Hi! I am a new blogger to the site so this topic was fresh news when I first wrote it. The delay has enabled me to add some additional thoughts and make some changes.
So news of Jesus’ marriage to Mary (Magdelene one assumes) beamed into our minds recently; a gospel fragment from the 2nd Century has been discovered shedding yet more ‘light on to Jesus’ marriage status. Much is already being posted online, written about and discussed at home, in work and in churches worldwide. So, why am I, a middle-aged hairdresser in the UK writing a Blog on the subject? Because the news resonates with me as a man married for 33 years, with grown up children, who as a family seek to find God and follow Jesus in a post modern/post church world or whatever is currently past the post!
In Matthew 19 v1-12 we come across Jesus’ key discourse on marriage. When Jesus, in response to the Pharisees’ question on divorce, lays out a whole new paradigm for marriage it is his disciples who exclaim, minds reeling with the implications for their own marriages, ‘It would be better not to marry!’
From things I have read, Jesus was challenging the teaching of Rabbi Hillel who stated that women could be divorced for no more than burning the dinner*. I wonder if women could have just as easily divorced their husbands for being rubbish at putting up shelves? Jesus, in His discourse, goes to the opposite extreme to Hillel; the only reason now for divorce is adultery. For the disciples hearing this, there is now no way out of a miserable marriage. Upon reflection I began to consider that the ‘dialogue’ between Jesus and Hillel is in fact a tension between truths. Imagine Hillel being asked by his followers, many who may have been in difficult marriages, for the bottom line on which they can divorce their wives. Hillel goes away and ponders for awhile. He possibly came to this conclusion; ‘Whatever I say, those men looking for any way out of a marriage will use it. So, being a poor cook might as well be the reason for divorce’. He, like Jesus, understood the simple truth that hardness of heart was always the reason for ending a relationship. He knew that many men, upon hearing the bottom line, would never divorce their wives for such a trivial thing. Love can put up with burnt food, indigestion and a whole lot more! Jesus equally new that even adultery does not mean people will walk away from a marriage. So I think both men go to an extreme position in order to highlight the black hole that can be at the centre of many marriages. Jesus offers a new heart of love to His hearers, disciple and Pharisee alike. This is something to be grasped as good news for those who can hear, far more important than a new legalistic line in the sand.
But what about the fragment, you ask? Well, Jesus responded to the disciples with His statement on celibacy which, added to the words of Paul to the Corinthians, led to a faith that for some was exemplified by celibacy. Augustine, in his book ‘The City of God’, took Paul’s words about building on the foundation of faith with stubble and straw or costly stones to mean only the celibate (and therefore celibate clergy) could build their lives with the imperishable materials. We married folk could only build with stubble! Mere straw men!
This emphasis on a celibate clergy led, I think, to the following: firstly it bounced godly women out of apostleship, eldership and equality with men and, if they had any sense of call on their life, eventually led to the choice between motherhood or the cloistered life of a nun. For married men their gift was reduced to no more than peripheral service to the clergy.
Against this background we now have ‘the fragment’ shining a light on possible dissent against the move to a celibate clergy. In our age we can voice our contentious arguments in blogs. Previous generations printed their polemics in pamphlets. I prefer to blog using my real name but many use pseudonyms, as did pamphleteers. There is a long history of people using a famous person’s name to give their work credibility, ‘authenticity’ and increased circulation*. For 2nd century believers who desired to serve God, run a church, be married and enjoy sex, why not write a ‘gospel’ as a counter argument to the developing orthodoxy? They, unlike us, were probably more at home with fable, allegory and story as Truth, so did not have a problem adding to the body of material purporting to be ‘Gospel’.
They, like us, struggled to make sense of marriage, service to God, failure, loss, disenchantment, the sometimes hard truth of the mundane nature of life. I, like many, started married life around Kramer v Kramer, progressed through War of the Roses, blundered past American Beauty and now face Hope springs….. For my wife and me, ours is a journey from two-ness to oneness, worked out at the coal face of personality, circumstance and pressure, with the odd time in paradise. For many good Christian people this is not always the case. One can assume, given Jesus’ conversations with the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, that He was entering into an argument with the Pharisees which stretched their understanding of marriage as opposed to tying people into a loveless marriage. If one takes the words of Jesus in verse 11 of chapter 19 ‘Not everyone can understand this word, only those to whom it is given’** and applies them to the marriage statement then I believe we can find more of God’s grace, forgiveness and love to stay vibrant and committed in a long haul marriage.
OK, so to the crunch. What has this to do with Emergent Church? Within my own church experience, I have witnessed distrust towards single people (especially women), their gifts and ministries, and an over emphasis on married pastors. On a positive note, I have witnessed the growth of correct equality and respect for women in some churches. Whilst recognising our desire to serve within the kingdom of God, for all people, single or married, it is in our core family relationships that we find the love and the grounding to serve the world we live in. How can I seek to understand and respect others, if I do not seek to understand those closest to me?
Finally, this blog is one sided and from a married perspective. I cannot voice the hopes and dreams, the struggles and joys of everyone and I wonder how you see things from your own particular standpoint.
*From Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth E Bailey
**Quote and Bible reading from Restored New Testament by Willis Barnstone