When questioned about marriage and divorce, Jesus cited God’s intention in creation: one man, one woman, joined by God, the two united as one flesh (a phrase that is obviously sexual and yet encompasses more than sex), enduring for a lifetime.
But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10:6-8
Jesus’ explicit argument from creation is somewhat unusual. It seems to me that most of Jesus’ teaching, both in word and deed, looked forward to the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus cannot root his sexual ethic, however, in the age to come. Luke 22:34-35 records Jesus saying,
The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.
The gift of marriage (and sex) is strictly a “this age” phenomenon, perhaps because there is no longer any need for procreation. Death no longer has any power, so no replacements are required. The inhabitants of the age to come will be “God’s children” and “children of the resurrection”.
Nevertheless, Jesus considered God’s intention in creation to be foundational to understanding the proper place of sexual activity. This is the context for the church’s teaching on God’s gift of sex, and it is certainly a quite different vision of human sexuality than is offered in film and song today.
What the World Gets Wrong about Sex
The world has it wrong. You won’t find the best sex in the films of Hollywood or in the advertising of Madison Avenue. You won’t find it on iTunes or on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. You will find it in the homes of ordinary husbands and wives who love each other for a lifetime. As the vow goes, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Christians aspire to something different, something genuinely better. Having been in a Christian marriage for more than three decades, I have to say that I don’t think I am missing a thing. Jesus’ vision of marriage is truly a blessing; I cannot think of anything better.
In two decades of chaplain service, I have also seen repeatedly how sexual behavior that ignores God’s intentions causes injury, heartache and ruin for so many.
When Christ’s people to say “yes” to God’s intention in creation, they say “no” to everything outside that intent: sex before marriage, sex instead of marriage, sex with someone other than my spouse, sex for money, sex with multiple partners, sex with people of my sex, sex with people whom I cannot marry, sex because I’m curious, sex because I’m driven to it, sex because I’m born this way, sex to express my autonomy and power, sex because it feels good. No longer taboo, these activities are the frequent subject of light comedy and popular entertainment.
There are a lot of words that have fallen out of fashion that describe behaviors that are “out of bounds” for Christians: adultery, fornication, bigamy, promiscuity, prostitution, homosexuality (and some others that, thankfully, are still too shocking for polite society). The words sound harsh and old-fashioned today, and I have no interest in beating anyone over the head with them. But, there’s a reason that the church said there’s a problem when people step outside of God’s intent. The Lord is not a heavenly spoil sport. Jesus points us, rather, to something better for human beings than anything the world can imagine.
Divorce, Jesus says, is a concession to sin.
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. Matthew 19:8
Within the context of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, divorce is prohibited to Jesus’ disciples. Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 make the prohibition absolute. Matthew 19:9 provides an exception for porneia, a term that encompases sexual infidelity and improper relationships. Jesus prohibits divorce to his disciples just as he does every other concession to the exigencies of living in this age: earning a living, taking care of a family, administering justice, and the like. The period between Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion constituted a unique era in the salvation of the world, and it called for exceptional rules.
In Jesus, the new creation has come, but the old has not yet passed away. We still live in a fallen world; people still have “hard hearts.” Marriages still break.
In Moses’ world, the “certificate of divorce” gave a woman the opportunity to marry again if her husband kicked her to the curb, and marriage was the key to honorable survival. Without a certificate of divorce, a “put away” woman would be condemned to a life of poverty and vulnerability. Today, the economics of marriage and divorce look different than they did 4000 years ago. As it did in Moses’ day, legal divorce still gives the victims of a destructive marriage the opportunity to survive and build something new.
Divorce may be unavoidable. It might even be the best choice when all the other options are worse, but it is never the ideal. It’s not what we aim for. It always falls short of God’s intention in creation.
Divorce is always to be lamented, and one’s role in it confessed. Most of the sins that break a marriage apart take place long before anyone sees a lawyer or a judge. Sometimes partners both play a major role in breaking the marriage apart, and sometimes there is truly an innocent victim. There can, in fact, be many innocent victims if there are children involved. Even members of the extended family get hurt as angers flare and relationships break. The wounds of divorce need healing.
