Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Taking a stand for marriage

posted by xscot mcknight

For me, the most important thing about a happy marriage is that husbands and wives be best friends — with no serious rival to that friendship. Kris and I have been married for 32 years; we were grade school sweethearts and we started “officially” dating when we were sophomores in high school, and we are best friends and have been our entire marriage. This is the most important reason why we love one another — so I think. Because we do. Because she is my best friend and I am hers. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Those who want to follow Jesus are summoned to remain married. The text in the Sermon on the Mount we are looking at today, Matthew 5:31-32, is loaded with discussions and debates, and there is no reason here to get into all those. I’ll do my best to focus on what is central and how I think the debates fall out. I’ll also make some suggestions about marriage.
First, Jesus is opposing a lax and permissive environment on divorce. There is a well-known debate between two rabbis that illustrates what Jesus is contending against: Rabbi Hillel contended that a man could get a divorce for “whatever” reason he could find, while Rabbi Shammai contended that a man could get a divorce only if he could produce evidence of “something unclean” in his wife. The Hebrew is ervat devar, and it is most often take to refer to “sexual immorality” of some sort. Jesus opposes the view of Hillel. I think he affirms, basically, the view of Shammai.
Second, Jesus opposes permissiveness by affirming the life-long nature of marriage. This is how I see the big picture of these two verses: permissiveness is opposed by permanence. For the moment we will bracket the “except for” clause, and notice the words that emphasize permanence: “anyone who divorces his wife, causes her to to commit adultery.” This is intended to throw into the boldest relief possible that marriage is permanent.
Third, Jesus permits (according to Matthew chp 5 and 19) divorce for “marital unfaithfulness.” Neither Mark nor Luke have this clause, and many think Matthew has added it because he knew Jesus was denying permissiveness but not denying divorce absolutely. Many think Matthew’s words are clearly what Jesus was teaching. Others think Jesus said them and that Mark and Luke omitted them. Either way, there is something here to discuss. I think Matthew added them because he knew Jesus meant that.
Fourth, as we have it, Matt 5:32 affirms what is taught in Deut 24:1-4. Marriage is permanent; divorce is wrong; divorce is sometimes permitted.
Fifth, every permissible divorce leads to a permissible remarriage, in Jewish law. Jesus assumes this in Matt 5:32, when he says that “divorcing” a woman makes her an “adulteress” — the only way she can be an adulteress is if she cohabits with a man who is not her husband. Ergo, she must be remarried. That is, Jesus assumes a permissible divorce is a permissible remarriage.
So, in sum, Jesus affirms the permanence of marriage and opposes permissiveness in divorce laws, but in so affirming marriage he is not merciless. Some marriages fall apart for bad reasons and in those cases, so I read these words, remarriage is permissible.
Followers of Jesus are summoned to commit themselves to the permanence of marriage.
Which means, marriage needs to be worked at; churches need to work at talking more about marriage.
Which means, reconciliation is what churches and couples need to work at when they are struggling in marriage.
Which means, churches need to emphasize what breaks down marriages — like pornography, and work schedules that prohibit husbands and wives and families from being together, and personality issues that are too rough-edged and need to be rubbed down until they are smoother. Where there will be home lives where there is a family room or a kitchen where the family is together for long periods of time to talk and share life together, home lives where adults don’t bring work home so that even if they are home they are not home… I could go on. Make kids part of your lives and make their lives part of your lives. We’re in this thing called life together.
There are so many things to say, but this is enough. Feel free to speak up.



