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

Courting Disaster: Why Mennonites Are Afraid To Date

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Secular society, in many quarters, has moved in a direction of sexual promiscuity and too often young women bear the brunt of consequences.  Single mothers are much more likely to live in poverty regardless of race.  Children without two parent homes often suffer from neglect that leads to behavioral problems and this creates a problem for society.  Men too, for their own part, have to deal with the unwieldy burden of child support and it is far far from ideal.

However, on the other side, in the opposite ditch, is the religious ‘purity culture‘ dominated by patriarchal men (or controlling parents) and fear based reasoning.  As secular culture has abandoned traditional mores there have been those on the other end who are adding precaution and increasing the burden of requirements.  Young people, young women in particular, are manipulated by those in positions of authority over them and driven to unreasonable expectation.  The result is a growing rank of unmarried singles and deep disappointment.

Clearly there is a balance between both cultural extremes.  Unfortunately the consequences of the overbearing purity culture are often not as obvious as a crying baby and an exhausted single mother.  The pain of the girl never asked on a date or suffering of the young man rejected time and time again is very real. Yet, complaining about the current state of affairs could be perceived as weakness and drawing attention adds an additional penalty of shame—failure is often carefully concealed out of embarrassment. 

Too Guarded, Too Superficial…

The logic of ‘guarding heart’ is great when applied to an already established dating relationship and holding back on sexual intimacy until the commitment of marriage.  But when it is a reason not to even attempt a first date it is no longer helpful.  It is a Hollywood myth that relationship should be built off of some kind of magical initial feeling. That is a shallow ‘eros’ love at best. Feelings can come and go. 

Love, real love, cannot develop without relationship.  Love is a product of commitment to love. Commitment to love requires relationship and starting a new relationship requires a seed of faith.  Faith is a commitment to act in love even before the feelings exist. Faith provides a better foundation for a successful long-term relationship to develop than the shallow feelings based alternative.

The purity culture, as I have experienced it, is motivated primarily by fear rather than faith.  Young people are encouraged to be absolutely sure before even a first date. Communication between genders (outside of dating) is discouraged as potentially harmful. And the result is an impossible quagmire for many. Only the most superficially attractive or socially adept have a chance.  Be a shy guy or a too average girl and you don’t have a snowman’s chance in the Florida heat.

I know young women who say (evidently with complete sincerity) that they will only date a guy they are sure they would marry and seemingly turn down every guy who doesn’t ride in on a white horse  It is an absolutely absurd expectation and yet not uncommon in the religious culture of my birth.  Many never take a half step of faith to ask for or accept a date.  Many who do start dating feel pressured into marriage because they have this false idea that turns a dating relationship into engagement.

Of course the insanity is promoted by cherry picked success story anecdotes (sanitized of impurities to make them more compelling) and thus the fairytale myths perpetuated to a new generation.  Ignored is the wreckage, the many many stories of those who did everything right according to the purity culture, and now lay bloodied in the ditch as the successful cross to avoid contact.  I believe if both sides were told there would be an impetus to encourage a more balanced faithful approach to courtship.

Finding Our Balance Between Extremes

The religious of today have seemed to have picked the worse parts of two systems.  They copy secular society and the idea that feelings of immediate or superficial attraction are a basis for relationship.  But then they take on the most onerous requirements, practically betrothal, before even being willing to talk with a young woman and take seriously a suitor.  It is not a faith based system.

We do not find the purity culture standard in the Bible.  In Scripture we don’t see promotion of the silly notion of secular ‘love at first sight’ or the preeminence of feelings of initial superficial attraction as a basis for relationship.  We don’t see a ‘one size fits all’ template.  We do not see ‘perfection’ either. Instead there is diversity of experience in the examples and faith (not fear) as the driving force.

Fear has caused the religious to overreact and only faith can correct the course.  We in the community of faith need to stop comparing ourselves to our to secular neighbors and deal squarely with the shortcomings of our own side.  If we want leaders we must quit treating young men in the church (in good standing) as not worth a first date and basically untrustworthy.

No harm comes from a date.  In fact, my grandparents dated many different people and have been married faithfully for nearly sixty years.  Had my grandma governed herself by the current paradigm there may have never been the opportunity for her relationship with grandpa to even get started—I would not even exist today. 

We need to recognize that our current standard is often based in fear and overreaction rather than faith.  We do not need to fall in the same ditch as secular society to be as off base and faithless.  Love can triumph if we commit to loving faithfulness in relationships rather than live in fear of failure.