Posts Tagged ‘divorce’

St. Paul on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7

June 12, 2015

Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians is a treasure trove.

As I’ve been preaching my way through Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Gordon Fee’s New International Commentary on 1 Corinthians, from Eerdmans, has been a treasure trove of insights. One example is his commentary on chapter 7, in which Paul applies Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, along with his own pastoral judgment, to an issue that was as commonplace in ancient Corinth as it is in much of the world today: divorce and remarriage.

As Fee points out, the questions that Paul’s people were asking about divorce and remarriage are not at all the same questions that we ask. Some Christians in Corinth were seeking divorce—not in order to get remarried later on, or even to remove themselves from domestic strife—but to be single, celibate, and unhindered in their devotion to the Lord. (As if we had that problem today!)

Some Corinthians believed that marriage and sex were obstacles in their relationship with God, so they wanted to remove them entirely. As Paul says, quoting one of their slogans back to them: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”

In my last sermon (which I’ll post soon), I showed that Paul rejects this slogan without qualification. Even if husband and wife take a break from conjugal relations in order to commit themselves to prayer, for instance, it should only be for a brief period. It’s also likely that some of the Corinthians who were getting divorced were the same ones soliciting prostitutes in chapter 6. For most people, Paul argues, the temptations to sexual immorality associated with remaining single and celibate are too great.

So, Paul says, don’t get divorced, at least in most cases. He is aware of Jesus’ strict teaching on the subject (see verse 10) and applies it to a situation that Jesus doesn’t address: an unbelieving spouse wants to divorce the believer. Paul says in that situation, the believer shouldn’t work to reconcile the relationship. The believer, in that case, is free to divorce.

But is that believer then free to remarry? The Catholic Church has interpreted it that way. My ESV Study Bible notes interpret it that way. Most Protestant churches… well, you know their sad story of unconditional permissiveness on the subject. This so-called exception to Jesus’ strict teaching is often called the “Pauline privilege.” One can divorce and remarry not only in the case of sexual immorality (as most interpreters have Jesus saying), but also when one has an unbelieving spouse who wants divorce.

Then, in a daring feat of hermeneutical gymnastics, we apply this privilege of remarriage to many other situations that neither Jesus nor Paul describes.

I now agree with Dr. Fee, however, that Paul isn’t addressing remarriage in this passage—at all. To not be “enslaved,” for Paul, means to not be bound to reconcile the marriage, not to be free to remarry. As Fee says, it isn’t that Paul rules out remarriage in such cases, it’s just that he doesn’t refer to it.

Remember: the Corinthians aren’t interested in remarrying—that’s our contemporary question, not theirs. They want to get divorced and stay divorced in order to serve the Lord unencumbered.

So where does that leave us on the vexing question of remarriage? Two things need to be pointed out, Fee says:

First, Paul does not speak to the question of remarriage at all. If that is one’s concern, then it must be wrestled with in the much larger context of Scripture; and the answer is not clear-cut. In many cases such marriages are clearly redemptive. Even if it is not the ideal situation, God still redeems our fallenness, whether it be individuals or broken marriages. On the other hand, there is nothing redemptive in remarriage that is simply an excuse for legalized lust. Second, the real point of the passage needs to be given a fair hearing. When a married man or woman hears and responds to the call of the gospel but the wife or husband does not—at least at the same time—let the new believer consider the spouse sanctified, that is, also set apart for he gospel. And then let the believer so live that in due time they might “save” their wife or husband. That at least is the Good News this passage sets before the world.[†]

† Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 338-9.

On divorce, remarriage, and the same old question

May 22, 2014

Several times on this blog, people who disagree with the United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality (and the position of the vast majority of the universal Church) have challenged me to give an account for the church’s alleged laxity on the question of divorce and remarriage. Aren’t we straining out the gnat of homosexual practice while swallowing the camel of heterosexual divorce?

How do I respond? First, I don’t think I’m lax on the question: While couples have biblical grounds for divorcing as a gracious option of last resort, I believe, sadly, that most Christian couples don’t reach this point before calling it quits. The divorce rate among Christians bears witness to this fact. But I’ve counseled couples against divorce. I’ve preached against divorce. Obviously, however, I don’t have the authority to prevent anyone from getting divorced.

Second, even if my critics are right, it only proves we’re hypocrites, not that homosexual practice isn’t sinful. At best it’s a tu quoque argument. Besides, it’s not like any of these critics think that the church is wrong to condone divorce and remarriage in many cases, only that the church should also lighten up when it comes to homosexual practice.

Still, what should the church’s response be to people who divorce and remarry illicitly?

