Category Archives: Marriage and Divorce
But it’s not fatal. It’s possible to rise out of the dissolution ashes.
Previously, particularly in parts one and three, I established how Christians largely get divorce wrong. It’s not a sin in itself (that’s a leftover of 13th century Catholic theology). Sin causes a divorce, no doubt. Jesus clearly taught adultery because it does what no other sin can do: break the Divine bonding created when a couple consummated their relationship.
In the first century Greco-Roman culture, as in Israel, divorce was common. Jesus’ father considered divorcing Mary. The Samaritan woman was likely a multiple divorcee. Deuteronomic law speaks of divorce (but never as a sin requiring restitution or reconciliatory offering). And even God himself is divorced. This is the final confirmation that divorce simply cannot be sinful. After all, God cannot sin and yet He clearly is divorced from Old Testament Israel and even pursued the dissolution (Jeremiah 3:8).
Although speculative, it’s possible the Apostle Paul was divorced. He was certainly once married, as marriage was a strict Jewish teaching and Pharisees held to the Law to the point of excess. Paul was a Pharisee and well-credentialed, a disciple of Gamaliel who was a member of the Sanhedrin. Though disputed, most Bible scholars agree marriage was a requirement for the Sanhedrin and it’s unlikely Paul could advance far in the Pharisee sect unless married. In fact, Paul’s requirements for elders in the emerging first-century church are remarkably similar to the Pharisees, and marriage was a qualification for an overseer. After all, if a man cannot lead his family, how could he lead a people?
The Roman Catholic Church suggested Paul was widowed to answer his singleness, but there’s absolutely no evidence (biblical or otherwise) to support that claim. The Catholic system simply couldn’t fathom a significant saint like Paul “living in sin” as a divorced man. After all, abandonment is not sufficient reason for annulment. Nevertheless, it’s the prominent view and still taught within both Catholic and Protestant theological training schools.
But it’s more likely Paul was divorced than widowed. First, because a Pharisee would no doubt quickly remarry if widowed (since marriage was a strict value and prized institution). Second, unlike the other apostles, we have no evidence Paul had a spouse post-conversion (suggesting his wife mysteriously went away when he became a Christian). And finally, perhaps even ironically, Paul may actually allude to his own divorced state in his letter to the Corinthians. Jesus taught that adultery freed a spouse. Paul offers a new reason for divorce to the church in Corinth: abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Is this possibly Paul’s own story? It’s certainly plausible and it makes sense a Pharisee’s wife would divorce her radically converted Christian husband. It would also support the evidence that once Paul was married and now is not.
If so, Paul’s divorce did not prohibit his Christian ministry.
In some church circles, the divorced are prohibited from pastoral leadership inciting a violation of the “husband of one wife” requirement. But this prohibition possibly misses the point. The “spirit” behind this leadership requirement is probably fidelity. It’s about being a “one woman man.” A divorced person, even if he/she never remarries and commits to celibacy is still a “one woman or man” individual (just like a widow/widower). And if a divorced person does remarry they also remain a “one woman or man” individual. Only the polygamous, homosexual or possibly multi-divorced fails to qualify. Furthermore, this requirement is limited to a select group (elders or “pastors”) in a local church. It doesn’t necessarily apply to other leadership roles like apostles (missionaries), prophets (preachers), evangelists and teachers.
The bottom line is divorce isn’t a sin nor is a divorced person in a state of sinfulness. These are manmade dogmas attached to coerce, criticize and condemn. Yes, God hates divorce. Personally, I hate asparagus but that doesn’t make the green stalk evil. Divorce is not what God intended. Furthermore, Jesus, Paul and other biblical writers never condemned divorce itself as a sin and they clearly listed all sorts of sins–including fornication (adultery)–in their teachings and writings.
Sin clearly produces divorce and divorce unleashes it’s own multitudes of sin, but divorce (or being in the divorced state) is not sinful.
It’s just one of those human doctrines we got wrong.
If love is a many splendored thing, then divorce is certainly a many splintered thing.
To quickly summarize, biblically, God joins a couple when they engage in sexual intercourse (and not when the preacher or judge pronounces marriage). This supernatural “joining” even happens with “one-night stands,” brief flings and sex with a prostitute and that’s the problem. God intended sex to be a sacred experience only to be enjoyed within lifelong heterosexual monogamy. It’s been that way since the beginning of time. Therefore, sexual sin (Greek: porneia) is any violation of God’s Original Design and Desire for how his creation behaves sexually.
With that frame in place, it’s certainly no surprise Jesus taught “sexual immorality” (porneia) produces the only reason for divorce. After all, sexual infidelity (a new “joining”) effectively severs the previous Divine Bond created when a couple first “made love.” Consequently, adultery is more than betrayal of trust. Rather, adultery dissolves the supernatural relational cement (ring or no ring, ceremony or no ceremony). But this spiritual dissolution isn’t a continuing state. It can’t be. Many couples have experienced and survived infidelity. Once forgiveness–both by man and God–covers the offense, a couple can grow beyond any single indiscretion and both reconciliation and restoration is possible. If a couple recommits to their “joining” (beneath forgiveness) then any previous adultery fades as a fresh “joining” emerges. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to remember no sin can’t be “washed, sanctified and justified.” A sin (including adultery) is a momentary mistake but it must be repetitious to invoke “continual sin.” Divorce is certainly a consequence of sin (the most serious being adultery), but it cannot be a sin or even a state of sinfulness in itself.
