Archives For hermeneutics

Dictionary definition of divorce

Dictionary definition of divorce

The issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage have caused much debate within the Christian community and are of significant pastoral weight. Until recently, the locus of this discussion has been on whether and when a divorce between husband and wife is permitted. Of late the discussion has shifted to the very nature of marriage: whether Christian marriage may be redefined to include same-gender relationships.

Many progressive interpreters of Scripture appeal to changing views on divorce as evidence for the ways in which our scriptural understanding may evolve over time. Attitudes certainly shift over time, but whether the shift is meaningfully connected to a shift in interpretive approach or simply ignorance or indifferent to Scripture and tradition is less easy to discern. The vast majority of evangelical Christians–those who profess a high view of Scripture, among other markers–have capitulated to the concept of no-fault divorce and, perhaps more insidiously, have successfully removed the church from speaking into these sorts of issues in the lives of its members. This bracketing, while understandable, also denigrates the theological purpose of the church as a school of virtue in which members are shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Of course, affirming the authority of Holy Scripture is easy when one understands–or thinks one understands–clearly what the Bible says. However, when the teaching of the Scriptures is more obscure, a diversity of opinions arises and conflict is likely not far behind.

How then do we make sense of what Jesus says about divorce in the Gospels?

A fundamental presupposition to a helpful discussion is that since Jesus spoke and taught in the context of first century Palestine, an understanding of that context is of critical importance to interpreting what Jesus meant.

A discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce must focus on the four sections of the Synoptic Gospels that deal with the subject: Matt 5:31ff., 19:3ff.; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18.

These four accounts, episodes if you will, can be synthesized to provide a single coherent and consistent teaching on the subject of divorce that  appeals to the Old Testament.

We can then compare Jesus approach to the Hebrew Scriptures with that of the two, well-documented schools of interpretation found in first century Judaism: the schools of Shammai, and of Hillel. As we compare the different approaches to interpretation both with one another and with that of Jesus, we will be able to delineate the ways in which Jesus’ approach varies from the dominant Jewish approaches of the day.

The Gay Spring

January 10, 2014 — 3 Comments

2013 saw incredible change in the legislative landscape of the United States with respect to marriage–a gay spring, if you will–that sharply divided the country along regional lines. Across the South and Central United States voters protected the traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman and refused to extend that the definition to include same-sex couples. In the West and Northeast the definition was–sometimes against voter intent–expanded to allow for same sex marriages (as in California and Utah).

Image

This spring and summer–the time when Kings go off to war and denominations do too–Presbyterians will likely redefine marriage to allow for same sex weddings where civil law provides for it. And even where state law doesn’t permit it the option of sanctioning, blessing, consecrating, or otherwise attaching the churches endorsement to same sex unions will likely become an option for teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Since I live in North Carolina, this change will have little impact on me personally. Assuming, and it’s far from likely this would happen, that two men wanted me to marry them I could demur to state law without having to cite my own theological understanding of the issue. That’s a convenient position in which to find oneself. Of course, when ministers of the gospel look to the state for theological guidance it’s possible that the battle has already been lost.

Yet, there are many ministers across the country who will have lost the comfortable protection both of the state and the church in this regard. It is, however conceivable that with a change in marriage definition ministers will now be forced to be open about their views on marriage, even if they are not being asked to perform something that the state understands to be a wedding. This is difficult at the best of times, but in the face of opposition from both the state and the church it is onerous.

Mass culture has swung to affirm the GLBTQ community. Many Americans maintain traditional views with regard to sexuality, but it is now unacceptable to voice these in a public forum. I’m not talking about Duck Dynasty or some other pop culture person expressing views that are out of the “mainstream culture” as that culture constructed and communicated across media. I’m talking about a more general and diffuse pressure to join in with the chorus of affirmations of the sovereign right of the individual to discover (or construct?) his or her sexual identity.

I disagree with expanding the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to encompass the right of same sex couples to marry. I disagree with it for a variety of reasons most of which are rooted in my theological understanding of God, humanity, creation, and the nature of marriage.

Since we don’t live in a Christian state, since what little moral consensus that once existed around this issue has evaporated, and since the line of precedent around this and other issues like it have unalterably led us to this place, I understand why many states are embracing this new reality of marriage.

I respect same sex people who choose to enter into legally-recognized partnerships. All things being equal–which of course they’re not–it’s better for a gay couple to enter into to some form of monogamous partnership or marriage than the alternative.

In the eyes of some states these are marriages, but in reality they are really only approximately equal to marriage. Those elements that are essential to marriage are missing from same sex relationships. As a result, to the church, these are really no marriage at all. On one level I’d prefer to not have to write this, but to do so would betray the Holy Scriptures that were handed to me as well as the churches theological reflection on Christ and the Scriptures for the last millennium.

To my mind, gay marriages are marriages in the same way that a corporation is a person–as a result of a legal fiction. A corporation may have rights like a person–political speech for example–but at the end of the day I think we can all agree that Goldman Sachs isn’t a person in the same way that Aunt Betty is.

So what of those whose views are popularly portrayed as slinking to occupy the hazy background of our current cultural snapshot? It simply remains for us to live peaceably with gentleness and respect.

My Augustinian view of history makes an awful lot of room for our culture to choose poorly, to favor error over truth. It happens in my own denomination and certainly within my country. In the end any law that violates God Law will be proven to be false and in the age that is to come will melt away. That is, of course, an eschatological statement, and we’re not in the eschaton yet. What remains is for those of us who are called and ordained to the work of preaching the Gospel to remain faithful to respect the civil authority while protecting the purity of the church’s teaching, worship, and sacraments. If I have to break civil or ecclesial law to do that, so be it.

Subscribe to jeffgissing.com below:

10 Evangelical Distinctives

September 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

I recently wrote a post asking whether–and if so, how–the Presbyterian Church (USA) is evangelical. This generated some interesting conversations about what the word evangelical really means. In light of these conversations, I thought it worth exploring the variety of perspectives on the evangelical movement.

Continue Reading...

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Continue Reading...

It’s imperative to acknowledge that there are things that matter more deeply than the way we order and govern our life together as a nation. In a highly pluralistic society, its imperative to recognize that “secular reason” cannot be the sole arbiter of our decisions without doing violence to the large number of people who acknowledge an authority deeper than that of the state. As a result, it is important to carve out exceptions for religious people and religious organizations and corporations as the court has intimated it may do in the case of Hobby Lobby.

Continue Reading...