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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted November 16, 2005 at 11:02 am


“Fifth, every permissible divorce leads to a permissible remarriage, in Jewish law… That is, Jesus assumes a permissible divorce is a permissible remarriage.”
I think this point is so important. I know people who have permissibly divorced, but have been denied all kinds of roles within Church leadership, taught stringently that remarriage was never an options, etc. Sadly, this created a very unhealthy reality for one woman, who then modelled this dysfunction to her daughter, who is turn has been unable to maintain a marriage (the second is ending now). While there are other factors involved, this plays a huge role. Discipling/counselling them in this process has been devastatingly difficult.
Therefore, it is so crucial that, when we approach these issues, we do not look to Jesus teachings as a set of rules or formula that can be dispassionately applied to circumstances. Churches need to engage this issues, but with the fear of God in how powerful an impact their teaching, relating, etc. in this regard can have.
Thank you for exploring this touchy issue.
Peace,
Jamie



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sonja

posted November 16, 2005 at 11:18 am


Thank you for this. I have a friend (yes, an actual friend; not the mythical friend who is really me) who is divorced because she was presented with a credible threat to her life and her child’s life by her husband. This threat was on-going and the result of a mental illness he refused treatment for. My friend now struggles with the fact of the divorce. She knows on one hand that in terms of her physical safety and for her child, it was necessary. However, she really struggles with this teaching of Jesus’. She struggles to reconcile it with the facts in her life. I think she struggles because it is most often translated as divorce only being permissible in cases involving adultery and there was no adultery involved in her case.
My instinct is that adultery is not necessarily about the actuality of sex, but about the heart act of betrayal and faithlessness. In that, her husband had left the marriage. He betrayed her by threatening her life and the life of their child and thus (while not having sex) committed a form of adultery.
But then I think, “I’m just splitting hairs to make a friend feel better.”



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Duane Young

posted November 16, 2005 at 12:30 pm


There is a refreshing short article written by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard back in the early 70s on “The Christly Basis For Marriage,” and “The Christly Basis for Divorce” which they argue is the same. See Willards website and Christian Articles.
On a personal note, my own experience is that over 28 years I thought all along that I had a good marriage, but looking back realize that what I had was little compared to what I later had and have now. I remain astonished at what would have been lost had I not persevered. And, admittedly a few times it was just, “Who would want to start all over?” The underlying wisdom of Christ can much be experienced than taught–what may matter most in the end is the testimony of those who persevere. Statistics tell us that “teaching” has not been very effective.



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Scot McKnight

posted November 16, 2005 at 1:50 pm


Sonja,
The issue for me is “unclean thing” in Deut 24:1-4, and I’m of the view that that expression is capable of expansion by a given church leadership (where such decisions need to be worked out). I’m of the view that abuse fits within the ervat devar. Not all agree, but that is how I see things.
Duane, many of us will look this up. Thanks. And I like your perseverance — time makes marriage what it is. And time together makes it capable of an intensity otherwise unknowable.



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Shawn

posted November 16, 2005 at 4:28 pm


A very good post
My wife and I were close friends for some time before we became romanticaly involved and I think this has been one of the primary reasons we have survived the hard times and why we still love each others company.



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Georges Boujakly

posted November 16, 2005 at 5:50 pm


Thanks Scot. You minister to me always.
I have four daughters that I am encouraging to be friends with people they are interested in before anything else. Your word on friendship as the basis for marriage is right on and wished someone told me long ago that it should be so.
Jesus also said that adultery is committed in the heart when we lust. According to this teaching, few could probably honestly deny we have been adulterous. This is a hard saying and causes me to be humble before the brokenness of legitimate divorce and cry for much mercy for those going through it. Embracing grace bids me to embrace this others’ cracked eikonic existence.(Thanks also for the book.)
A friend of mine (non-fictitious, like Sonja’s) has just been served divorce papers. He wishes it not. He and his wife have been living as civil acquaintances for several years. They only talk bout kids’ routines. They sleep in separate bedrooms. He has desperately sought deepening of the relationship to no avail. 4 children are involved. They are methodically learning a dysfunctional marriage and imbibing patterns of relationships for their future lives. Not that the divorce is not a huge bad example. Both admit that they should never have married each other. It was a mistake. He is willing to stay, she opted out. Does he have biblical grounds for remarriage? On practical terms I wouldn’t advise it since the four children’s needs of his time and attention trump his own needs.
I am hoping his church recognizes that divorce-cracked eikons need grace.



