Chapter 8: The Call to Fidelity (Matthew 19:3-9)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 8: The Call to Fidelity (Matthew 19:3-9)

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."-Matthew 19:3-9

Sexual fidelity in marriage, that is the calling of Christians. Those who are now married are summoned by Christ to remain faithful to their partners until death should part them. The glue that holds Christian spouses together is not romantic love, nor is it law. It is loyalty-lifelong fidelity.

That will come as a surprise -- perhaps a nasty shock -- to those who suppose that we are living through a sexual revolution in which adultery has become as irrelevant as the buggy whip. They are looking for a new definition of Christian marriage that will allow for premarital sex, divorce, serial monogamy, and victimless extramarital affairs. It is true that we are living through a sexual crisis. Divorce among clergy is commonplace; church members cohabit before marriage; Christian spouses espouse open marriage. But if we listen obediently to Matthew's Gospel, we must name it a crisis and not a revolution. Christ calls us to return to the once commonly accepted notion that marriage is for life and that adultery is proscribed by the Seventh Commandment.

To those who find the present crisis in sexual morality upsetting, it may be a comfort to learn that things were not much different in Jesus' own time. The confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees, reported in Matthew 19:3-9, reflects a struggle with sexual ethics. The Pharisees asked him, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" Behind that question lay a bitter dispute. Followers of Rabbi Hillel held that the Law allowed a man to divorce his wife for almost anything that displeased him -- -burning the toast, a wart on her chin, growing obese -- while the followers of Rabbi Shammai held that the offense must be serious, like committing adultery. Both schools appealed to Deuteronomy 24:1, which permitted a man to divorce his wife on account of "indecency." It was the "indecency" that was at issue between the followers of Hillel and Shammai. Some said it could be anything that displeased the husband; others said it could only be unchastity or something equally heinous. Pharisees came to Jesus to put him to the test, to see where his views lay.

Jesus sided with neither party. He reiterated a stand previously taken in the Sermon on the Mount; he rejected the legitimacy of divorce . In the Sermon he admitted: "It was also said [in the Torah],'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32) . In his discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus said pretty much the same thing: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your .wives.... I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery." It is widely recognized that the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular hold to a straightforward rejection of divorce as acceptable for Christians.

Jesus grounded his objection to divorce in the intention of the Creator. As a Supreme Court Justice might go behind years of accepted legal precedents to appeal to the intentions of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, so Jesus went behind the teaching of Deuteronomy to the intent of God as recorded in Genesis. "Have you not read that [God] who made [human beings] from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?" It belongs to the created order of things that men and women should be joined in sexual union; neither gender is complete without the other. God intended that each should find wholeness in union with the other. Marriage, thus understood, is a divine calling.

This insight into the intention of the Creator needs to be kept front and center in any discussions of sexuality. We hear lots of talk -- and some of it in church circles -- about women and men having to do certain things because of their physiological or psychological makeup. As though an objective observation of how sex functions would tell us for what purpose we were created sexual beings! If one reads magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, one gets the impression that sex is all behavior: A man has an organ; it fits into a woman's organ; therefore putting it there must be right since that is how the equipment functions. But if we follow Jesus' lead in reading Genesis, we understand that God made us male and female for something other than mere coupling. Train cars couple; human beings marry. "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Marriage is not something natural. In the natural world, one and one equals two. In marriage there is the possibility that two may become one!

The call of Christ is to discover the one flesh, the wholeness that happens when a woman and a man are joined. It is not that by nature a woman is incomplete without a man, and a man is incomplete without a woman. Each is summoned to discover something together that neither is capable of knowing separately. The individual happiness of each partner is not the goal of marriage; rather, that goal is unity.

In the movie Children of a Lesser God there is a stormy love affair between Sarah, deaf and mute, and James, a teacher at a school for the deaf. In the final scene, after a painful separation, James says to her, "Is there a place, not in silence and not in sound, where we can meet?" And she nods assent. That is the biblical promise of marriage, that there is a place -- neither in maleness nor in femaleness, but somewhere in between -- where a man and a woman can meet and be truly joined.

In confidence in that promise, Christians respond to the call to fidelity within the marriage relationship. They are willing to put aside thoughts of mere personal satisfaction, of escape, or of divorce. And to this call Christ appends a stern warning: "Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."

A Loophole?

There appears to be a loophole in Jesus' injunction against divorce -- an escape clause, if you will. For he said, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery" (emphasis added). As Jesus' teaching is presented in Matthew's Gospel, there is apparently a situation in which divorce is proper. In Mark's Gospel, in Luke's, and in Paul's writings divorce is rejected outright. But in Matthew's Gospel -- both in the Sermon on the Mount and here in chapter 19 -- there is apparently an exception to the rule. Divorce is permitted when a wife has proved unfaithful.