The Power of Jesus’ Vision
Insofar as we are new creatures in Christ, Christian marriages have the potential to become what God intended for them to be “from the beginning of creation.” Insofar as we remain enmeshed in this fallen world, our marriages will fall short of this potential. The question, however, is not what can we achieve. The question is what vision drives us. Jesus lays out a higher vision than anyone else before him: be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
A Higher Ethic
In marriage, God’s desire is a purity of intention, not just purity of action.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-32)
God’s intention not only excludes the physical act of adultery, it excludes inward adultery as well.
Note, that it’s not inward-instead-of-outward; it’s inward-as-well-as-outward. Jesus was not a Gnostic who believed that only inward, spiritual thoughts and feelings mattered, and that the physical creation was indifferent at best. Some Gnostics eschewed sex and marriage altogether; others reveled in their supposed freedom, believing that their licentious behavior didn’t have any negative effects on their inward spirits. Jesus, by way of contrast, pointed to God’s purpose in making humans male and female “at the beginning of creation.”
Sexual Self-Control and Self-Discipline
Jesus seems to expect that some people will need to forgo fulfillment of even inborn sexual thoughts, hopes and desires to live faithful lives. Jesus was no proponent of open, casual or impermanent sexual relationships. He didn’t relax the sexual ethic, he tightened it. As I wrote in What’s the Trajectory, Kenneth,
If the Bible’s arc with regard to ‘slavery’ leads to ever greater freedom, the ‘sexual ethic’ arc leads to ever greater self-control and restraint.
In contrast to what some modern commentators believe about Jesus, he seemed to think that sexual behavior is ethically very significant. Sex matters. In Jesus’ own terms, misuse of the gift of sex results in your lifeless corpse spending eternity in dishonor on the trash heap of history instead of it being raised to new life in the kingdom of God.
“Gehenna” – usually translated “hell” – was a valley outside of Jerusalem with a sordid history of idolatry and child sacrifice. Good for nothing else, it was a place to dispose of the bodies of those who died in dishonor. Many have suggested that it was also a literal trash heap with a fire that never seemed to go out, but I have seen this disputed in recent scholarship. Jesus probably wasn’t talking about a literal trash heap or the literal valley of Gehenna, but it’s a pretty powerful figure of speech. At the very least, Jesus is talking about a wasted life that misses out on the kingdom of God. That’s where the misuse of sex can lead you.
The use and abuse of one’s sexual nature was so significant that it called for drastic measures. Jesus was probably speaking metaphorically, but the image of gouging out one’s eyes and cutting off one’s hands in Matthew 5 is still pretty severe.
Matthew 19 also contains striking imagery.
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Matthew 19:10-12
Again, Jesus’ use of the word “eunuch” is probably intended to be a metaphor, but the image is remarkable nonetheless.To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to exercise self-control (and even self-denial) with regard to one’s misdirected sexual desires.
Jesus taught that from the beginning of creation, God intended men and women to have sexual relationships within the context of marriage. Divorce breaks apart what God has joined together and falls short of God’ gracious intention. At best, it’s a tragedy. Modern attitudes toward marriage and divorce have become much too casual.
Worse yet, some contemporary voices are promoting all sorts of other sexual behaviors as commendable in the sight of God. The permanent union of a man and a woman in a sexually exclusive relationship may be right for some, we are told, but there are other sexual relationships that are also loving and uplifting.
One cannot live within our society without knowing many fine people who do not accept Jesus’ paradigm for sexual behavior, at least as I understand it. I can love them and even admire much of what they do with their lives, but I am not going to follow their lead. I have chosen to try to live by this teaching:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
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Referenced Passages from the Synoptic Gospels
- Matthew 5:27-32 Adultery, Lust, Self Control, Divorce
- Matthew 19:1-12 Marriage, Creation, Divorce, Self Control
- Matthew 22:23-32 Marriage, Resurrection
- Mark 10:1-12 Marriage, Creation, Divorce
- Mark 12:18-27 Marriage, Resurrection
- Luke 16:18 Divorce
- Luke 20:27-38 Marriage, Resurrection
- What’s the Trajectory, Kenneth
- Forsaking All Others
- Sexual Ethics in First Corinthians
- Sexual Ethics in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8
- Flee Sexual Immorality
- Clergy Sexual Ethics
- Dana Jennings on Love
- Marriage Enrichment for the Love of Christ
- You Have Heard that it Was Said
- A Certificate of Divorce
- And Marries Another
- From the Beginning of Creation