He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:11 NRSV
So reads part of the lectionary gospel for today. I must confess when I read the Bible passages on divorce I usually tend to skip over them. I have many friends and family who are divorced, and, in some cases, re-married. Although their stories are sometimes sad, they are never considered second class citizens or regarded as people who have gone against Biblical teaching. It is simply a fact of contemporary lifestyle —and rightly so.
Today, I want to consider how society moved from that Biblical stricture. It raises many questions about how the Bible is understood in contemporary society.
Why is it that some commands in the Bible are ignored whilst others are considered sacred and unbreakable?
Is there a sense that the ones considered good by a particular reader are adhered to and those thought to be unpalatable are discarded without a qualm?
What does this say about how the Bible is interpreted and understood?
Are there parts of the Scriptures that are irrelevant in contemporary society?
Regardless of how one feels about the inerrancy of Scripture there is clearly a conflict between the words in Mark 10 and the practice of divorce.
William Webb, (Professor of New Testament) tried to lessen this conflict, which occurs in many areas in addition to divorce, with, what he terms, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. Simplified, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic sees an ongoing outworking of several issues in Scripture. His prime example is slavery. Where the treatment for slaves prescribed in the Old Testament is better than the surrounding tribes. The improvement in the treatment of slaves continues into the New Testament and beyond until abolition is complete. I use a lot of Webb’s work in my book Corporal Punishment, Religion and US Public Schools.
Maybe it can be a little helpful in considering divorce. In the full lectionary text (Mark 10:2-16) there is allusion to Moses commanding that a certificate of divorce can be given if “she does not please him and he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1).
I find the Deuteronomy passage disturbing on a number of levels although presumably it wasn’t to those the law was originally given to. Firstly, the patriarchy is horrendous. The certificate of divorce is only given to the husband. Then, the woman has immediately to leave the home this includes any children she has borne. Next she has to go and be another man’s wife, I imagine this is to ensure her survival and protection. Finally, if something happens to the second man she cannot go back to the first husband. The reason given is that she would have been “defiled” and that would be “abhorrent” to God.
In the Markan text there has certainly been some redemptive-movement. Noticeably that wives can divorce their husbands. This certainly is huge as the woman is no longer simply property to be put away but can, in some small way, advocate for herself. However, I must note that in the parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew (19:9) patriarchy still rules with no mention of women being able to divorce husbands!
The movement towards acceptable divorce continued through the centuries. In America the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act went a long way in making life easier for women if they wanted a divorce. They were no longer so dependent on men. Things improved further with the introduction of Family courts in the 1950s and no-fault divorces in the 1970s.
For the men who wanted to hold high office divorce was a stigma. In the UK in 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated after a short reign so he could marry a divorcee. In the US in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller’s hope of becoming president were thwarted because he was divorced. Yet in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected. He became the first divorced person to hold the office of president. The election of the current president confirms that divorce is no longer an issue which prevents office for men. I’m still not sure whether the same standard would apply for women.
Thankfully in many churches it no longer makes a difference whether a woman is divorced or not. Most of the divorced women I know are treated exactly the same as other women in the church. Yet as I write this I started to read the stories of some women’s experiences. I confess I am shocked (Google Women divorcees in the churchand the stories appear). Women who were questioned about whether the abuse was bad enough to justify them leaving their partner. Others who saw their church try to help the men (even when they had been abusive) but treated the woman like she had done something wrong. Definitely a double standard here and one which shows there is still much improvement and advocacy needed.
So although Webb’s redemptive-movement can be somewhat helpful, especially in that he sees the outworking of various issues continuing into contemporary times and even beyond, it does also raise a lot of questions. Sometimes it feels simply like a way to justify things that are unpalatable in the Scriptures.
Maybe, I don’t need to find a reason to reject verses that are not for the good of humanity. Maybe, I simply have to content myself with saying that as society changed and continues to change the good of all people is starting to be considered. I can read passages like the Markan one and be thankful that things have progressed and changed since it was penned. Maybe, that is enough.