Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bible on Divorce

I've always been a little confused by the words of Christ regarding divorce. They didn't seem to fit with the common Protestant idea that divorce is acceptable in extreme circumstances, and then remarriage is always okay. But they also appeared to contradict the Catholic view that divorced people cannot remarry unless they show that their original marriage was actually invalid. The answer really comes down to the interpretation of a few words. Let's look at the two interpretations, and see if we can find an answer that fits everything Jesus said.

The Words

First, Jesus broadens our idea of what constitutes adultery to include lust.

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.” (Matt 5:27-28 NIV)

And then he follows up by showing the adulterous nature of remarriage after divorce.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 5:31-32 NIV)

While difficult to follow, the teaching that it is sinful to look at a woman lustfully is fairly easy to understand. The more difficult and divisive words are found in Matthew 32. Our understanding of what Jesus meant by “except for sexual immorality” can lead us in a variety of directions.

The Protestant Understanding

Protestants are very divided over this issue. How serious is divorce? When is it acceptable? When is remarriage an option? So, I will have to deal with generalities based on my experience, and it cannot be assumed that this applies to all Protestant groups.

What I have found to be common, is a line of reasoning something like this:

According to my reading, Jesus says we can divorce and remarry, if our spouse has committed adultery. If this is true, then if our spouse violates our wedding vows in other serious ways, such as abusive behavior, this would also be valid grounds for divorce and remarriage.

Certain translations of the Bible seem to assume this is what was meant, and in an attempt at clarity, alter the words of Christ to fit this understanding.

... if a man divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness...” (Matt 5:32 GNT)

But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful... (Matt 5:32 NLT)

But this leaves us with several questions. Where do we draw the line on what constitutes a violation of wedding vows which is grounds for divorce? Didn't Jesus just say that lust was adultery, and if so, isn't this grounds for almost any woman to divorce her husband and remarry? And if this is the case, then what purpose is served by warning us against divorce in the first place? And, why doesn't the parallel verse in Luke 16:18 give us exceptions to the inviolable nature of marriage?

The Catholic Understanding

I always favored the Catholic understanding because it seems clear to me that Jesus regards divorce as a very serious matter, and he warns severely against remarriage. Even as a Protestant I had an understanding of the inviolable sacramental nature of marriage. But Catholics are not allowed to remarry after a divorce, unless they can show that their marriage was invalid (I'm not getting into the issue of what many Catholics do, or whether the Church grants too many annulments. I'm looking at the actual teaching of the Church). This seems to go against the exception provided by Christ. Didn't Jesus say that we could remarry if our wives committed adultery?

Let's look for a clue in another Protestant Bible translation. The Contemporary English Version records the verse like this:

But I tell you not to divorce your wife unless she has committed some terrible sexual sin. If you divorce her, you will cause her to be unfaithful, just as any man who marries her is guilty of taking another man's wife.” (Matt 5:32 CEV)

This isn't very different from the other versions, but this version includes a footnote saying, “some terrible sexual sin: This probably refers to the laws about the wrong kinds of marriages that are forbidden in Leviticus 18.6-18 or to some serious sexual sin.”

Discovering this greatly alleviated my confusion on this matter. If the first meaning is correct, that this “refers to the laws about the wrong kind of marriages that are forbidden,” then this verse is entirely consistent with the Catholic teaching. A man's wedding vows are rendered null if it turns out that their marriage was a “forbidden” kind of marriage, not valid from the start. In this case, the sexual sin was not an extramarital affair as suggested by many translations, rather it was the false marriage which was “unchaste” by its own failing, having been improperly established.

If the marriage was not valid to begin with, then it would not be adultery to remarry after such a divorce. This is the Catholic teaching on the matter, and it is the one teaching that does justice to all the relevant scriptures. The Catholic teaching is consistent, and follows the teaching of our Lord, properly professing the gravity of divorce and remarriage.

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384).

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Assumption of Non-Denominational Neutrality

Does non-denominational equal neutral?
As with many of the common Protestant beliefs that now seem obviously silly to me, this is something I once believed myself. I grew up with a kind of non-denominational Evangelicalism. I considered myself, “Just a Christian,” a “Generic Christian,” or we might say, a believer in “Mere Christianity.” In a similar way of speaking, I commonly hear people say things like, “I don't believe in denominations,” or “our group is a mix of Catholic and Evangelical, so let us study a 'regular' Christian book together,” or worse, “My wife was raised Baptist, I was raised Lutheran, so we go to a non-denominational church to avoid the divisions.”

