On the same day as I posted about real Christmas cards, I got some! The prize for the first one to be sent (that means, the one that was written first) goes to Bill and Diana, two dear members of the Christ Church community world-wide. Unbelievably, Bill and Diana live in Bedford, where my parents and brother and sister-in-law live. Bill and Diana, if you read this, thank you! We hope to see you soon.
It truly is a small world after all!
9. Using the Bible in Ethics: Divorce (Part Four - A Changed World and A Changed Institution)
We have seen in the previous post in this series how difficult it is to understand even seemingly obvious statements about ethics in the Bible. (For previous posts see: Using the Bible in Ethics) Jesus’ words on divorce, although apparently clear on the surface, occupy just a few verses. This should warn against assuming that we know everything that Jesus would have said in answer to the questions we would like to ask today or even was asked then! We can, I think, be certain that Jesus did not think divorce a ‘good thing’, but would he have ruled it out completely, as some argue? That I think is a more difficult question to answer as St Matthew and David Instone-Brewer illustrate!
And this is all before we stop to consider the way society has changed today from the way it was at the time of the New Testament. I am afraid that too many fail to take these changes on board before reaching conclusions on what our Lord may or may not have allowed. Let us then be clear about some of the changes, pastorally, that have taken place when it comes to marriage since the time of our Lord and Paul:
Firstly, women have far great economic freedom now than they did and are not as dependent upon their husbands as generally they have been in the past. The past century has witnessed great technological change. It has witnessed great social change as well. While not all would want to sign up for the feminist cause, there has been a particularly radical change in the role of women in society. It is all too easy to forget that women weren’t expected to go to university not so long ago. Their job was to stay at home and have babies. Now, despite continuing inequalities, the expectation, in the developed world at least, is for them to pursue a career in their own right.
Secondly, and linked to this, is the way women have greater control over their fertility. A baby has become for most couples a choice to be made and not an inevitable fact of life. The woman’s role now is not to produce and manage a constantly increasing brood of children. There is life apart from motherhood and child-rearing, even if for many women it still doesn’t always feel like it!
Thirdly, people today delay getting married much longer for educational and career reasons amongst others. It is all too easily forgotten that at the time of the New Testament women would marry as soon as they reached puberty. In my own ministry, I have seen great change in the age of those I marry. When I was first ordained, it was not at all uncommon to marry people still in their late teens. Then people started delaying marriage until after university. Now, if they decide to marry at all, they delay marriage until after they have become established in their career. Normally, the couples I marry are at least in their 30s and, let it be said, are also already living together. Apart from anything else, this challenges us also to think about our attitude to sex and marriage, but I will resist the temptation to be side-tracked!
Fourthly, people live longer and so potentially could have much longer marriages. Again, it is forgotten how easy it was to die in the world of the New Testament. Life expectancy for a child born in the
Roman Empire would have been under 30 years. Now we expect to live way beyond that. It’s just a fact that people change over time and if the time is a long time, how does that effect what we expect of marriage?
Fifthly, expectations of what the marriage relationship is about have changed. It is not now primarily an economic contract designed for the production and rearing of children. In fact, each partner may have economic independence and neither may want children. We may deplore the romanticized and sentimentalized view of love all too common in popular-culture, but it remains a fact that this is what most people see as most important in relationships in a way that is simply off the radar in the New Testament.
How then do we apply Jesus’ teaching? At one extreme, are those who argue that social changes are not relevant. God’s purpose for man and woman in creation remains the same. So divorce and remarriage are not allowed, except perhaps in cases of adultery (for some, not even then), and may be when an unbelieving partner walks out. But that’s all!
At the other end of the scale, are those who argue that the process of pastoral application of Jesus’ teaching, seen in the Bible itself, should be continued and extended to today. They would argue that it is illogical to argue that Paul (and perhaps Matthew) could modify Jesus’ teaching, but we can’t. Those who take the first position would reply that Matthew and Paul were inspired in a way that we are not and never can be.
Personally, I find it very hard to resist the conclusion that when Jesus was talking about marriage, he was talking about something very different to what we think of as marraige today. Insisting that the Bible’s teaching on marriage as it is now is the same as it was on marriage then seems to ignore the huge changes that have taken place in the nature of marriage itself.
This is not for one moment to argue that the Bible’s teaching can just be set aside or quietly ignored. It is, however, to argue that applying the Bible’s teaching is not as simple as some like to think.