Sunday, January 14, 2018

On the Mount (13)

Divorce in Western societies is epidemic; that much we know.

Statistics vary and are interpreted variously, but we can probably agree without too much debate that the number of divorces both in the world and throughout our churches is way, way too high; in 2014, 0.32% of the total U.S. population got divorced.

Surprisingly, that is trending downward. It was 0.4% annually at the dawn of the new millennium.

What’s Being Measured

If that sounds low to you, well, that’s the nature of statistical analysis. For one thing, to make sense of that sort of data, you need to be really clear what’s being measured. The annual marriage rate in 2014 was 0.69%, to give you something to compare to that first number. That too is down from 2000, when it stood at 0.82%.

So fewer couples are divorcing these days, but fewer are marrying in the first place. Every year slightly less than 7/10 of one percent of the U.S. population gets married and slightly over 3/10 of one percent of it gets divorced. Some of these are remarriages, for which success rates are comparatively disastrous. 10% of remarriages end within a year and 46% of remarriages are over within 10 years.

Fifty Percent? Really?

The oft-bandied adage that “50% of marriages end in divorce” is not quite accurate, but neither is it completely wrong. If you add in marriages where the parties legally separate and never bother with the paperwork, you’re pretty close to fifty. But bear in mind that this number includes those spectacularly ill-fated second and third attempts, which inflate the percentages.

The most notable trend about marriage is that increasingly people are just not bothering at all.

But cohabitation is no solution to the problem of not getting along. 29% of marriages that begin without cohabitation fail within a decade, but marriages that begin with cohabitation fail at a much higher rate than marriages that don’t, especially where there has been no engagement announced.

In short, making some sort of public commitment seems to increase your chances of marital success significantly, but fewer couples are doing it.

Divorce in the Churches

When we turn to the church, the data is in even greater dispute. To draw any useful conclusions, we would first have to define what constitutes “the church”, then find a way to measure commitment to church life, then determine what degree of commitment is a likely proxy for genuine faith. That’s not a simple process ... or even a feasible one.

A 2008 Barna Research study has been alleged to say that Christians divorce roughly as often as non-Christians. Shaunti Feldhahn, who had done her own studies for her book The Good News About Marriage, disagreed, and sat down with Barna to re-examine the data. They found that for committed churchgoers, the divorce rate was 27-50% lower than in the general population, which to me sounds about right. Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today writes that “Catholic couples were 31% less likely to divorce; Protestant couples 35% less likely.”

That’s probably as close are we’re going to get to accurately describing reality with numbers.

The Annual First Century Jewish Divorce Rate

So, back to the Sermon on the Mount. We may think today that the Lord’s teaching on divorce is tough to follow, but what about for its original audience? What do you imagine was the annual Jewish divorce rate when Jesus made his pronouncement on the subject of divorce?

Of course the answer is that we don’t know, but we can hazard a reasonable guess from the disciples’ own reaction to the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19, where he restates this principle from the Sermon that divorce + remarriage = adultery:
“The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ ”
Ouch. Bear in mind that these are devout men speaking. Not perfect men by any stretch, but men serious about obeying the Law of Moses and trying to please God. They were men well aware of Malachi’s equation of divorce with violence and faithlessness. They were not unaware that God had expressed his hatred of it. Despite this, lifelong marriage without a back door seemed pretty onerous to the disciples.

Divorce Among the Down-and-Outers

Okay then. So what about divorce among the slightly-less-devout and slightly-less-Jewish?

Again, we have hints. The Samaritan woman who drew water for the Lord Jesus was probably of an ethnic mix that included a few genetic markers from one of the ten tribes of Israel plus a bunch more from the nationals resettled in Samaria by the king of Assyria. This mongrelization is probably the reason John tells us “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”.

If this woman is indicative of the state of marriage in Samaria at the time of Christ (I hope she was an outlier!), then the institution had gotten pretty debased. Jesus said to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” There is more than one possible way to take that, but one plausible reading is that there existed a Samaritan social standard by which five of this woman’s relationships were considered more-or-less legitimate while only one was not.


No Emergency Exit

What can we conclude from all that about the Lord’s audience at the Sermon? Well, it sounds like the general attitude toward monogamous, lifelong marriage was fairly well atrophied. Even to religious Jews, the prospect of marriage without some kind of emergency exit was a scary proposition.

It is in this context that the Lord lays down the following command:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Can anyone doubt that he was setting a standard both Jews and Gentiles throughout history have found near-impossible to keep? If his closest disciples were taken aback by it, surely his less-committed followers were even more so. As you are no doubt tiring of hearing me repeat, the Sermon on the Mount was directed to Jews, not Christians. But its principles in the area of divorce and remarriage are clearly reiterated in the Epistles for today’s believers, and not as a matter of technical law-keeping for the purpose of escaping the fires of hell or avoiding social approbation, but as a matter of love and standard Christian ethical behavior.

Not a Theological Problem

It can hardly surprise us to find elders struggling with this issue in our churches today. It’s not so much that God’s opinion of marriage and divorce are unclear, or that the ideal for husband-wife relationships is insufficiently well set out in scripture. Apart from the (disputed) “sexual immorality out” provided in the Sermon, it seems perfectly evident the New Testament puts divorce for Christians right off the table. Few disagree; those that do are wrong.

No, the problems for elders and churches around the issue of divorce are practical, not theological.

What do you do with Christians who were divorced and remarried before they were saved? How about if it was one before and one after? How about when both have been divorced as professing Christians and now want to fellowship with you and serve God in your local church? Is a second marriage where the original spouses are still alive continuously “adulterous”, and does it need to be ended in order for the couple to be accepted into church fellowship and allowed to serve? Does a history with a divorce in it disqualify a man from teaching publicly in the churches? How do you counsel a newly-saved couple with one or more divorces in their history currently living together? Should it be insisted upon that they tie the knot immediately before being allowed to enjoy Christian fellowship, or should they be told that the Bible teaches that they need to each live alone for the rest of their lives with no further sexual contact? If so, how convincingly could you make that case to them, especially if they have a child together?

There do not appear to be easy answers to many of these questions, and endless variants on these themes are coming up with greater and greater frequency.

Broken Window Sins

As with most of the teaching in the Sermon, the Lord’s emphasis is on individual obedience. It is preventive, not remedial. That is to say, the Sermon teaches those who heed it not to wreck their marriages in the first place; it is not a how-to discourse for civic officials or religious leaders on the subject of what to do with those in the Lord’s audience who weren’t paying attention.

Once made, divorce and remarriage are decisions that cannot easily be un-made; they are ‘broken window’ sins, if I may coin a phrase. What I mean is this: if you steal from someone, you can make restitution; if you have lied, you can tell the truth. In both instances if you move quickly enough, you can undo some or all of the damage you have done. But divorce? It is almost never possible to simply repent, walk back into your broken marriage and take a second shot at doing it right. The damage is done and most often the parties have moved on to the point that getting back together is a non-starter.

Thus we will search in vain here and elsewhere in the New Testament for obvious lists of remedies and punishments to be doled out in church gatherings to the masses that have failed to heed the Lord’s teaching on this subject.

For those willing to hear it and respond to it, the standard set in the Sermon makes ending a marriage much more difficult than those of both the society of its day and those of ours. For those who have not heard and responded — and especially for their elders — figuring out what to do about that after the fact is no simple matter.

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