marriage

Two Readings of Scripture, Two Views of Jesus

(Note: the following is a guest editorial written for the Frankfort State-Journal for July 5, 2015)

The Supreme Court may settle disputes of American law, but cannot establish right and wrong. A bitterly divided Court can, by the slimmest possible margin, dictate what is legal but cannot determine what is moral. 

    Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. The same institution that once justified slavery and defined African-Americans as less than human, that has bestowed personhood on corporations but denied it to unborn babies, that vacillates—and will again—on whether or not capital punishment is acceptable has found a way to read the constitution innovatively and differently than any previous generation of citizens or legal scholars. The majority has found something there that none of its authors intended or even thought about.

The heart of the argument is about hermeneutics, how a document is read and understood. Liberal justices contend that the Constitution changes meaning with the culture, while conservatives insist that the meaning is fixed and that the amendment process should be used as society evolves or modifies its views.

Within Christianity the same debate rages about the Bible and stands at the epicenter of the current impasse about homosexuality and gay marriage. Some of us believe the Bible is God’s Word, a special and perfect revelation of himself, written by humans inspired by the Spirit who wrote what God led them to record. We believe that the proper way to read the Bible is the same way we want our pharmacist to read our doctor’s prescription, discerning the author’s original intent rather than imposing any foreign meaning on the text. 

Furthermore, we believe that the sixty-six books of the Bible together form one book with one grand narrative, the story of God’s redemption. That story of creation, fall, anticipation, the gospel, the church, and Christ’s return to reign is a single story. Though many human activities and practices within that story are shameful and highlight the need for redemption, God’s moral will and standard of holiness revealed in Scripture does not change through time and is not subject to the vicissitudes of culture. At the beginning of that story is the marriage of a perfect man and a perfect woman. At the end of that story is the marriage of a glorified man, the Lord Jesus, and his sanctified bride, his church. 

Other Christians, however, see the Bible as stained by human frailty and riddled with error, requiring more enlightened thinking to discern the good parts from the bad. These Christians are embarrassed by and denounce parts of the same book that they read in weddings and funerals, sermons and Sunday school classes as a model for faith and life. They see no contradiction in quoting Paul’s lyrical description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 while at the same time denouncing his instruction on gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11. They fear no inconsistency quoting Jesus when he says “Judge not” in Matthew 7:1, though simultaneously judging Jesus calling people “pigs” and “dogs” in Matthew 7:6. Scavenging Scripture selectively like a picky eater at a smorgasbord, they consume only what appeals to their taste and what they have already learned to like. 

Ultimately, that approach to Scripture inevitably leads to the same understanding of Jesus. How can one claim that Jesus is Lord and yet insist that Jesus needed to be corrected for his insensitivity when he spoke to the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:21-28?

To be candid, I can accept that many people do not agree with historic Christianity that homosexuality is a sin. I understand when people not guided by a biblical worldview adopt a simple live-and-let-live mentality because they do not think in categories of God’s design and purpose. 

I cannot comprehend, however, how people who claim that the Bible is God’s Word and Jesus is their Lord can either ignore or pervert the clear meaning of Jesus’ endorsement of God’s purpose for marriage. When asked about the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus answered by going back to creation and looking at God’s design. What was God’s intent? Jesus answered the question about divorce by saying much more about marriage than merely its duration. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4,5). 

Jesus could have answered the question about divorce by simply explaining that marriage is for a lifetime, but he went beyond that. He defined marriage by the number of people in that relationship as well as the sex of those in that relationship. Some may voice honest disagreement with Jesus’ words, but I cannot respect the kind of intellectual dishonesty that denies the plain and natural reading of his words. When someone says they take the Bible seriously but not literally, I take their words literally but not seriously.

Two thousand years of church history render a virtually unanimous opinion about the definition of marriage. It seems the epitome of arrogance for a Christian to hear Jesus’ words and the church’s verdict from antiquity only to say, “But I know better.” The Bible is not an instrument by which we justify the opinions of Christians, but the revelation of God in which we discover our justification in Christ.

