When believers seek to apply biblical principles to issues of public policy, it is admittedly a complex and difficult task. We are often best advised to use general principles, and see how they might be fleshed out in the cut and thrust of politics and legislation.
Here I wish to look at one particular area in which believers have disagreed over a specific social issue. Thus this article will not provide a general discussion of how public policy is best addressed by people of faith, nor will I here make the case for why people of faith have the right to seek to share their values in the public arena.
Suffice it to say that everyone comes to the surrounding society with pre-existing worldviews, assumptions and presuppositions. That is true of questions of politics, legislation and public policy. Everyone brings values and beliefs to bear on such areas. This is as true of secularists and nonbelievers as it is of anyone else.
The actual topic I wish to focus on here is the issue of homosexuality, specifically whether they should be granted special rights and government recognition as couples, and how one group is seeking to justify such moves from a biblical perspective.
I have written elsewhere why such moves are unhelpful, and have critiqued some of the attempted biblical rationale provided for it. Here I wish to narrow this all down to just one particular case. I refer to the attempt by some to argue that it is permissible for Christians to seek to grant homosexual couples special rights on the basis that God’s ideal is not always met, and that we have a biblical example that can be appealed to here. That is, these groups have argued that just as God allowed divorce because of the hardness of human hearts, so we should be lenient in public policy towards homosexuals for similar reasons.
My short answer to such an argument is to say it is a logical fallacy. It is a category mistake, that is, a case of mixing apples with oranges. More fully, I wish to argue that even if we accept the divorce analogy, it is still fraught with danger.
Moses and the certificate of divorce
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we read of a certificate given for divorce. This happens to be the only law concerning divorce found in the Old Testament. While divorce is spoken of elsewhere in the OT, it is roundly condemned. Malachi 2:16 is a classic passage in this regard: “I hate divorce” says Yahweh.
In general, it can be said that this provision is similar to what we find in passages about the condition of slavery in the Old Testament. Both divorce and slavery were common, widespread practices found throughout the Ancient Near East. Both sets of biblical passages sought not to endorse or condone these practices, but to severely limit, restrict, and humanise some quite unfortunate human activities. The humanitarian provisions especially protected slaves in situations of indentured servitude, and women in situations of divorce.
It is in the New Testament that we really get some background on this passage, especially the divine mind regarding it, as seen in the words of Jesus. The Deuteronomy passage is referred to in all the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 19:1-9, Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18. These parallel passages have to do with questions put to Jesus by the Pharisees to test him. Jesus effectively rebukes his questioners, and goes back to Genesis for God’s original intention for marriage.
Of at least five passages in the New Testament bearing directly on the issue of divorce; three allow exceptions (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:15), while two (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) do not. In Matthew the exception clause has to do with porneia, a Greek term not easy to identify with certainty, but having to do with sexual sin in some sense. Taken together though, these passages all affirm God’s intention for marriage, and certainly do not endorse or command divorce.
While there are a number of exegetical, hermeneutical, theological and pastoral questions surrounding all these passages (and related ones) it is clear that Jesus is taking a very strong stance indeed on the issue of divorce. Numerous commentators stress this point. As D.A. Carson writes in his commentary on Matthew, “any view of divorce and remarriage (taught in either Testament) that sees the problem only in terms of what may or may not be done has already overlooked a basic fact – divorce is never to be thought of as a God-ordained, morally neutral option but as evidence of sin, of hardness of heart”.
Many commentators pick up the theme of God’s original design as announced in Genesis. Says Craig Blomberg in his commentary on Matthew, God “did not originally create people to divorce each other, and he therefore does not intend for those whom he re-creates – the community of Jesus’ followers – to practice divorce. As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims a higher standard of righteousness for his followers than the law of Moses.”
James Edwards in his commentary on Mark concurs: “The essential thrust of 10:1-12 is the inviolability of the marriage bond as intended and instituted by God. Jesus does not conceive of marriage on the grounds of its dissolution but on the grounds of its architectural design and purpose by God.” Or as Donald Hagner says in his commentary on Matthew, “The kingdom of God brought by Jesus is ultimately to involve the restoration of the perfection of the pre-fall creation, and the ethics of the kingdom as taught by Jesus reflect this fact.”
