When we speak of re-establishing the Christian Congregation, we are not speaking of setting up a new religion. Quite the contrary. We are speaking about returning to the form of worship that existed in the first century—a form largely unknown in this day and age. There are thousands of Christian sects and denominations around the world from the ultra-large, like the Catholic Church, to the one-off local offshoot of some fundamentalist denominational. But one thing that they all seem to have in common is that there is someone who leads the congregation and who enforces a set of rules and a theological framework which all must adhere to if they wish to remain in association with that particular congregation. Of course, there are some completely non-denomination groups. What governs them? The fact a group calls itself non-denominational doesn’t mean it is free from the basic problem that has hounded Christianity virtually since its inception: the tendency of men who take over and eventually treat the flock as their own. But what about groups that go to the other extreme and tolerate all manner of belief and behavior? A kind of “anything goes” form of worship.
The path of the Christian is the path of moderation, a path that walks between the rigid rules of the Pharisee and the wanton licentiousness of the libertarian. It is not an easy road, because it is one built not on rules, but on principles, and principles are hard because they require us to think for ourselves and to take responsibility for our actions. Rules are so much easier, aren’t they? All you have to do is to follow what some self-appointed leader tells you to do. He takes responsibility. This is, of course, a trap. Ultimately, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God and answer for our actions. The excuse, “I was only following orders,” just won’t cut it then.
If we are going to grow to the measure of stature that belongs to the fullness of the Christ, as Paul urged the Ephesians to do (Ephesians 4:13) then we have to start to exercise our minds and hearts.
In the course of publishing these videos, we plan to pick some common situations that arise from time to time and that require us to make some decisions. I won’t lay down any rules, because that would be presumptuous of me, and it would be the first step on the path to human rule. No man should be your leader; only the Christ. His rule is based on principles he has laid down which when combined with a trained Christian conscience, guide us down the right path.
For example, we might wonder about voting in political elections; or whether we can celebrate certain holidays; like Christmas or Halloween, whether we can commemorate someone’s birthday or Mother’s Day; or what would constitute in this modern world an honorable marriage.
Let’s start with that last one, and we’ll cover the others in future videos. Again, we aren’t looking for rules, but how to apply Bible principles so as to gain the approval of God.
The writer of Hebrews counselled: “Let marriage be honorable among all, and let the marriage bed be without defilement, for God will judge sexually immoral people and adulterers.” (Hebrews 13:4)
Now that may seem pretty straightforward, but what if a married couple with kids start associating with your congregation and after a time you learned that they’ve been together for 10 years, but never legalized their marriage before the state? Would you consider them to be in an honorable marriage or would you label them as fornicators?
I’ve asked Jim Penton to share some research into this topic which will aid us to determine what principles to apply to make a determination that is pleasing to our Lord. Jim, would you care to speak on this?
The whole subject of marriage is a very complex one, as I know how troubling it has been in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their community. Note that under Rutherford’s 1929 Higher Powers doctrine, the Witnesses paid little attention to secular law. During prohibition there was a lot of Witness rum-running between Toronto and Brooklyn and, also, Witnesses who entered into consensual marriages were often regarded as very faithful to the organization. Curiously, however, in 1952 Nathan Knorr decided by fiat that any couple who had sexual relations before having their marriage solemnized by a representative of the secular state would be disfellowshipped despite the fact that this went contrary to the 1929 doctrine which was not abandoned until the mid-sixties.
I should mention, however, that the Society made one exception. They did this in 1952. It was that if some JW couple lived in a country that required legal marriage by a certain religious organization, then the JW couple could simply declare that they would marry before their local congregation. Then, only later, when the law was changed, were they required to obtain a civil marriage certificate.
But let us take a broader look at the question of marriage. First and foremost, all marriage amounted to in ancient Israel was that the couple had something like a local ceremony and went home and consummated their marriage sexually. But that changed in the high middle ages under the Catholic Church. Under the sacramental system, marriage became a sacrament that must be solemnized by a priest in holy orders. But when the Reformation took place, everything changed again; secular governments took over the business of legalizing marriages; first, to protect property rights, and second, to protect children from bastardy.
