Life, the Universe, and Everything, from the Outside In

Remarried, and Ordained?

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north_dakota_abandoned_farmhouse “..The Husband of One Wife”  An odd phrase, to our ears today. One husband to one wife, one wife to one husband, isn’t that the way it works? But the New Testament requires a candidate for Church office be that kind of husband. What does this mean?

In modern churches it is common for that phrase to mean that if a man has been divorced, or remarried, he is disqualified because he is either no longer the husband of the wife from whom he is divorced, or if remarried, then he is still actually the husband of two wives. Alimony could be a factor in this, but it is not. What is the source of this thinking?

During the monastic movement of the Middle Ages there was a strong trend toward a formalised sacramentalism. What this means is that, for instance, while being baptised is a sign of one’s having come to faith in Christ, “Formalism” would say that the sacrament of baptism causes the conversion. With this kind of thinking, reading a passage in which Jesus says, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” gives the idea that the marriage bond, that is, every marriage, is something mystically created by the will of God and is therefore more sacred to God than the lives of the people in that bond, and that it is impossible for that bond to be violated. One way of looking at it would be to suppose that at a wedding ceremony, after the vows (the covenant) have been repeated and witnessed before God and the Church and community, and the priest, rabbi, or minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. What God has joined, let no man put asunder,” that the second sentence anulls the vows and makes his own pronouncement the grounds for the marriage. It no longer matters that they have vowed to love, honor, cherish, and be faithful to one another. Those are the conditions of the agreement, but the sacramental statement has just made the marriage unconditional. If unconditional, then in effect each partner is allowed, even licensed, to break all the vows, to break, disgrace, and endanger one another, all the time their misdeeds having no effect on the “marriage.” After all- Marriage is a “sacrament.” The Bible says so, doesn’t it?

To offer an answer to this, we have to consider two things. First, we need to see that a sacrement, as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace,” is an indication. It is not in itself the cause of anything. But how do we have the idea that Marriage is sacramental? We read in 1st Corinthians thp at the marriage relationship is a “musterion,” a puzzle or a revelation, which reflects the relationship between Christ and the Church. While the Greek New Testament called it, “musterion,” the Latin which the monks in Europe would use translated it as “sacramentum.” This was a fair translation in the 4th century when Jerome used it, but words do change their meaning over time, as reflected in the way in which the word shifted over the next 800 years from what could indicate a grace given to being the grace itself. In other words, God taught Paul that he could use the love between a husband and wife as an example (musterion) of Jesus’ love for the Church, and about a thousand years later that became the ground for so many mystically-minded celibate men to presume a kind of “sacramental” aura over each individual marriage which had nothing substantial to do with any marriage in particular. But did Jesus say that marriages could not be broken?

If that had been the case, then Jesus, Whom Christians know and experience as the Word, Incarnate, was contradicting himself. He had given instructions, through Moses, that a marriage could be terminated, for the sake of the wronged party, as a means of protection and for the continuation of the nation (“Be fruitful and multiply.”), and in His Sermon, He had said that, “not one jot or tittle (of the Law) will pass away until all things have been fulfilled.” Divorce, which was instituted in the Law as a “way of escape (2nd Corin. 5:17),” guaranteed the right to remarry, thus declaring the former covenant null, void, and unenforceable. The (former) husband of the first wife was free from that bond and could go on to build a family with another wife, with no disgrace, but rather with the support of the community. In his second marriage, he would still be, “the husband of one wife.” But what about the Corinthians, and the Church today?

The Greek culture had developed, according to Philo, largely from the Jewish wisdom brought there by the Diaspora from Babylon, or possibly from the Samaritan dispersion. Their understanding of divorce, then, was similar to Moses’. For someone to remain single was unnatural. Such a one was not upholding their civic duty to provide children for the next generation and might be taking an unhealthy interest in other’s mates. Why would someone want to remain single, anyway? If someone were divorced, it was in order to have the right to remarry at some point, and probably with little delay. What was Paul’s response?

In 1st Corin. 7 Paul was responding to a letter which had proposed that a celibate life was a good thing (v. 1). Indeed, he said, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (v. 2)” While he does spend some discussion in this chapter on the practical advantages of celibacy he then goes back (vv. 25- 28) to point out that, for betrothed or divorced, marriage is yet an acceptable choice. How should we understand this today?

In short, today we have a church culture which, because of a mistake by celibate mystics some 1,000 years back, puts divorced people in an undefined category somewhere between regular fellowship and irredeemable. Though they may have divorced as a last-ditch effort to save their lives or the lives of their children, they, being divorced, cannot be a regular part of the fellowship and, on the other hand, must surely never remarry! No Scripture supports this approach, though many reprove it. To make matters worse, if a candidate for ministry has a divorce in his past, and especially a remarriage, this same superstitious misreading of Scripture bars him from doing what God has called him to do, and so bars the Church from hearing the messenger God has sent. In a culture in which nearly everyone is affected in some way by divorce, the preacher most qualified to minister to such is the one preacher denied the opportunity to do so. It is hard to imagine the pain this kind of policy creates and prolongs; it is hard to imagine the number of called and qualified pastors whose ministries are cut short and destroyed; it is hard to imagine the number of people who are denied Gospel ministry; but most of all it is hard to imagine how God is glorified through such a confused sense of “obedience.”


