The New Testament presents a problem in understanding both what the text says about divorce and its pastoral implications. Jesus appears to say that divorce is allowed only if adultery has occurred: "Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, and remarries, commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). However, this has been interpreted in many different ways. Most say that Jesus allows divorce only for adultery. But some argue that Jesus originally didn't allow even that. Only in Matthew does he offer an out from marriage: "except for sexual indecency."
Beyond what Jesus says, Paul also allows divorce. He permits it for abandonment by a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Many theologians add this as a second ground for divorce. Yet some pastors have found this teaching difficult to accept, because it seems so impractical—even cruel in certain situations. It suggests there can be no divorce for physical or emotional abuse, and Paul even seems to forbid separation (1 Cor. 7:10).
As a result, some Christians quietly ignore this seemingly "impractical" biblical teaching or find ways around it. For example, they suggest that when Jesus talked about "sexual immorality," perhaps he included other things like abuse. Or when Paul talked about abandonment by a nonbeliever, perhaps he included any behavior that is not supportive of the marriage or abandonment by anyone who is acting like a nonbeliever. Many have welcomed such stretching of Scripture because they couldn't accept what they believed the text apparently said.
But does the literal text mean what we think it does? While doing doctoral studies at Cambridge, I likely read every surviving writing of the rabbis of Jesus' time. I "got inside their heads" enough to begin to understand them. When I began working as a pastor and was confronted almost immediately with divorced men and women who wanted to remarry, my first response was to re-read the Bible. I'd read the biblical texts on divorce many times in the past, but I found something strange as I did so again. They now said something I hadn't heard before I read the rabbis!
Monday, October 8, 2007
divorce and the Christian
This article about divorce from the October 2007 issue of Christianity Today gives much to think about.