The Sin of Divorce

It is a staple of the LGBTQ assault on the Church’s traditional condemnation of homosexual activity that by this condemnation the Church is singling out homosexuals for special treatment. In particular, it is pointed out that Christ condemns divorce in unequivocal terms and yet the Church easily allows divorce and accepts divorced people into its communion, so why should it not also accept practising homosexuals? Thus Protodeacon Feldman in his recent piece in Orthodoxy in Dialogue: “We hear calls for LGBTQ+ persons to remain celibate, lest they knowingly persist in sin. ‘Practicing’ homosexuals, we are told, are ‘living in sin.’ But couples who have divorced and remarried, according to Christ’s teaching, are likewise living in sin…We are all living in sin. This is fundamental to our faith.”

The Protodeacon’s point here, like his piece as a whole, stops just short of coherency, and he seems unaware that repentance is required of everyone before approaching the Chalice. But he does make a good point about divorce: Christ forbids divorce as clearly as the Law (and St. Paul) forbid homosexual practice, so why does the Church not ban divorced persons from the Chalice as well as practising homosexuals? It is important then that we examine the Scriptural teaching about divorce and the Church’s contemporary pastoral practice regarding divorced persons. We note in passing that agreement with the Protodeacon’s objection means not that we should admit practising homosexuals to Communion, but should not admit unrepentant divorced persons. One senses that the Protodeacon is less concerned that the Church be consistent than he is that the Church should accept homosexual lifestyle.

We begin an examination of the teaching of Christ. In Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12 the Pharisees approach Jesus with a question regarding a difference in Rabbinical interpretation of the Law. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 presupposes the legitimacy of divorce, and attempts to elevate the status of women by forbidding that a divorced wife who has remarried and then been divorced again be accepted back by the first husband as if she were mere chattel. Referring to the first divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1 says that it was caused by the husband finding “some indecency in her”—literally, “an indecent thing in her”, Hebrew ‘erwat dabar. What did this phrase mean? What did the Law say was a sufficient cause for divorce?

There were two main Rabbinical schools of thought: the school of Hillel insisted that the phrase meant that the husband could divorce his wife for anything at all that displeased him; the stricter school of Shammai insisted that the phrase limited the reason for divorce to sexual misconduct of some sort. The Pharisees approached Jesus asking, “Is it permitted for a man to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever?”—i.e. do You side with the popular view of the school of Hillel? It is unlikely that the question was motivated by mere curiosity, for St. Matthew said that they asked this question, “tempting Him” (Matthew 19:3). The Pharisees probably had in mind the divorce of Herod Antipas which proved so lethal to John the Baptizer (Matthew 14:1-12) and hoped to ensnare Jesus in the same trap.

In reply Christ returned to first principles and referred to the institution of marriage found in the early chapters of Genesis. He said that in marriage it was God who made the man and the woman into one flesh, creating one single organism where there were formerly two, so that divorce undid the work of God. Therefore, Christ concluded, all divorce was disallowed. When they asked Him why the Law allowed it, He went on to say that divorce was allowed temporarily, for the hardness of man’s heart, but that it still went against the will of God: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her, and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). In Matthew’s version of this quote we find the additional words “whoever divorces his wife except for πορνεια/ porneia/ fornication and marries another commits adultery”. It is likely that the reference in Matthew 19:9 to πορνεια referred to infidelity during the period of betrothal prior to the marriage ceremony proper. If this was the meaning of the exception, then the ban against divorce after the marriage ceremony proper was total in both Matthew and Mark.

The Lord’s teaching therefore is clear: in marriage the man and woman become one flesh, a single organism, and this unity continues to unite to them even after the woman is dismissed in divorce, so that her union with another man is adulterous. Therefore, the Lord declares, divorce is always wrong.

In reading this exchange between Christ and His Pharisaical adversaries, it is important to understand that Christ is not legislating or creating new laws. Christ often spoke in a kind of hyperbolic intensity aimed at shaking up His hearers and dismantling their long-held presuppositions. Thus, for example, He counselled that those whose eye caused them to fall into sin (perhaps the sin of envy, covetousness, or lust) gouge out the offending eye and throw it away, since it was better to enter into life with one eye than to be cast into Gehenna’s fire with two eyes (Matthew 18:9). Here we see that Christ was not actually counselling self-mutilation, but rather relentlessness in the inner warfare against sin. In the same way He spoke with similar severity in His words about divorce, declaring that marriage was not a contract which could be dissolved by whim or fiat, but a true union of two souls.