Of course, marriage in England and many of its colonies was controlled by the Church of England well into the nineteenth century. For example, two of my great grandparents had to marry in Upper Canada in the Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, despite the fact that the bride was a Baptist. Even after Confederation in 1867 in Canada, each province had the power to grant the right to solemnize marriage to various churches and religious organizations, and others not. Significantly, Jehovah’s Witnesses were only allowed to solemnize marriages in a few provinces after World War II, and much, much later in Quebec. So, as a boy, I remember how many Jehovah Witness couple had to travel vast distances to get married in the United States. And in the Depression and during World War II that was often impossible, particularly when the Witnesses were under total ban for nearly four years. Thus, many simply “shacked up” together, and the Society didn’t mind.
Marriage laws have been greatly different in various places. For instance, in Scotland, couples could long be married simply by stating an oath before a witness or witnesses. That was why English couples crossed the border into Scotland for generations. Often too, the ages of marriage were very low. My maternal grandparents tracked many miles from western Canada to Montana in 1884 to be married in a civil marriage. He was in his early-twenties, she was thirteen and a half. Interestingly, her father’s signature is on their marriage license showing his consent to their marriage. So, marriage in various places has been very, very varied.
In ancient Israel, there was no requirement to register before the state. At the time of Joseph’s marriage to Mary that was the case. In fact, the act of an engagement was tantamount to marriage, but this was a mutual contract between the parties, not a legal act. Thus, when Joseph learned Mary was pregnant, he decided to divorce her secretly because he “did not want to make her a public spectacle”. This would only have been possible if their engagement/marriage contract had been kept private up to that point. If it had been public, then there would have been no way to keep the divorce secret. If he divorced her in secret—something the Jews allowed a man to do—she would have been judged a fornicator, rather than an adulterer. The former required her to marry the child’s father, whom Joseph undoubtedly assumed to be a fellow Israelite, while the latter was punishable by death. The point is that all this was effected without the involvement of the state.
We want to keep the congregation clean, free of adulterers and fornicators. However, what constitutes such conduct? Clearly a man who hires a prostitute is engaged in immoral activity. Two people who have casual sex are also clearly engaged in fornication, and if one of them is married, in adultery. But what of someone who, like Joseph and Mary, covenant before God to marry, and then live their lives in accord with that promise?
Let’s complicate the situation. What if the couple in question does so in a country or province where common law marriage is not recognized legally? Clearly, they cannot take advantage of protections under the law that protect property rights; but not availing oneself of legal provisions is not the same things as violating the law.
The question becomes: Can we judge them as fornicators or can we accept them in our congregation as a couple who have been married before God?
Acts 5:29 tells us to obey God rather than men. Romans 13:1-5 tells us to obey the superior authorities and not stand in opposition to them. Obviously, a vow made before God has more validity than a legal contract that is made before any worldly government. All the worldly governments in existence today will pass away, but God will endure forever. So, the question becomes: Does the government require that two people living together get married, or is it optional? Would getting married legally actually result in a violation of the law of the land?
It took me a long time to bring my American wife into Canada in the 1960s, and my younger son had the same problem in bringing his American wife into Canada in the 1980s. In each case, we were legally married in the states before beginning the immigration process, something which is now against US law to do. If we had married before the Lord, but not before the civil authorities we would have been in compliance with the law of the land and greatly facilitated the immigration process after which we could have gotten legally married in Canada, which was a requirement at the time since we were Jehovah’s Witnesses governed by the rules of Nathan Knorr.
The point of all this is to demonstrate that there are no hard and fast rules, as we once taught to believe by the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Instead, we must evaluate each situation on the basis of the circumstances guided by the principles laid down in scripture, foremost of which is the principle of love.