Furthermore, Jesus taught a divorce, occurring for any other reason than sexual immorality, will also produce adultery when there’s remarriage (though, again, this is a momentary sin and completely forgivable). Because adultery unseals God’s “joining” it releases the other partner. In God’s eyes, if there’s no adultery during a marriage and a couple divorces, the first partner to engage sexually produces adultery (even if its within a new and legal marriage). This is a hard teaching, as Jesus’ own disciples confessed.
Technically this suggests there’s no such thing as premarital sex but rather only marital and non-marital sex. Adultery is also fornication or “porneia.” By definition, non-marital sex or porneia is sexual promiscuity (hence “pornography”). It’s “joining” without commitment, sex for sex sake and selfish in nature. Fornication and adultery are both “non-marital” sexual acts. In contrast, marital sex is purposeful, committed and loving, and possible to engage even without human certification, endorsement or confirmation.
Historically, marriage ceremonies emerged to celebrate this human relationship but in most cultures, including early Jewish, there was no ritual to practice. No priest, rabbi or minister to officiate. No papers to sign. Until Moses, a man simply had to take a woman home to bed to show “marriage” (though usually not without some financial gifting to the woman’s family). The Torah eventually required a man to confirm agreement in front of witnesses but still argued a marriage wasn’t in force until sex occurred.
God’s intent was for a man to honor his word. He expected a man to take his wife and live with her only until death (“making love” was a covenantal act to seal this agreement). But men had different ideas and eventually the legal “divorce” emerged (with the rules favoring the male). By Jesus’ day it was a major issue. A first-century marriage could be “contracted” or “engaged” prior to sexual consummation and was considered a binding legal state of matrimony. Mary and Joseph were “contracted” for marriage and, according to cultural custom, actually lived together (up to a year) without consummating their relationship. This explains why Joseph initially considered divorcing Mary when he learned of her pregnancy. Her pregnancy suggested infidelity. He had every right to divorce her.
We must also remember that for most of history, and in many cultures, that marriages were contracted between families and by parents. Love had little to do with it. Furthermore, few ancients lived beyond 50 years of age. Most died in their 40s and many women passed due to complications from childbirth. Consequently, anyone of age might experience two or more marriages. Divorce was common and employed usefully if the woman couldn’t produce children, particularly a male heir. The idea of divorce for “irreconciliable differences” probably never crossed their minds.
It’s one more reason why divorce cannot be considered a grievous sin. It’s certainly a tragedy. Like death, it’s the end of a relationship, but it’s not a grave or mortal sin. And neither is a divorced person operating from a state of sinfulness.
After all, you’d be surprised to learn who else is divorced in the Bible.
TO BE CONTINUED…
I know Christians aren’t the most “sexy” types, but it’s important. In fact, it’s critical to interpreting biblical passages related to divorce and remarriage. In part one I revealed, historically, how we arrived at these conclusions and set the stage to answer the burning questions: Is divorce a sin? Is being divorced living in a state of sinfulness? Many Christians believe so.
But I think not. And sex has a lot to do with it.
Let’s begin with a critical question: When is a couple “officially” married? In man’s eyes the answer’s simple: it’s when the judge or preacher makes the pronouncement (“I now pronounce you husband and wife”). Everybody then claps, heads to the reception and enjoys the bubbly and cake. It’s Mr. and Mrs. Husband and Wife from this point forward. And yet there’s another obvious step: consummation (sex). Historically, various cultures have viewed the honeymoon as the “sealing” of the deal. In fact, a marriage isn’t a marriage without consummation.
Sex is the glue God uses to “join” two people who have committed to live together “until death parts.” It’s been that way since Adam and Eve. God knows human sexuality is best explored within monogamy (that’s His Purpose). Any perversion of this ideal and you miss the mark (which is a good working definition for “sin“). God’s desire and purpose for man and woman is to enjoy themselves–naked and unashamed.
The problem is sex has been perverted. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” is porneia. It’s basically “sex for sex sake” or wanton, selfish and lustful sexual activity. The biblical writers, writing under Divine Inspiration, will define porneia as any sexual activity outside the norm of heterosexual monogamy (adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, among others). I know that’s not popular today, but I didn’t make the rules. God created humans and designed us (physiology) for monogamous heterosexual expression. Marriage was ordained as the sacred expression of God’s Design and Desire.
Sex can be experienced (or defined) in two ways: either animal or Godly. Animal sex (porneia) is non-committal, promiscuous and driven by lust (“having sex”). Godly sex is rooted to faithful binding commitments–spoken or even unspoken–and driven by love (“making love”). By this definition, you don’t even have to believe in God to express Godly sex. Furthermore, even the most righteous saint can fall prey to lust and animal sex. Godly sex can also happen without human endorsement, approval or certification and porneia can happen with it.
