Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 8. Jesus on Marriage and "God made them Male & Female," (i)

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? “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” is how the question is asked in Matthew 19:3. 

The other context of this question from the Pharisees was John the Baptist's preaching against the divorce and remarriage of Herod Antipas, preaching that got John imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Are his opponents trying to trap Jesus and get him into similar trouble?

But, Jesus does not take their bait. Instead, he reframes the question. 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 this questioners are focused on (Deut. 24:1-4). In doing so, significantly, 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”
(Mark 10:9)

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 a 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 while remaining in that subsequent marriage.

This is a hard teaching. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this encounter (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. According to Jesus, from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” There is no male priority. Women are not lesser versions of human. Both male and female are created in God’s image (Mark 10:6). Husbands are no more free to abandon or divorce their wives than wives their husbands.

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 often left choosing between destitution or prostitution. 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, it has been the accepted teaching of most of the Church that remarriage was not an option. The Eastern Church has historically allowed for remarriage – once only   but the legitimate reasons for divorce has always been quite limited. In any event, they go beyond the strict meaning of the scriptures in doing so.

It makes sense that the scriptures and the Church look askance at divorce. The image of God's covenant and "marriage" to Israel along with that of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church as the bride of Christ are foundational. As is the promise that God is faithful to his end of the covenant. Christian marriage is a witness to that faithfulness. Any divorce, and still more remarriage after, would seem to be a counter-sign.

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 faithful, self-sacrificial love is not even in the same ballpark.

But in our time, 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 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?  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? Is it that we have decided that what Jesus teaches about divorce needs to be interpreted in light what he teaches elsewhere, say, concerning mercy?

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 subsequent remarriage has all the marks of a good and holy union. Do we believe those remarriages are inherently sinful? It might well be that Jesus would say that those unions are adulterous and sinful regardless of what appear to be their good fruit. Perhaps the faithful thing to do for Christians who cannot live with the person to whom they are married is for them to live apart under the discipline of sexual abstinence and resisting the temptation to any other romantic relationships? But, that does not seem consistent with the mercy he teaches 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 his opponents test Jesus is not about gays and lesbians. It is 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 here, 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.


  1. Here are a quotes on remarriage from two Anglican worthies of the 20th century:

    “The question of marriage is perhaps the most important. The only argument of worth in favor of allowing the innocent party to re-marry in a case of divorce, is to be found in a saying of our Lord. But scholars have pronounced this text to be so uncertain that we cannot safely base an argument upon it; and if it were correct, our Lord is said not to be revealing the law governing Christians but that in relation to the Jew. Under the Gospel, Christian marriage was to bear witness to the indissolubility of Christ's union with His Church, and however hard it may be in certain cases for a Christian to bear the witness, Christ has promised that "My grace shall be sufficient for thee.”
    – Charles Grafton (1830-1912), 2nd Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, Church Principles and Church Parties, 1904 http://anglicanhistory.org/grafton/v8/408.html

    “Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery”—I can understand that a man can, and must respect these ‘statutes’, and try to obey them in his heart. But it is very hard to find how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate. If this is difficult at any time, it is doubly so when obedience to either is opposed to some strong, and perhaps in itself innocent, desire. A man held back by his unfortunate previous marriage to some lunatic or criminal who never dies from some woman whom he faithfully loves . . . can [he] find the prohibition of adultery anything like honey?
    – C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), Reflections on the Psalms, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1958, p. 55)

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  3. Here is another 20th century Anglican who opposed of revising the traditional teaching against remarriage after divorce:

    “My last word to-day is an appeal to the readers of this paper. Before you accept the Bishop of Durham as your champion on the side of Church order and discipline; before you condemn us, as dishonest men, at his bidding; ask his Lordship how he reconciles with Anglican standards of doctrine his treatment of the Lord Christ Himself. The Bishop asks for a committee to reopen the Western Church’s decision that no one shall be married again after divorce. And why? Because he thinks that the Lord Christ was quite unable to legislate for the twentieth century! In Dr. Henson’s view, Christ could not foresee our conditions; He could not give us the counsel we need!”
    – Frank Weston (1871-1924), Bishop of Zanzibar, In Defence of the English Catholic, 1923