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The Bible and Culture

Without question, of all the lectures I give, the one the prompts the most questions, sometimes even an avalanche of questions is my lecture on what Jesus and Paul actually say about singleness, marriage, and divorce. Obviously this is a sensitive subject since the church in our age, like the world,is experiencing so much brokenness, and pastors are desperately seeking guidance, handholds, wisdom to help them deal with the daily traumas of their flocks. Precisely because of this, I have been increasingly disturbed by what passes for exegesis of the key NT texts, even by those who profess to have a high view of Scripture and its relevance on these dicey subjects. Accordingly, I have decided to summarize a few of the insights that are already in print in my Women in the Ministry of Jesus, and Women in the Earliest Churches monographs I did lo these many years ago for Cambridge U. Press. The following is only some highlights.

The first point to make is that there is a rather broad range of agreement between what Jesus and Paul both say on these inter-related subjects. The essence of their views are as follows: 1) the eschatological age is now breaking into human history and with it God’s final divine saving activity in and through Jesus; 2) this being the case what had been said before on the matters of marriage, divorce, and singleness is no longer adequate, since it was not addressed to the current salvation historical frame of reference. In short, new occasions teach new duties, and to those to whom more is given (by way of grace and divine help) more is required. In essence, both Jesus and Paul up the ante on fidelity and restrictions compared to what is mentioned in the OT about marriage and divorce. In fact Jesus even says that Moses made those rules due to the hardness of the human heart, but that that factor will no longer be taken into consideration now that the Kingdom is coming.

2) Jesus, followed by Paul, are perfectly clear that in light of the eschatological situation, it is no longer required, even of Jews, that they marry. The creation order mandate— “be fruitful and multiple” (and the obligation to marry that goes with it) must now be seen as a blessed option, not an obligation for all of God’s people. Now instead, as Paul puts it both getting married or remaining single need to be seen as a calling from God. One has to have the ‘charisma’ the grace gift, to properly undertake either state of being (see 1 Cor. 7), and there is a certain advantage to remaining single for the sake of the Kingdom, namely one has less earthly worries and anxieties about spouses, children, supporting them, and the like. The goodness of being single is emphasized, and Jesus’ teaching about being a ‘eunuch’ for the sake of the Kingdom’ becomes paradigmatic for many, as well as a justification for why he remained single (no, there was no Mrs. Jesus– see my Gospel Code book).

This is a key point for the church today. Until we recover the proper teaching about singleness, and its goodness in Christ, and stop pressuring anyone and everyone in the church to get married, we have no business pontificating about marriage and its blessings. Too often, single persons in the church are simply viewed as ‘candidates for dating and marriage’ (never mind that the Bible says nothing at all about dating, or late Western notions about romance and courting). This is a trainwreck waiting to happen, and the result is many persons are pressured into marriage who are neither ready, nor have the grace gift to be in a marriage relationship. This in turn leads to numerous divorces– and the endless cycle of matrimony, acrimony, and alimony receives another push.

I would especially remind one and all that we live in the most litigous age and litigous society on earth, and when you add to this the strong sense of self-justification and entitlement attitudes our narcissistic culture encourages, it is a recipe for endless strife and trouble to carelessly get married without the proper spiritual maturity and commitment on the part of both parties. The church does not exist for the sake of creating nuclear families. The primary family is the family of faith according to Jesus, and the nuclear family is to fit its agendas into those of the family of faith, not the other way around. A family church should be one that is a family to all who are present, single or married, not one that is merely an incubator for nuclear families.

3) Not all persons who get married in the church building have been “joined together by God”. Think about it. In the first century A.D. when Jesus and Paul were speaking there were no church buildings, there were no certificates of marriage that were just like modern ones, and weddings, at least in early Judaism, did not require ordained rabbis to solemnize them. What then made a marriage a Biblical marriage if it wasn’t the officiants, the piece of paper, or the locale where it transpired? The answer is that God led two people to be together, they made vows and promises in the presence of God and human witnesses and they agreed to ‘plight their troth’ to one another. That’s it.

