Science in Christian Perspective



Notes on "Science and the Whole Person"A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives
Part 10

Human Sexuality
(A) Are Times A'changing?

Department of Materials Science and Engineering 
Stanford University 
Stanford, California 94305


From: JASA 31 (June 1979): 106-112.

Our previous discussion of the significance of being human contained one major omission: the simple fact that humanness is inextricably hound up with being male and female. Sexuality is one of the major characteristics of humanity, which, if not unique in form since it is shared also with other animals, comes to particular expression for human beings simply because they are human beings. Every life starts with a sexual act, every environment in which a child grows up either has the security and positive features of a family in which human sexuality is appreciated or it does not, development of personhood requires acceptance and understanding of one's own sexuality, and historical examples abound on the relationship between the social health of a society and its sexual practices and attitudes. Christians are often charged with being so concerned about personal sins like those involving sex that they are completely unconcerned about gross social sills like racial and sexual discrimination, and exploitation of the poor. Although a fair measure of this criticism may often be justified, to carry it too far is also a critical error. Sexual ethics may well not he the last word in Christian ethics, but it should probably be among "the top ten." Throughout the Bible we have the sexual relation between man and woman held up as an illustration of the relationship between God and His people; in the Old Testament idolatry is compared to whoredom, and in the New Testament the Church is described as the Bride of Christ. As we seek for ways to describe the relationship between the Christian and his Lord, time and again we are driven back to the relationship between man and woman in marriage as the most appropriate metaphor available to us.

It is evident to all that a revolution in sexual ethics has taken place in our lifetimes-at least a revolution in comparison with recent generations. This is not to imply that in previous times people were sexually pure and today they are corrupt, but rather that the public acceptance of pornography, sex-as-advertsing, and sex-as-fun without commitments is a modern phenomenon in our society. Our tolerances are constantly being stretched and our moorings are shifting so slowly and surely that we are hardly aware of the fact that our attitude toward sexual relationships is daily being eroded by our culture, the theater, the television, our literature, and the lives and examples of our relatives and friends.

Non-Christians have quite commonly advocated a more "liberalized" view toward sex. Dr. Albert Ellis,1 starts with the thesis that all guilt feelings are illegitimate, and goes on to defend premarital sex and "civilized adultery," and to condemn "religious claptrap" and monogamous marriage. In group sex experiments, Dr. Ralph Yanev2 reported to the California Medical Association that couples obtain "a greater sense of gratitude and self esteem" and that the relationship between couples is improved and made warmer and closer when each views the other having sexual relationships with a third party. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. It is not surprising that
nonChristians, starting from presuppositions about the nature of the human being frosts nonbiblical inputs (and supported primarily by a humanistic evolutionism rather than any sound empirical data), should come to such conclusions.

The type of changes we see taking place today, however, cannot occur without having a profound effect on Christians' thinking as well. There is a general movement to reinterpret Christian attitudes toward human sexuality on every front so that they are brought more into line with "new perspectives" on human living. It is this kind of movement with which we are particularly concerned in this installment.

Biblical View of Sex

Sex is hardly a peripheral aspect of life, and sex is not a peripheral aspect of the biblical revelation. The biblical basis and development of the significance of human sexuality appears immediately in the first two chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1:27 teaches unmistakably that "mankind" is both male and female. The same chapters teach that sex existed before the Fall, that sex is therefore part of the good creation, and Genesis 3 indicates that sex, like every other aspect of life, was affected by the Fall. The greater and more blessed the gift of God in the context of His good creation, the baser and more destructive the abuse and perverson of this gift in the context of sinful human beings. Genesis 2:23-25 sets forth the nature of the sexual relationship between man and woman when uncorrupted by sin,

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Both man and woman are made in the image of God. Their total sexuality is defined in such a way that they complement each other in every aspect of life. Both are to help each other and to forsake all other human relationships at the same level at which they give themselves wholly to each other, so that as a new unity they can go forth together to serve God in the world.

Subjection and denigration of women as persons has called forth a deserved reaction in modern women's rights movements. As usually happens, however, the pendulum tends to swing too far. One symptom of this is the growing consideration of marriage as the affiliation between two individual persons who contract equally to meet each others needs. Commonly used

This continuing series of articles is based on courses given at Stanford University, Fuller Theological Seminary, Regent College, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and Foothill Covenant Church. Previous articles were published as follows. 1. "Science Isn't Everything," March (1976), pp. 33-37. 2. "Science Isn't Nothing," June (1976), pp. 82-87. 3. "The Philosophy and Practice of Science," September (1976), pp. 127-132. 4. "Pseudo-Science and PseudoTheology. (A) Colt and Occult" March (1977), pp. 22-28. 5. "Pseudo-Science and PseudoTheology. (B) Scientific Theology," September (1977), pp. 124-129. 6. "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo-Theology. (C) Connie Consciousness," December (1977), pp. 165-174. 7. "Man Come of Age?" June (1978), pp. 81-87. 8. "Ethical Guidelines," September (1978), pp. 134-141. 9. "The Significance of Being Human," March (1979), pp. 37-43.

