Our Evolving Understanding of Divorce — and Homosexuality

June 21, 2012

Could consideration of divorce help us understand how we make use of the Bible?  And might that help us in understanding what God asks of us with regard to homosexuality?

In Luke 16:18 Jesus says18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  That’s pretty clear.  But Matthew 19:9 has Jesus saying exactly the same thing and adding “except for immorality.” Matthew has Jesus giving a reason why divorce might be acceptable.  That’s an important difference.  Let’s also note that what might constitute “immorality” would need some further interpretation.  (The Greek word is porneia, about which there is disagreement about the precise meaning.  Note that there is another Greek word, moichao, that is commonly translated as “adultery,” as it is, for example in the NIV translation of Matthew 5:32.  Since the author of Matthew uses moichao, it is unlikely porneia means simply “adultery.”)

There is more about divorce in the Gospels.  In Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-12, we get two very similar but not identical accounts of an exchange in which some Pharisees test Jesus by asking him “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  In both accounts the Pharisees cite Moses (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as saying that it was permitted for a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away, and have Jesus saying (following Genesis 2:24) that “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew’s version has Jesus, again, add the “except for immorality” escape clause to the prohibition on divorce and remarriage.

To this list of important New Testament verses about divorce we should also note Paul’s guidance in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:  “10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”  Paul is apparently referring to the same accounts that the Gospels tell, or at least so most Bible commentators have assumed.

There are differences we can note among these various passages, but the overall New Testament guidance is pretty clear: divorce is not right, and remarriage is adultery pure and simple.

And yet we accommodate ourselves to divorce and remarriage, do we not?  Be honest now: do we not?

We welcome to our churches and invite into leadership those who have divorced and remarried.  (I say this as a person who is divorced and remarried.)  The Richmond Declaration speaks of marriage as “an engagement for life,” but says nothing further about divorce or remarriage.  I am unaware of any IYM Minute declaring divorce or remarriage as sins.

What should we make of this posture when we rail firmly against other sins?

One possibility is to admit that we have simply been weak and wrong in this matter.  On this possibility we should acknowledge that we have accommodated ourselves to practices that are sinful, and we should recommit ourselves to taking the Biblical guidance fully and seriously.  Down this road, we would declare divorce and remarriage to be (both) sinful practices, expecting those who do these things to repent, and expecting those who have divorced either to reunite with their spouses, or else to remain celibate for the rest of their days, providing appropriate material support to the spouse from whom they live apart.

There is another possibility, one that begins by asking the purpose of the Biblical instruction against allowing divorce and remarriage.  Surely that guidance is intended to discourage wanton lust and instead to focus our sexual desire on one person to whom we have a steadfast commitment.  In a world where women have no independent rights and are always under the dominion of men, the prohibition of divorce serves a second purpose, to prevent men taking advantage of women and casting them adrift without any means of support.  Such male dominion was a solid feature not only of the Old Testament world but also of the world in which Jesus preached and the New Testament was written.

Today we have a different understanding of the proper relationship between men and women, one in which there is mutual respect and equality before the law.  Men no longer have unquestioned dominion over wives and unmarried daughters.  Women can hold property and aspire to positions outside the home once reserved exclusively for men.  The prohibition against divorce no longer serves that second purpose to nearly the same extent.

In a world where women have a measure of equality with men, another purpose for the prohibition against divorce comes into view: we want to encourage enduring intimacy between married couples.  So today, recognizing that achieving such intimacy can be difficult, we counsel against divorce because we want married couples to try hard to work through differences and conflicts.  Often, we believe, a truer intimacy can be achieved.

But, today, we don’t say never to divorce.  Instead, recognizing intimacy as the essential core of marriage, we acknowledge that sometimes married couples come to a place where they conclude, and we conclude with them, that intimacy simply is not possible.  In these cases we resign ourselves to divorce, and we encourage both parties to seek new partners, new marriages, in order to achieve that intimacy we believe they should seek.

Recognizing intimacy as the essential core of marriage still leads us to counsel against divorce.  But it also leads us to tolerate divorce when people have honestly tried, but failed, to make a marriage work.  Then what we ask of them is neither reconciliation nor a life of celibacy.  Instead we ask of them to seek enduring intimacy again.

Honestly, I believe this is our true understanding of divorce today.  It is why we welcome divorced people in our churches, even encouraging them into positions of leadership.  I do not believe it is simply a lack of courage or fortitude that leads us to a different understanding than the literal texts of the New Testament.

If we believe the experience of intimacy is essential, if we believe it is a core purpose of marriage, then do we not want this experience to be available to everyone, even same sex couples?  If the literal texts of the New Testament do not lead us to be absolutists on divorce, why do the literal texts of the New Testament lead us to absolutist condemnation of homosexuality?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Our Evolving Understanding of Divorce — and Homosexuality

  1. Pingback: Sources of Authority in the Present | River View Friend

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