Covenental Sex and Marriage: A Biblical View
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Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
When confronting the tide of "Christian" divorces and remarriages, evangelicals have responded with a number of interesting books and magazine interviews. Yet I find myself increasingly restive about the line of approach these tend to take toward Jesus' and Paul’s teachings on the subject. The implication was that these have the weight of legal edicts which lawyers must now argue through the use of "precedents," opinions," "interpretations," etc.--seeking a "judgment" as to whether God's law prohibits or allows divorce, remarriage, and the rest.
These instances together served to crystallize one of my greatest "unhappinesses" with the generality of establishment evangelicalism. I sense some sort of evangelical instinct that wants to approach every problem or issue as a law case, defining it in judicial terms, striving for a judgment on the Christian legality or illegality involved. Thus, evangelical theology typically takes the form of finely detailed, formally-structured, logically-tight legal argument--with a great deal of fine print dedicated to precision and the preventing of any diverse interpretation.
Evangelical exegesis typically approaches scripture in the way Kierkegaard describes: "It is very remarkable how ingenious, how inventive, how sophistical, how persevering in learned investigations certain men may be, merely to get a Bible text to appeal to. On the other hand, they do not seem to observe that this precisely is to make a fool of God, to treat him as a poor devil who has been foolish enough to commit something to writing and now must put up with what the lawyers will make of it."
Evangelical ethics is typically a tightly defined "rule ethic" that produces clear and absolute distinctions between right and wrong. The evangelical method of handling church affairs--from the congregational level on up--typically proceeds as a court case:
My problem with this overall mentality is that I do not find it to be that of the scriptures themselves. At this point I need to enter a disclaimer--which I hope I can do without confusing my point or derailing my argument. The legalistic mindset I am describing is characteristic only of our Greco-Roman-Western judicial tradition. So although the Bible actually is thoroughly infused by a legal tradition, it is not this one. Hebrew jurisprudence operated out of an entirely different concept. Therefore the evangelical error lies--not in its use of a juridical tradition--but in using an alien secular one rather than the divine one. (On this point, see Markus Barth's Justification and, derived from it, Chapters Six and Seven of my Towering Babble.)
So now--as an alternative to the article on Divorce Remarriage that raised the question as to what is the intent and provisions of the Christian law laid down by Jesus and Paul--I propose to address the question, "What is the overall theological picture and pattern that best clarifies the Christian counsel of Jesus and Paul?" The difference will not be so much that the article comes to one conclusion and I to another--as that I will not find scripture presenting any such clear, legally precise conclusion (though neither will I find it being all that loose, tolerant, and permissive, either).
Rather than seeing them as legal prescription and regulation, I suggest we take all the biblical sex-and-marriage references as being "covenant talk." Covenant I define as "a deliberate and formal action by which two parties make a profoundly serious and personal pledge to share their lives and fortunes at a deep level." This, of course is the general, secular definition of the term--and thus of the broadest possible applicability. And I believe the common understanding is that Israel must have started out with some such secular understanding and then projected it onto the divine as a model for the God/man relationship.
Far be it from me to want to deny the evidence that historically the biblical concept of "covenant" evolved out of pre-Israelite legal and commercial traditions in just this way. However, I from the standpoint of faith-confession and the biblical theology, the priority is exactly reversed: it is the God-man relationship of divine revelation that defines the biblical understanding of "covenant," not the other way around. As with everything Israel took over from surrounding cultures--priestly cult, prophecy, wisdom, civil government, you name it--as soon as the unique God--Yahweh--was made party to it, the concept became totally transformed. The common, secular terminology is retained; but its definition is now unique.
Consequently, it becomes imperative that we be able to handle "covenant" according to two different and essentially incompatible definitions. When all the covenanting parties are human beings then our earlier-proposed, general, and broadly applicable definition serves very well. However, just as soon as the Lord God is introduced, "covenant" belongs to an entirely different language game; "human covenant" and "divine covenant" are not simple variations (not even "standard model" and "deluxe model") of the same thing.
To my mind, one of the catastrophes of contemporary Christendom is that we have gone so overboard with the lesser definition as to lose the greater. Both in the church and in the world we throw around the term "covenant," using it to identify any sort of somewhat serious, semi-serious, or wants-to-be-thought-of-as-serious commitment (no, not even "commitment"--"contractual agreement"). And we've done this to the extent that we've lost all appreciation for the fact that scriptural "covenant" is entirely different; we've cheapened the term until it can no longer communicate gospel.
