Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage
Marriage does not appear to have been a topic Jesus was inclined to say much about. He does not say nearly as much about it as he does other things. When he does talk about it, his primary concern appears to be divorce, remarriage and adultery. And the way he understands them to be linked.
In the two incidences where Jesus says more than a line or two on marriage, he is not the one who brings it up. The conversation is initiated by others in an attempt to trip him up. One of those conversations is recounted in Mark 10:
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Since this passage is thought by many to be one where Jesus precludes any possibility of the faithfulness of same gender unions, we will look at it now.
First of all, to state the obvious, this passage is first and foremost about the question of divorce. There was a debate among the Pharisees themselves about the grounds for which a man might divorce his wife (it was exceedingly rare for it to go the other way). One school of thought, associated with Rabbi Hillel, interpreted this broadly such that a man could divorce his wife for almost any cause. The other school, associated with Rabbi Shammai, argued that a man could divorce his wife only for serious transgressions. That is the context for the question posed to Jesus. Is he relatively strict or relatively lax? The other context was John the Baptist's preaching against the divorce and remarriage of Herod Antipas, preaching that got John imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Are the Pharisees trying to get Jesus into similar trouble?
Rather than play the male game of debating when a man could divorce his wife, Jesus sets the text of the first two chapters of Genesis alongside the text in Deuteronomy that the Pharisees are focused on, Deut. 24:1-4. In doing so, he seems to indicate that he takes some parts of the Old Testament as more authoritative than others.
And Jesus’ teaching on divorce is clear enough. A straightforward, literal, face-value reading of what Jesus actually says is clear:
1. Divorce is wrong – “what God has joined together, let no one separate”
2. Remarriage is impossible – “the two have become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). That cannot be undone. Uniting sexually with anyone else is adultery. Thus any remarriage is living in sin. This teaching is reinforced in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. In Mathew, Jesus does allow that sexual immorality on the part of the wife is legitimate – perhaps necessary – grounds for divorce. But that is it.
Jesus is emphatic and uncompromising. One could conceivably repent of a divorce, in which case the ideal would be to reunite with one’s spouse. But, if that is not possible, remarriage to someone else is out of the question – at least as long as the spouse is alive. This is because Jesus appears to deny the actuality of divorce. Once the two have been joined together by God and become one flesh, no judge or writ, and certainly not the whim of the husband, can undo it or separate them. Hence any “remarriage” is de facto adultery and sinful. So, while one might repent of or feel remorse for being party to a divorce, it would be impossible to repent of the adultery that is remarriage.
This is a hard teaching. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this encounter with the Pharisees (Mt. 19:1-10), Jesus’ disciples protest, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But, make no mistake, that is the plain meaning of what Jesus says. And it was almost universally the teaching of the early Church. It is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, however much the annulment option allows for a release valve. Until quite recently, it was the accepted teaching of the Anglican tradition (See the three representative quotes in the comment section below).
If Christians allow for divorce and remarriage now, that allowance is not based on the plain meaning of what Jesus said when he spoke directly on the topic.
But Jesus quotes another passage from Genesis to address the phenomenon of divorce as understood in his context. And this is the basis for the third thing he has to say on the matter:
3. Men need to get over their presumption that they are more significant than women and therefore divorce is their prerogative – a prerogative that the Deuteronomy passage seems to support. From the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” There is no male priority. Women are not a lesser versions of human. Both male and female are created in God’s image.(Mark 10:6)
This is an important part of Jesus teaching on divorce. And it might indicate why he took the issue so seriously. In his time and place, a woman unattached to a man was in a desperate situation and very likely would end up either destitute or a prostitute. Thus, the ease with which some men were prepared to divorce their wives left women in a seriously tenuous and vulnerable position. Perhaps this is why in both Mark and Matthew this debate about divorce is followed by Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children – another group that was particularly vulnerable in first century Palestine.
Let me be clear. I believe that divorce is a serious breach of Christian faithfulness. But, I also accept that sometimes – more rarely than in current practice – divorce is the least worst option. And in such cases remarriage can be a holy thing even though not the ideal. I think the Church needs to do a lot more thinking and teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But that is not the point of this blog post.
My point is this. This text, including, “God made them male and female,” is not addressing same sex relationships. It is about divorce and remarriage. And if all we had to go on was what Jesus says when he addresses the topic, the Church would have to forbid all remarriage except in the case of sexual immorality of the wife. Whether or not Paul allows for remarriage of a believer after being rejected by an unbelieving spouse is another question, the answer to which is unclear. Certainly he does not allow for the believing spouse to be the initiator of a divorce (see 1 Corinthians 7). As I said above, until recently, this has been the accepted teaching of most of the Church.
The reality and prevalence of divorce and remarriage undermine marriage. As far as threats to marriage go, gays and lesbians committing themselves to one another in bonds of self-sacrificial love is not even in the same ballpark.
But, many Christians do allow for divorce and remarriage. We need to explain why. Why do we allow divorce and remarriage in our churches? Why do we recognize the legitimacy of remarriage? If, in spite of what Jesus appears to have said, we have decided that remarriage after divorce is not always sinful, why not? What rules of interpretation do we use to come to a different conclusion? Is it just arbitrary? Or have we discerned that there are things about the cultural and historical context that need to be taken into account? Is it that we have decided that what Jesus teaches about divorce needs to be interpreted in light what he teaches elsewhere concerning mercy?
How much does our experience inform how we engage Jesus and the rest of the Bible and Church Tradition on this issue? How does it inform our conclusions?
Some of us have direct experience and most of us know people who have been in marriages that were awful. Most of us know people who have been divorced. Most of us know people who have remarried and whose marriage has all the marks of a good and holy union. Do we believe those remarriages are inherently sinful? It might be that Jesus would say that those unions are adulterous and sinful regardless of what appear to be their good fruit. But, that does not seem consistent with all that he says elsewhere in the Gospels.
I am inclined to agree with Martin Luther who allowed that there is more than one legitimate reason for divorce. He held that celibacy after a divorce was preferable, but if one was unable to endure that vocation one could remarry because "God will not demand the impossible.”
What does all this have to do with changing my mind on same-sex unions?
The passage where the Pharisees test Jesus is not about gays and lesbians. It is primarily about divorce and remarriage. Not only is it primarily about divorce and remarriage, taken at face value, it is a stark teaching. Most Christians are prepared to interpret the passage in such a way as to allow for less stark practice.
I suggest that if Christians accept that it is possible to remarry after divorce and that the remarriage is not inherently adulterous and sinful, they might also entertain the possibility that those passages in the Bible that refer to some kind of same gender sexual relations are also open to alternate readings.And perhaps trying to become heterosexual or remaining celibate are not the only faithful options for gays and lesbians. Perhaps, "God will not demand the impossible.”
That said, while it is not the point of what Jesus is up to in the encounter with the Pharisees, he does say, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’" I’ll take another look at that in the next post.