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Marriage, divorce and the Bible

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 10 August 2018

I can remember, in my first Parish, standing before the congregation as a divorced man having married a divorced woman to preach on Matthew 19:9 "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."

The sermon I preached on this occasion is lost so I cannot tell you how I extricated myself from the obvious dilemma. The Uniting Church took me on as a candidate for ministry knowing my marital circumstances and the Anglicans ordained me deacon also with full knowledge. Surely these two denominations would object to an adulterer holding leadership positions in the Church, given Mat. 19:9? Is this a case of a convenient laxity, otherwise known as liberalism, or have these churches made a theologically informed decision? What is at stake here, for the Church, has been framed in terms of liberalism and conservatism. This dichotomy runs through all of the denominations.

While the Catholics look like they are holding it all together, there are deep divisions at every level between those who cling to the faith being "always the same" and those who believe that the Church has always changed and will continue to change in the future. This was most apparent in the early years of the Church when the food laws of Judaism were dismissed and Gentiles (those of the uncircumcised) welcomed into the community of faith. This occurred before any of the gospels were written, the controversy only recorded by Paul who abandoned his identity as a Jew to be a disciple of Christ and to confront Peter about the issue of circumcision.


I point this out because the split between Judaism and the Church occurred against the reading of the Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament). It occurred as a working out of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The early Church was doing theology from the grass roots without the aid of the gospels and maybe without the letters of Paul. This is instructive for us because it bears witness to how the Church forms its theology, how it understands the nature of God. Yes, after the formation of the New Testament, that particular Scripture fed theology, but theology was not just a distillation of the content of Scripture. It had the life of the Church in mind. The understanding of that life could not be hijacked by biblical verses that were out of step with the gospel.

A prime example of this way of working can be found in the Arian controversy in the fourth century. This was essentially a controversy about trinitarian doctrine. Arius insisted that the Son was subordinate to the Father. He found as did Unitarians after him many biblical verses that appeared to support his position. However, his opponent, Athanasius, saw that such a doctrine would produce an unworkable understanding of salvation. If the Son was not all that the Father was then we were left in our sins. The Son, reduced to a mediator and not God himself, was powerless in the face of human fallenness. Grace would have been subsumed into morality and we all know what a dead end that is.

Rowan Williams makes the point that it was the Arians who were the conservatives and it was Athanasius, who was the innovator, the theological risk taker who finally won the day giving us the robust and rich trinitarianism that we all enjoy to this day and giving us the prime example of theology in service to the Church, informed by Scripture but not subordinated to it.

The take home message here is that the Church forms its theology from both a broad and deep view of the meaning of the gospel and hence the nature of God. It refuses to be side tracked by biblical readings that are obviously conditioned by the time, of which there are many. For example, slavery was common in early New Testament times but it took until 1807 for William Wilberforce, English politician and Christian, for the passing of the Slave Trade Act. Revelation cannot be understood as a single event in the past whereupon absolute truth was given to us. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity describes a dynamic in which the face of the Father is revealed in the Son during the progress of time by the Spirit. "The world to come" refers to the unfolding of a new creation in which the face of God will be revealed. This is where the dynamic of Christian civilization finds its roots. It does not constantly look back on revelation, complete and absolute that is set in the past but forwards to a changing future.

Such an understanding of how the theology of the Church develops over time means that faith necessarily interprets Scripture. This means that although we understand marriage to be "until death do us part" we also understand that human fragility plays a part and that some marriages become impossible and often crippling for both husband and wife. When this happens it is a tragedy, especially when there are children involved. But it does not help, and indeed must be against the nature of Christ and hence the nature of God, to hold desperately unhappy, even violated men and women, in a relationship that has become a living hell. As our understanding of the evils of slavery developed over time, our understanding of marriage has also undergone a change. We now know that some relationships become so damaged that they are irreparable.

It is easy for conservatives to portray liberals as accommodationists who have let the side down by listening more to the spirit of the world and neglecting the original teaching of Christ. Certainly this has been true for some Protestants, especially when they have jettisoned the gospel in favour of psychological or political fixes for human dilemmas. But this misses trains of thought in both Protestantism and Catholicism that have a more nuanced approach to tradition that takes the doctrine of the Trinity seriously. Whereas conservatives cling to the sole figure of the Father who dispenses unchangeable moral truths, true trinitarians work with a dynamic understanding of God who brings about a new reality in time. It is the dynamic between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ever alive, and at work by which the Church exists at all.


Vladimir Lossky described the Trinity as "a cross for human ways of thought." It is very human to imagine God as a law maker as is witnessed in the Hebrew Scriptures and as practiced by observant Jews in the time of Jesus. Islam follows suit. But this does not fit with the triune God in which the Son dies in abandonment and whom God raises in the power of the Spirit. This Spirit is none other than the Spirit of Jesus who broke the moral boundaries of the time and exposed their enforcers for what they were, the dead hand of the law and the murderers of the one true man.

It is no wonder that Paul had problems in the new churches with lawless behaviour by those who took the freedom won by Christ as license. "All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything." (1Cor. 6:12) The new liberty in Christ does not lead to libertarianism but to a morality based solidly in the new person that has no need of rule based living. Part of the reason for the decline of the Church is because of the disastrous association of Christianity with morality. Sensible men and women correctly think that they can live moral lives without the aid of religion. That is what the freedom won in Christ means. The significance of the gospel is not primarily morality but the way it confronts us with who we are and who we might become in Christ. To use a much abused word, the gospel is existential, it is about Being.

The dilemma of a divorced and remarried man preaching on Matthew 19:9 is not solved by exegetical sophistry, as if we could prove that Jesus did or did not actually say the words, or that the context of the saying refutes a literal reading, but by an understanding of keeping the faith that goes to the centre of the gospel which cannot be reduced to moral pronouncements. That centre is difficult for us because it goes against the constant demand of our times that we are the authors of our lives. Are we capable of fashioning our lives from desire and ambition? It seems not, as any observation of our current society will confirm.

If the centre of the gospel is the new creation in the resurrection, rather than a utopian moral social order, then the application of stray moral commands or guides by Matthew on marriage or Paul on the male headship of the family or the silence of women in worship may be taken as conditioned by the time and regarded as being injurious to radical freedom in Christ. The writers of the New Testament were men of their time and this is, at times, evident. Change in the Church cannot always be understood as liberalism, the conformity to the politics of the day, but a genuine progress in our understanding of the core of the gospel and our vision of the face of God.

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This article owes much to  Benjamin Myers’ book Christ the Stranger.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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