In this way of thinking, non-denominational churches form a kind of middle ground, they avoid the divisions that have long caused conflict between denominations, they cut out the unnecessary additions that might impede the ability of Christians to unite on a simple Bible Faith.

There seems to be a willingness among many people to quickly buy into such ideas, and accept them without question. I think a great deal of this is just due to the terms being used. These groups avoid the language of division, and make claims of a simple faith, and people take them at their word. This mindset also draws upon sketchy ideas of Catholicism's “additions,” and vague knowledge of the battles fought between different denominations following the Reformation.

But this view that avoiding traditional denominations makes your church a kind of purified middle ground is generally just fallen into, and not really thought out. When it is examined, it is clearly false.

There is a similar situation in American politics, where we have two major parties, and many “third parties,” one of these is the American Independent Party. Using the term, “Independent,” they could easily be seen as a non-divisive middle ground, but upon inspection, their policies are clearly Conservative, and they have much in common with certain parts of the Republican Party, but very little in common with any parts of the Democratic Party.

Let's take a specific group as an example: Calvary Chapel is one of the largest associations of non-denominational churches. Their numbers likely exceed those of many denominations, and their structure is no more loose than what is found in some denominational associations, so it is already clear that there is an issue of word-preference in play here. Now Calvary Chapel can certainly claim to be less denomination-based than the Catholic Church, or mainstream Protestant branches, but they aren't structurally any less of a denomination than some Evangelical groups which do consider themselves “denominations.”

Of course I would argue that a “denomination” can be as small as a single church, or even a single person. Really, a denomination can be most clearly defined by who is recognized as its highest visible authority. As such, attempts to avoid being a denomination are really just avoiding the word “denomination,” not the reality expressed by that word.

But moving beyond the “denomination” name games, are non-denominational churches non-divisive? Are they a pure, agreeable middle ground, devoid of unnecessary divisive beliefs?

Calvary Chapel states, "We are not a denominational church, nor are we opposed to denominations as such, only their over-emphasis of the doctrinal differences that have led to the division of the Body of Christ." And they often try to strike a middle ground. For example, like Pentecostals, they believe in the modern gift of speaking in tongues, but like most non-Pentecostal groups, they generally do not believe speaking in tongues is meant to figure prominently in church services. This places them fairly near to Catholics on this issue. But it is clearly not all-accepting. It is in fact a rejection of the Pentecostal idea that speaking in tongues should be a prominent part of worship services, and it is also a rejection of the idea held by some other Protestants that the Holy Spirit no longer gives the gift of tongues to believers.

Many differences with the Catholic Church are even more pronounced. Calvary Chapel does not believe in the efficacy of Sacraments. They believe that baptism is only an outward sign of an inward reality in an informed believer, and that it conveys no grace. Thus they reject infant baptism. Likewise, they hold that communion is symbolic, and reject any notion of the Real Presence of Christ and the re-presentation of our Lord's sacrifice on Calvary. First, this shows that only Catholic chapels can claim full connection with Calvary, but more to the point, we see not a position of acceptance and common ground, but a position that requires rejection as much as any “divisive denominational church.”

Their most notable differences from most Protestant groups are perhaps their dispensational and pretribulational beliefs, but I think it's clear enough that they do indeed have divisive beliefs, and you cannot accept Calvary Chapel beliefs without rejecting various beliefs of most other Christian groups.

What exact beliefs you'll find in any of the varied non-denominational churches will certainly vary somewhat from those in the example of Calvary Chapel, but they cannot escape the reality of division or the necessary rejection of opposing beliefs.

It is completely unreasonable to expect Catholics to cede the default, the neutral, or the middle ground to non-denominational Christians based on their claims of simplicity and non-divisiveness. It is in fact far more reasonable for Christians to be Catholic by default, for Protestantism is a rebellion against a Catholic Christian past, and Protestants do not even know what they are rejecting or why, and it is only in Catholicism that Christianity has ever been united.

When it comes to inter-denominational dialogue, I am not arguing that we should fall back into inappropriately divisive patterns of prejudice and name-calling, but it is certainly not fair to claim "denominations" are being divisive while obviously holding mutually exclusive positions yourself.