Marriage, Divorce, God and the Church

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 11 November 2007

One of the difficulties of addressing a topic like this in under half and hour, is what to leave out. This is particularly difficult because the issue of marriage is so multi-dimensional - is it best talked about at a theological, or biblical level? Or as it relates to sociological questions of culture and social stability? Or, as a faith community, should we start with the pastoral questions, to do with how we relate to one another through life's joys and struggles?

Foolishly, I'm going to attempt a synthesis of all three, but you'll be aware that to do so is to fail to do the topic justice on any level. In particular, I wanted to offer some thoughts about Jesus' teaching about marriage, and I couldn't fit them in. So I've written some stuff down, and if you want to have a look at that, you're welcome to take one of these pages away to read at your leisure. (if you're reading this off the web the supplementary stuff is appended at the end of the sermon text.) I hope that our discussion next week will be a chance to tease out some of this stuff more fully, to hear one another's stories, and how this topic sits for us on a personal level.

Brian Walsh came and spoke about home and homelessness in this space a few weeks ago. In one of the sessions, he re-told the whole story of God and this earth through the metaphor of 'home'. For me, this metaphor suddenly made sense of some of the ways marriage is talked about in the Bible.

To borrow from Brian, the biblical narrative can be seen as a series of 'home-making' and 'home breaking' actions, between God and humanity. The creation, in the beginning, is the making of 'home'. God walks and lives among people in this garden home. God sees that it's not good for the human to be alone, and creates a partnership of mutual care and support for male and female, to tend each other and this earth in which we live.

The narrative of Adam and Eve betraying the trust of God and eating the fruit is the first 'home-breaking' event, which forced the couple from the security of their garden home into a hostile environment, and then into family dysfunction in the form of Cain and Abel - a pattern that repeats through the rest of the Genesis relationships.

God becomes a home-breaker in the flooding of the earth, and then a home-maker again through covenant, first with the promise never to destroy on such a scale again, and then with Abraham, who has to leave his physical home in order to enter a new way of being at home with God. And then with the Exodus and entry into the promised land, there's the gathering of a people into a new home - Israel, followed by multiple home-breaking actions (such as neglect for the poor, worshipping of idols, and disregard for God) that lead finally to exile.

In the context of this theme, the anticipation of Jesus is as the 'homecoming king', the one who will usher in reconciliation, a new covenant, re-making home for us with God. The blissful vision of the new heaven and the new earth through this lens is the eternal home, where we will experience rest, love, peace, settledness, family, warmth, and closeness with God and others - everything that you might identify as part of a good home.

It's not surprising, given the strength of this theme in scripture, that weddings and marriage are used as a symbol of home-making. And that the betrayal of wedding vows is seen as a sign of the home-breaking tendency in the human condition, where we continually damage that which we most need. So, we have the sustained allegory in the book of Hosea, where Hosea's constancy toward his adulterous wife is an image of God's faithfulness to a betraying people. And, we have the repeated image in Scripture of the wedding banquet as the great homecoming feast for all people. In the New Testament, Christ is imaged as a groom, and faithful humanity his bride.

We can see from this, that in the Israelite religion and culture, and within Christianity, marriage has this huge symbolic resonance. Not just a legal contract between two people who will live together for as long as they can manage, but a sacrament, that's intended in some way to offer a glimpse of the possibilities of relationship between people and God. A good human marriage participates in this wider story of God's desire for closeness with humanity. A good human marriage can be a window onto the wider home-making agenda and purpose of God.

Okay, so far, so theoretical. What, in practice, can we hope for a Christian marriage to look like? What difference does it make for God to be present in a marriage?

I'm wary of painting too ideal a picture. The reality is far more difficult and complex, and I will talk more about that soon. I also don't want to imply that God is not or has not been present to a marriage that falls short of this ideal. God is in the midst of suffering and confusion, as sure as God is in the midst of success. What I hope to offer are some thoughts about what marriage can be at its best, to offer some vision or hope that we can work towards, and support each other in.