This famous exception has been used in the history of the church to countenance divorce. There was a time, not so long ago, when the law of the Presbyterian church forbade a pastor to hold office if he was divorced, unless he was the innocent party in an adultery. And there have been notorious cases where a husband or a wife deliberately committed adultery in order to obtain a divorce. Jesus would seem to have given back with one hand what he took away with the other. A tiny loophole proved to be a breach in the wall large enough to drive a truck through. For if divorce is permitted in some cases, why not in others? If it is not forbidden under any and all circumstances, why cannot any circumstances be interpreted as right for divorce?

There are a number of possible ways of interpreting the exception granted in Matthew 19:9. One can say with David Hill that Jesus upheld the dissolubility of marriage on the basis of Genesis, but that Jesus also permitted divorce in cases of adultery, which contravened the created order. Eduard Schweizer attributes the exception to the author of the Gospel, but says that it is "comprehensible on the basis of the practice of his community." In other words, what we have represented in the exception is the life-style of the late-first century church that Matthew knew.

John P. Meler advances an interpretation that seems plausible-and closes the loophole. He says that the Greek word translated into our English versions as "unchastity" refers here to "incestuous union." Then the so-called exception applies to unlawful marriages. Meier says that the church put into Jesus' prohibition of divorce the clarification that this was not to be used to countenance an incestuous marriage contracted before a believer's baptism. If Meier is correct, then for Christian partners who marry in good faith and according to the law, there is no possibility of divorce. Marriage is for life, "till death us do part."

Who is correct? And does it matter? To fall to quarreling over the statement about unchastity is ourselves to fall into the trap the Pharisees built for Jesus! To insist on any particular interpretation of that statement is to erect a legalism that is as fruitless as the legalism Jesus wanted to go beyond. Whether or not Jesus allowed for an exception to his proscription of divorce -- and whether or not that exception applies to sexual infidelity or only to incestuous marriages --the clear teaching of Matthew 19:3-9 must not be obscured: The intent of God in Creation was that male and female be joined in a permanent union. Upon that intent is grounded Jesus' call to fidelity. To divert attention from this call is itself an act of infidelity to scripture.

To interpret this passage from Matthew as a call to lifelong faithfulness will seem to some a hard teaching. Isn't marriage difficult enough? Why add to it the requirement of sworn faithfulness "till death us do part"? Is not this a counsel of perfection? Did not Jesus himself raise the stakes to an impossible sum by interpreting the Seventh Commandment to read, "But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28)? Who can remain truly faithful to his or her spouse if even lustful thoughts are judged unfaithful? Isn't it as unrealistic to expect men and women to shun divorce and remarriage as it is unrealistic to expect that they can avoid lustful thoughts? If those be the rules of the game, who will not be found a loser?

Consider, however, the difficulty of the married state without Christ's call to fidelity. If there be no such call, what do we have? Then marriage is either some kind of bondage, in which one sex is regarded as created for the pleasure of the other, or it is a state of anarchy, in which there is no true bonding. Which of those is worse is hard to say; neither sexual bondage nor sexual anarchy is very appealing.

Perhaps our most perceptive novelist of domestic affairs is John Updike. When one reads such novels as Couples, Marry Me, and the trilogy of Rabbit Angstrom stories, one has the feeling that all American marriages are doomed to failure -- or at least to some kind of uneasy peace. A comment comes to mind that is attributed to W. H. Auden on a visit to America: "I never saw so many happy people and so many unhappy marriages." If we are to take Updike's view of marriage as accurate, the missing ingredient is fidelity. His people hop in and out of the beds of others' wives and husbands as easily as they dive into one another's swimming pools.

It is when we read the Creation narratives in Genesis with the insight given us by Jesus that we understand that God made us male and female for something other than mere coupling: God made us for oneness, for bonding. To seek union with the other in obedience to Christ's call to loyalty-that is the heart of the Christian understanding of marriage.

Neither Law nor Love

We need to return to a statement made in the opening paragraph of this chapter, that loyalty- not law or romantic love-is what holds marriages together. It is when marriage based on fidelity is seen as an alternative to marriage based on love or law that its peculiar and particular nature is understood.

Fidelity -- obedience to Christ's call -- -needs to be understood by comparison and contrast with two other models of marriage available to us. And these are models for which there is biblical warrant. One is the notion of marriage as based on romantic love; the other is the notion of marriage as based on law. Let us look at each.

