Special thanks to Carolyn Moynihan at MercatorNet for her welcoming support. My first article for them is here.
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)
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does a marvelous side-step and turns their question on its head. Jesus is in effect saying that they are both wrong because they started the debate with the question of divorce rather than with Biblical understanding of what marriage is supposed to be. Jesus then quotes from Genesis 2:24, and added the prohibition that what God joins together human beings should not divide. Jesus is therefore indicating that marriage was both a physical and spiritual relationship. It is a lifetime covenant between a man and a woman and God and therefore is a sacred relationship and not just a human one. (In Mark’s version Jesus reacts in the style of a wisdom teacher and asks what Moses said about divorce in the law.)
In response to Jesus’ compelling words the Pharisees posed the obvious question, if marriage is so sacred why did Moses (the great Law Giver) permit divorce as long as a man gave his wife a “Writ of Divorce? Jesus explained that while it was not what God intended, Moses made a concession to the hard hearts of the people. You see the men were going to divorce their wives anyway and the “Writ” was the only protection the women had. Without that writ to prove they were divorced they could not marry again.
Jesus also made it clear that divorce should not happen where two people are one unless there is unfaithfulness. The word used here is the Greek word “porneia” which can mean any moral failure including fornication, unfaithfulness, incest, sodomy, and adultery. The main idea being that if one spouse has sexual relations (and that includes any sex act) with someone other than their own spouse and shatters the unity of the marriage then divorce may be an acceptable option. However, the Biblical teachings on marriage make it clear though that unfaithfulness does not end a marriage people end marriages. In other words, unless two people are willing work together toward healing and restoring the unity of the marriage covenant then the unity of the marriage is irreparably broken. One person cannot make a marriage work no matter how hard they may try.
Jesus was saying, that when a person divorces their spouse, just to be with someone else, then they commit unfaithfulness of the highest sort because they are going against God’s intent for marriage. He is not saying, that when a divorce person remarries it is automatically adultery, although it has wrongly interpreted this way. Jesus does not under any circumstances condemn divorce or remarriage. He rather seeks to correct the notion that divorce is an acceptable way to get rid of your spouse so you can live with someone else. Marriage is to be taken seriously and sacredly but God does not condemn us for failure; God forgives, God heals, and God restores.
(TO BE CONTINUED —)
1When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went down to the region of Judea east of the Jordan River. 2Large crowds followed him there, and he healed their sick.
3Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?” 4“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’5And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’6Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
7“Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked. 8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. 9And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful.” 10Jesus’ disciples then said to him, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!”
11“Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps.
12Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
1Then Jesus left Capernaum and went down to the region of Judea and into the area east of the Jordan River. Once again crowds gathered around him, and as usual he was teaching them.
2Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” 3Jesus answered them with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” 4“Well, he permitted it,” they replied. “He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away.”5But Jesus responded, “He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. 6But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. 7‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife,
8and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, 9let no one split apart what God has joined together.” 10Later, when he was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. 11He told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her. 12And if a woman divorces her husband and marries someone else, she commits adultery.”
The issue of divorce was brought to Jesus in an attempt to trap him into saying something controversial that could be used against him. However, Jesus used this issue as a teaching moment and in so doing provided us a clear picture of his understanding of marriage and divorce. (
Marriage and divorce was a hot topic of discussion and debate in the time of Jesus. There were two Rabbinical Schools that had staked out an argument on either side of this hot-button issue. The first of these was the Hillel School. This school was very liberal in their teaching on marriage and divorce. Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for any offense (not having a son soon enough, burning a meal, losing her looks, etc. The Shammai School, on the other hand, was very conservative and taught that a man could divorce his wife only for unchastity (adultery). This debate was brought to Jesus and the Pharisees were basically asking Jesus which side he was on?
(TO BE CONTINUED ) —
This is one of my favorite cartoons, ever. Sound theology does have a way of bringing us peace, even when it directs us to hard decisions.
Unfortunately, a lot of us are subject to unsound theology, which has quite the opposite effect. Reading over comments on the Janet Hinds story on MercatorNet, indeed, Janet’s own testimony, one of the things that has stood out in is the number of women who are told they have to stay with their gay husbands, no matter what, because “God hates divorce.” Well, of COURSE He hates divorce! Divorce is the destruction of the very core of the Institution He established in the Garden, in the time of man’s innocency . . .
