We need to recognize that God sets an ultimately high standard, but is prepared to accept our achievement of a lower standard- i.e. God makes concessions. We all disobey the same commandments of Christ day by day and hour by hour. Yet we have a firm hope in salvation. Therefore obedience to commandments is not the only necessity for salvation. " Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) goes unfulfilled by each of us- as far as our own obedience is concerned. It is possible to disobey Christ's commandments every day and be saved. If this statement is false, then salvation is only possible is we attain God's moral perfection, which is impossible.
If disobedience to Christ's commands is tolerable by God (on account of our faith in the atonement), how can we decide which of those commandments we will tolerate being broken by our brethren, and which of them we will disfellowship for? If we cannot recognize degrees of sin, it is difficult to pronounce some commands to be more important than others.
Throughout the Spirit's teaching concerning marriage in 1 Cor. 7, there is constantly this feature of setting an ideal standard, but accepting a lower one. This is demonstrated by the several occurrences of the word " But..." in the passage:
- It is better not to marry: " But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned" (v.28).
- The same " but and if" occurs in vv. 10,11: " Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart..." . Separation is, therefore, tolerated by God as a concession to human weakness, even though it is a way of life which inevitably involves an ongoing breach of commandments.
- It is better for widows not to remarry; but if they do, this is acceptable (1 Cor. 7:39,40; 1 Tim. 5:11)
- This same 'two standards' principle is seen elsewhere within 1 Cor. Meat offered to idols was just ordinary meat, but Paul. like God, makes concessions for those with a weak conscience concerning this (1 Cor. 8).
- Likewise in 1 Cor. 9:12 Paul says he could have asked Corinth ecclesia to support him financially, but he chose not to. Thus he chose the higher of two options.
- Those who had the gift of tongues should only have used it to edify others, speaking intelligible words publicly; but Paul was prepared to allow the Corinthians to speak in tongues to themselves (1 Cor. 14:28), although this seems to go against the tenor of his previous explanation of the ideal use of that gift.
- 1 Cor. 12:31-13:12 implies that Paul was faced with the higher choice of the ministry of love and the written word, compared to the lower choice of exercising the Spirit gifts. By all means compare this with the choice which he had in Phil. 1:21-26: to exit this life was made possible to him, but he chose the higher, more difficult and more spiritually risky option of living for a few more years, in order to strengthen his brethren.
- We have given more examples of how God makes concessions to weakness in Living On Different Levels. There are times when the standards of God contradict each other, on a surface level. Thus Boaz realized that a man must redeem the property of a dead relative in some cases by marrying his wife; but this would have resulted in polygamy (Ruth 4:5).
That there are Divine concessions to weakness, and that we should reflect these in our dealings with each other, does not mean of course that ultimately we never ‘draw the line’ as far as fellowship is concerned in our ecclesial decisions.
All this is not to say that God does not value principles, although God makes concessions. The fact that God will tolerate a lower standard should inspire us not to constantly depend upon it; rather should it make us ambitious to attain that higher standard which is more pleasing to Him. 1 Cor. 7 shows that God will tolerate a less than ideal standard in marital relations, which is the area of ecclesial life which usually provokes the most bitter division. This also has Old Testament precedent. Abraham was living under the standards of Eden, rather than those of the Mosaic law. The Edenic standard was that of Christ concerning marriage. Yet Abraham had relationships with Hagar, Jacob had two wives- and God tolerated this departure from the one man: one woman ideal.
It is irrelevant to reason that such 'inconsistencies' were tolerated before the new covenant came into operation. God's moral principles did not change the moment Christ died on the cross, and the new covenant came into full operation. It is possible for us to see the changeover between the two covenants as more dramatic than it was. They express the same principles in different ways. God's greatest principle is His mercy, and willingness to make concessions to human weakness, whilst still upholding His righteousness. That remains constant in both covenants.