Straining at Gnats and Swallowing Camels

Note – In late 1911, J. Frank Norris created a bit of a stir with some comments on divorce in a sermon preached on September 17, 1911, in which he embraced a broader list of acceptable reasons for a divorce than most Christian leaders in the city at the time. This sermon is a response to those that disagreed with him. I doubt this is the entire sermon (seems a little short), probably just the main section dealing with the divorce issue. – MBG

To have various and dignified men and organizations to discuss on of my sermons, is no small compliment, and one which I sincerely wish I were worthy to bear. A full and free discussion of such a vital question as marriage and divorce always profitable. The alarming increase of divorce statistics and the increasing light regard of the marriage relation, compel the sober attention of the pulpit, the press, and the legislative hall. That everyone should agree on this confessedly difficult problem is not to be expected.

Some have rushed into the press, assuming that I advocated a whole lot of strange things, and things which I never heard of until I saw their reply. They have asserted with great boldness that I advocated the unconditional remarriage of unscripturally divorced people. It is a specie of recklessness that deserves pity rather than censure. Such a Spirit is to be deplored, for it never contributes toward the practical solution of any question. The only thing that I said two weeks ago about remarriage was that divorced people should be required to wait at least a year after divorcement before remarriage. I saws offering a practical remedy to to lessen the divorce evils, I am in favor of shortening the hours of the saloon and limiting the amount of sold. Does the advocacy of these relief measures make me an advocate of a saloon? Yet it would according to the view of some.

My first duty tonight is to note the spirit manifested in this discussion. For to my mind this is fraught with a thousandfold more evil than the divorce courts. That some are dead certain of a sure remedy for every evil, while others are less certain is to be expected. I belong to the latter class. Perhaps it is my misfortune that I am not possessed with the gift of dogmatic certainty as are some. When I was a young man I was cocksure of every public Question, whether it was Cleveland’s failure to veto the Wilson tariff bill or who made up the ancestral line of Melchizedek.

Authority of Jesus Christ

On all moral and religious questions, there is only one thing that I am absolutely certain of, and that is the authority of Jesus Christ. It is supreme and final on all matters. If I were to have some resolutions offered or passed to get me to preach a sermon on divorce, either to boost me before hand, or endorse me afterward, I would not hide behind the empty subterfuge, “our confession, “our church discipline,” or even the shibboleth “baptism custom,” but I would offer something after the following:

Resolves, That we, the the Ministers’ Association of Fort Worth, recognize no authority save that of Jesus Christ on the question of marriage and divorce.

Resolved, That as it is final on this, as on every other question, we accept no human creed of interpretation thereof in its stead.

Resolved, That we reaffirm our loyalty to His authority as supreme on the sanctity of marriage, on the ground for divorce, and on the condition of remarriage.

Resolved, That when Jesus specifically authorizes or prohibits any act, that is the end of all controversy, bu let us be sure we understand clearly what He says before shouting it from the house top.

Because of failure to recognize the supremacy of the authority of Jesus above all creeds, traditions and custom Christianity has suffer its worst defeats. There are but two consistent positions in the religious world, the Roman Catholic and the New Testament. The first says all authority is vested in the church, hence it has the right to make marriage one of the seven sacraments of the church, instead of a civil institution. The second, the New Testament position, declares in Jesus’s own words, “All authority is given unto Me.” Between these two extreme and consistent positions there has grown up through compromise, prejudice, tradition. and literalism, an army aimlessly wandering about, which no man can number, with flaring trumpets and waving banners, bombastically proclaiming, “Lo, here is the true authority.”

Jesus Not a Legislator.

