By Norman Walford
Wintering in an Alpine ski resort has given me opportunity of meeting all kinds of interesting people who have made their homes here temporarily or permanently. Some of these I meet in our little Anglican Church congregation and some out in the wider community. In the old days ski bum was the preserve of the teens and twenties; now you get them in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. They all have a story to tell, and perhaps even a skeleton or two in the cupboard.
The above-quoted remark came out casually from a church member.
It surprised me because up to then I’d thought him if anything a bit too spiritual and “churchy” for my taste. But there it was. The casualness of the remark obviously belied a considerable underlying pain, and sensibly enough he’d decided a change of scenery would do him good. Now he drives a shuttle bus between the airport and the resort, spends his days off skiing, and generally seems to be recovering well.
I have no idea of the exact nature of his ex-wife’s complaint of “not spiritual enough”. Personally I don’t really go for people who wear their spirituality on their sleeve, and he had seemed a bit like one of those. His wife had thought otherwise, obviously. I guess we all have our own ideas about what constitutes “spiritual”. My first thought was, she must be from some sort of rigid works-based congregation somewhere, where spirituality is measured in legal terms. You still find such places. But no, quite the opposite. She was actually a member of large and well-known chain of charismatic evangelical churches that most people would probably place if anything at the more easy-going end of the spectrum. OK, I suppose no harm in saying “Vineyard”.
Very strange! He was by his own account an active member of the church. He’d been instrumental in the conversion of an old run down building to function as the church auditorium, since that was what he was good at—I hope we can all recognize converting buildings as being just as much a spiritual activity as anything else. She had been equally active and committed in the things she had seen as her spiritual calling—tithing, spreading the gospel, doing charitable stuff and so on. And yet, somehow she’d come up with the idea that her husband lacked spirituality, and that the right and Christian thing to do was to divorce him.
My first reaction on hearing the story was mildly condemnatory. I think a lot of listeners would react that way. OK, strike out the ‘mildly’. I was probably just thinking, No! This is just WRONG! This is NOT Christianity!
My second reaction as I left the building a few minutes later was, Interesting though. Clear Pharisee angle—I wonder if I can make it into a story.
My third reaction as I started up the road for home was, Wait a minute! Haven’t I just done a story on this, or at least touched on the subject? Like, LAST WEEK!
At which point I realized that it wasn’t quite as simple as I had thought.
Last week I wrote a piece called Oh Juno! … What Have You Done? In it I described how the founder of my publishing company had got herself caught up in a legalistic Pharisee-type cultic church. As a consequence she had over a period of about 12 years lost (in worldly terms) pretty much everything she had, including her house, car, children, money, business—and her husband. I didn’t go into detail about how she lost her husband in this process, so I can explain it now. Briefly. She had divorced him. Why? Because she decided he wasn’t spiritual enough.
See now why it’s not quite that simple?
Of course there are significant differences between the two situations. Juno had divorced her husband on the advice of her pastor, who had quoted bible verses to explain why she should get rid of him. The husband hadn’t given up his faith, just become disillusioned with that particular church and decided to leave it (from the pastor’s point of view the same thing). Juno’s decision, but perhaps mitigated by the pressure from the pastor.
I don’t know whether the wife of our shuttle bus driver (I’ll call him Dell) ever discussed her decision with her pastor. Had she done so, I’m guessing he would have discouraged her. Probably it was her decision and hers alone. So it’s not quite the same situation.
Nonetheless the core essentials are similar. Two women divorcing their husbands for being not spiritual enough—and the one I’m classifying as the tragic victim of a Pharisee conspiracy, while the other I’m tending towards viewing as a legalistic hypocrite. So who’s the real Pharisee out of all this?
I’ve got a nasty feeling it may be me.
Because when at the end of my deliberations and attempts to rationalize the situation I finally get round to the question I should perhaps have asked myself at the beginning, it looks a bit different. That is … What would Jesus have done? How would he have reacted to such situations?
The only real parallel I can think of in the gospels is the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John chapter 4. In this story Jesus meets a woman who’s got rid of no less than four husbands. We’re not given the reasons for these separations, but I don’t think it was on account of their lack of spirituality. Probably things much more frivolous than that. Juno and Dell’s wife have in common that they were at least trying to do the right thing, even if their logic was a bit mixed up. The woman at the well seems to have had no such pretensions in her actions.
And what did Jesus say to her? NOTHING! Not a single word of condemnation, anyway. As I understand it, all he says or implies is, I know your situation. Nothing is hidden—from me or from God.
And that’s it. There’s no word of criticism of her from Jesus in the entire story.
So … if I allow the least trace of condemnation or judgment into my heart when I think about these two stories—then the real Pharisee must be me. I’m the one who’s most out of tune with Jesus, more than them.
There’s generally a logic to our sinning. In one sense we’re all victims. We get deceived in our hearts—by the Enemy, by other people, by the convoluted machinations of our own though processes. That’s why we sin. At the time it seems the rational and sensible thing to do. That’s how it seemed to Juno, and to Dell’s wife, at that particular moment. And if Jesus chose not to pass judgment in such a situation, then it’s not for me to pass judgment either.
Print edition of How to Survive in the Pharisee Church is unavailable at present; follow this link to download it as a free PDF file.