But Christians do need concrete counsel for specific situations, and it is this counsel which the Epistles provide. As someone once said, if Gospel hyperbole looked like a riddle, it was in the Epistles that Christians found its answer. Thus St. Paul gives instructions for actual life situations. In 1 Corinthians 7:10, for example, he repeats his Lord’s teaching that Christian spouses may not divorce each other. But what about mixed marriages, in which a Christian is married to an unbeliever? Paul admits that the Church has retained no specific word from Christ about what to do in such situations, and he therefore offers his own counsel. In this scenario, the Christian spouse should stay with the unbelieving partner if that partner permits it. But if the unbelieving partner leaves and is intent upon dissolving the marriage, the Christian partner should allow it: “the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15). That is, in this case the Christian spouse is allowed the divorce—and with it, the possibility of remarriage.

What then about Christ’s word that such a remarriage was adulterous because the original bond of unity between the couple remained? There is no contradiction between St. Paul and his Master. Such remarriage involves a kind of adultery. But the guilt for the adultery lies with the person insisting upon the divorce, not with the one reluctantly accepting it.

Allowing remarriage has been the practice of the Orthodox Church throughout the centuries. The Church has always recognized that marriage creates a new reality in which husband and wife become one flesh and in which divorce is therefore sinful. It also has recognized that life is often marred by sin, and that forgiveness is available upon repentance. As the late Fr. John Meyendorff has written in his Marriage: an Orthodox Perspective, “the Christian empire continued to admit divorce and remarriage as a regular social institution” in its laws, and that “no Father of the Church ever denounced these imperial laws as contrary to Christianity”. This did not involve scrapping the Lord’s standard, for repentance was required of those remarrying after divorce. Thus, for example, in canon 87 of the Quinisext Council such remarried persons are penanced with a seven year absence from Holy Communion (though of course a pastoral economia can be exercised).

It goes without saying, however, that we are far from the mindset of the Fathers regarding how we deal with divorce. Divorce was once considered a tragedy and a defeat; now it has been normalized so that we have a culture of divorce. I am not suggesting that we single out for special blame the divorced among us. Life is complicated, and sometimes there are good reasons for married persons to separate, especially when violence and abuse are involved. But I am suggesting that in our pastoral care of those suffering from a marriage breakdown we help them to acknowledge the deep tragedy of the breakdown, and that this should involve some period of Eucharistic penance.

Protodeacon Feldman does us a (perhaps unintended) service by calling our attention to our laxity in allowing divorce to become normalized and pastorally ignored. None should be admitted to the Chalice while persisting in sin and refusing to repent. That includes homosexuals who continue in a homosexual lifestyle. It also includes those divorced. They also must repent and face up to the enormity of their past choices. Some form of penance for those unable to reconcile should form one part of a priest’s ongoing, gentle, and compassionate pastoral care.

8 comments:

  1. Father Lawrence.
    Where is God’s heart? God’s Law forbade divorce and remarriage. Simon the Pharisee was THE FATHER of the LAW and Oral Tradition. His judgement condemned the Woman as a sinner and did not offer hospitality to the man she anointed who was not her “gardener,” her husband, her bridegroom. In Simon’s judgment, the Woman had clearly made a very grave mistake (Luke 7:35-50; John 20:15-17).

    In the case of Homosexuals, many homosexuals have made very grave mistakes too. By marrying or sleeping with women for the sake of “keeping” traditional values, they have made very grave mistakes. The truth is. If you are born a homosexual or lesbian, you must live in truth and in love. If you don’t live in truth and in love, the Father will judge you a sinner and will ask that you repent and turn away from living a lie and a life that does not execute God’s will for all humanity… the beauty and intimacy of “shared” love in abundance.

    Mary did repent. She turned around…went out and she found Simon and Simon found her and the disciples then all began to exclaim. The Lord is risen indeed. He has appeared to Simon. Then the Ascension occurred and the abundant life of the Church began.

    1. The Mosaic Law did not forbid divorce and remarriage, but permitted it, which occasioned the Pharisees’ question to Jesus. For Christians, truth and love consist in living a life consistent with the teaching of Christ and His apostles, regardless of what inbred passions may tempt us. BTW the woman condemned by Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 was not Mary Magdalene.

      1. Yes I am sorry, I forgot according to the Orthodox view, Mary Magdalene is not the Woman of Luke 7. In my Master’s thesis: Mary Magdalene: her image and relationship to Jesus, I successfully defended the Roman Catholic view that she was, after sifting through all the evidence including the Orthodox view and the views of many modern feminists and people of faith promoting Ecumenism. My thesis concludes that Mary Magdalene was the Woman with the Alabaster Jar of Luke 7 and John 11–however the evidence disputes the Roman Catholic view that she was a prostitute. If you or anyone of your readers would like to examine my research they may download a copy from the Simon Fraser University thesis archives http://summit.sfu.ca/item/12048

        1. If Mary Magdalene was indeed the woman mentioned in Luke 7:50, it is odd that Luke seems to introduce for the first time in his next breath in Luke 8:1-2. And John 12:1f is clear that the “Mary” of this pre-burial anointing was the sister of Lazarus. She was not following Christ around Palestine as was Mary Magdalene, but lived in Bethany with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. The identification of this Mary with Mary Magdalene or the woman of Luke 7 is not possible.

