Divorce and the Purpose of the Law

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Much of what we believe is inherited and that includes how we interpret certain passages of Scripture.  It is just the way things are, we do not independently arrive at our own conclusions and could very well have been taught wrong.  Those who believe that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they’re standing on it have no potential for growth in understanding or perspective.

Many in a purity culture would squeal their displeasure at the term “legalism” being used to describe their ‘Biblical standards’ and hide behind mantras such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!”  Unfortunately, while this kind of obstinate stance may be good as far as resisting temptation, it basically amounts to confirmation bias on steroids in a search for truth.

This is exactly the attitude of those who took issue with Jesus breaking the Sabbath and how they absolutely refuse to see their own application of Scripture as entirely missing the point:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

(Matthew 12:1‭-‬14 NIV)

The Pharisees, like religious fundamentalists today, believed that they were the experts and examples of righteousness.  They would know that Moses, by order of the Lord according to Numbers 15:32-36, had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.  It is very likely that many of them were very sincere in their saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon.  How dare this teacher allow his followers to break the law and then defiantly double down in response to their concern!!!  Weren’t there six other days to heal?!?

Now some commentators may try to square this legalistically, by claiming that Jesus was not truly going against Scripture.  But I do not believe this is the case.  The Pharisees were obsessed with the letter of the law and technically right in their complaint against his breaking the Sabbath.  Jesus, by contrast, was focused on the reason behind the law, or spirit of the law, and pointed to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” to establish the vast difference between the ritualistic devotion to a set of religious rules and genuine love for people.

Legalism, by this standard, is a use of the law that is negligent of the purpose.  What is the purpose of law?  The law is supposed to be for our own good, to protect us from harm, and thus the exceptions that Jesus mentioned in response to his critics.  A legalist, in their strict adherence to rules, loves their rules, and yet they lack love and mercy for people.  Thus, a legalist, in their no-compromise application of the law, defies the actual purpose for which the law was established and, therefore, are no longer under the law themselves:

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

(James 2:12‭-‬13 NIV)

Legalism: Divorced From the Issue

This blog is not meant to be a theological tome.  For a more exhaustive look at the divorce and remarriage topic, especially for those of an Anabaptist background, I would suggest reading Dwight Gingrich who has covered the issue exhaustively in a series of blogs.  I’ve already covered Biblical proof-texts in prior postings as well.  Instead, I’ll stick to a discussion of the hardness of hearts and economia (special exception) as it applies to divorce and remarriage.

First of all marriage, by original intent, is until death do they part and there’s no exception to this.  If men and women would live up to their vows, not make promises they not keep, this would solve the entire issue.  If people would act responsibly and remain faithful in relationships then there would be no broken homes.  That is certainly ideal, it was also the privilege of being born into conservative Mennonite culture for me—in that my parents were encouraged, through peer pressure, to overcome doubts and make it work.

However, this ideal simply is not available to many in the world.  Many do marry, or have children, with someone whom they intend as their soulmate and it doesn’t end in a happily ever after for them.  This failure of adults can have disastrous consequences for the next generation, the less desirable outcomes for children of single-parent homes are the evidence:

Children who live with only one of their parents do less well in school, obtain fewer years of education, and have trouble keeping a steady job as young adults. Children from single parent families are six times more likely to be poor.

“Single Parenthood and Children’s Well-being,” Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars

Now maybe this is genetic, that the children have the same commitment issues as their parents, and this strong correlation of single-parent homes with poor outcomes for children does not automatically equate to environmental causation.  Maybe we need an adopted twin study?  But it is pretty safe to say, without a complex analysis, that the insecurity and chaos of a home with one parent will have an impact on children that is undesirable.

So there’s a question: If the law is there for our good and single-parent homes are bad, what should happen after divorce or abandonment?

