Interpreting Scripture: A Double Standard on Marriage

Christians holding the line against recognition of same-sex relationships claim that Bible verses on sexuality must be taken at face value. We’re not allowed to point out a particular interpretation’s historical track record in fostering abuse and prejudice, as evidence that it’s inconsistent with the Bible’s overall message of mercy, equality and nonviolence. Nor can we look to history and science to argue that the verse’s “plain meaning” may represent an anachronistic reading of words that meant something different in the ancient world.

Yet Christians for quite some time have taken a much more flexible, holistic, justice-based view of Bible verses on heterosexual marriage, and the sky has not fallen. Faithful GLBT Christians ask nothing more than that the church apply the same hermeneutic to them as it does to straight partnerships. There’s something askew when two straight people who want to break up their family are treated more leniently than two gay people who want to form one.

The Anglican Centrist notes that the same African Anglican bishops who’ve led the charge against GLBT inclusion have been willing to make room for local cultural differences on polygamy:

These days the leading opponents to full sacramental inclusion of non-celibate gay folks into the life of the Church are Africans. The Church of Kenya is among the most vehemently opposed Anglican provinces to any inclusion for gay folks seeking to live in committed relationships.

Among the arguments often made is that homosexual practice is prohibited by Scripture’s plain sense, and that African custom abhors the practice. Moreover, it is often argued that to make any change in the Church’s practice would open the door to all sorts of non-biblical innovations. The current Primate of the Church of Kenya, Archbishop Nzimbi, and his predecessor, Archbishop David Gitari, are quite staunch in opposing any revising of the Church’s views on same-sex relationships. So staunch, that Archbishop Nzimbi is taking steps which seem destined to lead to global realignment and schism to prevent any such revision from taking place in the U.S., Canada, Britain, South Africa, or anywhere.

Ironically, Archbishop Gitari was in the 1980’s an advocate for open-mindedness and pastoral care for those Christians seeking to live in polygamous marital unions….

To be sure, Bishop Gitari does not explicity advocate that polygamy become a normative form of marriage for the Church. Not at all. But, quite clearly, Bishop Gitari argues for a degree of carefully defined pastoral care and inclusion into the Church of those in such marriages – and also for those who become polygamists even after having become Christians. While not advocating for authorized liturgies for plural marriages, or speaking to the ordination of polygamists, Bishop Gitari does nonetheless commend case-by-case approvals by local bishops for those living in committed polygamous relationships….

Gitari has said that the Church’s stance against polygamy “reflects the fact that our thinking has been so influenced by western theologians that we still continue to beat the old missionary drums which summon us to see that our cultural heritage is incompatible with Christianity.” In light of their emergence from the imperialistic theology of the Western missionaries who no longer held sway in East Africa, Bishop Gitari wrote that the Church of the Province of Kenya “should revise its views on polygamy at the earliest moment possible.”

It is true that the normative teaching in the Anglican Communion and in the local provinces of Africa holds for one man and one woman in marriage. Yet, it is also quite apparent, that leading clergy in Africa — even the conservative former Primate of Kenya — have advocated for something like a ‘local pastoral option’ for including polygamists. Now, while this is not the same thing as consecrating a gay bishop in a committed relationship, it seems to be a similar kind of thing as allowing clergy to offer pastoral leeway in receiving and honoring gay couples in their congregations. Many reasonable folks, moreover, may be able to see what looks just a little like hypocrisy here. How is it, many might wonder, that a leading African primate could argue persuasively for a kind of pastoral inclusivity and sensitivity to polygamists but against the same for gay couples?

Extremists bent on breaking the Communion over the homosexuality question will not be able to hear any mention of Kenyan Anglicanism’s (to say nothing of wider Africa) toleration of polygamy. Oddly, the sacramental inclusion of polygamous Anglicans in Kenya is not seen as analogous to the sacramental inclusion of gay Anglicans anywhere else. Moreover, Kenyan apologists (and those for other extremist African provinces) will argue that the Church of Kenya do not ‘promote’ polygamy at all. But the point in my mentioning it is that the practice is tolerated — at least in Kenya if nowhere else — and that sacramental inclusivity and pastoral sensitivity to those practicing it have been encouraged by the former Primate of Kenya (and many others) on a variety of grounds biblical, theological, and cultural.

A second example of the double standard is suggested by David Instone-Brewer’s recent Christianity Today article What God Has Joined. This is Biblical interpretation as it should be done.

The dilemma: the “plain meaning” of Jesus’ teachings on divorce seems to prohibit all grounds but adultery. However, any common-sense, compassionate person can see that there are other grounds that are even more essential: e.g. domestic abuse, neglect, abandonment, or a spouse’s refusal to get treatment for a dangerous addiction or mental illness.

So we have a disconnect between text and our moral sense. Must we choose between them? Indeed, sometimes the church has told battered wives to suck it up, and we all know how well that’s turned out. Other Christians, rightly rejecting this injustice, have quietly ignored the text or found makeshift ways to water it down.

By contrast, Instone-Brewer trusted the Bible enough to believe that it couldn’t support an impractical and cruel teaching. He trusted his moral sense enough to admit that the obvious interpretation was indeed harmful. So he actually dug into the rabbinic literature on divorce to understand the debate that Jesus was addressing. 

One of my most dramatic findings concerns a question the Pharisees asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). This question reminded me that a few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the “any cause” divorce. By the time of Jesus, this “any cause” divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce.

