He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
— Mark 10:11-12
As you might well imagine I get a lot of letters. Letters that mainly condemn me and my “lifestyle” — whatever that means — as a lesbian. These letter writers seem to take some manner of glee in condemning me … quoting Bible passage after Bible passage that they say clearly condemns me. Oh, they write to me out of “love” for me and “sorrow” over my situation and my “struggle” with homosexuality. They are concerned, they say, for my soul and are only attempting to “save” me from the fiery pit that surely awaits me when this life is over. I applaud their efforts and hit the delete key. All the while feeling some manner of emotion wash over me … some unidentifiable feeling. I suppose it feels like anger, disgust, frustration and just plain sadness all rolled into one. How do I make these people understand that their love feels like hate, their sorrow feels like self-righteousness and that the only one here struggling with my homosexuality is them?
It hit me this morning. Not so much the answer to that question, but instead the source of my deep feelings of anger, disgust, frustration and sadness. It’s not the condemnatory tone of the letters that irk me … it’s the deep-seated hypocrisy that each of them contains. As I was reading through L. William Countryman’s book Dirt, Greed and Sex [which I highly recommend to anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of the context in which the Bible was written!] I came to the realization that while I’m constantly accused of picking and choosing what I like in the Bible and discarding what I don’t, those who condemn me do the exact same thing!
The passage quoted at the beginning of the article is my prime example. Where is the Christian outrage at the number of divorced people in our society? Why are there no churches splitting over the idea of divorced people within their congregations? Why is divorce so readily accepted in our society when it is clearly … and, I mean, there ain’t no exegetical way around it, clearly … condemned in the Bible … and not just IN the Bible but by Jesus himself? Look at the passage closely. “Whoever” — that means anyone! — “divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” Wow! There’s no equivocation there! Any man who divorces his wife and gets remarried has committed adultery! But wait! Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Yeah, Jesus, he’s an equal opportunity judge! Even a woman who divorces her husband and remarries is committing adultery!
Adulterers! Look at divorce rates these days. Almost half the marriages in our great, God-filled and God-fearing, land end in divorce. Most of those divorced people then … oh, my God … get remarried! Adulterers! Why don’t our good Christian brothers and sisters stand up and condemn these horrible practices? They don’t have to look far for a verse to use to condemn these people. They can trot out the same Bible verse they trot out against us! 1 Corinthians 6:9 says, “fornicators, idolators, ADULTERERS, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — NONE of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” If we are condemned by the passage as gays and lesbians, then over half the heterosexual population is condemned right along with us … including such good Christian people as Newt Gingrich, Rev. Charles Stanley, Senator Bob Barr and my own dear, sweet mother. See you all in hell!
“Oh, but now,” those good Christian brothers and sisters who condemn GLBT people, will say, “we do condemn divorce. We do not like divorced people in our churches … they are sinners and we condemn them.” But it’s the disparity of condemnation that is the problem. These good Christian brothers and sisters seem to have a sin grading system. Divorce is bad, but not as bad as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Divorced people are still welcome in many churches that say they condemn divorce. In the case of Rev. Stanley, a divorced pastor can still lead a church, [First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia] even though the church’s official stand is to condemn divorce. But, these same good Christian folks will go out of their way to condemn GLBT people to hell. There’s a name for that … hypocrisy.
“Oh, but now,” those good Christian brothers and sisters who condemn GLBT people, will say, “our society has changed over the centuries. You certainly can’t hold us to that high of a standard anymore. Besides, nowadays, we know that staying in a marriage can be bad for you. Look at the battered women, shouldn’t they be able to divorce their abuser and remarry someone nicer?” According to Jesus? No! Not unless they’re willing to forfeit the kingdom of God for it. If you’re a literalist then going against anything in the Bible … God’s infallible word … for your own convenience has a name … hypocrisy.
“Oh, but now,” our good Christian brothers and sisters will continue, “marriage in ancient times was quite different. It wasn’t about love it was about property rights. Divorce and remarriage within that society damaged not only the people involved but society at large as well. Things are different now.” They certainly are … but according to my good Christian brothers and sisters who espouse a more literal view of the Bible … God never changes! Well, if Jesus says getting divorced and remarried makes you an adulterer, and God never changes, then, hey, I don’t care how society has changed … Jesus said it … that settles it. Forever. We are to be in this world but not of it. If you truly believe what Jesus said is true … then you believe it for all eternity. Otherwise it’s called … hypocrisy.
I know it sounds like I’m being rather harsh to my critics … and that I might just be returning reviling for reviling. I may be walking the thin line here, but I don’t see anything wrong with pointing out the hypocrisy of our modern day Pharisees. It was an exercise good enough for Jesus, I figure I’ve got a little bit of leeway in this matter. Jesus got frustrated when anyone put a stumbling block in front of another person … and so do I. Instead of insisting on grace as the one true way to salvation, my more literalist friends insist on right action, right thought and above all, right belief. But, only if they’re the one’s who get to define what’s “right.”
