Saturday, November 20, 2010

How are we to take that?

I was reading in 1 Corinthians 7 earlier this week:
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 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. . . . But 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. . . . Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. . . . Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) . . . So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. . . . This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

--1 Corinthians 7:7-12, 15, 17-18, 20-21, 24-27, 29-31 ESV

I've read this section several dozen times in my life, I'm sure. But this week, for the first time, I read it more literally, I think, than I have in the past. I focused less on the idea that one should feel no obligation either to marry or not marry and more on the reasoning for the advice (which is all about time frames) and the implications of the advice which . . . well, I'll let you tell me what you think they are.

It is because of the implications--at least as far as I can understand them--that I came up with this post's title: How are we to take that?

"The appointed time has grown very short," writes St. Paul in v. 29. "The present form of this world is passing away," he says in v. 32. THEREFORE,
  • "Let those who have wives live as though they had none."
  • Let "those who mourn [live] as though they were not mourning."
  • Let "those who rejoice [live] as though they were not rejoicing."
  • Let "those who buy [live] as though they had no goods."

  • Let "those who deal with the world [live] as though they had no dealings with it."
Hmmmm. Kinda reminds me of some of the apocalyptic fever that was running rampant through the United States back in the '70s when I was in high school and went off to college (The Late Great Planet Earth); and '80s (88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988]); and '90s and early '00s (the Left Behind series]); and so forth.

But what struck me the other day is the social implications of Paul's advice. --Suppose we were to attempt seriously to live the way he suggests?

Take his first recommendation: "Let those who have wives live as though they had none."

Think of the implications!
  • A lot (lot, lot!) more single people in the church.
  • No one--certainly no church leaders--recommending or urging young people to get married.
  • Instead of seminars on dating and marriage, we'd have seminars on (what?) . . . I'm not sure what. But they would be very different.
  • Biggest difference: Reproductive rates would be far below replacement levels (which are, currently, at about 2.1 babies per woman . . . just to maintain population; not to increase it).
There are a few groups that have pursued this kind of policy. And, to my understanding, most evangelical Christians soundly reject their practices.

I think of the Shakers. And celibate priests.

So how are we to take Paul's . . . ummmm . . . recommendations?

If we're not inclined to take them seriously or literally, how should we take them?

Well, then there is "Let . . . those who buy [live] as though they had no goods."

Hmmm. Communism. Or, at least, radical communalism.

Does that work?

Even the Pilgrims, to whom many Americans point as exemplars of godliness, failed during their first year in America to make communism/communalism/socialism work. As Gary North comments in his fascinating Puritan Economic Experiments, p. 6:
What is perhaps the Pilgrims’ second-best-known historical incident after the thanksgiving feast is the disastrous experiment with common ownership. Everyone was required to bring all that he had produced into the common storehouse, and to each family was rationed out the supplies deemed appropriate to its size. It was a classic experiment with the Communist principle announced by Karl Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” It did not work.
North quotes Governor Bradford's History "Of Plimoth Plantation":
For this community [of property – G. N.] (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in the division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labors, and victuals, and clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.
In sum: Paul's advice doesn't work . . . at least not for the long term.

You might see a policy or practice such as we read about in Acts 4:34-35 ("There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.") --You might see such a policy or practice work for a year or two or three.


If you begin with enough resources within the community. And those who have owned the resources in the past continue willing to give them up for the sake of the group.

But as a long-term social policy, this kind of practice has no legs. It doesn't work for five or ten years, much less two thousand years (as we are coming upon since the time Paul wrote).

So how are we to take him?

Was he serious?

Was he, perhaps, seriously mistaken? (For example: Is it possible he actually believed Jesus was about to return any day . . . but (obviously) He did not?)

Or is there some other way around the difficulties created by this passage?

As a matter of fact, there is a growing group of people who think they have discovered a way around this problem (and others).

Think of Matthew 24 where Jesus answers his disciples' question about "the sign of [Jesus'] coming and of the close of the age." Among a whole lot of "signs" Jesus tells them about, He also says, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (v. 34).

That generation--the generation to which Jesus was speaking--is long gone. And has "the close of the age" come?

"Ahh! But what He was meaning is the generation that is alive at the time the signs take place!" say typical evangelical apologists for typical evangelical eschatological ["end of the age," "end of the world," "end of history"] scenarios. That means He was speaking about a generation that was not yet present at the time He spoke.

No, say proponents of the view I'm talking about. He was, most definitely, talking about the generation that was alive at the time He was speaking to them. --Look at Matthew 16:27-28: "For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." Or Matthew 10:23: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." Or Matthew 23:36: "Truly, I say to you, [all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah] will come upon this generation." And so forth.

How much more clear could Jesus have been?

And Paul.

And other New Testament writers.

So what is the "solution" that this "growing group of people" I referenced suggest?

It goes by the name preterism. As you will find if you read the Wikipedia article to which I am linking you, there are two forms of preterism (surprised?): "full" and "partial."

I have to confess discomfort with certain implications of the view. But it does offer some grounds for thought.

A basic summary of what full preterism is about:
Preterism places the Biblical prophecies of intense evil and foreboding gloom in the first century, focusing on the events surrounding the forty-two-month long persecution of Christians by Nero, the forty-two-month long Jewish zealot war with Rome, and the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The word "preterist" is based on the Latin "praeteritus," meaning "gone by" or "past." The Princeton University Wordnet dictionary defines a Preterist as:
a theologian who believes that the Scripture prophecies of the Apocalypse (as in the Book of Revelations) have already been fulfilled
Preterism is also often referred to as Covenant Eschatology or Fulfilled Prophecy.
For some strong presentations in favor of preterism, see Jesus Predicted a First-Century Return and/or the FAQ page at For an intriguing presentation that attacks the issue from a more holistic perspective (and this was the first source that first brought preterism onto my radar about five years ago), check out Tim Martin & Jeff Vaughn's Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation . . . or visit their website.

[Postscript: In case you have a long memory. Yes, I did mention preterism in passing once before, a year and nine months ago. You can find what I wrote here. Obviously, this is not a deep interest of mine. But it does keep poking its head up every once in a while.]
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