking.
Now I could indulge in the making of hay over these things but they are not my main point. It is in the water and therefore it is in the church, where it plainly should not be. Yet there it is, and it has borne terrible but strange fruit that bears some scrutiny. A few years back He-Who-Must-Not-be-Named* commissioned a study that found committed Christians with deeply reformed theology and regular church attendance had remarkably low divorce rates. But to survey pastors today it seems divorce a ticking time bomb in every marriage. This leads me to conclude that two things are happening. 1. There are a lot of non christians sitting in churches and they will do what unregenerate people do. And 2. A lot of little foxes are running around in marriages and not being shot dead.
Complication: The modern evangelical church has neglected the gospel for pragmatism.
It has. It seems that there is a dichotomy of pastors who preach the gospel and those who preach how to live. It’s low hanging fruit to smack Steven Furtick around the head for the carousel of his five favorite topics none of which are the gospel. But his sermons did cross land and sea to make other pastors who are twice the practical son of hell he is. And some of them did some excellent plagiarism of really good marriage resources. Those sermons made for great free audio books of works I could not afford at the time.
Obviously, The solution is not an either/or, but a both/and. This is true because the Puritans did this well. No theologians were more gospel centered and devotional** and at the same time endlessly practical. From Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory down to the well publicized case in Boston where a husband was placed under Church Discipline for being to pious for two years to have sex with his wife. No one toed the line of gospel and pragmatics like the Puritans. And seeing as there is an embarrassment of riches in published works throughout church history on both gospel and marriage there really is no excuse to be either/or.
Permanence of Marriage
It should first be noted that it is not common for the church to really lay the groundwork for how permanent marriage is supposed to be. It seems to receive lip service, and divorce is commonly seen as bad. Marriage workshops happen. However, it is nearly always presented in the context of the already married couple. When there should be front loading happening. Real permanence should be emphasized constantly. The volume should be high on the value of the last day over the first day. And that drum should begin beating at very young ages well before dating is even on the horizon. The fear that kids raised in single family homes might feel different because a parent is missing should not distract us. That is a consequence of sin, and it is sad, but keep in mind Truth is a person, and either he or the kids will be offended. As a child of divorce I can speak confidently to the ability to survive truth in a world marred my sin.
The objection that arises when a firm line is drawn is the exceptions that do legitimately exist. Abuse by a spouse is abandonment, as well as evil. And the “churches” that in practice never allow divorce for any reason and force women to stay with evil spouses are not churches, they are cults. They have nothing of the kingdom of God in them, they are sons of the Devil. Actual churches are filled with Grace and truth they posses wisdom Therefore they know when to apply which scripture. It is the difference between a dam and a levee. A dam lets loose the bad, a levee just holds everything in.
A constant refrain in the church should be that divorce without a Biblical reason is not an option.*** People should be engrained in the witty wisdom of Jack Benny, and then the fox hunt can begin.
“Mary and I have never considered divorce. Murder, yes, but never divorce” – Jack Benny
Back to the Foxes
With a firm theology of marriage and it’s permanence in place churches then are free to deal with all of those pragmatic issues that dog marriages and weaken them. It may be stretching the idea of Martin Luther**** that Shepherds are to hunt the wolves in the flock to include the ideas represented by foxes, but it is apt. And it does not mean leaving behind exegetical preaching in favor of topical. Often the gospel is connected to marriage, there are numerous examples of marriage in both testaments that provide asides for instruction and wisdom. As well direct instruction is given in the Epistles. Practical exhortation is not difficult to find and teach.
A simple example of fox hunting is found in 1 Peter 3:7. Instead of leaping to defend the “weaker vessel statement in the second half of the verse give attention to living with a wife in an understanding way. This includes knowing her mind and emotions. It involves not provoking her for amusement, picking battles and on occasion laying down desires or acting as one might toward a “weaker brother” abstaining from permissible things out of charity and gentleness. Additionally this allows for confidence in leadership because the command is given as a gift to build up trust. The Gospel application is simple in that the command points to the sacrifice of a husband and in his being Christ like in the pursuit of his bride. What can erode a marriage is a husband who baits his wife for his own amusement or insists on his way in scenarios where it doesn’t really matter. And, returning to the previous point, in this day where the worry is that a spouse may have been catechized into the frailty of marriage every fox nip feels like one less root holding the thing down.
Similarly application for wives can be made out of numerous proverbs on nagging. It is a fox to be shot. It opens the door to multiple forms of manipulation and is the sins of rebellion, lying, and lack of self control. A wife who nags is trying to seize control from God of the role her Husband has been ordained to play, that usurpation is done through refusing to control the tongue and often emotions, and is frequently denied and justified as a help which is the lie. It is a dramatic sin with dramatic responses recommended; men are counseled to move to their roofs or a desert to die than live with the drip drip drip torture of a nagging wife. The Gospel call is to repent and submit, as the church is called to do toward Christ. The fox bites in this example are plain.
Lot and his wife loved this world. Their last day ended badly. A marriage entrenched in worldliness and neglecting holiness may make it till death do part, but it is a failure. There is no evidence that Lot nor is salinenated wife pushed one another toward holiness, all the evidence s toward the idolatry of mammon. And little by little, acquisition by acquisition, comfort by comfort they moved toward Sodom and disaster. What idols need to be purged, what holiness fought for, each purchase may be the pulling of a root by a fox. Only Christ will satisfy and cause flourishing, he may give the gift of struggle embrace it, embrace him.
Fox hunts are not difficult, but they must be engaged in.
There is no new attack on marriage, the same battles are fought over an over again, the ground is the same, only the soldiers are different. Our weapons remain the same, and for the christian our arsenal only grows through history. Scripture alone is sufficient, it simply must be used. Yet God in his generosity has amply provided varied and exciting weapons of our war. Generation after generation have learned and articulated well how to fight for marriage for the glory of God. New soldiers must be trained in these weapons. To send them out with only a graduation ceremony and some lovely words about duty and honor and love is not enough. They must be brought up in the cold hard truth of the situation and shown what line must hold. To hold that line then means dealing with all the skirmishes that follow until they are called off the field of battle. The alternative is capture, and that is a dark day.
“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”
*Mark Driscoll. “Gasp!” gaspeth you, “But he did wrong!”
“Yes” I reply, “and he did a lot of good, get over yourself.”
**When Calvin starts having your works translated because he is nervous his students are too heady and not devotional enough, you know your stuff is Gospel centric.
***Again there is a distraction of the exceptions making the rule. Yes there have been bad churches that counseled women to to stay married to abusive men. Those are not real churches but cults, they are evil. Real churches have robust theology, leading to wisdom. They are able to handle towing a firm line and knowing how to handle tragedy.
****”With the wolves you cannot be too severe; with the weak sheep you cannot be too gentle.” – Martin Luther, Table Talk