Marriage and the Gospel

When we volunteered to help a couple in our church move, the wife looked appreciative, but a bit worried. “I need to tell you,” she said in a low tone as she leaned forward, “My sister, Debi, will be there helping us, too, and she’s a ... a stripper.”

“Well,” Tanya answered with a laugh, “she’s not going to practice while we’re loading the truck, will she?” Assuring her that we would be fine and that we actually looked forward to meeting her sister, she seemed relieved.

On the day of the move we were delighted to meet Debi and were struck by two things about her: how ordinary she seemed and what a hard worker she was. Still, I could only imagine how she viewed men, and I took care that day to stay very connected to Tanya, especially in front of her. Little touches, light banter, an occasional peck on the cheek as she passed me with a box filled with sweaters.

When we stopped for a quick lunch, Debi was observing us closely. We talked with our friends about church and about what God was doing there, she asked a few questions about how we met and how long we had been together, but mostly we were just ourselves and enjoyed each other’s company. We finished the move, invited her to visit our church sometime, and said a warm goodbye as we held hands and walked to our car.

A week later our friend called to say thank you for helping them move, but she said, “I really called to tell you some incredible news. My sister, Debi, was completely blown away by your relationship. This past week several times she would ask me if you guys are for real and finally she asked me what made the difference in your marriage. What do you have that makes you love each other like that? I saw my opportunity to tell her that it’s Jesus that makes the difference in your lives and I shared the gospel with her and she has trusted Christ!”

That happened more than 20 years ago, but some variation of that story has happened many times in our 34-year marriage. In fact, without question, our relationship is the greatest evangelism tool we have. On a beach, at a restaurant, on a plane, in a mall, it just happens. People notice that we are in love, that we cherish and adore one another and they’ll start a conversation about it. Eventually they get to the question: “What is your secret?”

One time I was on the phone with an airline ticket agent when the airline’s computer system went down. Apologizing profusely, she described the situation and suggested that I might want to call back later because she didn’t know how long it would be before things were working again. I told her that I didn’t mind waiting. “In fact,” I explained, “if this is the biggest problem I have today this is a great day.”

“Wow. You sure are a positive person,” she responded.

“Well, my wife is the world’s most upbeat person and she won’t let me complain much! I’ve got the greatest wife in the world, and I’ve really got no excuse to be down. We’ve been married [at that time] 18 years and I love her more today than I did the day we got married. She is fantastic.”

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody married that long talk about his wife like that. May I ask you a question? What is the secret to a great relationship like that?”

“You don’t really want me to tell you that,” I teased.

“Yes, yes, I really do, “she pleaded. “You see, I’m recently divorced, and if I ever get married again, that’s the kind of relationship I want. So really, what’s your secret?”

“Well, if you really want me to tell you - we both have the same core value. You see, you can come from different backgrounds, be from different ethnic groups, or have almost any other difference, but if you don’t agree on the core value - the one thing in life that is more important than anything else, the one thing that matters most - then your marriage won’t be very happy. We both have the same core value that we pour our lives into and in that shared significance we find a joy in one another that we could not have any other way.”

I did not have to wait long for the question I knew she would ask: “Well, what’s your core value?”

“Oh, you don’t want me to tell you that!” I joked.

“Yes, yes, I do,” she answered. “What is the one thing that both of you find more important than anything else?”

“Okay,” I answered, “you asked. We both are followers of Jesus Christ and he is Lord of our lives. We have found that by putting him in first place we love each other much more in second place than if we put one another in first place and put him in second place. Does that make sense?”

“Oh, it really does,” she said emphatically. “You see, I am Jewish, and since my divorce a friend of mine has been taking me with her to this Bible church, and listening to the sermons it has made me ask if Jesus is my Messiah. Do you think Jesus is my Messiah?”

“You don’t want me to answer that!”

“Yes, I do. Is he my Messiah?”

