Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder , Senior Minister




“Recovering From Painful Scripture”

Sunday, August 1, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

Recovering from Painful Scripture:
Can There Be Life After Divorce?

I spend a morning this week picking corn and squash with Foundry youth on an urban farm in Raleigh and an afternoon washing shelves with our youth in the walk-in refrigerator of a food bank in Raleigh and I want to report to you that Foundry has exceptional young people. One of our young persons discussed the sermons of the outstanding preachers who preached in July with me very thoughtfully and astutely. Then she asked me if we were having any more preaching this summer. In the van on the way back another of our young people talked to me for an hour about the Bible and economics.

We just have exceptional youth here at Foundry. Spending a couple days with them this week will keep me encouraged for a long time.

I want to say thanks to Brian Lee and Lauren Hlava, the adult counselors on the Raleigh YouthWorks Mission trip, and Mark Schol, our youth minister.

We are starting a month long sermon series which are really more like Bible studies on what we can learn from passages we wish weren’t in the Bible.

As Christians the Bible is our authoritative book. What does this mean?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which has lots of really good things in it, has an excellent section about the Bible. You can find what it says about the Bible on the internet. Among other things it says that what makes the Bible authoritative is that “through Scripture the living Christ meets us … Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.”

It says: “We interpret individual texts in light of their place in the Bible.”  Every individual text has to be read in light of the whole.

It says that when we study scripture “we draw upon the careful historical, literary, and textual studies of recent years.”

And it says we use reason, experience, and tradition to grasp Scripture’s meaning.

We do not proof-text. We do not take one verse of Scripture and use it as though it were authoritative in and of itself. We study it in light of the Living Christ whom we meet in the Bible. We study it in light of the whole biblical story and the overarching message of the Bible. We study it in light of what scholarship discovers about the Bible. We study it in light of reason, experience, and tradition.

Sometimes we decide a certain verse or teaching does not reflect the spirit of Christ. Sometimes we decide it reflects the time-limited thinking of the writer or the age in which that particular part of the Bible was written.

This August we’ve picked five passages of Scripture that have often been used as proof-texts in ways that have been unfair and painful to people. We want to study them and try to understand them in their context, in their time and place, and see if there is something we can actually learn from them if we look at them rationally rather than reactively or defensively.

The first of these passages is the teaching attributed to Jesus about divorce and remarriage. This is a passage that has caused countless people lots of pain throughout the history of Christianity and still does today. There are still churches where, if you divorce, you are not allowed you to remarry based on this scripture.

 In all the weddings I have done over the years I have never known a couple who got married without the intention of spending the rest of their lives together. Never once. Not once. But divorce happens.

The really painful and difficult part of the teachings attributed to Jesus about divorce is the prohibition against remarriage … the teaching that if your marriage ends you have to spend the rest of your life alone … if your marriage ends you can never know the joys and comforts of marriage … if you make one mistake, that’s it, you are out in the cold in terms of a romantic relationship.

So I want us to take a look at this teaching and understand it in its context. It appears three times in three Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Did you bring your personal Bible this morning? If not, please take one from the pews.

In the Gospel of Mark, this teaching appears in Mark Chapter 10 verses 2 to 12. Please find this passage. I want us to read this because it is the passage that the prohibition against remarriage after divorce is based on, but I want us to read it in a frame of mind of grace remembering that sometimes this scripture has been used as a weapon against people who have been through the pain and struggle of divorce.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.'  "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."  (Mark 10:2-11)

Now when I am studying the New Testament, one of the questions I ask myself is: What in this passage is likely to go back to Jesus and what are interpretations added by the church in the decades between Jesus and when the gospel was written?

The Gospels were not written until between 30 and 60 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. The churches wrote the Gospels as their interpretations of what they believed Jesus did and taught. One of the things I want to think about is what in this scripture represents Jesus and what is the church’s interpretation. Both are useful but moist of all I want to see Jesus’ heart.

What I’d like us to notice first in this passage is the way the question is asked. It is asked as a test. It is a hostile question. And the question is “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The original question is not whether it is lawful for a man and a woman to get divorced. The original question is whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife.

If I could ask Jesus about divorce today, I might say Is it okay for two people to get divorced?” Or is it okay for a husband to divorce his wife or a wife her husband? But when Jesus is asked the question, the question is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Why is the question put this way?

Let’s look at Luke --- Luke 16:18. Please look up Luke 16:18. Out of the three times this teaching appears in the Gospels, scholars pretty much agree that the most authentic version that probably comes closest to the original teaching of Jesus is the one found in Luke 16:18.

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)

This is the version scholars believe comes closest to what Jesus would have originally taught.

What do you notice about it? Like the question the Pharisees asked in Mark, it is all about what the man does.

It is about a man who divorces his wife and marries another or a man who marries a divorced woman.

Why does it only focus on the man?

Here’s the reason -- In the culture Jesus originally taught in the only person who could initiate a divorce was the husband.

The Old Testament says very little about divorce but there is a passage in Deuteronomy that gives us some insight into divorce practices within Old Testament Judaism.

Find Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man's wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession. (Deut. 24:1-4)

This is actually a prohibition against remarrying your first wife after you have divorced her and been remarried to another woman.

By the way, you know why prohibitions exist in the Bible? These were not about hypothetical cases. These were about things that were happening often enough to actually write a law about them. Apparently, we humans have never been very good at marriage.