Yes, God hates, divorce, but there is an occasion when divorce is permissible: it’s not “adultery,” but “porneia” — which includes the full gamut of sexual depravity (recognize that term as the root of “pornography”?).
I knew this, but I’m not an authority or expert, so I asked my friend Dr. Dennis Sheppard for some help. Dr. Sheppard is a retired United Methodist pastor with degrees in Theology from Duke Divinity School (M. Div.) and Drew University School of Theology (D. Min.), and additional coursework in Psychology and Counseling from Campbell University. In short, he knows his business, and he’s rock-solid, theologically. He has agreed to write for Surviving the Rainbow on theological concerns. In response to the comments mentioned above, he’s agreed to begin with addressing the issue of divorce. His exegetical commentary on divorce begins in the next post.
Two years ago I went to Houston for a Wives Healing Journey weekend. I have to tell you, I went in defensive and more than a little defiant, and it turned out to be one of the truly defining events of my life. If you can go, I recommend it. And I hope more resources become available for us, because so far as I know, this is IT and one thing simply isn’t enough.
During the course of the weekend, I cried enough to use a giant box of tissues (I, who never cry!) which in itself was a wonderful release. But I also got past the nagging anger and bitterness that have dogged me for more than thirty years to remember the boy I used to know and love. I’m not sure that wasn’t equally difficult because he seems so terribly far away, now, replaced with someone so very different, and that’s cause for a different grief.
Remembering DH as he used to be, I was shocked to realize I still love that dear, beautiful boy who is buried somewhere under all the ugliness he’s piled on over the years. And being able to love him has been revolutionary for me.
No, I don’t mean a romantic love. The time and possibility for that is long past and won’t return. I mean a love leading to an appreciation for that better self I used to see, a desire for him to be restored to his better self, a desire for true and authentic Good in his life. Good, even though I’ll probably never be able to see it or benefit from it. The Greeks called this particular type of love agape; in Latin, it’s caritas (charity).
It’s understandable and — more than acceptable; it’s necessary, I think, to be angry over what has happened to us. But when we focus on and cling to hating that person who hurt us, we trap ourselves.
The fact is, DH isn’t a monster, and he never has been. I lost sight of that for a while, too long a while.
Love is the only way out, back into peace and joy.
MercatorNet has published another wife’s story here. Keep Julie in your prayers; her separation is fairly recent and it’s still raw.
You probably remember the story: Jesus is teaching his disciples, and good ol’ Peter, Peter the Impetuous, pipes up, “So, Lord, You’re saying we have to forgive seven times?” Seven represents completion, perfection — Peter is saying he’s got this; Jesus is putting a definition on forgiveness, and it’s perfect.
But Jesus shakes His head, “No, Peter. Seventy times seven.” Oh, Peter, it’s so much more complicated than a mere “perfect” forgiveness — it requires so much more of ourselves.
First, let’s get this straightened out: Forgiveness is NOT saying, “You did wrong, but I’ve decided it doesn’t matter.” Forgiveness is NOT about eliminating consequences. We are not being asked to be deliberate victims to wrong-doing, here. We aren’t expected to be stupid in the name of forgiveness.
We are allowed to protect ourselves. We are allowed to establish limits and boundaries and to hold them inviolable.
So — what is forgiveness? I’ve heard several takes. One is that forgiveness is that you choose not to let the other person live rent-free in your head, controlling your life. But I find it most useful, for myself, to think of forgiveness is letting go of my right to get even, my right to be vindicated, even.
Sometimes we even have to let go of the very same incident, conversation, violation over and over and over again. “I forgive” brings a moment’s quiet to the mind and spirit, but the memories resurface and boil to the top and our peace is once more disturbed, we are once again consumed with “What I would like to say/do to that revolving s.o.b.!” —- and we have to forgive, to let go of our right to be avenged or vindicated, to relinquish our right for “justice,” forgive the very same wrong again and again and again —
You have a right to draw your line in the sand, whether it’s sexual abuse, battery, emotional abuse. “You may not cross this line!” and to take steps to safeguard that line. I think being angry gives us power to decide what those lines are going to be, and the courage to defend them. But to maintain our own peace of mind, which is the point of having the boundaries in the first place, we have to let go of bitterness, hostility, the desire to get even, to retaliate, to put the other in his place —
Again and again and again, all for a single offense. Seventy times seven times. A lifetime of learning to forgive.
