|Jesus teaching. Image source.|
In Matthew 19:1-12, the Pharisees come and ask Jesus a question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Jesus answers, “Haven’t you read 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.” Then when they ask why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus says, “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.” (Then some stuff about eunuchs, but you can go read that yourselves, I just want to focus on this part. The eunuch part is really strange though, I totally recommend reading it so you never forget just how thoroughly WTF-tastic the bible is.)
So basically, based on this passage, we have a subset of Christians that believes that divorce is always wrong, except if there’s adultery. (And John Piper says not even then.) At the extreme, you hear stories about pastors that advise women to stay with abusive husbands and “submit” to them. Which is disgusting and wrong. This advice kills women. I’m serious. This is effing deadly.
And then you have another group of Christians who take this passage and interpret it in a different way. They bring in information about the context, the laws about divorce during that time, the different ideas presented by popular Jewish teachers the Pharisees followed, the fact that women had hardly any rights and divorcing one’s wife pretty much guaranteed she’d live in poverty. And therefore, this passage is NOT saying that in our culture, in modern American culture, it is only okay to get a divorce if somebody cheats on somebody.
(And then you also have the Christians who cite this passage when they talk about “the biblical definition of marriage” and how Jesus totally opposes same-sex marriage. Which, first of all, if anyone ever uses the term “the biblical definition of marriage” unironically, you should just laugh at them because no such thing exists and it’s so silly how some people talk about this completely imaginary “biblical definition of marriage” in such a serious way. LOLOLOLOLOL. And secondly, that’s obviously NOT what Jesus was talking about here. He was talking about divorce, not which genders are allowed to get married. So laugh at them for that reason too if you want.)
I guess you could say I agree with the second group, the “no this passage is not saying that’s the only acceptable reason to get divorced.” Sort of. I agree with their conclusion, but not the reasoning behind it. See it seems to me that the reasoning goes like this:
- In Matthew 19, Jesus says you can’t get divorced unless there’s adultery.
- But what about other situations? What about abuse? Can you imagine being in a situation like that and not having any way out? Can you imagine how terrible it would be for a pastor to tell a woman that she has to stay in an abusive marriage- that God requires it? Oh goodness, no. No.
- We have so much compassion for these abused women in our thought experiment*, but what can we do? Jesus said divorce is only okay if there’s adultery.
- Let’s do a ton of research on the setting in which Jesus said these things.
- Oh, thank goodness, looks like this passage actually DOESN’T mean God wants you to stay with a partner who’s really bad to you.
So here’s the problem: It’s like, they want to be compassionate, but they can’t unless they find a biblical basis for it. Like, we really want to be kind to women in bad marriages, and we want them to have options, so let’s study the bible really hard and see if we can find a justification for that.
Y’all. This is a really weird way to read the bible.
And on the one hand, some Christians would criticize this way of reading the bible because “you’re following your emotions instead of Scripture.” Or because it starts with a certain belief (rooted in human compassion) and then searches for a way to make the bible support that belief, rather than reading the bible in an “unbiased” [whatever that means] way.
I don’t like it for exactly the opposite reason. The conservative Christians say “you’re putting too much weight on your emotions, rather than just following the bible.” I say “you’re putting too much weight on the bible, rather than just following love.” Because we have a conscience, and we know that the loving thing to do is to HELP someone who is in a bad marriage, not place more rules on them. It doesn’t matter what the bible says. We don’t need to waste time studying a translation of a two-thousand-year-old book in order to find out if we’re allowed to treat people decently or not. (Note: I don’t think studying the bible is a waste of time. The bible is really interesting! But it’s not necessary to study the bible to get an answer to the question “should people in abusive marriages be forced to stay with their abuser, or not?”)
The problem with reading the bible in this “I want to be compassionate but I can only do that if I can find a verse that gives permission” way is that sometimes, you may not be able to find such an interpretation. You may actually be stuck with some horribly unloving position you feel you must believe. Like in the case of Matthew 19, what if they didn’t know about the situation of divorce and women’s rights in Jesus’ time? Then they would be stuck believing divorce is always wrong except in the case of adultery, even though that seems horrible.
It seems like a very bad position to be in, when your capacity for showing compassion to fellow humans made in the image of God is limited by your knowledge of the ancient near east.
You know what else? Let’s imagine that, instead of what is recorded here, Jesus instead had said, “You can only get a divorce if there’s adultery. And I mean that literally. And those are the rules for ALL OF TIME. Hey you guys 2000 years from now, don’t be thinking I’m just talking about this here culture I’m in, where women have no rights. No, I’m serious. No matter what situation you’re in, even if it’s harmful to everyone involved, they should still be forced to stay married. …Oh and also I’d like to present the biblical definition of marriage…”
Even if the bible said that, I wouldn’t care. My position will always be that we should help people and pursue whatever course of action is most loving and beneficial to all the people involved. I don’t care what the bible says. And I believe that, in this regard, I am like Jesus.
*Ahem. This is the point where you should realize “if this is just a thought experiment for me, then I don’t get to make the rules, I don’t get to tell people who are actually in that situation what to do.”
And speaking of me not making the rules: So I mentioned abuse a lot in this blog post as a reason for divorce, but I totally believe there are other valid reasons, and I’m not going to make a list of them or anything, because for me it’s just a thought experiment and I can’t judge other people.
This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.
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