Often I hear those on the religious right talk about the moral decay of this country and our world … and homosexuals are the first ones they single out for their condemnatory words. They have no words of condemnation for the adulterers among them other than to shake their heads at more “moral decay.” Then they somehow find a way to still condemn homosexuals for promoting promiscuity that leads those poor heterosexuals into thinking they can just up and leave their marriages anytime they want. So, there you have it. Gays and lesbians are to blame for all those failed straight marriages. Who knew?
But, their thinking is too backward for me … I can’t agree that we’re on a downward spiral leading us all straight to that fiery pit. Instead … I think we’re morally evolving. The literalists believe we began in perfection in the Garden of Eden and then fell … damning each of us with original sin until all eternity. I see it the other way around. We are evolving from whatever primordial goo we came from into the perfection that God would have us be. There is no “fall of man” … there is no “original sin” for which we must atone. Instead, there is the pursuit of God and God’s perfection. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:48 to “be perfect” just as God is perfect. We’re reminded in Hebrews 6:1: “Therefore let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God.”
Jesus’ words are just the beginning of our journey to perfection! I certainly disagree with Jesus’ words that those who divorce and remarry are adulterers. We have moved beyond “the basic teachings about Christ” … we need not lay that foundation again … for we are evolving … we repent of dead works and put our faith toward God … who perfects us!
Even Jesus himself gives us clues on how our hearts should evolve toward that perfection only available to us through faith in God. In the gospel of John, the latest gospel written, Jesus is depicted as being in the middle of a dispute when a woman taken in adultery is about to be stoned for her crime. [John 8:1-11] By law, the woman was to be stoned. The people were perfectly willing to follow the law … one that Jesus himself had made even more stringent with his words in Mark. Instead of reciting his condemnation of adultery again and allowing a lawful end to the woman’s actions, Jesus says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” You know the story … no one picked up a stone … and those who already had stones in their hands dropped them. They all went away leaving the woman and Jesus alone. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you … ”
Has Jesus contradicted his own teaching here? Didn’t he just condemn adultery in the strongest terms possible in Mark? How can Jesus now just dismiss a woman guilty of adultery? Jesus does not contradict himself. Instead he’s giving us valuable instruction on how to live our own lives. We may be adulterers, fornicators, sodomites, thieves, drunkards and all those other sorts of people that Paul is sure will not inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus gives no such message. Instead he says … “Neither do I condemn you …” As Countryman says, Jesus, “forces the crowd to reevaluate the cheap sense of virtue that we get from committing violence in defense of familiar social institutions.”
What Jesus has been trying to convey to us over the centuries is this simple message … we are not condemned … we are blessed … we are forgiven … we are God’s children … no matter what. Jesus’ message is one of grace, of love, of compassion, of justice, of mercy, of walking humbly with our God. We cannot do that if we blindly cling to passages we’re convinced condemn everyone but ourselves. We are just like that woman taken in adultery … each and every one of us. People are ready to stone us … ready to follow the letter of the law and put us all to death. Jesus’ message is simple. If you are without sin, feel free to start casting stones. No one can condemn us. Neither can we condemn others. The best news … the Good News … is that Jesus, too, refuses to condemn us.
It’s true that Jesus then tells the woman to “go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” But what does that mean? What is sin? We sin when we deliberately turn away from God. Jesus didn’t instruct the woman to never commit adultery again … although if that’s an action that turns her heart from God, then that’s certainly something she should avoid. Countryman points out that Jesus forgives the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and makes a point of saying those people will enter heaven before the righteous Pharisees. However, there’s no evidence that the prostitutes or the tax collectors stopped being prostitutes and tax collectors. The women who were prostitutes had no choice, economically or socially, to stop being prostitutes. No one would marry them … and there were no ancient Wal-Marts where they could go and get nice respectable jobs. No, they had to continue to be prostitutes … to survive. It wasn’t the prostitution or the tax collecting that made these people sinners. Instead, it was that their hearts were not focused on God. Jesus’ words turned them back to God … and thus they were forgiven. It is not our actions that constitute sin … it is our intentions … what’s in our heart. Jesus preaches purity of heart … not purity of action. If one is pure in their heart, then their actions cannot help but be pure, since what proceeds from the mouth is what is in the heart. [Matthew 15:18] That is the evolution of faith … it begins with a pure, God-centered, heart. That is how we will reach perfection … no matter what our actions.
The Bible has many universal truths in it … truths that guide and sustain us even to this day. But, it also contains many outdated ideas, laws and codes that do nothing but bind us into slavery in our modern age and lead us away from perfection. We have freely discarded most of them, including Jesus’ direct words on adultery. Our literalist friends will gladly join us in discarding those words of Jesus, but they madly cling to the other outdated passages in the Bible that they feel condemns homosexuality for all eternity. I fear for their futures, truly I do … because we have seen quite clearly how nature deals with those beings that fail to evolve.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.