R.T. France in his commentary on Mark nicely summarises the position of Jesus on this issue, and is worth quoting at length. He notes that in a culture where divorce was widespread and prevalent, “Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce must have been stunning”. Quite right. He continues:
“The legal provision of Moses in Dt. 24 was not intended as a statement of God’s purpose for marriage, but as a regrettable but necessary means of limiting the damage when that purpose has already been abandoned. It is a provision to deal with human [hardness of heart], not a pointer to the way things ought to be. The marriage ethics of the kingdom of God must be based not on a concession to human failure, but on a pattern set out in God’s original creation of man and woman. What God has joined together must not be separated by human initiative.”
A final quote from France deals very effectively with what I want to discuss in the final part of this article:
“Modern society shows us what can happen when a provision for damage limitation comes to be regarded as a right or even a norm. In such a context Jesus’ clear-sighted return to ‘the way it was meant to be’ has a refreshing and compelling simplicity, and must not be relegated to the category of an ‘ideal’ which we all admire but do not seriously expect to be implemented. God’s design for unbroken, lifelong marriage is not an ‘ideal’ in that sense, but the realistic standard to which we are expected to conform and on which the health of the human society depends. Mark’s Jesus allows us no lower aim.”
I now return to my opening remarks about how some Christian groups are seeking to grant special rights to, and government recognition of, homosexual unions in the form of relationship registers. They are doing this in the interests of vague notions of social justice, and are seeking to meet the demands of the homosexual lobby half way (more like 90 per cent!).
There are a number of problems with this. Many homosexual activists in fact see relationship registers as basically identical to civil unions (which in turn are simply marriage-lite institutions). I will deal with this more fully in another article. But these Christian groups have said we must go down this path because even though it may not be God’s ideal, we live in a fallen world, and therefore concessions must be made to account for human hardness of heart and our fallen natures, as in the Mosaic divorce provision.
Yet as I tried to show in the above, the ideal which God set forth at creation trumps any such concessions. And the same applies here. God’s ideal for human sexuality has always been one man, one woman, for life. That is it. Life-long heterosexual marriage is alone God’s plan for the expression of human sexuality. Every other type of sexuality is simply sinful, and against the express commands of God.
Indeed, where in Scripture do we find any exceptions to this iron-clad rule? Where do we see God allowing an exemption because of human hardness of heart to engage in a bit of fornication or adultery? Where are we told that because we live in a fallen world, we can bend the rules a bit and allow various types of sexual immorality?
(Let me deal with one objection right away. Mention might be made of polygamy. Some OT saints had more than one wife. But I would argue the same about this as about the Mosaic provision of divorce. It was not God’s command or intention, and he in fact clearly speaks against it in both Testaments. It is expressly forbidden in Deut. 17:17 and 1 Tim. 3:2 for example. God’s ideal has always been monogamous marriage.)
Of course in secular societies today all kinds of sexual immorality is permissible and legal. But that does not mean believers should encourage this, or seek to give God’s blessing to it. Urging governments to recognise behaviour which God clearly forbids should not be the job of any part of the Christian church. Let activist groups lobby for recognition of their lifestyles, but believers have no moral or scriptural obligation to join them in such pursuits. By pushing for such government recognition and blessing, these Christian groups seem to be siding with immorality, not with God’s purposes and plans.
The topic of marriage, divorce, and remarriage is a huge topic with many considerations and layers of difficulty. This article does not intend to even begin to look at all the many issues involved. But I have used the issue of permission for divorce as found in Deut. 24 as a test case of what God desires, and how it might impact public policy. Those Christian groups seeking to use this passage as an analogy for working for special rights for homosexual relationships seem to be on very thin ground indeed. The two issues are not analogous, and in any case, God calls us to something higher and more biblical.
Now is not the time to capitulate, to compromise, to accommodate, and to appease. Now is the time to take a strong stand for God’s intentions and purposes. The church of God has already fallen into disrepute with its policy of way-too-easy divorce and remarriage. We dare not compromise on yet another absolute moral position as outlined in Scripture.