This coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading from Mark 10 gives us Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce:
2Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
According to the incarnate Lord, the one Word of God in the flesh:
Divorce = Adultery
Amidst the current conflict over sexuality in the United Methodist Church, it’s difficult to read scripture passags about marriage and not think of the pressing debate and potential schism. In light of the lectionary text, I can’t help but wonder:
If Paul can contradict Jesus on divorce, why can’t we reevaluate Paul on homosexuality?
In his essay, Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality, biblical scholar (and my former teacher) Brian Blount advocates the position that certain biblical ethical prescriptions may be modified by the contemporary church, and, in their modified form, they may more faithfully reflect Paul’s own theological perspective.
Let me say that again-
We can modify certain biblical ethical prescriptions and, in modifying them, more nearly model the St. Paul’s own theological posture.
Blount cites Paul himself as the precedent for the ethical re-evaluation of homosexuality.
For example, Blount points out, the Gospel writers are all unanimous in their presentation of Jesus’ views on divorce.
Jesus, according to the Gospels, is unambiguously against divorce.
Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Jesus allow the stipulation of divorce in cases of sexual infidelity (5.31-32).
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul acknowledges Jesus’ teaching on this matter (1 Corinthians 7.10-11).
Nonetheless, in that same passage, Paul claims his own apostolic authority and allows for a reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching based on the context of the Corinthian congregation.
In other words, when it comes to divorce, Paul offers up his own ‘You’ve heard it said (from the lips of the Word Incarnate) but I say to you…’
The church at Corinth was struggling to apply their faith in a thoroughly pagan culture. Aware of the destructive effects pagan culture potentially posed to an individual’s and a church’s faith, Paul changes Jesus’ tradition and allows for divorce in the case of Christians who are married to unsupportive pagan partners.
In light of the Corinthian’s cultural context, and even though it stands in contrast to Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospels, Paul believes this ethical modification to be consistent with his larger understanding of God’s present work in and through Jesus Christ.
Such ethical deliberation and re-evaluation is not dissimilar to the process of discernment that the Christian Church later undertook with respect to scripture’s understanding of slavery.
Just as the Holy Spirit guided Paul to re-evaluate Jesus’ teaching in light of a different present-day context, Brian Blount posits that the Holy Spirit can and does lead Christians to re-evaluate Paul today.
When it comes to the matter of homosexuality, Blount argues that Romans 1 understands homosexuality as one symptom among many of the fallen world’s idolatry. That is, Paul does not view homosexuality as a sin deserving of God’s future wrath; Paul views homosexuality as a sign that the world is already suffering God’s wrath.
Our contemporary situation is different, according to Blount.
If it is possible for contemporary Christians to concede that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, then Paul’s chief complaint may be removed, opening the way for Christians to re-evaluate Paul’s ethical prescriptions in a faithful manner.
It becomes possible then, Blount says, for Christians to conclude that faithful, monogamous, homosexual relationships can be consistent with God’s present-day redemptive activity.
It’s possible for Christians today to say faithfully ‘You’ve heard it said (from Paul) but, with the Spirit, we say to you…’