“Let me read you something,” I said, turning in my Bible to Isaiah 53, slowly and deliberately reading her the words that foretold of Jesus, and in just a few moments we prayed together on the phone as she repented of her sins and accepted Christ as Lord. After talking with her about discipleship and baptism, I told her of a church near her where she could be baptized and serve and she was excited to begin her new life as a follower of Christ.

Just as I finished she said, “Hey, the computers just came back online.”

“Imagine that,” I said.

If marriage is a picture of Christ and his love for his church, then much more is at stake than my happiness. The world should long for what Christians have. If our marriages aren’t filled with kindness and joy, why would anyone want what we offer? But when they see in us a mutual delight, a gentle and easy trust in one another, they can’t help but ask, “What’s your secret?” And we can tell them that it’s no secret at all. It’s Jesus.

Our Most Significant Spiritual Decision

 In 1980, the Ashland Avenue Baptist Church ventured far out on a very flimsy limb and called a 20-year old junior from Michigan State to be their Minister of Music and Youth. On my first day at the church, Tanya and I went on a date together for the first time. Thirteen days later, we bought the rings. Six months later, in March of 1981, we married.

            Convinced of a definite divine calling on my life since I was ten, on that very first date I explained to Tanya that I did not know where God would lead me, but I was committed to go wherever that might be. Though already certain that I would pursue a PhD after my undergraduate studies, I did not rule out serving the Lord in the jungle or some very remote place. Even from that first serious conversation she wholeheartedly and unreservedly said that she was on board and understood that the Lord came first in my life (yep, on the first date!). Though neither of us truly understood what that would mean, we were sincere in our desire to give the Lord our lives.

Wasting no time, we used our courtship and engagement, brief as they were, to make some key decisions. Tanya was working for a non-profit organization with special needs children at the time, and when the grant that funded her job ended in December of 1980, three months before we married, we decided that from that point on her job would be to help me in the ministry. She would plug into the church and work with students as though she were on staff. When we went on youth trips, she would be available to go. When young girls needed someone to talk to, she would have a listening ear and a word of encouragement. When summer camp rolled around, she would write skits, play softball, and love on kids with as much commitment as I, even though her name would never be on the paycheck. Whenever the Lord gave us children, she would stay home with them as well as continue to travel with the youth choir, teach a girls’ Sunday School class, and a thousand other things.

We made that decision when I was being paid $11,000 per year and living in a church parsonage. We had no idea how difficult it would be to maintain that commitment, particularly during the lean years in seminary, but neither did we know the harvest of joy and blessing it would reap in so many ways.

Now, almost thirty-three years later and with the perspective of history, we realize that no single decision we made as a couple bore more fruit or had greater impact than that one. Even more significant than my decision to go to seminary, more momentous than the calling to any church, with far greater effect than our move to Southern Seminary, our decision that Tanya would forego work outside our family and ministry was life altering. That single resolution shaped who we are as a couple and enhanced or actually caused all those other blessings.

            I hear the gasps and protestations already.

            Let me be clear: Tanya and I do not believe that Scripture forbids wives and mothers to work outside of the home. We know that a lot more is involved than a simple decision to live on one income. There are no shortcuts to sanctification, either privately or as a couple, and in many ways choosing to stay home will produce its own opportunities for conflict and spiritual struggle. A couple could make this decision and still be miserable and miss the will of God. We are not claiming that everyone who makes this commitment will find the fulfillment and contentment that we enjoy.

We are saying, however, that the benefits have far outweighed the costs. So much so, in fact, that we cannot think of any other choice we’ve made as a couple that has done more for our service to Christ, our holiness, or our happiness. We are convinced that this is a primary reason we are still deliriously in love, satisfied with one another, and delightfully fulfilled in ministry, even after so many years. That fact alone should merit some consideration from any young couple attempting to set priorities and a course of life that honors the Lord.

