“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” These words written by the apostle Paul to the folks who followed Jesus in Rome are included in his description of what a community of people who are being transformed from those who live according to the rules of human culture into a spiritual community. These people, he stated, were in actuality part of a single ‘body.’ They were a unified whole in which each part was dependent on the others for their very existence. This is a way of viewing our interdependence with others that has, for the most part, been lost to Western culture. It has been also lost in the one place that one would expect to find it…the Church.
We followers of Jesus have been known for a long time as one of the few groups who shoot their own wounded. When life gets tough and some of us struggle to move, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, we often accuse, shame, and shun that person. I’ve seen this happen in others. And, I’ve experienced it personally.
Please understand that my intention is not to bash anyone. I know these people. I have been these people. They have good hearts and desire more than anything to serve God. But, we all get caught up in a righteous fervor from time-to-time that makes it difficult to get past the letter of the law to the graciousness that God has exampled for us in Jesus.
With that being said, I am going to turn my attention to divorce. I am not going to quote statistics other than to mention that the divorce rate among people who follow Jesus is pretty much the same as those who do not. Some say that anywhere from one third to one half of all marriages end in divorce. Whatever polls are used, that adds up to a lot of hurting people.
How should we respond to this? Should we follow the letter of the Scriptural prescription? Jesus made it very clear that divorce was not God’s intention for people. He is recorded as saying, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” There’s nothing ambiguous about that statement. Divorce is not an option that God desires. Many people in the church read this statement written by Matthew and conclude that divorce is therefore a sin. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. But, what does that look like in real life?
I had a friend many years ago who was in an abusive marriage. At times she feared for her safety. She and her husband went to church leaders for help. Much of what they received in counsel was that the husband needed to learn to love her sacrificially, just as Jesus loves the church. And, the wife had to submit to her husband no matter what. That meant that she was told to stay with him, abuse or no. At one time she became so afraid that she left to find a safe place to stay. She was commanded by the church leaders to return to her husband. Confused, hurt, and shamed she acquiesced and like a good little wife, went back.
After time, however, the fear and tension in that home became too much to bear. She moved out and began divorce proceedings. Shortly after this she received a letter from the church leadership stating that if she and her husband moved forward with a divorce they would be considered to be actively sinning and would no longer be welcome in the church. They did divorce and are now both remarried and seem to be doing very well.
The reason that I used this example is to demonstrate, what I feel, is a pastoral fail. Again, I don’t intend this to be a personal attack on any particular group of people. This kind of Biblicist action takes place in many churches. The thought being that if Jesus has apparently condemned some action or behavior, we must condemn it, also. After all, the Bible is God’s word and we don’t want to go against that.
Ok, well, let’s take a look at how Jesus handled a situation where the letter of the law, God’s word, was called as a witness. In the Gospel according to John there is a story about a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. A group of religious leaders dragged her before Jesus and explained, rightly, that the law demanded that she be stoned to death. After all, Torah was God’s word. Jesus realized that. At no point did he deny that Moses had written that adultery was a capital offense. He could have simply agreed with those men and righteously condemned the woman. But, he did not do that. Instead, he turned the issue into an opportunity to show all of the people that we are all fallible and subject to error. In essence he said, “Let the person who is without sin throw the first stone.” No one came forward. In fact, all of the accusers turned and walked away. In the end, no one was left to condemn her. Jesus, then, said, “I do not condemn you either.” He sent her on her way with an encouragement to stop sinning.
Jesus did not do away with the law. He set it aside in order to pour out compassion on a hurt and confused woman. He reinterpreted the text in the context of real life with real people who have real needs. Yes, the Bible is clear on Jesus’ feelings about divorce. We, however, need to recognize that what Jesus said is an ideal. How we apply that must be tempered with compassion. One commentator wrote, “Only an unjustifiable Biblicism will force the idealism of New Testament ethics in a cruel and heartless manner by an adamant insistence upon the teaching of this passage, (Mat.19:3-12), as merely a collection of detailed laws.”
Whatever position on divorce someone takes, we as people who desire to follow Jesus must look closely at the things that Jesus did, not just the words that he spoke. As the quote at the beginning of this post states, we must show empathy, not judgment when our sisters and brothers are hurting. We are, after all, sewn together in a glorious tapestry of humanity. Each joined to the other in the love of God through Jesus.