The real problem comes from later interpretations of this text. For example, the Puritan emphasis on moral purity meant that any moral failure was scandalous and divorce was considered a moral failure. When you combine that Puritan ethic with Fundamentalism’s insistence on a literal interpretation of Scripture in the early 20th Century you get a formula for the “sine-qua-non” of scandals. What made divorce so scandalous in this milieu was that it was public.
It was not until the sexual revolution of the sixties that the divorce rate began to rise, aided by the new laws on “Irreconcilable Differences,” and No-Fault Divorce. Among the fundamentalists the primary reaction was an enforced legalism where they refused to marry divorced people and excused their behavior by calling “remarriage” a sin. Some churches, who have a congregational form of government (where they make their own rules), even passed policies that no divorced person could get married in their Church to further enforce this legalism.
This creates several biblical and theological issues. First, even if a divorce was a sin, God forgives sins and therefore we should not hold the divorce against a person. Second, it puts more emphasis on the second marriage than it does upon divorce itself. Third, it punishes people who come out of untenable marriages. An untenable marriage is one where one spouse is abusive physically, emotionally, or sexually. An untenable marriage is one where one spouse is continually unfaithful. An untenable marriage is one where one spouse comes out and declares his or herself to be gay or lesbian and therefore feels alienated from the straight spouse.
When fundamentalists argue that adultery is the only reason for divorce they are (intentionally or not) punishing people who get a divorce for all of these other valid reasons. Going through a divorce is hard enough without having additional pain heaped on you by a Church that has embraced legalism rather than the love of Jesus for hurting people.
Divorce is a tragedy in any circumstance. It is a failure of a marriage covenant that hurts the divorcees, their families and friends. It also breaks God’s heart. However, God’s will is for a marriage to be fulfilling and life-giving. It is meant to be joyful and sustaining. So, remarriage is not a sin, it is an opportunity to have the marriage God intends for people to have. [NOTE FROM LAURA: In the Catholic Church, we have to go through a tribunal to determine whether a first/former marriage can be declared Null before we can be married in the Church, and without that Declaration of Nullity we are required to abstain from the Sacraments — Not as horrible a process as it sounds in this statement, but that’s a topic for a future post — L. ]
If two people are meant to be one (unity of relationship) that means that they forsake all others for their spouse and therefore they both must be committed to this understanding. This means that their hearts, their lives, their faith, and their love is joined together. It is no longer “me”, it is now and always will be “we.” We do not lose our individuality as human beings, we merge it into a new relationship where our individuality takes a lesser priority and our marriage becomes the number one priority of our lives.
Paul Stookey poetically captured the essence of marriage in “Wedding Song’ (There is Love).
Well a man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home
They shall travel on to where the two shall be as one
As it was in the beginning is now until the end
A woman draws her life from man and gives it back again
And there is love, there is love
So many people have been wounded by the legalistic interpretation of these texts; but that was never Jesus’ intent. He loved people no matter what had happened in their lives and he sought to love and heal people who have been hurt by life.
We should love people who are going through a divorce and support them as they work through to pain and hurt from the death of a marriage and the transition to a single life. If they do choose to marry again we should encourage and support them in their new marriage.
There is no place for condemnation or accusation for divorced persons. Rather we should care about them and live out the Scripture that calls us to love our neighbor. Remember, whatever we do to the least of these, we do also to Jesus. (Matthew 25:45)