In the last two meetings via Skype of my men’s Bible study, I have discussed Jesus’ divorce and remarriage halakha; I gave my opinion that Jesus does not permit remarriage after divorce at all, hard though that may seem.
Some further thoughts about that discussion:
- I am quite aware that this view of mine involves me in nearly impossible pastoral difficulties in our society of frequent premarital sex, adultery, and easy divorce. Yet I would remind everyone that for 1900 years, the church taught something very close to, and just as hard as, my view. While in practice, Roman Catholic annulment may be granted too easily, in theory it is only a recognition that a true marriage never really existed between two persons – it is not the dissolution of a marriage that really exists. We may hold that the halakha of Christendom during most of its existence has been mistaken or unbiblical, but I do not think we can call it impossible or unloving.
- In many ways, the case for a permissive divorce regime by appeal to the pitiable cases of innocent victims of adultery or spousal abuse – “Why would God punish her twice?” – relies upon an individualistic perspective. Individualism has always led to permissive, liberal divorce regimes. In the 19th century, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was an abusive husband who wrote in letters to a friend that he had twice raped his wife. When he wanted to divorce her so that he could marry someone else, he had to come to liberal and individualistic America and get the divorce in Indiana’s courts. So an individualistic approach is a very American one, and it is ingrained in our thinking. Yet a moment’s reflection should show us that Jesus does not want us to think about the question in terms of individuals: “So then, they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (Mt. 19:6) If a marriage has taken place, then we are dealing with a new, two-headed creature, not with two individuals.
- I have read, and appreciate, Greg Bahnsen’s theses on divorce. The conclusion of that paper strongly resembles (though it does not exactly match) Ray (now Bishop) Sutton’s book Second Chance in that both would permit divorce and remarriage for any victim of spousal sins that were capital crimes in the OT, or that strike at the essence of marriage.
In theory, I agree with this article’s approach to the question: a close, careful examination of Jesus’ and Paul’s words should yield a divorce halakha that is consistent both internally (with itself) and externally with the rest of the New Testament. But in practice, Bahnsen’s misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 7 leads him to define porneia wrongly, as including abandonment. This then opens the door for him to appeal to metaphorical passages of the OT in order to include other non-sexual sins. The result is, in effect, a broad divorce halakha. It is not “any cause” divorce: Bahnsen and Sutton limit the grounds for divorce to only certain sins. It also is not “no fault” divorce: grounds must be adduced. But in practice, the acceptable grounds are so expansive that it is actually quicker and easier to list the circumstances under which divorce is not permitted than to enumerate the conditions under which it is. To wit, on Bahnsen’s view, you may divorce your spouse unless he/she has been perfectly pure sexually during the marriage, and has always given you the required provisions of shelter, raiment, and marital affection. Thus, abandonment, physical abuse, and many other non-sexual sins are oddly included under the heading of “porneia”. This expansion stretches the meaning of that Greek word beyond the breaking point. But doesn’t Bahnsen demonstrate that the label porneia is applied to Israel’s national idolatry, political apostasy, and other non-sexual sins? Yes, but we have no right to take such metaphorical meanings and read them into a legal context discussing actual marriage between men and women. Unlike the hieros gamos of the Babylonians, YHWH’s “marriage” to Israel was never a matter of actual sexual intercourse. Rather, sexuality was a metaphor for non-sexual national behavior. Bahnsen cannot use this pattern of metaphor as proof that non-sexual sins constitute non-metaphorical, legally actionable porneia.
Thus, my proposal is that Paul and Jesus are actually completely at one in their divorce halakha: they do not allow it at all. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 permits believers to allow an unbelieving spouse to leave if he is unwilling to continue after the believer’s conversion, but this permission is not a permission to divorce, but a recognition that the marriage has been ended by the “death” and new creation of the believer. The porneia exception in Matthew 19 is an exception for porneia in a narrow, technical sense: namely, incest. That is, where a marriage was illegal in the first place, it must be dissolved. But nothing done after the marriage can legitimate divorce.
You can read my old entry about David Daube’s brilliant interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 here. It clears up all the old, intractable puzzles that have bedeviled Christian interpreters over the centuries. It solves them by appeal to Jewish background. It makes better sense of the Greek, and results in satisfying “aftershocks” as other odd locutions suddenly make sense.
The result is a strict divorce halakha. This is hard to swallow, to be sure. But it needs to be. All looser divorce halakhoth are defeated by two main objections. In my view, neither of these objections can possibly be answered by Christian defenders of divorce. They are:
- There is no way that such a divorce halakha would have elicited the reaction of shocked dismay that is recorded from Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 19:10. Try it out. Jesus: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for if she has been unfaithful, or abandoned him, or assaulted him, or refuses to have sex with him, or abuses the kids, causes her to commit adultery.” What would the disciples have said? I think they would have replied with something like this: “Um, OK, that’s kind of strict, but at least we know there’s a way out if things get really bad.” But what we actually have recorded contains none of those exceptions, and evokes a quite different reaction: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” No divorce halakha acceptable to modern North American churches could possibly have produced this dismayed reaction from the disciples of Jesus. Therefore, they cannot be what Jesus taught.
- Let us suppose, argumenti gratia, that Jesus and Paul taught something like Bahnsen’s halakha. We will then be up against an insoluble historical puzzle: How, then, can we explain the origin of the early Church’s uniform prohibition against remarriage during the lifetime of the divorced spouse? How did the early church overthrow a more permissive halakha in favor of a stricter one? Note especially that such a declension from permission into rigor could not take place except by overthrowing the judicial precedents of the apostolic age. It would not have been enough for the Church to lose sight of the true meaning of a few texts of Scripture. No, they would have needed to overcome the protests of persons whose divorces and subsequent marriages had received apostolic approval: “But the apostle Paul approved of my divorce!” This puzzle is formally parallel to N.T. Wright’s argument for the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the rise of the post-Easter church is historically inexplicable. Just so, if the apostles and Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage on the grounds acceptable to the modern church, there is no way that a stricter halakha could come about within 100 years of the apostles.
- There are, to be sure, plenty of instances where the Church has erred, sometimes for hundreds of years. So it is with icons, clerical celibacy, communion in one kind, and prohibition of paedocommunion. But in all of these cases, we can demonstrate the genesis of the error and find evidence of the original, correct practice before the error’s introduction. In all these cases, there is record of an outcry, resistance, and pockets of continued opposition to the erroneous practice. But in the case of the early church’s prohibition of divorce, we find none of these things. I conclude that the early Church’s strict prohibition of remarriage after divorce was of apostolic and dominical institution.
Lest I be misunderstood, I recognize that we are in a social and ecclesiastical pickle. Many years of lax divorce in North America have filled churches with millions of people who Scripture says are committing adultery by continuing in their illicit new marriages. I do not pretend to know what to do about this. In that respect, this blog entry – and that is all it is, a blog entry – is extremely unpastoral. I can only suggest that if I am anywhere near the truth, the Church will need to move to a stricter divorce halakha, and this move cannot be made in an instant.