Jesus is too conservative for Christians

Today the UK Parliament discusses enabling homosexual marriage and thereby totally redefining marriage. We are assured that, although there is a free vote, it will pass its second reading because all three major parties are for it. The political élite appears, therefore, to have disenfranchised the Christian churches and the other main religious groups, which have come out almost universally against the move (barring the infinitesimally small number of Unitarians and Quakers, as I mentioned here). There is no longer a political party representing Christian teaching Рa sobering point to have reached.

Coincidentally last Sunday our pastor preached on Jesus’s attitude to marriage and divorce (“coincidentally” as we are preaching our way through Mark’s gospel and happened to reach chapter 10). He didn’t broach the homosexual issue at all, as it happens, just giving a straight exposition of Jesus’s teaching. What struck me listening, and reading the relevant verses, was in just how many ways Jesus’s words cut across the assumptions not only of those outside the Church, but of many inside it too.

This was exemplified in the afternoon when a friend, a rather heterodox Anglican clergyman and, of course, in favour of gay marriage, said that after all, marriage is the highest expression of love, about which Jesus taught so much. This idea reflects the general discussion. For example, the shadow minister for women, Yvette Cooper, is quoted as saying:

“Couples who love each other and want to make a long term commitment should be able to get married whatever their gender or sexuality. Marriage should be reason to celebrate not discriminate.”

It’s useless nowadays, I suppose, to point out the fatuousness of the argument from equality, which could equally apply to children, siblings or dogs, if one wants to avoid speciesism, except to remind people that “marriage” is etymologically derived from “husband”, and matrimony from “mother”, both of which discriminate against one or other kind of single sex relationships intrinsically. Eventually they’ll have to change the name of the thing to get round that, but it can wait till after the churches are coerced into practising it by European equality legislation in a year or so. Instead, though, let’s return to Jesus in Mark 10, and daylight.

Here, and in his teaching overall, Jesus doesn’t talk of marriage in the context of love at all, and certainly doesn’t say it is love’s highest expression: you may remember he said instead that there is no greater love than to lay down ones life for ones friends. The soldier’s love is often, then, greater than the spouse’s. The much slandered Paul, indeed, commands men to love their wives, but like Jesus he places that within a different context altogether: that of religion and creation.

The Pharisees, after all, in their question about the lawfulness of divorce, are only saying, “Is it OK to separate if you no longer love your spouse?” Why else would anyone wish to divorce? If you still love someone you’ll stay with them, won’t you? Well, in fact one of the two Pharisaic positions of the time might say it was right to divorce someone you love, and that because of adultery. The other party extended the right of divorce for any reason – at least to men. Judaean women could divorce their husband only under extreme circumstances by getting a court to order him to divorce her, though in the Roman world and the Jewish diaspora either party might initiate the separation (hence v12 in Mark).

So in effect, Jesus is saying, “Love, or lack of it, is not the main basis on which marriages are made or broken.” Which is obvious really, as most marriages then were parentally arranged, and love was a fruit, not a cause, of matrimony. Jesus saw marriage as more like having children: you don’t pick a child you love, but love the child you have. That may be hard, and in extreme circumstances impossible, but we still expect parents to love their kids, and grant no right of divorce from them… maybe that will change as we embrace the right to choose more consistently.

The Pharisees’ appeal to Moses, as I’m sure you can see from reading Deuteronomy 24, was as Jesus rightly said, spurious. The quoted law actually says that assuming a man has divorced his wife and given her a certificate, and assuming she has since remarried, then religious defilement will occur if the first husband takes her back. It is a law against remarriage, not for divorce. Jesus understands that, and explains why the law was made (on God’s authority) by pointing to the divine roots of marriage.

One caveat first: Jewish teaching on marriage, and even divorce, did not hinge on Deteronomy 24. As David Instone-Brewer points out in his excellent study (which I lent to a previous pastor and never got back!) the key text was Exodus 21.10, which when expanded teaches that a man’s duty is to provide for his wife’s food, clothing and exclusive conjugal rights, and his wife’s duty correspondingly to feed her husband, care for his clothing and household, and not deny her husband’s sexual rights. Nobody, probably including Jesus, disputed the correctness of divorce when those marriage fundamentals were denied. And the whole point of divorce in Jewish law was to free the divorcee to remarry. So the dispute is essentially about whether falling out of love is a reason to end the marriage. Can you think of anyone nowadays who would deny it is a good reason?