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Scot McKnight

posted November 16, 2005 at 10:51 pm


Georges,
I think I’d need much more information to be able to render judgment, but my policy is that such a decision is made in the context of the community of faith rather than by individuals or specialists.



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Chris Jones

posted November 17, 2005 at 7:23 am


Thanks Scot,
I really like this post. I have one question: What about the last part of verse 32, “anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” The divorced woman seems to be a woman that has been divorced by her husband for bogus reasons. Is Jesus saying that in reality that ‘divorce’ is not recognized by God and therefore the couple is still married?



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Scot McKnight

posted November 17, 2005 at 7:37 am


Chris,
My understanding of that clause is that it is an impermissibly divorced woman.



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Matt

posted November 17, 2005 at 10:37 am


I think there is a real danger in the way our society looks at romance and sexuality as one category of relationship and then at friendship as another category. A lot of marriages “break” because people come in thinking you can have one without the other. They then learn that romance and sex only get you so far, and often run out of energy.
In truth, the former ought to be a more intensified version of the latter. I especially love the way you made the point that other “friendships” ought not to be so strong as to crowd out a marriage.
Of course, thats easy for me to say because, like you, I DID marry my best friend and am still married to her! I want to find ways to be sensitive to those who have broken marriages. I want to find ways to minister to those people, rather than dismiss them because the deep friendship doesn’t come as easily for them.



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Chris Jones

posted November 17, 2005 at 11:06 am


Scot,
I agree with you about the woman. So doesn’t that mean that the woman was not guilty of unfaithfulness? If so, then Jesus is saying (maybe) that even though the husband has ended the marriage without a godly reason, if the woman remarries, her new husband has committed adultery. If this is so, then it looks like Jesus as a far deeper respect for marriage than our culture (both in and outside the church).
If my suggestion is right, what do people do that have ended a marriage because as Matt states, they have run out of energy, and have entered into a new one that is more Christ honoring than the first?
My take at the moment is to name the divorce and re-marriage as sin but announce that forgiveness is available. In other words, the new marriage is not forever under the cloud of adultery.
PS: Have a great time in the city of brotherly love…



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Barb

posted November 17, 2005 at 1:07 pm


Scot,
Any words for us single folks? It’s tough because we live in a “marriage” and “family” world.
Barb



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Scot McKnight

posted November 17, 2005 at 3:46 pm


Matt, we are on the same page.
Chris, I’m with you completely on this: I’m for the permanence of marriage, but neither do I think divorce is necessarily a settled condition — that is, and once again I make the same point, the local church leadership needs to have discernment on repentance and forgiveness and the like.
Barb, this is a tough one because the words of Jesus are about marriage and divorce and remarriage.
Singleness, it may need to be observed, was Jesus’ state from which he made these comments, calling those who got divorces to consider his situation as potentially God-honoring. But, Barb, maybe we need a guest blog from you about singleness.