In the culture that I came from, there was a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage that even nullified the “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9.  This perspective, from my personal experience as one who defended it, is about the preservation of an ideal and even at the expense of people.  I could reason, like Moses having the man killed for picking up sticks, that allowing one exception would be a slippery slope and lead to far greater social disorder.

And yet this “greater good” logic is exactly why Jesus was put to death:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” 

(John 11:47-50 NIV)

They both missed out on Jesus, their king, and also did not save temple worship. Also equally ironic is that the high priest unintentionally spoke the truth.

Anyhow, maybe, in the time of Moses, sacrifices of animals and the sons of Abraham were needed for the health of the nation.  But now, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness and thus free from the letter of the law that kills:

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

(2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)

You’ll need to read further about the context of that statement to fully grasp what St Paul is saying in that letter.  But the short version is that he’s contrasting the understanding of the law prior to Christ with that which only comes with the Spirit and seeing the intent behind laws as being greater than the laws themselves.  This is different from the Pharisee men who carved out legalistic exceptions for themselves to divorce and were confronted by Jesus for their hardness of heart:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

(Matthew 19:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The audience is men.  The ideal is marriage until death do they part.  And the rebuke is against the hardness of hearts.  This is what makes it so egregiously wrong that men, in fundamentalist communities, will apply this passage (usually excluding the exception clause) to women who were abandoned by their husbands.  It is, at the very best, taking the words of Jesus out of context and it is too often used rather hard-hearted response to those who have no chance of restoring what is ideal.

Jesus was not answering the question of what a woman is supposed to do when left to raise her children alone.  And I’m also quite confident that he was not intending for his prescription to these men to be applied in the same dogmatic manner as they approached the Scriptures.  It was their lack of mercy and compassion, how these men would misuse of the law of Moses (which did allow divorce) to escape their own responsibilities, that is the focus of his words.

As was explained to me concerning the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage in contrast to that of fundamentalists:

As to sticking with what is written, I think here you can see the difference in how the Orthodox view the Scriptures—as part and parcel—but never the entirely of the whole Tradition—all of which has been handed down to us. The Orthodox do not take divorce and re-marriage lightly—it’s a complicated process to get a bishop’s blessing to undertake second and third marriages and the blessing is not always given. But the primary issue here is that the Orthodox confess God to be a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness—not a law-obsessed judge who keeps a record of pluses and minuses in order to play “gotcha” with those who fail.

Father Anthony Roeber

That statement above, part of an email that so profoundly reframed my understanding of divorce and remarriage, cuts right to the heart of the issue.  Married or single, first marriage or second, what matters more than anything else is will if help us in the journey of faith or will it hinder.  And that’s the true intent behind the law, it was a tool to steer us in the direction of doing what is good and merciful, like our Father, and yet would never be sufficient to save us.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:36 NIV

Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

Why I Gave Up My Mother For Lent

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I’ve been going to my parent’s house more often since I’ve been off the road. It sure beats spending time by myself in an empty little house or eating alone in a restaurant. And, besides that, my mom’s cooking is unmatched in the world. The usual routine was to have a meal during the week and also come home for Sunday dinner.

My plans to “leave and cleave” never came to fruition. All of my closest friends eventually married and disappeared from my life. My siblings (especially the married ones) are very independent and not usually available. Thus there is little other choice for meaningful social interaction during the week besides home. And, since my dad isn’t much for talking about much besides work, the bulk of my time talking is with my mother—who is quite similar to me in personality and temperament.

Going back a step…

Apparently, as a child, I was the only one who would cry when my mom would step out for a minute with the garbage. This separation anxiety never fully went away either. Even as an adult I’ve had a terrible fear of losing my mom. That could simply be because I’ve remained single and (besides a few online mothers who have been there for me) have really only had one significant nurturing person in my life.

In the past couple years, in particular, as my only opportunities for regular meaningful social interaction at church dried up and marriage remained unattainable, my mother was all I had. My mother is the one who has always been there for me through thick and thin. I love her despite our getting under each other’s skin sometimes.

