No Divorce: Sing the Melody

by Sean Perron
by Sean Perron

There has never been a better time to strengthen your view on marriage. The culture around us is in a continual state of flux on the issue, but the church has to get this one right. We have to hit the nail on the head and pin God’s picture up on the walls of our house. Christ is coming back and we want him to see our marriages as a beautiful mosaic reflecting his gospel.

All of that to ask, what is your view of divorce and remarriage? You must have a biblically informed view or else you will default to someone else’s viewpoint – or you will simply go with what feels right in the moment. We must be tethered to truth or else we will have nothing to hold onto when the gravity gives out under us.

Three Views and Four Gospels

There are many conversations and debates that have been taking place among Christians when it comes to divorce and remarriage. I realize I am flying into this conversation like a NASA shuttle in a meteor shower. I am picking up the conversation mid-flight, but I hope the discussion is helpful in some way.

The three main evangelical positions on divorce and remarriage are the Erasmian, Patristic, and Permanence views.

The Erasmian view allows divorce for adultery and abandonment. It allows remarriage for the innocent party and many Erasmians will allow remarriage for the guilty party as long as they repent of their sin.

The Patristic view allows divorce for adultery and desertion but does not permit remarriage unless the death of a spouse occurs.

The leading Permanence position does not permit divorce and interprets the exception clause (Matthew 19:9) as referring to fornication during the betrothal period. Remarriage is not permitted in the permanence position unless the spouse is deceased.

All of the fuss centers on the exception clause in the gospel of Matthew. It is the star in which all the conversations orbit. If you are not familiar with this universe, I recommend checking out this article here before you leave the launch pad. If you are already geared up in your suit and ready for another space walk, here is one issue for you to consider. I am convinced that the permanence position best reads the gospels horizontally and vertically.

Ladders come before Roofs

Biblical interpreters should seek to harmonize the gospel accounts. The permanence position argues that there is only one exception for divorce in the gospel accounts and this is found in Matthew 19:9 for the cause of πορνείᾳ “porneia”. The permanence position is not opposed to harmonizing the gospel accounts. Rather, the permanence position seeks to harmonize the gospel narrative while also maintaining their individual integrity. The Gospels should be read both horizontally and vertically.

To say it another way, we should climb the ladder before we walk across the roof. We should seek to understand why one of the Gospel authors selected their words – this is a vertical reading of the text. It is widely accepted that Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience while Mark wrote for Gentile audience. Naturally, you would expect these books to be different in style and construction. Mark includes words and experiences that Matthew does not and vice versa.

Reading vertically means reading a writer individually and reading horizontally involves seeking to put the entire story together. To get an accurate picture of the whole, the individual pieces of the puzzle must be examined first.

While harmonization is an important study tool, there is a danger of obscuring the original meaning of an individual text and actually missing the correct interpretation. “Although it is certainly useful to engage in horizontal, comparative Gospel reading, this approach should not be preferred over vertical reading.” (Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, 149)

Should readers of the Gospels automatically conclude that Mark and Luke intended for their readers to assume an exception clause? The permanence position disagrees with both the Erasmian and Patristic perspective at the point of believing that Mark and Luke assumed their readers would expect an exception clause.

The Erasmian position is not unreasonable in desiring to harmonize the Gospel narratives. A good example of harmonization can be found when comparing the story of Jonah in Matthew and Mark’s gospel. Mark, in typical fashion, gives a more condensed account of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. (Mark 8:11-12)

Matthew’s account of this passage is similar, but adds an exception to Jesus’ absolute statement. But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. (Mat 12:39 ESV) It is a correct interpretation to believe that Mark shortened the account and assumed an exception in Jesus’ statements.

Yet this example is not a one-to-one comparison with the divorce and remarriage issue. Matthew is not the only narrative giving an exception to Mark’s shorter account in this instance. Luke also records the exception that Jesus mentions regarding a sign to the Pharisees. (Luke 11:29 ESV)

If someone is reading the story of the sign of Jonah vertically before horizontally, they should conclude that Mark is condensing the narrative due to his typical writing style of giving an “immediate” message. When it comes to the issue of divorce and remarriage, it is only Matthew who includes the exception clause whereas both Luke and Mark do not include it.

Hasty Harmonization Harms the Melody

There is nothing in the texts in Mark and Luke that indicate those Gospel authors held to an exception for marriage. The Erasmian position must harmonize something into the text that Mark and Luke did not communicate. In order for the Erasmian position to be persuasive, it requires tangible evidence that Mark and Luke assumed the exception clause would have been common knowledge to their readers. I know we all love a good tune, but let’s not be so hasty in our harmonization – we might mess up the melody.

The permanence position of marriage offers the best horizontal and vertical reading of the gospels. It seeks to understand first who Matthew was writing to and why he would include an exception clause. Given that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, it is understandable that he would be concerned about the issue of righteousness in the Law and the issue of betrothal. It is significant that Matthew is the only Gospel writer who mentions the righteous intention of Joseph to divorce Mary for porneia. If Matthew had not included the exception clause, the readers would have been confused as to how Matthew could have described Joseph as righteous when Jesus prohibited all divorce.

This is one of several reasons why I take exception to the typical view of the “exception clause” and believe the Bible does not permit divorce. We will discuss more in future blog posts, but I hope after this space walk you are at least saying, “Erasmian, we have a problem.” I hope you will continue to explore this issue further and boldly go where you have not gone before.

3 thoughts on “No Divorce: Sing the Melody

  1. Dear Sean, yeah the Scriptures reveal that marriage is supposed to be for life. Supposed to be…unfortunately there are vile people in this world who will heap yet more abuse on already abused spouses. Some people are so vile, it’s best to get far away and stay far away. Abused spouses don’t need any more abuse, they get enough of that. Christ has freed the captives.

  2. Ran across your blog doing a study on divorce. With the permanence position if there is a divorce such as for spousal abuse. Is the abused spouse free to marry again?

  3. Found your blog about the issue of the three Christian approaches. How does spousal abuse fit into this view especially concerning the permanence position? Can the abused spouse divorce and remarry?

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