Before I went to seminary, I participated in a one-on-one bible study as part of my preparation. One day, the subject of divorce came up. I can’t remember exactly which passage of scripture we were reading, but I do remember what my mentor said about our church’s approach to divorce: once we gave up on divorce, we lost.
He meant that the Episcopal Church, having accepted the remarriage of divorced individuals, could no longer use scripture as a defense against the “continued moral decline” of mainline churches. In other words, when we started saying that divorce and remarriage is ok, we lost the ability to say, “We can’t [fill in your prohibited behavior] because the bible says so.”
What does the bible say? In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Honestly, I do not enjoy preaching on Mark 10:1-16 (today’s gospel lesson). But that’s not because I find it difficult to say to a divorced person that the bible says you shouldn’t remarry. That’s pretty plain, and I usually don’t have a hard time telling people what the bible says plainly. But what’s hard for me is figuring out why Jesus would say something like this.
I remember the first time I told someone that I thought God’s will for that person was to get divorced. I didn’t say it quite like that, but I remember feeling pretty strange when I—a representative of the church who fairly regularly says to a congregation “what God has joined together let no one put asunder”—said to someone that divorce was the best possible option. But it was clear. The marriage was over. It wasn’t salvageable. The love that God had given them for each other no longer existed. Their relationship was no longer able to point us to God’s selfless love for the world, which meant that their marriage was no longer sacramental. It had failed, and to deny that was to deny the sanctity of marriage itself.
But I also remember squirming in my shoes six months later when I saw that person again with a different woman, whom he called his fiancée. It’s one thing to say a marriage is over. It’s another thing to leave one spouse and go running to another. And I think that’s what Jesus meant. Marriage is not a throw-away experience. It’s lifelong. Sometimes that doesn’t work, but we must view marriage as something more than a relationship du jour. We can’t trade one spouse in for another when we are ready for an upgrade. That’s when the church truly becomes subject to the continued moral decline of the world, and that’s wrong.
This summer, the Episcopal Church will consider whether to authorize a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions. Although I am still considering the implications of that proposal, I have read through the draft liturgy. It is remarkably conservative—avoids the term “marriage,” strongly emphasizes life-long unions, and seeks to articulate the best traditions of the church afresh without losing their integrity. The only part of the liturgy that is remarkably progressive or liberal is the same-sex aspect of the union.
What should the church do? As it so often is, scripture is pretty plain on this issue. There is no image in the bible of marriage between same-gender partners. There are even passages of the bible that clearly forbid sexual activity between partners of the same sex. But there’s something powerful about declaring that a committed relationship should be life-long—that it’s God’s will that two people remain together for the rest of their lives. Even though it was originally written about men and women, does Mark 10 provide the strongest argument for developing a way for two men or two women to declare before God and the church their desire for a holiness of life that can only come from a life-long commitment?