Too much of a good thing?

As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. That is suggested in Scripture where too frequently visiting neighbors is advised against: “Too much of you, and they will hate you.” (Proverbs 25:17) It does seem too much of even a good thing is bad. And, at very least, the law of diminishing returns may eventually apply to any activity and one would be better doing something else with their time.

Anyhow, with the thoughts of my over-dependency in mind, and my own terror over the thought losing this person who has been in my life longer than anyone else, and considering that Lenten season is about sacrifice, it became clear what to do:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 NIV)

It is easy for those born into Christian homes to treated this teaching of Jesus as hyperbole or a command only necessary for new converts, but what if Jesus did mean it to be taken literally?

Would you literally give up your mother and father to follow after Jesus?

My mother, while imperfect as I am, was never the smothering type. Late into middle school (possibly the start of my 8th grade year) things weren’t going very well and I begged my mom to homeschool me. She denied the request. And, despite my discomfort with her decision not to give me what I wanted, she made the right call. Because, even though it is impossible to know where I would have ended up otherwise, I did eventually break past some of my shyness and am glad for that experience rare for a conservative Mennonite.

Mary and the sacrifice of motherhood…

I’ve been listening to a lot of Jordan Peterson lately and his contrast of the “devouring mom” with Mary (the mother of Jesus) caught my attention. Interestingly enough, both feminists and patriarchal men do not give Mary her due because both undervalue female contribution—both see masculine roles as superior and therefore discredit the importance of motherhood.

Mary, as a mother, was willing to sacrifice her son to the world. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus recordes in Scripture, was at the prompting of his mother:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so… […] What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1‭-‬8‭, ‬11 NIV)

That is an extremely interesting exchange between a mother and son. Based in his initial response, the miracle was out of the timeline that Jesus had in mind. Mary, for her part, totally ignores his “my hour has not yet come” protest and, without further comment, moves on to tell the servants to do what her son tells them to do.

It is important to note that the choice of “woman” by translators could give an incorrect sound of rudeness. According to various sources, the word he used was more similar to “ma’am” and might suggest he was distancing himself a bit from his mom or asserting some independence. But, despite being pushed outside of his comfort zone, he complied readily with his mother’s request.

Mary did what a good mother does for her son. She gave him a little nudge, she showed her confidence in him—first in ignoring his initial response and then by her instruction to the servants to follow his lead. And because of that we have this wonderful example of motherhood.

Before Jesus could become the ultimate sacrifice to the world he first needed a human mother willing to nurture him and then give him up. In some ways Mary shared equally in the sacrifice made by God. She, like God, sacrificed her own son—the child who grew in her womb—to be tortured and killed.

My mom…

My mom, like Mary, has always been my biggest encourager. Yes, like all good moms, there was always a push and pull. She would probably be happier if her other children not moved so far away and I may have happier to stay in her home until married. But without her push I’m not sure how much I would’ve accomplished with my life. It because of my mother that I opened a savings account as a child, it is because of her that I bought my house a decade ago, she has encouraged my writing, and her overall push has always been for my independence. She has empowered rather than enslaved me.

My mom had a good balance of empathy and necessary toughness. Unlike some parents, both she and my dad always tried to be fair (perhaps too fair) in how they presented me to the world. For better worse, we aren’t a family that is much for overselling ourselves. If asked, I would probably say that my parents are average and not without their flaws. Yet, in true fairness, saying my parents are average is a vast understatement—they are extraordinary people and I’m very grateful for them both.

So, anyhow, I have given up many things dear to me in the past year and, Lord willing, I will be completing the transition from Mennonite to Orthodox this year.

However, for all the once important things I’ve sacrificed in an unbending quest for the truth, I’ve not yet broken my dependency on my mother. My mom said goodbye to her mom last spring and, with my budding romance, it is bound to happen sooner or later—that is why I gave up my mom for Lent.