Sunday, February 14, 2016

ET14: Divorce is usually hostile to God's fundamental values.

This is the fourteenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Divorce is usually hostile to God's fundamental values.

1. Marriage is a gift of God's love to humanity. Marriage provides a context of security not only in which children can be nurtured and raised in love and security, but where men and women can live lives surrounded by love and security as well. Good marriages thus ideally result in generations of children whose fundamental psyche is healthy. It helps those in the marriage to live longer, healthier lives. And good marriages can help produce a society that is stable, optimistic, and generous toward others.

By contrast, divorce in general undermines this security. Divorce potentially hurts the mental and physical health of all involved. Marriages involving affairs can hurt the health, both mental and physical, of everyone involved. Divorces often result from adultery, which is an act quite the opposite of God's command to love our neighbor.

2. There were no prohibitions whatsoever on a man divorcing his wife in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 24:1-5 assumes the possibility of divorce, rather than arguing or allowing for it. It simply says that a man who does officially divorce his wife can never remarry her again. Christians today generally consider this prohibition to be a part of the Old Testament law that does not remain in force today. The reasons for the prohibition are connected to the world of the Ancient Near East.

The mention of a "certificate of divorce" is significant, for a wife without such an official divorce might be left without any means of support whatsoever. She would still be attached to a man who had nothing more to do with her. She would be unable to remarry and unable to support herself, left in a limbo similar to that of a widow who had no family to support her. In that sense, a certificate of divorce was more loving than marital limbo.

In Ezra 10, many Israelites repent of marrying foreign wives in the time of the exile and up until the times of Israel's reform. They "send away" their foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10:44). The implied perspective of Ezra 10 seems to approve of this move. If it was truly what God wanted, then we must see it as an unrepeatable, unique event in Israel's history.

By contrast, Malachi 2:13-16, written about the same time, gives the Christian center point of the Old Testament on this topic: "I hate divorce, says the LORD" (2:16). The divorce YHWH has in view is men throwing away the wife of their youth in faithlessness. Indeed, faithfulness is the bottom line of this passage. Marriage is a covenant one makes with a spouse, and one makes that covenant before God. Therefore, to break covenant with one's spouse is to break covenant with God.

The male orientation of ancient Israelite society is overwhelmingly clear, in keeping with the overwhelmingly male orientation of the ancient world. It was only the man who was able to initiate a divorce, and the woman was generally powerless. In such a context, God reminds the men that God made the woman too. All flesh and spirit is his. A man who throws away is wife is thus throwing away something that belongs to God, and God is a witness for the wife against him. This is an important point--it is at those places where God pushed against the norms of the culture that we are most likely to hear his moving, his trajectory.

3. Jesus continues this theme of compassion toward the wife. There is a tendency among some to read Jesus' words on divorce legalistically, which is ironic given that Jesus' entire way of interacting with the Law put people over rules, especially the fine details of the rules. In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus gives the fundamental basis of marriage: "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

So divorce is the breaking of this fundamental unit of human society. To break a marriage is to undermine this fundamental building block. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implicitly connects divorce to the desire to commit adultery. Jesus says that it is not only adultery to commit the act but even to covet someone sexually who is not your spouse (Matt. 5:28). He then goes on to speak against divorce, implicitly connecting it with the desire to have someone who is not your spouse, using divorce as a way to commit adultery legally, as it were.

In Palestine at the time when Jesus was speaking, it does not seem that a woman could divorce her husband by law. She could only physically separate herself. Although Mark has broadened the principle for its audience in the broader Roman world (Mark 10:10-11), Jesus original teaching in Palestine would have told the men of Galilee not to divorce their wives. We thus see in Jesus' teaching his characteristic compassion.

4. One of the most striking comments on divorce is in Matthew 5:32: "Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." This is a puzzling statement, at first glance. How can a woman commit adultery when she is the victim of a divorce?

It seems that there can be only one answer. This situation must force her to remarry someone else. [1] So Jesus assumes the remarriage of the divorced woman. Like a football, her divorce forces her to be passed around. So the man who divorces her causes her to shame himself by marrying someone else (the original connotation of adultery). And he causes the man who will inevitably marry his ex-wife to shame him.

5. Matthew does give one major exception to the rule: sexual immorality. We should recognize that the default of biblical instruction is to give the universal principles more than to give philosophical absolutes. That is to say, we should expect that most biblical instruction assumes that there will be exceptional situations. Jesus' message overwhelmingly had this character. There are situations where people trump rules, and exceptions must be made on the basis of compassion.

The exception that Matthew mentions repeatedly is sexual immorality. Porneia probably refers to any of the sexual violations of Leviticus 18. Even in these cases, however, Jesus does not command divorce. Indeed, would it not be most fitting with the heart of the gospel if a couple could find healing and forgiveness even for such extreme betrayal?

Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 mentions a situation in which an unbelieving spouse departs (1 Cor. 7:15). The specificity of Paul's instruction here makes us wonder if he had a specific situation in the Corinthian church in mind. Indeed, some have suggested that he was thinking of his own wife departing after he came to believe. "Let them depart" may suggest cooperation with a divorce, perhaps even the man initiating in a situation where the wife could not legally do so.

6. The Bible never claims to address every possible scenario. Indeed, it would be impossible for any book to do so. We must therefore take the basic principles and do our best in communities of faith to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Some will try to "get away with sin," no doubt, but God is not fooled.

