One of the most controversial issues in church and culture is that of divorce. Even in an age that focuses on non-traditional relationships, divorce abounds and marriages are still as fragile as ever.
This year, the Supreme Court will look at the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. I think somewhere along the way, people got it into their minds that married folks needed defending, but I know far more marriages that end in divorce than split due to some outside influence.
Divorce is too convenient, too ubiquitous. It is an easy way out and reflects our propensity to escape hardship whatsoever.
As an old-fashioned kind of guy, I’m on the side of saving a marriage even if it means enduring a few years of suffering and hardship. Every marriage has its difficulties and dry spell, but some issues are harder to work through than others, like adultery, abuse, and manipulation, to name a few.
There are times when divorce is unavoidable and times when clergy have turned a blind eye to the horrors that exist in many a marriage. I’ve met many women who’ve endured being told by their pastors to “submit to their” violent husbands because of a church’s dogmatic, legalistic views against divorce.
Yet, the Bible, ever God’s holy word, still speaks to modern marriages even if our notions of the institution have changed.
In Matthew 5:32, Jesus condemned divorce except in situations involving adultery. In the Gospel of Mark (10:1-21), however, Jesus condemned divorce but did not give an addendum about adultery; rather, he pointed out the deeper issues that led to divorce.
In the Gospel, pharisees and legal scholars challenged Jesus in a debate about divorce. Jesus quickly pointed out that divorce was never God’s intent, it was Moses’ way of accommodating humanity’s “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5).
Furthermore, in the ancient world, divorce was something that husbands initiated. A wife, not so high on the social ladder, had little say in the matter. A divorced woman was, therefore, vulnerable and shamed; in other words, unable to bring honor to her family.
Jesus sided with women on this issue. Divorce was wrong not only because it went against God’s intent, but because it left a vulnerable and powerless people group out in the cold.
Jesus hit the nail on the head: the real issue behind divorce was the abuse of power. We sense this because, not minutes after this debate, Jesus welcomed children–another vulnerable people group in ancient society–into his arms (10:13-16). Like women, antiquity preferred children to be neither seen nor heard.
After that, a rich young man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (10:17-31). The man followed all the rules and fulfilled what was expected of him, but Jesus said he lacked one thing: “Sell all your possessions, give to the poor and then follow me” (10:21).
The rich man refused; and, later, Jesus responded,”But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). Again, Jesus went to the heart of the matter: power, humanity’s abuse of it, and God’s deep commitment to correct it.
For Jesus, being righteous was not about the legalities of marriage or divorce, but was about one’s ability to temper power in a way that kept the most vulnerable in a place of honor and dignity. Jesus’ disciples best followed God when they lived by an ethic in which they put “the last” first in life even at their own expense. Even they had to become vulnerable, “as a little child,” to enter God’s kingdom (10:15).
There is no doubt that divorce is full of complexity. Perhaps the root of all our discussions, however, shouldn’t be whether to divine what God might say to this couple or that, but should be to get at the heart of where we wield–and, at times abuse–power within our relationships.
Perhaps the only defense our marriages need is the defense against our baser, selfish, and power-hungry selves. After all, we too are susceptible to a “hardness of heart.”