Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Biblical Perspective on Divorce and Remarriage

This is part 8 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:

We’ve gone down a rather long road of examining the significant biblical passages concerning how a Christian should think about divorce and remarriage. Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 tell us that the fundamental design of humanity is to enact God’s rule and authority through a unified community. The building block of human community is the marital relationship between husband and wife, who are to be completely unified – “one flesh” – in every aspect of life. The relationship is hardly mystical but rather to be nurtured, developed, and protected. Exodus 21:10-11 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4 are provisions within the Law of Moses concerning divorce that are regulatory for marital relationships and assume the possibility of relational breakdown. Thus the Law is good (Rom. 7:12) but doesn’t redeem humanity. In the gospels we find that Jesus comes to demand a righteousness higher than the Law, to which the Law pointed (Matthew 5). In stark contrast to the Jewish leaders who operated from the framework of what the Law permitted, Jesus demanded perfection, harkening back to the perfect creation order of the beginning. At the same time, demand is not case law and Jesus did not address the “what-ifs” of everyday life in this broken world. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul applies Jesus’ demands to a church whose clamoring for personal status within the church affected their marital relationships and draws inferences to address specific concerns. In Romans Paul uses general principles of marriage to demonstrate God’s immeasurable grace in Christ Jesus and in 1 Timothy and Titus he insists upon a measure of faithfulness among leaders in the church.

What we have found is that in the post death-and-resurrection-of-Jesus era in which Christians live, we live by a standard to which the Law provides a guide (Rom. 15:4) but is not the final arbiter in every circumstance. Rather, the Holy Spirit is our ultimate guide, showing us how to act within the fallen structures of this world while living out Jesus’ extreme demands. We are to strive to gain knowledge and wisdom to seek and discern God’s will in every situation (Rom. 12:2, Phil. 1: 9-11, Col. 1:9-11).

So, in the practical world, is it acceptable to divorce your spouse if he/she has cheated on you? Perhaps. Just because it’s “allowed” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable solution in every instance. We often read it as if it’s merely our choice rather than being required. That’s precisely the type of thinking Jesus condemns. What if it’s an only instance and the spouse genuinely repents and seeks forgiveness and restoration? There may be a circumstance where automatic divorce is not the right thing to do even if “allowed” by Scripture. Despite the pain, suffering, and distrust caused, there may exist a future complete reconciliation that would make the marriage that much stronger and healthier, creating a higher good than what could have been thought possible - God can do that. That may only be the very rare occasion though. An ounce of discernment given a certain set of circumstances may determine that divorce is simply the best alternative. In all cases, prayer is necessary.

What about abandonment? In most cases the obvious thing to do is to formally divorce, especially to avoid legal repercussions that are exigent today that weren’t in Jesus’ day. But maybe not, given a certain set of circumstances. In all cases, prayer is necessary.

What about neglect or abuse? What about physical abuse versus mental or emotional abuse? I think a guiding principle in all considerations of divorce is to what degree the marital relationship or covenant has been severed by a spouse’s action. Where there should exist some degree of love, instead becomes an outlet of hatred and anger[i]. Often destructive tendencies need to be halted by divorce, which indeed may be the loving thing to do to prevent a spouse’s abusive tendencies from destroying him or herself or the spouse being abused. Sometimes it’s best to consider how abusive behavior affects or distorts the children’s understanding of what is acceptable behavior and what sort of repercussions may be had in each child’s life by having abusive role models. There may be many other considerations. As always, prayer is necessary.

And remarriage after divorce? My exploration of all the relevant biblical passages shows that there is little warrant, generally speaking, for restrictions on remarriage after a justified divorce has taken place (in fact 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 & 15 positively indicate otherwise). This is not withstanding practical cautionary considerations and the realization that God enables anyone whom he wills to be single. Again, sensitivity and discernment (and prayer) are required for the individual circumstances. But sadly many today feel that while divorce may be acceptable at times, remarriage crosses an unforgivable line. This oftentimes results in unnecessary hurt and negligence of those who have been unfairly wronged by divorce in their past or rightly escaped abuse by divorce and are seeking, or simply find themselves in a new relationship – one in which they can be loved and edified, enabling them to function as God intended for them.

In all of these posts, my intent has been to speak to those who have suffered or are suffering in severely broken relationships – something common enough these days.  Just as common today[ii], if not more common, are those who are seeking for a reason for divorce. It’s as if they just find everything wrong with the person they are married to and feel they need something better. Maybe they just “drifted apart” or are “no longer in love”. Though it should have come through pretty clearly in some of the posts, it’s worth the emphasis that such orientation is detrimental to oneself and everyone around that person and, most importantly, goes against the grain of Jesus’ radical demands. Marriage is something that requires constant personal investment and a valuing by both partners of the other above the self. Sadly, in today’s culture we are taught more and more to value the self, resulting in very destructive tendencies and creating an almost impossibility for healthy marriage.  It’s been quickly forgotten that healthy, if not at least decent, marital relationships are the fabric of society, without which it falls apart, both individually and as a whole. While marriage is almost certainly difficult, with time and effort it’s rewards can be immeasurable. To destroy it is to invite a measure of chaos, pain, and suffering. God give us grace and mercy to take marriage as seriously as he does.

