The Bible condemns same-sex relationships, divorce, and premarital sex, so how can it be that progressive Christians embrace them? It’s all in black and white, right? Not exactly. The larger meanings of the passages dealing with these social issues have little to do with intimacy and everything to do with power.
There is a biblical question behind all issues of sex in the New Testament, whether the relationship is exploitative or whether it is life giving. Biblically, that’s a distinction made not only in sex but in all human relationships and social structures: family, work, politics, money, the state, and oh yes, the temple.
In the first-century Near East, the pater familias had absolute unquestioned authority to use both men and women inferiors in any way he wished and then discard them if he wished. In a New Testament class, one of the most shocking things I read was a description of the Roman alarm system of the time. Phalluses were painted on the housing complexes of the extended family and servants. This symbol illustrated that if you were caught messing with the man’s property, you would be brutally sodomized. What was “owned” included everyone under this man’s care. Now you have some idea of why the Apostle Paul was absolutely furious by the sexuality of his day. The problem wasn’t sex in itself, but the exploitative and abusive way that sex was wielded as a weapon against the powerless.
One thing that must be understood about sexuality in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament is that the concept of a loving relationship between equals was a rarity, and it did not often apply to marriage. At the time, divorce most likely meant a life of abject poverty for the woman. The result was likely prostitution, with no social consequences for the divorced man. Sex outside of marriage for women meant much the same or worse, as it still does for so many women around the world.
When Jesus speaks out against divorce, he rejects the old Mosaic law allowing men to cast aside women. The man alone could issue a certificate of divorce for almost any reason. Jesus says in Mark 5:11-12 that in the case of divorce, both have committed adultery. This was in contrast to Jewish law at the time, which “assumed that adultery was committed against a husband, not a wife. Greek and Roman law also defined adultery primarily as an offense against the husband’s rights.” (Black, Collins; Harper Collins Study Bible, 2006)
In his exhortation against divorce, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of the creation story, that man and woman are joined by God as one flesh. The man made a commitment to care for the woman as his own self. He could not revoke this in Jesus’ teachings except in the case of adultery. This could be grounds for divorce, but it could not be grounds for corporal punishment. In the Gospel of John, Jesus invited those without sin to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery. In Jesus’ justice, the man shouldered responsibility. His cultural power did not sanction him to deal unjustly with others. He could not scapegoat the powerless and particularly not the human beings under his care.
Jesus, like progressive Christians who follow him, refused to let the letter of the law supersede the spirit of the law. Divorce may have been allowed but as it was practiced, it went against the highest ethical obligation in the religious tradition: care for the poor and oppressed. Most often this included women and children, who without the protection of a man were destitute and desperate. From the earliest Biblical testimony, we proclaim a God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow.” Doing this is the way to honor God’s law. In the words of the prophets, it is more important to God than religious worship or piety. It is more important than following the rules.
Moreover, rules exist to protect the integrity of these higher values. When they don’t, they are moot. Ancient Hebrew society was structured in a way that would ensure all were cared for. All were obligated to tithe, to give one-tenth of their income to support both the priestly class and those on the margins. Early Christians practiced freewill offerings. In some communities, all property was sold and the proceeds were held in common and to aid those in need.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by reading the words of the prophet Isaiah and brashly declaring that they are fulfilled in him. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Our job as disciples is not to condemn people based on our own perceptions of their moral failures or the breaking of even sound laws. Our first obligation is to honor human dignity and care for those who cannot care for themselves. Applying the spirit of these laws is much harder than following specific rules made to uphold them thousands of years ago, in a culture so drastically different from our own that there is no real comparison. Every ethical mandate in the Bible is an invitation to life and life abundant. We have the difficult task of deciding for our time and place which human relationships meet that criteria and which do not.
That is what we believe both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were asking us to consider in all human relationships. Usually, a relationship’s “fruits” are evident. Bad fruit may be the first sign that someone is in a bad situation, a relationship that is abusive or exploitative. The best that we can do is hold up to the light those rare relationships where love and equality rule. We find them among homosexuals and heterosexuals. We find them among two friends who have decided to meet their sexual needs together in a way that is respectful, even if it doesn’t include the social contract of marriage or a lifelong commitment. We find them among couples who have agreed to divorce rather than continue in toxic relationships that poison the well.
Progressive Christians advocate that all people stand up for being treated equally and lovingly, and to never use another for personal gratification or as an ego-boosting conquest. When basic human dignity is denied any partner in any relationship, that person should be able to walk away and rely on the care of the community. Explicitly, we don’t have the right to judge. We do have the responsibility to help liberate people from oppression and exploitation, personally and socially.
Marleen Shepherd is a Master of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary and has worked as religion reporter. Marleen is a progressive Christian and lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Jesus on divorce: Matthew 5:31-32; Mark 10:2-12; John 8:1-11
God’s care for the oppressed in the Hebrew Scriptures: This is rooted in Mosaic law and references number in the thousands. In particular see Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalms 82:3-4; Proverbs 14:31; Isaiah 58:6-11
Care for those on the margins in the early Christian community: Acts 2:44-47; Acts 4:34-35