To extend the 'home-making' theme - a home is the context for forgiving, unconditional acceptance of others, warts and all. A home provides enough safety and security for each individual to go exploring - whether into the world, or into the depths and darkness of their own souls - and to return to a place where someone else is committed to their well-being. A home accepts that as we grow and change, we may have periods of really crappy behaviour, where we can be selfish or hurtful, and in need of forgiveness. But if we press on, we can emerge as mature and wise people.  A home, then, enables God to work within each person at the deepest level. And for this to be fulfilled, a lifetime commitment is helpful, as only this kind of commitment is truly unconditional, and has a long enough view to allow for the process of development we all need to go through.

More than this, though, where relationships are strong, we are able to turn out beyond ourselves and offer 'home' to others. One of the roles of marriage is to contribute to the stability of wider social and community structures, and to create nurturing environments for children. But also, where our needs are being met through another who is committed to us, we have the freedom and the safety to extend ourselves in reckless generosity, hospitality, care for others, and the meeting of the struggle and pain of this world. A good marriage is a call to service. Marriage can therefore be one of the ways through which God reconciles this whole world to God's home-making desire.

So, we have a theological way of seeing marriage, as a symbol of the biblical theme of home-making. And, we have some ideas toward what an ideal marriage might look like in our time. However, marriage is also a fallible human and social institution that has changed over the years in terms of purpose and expectation. Culturally and socially, marriage has served a range of different purposes. The Bible records, and does not condemn, polygamous marriages...still practised in some parts of the world now. Over the years marriage has served social functions of financial and property exchange, the creating and strengthening of family allegiances, and social status, protection and security and so on. Marriage has almost always served patriarchy, with the female partner seen as part and parcel of an exchange of goods between men, and unequal rules and consequences for the ending of marriage. Romantic ideas about being and staying in love, while dominant in our current world, have been low on the list of 'good reasons for getting married' in past generations.

In practice, the nitty gritty of marriage is worked out in the context of our culture - its norms and expectations, and changing ideas about what marriage is and is not. And it's worked out in the reality of brokenness - our suffering world, our past and present hurts, our family modelling, our tendency to harm ourselves and others, and the pressures of lifestyle and disposition that press on our commitments. Nothing in our world lives up to our best ideals, including our own ability to relate intimately with other human beings. Human marriages throughout history, and today, are fallible, difficult, and ambivalent things, when lived out in the world.

Some marriages, rather than being symbols of home-making, are instead expressions of dominance, oppression, betrayal and unhappiness. There are many ways of breaking home, even while staying married. A neglectful marriage or damaging family life is a home-breaking betrayal of God's home-making, home-coming desire for us, even if the contract of marriage remains in place. I believe it is possible to be socially married, but theologically and spiritually divorced.

So now, with all this in mind, I'm going to make a bold statement. Rather than getting hung up about the social contract of marriage, we should instead use the framework of home-making and home-breaking to determine the success and failure of our intimate relationships. That we seek to build good marriages, and to care for those whose marriages have ended, the question is not so much about whether two people have kept or not kept a set of vows, a contract, or a moral commandment. The deeper and more significant question is whether our actions -all of our actions - are home-making or home-breaking ones. To what extent do our marriages and other relationships create the conditions for the rest, security, love, service, growth and connectedness, implied by the word 'home'? And to what extent do we break home by being hostile, unforgiving, spiritually neglectful, hurtful, isolated, and distanced from each other, whether married or not?