    2. Linda,

      A life lived “in truth and love” is not one that is defined/framed by our innate desires (I am here granting the arguement that homosexualism is truly innate – folks are “born” this way). For example, I am a heterosexual man living with one wife. Yet, my innate desire is to lay with many women – almost all of them I ever come into contact with. In the philosophy of “truth and love” which you and so many others are espousing here, for me (and most other males) I would have to be allowed – encouraged even – by Christianity to live a life of proliferate polyamory and polygamy to “live in truth and in love” or to use the modern phrase, to live an “authentic” life.

      This is not Christianity – it is not “God’s will for all humanity” nor is it “the abundant life of the Church”. What it is is the modern/secular anthropology projected back into Christianity. This hermeneutic begins with the Cartesian Self and so of course ends with a Self expressed with no reference to its creation, God, or any frame/reference that exists outside of its own desires.

      Linda, we are not our innate desires.

      Father Lawrence,

      Thank you for this excellent teaching – the detail around Matthew 19 is enlightening.

  2. I’d love to see adulterers and abusers actually excommunicated from church until they prove their sincere repentance to a spiritual leader. I think they’re too easily forgiven just to keep backsides warming pews.

    1. Adulterer’s wife: I certainly can understand how hurt you must have been to discover your husband had an extra-marital affair. In my experience, adultery is a symptom of a deeper problem–the marriage itself. When the relationship between a couple is unevenly yoked, or a husband or wife travels too much, or if the couples are not “cherishing” one another often enough their marriage is vulnerable. Excommunication, withholding the very “bread” and “wine” , the Divine Liturgy of the marriage between heaven and earth seems wrong to me.

      Wouldn’t it be better to include both the adulterer and the two Marys, the two sisters bitterly treated by their Lord who loves them both, at Christ’s table?

      Sitting at Christ’s table, both Marys will be better able to discover they love each other and lovingly choose what is best for each other. Face to Face with her sister’s beloved Lord–breaking bread and sharing wine– the other Mary will be better able to see for herself the TRUTH. She will see that she cannot cling to her sister’s beloved Lord. She will know for certain that She is not his vine and He is not her vinedresser (John 15:1; Psalm 128:3; John 20:15-17), the Father of her Garden, her Vineyard.

      Mary will dry her eyes, and go out and trust in the hope of the Resurrection and discover and redeem her Bridegroom…her own Lord, her own Vinedresser–who is waiting for her to “cherish” him as much as he cherishes her and has since they met under the fig tree in the garden of eden! And when they redeem each other, they will return to Bethany…to Martha’s vineyard and both Ladies will celebrate the Good News together with their “Adonai” and a cloud of witnesses as One (Luke 24:50-51).

      Many women down through the ages have “forced” their powerful and sometimes abusive husbands into submission by “starving” them. Parents have “forced” and “punished” children by withholding food–sending them to bed without supper. These tactics did work. So I can truly understand why some people today think the best way to get people into line…is to excommunicate them and deny them sacred food and the church’s services. I’m just not so sure it is the right choice of tactics.

      In my opinion, men who have sex with children under their protection, should be kept apart from the children they are abusing. And yes men or women who use verbal and physical violence against their spouses and children should be shown love in action. They should be given the best counselling and offered the best loving services available from the church or the community. And in some cases, divorce or separation may be the best and most loving option.

  3. Linda,

    A life lived “in truth and love” is not one that is defined/framed by our innate desires (I am here granting the arguement that homosexualism is truly innate – folks are “born” this way). For example, I am a heterosexual man living with one wife. Yet, my innate desire is to lay with many women – almost all of them I ever come into contact with. In the philosophy of “truth and love” which you and so many others are espousing here, for me (and most other males) I would have to be allowed – encouraged even – by Christianity to live a life of proliferate polyamory and polygamy to “live in truth and in love” or to use the modern phrase, to live an “authentic” life.

    This is not Christianity – it is not “God’s will for all humanity” nor is it “the abundant life of the Church”. What it is is the modern/secular anthropology projected back into Christianity. This hermeneutic begins with the Cartesian Self and so of course ends with a Self expressed with no reference to its creation, God, or any frame/reference that exists outside of its own desires.

    Linda, we are not our innate desires.

    Father Lawrence,

    Thank you for this excellent teaching – the detail around Matthew 19 is enlightening.

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