Inevitably, I’m expecting people to misunderstand the following post. And, sadly, some might even do so intentionally.

I’m, in this post, not primarily presenting my own pastoral position in relation to divorce and remarriage in our contemporary context.

I want to, in this post, present fairly an exegesis of New Testament texts which interpret Jesus as not allowing marriage after divorce whilst the spouse is still alive – using the Bible as the sole authority – sola scriptura.

Both in Mark 10:11-12 and in Luke 16:18, Jesus is pretty straightforward about divorce:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

This seems to fit in with the usual teaching style we have come to expect from Jesus, and with his (strong) contrasting with interpretations by the Pharisees (who, as we’ll see below, allowed divorce and remarriage).

Matthew 5:32, however, appears to add a (single – note that) exception:

I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity (πορνεία porneia), causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (μοιχάω moichaō).

And that “exception” is repeated in Matthew 19:9.

Let’s leave to someone on a higher pay grade the debate whether or not this “exception” comes from the mouth of the (radical) historical Jesus, and just treat the text as inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

Clearly, then, the issue is – how to translate πορνεία (porneia) [not forgetting that the Gospel’s Greek text is itself a translation of what Jesus would have originally said]. Put simply, πορνεία means illicit sexual intercourse in general (Demosthenes, 403, 27; 433, 25): Acts 15:20, 29; Acts 21:25.

And here’s the crunch (again put as simply as I can):

Position A holds that Jesus is, in Matthew’s single “exception”, talking about the couple being in a πορνεία (porneia) relationship with each other. In other words, this couple consists of a brother and sister, or some other relationship that cannot be married. We see this use of the word πορνεία (porneia) in, for example, 1 Cor 5:1:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality (πορνεία porneia) among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.

This interpretation, Position A,

  • is consistent with Jesus’ teaching as presented elsewhere (and Paul’s “from the Lord“),
  • makes sense of why, in Matthew 19, the Pharisees are “putting Jesus to the test” (the followers of Hillel held that divorce could be for any reason; the followers of Shammai contended it could be only for adultery; seeing on which of these two sides Jesus stood is hardly putting him to the test!),
  • explains the disciples apparent shock in Matthew 19:10,
  • provides the context for Jesus talking about eunuchs,
  • and explains why πορνεία (porneia) rather than the ordinary word “adultery” (μοιχάω moichaō) is being used.

Position B holds that Jesus is referring to one of the partners in the marriage having intercourse with someone other than their spouse. There are two responses to Position B.

B1 would understand that Jesus then allows separation from bed and board (this is mentioned by St Paul, St Augustine, and St Jerome). It is not licence to marry another.

B2 would allow remarriage by the innocent partner. To suggest any other interpretation, that Jesus, in this text, would allow you to divorce if you commit adultery first, is patently absurd.

Some adherents of sola scriptura who want to allow remarriage after divorce stretch the least likely interpretation, B2, and stretch it to breaking point by suggesting that Jesus is here giving an example of an exception. Their logic is: Jesus made an exception therefore we can make more exceptions.

The Church of England bishops have recently been in the news for reinforcing the teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. Until 2002, the Church of England held to that most stringently. But since 2002, exceptions have been provided to the “for life”. The question that is immediately apparent, then, is that: if there may be exceptions now to “for life”, why may there not be exceptions to it being a man and a woman? In practice, the exceptions to “for life” are already way higher than can be anticipated for exceptions to it being a man and a woman.

I have pointed out, in an open letter to our leadership, that NZ Anglicanism is in breach of our own teaching. Whilst our teaching is clear that marriage is “for life”, our practice (embodied in our canon 2.9 allowing remarriage after divorce) is that marriage is “intended to be life-long”. My letter (of May 2016) has been referred by our General Synod Standing Committee to the Chancellors and the Liturgical Commission, and we are still looking forward to a response.

In conclusion, then, those who adhere to sola scriptura (basing Christian teaching and practice on the Bible alone) cannot justify divorce and remarriage (other than, at a pinch, the single exception of the inculpable spouse where the other spouse has committed adultery).

A key into the present is the question: is what Jesus accepted and taught (within his context) binding in all places for all time? [The sola scriptura position would hold that what the Bible accepted and taught is binding in all places for all time]. Or might we, once we have with honesty established what Jesus thought and taught, apply his fundamental principles differently in our very different contemporary context (which includes different understanding)?

As I said at the start, this post is bound to be misunderstood, so (as one who does not hold to the limitations of sola scriptura) in an attempt to ameliorate that, I restate what I have said before:

My own position is to see God wherever I find love and caring, and to point to and facilitate ways that this might flourish. I believe that the structures we create should demonstrate understanding of the complexity of the human condition we find ourselves in and respond with justice and compassion. I am disturbed that our church makes the celebration of committed same-sex couples such an all-consuming controversy while comparatively scant energy has been expended on the parallel points for opposite-sex couples. I wonder about the dynamics at work underneath the debates, that we as a church seem to have issues with a small minority (who often appear objectified as “them”) while we appear not to have really paused to equally apply the same arguments to the majority (“us”). I wonder why this issue, rather than other pressing issues in our contemporary world, occupies so much of our church’s energy.

Anglicanism certainly looks like it says one thing and practices another – and does this solely for the majority heterosexuals. There is a word for that.

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