There is a sense in which we're all home-breakers. If we see home-making as an emblem and outworking of God's good intention for all creation, then home-breaking is essentially another word for sin - that is, it represents the way we all undermine and damage relationships all the time, as part of the basic broken human condition. While one couple might overtly home-break through divorce, and another might home-break through violence, nastiness or withdrawal of compassion, there are a myriad of ways that we all damage relationship, and therefore the desire of God for us, all the time. In fact, given the intense intimacy of the marriage relationship as a catalyst for bringing out our hidden faults and fears, it's a wonder that any marriages survive. Perhaps instead of feeling distressed and anxious about the ways in which we fall short - which is, after all, the norm - we should be celebrating those signs of hope where they do occur, honouring good relationships and good marriages as the remarkable emblems of grace and transformation that they are.

I wonder if our literal focus on the marriage contract distorts our attention away from the true issues of what makes a good relationship, that affect all of us whether married or not. The important question for the church, is how do our relationships, including our marriage relationships, reflect God's home-making purposes in the world? And what does this mean in practice for the church community?

Firstly, the church, like marriage, is meant to be a symbol of home in this hurting world, and therefore our relationships with one another in the church should be home-making, not home-breaking. And that means that we offer sanctuary and belonging for all - including those we perceive as the worst kind of home-breakers. It is fitting, within the trust and care of the Christian community, for challenge and correction to be included in our home here - but only where safety and mutual trust have already been established, and in the awareness that challenge and correction aren't our core business. Our core business, as followers of Jesus, is hospitality - hospitality toward God and hospitality toward our neighbour. Love God, love people. Jesus may have said one strong statement about marriage...he said and enacted many more things about welcome, forgiveness, care for the broken and the sinful, about not being self righteous, and about not judging.

Our faith community should support the home-making efforts of us all, especially those who are home-making through marriage. That's partly why weddings are public events - to have witnesses to our desire to make home with another in this particular way. In theory, these witnesses are also to be the people who will work together with us to help us see it through. Unfortunately, it's socially unusual for people to be open and honest about how their marriage is going...and couples are often quite far down the track of separating before anyone else is even aware they're in difficulty. As a faith community, we ought to question the isolating, inward, nuclear and private nature of marriage in our society. And seek to find practical ways of strengthening marriages. One example would be encouraging and enabling couples to go on retreats, workshops, and to have counselling even before there are significant signs of difficulty.

As people who are being redeemed by Christ, we need to learn to take the long view. In our wider culture, change happens quickly, and I think we're becoming less able to stay with things we find difficult. There's been a pendulum swing away from commitment as a value in and of itself, toward a kind of commitment that lasts as long as enjoyment. I'm slightly disturbed by this trend, and would like to resist it. That said, I personally am not in favour of commitment to an ideal that overrides the pain of those involved, or that leads to their stagnation and spiritual numbness. I don't think that 'duty' or the social shame around ending a marriage are good reasons to stay in a bad marriage. But, given that we assume that God is at work in us, and that work can be slow, and include periods of pain, I think that we should keep hope alive and fight for as long as we can to make our marriages into home-making relationships. Apparently, Dr Phil says that you have to earn your way out of a marriage. And that means sticking with it, seeking help, doing the inner work and the relationship-building work, fighting fair, and refusing to see discomfort and inconvenience as good enough reasons to stop.

However, I would also say, that when a marriage is broken over a long period of time, if it cannot function as 'home' for the partners or anyone else, then it is not reflecting anything of what God's home-making gift of relationship was meant to be. In that case, I'm willing to say, we can let it go. In the midst of it all, it's probably impossible to tell exactly when that's the right call to make, or what constitutes a genuine failure of 'home'. Maybe, some of us get to that place too soon. Probably others wait too long. But sometimes, we have to acknowledge when a marriage is not a marriage in any true sense of that word, and it's a more home-making action to end it.

There are those in the church, of course, who say that divorce is always morally wrong, and anyone who goes there has somehow forfeited their distinctiveness or credibility as a Christian. To that, I respond that Christianity, and life in the church, should not be about setting up and maintaining absolute moral laws - around marriage or anything else. The Jesus we follow broke taboos, he didn't create them. Social taboos might be useful on some level within the culture, and serve a purpose of maintaining various social structures through shame, judgement and fear. But to make our life decisions because of what others say is acceptable behaviour is not maturity, and it's not life in accordance with the Spirit of God. The spiritual life requires discernment, not rule-keeping.