What It Has Cost

            To be fair, this decision has cost us some things. Everything in life is a tradeoff; you just have to be certain that the trades you make are worth it. We knew that this decision would come with a price tag, and it did. First and most obviously, it has probably cost financially. Who knows how much money Tanya would have been able to make? In fact, this commitment has been challenged from time to time by numerous job offers. When I was in seminary and unable to find a job myself, on an almost weekly basis business owners at our church were asking her to come work for them. That scenario has repeated many times. With Tanya’s natural beauty, communication skills, and a winsome personality that always fills the room, she would have been an asset and could have succeeded at many things. Every time she demurred, she was telling me that her investment in my life and ministry and in our sons was worth more to her.  

            For the first 15 years of our marriage we only had one car. During my years in seminary she spent her days with two little boys in a tiny row house in an Arkansas cotton field while I drove to the other side of the Mississippi River and sat listening eagerly to professors I enjoyed talking about subjects I loved.  While I was earning two Masters degrees and a PhD, she was spending her days teaching toddlers Bible stories, how to use the potty, and not to hit each other. At the end of the process I would be Dr. York and she would be, as always, Tanya. I do not judge our sacrifice to have been remotely equal. In fact, I would hardly use the word sacrifice for anything that I have contributed to this decision. Tanya, on the other hand, has sacrificed a monetary paycheck, a formal education, a certain social and peer approval, and any typical trophies of achievement. She has selflessly chosen the joy of seeing others fulfilled as her fulfillment.

What It Has Conferred

            The greatest gift that our decision bestowed has been a constant, unwavering shared and unified purpose in life. Because of Tanya’s commitment to completely immerse herself in our home and my ministry, we have found it far simpler to present a united front in our parenting, pastoring, financial decisions, ministry opportunities, social life, and missions commitments. Married couples who have separate careers may indeed still accomplish that, but surely with far greater difficulty.

            When both marriage partners work they inhabit separate worlds, usually to a great degree, during a significant portion of the day and week. They develop different sets of friends and acquaintances with whom they forge significant relationships and share powerful emotions and experiences. They struggle and succeed with others, they confide in others, they rely on others, and they relate to others in a sphere that a spouse can only share in the third person, never the first.

            In contrast, Tanya and I have closely shared the same sphere of life and work. She not only knows everyone I work with, but is closely connected with them through church or seminary life. She is as invested in my church as I am. She has enough margin in her life to expand and enlarge my ministry and influence largely because she is not occupied with budget reports, attending trade shows, or protecting profits in a business. She can take the time to meet with the wife who has fallen into sexual sin and walk with her on a road of brokenness and repentance, dealing with intimate issues that would be dangerous for me. She can spot a potential relationship challenge and prevent it from becoming a full-blown problem. If she owed that time and energy to another job, my ministry would be far more limited and my weaknesses far more exposed and vulnerable. What she contributes, precludes, prevents, and provides is incalculable.

            Most of the couples I counsel who have experienced a breach of trust or infidelity have done so because of work relationships. To be very candid, that is almost always the case with women who fall into sin (though Facebook and other internet sites have added additional opportunities for sin as well). I could not trust another human being any more than I trust Tanya, but I have also been grateful that she has been spared the inappropriate attentions of other men or a cause for temptation herself that she might have had on a regular basis if she worked outside our home. I realize that some might interpret that as fearful and jealous, but I can honestly deny that. I am not a jealous person, no doubt largely because Tanya has always been so obviously and passionately devoted to me, but I am also a realist and regularly exposed to lives shattered in very familiar patterns, patterns which I am glad we avoided. Equally true would be that Tanya's close and frequent presence in my ministry has also protected me from undue temptation. 

            That avoidance of temptation was not merely the evasion of opportunity, however. Because she stayed home, Tanya has taken the time to become a true student of the Word. Every day she spends significant blocks of time in the Word of God, gaining a strategic grasp of the Scriptures which shape and direct her walk as well as her discipling of other women. I’m sure she would have grown in the Scriptures regardless, but I am confident her knowledge would not be as deep and insightful. Seeing her spend time with the Lord thrills and gladdens this husband’s heart.

