In Genesis 16 we read the account of Abram and Sarai attempting to accomplish God’s promise by using what was available to them. Abram, we are told, “listened to the voice” of Sarai, just as Adam had “listened to the voice” of his wife in Genesis 3. Just in case you are already jumping to a particularly bad conclusion let me be clear: Adam and Abram were supposed to have been listening to the voice of God. The point here is not to set a husband against his wife or vice versa. God did not establish marriage as automatically containing a divisive and combative character. Marriage, like everything else in God’s creation is only interpreted and responded to rightly, when we interpret it in relation to and in accord with God’s Word. You see, things are what they are because of what God created them to be, or has allowed them to become (I know, a million questions. Sorry, can’t address them all at once.). The point is not that Abram, following Adam, actually audibly heard his wife, and that he should not have been doing that. The point is that Abram, following Adam before him, gave priority to his wife’s voice over God’s voice. This is another way of saying that Abram gave into his wife’s interpretation of their circumstances and adopted her method of dealing with these circumstances. He should have remembered and held fast to God’s voice that had made promises to them. It was God and his voice that had created all life, possessed the right interpretation of life, and was the source of the covenant blessing to Abram and Sarai.
Of course, what we have in this event recorded in Genesis 16 is a demonstration of God’s covenant children falling prey to the ways of the world. This amounts to God’s children adopting the living patterns and strategies for life that are common among those who do not trust in God for salvation. Sarai’s suggestion that Abram take Hagar and have a child through her may certainly have been common practice in the Canaanite culture but Abram and Sarai should not have done it. While many are eager to cite the doctrine of common grace—the notion that even non-Christians know some truth and affirm good things—we seriously distort this doctrine if we think that it warrants us to adopt methods in the church that make sense to those outside the church in order for us to experience God’s blessing. There is a certain irony here. It is Genesis 16 that reveals, among other things, the disaster that follows when God’s people look to those who reject God and his covenant promises as their source for how they will think and live. Yet it is also Genesis 16 that reveals that God extends some measure of mercy toward those who are not his covenant children. The conclusion to draw is not that those who are not God’s covenant children have something meaningful to contribute to the way the Christian individually and the church corporately ought to think and live. Rather, it is to 1) recognize how merciful and gracious God is even to those who remain outside his life saving grace, 2) what a disaster it is for God’s people to think that the unbelieving culture as a whole that surrounds them has anything of substance to offer them (I am not saying that there are not individual exceptions here and there), and 3) how vital it is to order our lives in accordance with God’s word, wait on and delight in God as we do so, and leave the results in his hands.
Abram’s and Sarai’s behavior was a clear example of treating another person as property to be used for whatever purpose one wished to use them. It was also an example of looking at what one has access to through the created order and using it to try and accomplish God’s blessing. It is, among other things, a demonstration that something that is acceptable within the broader culture in which one lives can be rationally justified when one ignores particular truths of God’s word. Such sin can make “perfect” sense to people who do not know and obey God’s word too well. When adopted by a whole mass of people such practices can often go unquestioned even by God’s people; the practices take on a significant degree of inevitability, they actually become synonymous with rational and wise behavior, and thus those that question the culturally acceptable practices are easily branded as irrational, crazy, foolish, or behind the times. But it gets even worse, because such culturally acceptable practices can become equated with biblical faithfulness, so the one who questions them in the church is eventually regarded as one who opposes the advancement of God’s kingdom; they simply do not love God and people enough. This was precisely the scenario that played out with many, if not all, of the Old Testament prophets.
When God’s people adopt these culturally acceptable practices they have disastrous results. Still, it is quite easy for us to adopt them; we are engulfed in them. It all came to make sense to Abram and Sarai, after all, this took place after they had been living among the Canaanites for ten years.
In principle we can be committed to biblical truth, and obedience to it, and still be easily led astray because we are not circumspect about how we are living nor recognizing that the non-Christian culture in which we live is at fundamental odds with God. It adopts practices that make sense to the popular thinking of the day. These practices do help non-Christians in some ways get along in life and achieve practical results that are not completely at odds with the results that are to take place with God’s people. Indeed, it is the very similarities between what will take place with God’s people and what takes place with those outside of God’s kingdom that makes the world’s practices seem plausible, or seem to make sense. It highlights how important it is for God’s people to regularly scrutinize what they are DOING, not just confessing that they believe a particular set of truths. Yet, this scrutiny must be done with God’s word as our supreme authority. Access to the correct interpretation of that word is therefore crucial for evaluating both what we think and do, individually and corporately.
Someone might raise the question: How was Abram to know that God required him to only have Sarai as his wife, and only have sex with her? Well, for one thing, the story of Noah reveals that this knowledge was already possessed by those living in a God honoring way. Noah had a wife, not wives. It was Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who is first cited in Scripture as having more than one wife. Treating more than one woman as one’s wife was not a practice by someone seeking to honor God. God created one wife (who was female!) for Adam, not two or three or four. Conclusion: Abram and Sarai had no business treating Hagar like she was Abram’s wife. What the world does, no matter how reasonable it may seem, or how widespread its practices, does not validate its thinking or those practices. Businesses may market their products. The Church does not have a product. The Church does not have anything to market or sell. Entertainers may know how to gather a crowd and produce a tantalizing experience. Biblical worship is not an experience to harness so others can be tantalized and given a “fix” like a drug. Businesses and governments may have programs to service what others perceive as their needs. The church ought not to consider ministry in the name of the Lord Jesus as a bunch of programs to meet people’s perceived needs. No, that does not automatically make programs in the church bad. Still, we would do very well in our American context to question their presence, their purpose, and the degree to which people who populate our churches regard them as necessary.
What the church of the Lord Jesus has and needs is the worship of the Triune God through the preached word and the administration of the sacraments around which she praises and prays. When churches start to think that they must look like a smaller version of the civil government in all its programs or any business in its, then those who lead such congregations have fundamentally misunderstood the very nature of the church’s identity and mission. The church has God’s word and Spirit. What else does the church need? What else do you need? Let me answer that: Nothing. You need nothing else besides God’s word and Spirit (Deut. 8:3). It is God’s voice through His word preached that the Spirit of God uses to raise the dead to life and renews that life. To clamor for anything more is whoring idolatry. And be certain, there will be consequences. Praise God that he is merciful and gracious. He has given us and continues to give us his word and Spirit, but in doing so it exposes our sin so that we might more faithfully trust his word and Spirit.