Yet the divine precedent (not the human one) is the paradigm that must designate "covenant." So allow me to spot three unique features of biblical (divine) covenant. The first has to do with the degree of intimacy, bonding, life-sharing, self-giving that is involved. The OT Hebrew word for "covenant" is built over the root which means "to cut" (and that is a strange one, for sure; why not," rather "to join"?) Yet, what quickly becomes apparent is that the making of divine covenant was regularly signaled in a blood ceremony.
With the Abrahamic covenant, it was sacrificial animals being cut in half, the bleeding pieces separated to form an alley through which passed thee sacred fire of God (Gen. 15:6-21). The covenant reminder of circumcision" involved cutting baby boys until they bled (Gen. 17:1-13). The blood with which the Hebrews marked their homes so that the angel of death would "pass over" is probably to be understood as a sign, of covenant protection (Ex. 12:6-7, 13, 22-23). With the Mosaic covenant, the blood of cut animals was collected into, two basins--the contents of one of which was thrown against the altar of God and the other toward the covenanting people (Ex. 24:3-8). With "the new covenant in my blood," Jesus is cut (or pierced) to shed the blood that effects the making of this radically new and final covenant (1 Cor. 11:25 and among the Synoptics, particularly the long form of Luke 22:14-28).
I propose that the Mosaic instance best reveals what is going on here. To the Hebrew way of thinking, blood is life--it is the essence, the signification, of life. And covenant blood is not the sign of life being taken of someone dying or being killed. No, it signifies life being given, being voluntarily shared, and poured out for the benefit of the "other" to form a common bond of blood (of life) between them. And thus--most clearly in the Mosaic instance--the covenant involved the mutual blood-gift of God sharing his life with the people even as they responded by giving their lives to him.
But of course, it was only in the NT instance we got the real thing, the new covenant sealed by the actual voluntary sharing of Jesus' own life-blood rather than a merely symbolic representation of the same. And also, of course, it was only the blood of Jesus that could simultaneously represent the life both of God and of man in intermingling union--truly an altogether new sort of covenant.
Obviously, if it is a life-sharing of this order that spells "covenant," then there is little if anything of sheerly human commitment that can claim the name. By itself, human blood simply doesn't bond all that well.
In the second place, OT references to the divine covenant rather frequently include adjectives translated "everlasting," "irrevocable" and the like. And my understanding is that the NT Greek word for covenant includes inherent implications of its being guaranteed and incapable of cancellation. Yet our strongest evidence on this point lies with the OT Hebrew word hesed. That is a covenant term identifying the quality of divine love that motivates and thus guarantees God's covenants. The KJV translates it "lovingkindness" (which doesn't really say it); the RSV and other modern versions come closer by translating hesed as "steadfast love." Walter Brueggemann, argues that it ought to be "dogged love: " I choose to be a bit more genteel and go with George Matheson's hymn line: "0 Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go." But take your pick, that's hesed--the love that stands by the covenant no matter what the other partner chooses to do.
At this point I make a guess (which is the most anyone can do). But my guess is that the New Testament writers (probably following their lead-off man, that Hebrew of the Hebrews, Paul of Tarsus) did their serious thinking in Hebrew. Thus when they wanted to talk about God's "love," the impulse of that love would have them write the word "hesed." But they would be pulled up short by the "no-no" that it has to be in Greek so it can be read by non-Hebraic audiences. And it isn't easy to communicate a Hebrew gospel (which the Christian gospel is) in Greek. Greek—which, like English, had grown up in an environment deprived of any experience of divine covenant—simply doesn't have the right words. In that extremity, the best that could be done was to pick up the little-used, nondescript Greek word agape and then back-translate agape to hesed. Well, then we ought to be getting close to what scripture wants to say.
So the inviolability and irrevocability of divine covenant lies in this: It clearly is not the case that our human fidelity to the covenant is guaranteed; in fact, humanity has yet to show anything that could pass as true "covenant fidelity." So the word of God is, rather, "Yes, I know you're acting very badly; and I'm sorry about that. But you must know that there is no behavior of yours that can affect the validity of our covenant. That covenant was never premised on the quality of your response but solely upon the quality of my commitment promise, and hesed. You can act as unfaithfully as you will. You can even declare that you want out of the covenant, that it is null void, dead, cancelled, and all over. Yet none of this will stop me (or even slow me down) from continuing to love you, being faithful toward you, living out my side of the covenant in spite of all. Sorry, my children, but mine was irrevocable covenant; and it simply is not in your power to change that fact."
