Thursday, November 05, 2009

In my series on Using the Bible in Ethics, I now turn as promised to the difficult issue of divorce. In this the first part, I want to look at the texts in the New Testament. In the second, I want to look at suggestions that we have misunderstood Jesus' teaching. Finally, I want to move on to how we should apply Jesus' teaching, whatever it was, today.

6. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part One - Texts)

I have been contrasting two types of approach amongst those who wish to give the Bible a prominent role in arriving at ethical decisions. The first focuses on the actual text of the Bible, while the second seeks to identify broad themes within it that are then applied to specific ethical issues. This is done even if the application contradicts or appears to contradict individual texts. (See previous posts in this series under Using the Bible in Ethics)

One area where these two - texts and themes - would seem to come together is over the subject of divorce. In the New Testament, at least, our Lord no less, seems explicitly to forbid divorce giving the theme or principle upon which he bases his prohibition (see Matthew 5:27-32, 19:3-11; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). Even the more sceptical scholars seem to agree that Jesus took a strict, rigorist stance when it came to divorce based on his understanding of God’s intention in creation.

There is one problem, of course, the so-called ‘exceptive clause’ in Matthew (Matthew 5:32, 19:9). Jesus forbids divorce ‘except for unchastity’. Mark and Luke, however, do not allow any exceptions in their version of the text as it stands. So did Jesus say it, or is it, as many argue, an addition by Matthew to soften Jesus’ otherwise strict demands?

And then there is the problem of what the word translated in the NRSV as ‘unchastity’ actually means. Some take it very narrowly to mean something like marriage within the forbidden decrees of the Old Testament, so that the text would mean that you could only divorce if you discovered you had married a close relative. The obvious question is why you would only find out you were closely related after you got married! Others take it more broadly to mean that divorce is allowed if the partner has sex outside of the marriage.

So even though we may conclude that Jesus was strict in his approach to divorce, we are still not sure how strict he was. If we take the position that he allowed divorce for adultery, then it is interesting that Mark does not include the permission! If he did not allow divorce at all, then we have the interesting position within the Bible itself of one evangelist feeling able to modify Jesus’ teaching, perhaps in the light of pastoral realities in his own church community.

Again, the text based approach runs into some difficulty and may have done so from the beginning. Jesus’ theme seems clear enough: that God’s original purpose in creation was that man and woman should live together as one flesh. Given that God has joined the man and the woman together, no-one should now divide them. The problem remains of how rigorously to apply it: strictly, as in Mark or Luke, or less so, as in Matthew.

This ‘no divorce’ teaching has, of course, led the Church into difficult pastoral situations. What do you do when one of the partners in the marriage – usually the woman – is physically abused by their husband? Even Christians wanting to stick to the letter of what Jesus said, have accepted that the wife should separate from her husband, even if they would not let her marry again. But why stop with physical abuse, what about mental cruelty? And what constitutes evidence of mental cruelty?

Jesus’ teaching was found to need further explanation from the very first. Even if Matthew does have Jesus’ original words, Paul found in Corinth that he had to do some serious pastoral thinking about separation, divorce and re-marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-16). Jesus’ context was that of Israel, where people were expected to keep God’s law. He was, after all, speaking to those who historically were God’s people. Paul, however, is dealing with a Gentile context. Paul seems to have been asked by the Corinthians about separation and divorce, in general, and more particularly about separation and divorce when one of the partners was not a Christian. In some of the marriages one of the partners in the marriage is an unbeliever. In general terms, Paul feels it is clear. Paul repeats the Lord’s teaching, making it plain that he is quoting Jesus: believers should not divorce, but if they do separate they should not remarry.

When it comes to marriages in which one of the couple is not a believer, Paul makes it clear that what he has to say is his teaching and not that of Jesus. He doesn’t mean by this that what he says isn’t authoritative, but rather that this is his teaching in the light of what he knows Jesus to have said. He is applying Jesus’ teaching to a situation and context that Jesus had not addressed.

His teaching is that in marriages where one of the partners is an unbeliever, the believer should still stay married and not divorce his or her partner. However, if the unbeliever separates from the believing partner, says Paul, the believer is not bound. Divorce, in other words, in this situation is allowed. A new pastoral reality, not addressed by our Lord allows Paul to adapt our Lord’s teaching to the changed context. Now it is clear that Paul isn’t keen on divorce and wants to avoid deviating from our Lord’s teaching, but he does recognize, as may have Matthew, that changed pastoral realities may require an interpretation and application of it.

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