Continued from my initial critique
Doug Wilson has responded to my concerns about his teaching on wives separating from their husbands. [ Douglas Wilson, I, Not the Lord (August 2018).]
I am generally encouraged by his response, because it turns out that we read the passage in exactly the same way. It is good to be on the same page about what the text actually says. It is also good to clarify that we are considering the options of one believer married to another (badly behaving) believer (vv. 10–11), and not a believer married to an unbeliever (vv. 12–16).
We do have a point of disagreement still, and also a point of confusion.
The point of disagreement is perhaps merely a difference of emphasis, but it has to do with how we understand the moral status of separation. Paul instructs the wife not to separate, but if she does, not to remarry. Doug takes this as permission for her to separate if she judges it right; i.e., while it is not good that they separate, it might nonetheless come to that, and if it does then there is no occasion for discipline.
But the command from the Lord is “do not separate,” and so Paul cannot be offering the “but if she does” as a merely less preferred alternative. That would contradict the command. Rather—as does happen in the law—he must be adding a regulation in the event that she disobeys the command: if she separates, that’s bad enough, but she may certainly not remarry on top of it.
Now, this is not to prejudge that disobedience to the command is always high-handed sin. Indeed, I think it is possible to break commands without sinning, and I think that because the Lord Jesus did it (Jn 5:17). The law is not a contract that is ipso facto violated by performative failures, any more than it’s a contract that is ipso facto maintained by performative successes (Amos 5:21–24). [See D. Bnonn Tennant, Works-righteousness: a square contractual peg in a round covenantal hole (March 2018).] It’s a covenant, which means that it’s predicated on personal fidelity (Mt 12:3; cf. 1 Ki 3:6). But neither the fact that one might break a command without sin in some cases, nor that God regulates breaking that command, can be construed as permission to break it.
Despite my reservations about Doug’s seemingly cavalier attitude to separation, I think we do both agree that hardness of heart is a two-way street, and there may be occasions where God would want a woman to stay with her husband less than he would want her to separate—even though he doesn’t want either. Moreover, unlike Dalrock, [ Dalrock, Pastor Wilson discovers the secret meaning of 1 Cor 7 (July 2018).] I see exactly the analogy Doug draws from runaway slaves (Dt. 23:15), and I agree that its general equity applies here. It’s no coincidence that the New Testament’s admonitions about submission to authority mention wives and slaves in the same breath. But it can’t follow from the fact that we may not give up a runaway to her master, her ba’al, her lord, that we should simply accept her running away, as implied by Doug’s comment that Paul would not hassle her about it. I think Paul would be extremely concerned to hassle both her and her husband about it, and by hassle I mean get to the bottom of what is going on.
This raises the point of confusion, because Doug appears to be sending mixed messages here himself. (This is, unfortunately, a feature of his writing often commented on; his clarifications seem to commit him to divergent positions, and he ends up looking like he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. I don’t believe that’s his intent, but it is definitely the effect.)
In the first post, he indicates that if the apostle would leave a woman alone for separating from her husband, so should her eldership. She is free to go, no questions asked. But in the second post, he indicates that in his assembly, the eldership “would allow a woman…if married to (an extraordinarily) difficult man, to separate from him.” In other words, he seems to walk back his previous interpretation from saying that the eldership must leave her alone period, to saying they must leave her alone only if she is justified in separating. Well yes, exactly—but how are they to know if she is justified without “hassling” both her and her husband to get to the bottom of it?
I have another concern as well, and this is on the issue of the general equity of 1 Corinthians 7. In the ancient world, it would be comparatively rare for a woman to improve her lot by running away from her husband. As a rule, that was a recipe for poverty, ostracization and general misery. But today we are in the opposite situation: in our society, a woman can (and often does) improve her lot by running away—in fact, it is wildly “misogynistic” to even call it that, as if she does not have the authority to unilaterally leave—while it is her husband who is typically plunged into poverty, ostracization and general misery thanks to our wildly partial courts and the vigorously prejudicial Duluth model. [See for instance Dalrock, All roads lead to Duluth (July 2016).]
If the commands in 1 Corinthians 7 are written to a situation where the temptation to break them is unlikely, and the penalty for doing so built in, how should we adapt their application to our situation, where the temptation to break them is a standing narrative of empowerment for women who are unhaaappy in their marriages, and the penalty has been replaced with cash and prizes? It concerns me that Doug, in formulating his general advice, is not sufficiently allowing for how diametrically different our situation is.
Now, he can rightly say that he is speaking to situations where it is still the woman who needs protecting—and he does, after all, still forbid divorce. Well and good. But I can equally say that doing so without speaking to the inordinately more common reverse situation is a rather misleading way of going about things. A little like preaching on how husbands are to love their wives, without ever preaching on how wives are to obey their husbands. Our disagreement may be only a difference of emphasis, as I have said, but sometimes emphasis is, you know, important.