At every point Jesus’s response is (in our terms) counter-cultural. His actual conclusion was just as counter-cultural in his own day. And that, lest we miss the point, means that the only reason we can give for dismissing his teaching here is a refusal to acknowledge his authority to teach us, because we can’t pin cultural conditioning on him. This is also true of his teaching overall, for it was the fact that “he taught as one who had authority, not as the scribes” that so impressed all who heard him. Dismiss Jesus’s teaching, and you dismiss his Lordship. Yet isn’t it fascinating that the incarnate Son of God founds his divinely authoritative teaching on the divine authority of Jewish Scripture?

Leaving the actual conclusions aside, follow his reasoning with me. Moses wrote this law, he says, not because he was ignorant or misled, but because of Israel’s hardness of heart. That first of all affirms the law’s divine authority – albeit it with local limitations; and also, to our embarrassment, Jesus’s direct claim of Mosaic authorship in v5. He just hasn’t read the critics. This would be easier to explain away as some kind of kenotic ignorance, or accommodation to his hearers, on Jesus’s part if we hadn’t read in the previous chapter of the recent conversation he had with Moses himself on the mount of transfiguration, in the presence of the legal requirement of three witnesses whom Jesus chose. Moses failed to read the critics too. I suppose one can dismiss the transfiguration, the claim to Mosaic authorship, and the teaching on divorce … but that leaves very little room to claim Jesus as ones Lord, wouldn’t you say?

It gets worse, though. Jesus bases his teaching about God’s original intentions for marriage on the same Mosaic writings, attributing divine teaching authority to the Genesis 1 creation account (v6) and the Genesis 2 account (v7-8). These, he says, describe “the beginning” (and not just “what we generally see”). Very briefly, he links the two in a Rabbinic fashion thus: God’s image in mankind was created in two parts – male and female. Just as Adam found himself complete only in union with his wife/helper Eve, so each male-female couple joined in holy union completes the image of God that each gender alone lacks. They become one flesh, then, not in the sense only of sharing love, or sexual union, but by becoming a unitary example of the total image of God in mankind. Love comes from realising that God has managed his creation rightly and wisely by this gender-division, and complying with it gladly.

And that, Jesus said, is why dividing that image again by divorce is an affront against God and his creation – as is revealed by God himself in Genesis. As he started by saying, divorce does indeed happen because of hardness of heart. But it ought not to because marriage is bigger than love, sexual union, or any other consideration. I recommend Instone-Brewer’s book for a discussion of how Jesus’s teaching might work out in practice. Here it is sufficient to note that the discomfort it causes us originates in its divine author, not in the traditional Christian or Jewish failure to be progressive (it was the Pharisees who were progessive!).

It’s worth remembering that Jesus’s unique take on marriage and separation was being taught by 55AD when 1 Corinthians 7 was written (Paul distinguishes original dominical teaching from his own apostolic, Spirit-given, authority – one in the eye for those who say the gospels reflect the Church’s charismatic experience, not the historical Jesus). Paul’s teaching too has a specific context that I can’t discuss here.

My main point is that however Pharisees, or politicians, redefine marriage, then the Christian response ought to be (if Christians are putting their discipleship where their mouth is), “In the beginning it was not so, and therefore in God’s eyes it is still not so.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Jesus is too conservative for Christians

  1. James says:

    A very good column, Jon. I have nothing to add on the theological or Biblical sides.

    Can you clarify some legal/political matters, for non-British readers?

    It was my understanding that, some years ago, Britain worked out an arrangement for “civil unions,” and that Elton John, among others, entered into such a civil union with a partner. It was my understanding that these civil unions carried with them all the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but were called by a different name. I presumed (without checking the hypothesis) that this measure was adopted because of the official status of the Church of England, which, so long as it remains true to its roots, cannot allow homosexual marriage. As long as Great Britain remains officially “Anglican,” I reasoned, it could never allow “marriage” of same-sex couples.

    I had also assumed that this compromise — civil unions for the homosexual couples, and marriage for the heterosexual couples, was acceptable to the mass of the British people, and that they had carried on with business as usual, thinking the matter settled.

    Obviously I misunderstood the situation. Why would the political parties in England be wanting to push the word “marriage” unless something was felt to be inadequate about the previous compromise?

