This past Sunday I had the opportunity to teach the senior Pastor’s Sunday School class. For the past several weeks, we have studied Stanley Grenz’s Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective . To be honest, Grenz is one of my favorite theologians, but that is for a future post. The study I led was on the topic of divorce, but given my tendency to bring my scholarship to church settings as much as possible, I could not help but discuss the early church’s view of marriage as a sacrament (this in a United Methodist church context nonetheless). Grenz claims that God’s vision for human sexuality involves the covenant between one man and one woman; this covenantal relationship should ideally reflect the faithfulness and permanence of Christ’s relationship to the Church. However, since the church consists of sinners saved by grace, our fallenness contradicts God’s dream for our lives and especially in the United States—divorce, or the severance of the marriage relationship, is a result of human sinfulness (117).
The high rates of divorce is a unique phenomena for our times for a few reasons. For one, the life expectancy of husbands and wives has increasingly lengthened; for example in 1850, a child born in the USA was expected to live for 40 years. Today, that has nearly doubled to 75 years. There are some that would argue that 25 years of marriage is reasonable enough and that marriage was only meant for a quart century; therefore, marriage, divorce, and then remarriage should be seen as normal. In my generation, there is something called the starter marriage, where a man and woman wed around the as of 19 or 20 yrs, then divorce after three years of marriage before they look to settle down with a suitable partner. Other factors that may have given cause to the rise of divorce rate include economic mobility, a rejection of life-long relationships in general, changes in attitudes towards women, and the societal change of young, hip celebrities becoming role models rather than the elderly. Especially in the entertainment industry we see what people call age-ism, the discrimination and almost silencing of those who have sixty or so years young while there is a preference for the young, beautiful, and restless (121). Scripture, however, advises Christians to respect the elderly and to look to them for wisdom. Divorce negatively impacts communities and especially children. Those who witness the breakup of the marriage are deeply impacted. Speaking from personal experience, I was changed during the separation and divorce process between my mother and my biological father.
Jesus taught on divorce: that outside of adultery, divorce should ideally not happen (Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19: 1-9). However, one should not fall into legalism with this teaching; Jesus is preaching in the context of a culture that readily accepted polygamy (which, like divorce, is a result of human sinfulness). His response is to religious leaders who wanted to go back to the law to tell others what marriage was about; but Jesus would have none of it. Jesus’s answer to them points not to the law given to Moses, but to the Father, who created Adam and Eve, man and woman, to be one flesh. In addition, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus puts the burden on both women and men to remain faithful in their marriages (Mark 10:11-12). The apostle Paul shared Jesus’s view of marriage as God’s intention of a faithful relationship between a man and a woman. However, the Pauline exception found in 1st Corinthians 7, permits unbelievers to divorce from believers (124-125).
Grenz argues, whatever the circumstances, divorce should be viewed as a tragedy with both spouses viewed as victims of human fallennness. Jesus’s words about remarriage are not a condemnation on those who are divorced and who remarry; they are aimed towards pointing Christians to the truth behind God’s plan for our human sexuality—a commitment between one woman and one man living a life of fidelity. Just as Paul’s letters invite the Church to be hospitable toward widows/widowers, we are also called to be generous to divorcees (139). The church’s concern should not be under what circumstances should divorce happen, but in what manner may the relationship and the two individuals experience reconciliation and peace.
I agree with Stanley Grenz that marriage is the proper context for sexual expression, and it is the bond of marriage that gives meaning to the sex act. Sexual expression and the marital relationship have for their purpose the creation of community, through the celebration of the marital bond as well as procreation. However, I am going to have to depart from Grenz in one respect: he does not recognize marriage as an official sacrament (only a symbol), some of the earliest church leaders were convinced that it was; it was not until the Reformation during the 16th century that Christians began to understand marriage as a social contract between an individual man and an individual woman. Some of the first Christians understood marriage, based on Jesus’s miracle in John 2 as well as the passages in Ephesians 5:21-33 and Revelation 19:6-9, as a great mystery (sacrament in Latin) that revealed to the Church Christ’s relationship to her.
I think that Grenz’s argument is a classic case of the Protestant approach to sin: Jesus came in the world to manage sin and to control our depraved situation. If one desires to conquer sin, as the earliest apostolic witnesses testify, we must go back directly to the will of the Father, who is Jesus Christ. As Grenz states in his work, the difference between our Messiah and his religious opponents was that while his opponents tried to found their actions on the law, Jesus wants them and us to make God the basis for how we act, from the beginning as Christ says. Clement of Alexandria and John of Chrysostom condemn remarriage not on the basis of the law, but because of God’s revealed Will, the Son who can only show us what the Father in heaven is doing. The strict interpretation of Genesis 2:22-25 shared by both our Savior and the earliest apostolic traditions were out of love for the Creator and the original will at the time of creation.
What do we, then, do with the Pauline exception, as Grenz calls it? We see that in the Old Testament, especially in the lives of Israel’s monarchs as well as the books of Nehemiah and Ezra that it was not permissible for believers to marry unbelievers; Paul is following that precedent in light of his salvation experience with our Risen LORD. YHWH promises in the prophets that even though he is divorcing Israel during the time of exile, that He will come back to her, and she shall be his bride again. Is God guilty of breaking marriage vows (metaphorically speaking) and then committing to remarriage? If one depends on the law for moral behavior, then it would seem as if God is. Renita Weems in her work Battered Love, suggests that maybe God could be implicated in spousal abuse if one is to look closely at the metaphorical language the prophets use for the marital covenant between Israel and YHWH.
We as the Church need to understand, as Grenz has pointed out, that because God has freely given us grace to partake in God’s own life with the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that God can use anyone, even divorcees. Maybe if we took a second look at the Church Mothers and Fathers, we would see that marriage is a sacrament that is EQUALLY on par with Baptism and the Eucharist. Just as a believer, in early Christian thought, was thought to have been capable of falling into apostasy, let us consider divorce to be a form of apostasy, a denial of God’s direct will from the beginning of Creation as well as a false testimony against God’s faithfulness revealed in the Cross of Christ. But more importantly, let us begin to view domestic violence in marital relationships as heresy: wife-beating and child abuse are attacks against the holy doctrine of the sanctity of marriage, the revelation that TWO members of an extended family or clan become ONE FLESH. It is in the oracles of the prophet Malachi that YHWH declares, “For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the LORD of Hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless.” The sacrament of Christian marriage is a call to sexual fidelity and nonviolence in the holy covenant between a man and a woman.
Truth and Peace,