Divorce and gay marriage

The Bible has much more to say on divorce and remarriage than it does on homosexuality. Ignoring the vexed question about what exactly the Bible does say about homosexuality (and the assumption implicit in the idea of “what the Bible says“, namely that the Bible is a unitary document which is to be read in the way evangelicals do), the New Testament statements on divorce are clearly and directly against both divorce and marrying a divorcee. Jesus describes the latter as adultery in all of the synoptic gospels. St Paul explicitly states that divorcees must not remarry.

There are a couple of exceptions to the rule: sexual malpractice of some kind (the Greek word which the New International Version translates as “marital unfaithfulness” here, and “sexual immorality” elsewhere, usually rendered “fornication” in the King James Version) and the case where a Christian has an unbelieving spouse and that spouse deserts the believer.

Nevertheless, my impression is that evangelical churches are more willing to re-marry divorcees (whether or not they would be subject to the exceptions mentioned above) than, say, Catholics are, while at the same time being steadfastly against gay marriage. I’ve been asking an evangelical about this on uk.religion.christian, after he made a statement which seemed to confirm my impression. He’s said some good things about repentance and forgiveness in regard to divorce, but hasn’t yet addressed the point that the second marriage itself is described as sinful by the Bible, so it’s hard to see how one can repent of a sin while one is doing it.

I think these churches are doing the right thing in letting compassion overrule “what the Bible says”, of course, but once you’ve done that, why not do it for the gays too? The reason why they don’t do that is, I cynically suspect, because they know what their members want: there are a lot more straight divorcees than there are gay people wanting to get married. As St Jack of Lewis pointed out, it’s very easy to condemn a sin to which you feel no particular temptation.

10 Comments on "Divorce and gay marriage"


  1. Stephen here. http://itsmypulp.wordpress.com

    Just popping in to confirm what you’ve written about divorce, as someone with modest expertise in the New Testament documents. You capture the issues very accurately, right down to the exception clause in Paul (where an unbelieving spouse deserts a believer, the believer is not “bound”).

    On the other hand, I don’t think the Bible is equivocal on the subject of divorce. I’ve read some arguments that homosexuality is only a sin where it is associated with idolatrous worship, but I don’t think it’s a very strong argument.

    The best argument I can make for the Church to accept homosexuals is the following. Jesus was inclusive of various social outcasts (tax collectors, prostitutes, women in general, unspecified “sinners”) who were spurned by the religious authorities. Would he have extended that inclusiveness to homosexuals? We can only speculate, because the Gospels are silent on the subject.

    Personally, I think Jesus would fellowship with homosexuals if he were alive today. But I can’t expect anyone to take my word for it!

    The argument you make is well taken. Evangelicals manage to overlook the plain biblical teaching on divorce, precisely because it is a common experience within their circles. Homosexuality supposedly happens only outside the bounds of the Church, and homosexuals are an easy whipping boy.

    I would add one nuance to your interpretation of the texts on divorce. There is a consensus among scholars that the teaching evolved as the decades passed. The earliest Gospel, Mark (10:11-12), makes no exceptions whatsoever. Matthew (5:32 and again at 19:9) introduces an exception clause for adultery. Scholars assume that the more radical version of the saying, in Mark, is accurate.

    Paul introduces the other exception clause we’ve already discussed. So both Paul and Matthew are introducing exceptions where Jesus allowed none. Ideals are one thing; pastoral realities are another.

    Reply

    1. The teaching evolved as the decades passed?

      So when Jesus first said there were no exceptions he was actually wrong, and later this error was found?

      Reply

      1. Robhu:

        I’m not sure whether you’re a Christian or a non-Christian, so I’m not sure what the nature of your objection is. In any event, I’m not suggesting that Jesus had it wrong, or that Matthew and Paul improved on Jesus’ ethic.

        I’m suggesting that Jesus enunciated a radical moral ideal (no divorce; no exceptions). Later, when churches began to form, pastoral pragmatism trumped Jesus’ idealism. In using the word “evolution”, I didn’t mean to imply progress — just change.

        Paul has a valid point: if evangelical Christians can be pragmatic on the subject of divorce, why not on the subject of homosexuality?

        Reply

    2. I have no doubt that Jesus would have had fellowship with homosexuals-no one denies that. But Jesus also had fellowship with prostitutes-the point isn’t that Jesus was condoning the sin-it’s that he was loving the person regardless.

      Paul I think you make a good point, I guess the issues are just seen as quite separate. According to Lev God hates it when two men get too friendly – regardless of whether or not we obey lev law in the Church. Divorce and remarriage are more negotiable because Jesus gave exceptions. But to be honest i’m undecided on that one.

      Reply

      1. Well, according to Levitical law God hates a lot of other things, as other people have pointed out. A literal reading of Leviticus doesn’t work, because again, Christians aren’t following those rules.

        As Stephen points out, Jesus’ exception may be a later textual variation to deal with pastoral realities. Of course, that’s not a view than an evangelical can commit to, or at least not the sort of evangelical that I was. But oddly, many evangelicals are prepared to accept the re-marriage of people who don’t meet the exceptions, and yet disapprove of homosexuality. I’m not the only one to point out the hypocrisy here.

        Reply

        1. Your link just goes to a list of stuff God wants us to do or not to do, they don’t say much about what he likes and dislikes.

          If something is wrong then it is wrong. Although things can be wrong in certain contexts and not others (while wondering around the desert etc). God says in Lev that he hates homosexual practice, but allows men to divorce. Jesus later says don’t divorce, although sometimes it is ok. Therefore it is more pliable than sexuality. Not much, but there is a sliding scale.

          Reply

          1. God also hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Conversely, Leviticus does not say explicitly (as Malachi does) that God hates homosexual practice, unless the word “abomination” implies that, in which case God also hates shell-fish eating practice.

            My point is that salesmanship and knowing your audience biases interpretation here. (My wider point is that nobody in fact gets their morals from “what the Bible says”, as that phrase is loaded with evangelical cultural assumptions, but that’s something you’ll find me saying elsewhere).

            Reply

  2. Oops — “I don’t think the Bible is equivocal on the subject of divorce” should be “… the subject of homosexuality”, obviously.

    Reply

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