Our Evolving Understanding of Divorce -- and Homosexuality

Could consideration of divorce help us understand how we make use of the Bible?  And might that help us in understanding what God asks of us with regard to homosexuality? 

In Luke 16:18 Jesus says18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  That’s pretty clear.  But Matthew 19:9 has Jesus saying exactly the same thing and adding “except for immorality.” Matthew has Jesus giving a reason why divorce might be acceptable.  That’s an important difference.  Let’s also note that what might constitute “immorality” would need some further interpretation.  (The Greek word is porneia, about which there is disagreement about the precise meaning.  Note that there is another Greek word, moichao, that is commonly translated as “adultery,” as it is, for example in the NIV translation of Matthew 5:32.  Since the author of Matthew uses moichao, it is unlikely porneia means simply “adultery.”)  

            There is more about divorce in the Gospels.  In Mark 10:2-12 and Matthew 19:3-12, we get two very similar but not identical accounts of an exchange in which some Pharisees test Jesus by asking him “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  In both accounts the Pharisees cite Moses (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) as saying that it was permitted for a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away, and have Jesus saying (following Genesis 2:24) that “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew’s version has Jesus, again, add the “except for immorality” escape clause to the prohibition on divorce and remarriage. 

To this list of important New Testament verses about divorce we should also note Paul’s guidance in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:  “10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”  Paul is apparently referring to the same accounts that the Gospels tell, or at least so most Bible commentators have assumed. 

There are differences we can note among these various passages, but the overall New Testament guidance is pretty clear: divorce is not right, and remarriage is adultery pure and simple. 

            And yet we accommodate ourselves to divorce and remarriage, do we not?  Be honest now: do we not? 

            We welcome to our churches and invite into leadership those who have divorced and remarried.  (I say this as a person who is divorced and remarried.)  The Richmond Declaration speaks of marriage as “an engagement for life,” but says nothing further about divorce or remarriage.  I am unaware of any IYM Minute declaring divorce or remarriage as sins. 

            What should we make of this posture when we rail firmly against other sins?

            One possibility is to admit that we have simply been weak and wrong in this matter.  On this possibility we should acknowledge that we have accommodated ourselves to practices that are sinful, and we should recommit ourselves to taking the Biblical guidance fully and seriously.  Down this road, we would declare divorce and remarriage to be (both) sinful practices, expecting those who do these things to repent, and expecting those who have divorced either to reunite with their spouses, or else to remain celibate for the rest of their days, providing appropriate material support to the spouse from whom they live apart.          

There is another possibility, one that begins by asking the purpose of the Biblical instruction against allowing divorce and remarriage.  Surely that guidance is intended to discourage wanton lust and instead to focus our sexual desire on one person to whom we have a steadfast commitment.  In a world where women have no independent rights and are always under the dominion of men, the prohibition of divorce serves a second purpose, to prevent men taking advantage of women and casting them adrift without any means of support.  Such male dominion was a solid feature not only of the Old Testament world but also of the world in which Jesus preached and the New Testament was written.

Today we have a different understanding of the proper relationship between men and women, one in which there is mutual respect and equality before the law.  Men no longer have unquestioned dominion over wives and unmarried daughters.  Women can hold property and aspire to positions outside the home once reserved exclusively for men.  The prohibition against divorce no longer serves that second purpose to nearly the same extent. 

In a world where women have a measure of equality with men, another purpose for the prohibition against divorce comes into view: we want to encourage enduring intimacy between married couples.  So today, recognizing that achieving such intimacy can be difficult, we counsel against divorce because we want married couples to try hard to work through differences and conflicts.  Often, we believe, a truer intimacy can be achieved. 

But, today, we don’t say never to divorce.  Instead, recognizing intimacy as the essential core of marriage, we acknowledge that sometimes married couples come to a place where they conclude, and we conclude with them, that intimacy simply is not possible.  In these cases we resign ourselves to divorce, and we encourage both parties to seek new partners, new marriages, in order to achieve that intimacy we believe they should seek. 

Recognizing intimacy as the essential core of marriage still leads us to counsel against divorce.  But it also leads us to tolerate divorce when people have honestly tried, but failed, to make a marriage work.  Then what we ask of them is neither reconciliation nor a life of celibacy.  Instead we ask of them to seek enduring intimacy again. 

Honestly, I believe this is our true understanding of divorce today.  It is why we welcome divorced people in our churches, even encouraging them into positions of leadership.  I do not believe it is simply a lack of courage or fortitude that leads us to a different understanding than the literal texts of the New Testament.

If we believe the experience of intimacy is essential, if we believe it is a core purpose of marriage, then do we not want this experience to be available to everyone, even same sex couples?  If the literal texts of the New Testament do not lead us to be absolutists on divorce, why do the literal texts of the New Testament lead us to absolutist condemnation of homosexuality?

