Friday, August 17, 2007

Divorce and Remarriage

It’s just my luck that in the daily Eucharistic lectionary for this Friday, the Gospel reading is Matthew 19:3-12 – one of the five passages in the New Testament that deals with divorce and remarriage. That’s not a topic that regularly pops up in sermons (I’ve never preached on it until today’s noonday service), and the relevant passages rarely surface in the Daily Office and Sunday Eucharistic lectionary cycles. It’s not the sort of thing I’m eager to preach about.

Fortunately for me, Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays’ discussion of the relevant biblical texts in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996), provides a nice summary of what the New Testament says about divorce and remarriage – and thus gave me a way to address this topic in a brief homily.

Here’s the gist of Hays’ summary (and what I said for the 3 persons attending today’s noonday Eucharist):

Relevant Texts
1. Mark 10:2-12
2. Matthew 19:3-12
3. Matthew 5:31-32
4. Luke 16:18
5. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16

New Testament Diversity
1. Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce.
2. Matthew and Paul allow for possible exceptions to the norm of life-long marriage in cases calling for pastoral discretion.
3. In Matthew and Luke, only the husband can initiate divorce.
4. Mark and Paul recognize the right of women to initiate divorce.
5. Matthew maintains that divorced women can only remarry as adulteresses, while men may possibly remarry without sin if their former wives were guilty of unchastity.
6. Luke excludes the possibility of remarriage after divorce.
7. Paul advises against remarriage, but acknowledges that options for remarriage may exist for Christians divorced by unbelievers.
8. Mark does not address the problem of remarriage in special circumstances.

New Testament Unity
1. Normative vision: marriage is a permanently binding commitment in which a man and a woman become “one flesh.”
2. Divorce is always an exceptional and tragic deviation from the norm.
3. Rules out no-fault divorce and serial monogamy.

Given this summary of New Testament diversity, it simply will not do to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” when it comes to divorce and remarriage. There is no single biblical rule here. Instead, there is a moral argument internal to the New Testament canon. So it is not appropriate to make categorical judgments about particular cases of divorce and remarriage on the basis of isolated biblical texts. The entirety of the New Testament’s diverse witness must be taken into account.

This is particularly important given the fact that none of the New Testament writers address issues such as spousal abuse as a legitimate reason for divorce. In cases calling for moral and pastoral discernment, other factors may also require appeal to additional authoritative resources in tradition and reason to supplement the diverse biblical witness.

At the same time, the points that unite the New Testament’s diverse voices must also be taken seriously. In particular, the summary third point – that the New Testament rules out no-fault divorce and serial monogamy – strikes very close to home in virtually every Christian congregation. Serial monogamy has displaced lifelong unions as the norm in our culture, and in light of the high divorce rate among Christians, the Church has followed suit. Sober assessment of the Church’s accommodation to our culture ought to make all Christians who claim to take biblical authority seriously think long and hard before we throw stones at others we perceive as sinners.

I think that the New Testament texts on divorce and remarriage need to be read, not only in relation to each other, but also within the larger context of the entire biblical story of God’s grace in creation and covenant. We do well to remember that the Bible is a love story that begins with a divorce and ends with the union of heaven and earth in the New Jerusalem.

Yes, repentance is necessary. But redemption is always possible.


John Bassett said...

Well, I'm not sure that the idea of serial monogamy was really on the minds of the New Testament writers. Life expectancies were much shorter back then, and death in childbirth was quite common. The average marriage probably did not last that long.

I'm not advocating the easy acceptance of divorce and remarriage, BUT we have to be careful we're not taking our modern problems and concerns and trying to find direct answers for them in Biblical sources. Their problems are not always our problems, and our problems are not always their problems.

That's not because I believe that Scripture is irrelevant. I think we can find some illumination there about key values which can inform our ethical decision making. But it may not lend itself to an easy or rigid rule.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for commenting, John.

You make a good point that the idea of serial monogamy as we know it today was probably not on the minds of the New Testament writers.

I agree 100%.

Indeed, I'd bet it was something they wouldn't have been able to conceive of in their wildest dreams. And it has nothing to do with spouses dying and people remarrying (I'm reminded on that score of the legal obligation of a brother to marry the wife of a deceased brother - a law which the Sadducees try to use as a means of entrapping Jesus in Mark 12:18-27, Matthew 22:23-33, and Luke 20:27-38).

It has more to do with the notion that if I get "tired" of my spouse, or if we are "no longer in love," or if we have "irreconcilable differences," then we we have a right to divorce and to remarry.

I'm pretty confident that's all quite foreign to the New Testament writers.

The real question is: why should Christians at the beginning of the 21st Century accept such culturally prevalent notions as though they carry more moral weight than the norms laid out in the New Testament (norms which, as I note in my article, do not lend themselves to an easy or rigid rule at all)?