    Can you give me some more background on this? And can you answer three questions in particular: (1) What do the movers of this new legislation hope to gain by it, that is not already in existing civil unions? (2) How will the doctrine or practice of the Church of England be affected, if at all, if this measure is passed? (3) Given that the Queen is head of the Church of England, and given that this particular Queen is a relatively old-fashioned sort of Queen, is it possible that she will refuse to sign any such legislation, even if Parliament passes it? And could that create a Constitutional crisis which could lead to the end of Establishment for the Church, or even the end of the Monarchy?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Very good questions James. I wish I knew the answers. Civil partnership was pursued as a “protection of rights” issue, so that homosexual couples would have the same security in law as married ones, and a legal status.

    This, however, was not enough to push the “equality” button. David Cameron, having said he had no plans for same-sex marriage and with nothing in the election manifesto, decided to prioritise it apparently to show his progressive credentials, and the coverage here has been very much that contentless, progressive = good, opposing = reactionary stuff so familiar from leftist student politics. In other words, exactly what we are supposed to progressing towards is never stated, except by reference to gays having had a bad time and therefore requiring to be allowed religious marriage. You’d have thought the end stage of Progressive Rock would have gievn people pause for thought, but it seems not. There’s a strange parallel with the buzzword “freedom” in TE circles!

    So (1) the agenda is hooman rights equality, though gay rights groups have already said there will be no real equality until religious groups are forced to marry same sex couples.

    (2) The legislation is full of reassurances that the C of E will be exempt … but the position of other denominations is unclear and it’s been observed that British legislation is trumped by European hooman-rights equality courts anyway. This is the country where courts have already said that equality legislation outweighs religious freedom. Cold comfort, then.

    (3) Her Maj is, I’m sure, against it and has no doubt spoken of it in her weekly meetings with the PM. But it would be an unprecedented move with possible constitutional backlash for her to refuse to give assent to a bill passed by both houses.

    In case the international press doesn’t carry it, last night over half of Conservative MPs voted against it (but were outweighed by their colleagues and the other parties), and Cameron said it was a step forward. Which is an interesting take on party politics.

  3. James says:


    The discussion of your politicians is not logical. If Britons now believe in “separation of Church and State” then the proper thing to do is entirely disestablish the Church of England, making it just another denomination, and make marriage (or whatever it is to be called) a civil matter, having nothing to do with churches. Then, if any homosexual couple wishes to be “married” in a religious setting, let that couple shop around for a liberal clergyman or denomination which has no problem with the notion. The state has no business forcing churches to do anything. There is no “right” to a religious wedding. There can be “rights” to civil unions, but not — in a country dedicated to separating religion from the state — to religious weddings.

    In fact, this reasoning applies even if the C of E is *not* disestablished. No one has any “right” to be married by a religious organization whose beliefs they do not accept, any more than they have any “right” to become members of private clubs whose rules they will not agree to abide.

    The case would be different if only religious organizations were licensed to marry people. Then it would be necessary to force religious organizations to perform the marriages. But if civil unions are available, and all the rights of marriage are attached to such unions, then the state’s interest in what religious organizations do — or don’t do — is nonexistent.

    Lots of other countries have legalized same-sex marriage. None, to my knowledge, have forced clergy to perform such marriages. Why would Britain be so foolish as to become the first nation to step into this quagmire?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well James, as I said the stated intention is to “allow” churches to conduct such marriages, but not to force them. The sticking point is the European Human Rights that overrule our own legislation: if someone took a case to court, the intentions of Parliament might well count for nothing.

    By the way, have the other countries that have legalised same-sex marriages retained limitations on consanguinity? If so, why? And if not, does that not pose equal rights issues for heterosexual marriages? If marriage is entirely the expression of a loving commitment, what is the State to stand in the way of people of any gender, age, or degree of blood relationship? It is time we thought progressively on such matters…

    I jest of course. But it does get hard to judge on what basis “progress” is to be distinguished from “regress.” For example, one reason for the new legislation is that it’s supported by most young people … yet in the same news bulletin one hears that most kids access online pornography (which therefore presumably affects their views on sexuality) and that 40% of teenage girls have been subject to some form of online sexual harrassment. Why is not that part of the sexual liberation and “sexual health” that we were all promised back in the 60s as well as gay marriage is?

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