We go through a lot, we wives of homosexuals. The manipulations, the spiritual and psychological abuses… I think I’ve mentioned before that every one of the ex-wives I’ve ever spoken to or communicated with live with depression of some degree or other. Then there are the family battles, the drive to try to protect our children, or – I wonder whether this is prudent or a big mistake – even our husbands in the early days when we’re just discovering their homosexuality and geared toward “protecting” them and maybe even their families from knowing the truth…
And we carry this enormous load of sorrow and suffering and how do we survive?
The answer is simple: we forgive.
When we consider how he lied to us, we forgive.
When we consider how he mocked and ridiculed us, we forgive.
When we stand under a barage of insults, we forgive.
When we agonize in the neglect, we forgive…
When the manipulations get ugly and things we never dreamed of happen… we forgive.
Now, I want to make something VERY VERY CLEAR. Forgiveness is not shrugging our shoulders and pretending something awful didn’t happen. That’s not forgiveness – that’s unhealthy self-sacrifice. No! We can draw our line in the stand and take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to protect ourselves and our children – and in fact I am increasingly convinced we must, not only for our own sakes or for our children’s but also for his sake – so that we don’t become complicit in his self-destruction.
What we cannot do, however, is clear: we cannot, we must not, harbor bitterness, entertain thoughts of recriminations.Not toward him, not toward his mother, not toward the kids who decide he’s telling the truth and his being gay had nothing to do with the divorce…
No, Forgiveness means that we let God dispense the justice.
Anger can be a powerful barometer to alert us something is Not Right in our lives, in our relationships.
It can be a powerful impetus for needed change. Anger at being abused, for instance, can motivate us to make changes to stop the abuse or to get away from it.
We have to be careful, though. Anger, badly or recklessly heeded, can lead to some irresponsible or self-destructive choices.
Anger can be turned inward. This is self-destructive. It’s been said for years that depression is “anger turned inward.” It’s my personal opinion (and I’m not a psychologist) that that’s too simplistic an assessment, but there’s enough truth there for it to become an easy platitude. We punish ourselves for others’ wrongs, fault ourselves for not being able to “help” or “fix,” things that aren’t ours to begin with, and we become depressed.
I’ve seen anger lead to irresponsible and dangerous choices. People who can’t cope turning to alcohol or drugs, for instance. Or flashes of rage and temper that cause us to hurt other people, in turn. Or a seething resentment that builds into a dishonest idea that we have a right to — get even, to get a bit of our own back, to have our needs met however dishonestly or dishonorably we have to do it. I’ve known men and women who justified adulterous affairs by saying their spouse was “asking for it.” “I have a right to be happy” isn’t necessarily true — certainly no one has a right to be “happy” at the expense of others’ trust or if it means violating sacred principles.
I think more often anger is just a low simmering flame that reveals itself in our restlessness, an inability to find peace, an edginess in our relationships with others, punctuated by occasional yelling bouts and the like. Maybe we can’t stop replaying a conversation we had (or wish we’d had) and what we said or wish we’d said or would like to say. . Maybe it shows up in an unaccustomed use of profanity, or door-slamming, or some other behavior that isn’t so self-destructive as alcohol abuse or the “I’ll show him!” affair — but still gives us that nagging warning that we aren’t doing so well with everything as we’d like to believe we are.
This is where we have to take ourselves in hand and be adult. Some of these things, we can handle ourselves, and should. But there comes a time when you might just need some professional help to move beyond the rage to a place where you can start to be productive again, and to find some peace. There’s no shame in getting help, although it can be hard to get started, especially with a stranger. It’s worth getting through the discomfort in order to find some peace.
And life is far too short, and opportunities for joy far too infrequent, to have your life sabotaged by unresolved rage.