Written by Robert Easter

Sunday, 4 October, 2009 at 21:54

4 Responses

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  1. I say, “Amen, amen, amen!!!!”

    But having said that, it should be noted that unless a divorce occurs for the very limited reasons which God delineates as acceptable cause in His eyes, then such person remains under covenant. If they remarry, they are committing adultery. This would obviously release the innocent party.

    Another thing that I’ve wondered about and you obliquely touched on, maybe without realizing it, is the issue of just what is a covenantal marriage before God? Is it only one that He initiates and ordains, or does it include those that arise solely as a result of human will?

    And as another can of worms, just when did the Church of Jesus surrender control of a sacrament to the state? What business does Caesar have being involved in what is arguably, a spiritual expression of Jesus’ love for His Bride? It seems to me that we have failed to keep holy matrimony just that, by allowing governmental control, limited though it may be. Just a thought.


    Wednesday, 25 November, 2009 at 13:37

  2. Good to be on the same page with the faith/works dynamic! Now, back to the main idea: What “limited reasons” do you see that, as you said, God delineates?

    By the way- I do agree about the last question, except, can we call marriage a sacrament, and if so, how, and what is a sacrament, and how many are there, as you see it?

    Robert Easter

    Wednesday, 25 November, 2009 at 21:48

  3. Until reading what you had to say, I’d always seen adultery as the only justifiable reason for divorce. But, as a pastor/counselor told me, “There are many ways to adulterate a marriage.” As in all things Biblical, we need spiritual insight to understand what God is saying. Our limited noggins just don’t make the grade.

    Calling marriage a sacrament, was a poor word choice on my part, upon reflection. Most Evangelical positions affirm two sacraments, Communion and Water Baptism.

    In thinking about it, I don’t know why those two should be “singled out” for special treatment, and seemingly set apart from other no less significant aspects of the faith. I’m thinking of, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel…”, “Love others, as you love yourself”, etc., etc. Tradition, I suppose. Putting “flesh” on it, i.e. making it real. God no doubt, has a more holistic view of it all.


    Thursday, 26 November, 2009 at 10:41

  4. Johnny, Long answer as I unpack, or re-unpack some stuff here. I’m probably repeating myself, but it’s faster to ramble a bit than to go back over everything, and expect anybody reading this will have as well.

    Something I’m working with is the whole “sacrament” aspect of the picture. Modern thinking seems to be caught between some kind of skewed idea of that word and a fuzzy-pink-bunny kind of “fate” according to Hollywood.

    On the first part, the “what God has joined” passage is better read in context as saying that Marriage as an institution is a gift from God and should be respected as such. Jesus said this to a group of Pharisees who followed a teaching (if you read the story within the context of the culture of that day and the discussions which had been going on over whether one could read the phrase, “for any cause of uncleanness” as Dt. 24:5 can read in the Hebrew, as two phrases, allowing for an “any cause” divorce. This would be the mechanics behind Joseph’s intent to “put her away quietly” in Luke’s story. To the “any cause” scholars, Jesus warned not to treat a gift of God lightly. Later, Paul wrote, “This is a mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and His Church.” Jerome translated “mystery,” as “sacramentum,” which at the time meant “sign,” or “something significant.”

    About a thousand years later some monks in Europe would read that in the more sacerdotal context as something mystically called into being by a priest. At that point, the marriage ceremony effectively changed in a way that would alter people’s lives until this day. The vows, effectively, were no more conditions of the covenant, as they had been at least since the time of Moses, and became helpful advice (effectively) to follow after the magical moment when the priest (preacher, ship’s captain, court clerk…) said the “magic words.”

    Hollywood added some trash to this fire with the whole “kismet” concept that God, fate, karma… was a big Marriage Broker in the Sky. Put these two together, and you see millions of people being swept into a life of bad choices by their own chemistry and inner issues, blaming God for their own mistakes, and then feeling trapped even to the point of a violent death through a misplaced sense of conscience.

    I offer that the word, “sacrament” means, as we read in the 39 Articles of Religion of the Anglican Communion, is, as ordered by Christ, “an outward and visible sign of an inward, and invisible grace” through which He leads us, for our salvation. The disconnect we are now dealing with makes the supposed “sacrament” of marriage a rite by which someone on earth commands the will of God to conform to the conditions set forth in that rite (supposing that God had “willed” that couple to appear before him), and commanding that the will of God was for them to be sealed into marriage as a mystical bond- Not a covenant any more, because a covenant is dependent, as, say a real estate contract, on both parties to fulfill its conditions. “What God has joined…” then becomes not a quote from Jesus saying what the Spirit would later affirm, that, “The marriage bed is holy, and undefiled, but adulterers ..God will judge.” Instead it has become an misplaced quote from Job, “Though he (she) slay me, yet will I trust…”

    I believe Marriage is a covenant, and as a covenant it has four stipulations: That each, in their own way, provide, and not withhold, the necessary food, raiment, sexual intimacy, and fidelity. (Exod. 18, Dt. 24). If any of these is broken, then, as Jesus said, “For the hardness of your hearts was it given.” God gave the Hebrews the Law of divorce as relief against the hard-heartedness of a partner who insists on breaking the covenant. Divorce is not the breaking of the marriage covenant: divorce is the escape hatch provided to get out of an already broken covenant.

    Robert Easter

    Friday, 27 November, 2009 at 10:31

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