In fact, I would stress that a lot of Christian persons have raced into marriage ceremonies without really seeking out the spiritual basis for what they are doing, without really asking, Is God leading us together? Even Christians are capable of coupling themselves together, just as non-Christians do, without the permission, guidance, or blessing of God. If God has not joined them together, or if they are not prepared to submit their relationship to God after the fact and beseech God so he will indeed join and bless their togetherness, then they do not meet either the pre-requisites for what Jesus and Paul say about marriage, or the pre-requisites for what they say about divorce.

Christian marriage is a high and holy state. It is also a temporal relationship that does not continue into eternity but was given as an earthly blessing (see e.g. Rom. 7.1-4). We need to rethink just what counts as a Christian marriage, and what the criteria are for evaluating whether God has joined two persons together or not. Does the relationship manifest the fruit of the Spirit, for example, both before and after the marriage ceremony, or is it the hormones on overdrive that are dictating the dance? These questions need to be asked, and the answers may become uncomfortable. This is why no Christian marriage ceremonies should be performed without considerable pre-marital counseling first. The church ought not to be a broker for hatching, matching, and dispatching (baptisms, marriages, and funerals).

4) The essential position of both Jesus and Paul can be summarized as “celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage”. Jesus talks about being a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom (Mt. 19. 10-12) and Paul urges his audience to remain as he is— single (1 Cor. 7), because they believe that by the grace of God it is possible to live in such a chaste condition, and be pleasing to God. In their view, no single person, of whatever sexual orientation should be engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage, which in the Bible is always defined as heterosexual monogamy. Of course Jesus is perfectly aware of the infidelities of the human heart, but he also believes that “greater is he who is in the believer than any of those forces in the world”.

5) As 1 Cor. 7 makes evident, religiously mixed marriages in which only one partner is a Christian, are not viewed in the same way as Christian marriages. In regard to the mixed marriage Paul’s wisdom is that if the unbeliever desires to depart, the believer is not ‘bound’ to maintain the relationship, though they may do so. The word for ‘bound’ here is the same word used for the marital bond. Apparently, Paul does not think non-Christian marriages come with a necessary ‘until death do us part’ clause. He says nothing about remarriage of divorced persons, but he does say that widows may remarry “only in the Lord”.

6) the famous
exception clauses in Mt. 5.32 and Mt. 19.9 do not refer to adultery, or as we euphemistically call it ‘marital infidelity’ The word ‘porneia’ there from which we get the term pornography, refers to either: 1) prostitution; 2) incest, or if it is used more generally 3) all sorts of sexual abberations including beastiality, incest, prostitution, pedophilia, and adultery. My point is this. The word for adultery is ‘moixeia’ and it is found already in the same context in Mt. 5.27. ‘Porneia’ is a different word with a different range of meaning, and it is never used to mean adultery quite specifically.

It is indeed possible that in Mt. 19 Jesus is commenting on the incestuous relationships like that of Herod Antipas and Herodias, which his cousin John ‘lost his head’ over for criticizing. In other words, the exception clause in its original context may mean “except on grounds of a marriage that wasn’t a real marriage to begin with– an incestuous one.”

As should be clear from both Mk. 10 and 1 Cor. 7.10-11, Jesus’ essential view is no divorce for those joined together by God. Of course Jesus also knows that divorces happen, which is why he warns “let no third party put asunder what God has joined together”. The advice of both Jesus and Paul is that remarriage of a person whom God has joined to another can even be called commiting adultery against that first partner. It is not advised, except perhaps in the case of religously mixed marriages or those cases where both partners had been pagans or non-Christians to begin with. Neither Jesus nor Paul have anything to say about marriage completely outside the covenant community of believers.

This is more than enough to absorb from one blog, but I want to stress that these are inter-related matters– one’s views of human sexuality and what God intended for that, one’s view of marriage, ones view of singleness, one’s view of divorce.

As a footnote I would add that the usually passages trotted out from the Pastoral Epistles about being “the husband of one wife” (or as the Greek puts it “being a one woman man”) do not refer either to a requirement for an elder or deacon to be married, nor do they refer to a requirment that they only have been married once, nor to a polemic against polygamy. This pithy phrases refers simply to the elder or deacon (who are assumed to be married already, but not required to be so) being faithful to their one and only spouse.

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