I'd like to be even more specific now, and to talk about our life together here at Cityside. Most of us are here, because we have for one reason or another been unable to find home or sanctuary in other churches. Many of us are here because our brokenness has been painfully rejected or intensified by our experience of church. In some cases, we are a community of last resort for those people who know they are both damaged and damaging to others, and who are seeking healing. It's possible that for some, repentance or change needs to be part of that healing. But that is not a precondition for being welcomed, loved, listened to, and gently companioned along the way.

On this issue of divorce, the wider church has often been condemning and hostile. But that hasn't stopped Christian marriages ending. It's just contributed more pain, and driven suffering people away from the relationships that could have offered support and helped them in being restored to wholeness and connection with God. The approach of many churches has meant that effectively, to end a marriage is to end up without a faith either, and without Christian friends.

Does it distress you - or your Christian friends and relatives outside Cityside - that there are several couples in our midst whose marriages have ended? Does it distress you that many people have come here from other churches, in recovery from their divorce experience? Of course it is sad and painful that these things have happened, but it doesn't distress me that it's happening here.
What matters far more to me is how we handle it, and how we love those involved. I am not concerned about Cityside having a reputation for being welcoming to people who are seen by the wider church as sinners. I would be concerned if we conformed to the tendency of the church to put rules ahead of people, and thus betray the Jesus we follow.

Divorce is horrible. It's not good. It hurts everyone. And the people who will tell you that most strongly are those who have been through it, even of their own choosing. There may be relief, but there's no joy in the ending of a marriage, even a home-breaking one. There is enormous grief and brokenness that comes when a marriage ends, even for the person who seems from the outside to be the one initiating the split.

As we relate to one another over this issue, it's important to remember that there are two stories in every marriage, and the person who seems to be the initiator in ending the marriage, or the person who physically leaves the house, is not necessarily a 'perpetrator', nor is the other party necessarily a 'victim'. They might be. But usually, the reality of marriage is much more complex than this, and unless we are deeply familiar with both stories, we should try to withhold our judgement about who is to 'blame'. When we're interacting with, or supporting one member of a couple, let's keep in mind that we're only hearing one story, and that one story, while powerful for that person, is likely to be quite different from the other story in the relationship...and probably the truth lies somewhere in between.

As a community that seeks to make home among us, let us finally remember that just as 'good behaviour' does not make us Christian, or perfect, so 'bad behaviour' doesn't make us un-Christian, or wicked. We should never reduce a person's value or our perception of  their faith, to their specific choices. Especially if our assessment of the other has more to do with our own unacknowledged fears than the reality of the other person's life. I thank God that our personhood, and the life-long work of God in us, transcends our current choices whether they are home-making or home-breaking. With God there is mercy and grace, as God looks at what we are becoming, as well as what we are right now. As God's people in a home-making community, let us continue to offer each other the same grace.

Supplementary notes: Jesus' teaching about marriage and divorce.

Matthew 19: 3-9 (see also Mark 10:1-12, and Matthew's sermon on the mount 5:31-32)

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
"Haven't you read," he replied, "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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
 "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
Jesus replied, "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 marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

1. The background to this passage is in Deuteronomy 24, where there's a hypothetical case about marriage and remarriage, beginning: '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...'

The question the Pharisees are asking, that apparently the rabbis disagreed about in their commentaries on this passage, is whether a man could send away his wife on personal whim, or whether there were a restricted number of acceptable reasons for divorce.