It should be grace-filled, more than anything. In this interview, Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore puts it nicely when he says the following:

So I have dealt with this many times where I have had a couple who have come up and they have said you know we both divorced unbiblically other people. We are now married to each other. We were wrong. We were sinning when we divorced our previous spouses. We didn’t have biblical grounds to do that. So what do we do now? I had a couple who said should we divorce and then go and try to reconcile with our spouses? And I said so you are asking me if the way you repent of divorce is by divorcing each other, abandoning each other and going and splitting up the marriages that have now happened with those previous spouses. No. That is not the answer. The answer to that is to confess—If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of sin and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness—and then to live faithfully from that point forward. But that means having that sense of recognizing my sin against God and repenting of that. I think that has to happen.

“If the church has changed its view of divorce…”

March 27, 2014

I’ve blogged at least a few times about the analogy that Adam Hamilton and others have tried to draw between slavery and the ordination of women on the one hand and church’s traditional stance toward homosexual conduct on the other. If the church disregarded or reinterpreted scripture in the former cases, why can’t they do the same in the case of homosexual conduct?

The difference, as I’ve said, is that the Bible itself offers a trajectory away from slavery and female subordination. If every slaveholder in the first century treated their slaves as fully equal brothers in Christ, the way Paul urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery would be undermined. (If you don’t believe me, read Paul’s crafty letter to Philemon. It’s a short book.) As for women, the Bible is replete with positive examples of women in leadership. We have, for example, Mary Magdalene serving as (literally) the first apostle, commissioned by the resurrected Lord to bring news of the resurrection to the other, male disciples. We have Paul’s praise of female coworkers, including the identification of Junia, in Romans 16:7, as an “apostle.”

And for both slavery and women, we have Paul’s liberating words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

I hope that even my fellow Christians who disagree with the United Methodist Church on female ordination can at least agree that we are making a biblical case. That’s what good Protestants ought to do: the Bible is our primary authority guiding Christian doctrine and practice. The UMC, along with most of the universal Church, doesn’t believe that such a case can be made for acceptance of homosexual behavior.

But what about divorce? Hasn’t the church jettisoned the New Testament’s clear teaching that divorce is wrong? Yet don’t we permit divorce and remarriage all the time?

Even yesterday, in the wake of World Vision’s reversal of its policy on same-sex marriage, many critics complained that the organization hires Christians who are divorced and remarried. Isn’t that hypocritical? In February, Andy Stanley made the same point about Christian cake bakers who refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings. “Jesus taught that if a person is divorced and gets remarried, it’s adultery. So if (Christians) don’t have a problem doing business with people getting remarried, why refuse to do business with gays and lesbians?”

Are Andy Stanley and these other critics right?

My first response is, it doesn’t matter. If they are right, it only proves that many people who believe that homosexual conduct is a sin are hypocrites, not that homosexual conduct isn’t also a sin.

Regardless, Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tackles the question head-on in his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. I find this very helpful.

(Gagnonwriting mostly for his fellow mainline Protestants, accepts the scholarly consensus that Matthew himself added Jesus’ divorce exception for “sexual immorality.” Since it’s in the Bible either way, it hardly matters.)

For example, on the question of divorce, there are New Testament authors that moderate Jesus’ stance. Jesus’ words were so radical that both Matthew and Paul found ways to qualify them. Matthew allowed for the exception of “sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32; 19:9; agreeing with the school of Shammai), while Paul permitted divorce for believers married to unbelievers who wanted to leave (1 Cor 7:12-16). Of course, one could also point to the availability of the option in the Old Testament (Deut 24:1-4). These kinds of qualification at least provide a basis for further exploration of the issue. Some divorce is permissible for some biblical texts so that one cannot say that the Bible has achieved a unanimous position on the subject. Alternatively, one could argue that the church has become too lenient on the issue in recent years and needs to do what Jesus did: stand against rather than with the culture.

There are other factors that make divorce a very different issue than that of homosexual intercourse. First, few in the church today would argue that divorce is to be “celebrated” as a positive good. The most that can be said for divorce is that in certain cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Second, unlike the kind of same-sex intercourse attracting the church’s attention divorce is not normally a recurring or repetitive action. For the situation to be comparable to a self-affirming, practicing homosexual a person would have to be engaged in self-avowed serial divorce actions. Third, some people are divorced against their will or initiate divorce for justifiable cause against a philandering or violent spouse. Such people should be distinguished from those who divorce a spouse in order to have love affairs with others or to achieve “self-fulfillment.”[†]

Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), 442-3.