With great caution and in the spirit or true humility we should approach the teachings of Him who spake as never man spake. We should remember that Jesus was a great spiritual teacher, announcing the fundamental principles of a universal and unending kingdom. He was in no sense a legislator. “The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” He established a kingdom whose one ruling principle was love and whose subjects were not to worship Him, either in the Samaritan mount or Zion’s hill, but but in spirit and in truth. The Pharisees, and their name is legion today, were constantly hounding Him on some unimportant and infinitesimal legislative detail. They told Him it was against the law to hear a man on the Sabbath day, or for His disciples to pluck ears of corn for their sabbath dinner. They were right as to the letter of the law. Jesus did not question it. But He also said there was a higher law, namely, the law of necessity and justice. And cited their attention to David’s eating the shew bread in violation of the law. The ran literalists of today, the punctilious divine, who sees only the letter which killeth, and not the spirit which giveth life, would have us believe that Jesus spoke on every detail of life instead of giving us a supernatural Magna-Charta of eternal principles. My literalist brother will have all kinds of trouble. For example, Jesus said, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Yet when have you heard of any one of them carrying out this performance. If one should be announced, the Coliseum would have to be rented. Again, when Jesus sent out some preachers once, He specifically commanded them, “Carry neither purse nor script.” So far as I am concerned, I have a very satisfactory explanation of this scripture given me by a noble board of deacons at the end of each calendar month. I have not inquired as to whether others accept said explanation at the said time or not.

Christ’s Position on Marriage.

As to marriage, Jesus nowhere even commands people to marry, that is in word. Yet it is His will that all should marry; some think the principle of justice underlying His teachings would justify a law taxing old bachelors and pensioning all old maids, even through difficult application. Again, Jesus nowhere authorized or commissioned His preachers to marry people. Not a solitary marriage ceremony by Himself, Peter, James, John or Paul; then where does my hyper-orthodox D.D., who insists, He accepts nothing and does nothing unless it be literally and specifically commanded, get his authority to marry people? It would be uncharitable to say the fee furnishes the mantle of authority. As for me, I get my authority form the state, and accept the fee “asking no questions for conscience sake” even though the majority of my couples never offer a fee.

Here, as in a thousand other statutory details of life, we should recognize the principle, “Submit to the powers that, be, as ordained of God.” Paul says, “You must needs be subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake, for this cause pay ye tribute also, for they are God’s ministers, attending continually to this very thing. Render therefor, to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” Did not Jesus in all He said on marriage and divorce, recognize the civil authority of His day? Did He set it aside? Some say they believe the marriage relation should never be broken on any condition, and yet in a recent resolution they say, “There may be exceptional cases.” Then, again, one of the confessions of faith gives “willful desertion” as a just ground, and so on with all of them. I suppose they would all agree that “consistency is the virtue of fools.”

Whether separation under this head or that is used, I am discussing a set of stubborn and inevitable facts that confront us every day on the streets of Fort Worth, and that must be passed on by sound judgment rendering its verdict out of the sole authority of Jesus Christ. We are not settling questions in a Utopian world according to the “rules of our church,” “our confession,” or “Baptist custom.”

Nowhere does Jesus authorize or permit a woman to put away her husband for any cause, adultery or anything else, that is, He did not in words, yet He did in principle and inferentially. Who would dare deny injured and innocent womanhood the right of self-protection from the incarnate brutes that deceive them? Because I have taken this position, they have taken up stones against me. Here is case that happened in Fort Worth. A good little woman was on her knees begging her beastly husband not to strike her; their 6-year-old daughter plead for her mamma’s life. Yet the fiend strikes her down. No question of adultery is raised or known, and do you tell me she could continue a defenseless victim to his drunken cruelty rather than go through life with a false stigma of having separated herself from her husband? Most of us would of into infidelity before we would submit to the affirmative answer of these latter day Pharisees. A thousand times no. Shall we not in the midst of our present day conflicts expect Him who sat on Jacob’s well and forgave her all, and who said to her who was taken in sin, “Go and sin no more,” to give her whom we call mother, daughter, and sister – the sweetest and tenderest words in the English language – the same rights and protection as He id while He walked the shores of Galilee or through the fields of Samaria?

Reaffirms Position.

I hereby reaffirm with double emphasis, all that I said on this question before. While I did not say anything on absolute divorce and remarriage, I now say, that the Master’s teachings on this question are not impossible to accept today. But they should be rightly interpreted. There is quite a distinction between separation and divorce and remarriage on the other. The sanctity of marriage relation demands supreme loyalty to what is the clear and unmistakable teaching of our Lord on this vital subject.