The “any cause” divorce was invented from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for “a cause of immorality,” or, more literally, “a thing of nakedness.” Most Jews recognized that this unusual phrase was talking about adultery. But the Hillelite rabbis wondered why Moses had added the word “thing” or “cause” when he only needed to use the word “immorality.” They decided this extra word implied another ground for divorce—divorce for “a cause.” They argued that anything, including a burnt meal or wrinkles not there when you married your wife, could be a cause! The text, they said, taught that divorce was allowed both for adultery and for “any cause.”

Another group of rabbis (the Shammaites) disagreed with this interpretation. They said Moses’ words were a single phrase that referred to no type of divorce “except immorality”—and therefore the new “any cause” divorces were invalid. These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. And the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood. “Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?” they asked. In other words: “Is it lawful for us to use the ‘any cause’ divorce?”

When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn’t condemning “divorce for any cause,” but rather the newly invented “any cause” divorce. Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn’t mean divorce was allowable for “immorality” and for “any cause,” but that Deutermonomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce “except immorality.”

This was a shocking statement for the crowd and for the disciples. It meant they couldn’t get a divorce whenever they wanted it—there had to be a lawful cause. It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women was not really divorced, because most of them had “any cause” divorces. Luke and Matthew summarized the whole debate in one sentence: Any divorced person who remarried was committing adultery (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18), because they were still married. The fact that they said “any divorced person” instead of “virtually all divorced people” is typical Jewish hyperbole—like Mark saying that “everyone” in Jerusalem came to be baptized by John (Mark 1:5). It may not be obvious to us, but their first readers understood clearly what they meant.

Within a few decades, however, no one understood these terms any more. Language often changes quickly (as I found out when my children first heard the Flintstones sing about “a gay old time”). The early church, and even Jewish rabbis, forgot what the “any cause” divorce was, because soon after the days of Jesus, it became the only type of divorce on offer. It was simply called divorce. This meant that when Jesus condemned “divorce for ‘any cause,’ ” later generations thought he meant “divorce for any cause.”

Now that we know what Jesus did reject, we can also see what he didn’t reject. He wasn’t rejecting the Old Testament—he was rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. He defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. And there is one other surprising thing he didn’t reject: Jesus didn’t reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted.

Although the church forgot the other cause for divorce, every Jew in Jesus’ day knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect. Before rabbis introduced the “any cause” divorce, this was probably the most common type. Exodus says that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage—the rights to food, clothing, and love. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek freedom from that marriage. Even women could, and did, get divorces for neglect—though the man still had to write out the divorce certificate. Rabbis said he had to do it voluntarily, so if he resisted, the courts had him beaten till he volunteered!

These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows—we find them listed in marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea. In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language became more formal, such as “love, honor, and keep.” These vows, together with a vow of sexual faithfulness, have always been the basis for marriage. Thus, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce.

The three provisions of food, clothing, and love were understood literally by the Jews. The wife had to cook and sew, while the husband provided food and materials, or money. They both had to provide the emotional support of marital love, though they could abstain from sex for short periods. Paul taught the same thing. He said that married couples owed each other love (1 Cor. 7:3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7:33-34). He didn’t say that neglect of these rights was the basis of divorce because he didn’t need to—it was stated on the marriage certificate. Anyone who was neglected, in terms of emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce.

Divorce for neglect included divorce for abuse, because this was extreme neglect. There was no question about that end of the spectrum of neglect, but what about the other end? What about abandonment, which was merely a kind of passive neglect? This was an uncertain matter, so Paul deals with it. He says to all believers that they may not abandon their partners, and if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In the case of someone who is abandoned by an unbeliever—someone who won’t obey the command to return—he says that the abandoned person is “no longer bound.”

…Therefore, while divorce should never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when your partner breaks the marriage vows.

According to Instone-Brewer’s research, it seems much more likely that Jesus was opposing the new institution of no-fault divorce (which in practice would have been invoked almost always by men to abandon their wives), and insisting that the rabbis stick to the Law’s original grounds for divorce, which protected women against financial ruin. How perverse, then, that the church subsequently twisted Jesus’ words to require women to stay in abusive marriages. Any time the suffering of a marginalized group must be denied to preserve the purity of our interpretation, a red flag should go up.

But what prompted Instone-Brewer to dig deeper into the text? The presence in his church of faithful Christian lay people and pastors, too numerous and gifted to be ignored, who were divorced and remarried. Permit me, if you will, to rewrite the first few paragraphs of his article, substituting “homosexuality” for “divorce and remarriage” (changes in boldface):

I was being interviewed for what would be my first church pastorate, and I was nervous and unsure what to expect. The twelve deacons sat in a row in front of me and took turns asking questions, which I answered as clearly as I could. All went smoothly until they posed this question: “What is your position on homosexuality? Would you marry a gay couple?”

I didn’t know if this was a trick question or an honest one. There might have been a deep-seated pastoral need behind it, or it might have been a test of my orthodoxy. Either way, I didn’t think I could summarize my view in one sentence; when I thought about it further, I couldn’t decide exactly what my view was. I gave a deliberately vague reply. “Every case should be judged on its own merits.”

It worked; I got the job. But I made a mental note to study the subject of homosexuality, and to do it quickly.

It’s a good thing I did. As it turned out, I was surrounded by people who needed answers to questions raised by homosexuality. My Baptist church was located near an Anglican congregation and two Catholic churches. Gay men and women from these congregations came asking if we would conduct their weddings, having been denied in their local churches. Then I found that some of my deacons were gay. Should I throw them out of church leadership? If I did, I would lose people I considered some of the most spiritual in the church, people with exemplary Christian homes and marriages.

Will Christianity Today ever dare to run that article? Only if gays and their straight allies remain vocal and faithful members of the church, refusing to choose between the text and their lives.

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