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Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 22, 2012 at 6:39pm

Your many analyses of what the Bible says (and doesn't say) about sexual mores have been excellent.

Excuse my kvetching, but sometimes it looks like a lack of interest hereabouts, as to what's in the Bible about anything else.  Why do I think that?

Comment by James C Schultz on 6th mo. 23, 2012 at 5:54pm

There are several oversimplifications in your blog.  First of all  I don't think we can assume that God has joined together every married couple who has recited some "vows".  One of the reasons the Catholic Church gives for granting annulments is that one of the couples was too immature to make such a vow.  They do this routinely even after 40 years of marriage producing several children - personal experience here. :)

Another point is that I don't agree that we recognize "intimacy" as the essential core of marriage.  I would agree that lust/sex is the prevailing reason for most marriages for at least one of the parties with money as the other.  But I think the essential core of marriage is unconditional love.  A relationship where hopefully each but at least one of the couple lives for the well being of the other and the offspring of the relationship.  It's interesting that in my second marriage that while neither of us wanted to have children together - each having had 3 of our own with our former mates -- we are very much supportive of the other's nurturing of our 6 joint children, 11 joint grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren.  I would say that while I am very happy for the intimate relationship with my present spouse especially as compared to the lack thereof in the last 16 years of my marriage to my former spouse I cannot say it is the essential core of my marriage.  The essential core is commitment to the well being of the other.  To the extent that a homosexual couple can subjugate their need for an intimate relationship to the welfare of their loved one I have no doubt that God would approve of their union even though I, with my own personal weak faith, would have trouble doing so.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 24, 2012 at 4:04pm

#Forrest: I am much preoccupied by issues around homosexuality and the Bible because of the schism that is threatening Indiana Yearly Meeting, where I am a member of First Friends Richmond.  Homosexuality is the issue that is driving the schism, but it is also the issue IYM goes out of its way to avoid discussing.

 #James: I think we are in heated agreement.  Perhaps my word “intimacy” doesn’t convey well what I mean.  I mean by that word very much what I take you to mean “unconditional love.”  I mean a kind of love in which you care so fully and deeply for another that your hopes and concerns are as much for what serves your partner as what serves yourself.  That kind of unconditional love generally only arises when two people are fully open and honest with one another.  It is on behalf of that mutual openness that I use the term “intimacy.”

Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 24, 2012 at 4:45pm

There's a book I'm partway through, Unprotected Texts  by Jennifer Knust (a Baptist pastor!) which may be helpful... (Even something re David & Abigail I hadn't caught or heard of!)

Yeah, I guess if my yearly meeting was fussing about its stance toward homosexuality, that would bring the subject to my attention more -- but from here it looks like just one aspect of a really fundamental issue: How should we best consider our relation to the Bible? -- & in what sense does it have "authority"?

& when I post a link to a really good NT Wright piece on that issue, it looks like almost no-one finds anything there they care to discuss! From Indiana Meeting or anywhere else.

I can see why the more specific issue matters strongly to people whose sexual lives, identities, and integrity are under attack, & I'm certainly rooting for them! And I don't mind a little gossip about what other people are doing with their friendly parts... but doesn't it seem an odd issue for people to take up so intensely in parental mode?

Comment by James C Schultz on 6th mo. 24, 2012 at 7:59pm

One of the basic attractions for me of Quakers is the concept that there are no creeds.  By forcing a stand on Homosexuality, one side or the other, you undo the whole concept of letting people find their individual path to truth at their own pace or at least the pace that God has them on and not one force fed by an authoritative body.  In other words you are reverting to a top down approach instead of a bottom up approach.  It would seem that the solution is to let individual monthly meetings resolve the question on their level with as much love as possible under the circumstances.  This allows members to choose a meeting where they can fellowship with others at a similar point or level of faith. 

Comment by James C Schultz on 6th mo. 24, 2012 at 8:11pm

I was just reminded by the spirit of an instance in my own life where I was sorely vexed.  I would stay up late into the night seeking God's will through His inspired scriptures.  With one breath I would hear "How can two walk together unless they agree" and with the second "Love one another as I have loved you" and "with God all things are possible."  Eventually I accepted that "Love" is not only what the world needs now but what I needed to walk in even if I was wrong.  If I was going to make the wrong decision it had to be the most loving decision.  I think that many people involved in these arguments are not "vexed" enough yet.  They are willing to take their ball and go home.  I am not saying this is an easy decision but God can make a way where there seems to be no way.  At least the God I know can.