What we learn coincidently from this passage is that in Old Testament culture, it is men who have the power to divorce women. The Old Testament never even mentions the idea of women divorcing men. It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, many of them economic.

It also tells us that the way a man divorced a woman was to write up a certificate of divorce, put it in her hand, and tell her to leave the house. The woman had no rights. She could not initiate divorce. She could not argue for alimony or child support. The man handed her a piece of paper and she was out with nothing and no say.

So I believe that when Jesus was first teaching about divorce he was teaching against  the unilateral right of a man to hand his wife a piece of paper and kick her out of the house.

I think the core of Jesus original teaching was the first half of Luke 16:18

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. (Luke 16:18a)

This is what I think goes back to Jesus. I think that Jesus was teaching if a man just dumps one wife and marries another without any sense of responsibility or obligation to the first wife, this is the equivalent of adultery.

Remember what Deuteronomy said:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce … (Deut. 24:1)

About the same time Jesus lived and taught the most famous rabbi within Judaism was Rabbi Hillel. The school of Hillel taught that things a wife could do so as not to please her husband and therefore justified divorce included childlessness, not following religious rituals strictly enough, and failure to complete household tasks.

So Jesus teaches that when husbands divorce their wives for trivial reasons and get married again, it is the spiritual equivalent of adultery. I think this was Jesus’ core teaching about divorce. In the cultural setting in which Jesus taught, I agree.

But the church interpreted Jesus’ teachings in other contexts, so we need to pay attention to that as well.

So let’s move to what the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the church at Corinth. I Corinthians 7:7-14.

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband  (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. 

So the church at Corinth is having a hard time with marriage. The big issue at Corinth is a church leader who is living with his father’s wife. (I Cor. 5:1) Like I said, from the very beginning, we’ve never had an easy time with marriage.  

Corinth is a mostly Gentile church. This is Greek culture now, not Old Testament culture that Paul is dealing with. In Greek culture women as well as men can initiate divorce. Paul is trying to apply what he understands about the teaching of Jesus to divorce to a different culture.

So first he says that it would be better of everyone were celibates so that we didn’t have to waste time with all this discussion about these issues. But he realizes that sexuality is part of the way God has made us so he tries to teach the Corinthians about marriage and divorce.

He says first of all that Jesus taught against divorce and, teaching in a culture where men and women can initiate divorce, he assumes that Jesus’ teachings apply both to men and women. The context has changed.

So Paul says, using Jesus as his authority, that the Christians at Corinth should not divorce, and that if they do divorce, they should not remarry. This is what he believed the implications were of what he had heard Jesus taught.

Paul’s teachings here focus on women because the most pressing issue the Corinthians were facing was women who became followers of Christ and their husband didn’t. Should these women stay with their non-believing husbands?

Paul says they should try to.

What if a person became a Christian and –because they became a Christian—their husband or wife left them. What then?

In that case, he says, the brother or sister is not bound. In that case they are allowed to remarry. Why? Because, Paul says, “It is to peace God has called you.”

In a situation where the end of your marriage is something you can prevent, you ought to do everything in your power to sustain your marriage. But if its end is inevitable for an understandable reason, you are not bound, Paul concludes. You can remarry.

What we see in the Bible is Jesus’ core teaching about divorce. In a culture where men had absolute power over women, Jesus sides with the vulnerable and powerless as he does again and again. This is, for me, the most basic lesson we can learn from Jesus’ teachings on divorce. He is always on the side of the vulnerable.

But then biblical writers try to apply Jesus’ teachings to new contexts. Mark makes what Jesus said about divorce into an absolute. Mark, writing three decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to a Christian community says divorce is never acceptable. He absolutizes Jesus’ teachings. Remarriage after divorce is always adultery, he says.

If you read Matthew, which was written sometime after Mark, Matthew makes the teaching slightly more relevant. He says that remarriage is okay if the cause of divorce is unchastely. (Matt. 19:9)

In Corinth Paul adapts Jesus’ teaching. What about when someone can’t prevent a divorce? What about when, say, someone leaves you because you are a follower of Christ?

Well, absolutes are pretty ruthless. So Paul decides people should not be denied the joys and comforts of marriage because they are a follower of Christ.

So what should we believe today in our culture and time and place. We all have to study Scripture and apply reason, experience, and tradition for ourselves and in our Bible study groups.

Here’s what the United Methodist Social Principles say about divorce:
Divorce—God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages.

However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens. As the church we are concerned about high divorce rates. It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes. 

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration.

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

This statement works for me. I think it captures the spirit of New Testament teachings about divorce and remarriage in the culture and context in which we live. It expresses Jesus’ concern for the powerless and vulnerable.  It expresses the early church’s concern that marriage be taken seriously among Christians. It expresses our conviction that God did not create us for suffering and pain, including in our sexuality.  It is graceful.

Let me add one thing this morning. As Christians we look to Scripture more to teach us how to think than what to think. We do not look for rules. We do not look for abstract answers. We do not look for absolutes that apply no matter what the context or culture.

We look for the mind of Christ. We look to learn how to think with the mind of Christ.

Following Jesus is often hard but it is never without compassion. It is never mean. It may be hard sometimes, but never harsh. It is always compassionate. It is always full of grace. It is the mind of Christ.

Robert W. Wall “Divorce” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol 2, p. 218.

Wall, p. 218.