[i] An excellent analysis of mental and emotional abuse can be found here:
[ii] As mentioned in the first post, I speak only for American churches and culture.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Marital References by Paul Outside of Corinth

This is part 7 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:

There are a couple of other relevant passages by Paul concerning divorce and/or remarriage, or, are at least commonly used in discussion of the issue.

Romans 7:1-3 - Do you not know, brothers and sisters in Christ - for I’m speaking to those who know the law (of Moses), that the law rules over a person only as long as he lives? For the woman under the authority of her husband is bound by the law (of Moses) to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is released from the law regarding her husband. So then she will be considered an adulteress if she becomes another man’s while her husband is living. But if the husband dies, she is free from the law (of Moses) and will not be an adulteress if she becomes another man’s.

There are a few things that need to be mentioned first about this passage.

1)    “Law” refers to the Law of Moses throughout. This is certainly the reference in verse 1 (those who know the Law) and there is little valid justification for switching the reference within these verses[i].

2)    As in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (see previous post), Paul is using a rhetorical device to make a point, here a point about the relationship between the believer and the Law of Moses. This is no place for Paul to establish case law. The general principle, to which there may be exceptions, is given as analogy to draw the connection of the main point. Even if one doesn’t realize it is a specific rhetorical device, some literary sensitivity needs to be had in seeing that the subject isn’t really about marriage at all.

3)     In the analogy, the woman is not just “married”, as in many translations, but “under a man”. This language comes straight from the Old Testament,[ii] reflecting the era when the husband really did have “dominion” over his wife. This is not simply an issue of gender roles, no matter what side you fall on. Paul chooses the Old Testament language carefully to reflect his main point: that of slavery or bondage to sin by being under the Law.

Given this, it’s important to note that the analogy that Paul uses is loose. On the marriage side of the analogy, the wife is bound to the husband because the Law says so. The death of the husband voids what the Law says regarding the obligations of the wife to the husband. On the flip side, Paul pictures the Christian as married to the Law-husband and it’s by virtue of the death of the Christian (not the Law) via the death of Christ that the obligations are voided. So the point of the analogy is that death has occurred. And because it has occurred, we are free from the Law and married to Christ. And it’s because of this that we are no longer servants of sin itself, which the Law only elucidated and condemned, and free to serve God by his grace. This is simply the continuation of the argument from 6:14 where, “Sin will not rule over you, for you are not under Law but under grace.” This passage isn’t about the limitations of divorce, but our relationship to God’s boundless grace in Jesus Christ.

1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:6 – … a faithful husband …

How one translates this clause in many ways already depends on how one reads it. Most translations translate fairly rigidly or “literally” as “husband of one wife”. The NIV gives some interpretive preference with “husband of but one wife”. The NLT actually follows the translation adopted here with “He must be faithful to his wife”. A very rigid translation would be “a one-woman man”[iii].

There are a few ways this passage has been read. Many take “a one-woman man” to mean the guy can’t be a polygamist. The problem with this is that polygamy was a very rare problem in those days. A few take it to mean that the man who qualifies as an elder can’t be single; but how Paul and Timothy got away with it we are left wondering. More commonly, at least in conservative circles, this passage is taken to mean that the man can’t have been divorced. That Paul doesn’t outright use the word “divorce” should give caution to this interpretation, but there are a couple of other considerations.

1)    The phrase is used in 1 Tim. 5:9 except completely reversed and referring to widows[iv]. Given this context, it is hardly about divorce but whether the woman exhibited faithfulness to her husband when he was alive.

2)    In addition, “wife of one husband” was a common epitaph on gravestones of women, both Greco-Roman and Jewish, who were considered by their husbands to be faithful – that among a culture where divorce rate was significant.

We are left with the rather strong conclusion that Paul was concerned here with the character quality of faithfulness of the elder-to-be rather than a lifetime of strict adherence to a code that demands that it’s never acceptable to remarry after a divorce.

[i] That nomoV (nomos) is anarthrous in v. 2a does not mean that it all of a sudden refers to a general principle.
[ii] Grk. uJpandroV, see LXX Num. 5:20, 29; Prov. 6:24, 29; Sir. 9:9, 41:23.
[iii] Grk. mia:V gunaiko;V a[ndra
[iv] Grk. eJno;V ajndro;V gunhv
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