However, having said that, I agree with Forest that for most of us further discussion of the topic is not fruitful.  Until the Holy Spirit speaks to me specifically to add to your discussions I am going to go quietly into the night and try to avoid being drawn into your well crafted dissertations. :)

Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 26, 2012 at 11:50am

#James: I'm very much with you on the avoidance of creeds.  Today, Indiana Yearly Meeting has a very stiff and unrelenting Minute on Homosexuality.  I'd like to see that undone.  I'll add that the avoidance of creeds doesn't relieve any of us as individuals from speaking the truth as we come to know it. 

Comment by Emele W. on 6th mo. 29, 2012 at 3:42am

Currently I'm (re)reading the Bible in daily portions, and have come across this same dichotomy. It presents a very real grey area in Biblical doctrine, and as the child of parents who divorced it's been something I've meditated on frequently. Ultimately, as I've determined for my own personal beliefs (to be clear), what I believe that Jesus was trying to do was to rail against what seems to be a very real problem in Jewish law.

Women were disposable, despite Jewish emphasis on the importance of women in their culture (ie. Jewish heritage is determined not by paternity but maternity). Very disposable. Basically all a husband had to do to get rid of his wife was to write her a letter and hand it to her: Boom, insta-divorce. No reasoning necessary. Jesus saw this as sacrilege to the sanctity of marriage, and thought re-marriage barring the dissolution of a couple in which one partner had already demolished that sanctity of the union by adultery was thus committing adultery in and of itself. Without already having strayed from marriage, the couple is still joined in the eyes of God. If adultery is committed, then the union is already tainted.

Jesus never preached on homosexuality as a sin, as far as I can tell. That's an entirely Old Testament based argument, and one that can be narrowed down to one singular passage at that (the other bits often cited - Sodom and Gomorrah - are at their heart about rape and violence rather than the homosexuality in context). To be frank, I truly think it depends on your view of Jesus and his revolution of the old Jewish ways. A core component of the Good News is how Jesus saved us from having to follow the red letter of Hebraic law. He preached, and indeed railed against many mitvahs that were considered vital to their culture (ie. following kosher, strict adherence to shabbat/sabbath inactivity laws), so I fail to see how this one small doctrine would not be overridden by his loving acceptance as well. For one who loved lepers, how could he not love the Christian gay man or woman too?

Once again, these are is just my own observances and opinion.

Comment by Barbara Smith on 6th mo. 30, 2012 at 7:34am
James - I don't understand the idea of having each Monthly Meeting decide on this big issue on their own. Isn't that in direct conflict with the way Friends have historically functioned? Concerns need to be brought to the Yearly Meeting for consideration and consensus before the Monthly Meeting can take a stand, right? Isn't that how it work with the anti-slavery position? Until the Holy Spirit shows the way to unity I don't see another way, no matter how frustrating it is for the parties involved. Do we or do we not truly believe the Holy Spirit is capable of bringing a unity, that is the question.

Doug - I'm not sure about comparing divorce and homosexuality in the Bible. Eventhough they are similar in that we point to the Bible to affirm our stands on them, they are dissimilar in that one is due to spiritual/human failing (divorce) and the other either on biology (if you take that view) or it is a personal choice made by free will (if you take that view). So from where I stand, no matter which view I take of homosexuality, I would not see it as similar to my attitude about divorce.

I also think here you have summed up the culture's attitude on divorce:

but I do not feel this is God's view of divorce at all! As one who had a marriage on the rocks I can say that I clearly see now that there is no point where "intimacy was no longer possible." God never gives up. He never says, "Okay, now it's too late. You two are incompatible." I know it is a very unpopular idea, but God does not actually care about sexual satisfaction or any other kind of personal satisfaction, but only about loving the OTHER person and caring for them as Christ would care for them. Even in a marriage. I am currently watching a divorce about to happen, and even though it seems to be doomed, if either side were to find Jesus the dynamics would instantly change! Moving to another partner does not change the essential problem, though it may mask it a bit. And I would truly hope that a faith community would not ever "encourage" a couple to seek new partners.

God's time is not our time, and God's answers are not always what we would like them to be!

Comment by Doug Bennett on 7th mo. 3, 2012 at 9:59am

I'm not trying to compare divorce and homosexuality.  I'm interested in the contrast between how we read the Bible about the one and about the other.  Biblical foundationalism (or Biblical inerrancy) doesn't seem right to me for many reasons that drew me to Quakerism.  Fox knew and loved the Bible, but understood it wasn't enough.  He understood we need the leadings of the Holy Spirit to open the Bible to us.  That said, I often don't know what to say to those who are consistent believers in Biblical foundationalism, though I wonder what such people make of God's allowing us to have the faculty of reason.  But I have less sympathy for those who insist on following the Bible strictly in some matters (eg. homosexuality) but not in others (divorce, slavery, ministry of women, etc.). 


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