The idea that marriages could be held together by law was the state of affairs that was represented to Jesus by the Pharisees who questioned him. They came to him from the tradition of the Torah. Marriage was regulated by God's commandments. What held marriage together was obedience to the rules God had established. And included in those laws was a rule permitting divorce under certain circumstances. The logic of such a relationship is clear: Marriage is based on rules. If one partner does not obey the rules, the relationship may be sundered. If a woman is guilty of "indecency" (Deut. 24:1), her husband has a legal (and therefore moral) right to give her a bill of divorce and put her out of the house. Of course the rules stipulate that she has rights; she must be given a bill of divorce, so she is free to marry again. She cannot be tossed aside like an outworn or torn garment; she must be returned to the marriage marketplace with some salability.

The attempt to regulate marriage by rules proves self-defeating. The very argument that was brought to Jesus proves that. The followers of one rabbi wanted to limit the grounds of divorce to unchastity and adultery. Another school wanted the grounds to be nearly anything the husband found distasteful. In such circumstances, what protection has the particular marriage? The institution is protected against easy abuse, but individual husbands can do awful things to individual wives. Where there is a law there is always a loophole.

In our culture the legal bond that once held marriages together has largely been replaced by the emotional one. Romantic love is seen as the glue that bonds the partners in marriage. A man and woman meet, fall in love, and, as long as love lasts, stay married. But let one partner cease to love the other or find a third person to love, and the marriage comes unstuck. The courts will not require that one partner prove that the other is guilty of any sexual infidelity. Incompatibility -- the triumph of hate over love -- is sufficient grounds for divorce.

The Bible does not ignore sexual love between husband and wife. An entire book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, is a celebration of sexual attraction. Among the narratives of our forebears in the faith are love stories. Isaac fell in love with Rebekah at first sight; Jacob worked fourteen years to win the hand of Rachel; David fell in love with Bathsheba and, although theirs was an illicit romance, the result was marriage and the birth of Solomon, one of Israel's greatest kings. There is an old saw, "Where there is marriage without love, there will be love without marriage." The Bible does not fly in the face of that truth.

Nevertheless it is not to the tradition honoring romantic love or to the legal tradition represented in Deuteronomy 24:1 that Jesus appeals. His appeal is to the intention of the Creator in making humans male and female: that the two should become one. Fidelity to that intention, expressed as loyalty to the marriage partner, is the model for Christians in marriage.

Love and law are not wholly excluded from the regulation of the married life. The biblical notion of fidelity is best understood as resolve (a word that includes the letters L-O-V-E). It is love plus resolution. It is what is called in the Old Testament "steadfast" love. The model is given in the book of Hosea, which is best read as a parable. God is the offended spouse, Israel the offending one. At first God is angry, vows revenge, will break off the relationship. But finally God repents of that intent and says:

My heart recoils within me,

my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger..

for I am God and not man,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come to destroy.-Hosea 11:8b-9

The difference between resolve and romantic love is illustrated by the views of two contemporaries. The perils of romantic love were described by a once-divorced man, writing in the New York Times Magazine. He described his relationship with a woman with whom he had fallen in love. As long as the relationship remained an affair he was perfectly happy. But as soon as it took on the aura of permanence, it turned sour. He said that he could get along with her very well if they didn't live together as man and wife.

A woman in her sixties, who wrote a piece for the daily New York Times, described what she had learned from three marriages -- the third and final one being a happy bonding. She spoke of this bond to her husband as including what she called "the most basic commitment of all, that one of us, in Emily Dickinson's words, will 'shut the other's gaze down.' " That is what the Bible understands as fidelity.

The plight of the man who could not stand a relationship that seemed permanent is perhaps a caricature of modern attitudes. But it has an all-too-familiar ring. Where love alone is conceived as the true bond between man and woman, loyalty takes a back seat. Or, to shift the metaphor, it is eased out the back door. Whereas in the biblical notion, love that is not a component of resolve is not love at all. Grounding a Christian sexual ethic on the call of Christ to lifelong fidelity is not a quick and easy solution to the sexual crisis of our generation. A call to fidelity is no easier to hear and to answer than the call to love one's enemies, or take up one's cross, or part with one's worldly goods. But it is a constant in a culture of changing values and rules and customs. It is a fixed star by which every married couple may steer. It is rooted and grounded not only in the call of Christ but in the very purpose of the Creator. Husbands and wives may try to manage their marriages by love or laws; neither will prove infallible. But the call of Christ to fidelity summons husbands and wives to go beyond love or legality. It is a daily challenge; it makes marriage a lifelong career. And because fidelity is grounded in the intention of the Creator, it carries with it a guarantee, an assurance that, despite ups and downs, the marriage will be fruitful.