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Dana Ames

posted November 17, 2005 at 10:24 pm


I’ve waited two days before commenting, because this is a hard and painful subject for me. I’ll try not to stay on the soapbox too long.
What is it Jesus is taking a stand for? Is all he doing parsing the law, like the rest of the rabbis? I’m not so sure marriage is the major point, or that we can read back onto Jesus our notions about marriage.
American Christians are NOT countercultural in our ideals and practices around marriage. We have the same expectations about the monogamous relationship as everyone around us, but for Christians the expectations are spiritualized and therfore prone to lead us down the garden path of dualism. Those “biblical” expectations probably fuel our higher divorce rates; they also keep hurting, bewildered people in stunted marriages for many years’ worth of anniversaries, because God hates divorce, you know- we must keep our commitment. We have not only choked out the glory and largeness of marriage (Peterson) for ourselves, but we have kept others from entering in. If Christian examples of marriage were so great, far fewer unmarried couples would be living together and we would have no divorces. (Some folks who identify as emergers are moving slowly in a more Jesus-Creed-y direction, but I don’t see any sign that it is any different among most e’icals than it has been for the last 30 years.)
Pornography, work schedules and rough personality edges aren’t what break down marriages. It is what is behind those things that is the problem: fear of being deeply known by the other and deeply knowing the other (intimacy). Based on our actual relational experiences, most of us believe that if the other person really knows me, s/he will not love and accept me. And how can I reveal myself to someone else? I can’t even accept myself. We do not live like we believe there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus, no matter how much we say it is so. Not to mention how torqued we become trying to be biblically correct about everything, particularly men’s and women’s “roles”.
A huge component of real love and relational health is being able to come out of hiding and take the risk of being who we really are, and being willing to accept one another in the tenderheartedness of Jesus. We cannot do this without honesty and mercy toward one another. In this mid-section of the SoM I think Jesus is giving us snapshots of how the Kingdom of God is supposed to look (gratia Willard). I think he’s taking a stand for radical honesty, deep mercy and non-manipulation to be characteristic of his disciples in all relationships, with the first example being marriage. The Kingdom of God is the context for the church to be able to talk about honesty, mercy and reconciliation in marriage. But we don’t talk about it- all we talk about is the conditions under which sex is permissible.
Though sex is, among other things, a beautiful symbol of intimacy, intimacy isn’t about sex- it’s about being real with one another, living in honesty, mercy and reconciliation, learning to trust and be more trustworthy, not forcing or manipulating anybody. This is good news for single people (and everybody else). However, they rarely get to hear it, because Christians are so fixated on not having illegal sex that there are no other categories available for males and females to have intercourse with one another. We are not encouraged to develop these qualities of Kingdom life through friendships; males and females are barely even allowed to be in the same room with one another, married or not. And we Protestants have essentially defaulted on a theology of sexuality/sex/celibacy. We are all so very wounded in this aspect of our humanity, as the stories above indicate. And most of the American church is in denial.
Barb, the best thing by far that I have ever read about this from a Christian point of view is “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rohlheiser, ISBN 0-385-49418-1. He’s a Catholic priest. (Figures.) It’s not the last word, but it’s EXCEEDINGLY helpful. (puts away the soapbox)
Scot and Matt, I am truly happy for you that you married your best friends and that love is what upholds your commitment. You and your wives are blessed. Scot, I don’t think it’s coincidence that you sound so much like Willard in “Divine Conspiracy”. I think the Holy Spirit is up to something.
Dana



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Barb

posted November 18, 2005 at 2:11 pm


Scot,
I’d be honored to do a guest blog on singleness. Let me know…
Barb



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Ted Gossard,

posted November 19, 2005 at 11:35 am


Scot, Thanks again for your helpful thoughts on this most difficult subject. I wish I would have understood these matters when young, but I did not.
What goes on in our homes is usually where we are the most real, the most truly ourselves. And that often is not pretty because we are works of God in process. But I think we ought to be most “at home” at home- and as we grow in a way that makes Jesus more and more at home there as well (Eph 3:17).
I think it is probably true that generally we need to realize that what we are at home with our spouses and children is what we really are in our life in Jesus.
This will take alot of work in spiritual (re)formation.
Then what goes on at home should, certainly in a different way and scale, occur in the family fellowship of believers. We too need to be committed to each other through thick and thin. And in a way that does make us vulnerable to some extent. But as friends, in relationship in Jesus.



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Lorna

posted November 20, 2005 at 3:02 pm


what a great post -and thread :)
Luke 16:18 calls all remarriage after divorce adultery.
whatever the reason for the divorce. it’s a hard teaching.
Now if anyone out there reading this is re-married to a divorced person (or divorced themself) God is NOT calling you out of that marriage. He wants you to honour your commitment.
But if you want to look at what the implications of what Luke 16:18 might mean – well John Piper’s position paper is a good (if hard) place to start
http://www.desiringgod.org/library/topics/divorce_remarriage/div_rem_paper.html
be blessed



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