We’ve now reached the section of The Moral Vision of the New Testament where Richard Hays begins to examine how the New Testament speaks to specific, controversial issues. (If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, see the reading schedule here.)
Last week, we looked at the question of Christians using violence in the defense of justice. Today, we are examining Hays’ treatment of divorce and remarriage. The question before us is this: Can the church bless divorce? If so, under what conditions?
Hays sees five significant passages in the New Testament that directly address the issue of divorce.
- Mark 10:2-12: Jesus takes the Pharisees’ question about the rule governing divorce and appeals to the symbolic world created by the Genesis narrative. Accordingly, divorce is a violation of God’s intent, and His disciples must renounce it.
- Matthew 19:3-12: Matthew’s version adds an exception for porneia, which Hays interprets a generic term describing a variety of offenses related to sexual immorality.
- Matthew 5:31-32, Luke 16:18: Taken together, these passages indicate that remarriage after divorce is prohibited, for either partner.
- 1 Corinthians 7:10-16: Paul discourages remarriage in favor of serving the Lord with unhindered devotion, but he does not forbid remarriage or characterize it as necessarily adulterous.
Synthesis: Divorce and Remarriage in Canonical Context
Hays sees a “deep and bewildering diversity” in these five texts. Still, they are united in their “fundamental concern,” which is “to affirm marriage as a permanently binding commitment in which man and woman become one.”
Placing these New Testament teachings on divorce within the wider canon, we are to understand marriage within context of Genesis narrative and God’s original intent. We must also see marriage as a covenant, a mirror of the relationship of God to his people (Mal. 2:14-16; Eph. 5:28-30).
Next, Hays looks at the question through the three focal lenses:
Community: Divorce is not a private issue; it concerns the health and witness of the church.
Cross: Husbands and wives are called to the way of the cross, the way of service.
New Creation: Marriage is a sign of eschatological redemption.
Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Witness Against Divorce
The question before us now is: How do we adhere to the New Testament’s teaching about divorce and remarriage?
- Rule: The prohibition of divorce is clear in all five texts.
- Principles: Why no divorce? None of the texts appeal to love as the principle for maintaining marital bonds. Instead, they teach that God has joined together the couple, and God has called us to peace.
- Paradigm: The closest paradigm is the creation story, with Adam and Eve’s one-flesh union as the pattern for subsequent marriages.
- Symbolic world: From the Genesis account, we move to the relationship of Christ and the church, as well as the eschatological wedding in Revelation.
- Other Authorities: The tradition of Catholics is to reject remarriage while Protestants uphold the rule but expand the range of situations treated as exceptions. Reason can support the traditional view by showing the effects of divorce on children. Appeals to experience tend to override the clear teaching of Scripture and tradition.
Hays’ Suggestions for the Church Today
- We must recover the New Testament’s vision for marriage as an aspect of discipleship, a reflection of God’s faithfulness.
- Divorce is flatly contrary to God’s will, save in extraordinary circumstances.
- Marriage is grounded not in feelings of love but in the practice of love.
- Occasions exist when one partner so deeply wrongs the other that marriage can’t continue. The church must continue to receive divorced persons as full participants in Christian fellowship.
- Remarriage after divorce cannot be excluded as a possibility.
- The church must find ways to provide deep and satisfying fellowship for the divorced who do not remarry.
Living the Text: The Church as Community Making the Love of God Visible
- The great need of the church is for clear teaching on marriage and divorce. We should not wait until couples are in crisis.
- We must form communities that embody the surprising hope of the new creation.
Some Personal Considerations: I believe Hays does well in treating the New Testament’s fundamental rule against divorce, and his framing of marriage within the category of discipleship and faithfulness rather than emotional and romantic longing is most helpful.
I also appreciate Hays’ respect for the diversity of the witnesses. Unfortunately, because he seeks to regularly avoid any harmonization, he embraces what appears to be the most relaxed restriction (Paul), and interprets these writings as a trajectory justifying divorce for an expanding number of serious offenses. It is not that Hays takes a soft approach to divorce, but I believe some of his caveats mute the forcefulness of the fundamental NT rule he observes.
It is also unclear what the role of the church should be when unjust divorce takes place. A few of his statements lead me to believe that he would not approve of disciplinary action toward either spouse in a situation where the wrongs are so many that the marriage must be broken. There is no clear line of demarcation between a Christian fellowship “receiving divorced persons” in a general sense and “receiving repentant divorced persons.” Surely we are to pursue an atmosphere of grace where broken people from failed marriages are not sidelined or kept from meaningful ministry. But surely we are also to pursue a Spirit-driven holiness that is unafraid to boldly call out erring husbands or wives.
What about you? What is your church’s view on divorce and remarriage? How do you handle these sensitive issues?