For hundreds of years, if a man wanted a wife he just went and got one (ex. Isaac). Jacob earned his wife through hard labor. Samson went through his parents. Solomon married multiple wives for political reasons (I Kings 2:17; 9:16). Most ancient weddings were reserved for the rich and royal (and lasted a week with plenty of wine, song and food). The average ancient couldn’t afford such matrimonial celebrations and the hoi polloi got hitched privately with a few witnesses, prayer and blessing. No certificates signed. The state was not involved. In fact, the state stayed out of marriage until the mid-centuries. The church didn’t even show interest until the fifth century. Marriage was a private affair.
Promiscuity is the real problem. Sex for sex sake is what’s condemned. Jesus once met a Samaritan woman by a well. She had a history that included five former husbands and a current live-in boyfriend. In Jesus’ discourse with this thirsty woman not once did he challenge her lifestyle as “sinful,” condemn her past divorces nor tell her to change (like he did the woman caught in adultery). Jesus could read hearts (and minds). Perhaps his silence on this Samaritan woman’s current relationship (which many Christians would tag as “living in sin”) was because she had finally settled into a committed relationship. No, she wasn’t married to the guy, but she was committed and that’s all that mattered.
I know this is a hard one to swallow (I struggle to type the following conclusion and fear plenty of criticism). Clearly fifteen centuries of Catholic guilt and Protestant shame have colored our thinking and jaded our feelings, but truth is truth. Perhaps cohabitation (even with sexual relations) is not the sin. After all, cohabitation suggests something deeper than promiscuous porneia. Cohabitation implies a commitment to do life together. The relationship may have started as lust (sin), but love bloomed and a relationship exists. Maybe it’s not “until death do us part” yet, but its on the way.
Am I encouraging cohabitation? By NO means. Marriage is like a castle with a mote. There’s security inside it. I think every couple should (and must) marry. If you’re a Christian the idea shouldn’t even be entertained or engaged (to avoid even the slightest hint of evil). But I do think the Church has bigger social sins to criticize than “living in sin.” Jesus didn’t condemn cohabitation and he could have (probably because it was rare inside Israel). Nevertheless, Paul encouraged the sexually active to get married (cohabitation was more common in the Greco-Roman world) and this Corinthian church, not to mention culture, was wrought with sexual dysfunction.
You see, sexual immorality is the real sin…not so much living together…and neither, as we’ll now discover, is getting divorced or being divorced.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The statistics show about half of American adults are divorced, although in recent years the cultural acceptance of cohabitation has effectively reduced divorce decrees. In the church it’s no different and hardly immune. The dissolution of Christian marriages, including many pastors, elders, deacons and other church leaders, is a common refrain. I’ll confess my first marriage failed. Its definitely not something in which I’m proud, but it happened and I’ve grown as a result.
Despite its cultural normalcy, the divorced (current and former) inside the church walls are still largely viewed as second-class, shameful and even sinful people. In the Roman Catholic Church, a divorce excludes a person from participating in the Eucharist and “is a grave offense against the natural law” because it constitutes immorality (and, depending on who’s interpreting, mortal sin). In many conservative, particularly evangelical, churches a divorce will end the professional career of a pastor, remove an elder/deacon/leader from Christian service and paint a scarlet letter on all who experience marital breakup. As one church leader once pontificated to me, finger wagging, “Divorce is a sin” and being divorced is a state of “sinfulness.”
So where do we get these notions about divorce? Not surprisingly, its mostly out of tradition and dogma.
The Catholic Church originated the divorce problem by citing marriage as a sacrament (1184 AD, Council of Verona). Yes, marriage is sacred as both Scripture and tradition attest. However, it’s not a means to experience God’s Grace or salvation. But in medieval times Roman Catholicism certified marriage as a vehicle for “experiencing God’s saving presence” and to channel “God’s grace to all those who receive [it] with the proper disposition.” This is error. Marriage cannot save nor impart Grace. Furthermore, once you make marriage sacramental it naturally causes dissolution to be heavily condemned. Divorce is never a good thing but is it sin or sinful? Many Christians think it is.
Biblically, marriage is a Holy Union where a man and woman enter into a sacred lifelong, Divinely ordained relationship that ceases when a death occurs (“until death do us part”). Marriage reflects the Triune Nature of God and is soaked in relationship. Since there is no marriage in heaven, according to Jesus, marriage is a purely earthly human experience. The execution of this marital contract creates the divorce problem and this is where the Catholic Church and many Protestants err.
Ironically, in God’s eyes and the biblical record, a marriage doesn’t commence with “certificate of marriage” nor dissolves with “certificate of divorce.” That’s where marriage becomes a human, legal and civil matter. Man created divorce and plenty of civil rules about marriage. God merely allows divorce. From God’s view marriage begins when a man and woman seal their lifelong commitment in a sexual relationship. This is what Jesus taught: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Sex is the God’s super-glue for marriage. In fact, there is no “marriage” without it.
TO BE CONTINUED…