In the Beginning, It Was Not So: Christian Divorce?

We start getting into the content of Theology of the Body this post – we follow John Paul II and Christ, in a question about divorce, all the way back to the beginning of humanity itself. {Audiences 1-4}

Some Pharisees came to Jesus to test him and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” And he answered them, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator created them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So it is that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined let man not separate.” They objected, “Why then did Moses order to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus answered, “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”    ~Matthew 19:3-8

This is a passage from the Bible about Jesus, Moses and some Pharisees. What does that have to do with us? Let’s paraphrase and modernize a little. (If you’re sensitive to irreverent use of Scripture, please forgive me. It’s not my intention.)

Lawyer: Hey, Jesus! We’ve been trying to figure out how to interpret the law. If you read this part, it seems to say a man can divorce his wife if she cheats on him, but this other part might give us no-fault divorce. What do you think?
Jesus: Forget about the law for a minute. Haven’t you studied Genesis? When God first put humans on the Earth, he told them that a husband and wife would become one flesh. So, they’re one flesh. If God has joined them, we have no right to separate them.
Lawyer: Then why did Moses tell us that we could file for divorce?
Jesus: He was making allowances for sinful people. But it wasn’t meant to be that way.

Many in the church today have questions about divorce. Are you sure it’s not allowed? What if we already have a legal divorce? What if we don’t love each other anymore? Surely Jesus wouldn’t force us to stay in an unhappy marriage. What about annulments? Isn’t that the same thing?

How would Jesus answer these questions? Well, turns out, he already did. His answer: you’re approaching this all wrong! Let’s put aside the brokenness and the hurt and the laws for a little bit and look at how things were meant to be, in a perfect world. Let’s go back to Genesis, the ancient source of wisdom on the origin of man and his original, ideal situation before sin.

So, that’s what we’re going to do. There are two creation accounts in Genesis, and we will look at each of them.

First Creation Account

…Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creature that crawl on the earth. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God also said: See, I give you every seed-bearing tree that has fruit on it to be your food; and to all the wild animals, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the earth, I give all the green plants for food. And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.    ~Genesis 1: 26-31

 Important points about this story:

  • It was written later than the second creation account, so it is more mature.
  • It is cosmological: man is created in the context of the rest of the earth. The first five days of creation follow progressively, but God steps back to reflect and decide to create man. He gives him dominion over the earth.
  • It is theological: man is defined primarily relative to God, created in His image. Man has a physical body, but cannot be completely explained as just a part of the earth. He alone is in God’s image.
  • It is objective. It describes events without personal or emotional reflection.
  • It is metaphysical. There is a long history of philosophical thought in which existence and goodness are interchangeable. (Think about that for a minute!) That has its source in this passage. Also, all of creation had a beginning, and so it has contingent existence.

Second Creation Account

It’s too long to include in the post, but you can read it here.

  • It is subjective. Adam acts as a person, a character in the story. If you consider the first account, he is a person because he is in the image of God.
  • It is psychological. John Paul calls it “the oldest description and record of man’s self-understanding and the first witness of human consciousness.”
  • It separately describes the creation of the man and the woman.
  • It describes two situations: innocence, then the fall and sinfulness. The Tree stands as a boundary between them. It also gives a third situation, in the hope of salvation. These three situations are still sharing space in every human alive, in every age.

We see that when God created the first man and woman, and they became the first husband and wife, they became “one flesh.” But that was a long time ago, before sin and cheating and fights and civil divorce and “growing apart” happened. Let’s have a more enlightened view of things! That doesn’t apply to us, does it? Besides, that Scripture passage doesn’t even say that divorce isn’t allowed, exactly. Maybe we’re reading too much into it.

There is no one better able to interpret Scripture for us than Jesus. So, what would Jesus say? He says, in the gospel of Matthew, that this one-flesh union still applies to us, today. He says that God joins married couples together so tightly that no one, not even the couple themselves, can tear them apart.

But he says more than that. He says that while we can identify ourselves with sinful Adam, naked and hiding from God, we can still identify ourselves also with innocent Adam, naked but without shame, one flesh with Eve. This is because God promised Adam that he wouldn’t abandon him to sin forever, but would make things right again in a future savior – the very person speaking with the Pharisees and with us, today, about marriage and divorce. We can’t go back to Eden – we are stuck as characters in the story of sin, writing ugly words into history with our own free will. But Christ also invites us to help him write the story of salvation, where we struggle together against sin and finally cast off the ugliness forever and find a new, even more glorious Eden than the one locked up after Adam. It is because of Christ that we can find any meaning for ourselves in the story of original innocence.

Jesus tells us not to settle. Because of sin, divorce was allowed for a time, but he calls us back to the marriage Adam and Eve had before they knew what evil was. It’s not an ideal lost forever. And with every aspect of salvation, the redeemed reality is even better than the original.

Jesus is calling us back to the original, innocent, one-flesh marriage. But what does it mean to live a redeemed marriage in a fallen world? Since we’re already living it, our experience will be useful in helping us understand exactly what Jesus meant. As St. Paul put it, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23)

With that perspective in mind, we’re going to take another, closer look at the creation stories in the next posts.

Also, I promised that I would discuss the audiences, in addition to summarizing them. If you’re just interested in reading my interpretation of what John Paul had to say, you can stick with the summaries. If you want to read my reflections on applying them and discussions about them, each one will have a link.

Discussion: Finding Your Original Innocence



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