Surely it is plain that such "irrevocability" is entirely unique to divine covenant. No secular, human covenant (no human action of any sort) can display true "irrevocability" or "guarantee" anything. On this point there is nothing in common between divine covenant and human covenant.
In the third place, then, human covenant regularly (and perhaps necessarily) take the form of "legal agreement"--or at least carries overtones of mutual obligations of the sort that are contested in a court of law: "I agreed to do this, in return for which he agreed to do that and it will be up to the judge to decide who failed whom and who owes whom what." That's human covenant.
Quite the contrary, divine covenant begins, functions, and ends in a realm entirely beyond that of legality and law. Such a covenant lies entirely beyond anything the legal mindset can comprehend, imagine, or touch. It is a matter of "grace" --and the law (operating as it does, out of a commitment to each person's getting what he deserves) simply has no way of assimilating any notion of grace. "Lawyers"--who are the acknowledged experts in handling human covenant--are of no help at all when it comes to divine covenant. (And you are free to read in any implications you wish regarding what I said about my unhappiness with the legalistic mindset of evangelicalism.)
Divine covenant has to happen at the unilateral initiative of God--simply for the fact that humanity has nothing God needs, nothing to offer that could possibly make the relationship attractive to him. And for God's part, if he were to enter into covenant with us in the expectation that the deal will prove mutually profitable—well, then, rather than being "the all-wise God our Father" he is "the no-wise God." But, of course, he goes in knowing full well that he is going to get "took"--we will see to that.
So where human covenant always has overtones of a legal/business deal, divine covenant never does. God offers himself in covenant sheerly as an act of grace, is quite willing to himself be "burned" on the deal--sheerly to do some good for us. And in that gracious covenant, when in his hesed he just will not let us go no matter how hard we try to goad him into deserting the relationship—well, that is simply "grace upon grace," as Scripture calls it. And in the meantime, the "lawyers" are being driven out of their gourds; God refuses to play the game according to what they think should be the rules.
What we conclude, therefore is that--although both human covenant and divine covenant are valid and positive concepts--in actuality they are quite dissimilar. Because of the involvement of a unique God, divine covenant displays the utterly unique features of
So at its very best, human covenant will still be but a dim reflection of the divine--and even that undoubtedly because the divine has spun-off into the human and inspired it to transcend its natural limits ("we love because he first loved us"). Yet natural covenanting is probably that at which we natural humans are naturally poorest.
Now my thesis (which won't take long to argue) is that human "marriage" (with all its attendant aspects of human sexuality) is meant to be understood in terms of "covenant." The Bible's first word on the subject (Gen. 2:24), though only one of many, will be sufficient to establish the point: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."
With "clings to" and "become one flesh," we have ourselves deep into covenant-talk again. We are back at the profoundly intimate idea of life-sharing and blood-bonding. And catch the phrase about "becoming one body," asking yourself where else we encounter a strong resurgence of such language. It is Paul, of course, who--along with the synopticists--picks it up from Jesus at the Last Supper. The "new covenant" which we earlier related to "blood-bonding," in that same upper room is also tied directly to "this is my body"—from there leading to the whole idea that it is through this covenant we become one body, "the body of Christ." I consider it indisputable that Genesis 2:24 directs us to treat human marriage as being essentially a covenant.
Consequently, as earlier we identified two different orders of covenant--the human and the divine--so now we have two different orders of marriage covenant, the human and the divine. All worldlings (add, I am afraid, a great many Christians) see marriage as simply another human covenant as one that neither wants nor asks for any real involvement from God's side. And by and large, these marriages show all the typical signs of human covenant--namely, a somewhat shallow level of life-sharing and blood-bonding; a rather quick and easy revocability; a legal-like "contract of mutual obligation" instead of anything akin to hesed or grace. I don't know that anyone should be surprised or shocked to find human marriage working so; what more could ever be expected from the sheerly human powers of covenant-making? We've never been very good at it.
