Divorce IV: The twist in the Orthodox perspective…
We've seen how Catholics and Protestants understand and apply scriptural teachings on divorce. The other great tradition within the church is Orthodoxy, and most of us are unfamiliar with it. But it definitely has a different, and interesting, perspective to offer on divorce.
Orthodoxy shares the view of all Christians that marriage is a calling to lifelong union, and anything less falls short of fulfilling the Divine plan. The canons of the Orthodox churches forbid second marriages while the first spouse is living.
However, like the Jews, Orthodox Christians recognise divorce as a social reality. It may not accord with the Divine plan, but marriages do come to an end. This may be the outcome of sin, and this in turn calls for repentance, but that does not mean that the marriage concerned continues to be a living sacramental reality.
In this context, it is noteworthy that Matthew records Christ's admonition against divorce twice, in identical terms; once in Matthew 19 in the context of Christ's encounter with a group of Pharisees (the same encounter in which Mark and Luke place it) and a second time in Matthew 5 — the Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount offers what appear to many to be impossibly high standards — not only do not kill, but do not be angry; not only do not commit adultery, but do not look at a woman lustfully; if your right eye offends you, pluck it out; if your right hand offends you, cut it off; offer no resistance to the wicked, but turn the other cheek; if someone wants to take your tunic, give him your cloak as well. And do not get divorced.
Christians have always struggled as to how to understand this. If we fail to live up to these standards, do we sin? Do we lose our salvation?
One view is that the Sermon on the Mount is not so much about specific acts which we are enjoined to undertake, but more about attitudes which we should accept, internalise and manifest in our lives. The specific acts are offered as illustrations of the attitudes we should hold. Failure to accept these attitudes and express them our words, our actions and our lives is sinful, but the sin lies in our interior disposition more than in the specific actions we have taken.
On this view divorce is sinful, but like any sin it may be repented of and forgiven. But that does not mean that the sin has never been committed. A murdered man is still dead, and a marriage ended by divorce is still ended.
Given this perspective, if a person wants to enter into a second marriage, the important question is not "is the first spouse still living" but "has the individual acknowledged, repented of and addressed the sin (or sins) which ended the first marriage?" This can be explored by a bishop or a spiritual court established by him and, in an appropriate case, permission — an economia, or "leniency" — can be given for a second marriage to be celebrated.
So, if you have stuck with my commentary to the end, what have you learned?
Jesus really didn't like divorce, and apparently forbade it in most (Matthew) or all (Mark, Luke) circumstances.
However from as early as the time of Paul, Christians felt that Jesus' teaching, though fairly clear, was incomplete. They elaborated it to address situations which they felt he had not addressed.
Different Christian traditions have done this in different ways. All are attempting the difficult task of reconciling gospel teaching on scripture with the wider gospel message, and with the experience of the Christian community.
This is a difficult challenge, which no doubt is part of the reason why different traditions, approaching the question faithfully and prayerfully, have developed such different responses to it.
The difficulties of the different Christian traditions are nothing but the difficulties of individual Christians, writ large. Whether you take a Catholic, Protestant And, if there is a lesson here, it is that we should acknowledge the difficulties that many of our brothers and sisters, and perhaps we ourselves, may have in our marriages.
Photo Credit: Animations by Brian Coyne.
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