The Pharisees may be trying to trick Jesus into aligning himself with one of the existing schools of thought, or they may genuinely be wondering where he stood on the issue.
What Jesus does in his reply, is to remove the question from the realm of 'what the rules say', and to raise the bar for relational behaviour to the level of intention, the spirit of the law, and the wider picture of God's purposes for humanity. So, in the same way as he shifted 'eye for an eye' into the much harder 'no revenge at all, turn the other cheek', and 'don't commit adultery' into 'don't look at another lustfully', he takes this 'certificate of divorce' rule from Deuteronomy and says 'don't divorce your wife at all, except for unchastity.'

To back up his statement, he refers back to Genesis, and the creation of male and female, and the unity of 'one flesh' that is the prototype for marriage. I suspect that what he is doing here is emphasising the symbolic and social importance of marriage, in the context of God's desire for humanity. The creation of man and woman was part of God's great home-making scheme, and all human marriages in some way participate in that, and therefore have a sacred dimension.

Jesus reminds his hearers of this ideal, and theological intention behind marriage, while also saying that in Israel's history, the legal rules accommodated to the fallible practice and social circumstances of the people. 'Moses permitted you...because your hearts were hard.'

Application: As followers of Jesus, therefore, when thinking about marriage, we should take as our best hope and goal, the kind of lifelong unity that is part of the design for marriage, as we understand it from the creation stories. But it seems to me, that as we all fail to live up to the dramatic re-writing of the rules that Jesus offered (turn the other cheek, lust=adultery, harsh words & thoughts=murder), this over-arching theological principle is an ideal, and a process rather than something that we can consistently achieve.

2. This teaching of Jesus can also be appreciated on a sociological level. You'll notice that in the Deuteronomy passage, and also in Jesus' words, the initiative for ending a marriage lies with the man. And there's no real come-back for the woman, who simply is given a certificate and sent away.

In Jesus' world, where orphans and widows lived a marginal existence of poverty and ignominy, for a woman to be discarded simply because she didn't please her husband, was a social justice problem. A woman could be made poor and without any source of security or livelihood, simply because a man didn't want to be married to her any more. This is what happened to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Much is made of her being a 'loose woman', but it's also possible (and I think credible) to read her circumstances as the plight of a woman who has been married and discarded several times, to the point where she's no longer marriageable, but still needing to live with a man, causing her even more social shame.

I think that part of the reason why Jesus is so strong in his response to the Pharisees, is that he's addressing the men around him, making it much harder for them to cast off a woman for no reason.

Application: Today, divorce is still a social justice issue. Typically, women are worse off afterwards, in terms of their earning capacity, especially if they are responsible for most of the child care. Issues of child support and financial hardship are real burdens for people to carry after a marriage breaks up, along with the emotional turmoil and the re-constituting of a single life. Part of our role in the church is to be aware of these wider social issues, and advocating for justice in the system, as well as supportive of individuals who have ended up with the raw end of a deal after a divorce.

3. Finally, a word of caution for anyone who might wish to apply this text in an absolute or literal way, using it as a proof text for why divorce is always wrong. If we're going to do that, we should note how we all apply our current social and cultural context to our application of the text, even those who take a hard line. Most humane people living in our culture today would say that admissible reasons for divorce would include physical violence, for example. Some might add ongoing drug abuse, and emotional degradation. But many Christians would draw the line at 'relationship breakdown', or failure of the marriage to be loving and life-giving. However, if we're going to be literal with this text, we would have to say that only adultery is acceptable as a reason to end a bad marriage. Anything that we add to this is our interpretation, and our accommodation to the realities of human brokenness.

I would say that we always interpret God and scripture through our cultural lens, and in fact this truth is embedded in the text itself, with Jesus' acknowledgement that earlier laws were an accommodation to the people's failure to live up to the original intent of marriage.

The hard task is keeping that original intent, that ideal in front of us as our hope and goal, while recognising that there are many ways that we fall short of it. I'd like to see people do this honestly, and compassionately, openly acknowledging that we all read the text through the lens of our experience or opinion, even those of us who like to think that we are  simply applying the text in a literal or objective fashion.