Yet the implication must be that there is also another order of marriage--namely, the "Christian" marriage of divine covenant. (That reference to "Christian" is not meant to disallow that "Jewish" and "Muslim" marriages might not also proceed out of a theology of divine covenant; all three faiths have sufficient scriptural basis for such.) I don't know about the church teaching and premarital counseling that precedes marriage; but just listen to the Christian wedding and see whether God isn't called upon and invited in as an active participant in the covenant. The vows are taken not just between the man and woman but before God--with him both witnessing those vows and doing some vowing of his own. He is asked to guarantee the irrevocability of this covenant and offer his hesed as the source and inspiration of the couple's love for one another. He is called upon to motivate the deep-level bonding and life-sharing of the partnership.
And if God is thus invited to participate, I think we can assume that he responds affirmatively. He offers to do and does do for this marriage what he was asked to do; if the marriage ultimately comes to grief, it is certainly not because God failed to come through. And thus, because of the involvement of God the couple voluntarily requested, a Christian marriage must forever after be considered and treated as a divine covenant--not merely a human one.
It seems plain, then, that the intention behind God's gift of human sexuality is that it find its purpose and meaning within the setting of "covenant marriage"--divine covenant marriage for those married under these terms--human covenant marriage for those married under those. I see at least three possible contributions sex can make to covenant:
If this, then, be God's intention regarding sex and marriage, how does our sex and marriage behavior stack up against that norm? And it is here I would argue that simply to talk about "God's laws" (with our wide diversity of opinion as to what those are) and to conduct trials determining who is obeying them and who is not--I would argue that such procedure is entirely inadequate and inappropriate to the case. Rather, let's talk about how well our behavior conforms to and serves God's covenantal purposes:
Yet, with Christian marriages of divine covenant, the situation is totally different. Here, divorce represents a case of trying to change the rules in the middle of a game. The marriage started out with God invited in as one of the covenantors and as guarantor of the covenant as a whole. Specifically, the marriage was vowed as irrevocable; and God (the only one who could do so) was asked to so endow it--which he did. Yet suddenly, now, with the marriage in trouble there is a great desire to forget the bit about irrevocability and play it as a simple human covenant that can be put asunder as easily as it was joined together. I don't see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that, in the breakup of a Christian marriage, there had to be a failure of fidelity not simply between the human partners but also somewhere between those human partners and God himself. After all, upon being asked to, he pronounced that covenant irrevocable and had offered all the help and enablement necessary to make it so.
As we have seen, in covenant as otherwise, God does make himself vulnerable to us--vulnerable to our infidelity, our rejection of him, our capriciousness our lovelessness, our crucifying him. Yet, even so, God will not let himself be mocked--that situation is not tolerable for the good of either the mocker or the mockee. And I can hear God saying, "Listen, you two. Recall, if you will, that it was you who begged me to make your marriage covenant irrevocable--which I was eager to do for you. And I am not now exactly overjoyed to have you come around arguing that none of that was for real, that your marriage is too revocable--which you are going to prove by forthwith revoking it. Bear in mind that I was the one who made that covenant irrevocable in the first place and that you simply do not have the power to reverse my decree. No matter what you say, you are married as long as I say you are--and you have not yet heard me call 'revoked' anything I earlier declared 'irrevocable.' Again as Jesus almost put it 'What therefore God has joined together no man can put asunder."
To put the matter as bluntly as it needs to be put: for the human partner in a divine covenant of Christian marriage to take it upon themselves to declare God's covenant voided--this in effect is to "make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:10), a move perilously close to mocking God.
Our distinction between human-covenant marriages and divine-covenant marriages is a necessary one. But let's think about the gosh-awful complications it introduces. Commiserate over the plight it puts me into (along with the Christian clergy generally). What am I to do with this couple that wants me to perform their wedding? Their personal histories and present demeanors indicate that God is the last person they want dictating the terms and conditions of their marriage; what they have in mind is nothing more than a simple human covenant (with all the rights, privileges, and loopholes thereunto pertaining). Yet, for essentially frivolous reasons, they insist on a "church wedding " with a minister of the gospel, lots of Prayer and God-talk, holy vows, declarations of irrevocability--the whole divine bit. What percentage of church weddings would you say represent serious covenants with God?
Can anyone offer me a defense against God's accusation of my breaking the Second Commandment while I blatantly take the Lord's name in vain, playing like we're pledging a divine covenant when both God and I are fully aware that it's nothing of the sort? Perhaps I should start using Ecclesiastes 5:4 as a wedding text: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools."