For example, would Jesus really tell an abused spouse to stay in a marriage of unending abuse? It is hard to believe he would, especially when you consider that the children of an abusive marriage are far more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves. Will there be others who will claim abuse when there is none? Certainly. But God is not fooled.

Perhaps we could say that divorce always involves sin, but God does not force people to do the right thing. If one of the partners in a marriage is bent on sin or perversity, then there is a point where it is time to "let the unbeliever depart." God does so with humanity as well, as Romans speaks of God repeatedly "abandoning" humanity to their sin (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Will some abuse this allowance? Absolutely. But God is not fooled.

5. The final piece of this puzzle is the question of remarriage. Certainly there is forgiveness for any sin of which we truly repent. Divorce is not an unpardonable sin. There may be cultural contexts where remarriage is difficult. We have seen above that Jesus more or less assumed that a divorced wife would be forced to remarry in order to survive.

Paul speaks to a context at Corinth where a woman might divorce her husband and suggests that she should at worst separate and remain unmarried (1 Cor. 7:11). As in the case of lawsuits (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:5), it seems likely that he has specific individuals at Corinth in mind. [2] Paul does not give his instructions in a vacuum. Each letter shapes the form of the message to meet the needs of each church or churches.

Nevertheless, we should not mistake the exception for the rule. Paul gives us what should be the prevailing principle. When two couples separate because of significant marital difficulty, their bias should be to reconcile. Before they separate, they should seek counsel in hope of repairing their relationship.

The power of God can overcome any obstacle. No marriage would ever end if both believers were completely surrendered to God. But God does not force us to forgive each other. God does not force us to seek his healing. There is a time when God gives up on us.

So divorce is not part of God's plan. All divorce involves sin. [3] But God allows us to sin, and God often allows a marriage partner to sin against another. There are situations where the spouse who has been sinned against should make an exception to the rule.

The exception rule is as follows. When there is no reasonable likelihood that the sinning party will ever stop sinning and the sin is of a great enough magnitude, then the marriage cannot fulfill God's purpose for marriage. It is not only murderous to the wounded spouse; it potentially fosters a life of sin in the children. The spouse should be "given up." Will there be individuals who will abuse this allowance for exception? Certainly. But God is not fooled.

In such cases, when the marriage is ended, it is ended. Presumably it was not ended until such a height of wrong was reached that there was no more hope. The offended party can remarry without sinning. The offender is lost already.

6. Marriage is God's plan for the nurturing and security of human life. It should not be entered lightly. The greatest of care should be part of the decision to become one flesh. Once entered, one must not render asunder what God has put together. All divorce involves sin, although there are exceptions. Some will no doubt abuse the possibility of exception, but God is not fooled.

Next week: ET15. God's ideal is an equal partnership in marriage.

[1] So also Bruce Malina, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, ***

[2] For one thing, Paul's focus on the woman in this passage is striking when Jesus' own teaching would have focused perhaps exclusively on the man. It makes us think he has specific women at Corinth in mind, quite possibly women of some means. In terms of lawsuits, the mention of a lack of wisdom is surely a slam at those Corinthians who claim to be wise (1:20; 2:6; 4:10) and have knowledge (8:1).

[3] In some cases, the sin of the divorce may have taken place at the beginning, if the conditions of entering the marriage involved heinous deception.


Jaena Hardin said...

If a person's spouse turns from the Lord, leaves the marriage, and files for divorce, when does she accept that there is no hope for the marriage? If nothing is impossible with God, is there an expectation that with continued prayer and faith, the wayward spouse could at some point repent and reconcile with the Lord so the marriage could be restored? If our marriage covenant is with the Lord, as well as our spouse, are we free from that vow even if our spouse breaks it?

Paul Tillman said...

I wrestled with the Ezra divorce situation a few years ago when I preached through that book. I like how you phrased "If it was truly what God wanted . . ." making few assumptions. On one hand I saw a case for if one's spouse turns one's heart away from from the Lord or prevents one from being in a right relationship with God, may this be grounds for divorce? Regardless, I thought that would be a rare case. When preaching the passage, I just saw the tragedy of sin. Sin is a Mess was the title, messing up our relationship with God, our community, and our families.

Ken Schenck said...

I wish there were a neat formula. I think if the spouse marries someone else, that would be a clear sign. I can imagine one story where someone waited for a very long time and eventually the first spouse repented and returned. I can imagine another story where, at some point, the Lord gave peace to someone to move on, to "let the unbeliever depart." These are those moments when we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, seeking out the wise counsel of the faithful, bathed in the groaning of the Holy Spirit.

Ken Schenck said...

Good title Paul!

Jaena Hardin said...

I agree that "All divorce involves sin." So many people believe that "All divorce is sin" which can be a hurtful statement to someone who is unwillingly divorced. I have also wondered what it means when Jeremiah 3:8 says that, "(God) gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of her adulteries." Could you comment on that passage?

Jaena Hardin said...

Yes, a neat formula would be easier. Wise words, though. Thanks.

Ken Schenck said...

Jeremiah 3:8 can be balanced with Jeremiah 29:11, where God promises to take Israel back. It is a striking metaphor, though, isn't it?!

John Mark said...

I hope this ends up as part of a book at some point.

Ken Schenck said...

JM, do you mean the ethics part of this series or the whole series? Thanks for the compliment!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for tackling yet another interesting, important, and controversial subject.