            I know I must say this delicately, but I do not believe that Tanya and I would have the unfettered intimacy and closeness we enjoy if we had done it differently and she had to face a separate set of anxieties and difficulties in addition to those we share. At every marriage conference we’ve ever led and in many counseling situations we’ve seen, being too tired for intimacy and too busy for relationship development emerges as a common major factor. Separate schedules, separate and independent goals, separate standards of success in life, and separate job demands all take a costly toll. And because many of those separate challenges can only be solved individually rather than as a couple, a subtle independence creeps in and drives them apart.

            If rearing children becomes the single shared purpose of a husband and wife, then they might do alright in the first half, but they will not the second. Tanya and I loved rearing Michael and Seth, but it was never the only thing or even the main thing we did together. During the early stages of parenting it certainly demanded more time, but we always realized that one day those little boys would grow into young men and leave us, just as God designed. We knew that if our home centered around them, we would find that we were each sitting across the table from a lonely stranger, lamenting the way things used to be.

            If Tanya had chosen a career in addition to the busyness of parenting and being a pastor’s wife, I am convinced we could not have cultivated the relationship we have. It might still be good, fulfilling, and even Christ-honoring, but I cannot conceive that it would be this free, joyful, and inextricably interwoven. As a result, when the time came for our sons to leave home, it took us less than ten minutes to get over empty-nest syndrome. I cried for a few minutes and then moved stuff into their closets!

            I could easily go on. When I get an invitation to travel to preach or minister somewhere, she can go with me. It’s not unduly stressful to have church members or students in our home. We never had to worry about daycare, or additional wardrobe. Our sons always had a parent accessible to them. In fact, if anyone wanted to verify the veracity of my claims, I would simply point them to my adult sons. Ask them if their mother’s decision made a difference in their lives and in our marriage. They truly arise and call her blessed.

            In the first half, Tanya sacrificed and devoted herself completely so I could have sons, get an education, pastor great churches, and pour into students’ lives. She studied the Word intensely so she could disciple and teach others. She made our home the sweetest place on earth.

            In the second half, I want to intentionally give her a greater return on that investment. I want her to reap the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a lifetime of wealth. I want marriage to me and service to the Lord to be so rewarding that she never even questions if it was worth it. I want to serve her, spoil her, bless her, delight her, cook for her, take her places, and make her a more radiantly beautiful follower of Christ than she already is.

By God’s grace our marriage enjoyed a good first half, so the challenge for us is to remain intentional and focused, to refuse to coast and content ourselves with having made it this far. I don’t know if we’ll get a full second half or not, but if, by God's grace, we do, I know what I want it to accomplish for the glory of Christ.

My Marriage | 32 Years In

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 With the memory of this year’s Super Bowl still fresh in my mind, I’ve been thinking about halftime. I don’t mean the big show featuring Bruno Mars for the entertainment of fans, but rather that welcome interval in the middle of the game when teams have an opportunity to assess their performance thus far and make necessary adjustments to ensure a win. Though the halftime score matters, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the way the game will end. Sometimes those who seem irretrievably behind find a way—the right strategy, the inspiration, and the will to turn things around. On the other hand, many who seem to have matters in hand, unable to keep their comfortable position in perspective, mistakenly assume they can coast through the second half to the final whistle, only to see their confidence evaporate with their lead.

            Tanya and I have been married 32 years. Each of our parents were married for about six decades before death ended their time together. Both sets of my grandparents were married about seven decades. Should God be so gracious to us, that means we are at halftime—time for a look back at what worked and what didn’t, for adjustments that will give us a stronger advantage in the future, for strategic decisions that take into account the fatigue that begins to wear down even the strongest and the most determined players.

            In the days and weeks ahead, I plan to share some first half mistakes and second half adjustments. I’ll be candid about what we did well and where we failed. I’ll be as transparent as I can without irreparably embarrassing Tanya or myself, but I will be clear enough that other married couples can emulate our successes and avert our failures. Life’s too short and time too precious for any couple to learn only from their own experiences, so breathing a prayer that God might use our lives and lessons to shape others, we will confess and warn, share and encourage, and above all, point everyone to the grace of God in Christ Jesus.