But you know, we could make an honest woman out of many a bride (and an honest man out of many a groom) if we could convince those who seek marriages of merely human covenant to do it through purely civil ceremonies. Then their subsequent adulteries, divorces, and remarriages would not be nearly as serious as when their insisted-upon Christian ceremony involves them also in infidelities to God. They have vastly complicated their moral situation without having gained anything (except a "nice wedding") in the process. And that way, we clerics could come through without quite so much mud on our faces, either.
Assuredly, true divine-covenant marriage through its involvement of God, brings with it a lot of great stuff unknown to merely human covenant: such things as covenantal sex; the profoundly intimate sharing involved in becoming one body, the security of knowing the relationship to be truly irrevocable; the awareness of God's gracious offer to guarantee and enable a good outcome. However, none of this great stuff is to be had without price. Just as Christian marriage promises more, it requires more--is much more stringent in its demands of honesty, seriousness, and good faith. To enter divine covenant with heads in the clouds (and thus clouds in the heads) without much of anything aforethought, is asking for big trouble; God will not be mocked. Better the lightminded should stick with human covenant where they don't put themselves so much at risk.
Thus, the word of covenant theology (or at least my word of covenant theology) is that the Church of Jesus Christ and all the Christians who make it up just have to become more serious than they have been about their marriage-and-sex behavior. Whether the behavior itself improves or not, our attitude toward it simply has to. Consequently, my hope is that this article will come as bad news to the liberal church, the tolerant and permissive church which doesn't see that there should be any difference between Christian standards and worldly standards, that treats all relationships under "human covenant," and denies any reality to divine covenant. But we simply have to quit playing God for a patsy. Our very souls are in jeopardy until we can get ourselves serious enough to give our divine marriage covenants (which we insisted upon having and which God graciously granted) the full respect and honor they demand.
Does this mean then, that I am in full accord with the evangelical church, which is nothing if not "serious"--with its solemn prohibitions against moral iniquity; its church trials condemning adulterers, divorcees, the remarried, and what all? Not for a moment! In its very seriousness, this wing of the church has overlooked the side of divine covenant that we presented but have not proceeded to develop. But remember that, from beginning to end, through and through, God's covenant is always that of grace. He didn't offer himself to us in covenant because we were such good covenant-prospects. Not at all; he offered himself to us because we were in such desperate need of him. He offered himself to us knowing full well he would get "burned" in consequence. Our infidelities, our adulteries divorces, and remarriages have come as no surprise to him. The surprise is, rather, that he loves us anyway. We blow our end of the covenant to smithereens and does God justly respond, "So, go to hell"? Not our God; in his hesed that just will not let us go, he says, "Well all right; let's a try it one more time." The evangelical church whose legalistic approach is strong on judgment but lacking in grace is just as far off the mark of biblical covenant as is the liberal church that lacks seriousness.
So here's the dialectic: on the one hand total seriousness and total honesty before God. On the other, ever ready forgiveness and grace. This will not be an easy balance to manage. If, for instance, under the impression we are communicating grace to a person, we were to tell him, "Oh now divorce isn't so bad; there are a lot of things worse than that"--we have messed up our covenant theology completely. Rather than true grace, what we have there communicated is "cheap grace," an entirely false and useless product. No, the demand for utter seriousness before God is actually prerequisite to receiving true grace; forgiveness can hardly be effective until a person is willing honestly to confess what it is he needs forgiveness for. So we dare not allow our eagerness for grace in any way to undercut the demand for absolute honesty.
Yet things can just as easily go wrong the other way around. If, in the seriousness of our moral judgments, we come on so strong that God's word of hesed and grace is muted--well, that can't be a very true representation of divine covenant, either. What we will have to learn is to push absolute seriousness and utterly free grace simultaneously--without allowing either to compromise the other.
What this means, I think, is that the legal-edict approach simply will not prove adequate to the task. Even though attempting to derive it from scripture the church will never be able to come up with a system of "God's laws" which will serve in a juridical way to determine what should happen with fornicators, adulterers, divorcees, and those who remarry. The operation of divine covenant just will not reduce to courtroom procedures--largely because of that strong element of grace that the "law" simply cannot handle. Instead, trusting the guidance of God's Holy Spirit as communities of faith (not Christian law courts), as brothers and sisters in Christ (not God's prosecuting attorneys), we are going to have to feel our way through each cue on its own merits, tailoring our judgments and our forgivenesses to the individuals involved, doing our best simultaneously to represent both the demands and the grace of divine covenant. God bless us every one.