Tuesday, September 06, 2022

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (20)

Does the Bible allow for divorce in the case of adultery? John Piper doesn’t think so, and he makes his case here. Naturally, it hinges on his interpretation of the Lord’s two comments on the subject in Matthew, which we find in 5:32 and 19:9. Here’s the longer version from chapter 5:

“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.”

Most Christians consider that the words in bold italic constitute an exception (the word “except” is our first clue). To Mr. Piper they do not.

Language Issues

The language of both verses is similar, and Piper’s argument that these clauses do not provide a potential “out” from the marriage covenant is identical in both cases. It turns on his understanding of the Greek word πορνεία, which my ESV translates as “sexual immorality” in Matthew. To be fair to Piper, let’s let him make the case for himself:

“[πορνεία] is sometimes translated as ‘unchastity,’ or ‘immorality.’ It means most naturally ‘fornication,’ which is why I have this bizarre interpretation that very few people follow. I believe that here in Matthew it relates to fornication, that is, sex prior to marriage.”

I can’t help but note that Piper calls his own interpretation “bizarre” and says few people follow it. But popularity or the lack thereof doesn’t invalidate a legitimate reading of the text, so let’s consider his point. What does πορνεία really mean?

The Greek word in question is an umbrella term that includes all sorts of sexual misconduct. Strong’s Concordance says, “the root of the English terms ‘p*rnography, p*rnographic’; cf. 4205/p*rnos) which is derived from p*rnaō, ‘to sell off’) — properly, a selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity; promiscuity of any (every) type.”

It goes on to say the term includes activities like adultery, prostitution and incest. Without getting grotesque, other kinds of sexual immorality could reasonably be included. Today, some even say a bad case of porn addiction might have been considered πορνεία if it had occurred in the first century.

Most Naturally ‘Fornication’?

Where fornication is concerned, far from being the most natural reading of πορνεία, there is even an ongoing debate as to whether it is possible to prove that fornication is included in the scope of the word at all. I happen to think it is (there are times in the NT when πορνεία is obviously used to include pre-marital sex), but I see no linguistic reason whatsoever to limit the Lord’s statements in Matthew to “sex before marriage”. If anything, rather than reducing the legitimate biblical reasons for divorce, the biblical use of the word πορνεία would seem more inclined to expand it.

For example, should we limit the intended meaning of the apostolic injunction to the Gentiles to “abstain from πορνεία” to pre-marital sex only? Or were the apostles also concerned about adultery, homosexual liaisons and other sexual activity among the Gentile believers which would fall under the general definition of πορνεία? I suspect they would not have condoned any of these things; and if they were not using a constrained definition of πορνεία in Acts, it is hard to understand, in the absence of other evidence, why the Lord would have used a more limited meaning in Matthew.

Piper is definitely an outlier here. He is free to offer his opinion on the matter, but he has not proved it from scripture.

Say What?

But there are other mystifying elements to Piper’s analysis. He continues:

“In other words, Jesus is not saying, when he forbids divorce and remarriage, that a sexual sin before marriage should keep you from marrying. And he did that because Joseph and Mary were in that situation in Matthew, which is the book in which these exception clauses occur. At least Joseph thought Mary was in that situation, and so he was going to put her away and not marry her, because he was a just man and didn’t want to marry. And Jesus is saying, ‘I don’t have that situation in mind when I forbid divorce.’

So I don’t think there is an exception for adultery in the New Testament.”

Is Piper really arguing that the Lord included what looks awfully like an exception clause to indicate that there were not really any exceptions? Especially as he did so twice?

I have read this paragraph over and over and I’m not quite sure what point Mr. Piper is trying to make. I’m glad he at least covers himself by saying he is not arguing that sexual sins before marriage invalidate the union. Picture Mr. Piper asking every young couple who came to him for pre-marriage counseling whether either of them has ever been sexually active, and refusing to officiate if they had. I’m betting JP would not be marrying many with a set of rules like that. (That’s not to say the current practices among Christian young people are good ones by any stretch.)

But since he’s not saying that, I have no idea what he’s saying there, except that maybe he thinks the Lord Jesus was defending his parents in some way. The whole thing remains quite mysterious to me, so please comment with your interpretation if you can make better sense of it than I can.

Hard Teaching Indeed

It gets worse. Piper is not done yet:

“But, even if you leave aside all that I have just said here, go to Ephesians 5 where it says, ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.’

Well, has the church ever committed adultery? Like, daily?

So, how a Christian husband can say to a penitent adultery-committing wife, ‘You did it, and that breaks it! It’s over, and so I’m going to officialize it at the court.’ I just don’t see how any Christian husband can talk or feel that way toward a broken and repentant wife. And I think that even if she isn’t broken and repentant that he should wait and wait and pray and pray.

That is a hard teaching.”

No kidding it’s a hard teaching. The hardest part is that it’s not even coherent. First of all, JP assumes “a broken and repentant wife”. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, it rarely is. In 90% of the marriage breakups I’ve seen in the last thirty years, one party scurries off to be with their new partner and never returns to church again. The elders dealing with the breakup are left counseling a disconsolate husband or wife who most often says he/she never saw it coming, or if he/she did suspect something, he/she hoped it would never come to this. Are we going to tell such a person they are forbidden from remarrying until their adulterous partner dies because that person has not triggered the exception clause by deserting them for another?

Maybe. That would be a hard teaching, and some do teach it. I’m not sure it’s what the Lord was saying in Matthew. The book of Deuteronomy calls taking back a divorced wife an “abomination”. I have nothing against “wait and wait and pray and pray” as a strategy for the deserted spouse in the months after their life partner departs, but I am not thinking they need to wait to go on with their life much past the point where they are served with divorce papers. Surely the Lord’s view on that subject has not changed a great deal from dispensation to dispensation.

Christ and the Church

I certainly would not drag Ephesians 5 into the question for reasons I’m sure all our readers caught the moment they read Piper’s quote. That is, he is assuming the situation is never reversed.

Do husbands ever cheat on their wives? Sure they do, all the time. Sadly, even Christian husbands do it occasionally. The apostle Paul, in building on the teaching provided by the Lord Jesus in the gospels, assumes a Christian wife may have sad occasion to leave her husband, and provides instruction to deal with that eventuality. He may well be positing exactly this sort of scenario.

If we maintain that Ephesians model of Christian marriage as a picture of Christ and his church, what a horrible picture it makes when the man (who represents Christ) engages in an extra-marital affair! We would not consider for even a moment that a man who cheats on his wife is loving her “as Christ loved the church”. But I would also have great difficulty arguing that the Lord Jesus, in the case where a husband has egregiously marred the intended picture by engaging in an extra-marital affair, still requires the man’s wife to submit to his headship, or that she has no option but to continue being married to such a fellow simply in order to maintain a fractured and mangled version of the intended spiritual imagery.

I would submit that it’s better and more consistent to address the question without bringing Ephesians 5 into it at all.

No comments :

Post a Comment