That the marriage relation should ever be broken on any ground, is sad, yet here are many causes and conditions which make separation far more desirable. Drunkenness, nonsupport, cruelty, abandonment, and other evil conditions have to be met. Pass on the question as if it were your own daughter who was the unfortunate victim. I raise my voice in behalf of the innocent of either man or woman. “How can two walk together, except they be agreed?” I repeat, “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder,” and what the devil has joined together – and the devil continues to rule – let them separate. Some ask, “How do you know the devil has joined them?” The subjects themselves know. We can only judge a tree by its fruit. “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

Straining at Gnats, Swallowing Camels.

In this day of fine fraternal feeling and progressive unity, for the life of me, I cannot find it in my heart to attack the word and work of any man who is trying under God to uplift humanity. There are a whole lot of people that are doing a whole lot of good, and not doing it as I would or could, but shall I call down fire from heaven on them? Remember Gamaliel’s advice, “If it be of God, better let it alone, if not, it will fall anyway.” I deeply sympathize with any good meaning man who feels it his first duty to rush to the defense of the truth, but he should remember two other good meaning men who once caught the tilting ark in the midst of the River Jordan.

While some are giving their heart’s best blood to win lost men of every class and condition out in the highways and hedges, it is perhaps good to have the Aquillas and Priscillas to instruct the young and zealous Apollos more perfectly in the way. I freely confess I do not know everything, I wish I did. I have always coveted the monopoly enjoyed by Job’s three friends. “No doubt ye are the people, and when you die, wisdom shall die with you.”

Discussing hair-splitting questions to no profit, straight out Pharisaism, has been the greatest barrier to the truth. Jesus met it from Jordan’s bank to Calvary’s brow. It betrayed Him, it tied His hands behind Him, it scourged Him, it pressed the crown of thorns on His brow, it scoffed Him, and named Him to the tree. The Pharisees had three thousand laws on the Sabbath, and would not even eat a fresh egg on the first day of the week, lest the hen had violated the Sabbath day. Yet they did not have one law that would permit them to lift upon a donkey the bruised and bleeding form of a man who had been left for dead by robber bands. By such foolishness the world, I mean the thinking world, has been driven from the church. The hungry world asks for bread, and we give it a stone; it begs for fish, and we offer stinging scorpions born of envious hearts. The lost world searches for a warm spiritual leadership, and receives the clammy clasp of blind traditionalism leading it headlong into the death trap of human dogmatism. The sinning world cries for the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table, yet some of the would-be leaders beat back their cry with dry bones of medieval ecclesiasticism.

Pleads for Sane Remedy.

I am making a plea for a sane, honest and scriptural remedy to one of the most menacing evils of our society. In discussing public questions, shall we violate freedom of conscience and force individual opinions upon others just as intelligent and conscientious as ourselves? Such might come from a triple-headed tyrant, arrogating to be the supreme head over the church, with power to reward at will. and demand discretion, to dictate creeds, and enslave conscience, to suppress investigation, and gag private judgment and secure in its boasted infallibility, and in the perpetuity of its power, demanding servile submission to its teachings and dominion.

Let us brush away the cobwebs of superstition, prejudice, and bigotry from the face of the truth. Let the principle of love guide us in all our actions, even in the passing of resolutions There was a time when my hyper-literalist brother preached that infants no longer than the span of a man’s hand were in hell. It is still In the creed of a good portion of Christendom. Yet who would dare defend it? Then why do not they have the courage and frankness to leave it out? When I was a boy I heard a Baptist preacher say, “Only the Baptists would be saved.” I doubted his Pharisaical, dogmatic statement then, and somehow, that doubt has increased through the years. Yea. I rejoice to know there will be uncounted millions of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and even those of no church connection on the right hand side in that last awful and terrible day, when the Judge of all the earth will do right. I love to read what John saw and said, “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindred, and people, and tongues, stood before the Lamb, clothed in white robes and palms in their hands.”

It has not been my purpose to answer anybody or to correct any secondhand reports or rumors of what I have said heretofore. I leave that to others. They may have the last say. I have something far more important to engage my mind, and have sought before the large audience to use this opportunity to preach the heart of the gospel of the Son of God,