There is a general movement to reinterpret Christian attitudes toward human sexuality on every front so that they are brought more into line, with new perspectives on human living.

wedding ceremonies warn about the dangers of living too closely together as one, and call for a careful preservation of individual rights within their looser marriage affiliation. It is, of course, possible to enter into a marriage relationship without seeking the unity of the marriage as the principal goal. The biblical model promises the greater marriage blessings, however, when the individual persons and rights of husband and wife arc consciously and willingly subjected to the unity and joint rights of the married couple. This is another example of the large number of possibilities in which human beings can choose to live at a level less than that which is God's best.

The Ten Commandments, that summary of what it means to live humanly in the way intended by the Creator, are not silent on sex. The same commandments that Jesus said could be summarized as "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself," also state "You shall not commit adultery," and "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife." It is not stretching the argument to claim that Jesus is saying that to love your neighbor means not to commit adultery and not to covet his wife.

In the New Testament we call attention to a few passages to which we refer in later discussion. In Matthew 19:3-6, Jesus refers back to the "one flesh" concept of Genesis 2, and adds.," So they are no longer two hot one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder." In I Corinthians 6:16, Paul invokes the "one flesh" argument to show the complete impropriety of a Christian engaging in sexual relationships with a prostitute. After the general words concerning a Christian's walk in love in Ephesians 5:1-5, together with the acts and attitudes that are ruled out if one is truly in Christ, Paul goes on in verses 21-33 of the same chapter to set forth one of the most exalted views of the creation-intended character of human marriage: to he representative of the relationship between Christ and His Church."

Arguments for a Revision of Sexual Mores

Three main arguments are advanced by advocates of a sexual revolution who claim Christian support for their position. They may be summarized briefly as follows:

1. Modern scientific understanding and changes in living styles make traditional (nonscientific, pre-modem) approaches to sexual ethics untenable for the Christian today.
2. Biblical teachings on sex are either unclear and/ or not applicable to modern life,
3. The authentic application of the Gospel to modern life calls for a response dictated by Love, not by Law, and hence for radical changes where Love overrules Law in the modern situation.

Basic to all these arguments is the conviction that empirically valid data describing life in the world today have been scientifically obtained, and that these data demand changes in sexual ethics if we are to be responsive to the way things really are and to the goals of Christian living. Whether or not such data really exist should be the subject for objective analysis. Christians should not fall victim to the common syndrome of accepting "scientific authority" without question.

Most discussions of these "scientifically valid data" are stated in quite general terms. For example, the church's preoccupation with "technical virginity" is criticized because.

there is little medical or psychological evidence that premarital coital experience between persons who subsequently marry is necessarily damaging either to their emotional health or to their personal adiustment.4

It is difficult to evaluate "little ... evidence," and even more difficult to evaluate the conditions under which it was obtained. How does one test the overall psychological effect of pre-marital intercourse on a future life? Can one measure scientifically what that same life would have been like without this experience? Can one tell whether the particular individual has been forced to settle for third, fifth or tenth best in life, rather than the best and most fulfilling relationship? Do astronomically increasing divorce rates in a sexually permissive society say nothing of empirical significance to judge whether these practices damage "emotional health" or "personal adjustment"?

Note also the hedge words in this particular quotation; "little," "persons who subsequently marry," (hut this same result will certainly be used to justify all pre-marital intercourse), "necessarily." If it is not "necessarily damaging," does that mean it is permissable? Of even more crucial significance is the almost universal ignoring in "scientific data" of this type of the spiritual dimensions of the lives involved; should we expect to find the same dimensions of human experience between two non-Christians as between two Christians? To pose such a question is to risk being labelled a bigot or a medievalist-but to ignore it is to deny a priori the significance of the Christian claims. What might be a totally destructive practice if carried on by two persons who have committed their lives to God in Christ, might he of only transient importance in the lives ot two persons with no relationship with God, whose primary concern might be the satisfaction of their own rights and needs. Human beings can be so scarred and insensitive as to lower themselves to live sexually like many animals for whom fornication, adultery and marriage do not exist.
Again, it is suggested that the biblical concept of one flesh"-the central concept of the unity of marriage -is not useful any longer because

Modern psychology makes it difficult to accept the "one flesh" concept at least as it was construed by Paul and by many others in the Christian tradition until recent times.5

Modern human beings (always assumed to be so different from their ancestors) must be recognized, it is argued, as constituting essentially a "new species" in view of the possibilities of completely controlled con
ception, personality influencing drugs, the problem of extra leisure time, an increase in the frequency of male/ female contacts, the high public level of sexual stimulation, the vanishing of the family as a reference group, the inclusion of explicit sex language in our culture, and the advertising of sex as fun without reference to marriage.6 So unique is our modern situation that we can no longer believe that it is the best practice to limit sexual relations between a married couple only;

The data are from history and modem sociology, and from conversations with half a dozen persons with some theologically informed self-awareness who have been part of a co-marital relationship. . . - The flat assertion that no man can have good deep relationships including sexual intercourse with more than one woman at a time is patent idiocy.7

This same pursuit of empirical data reports that such data "on studying the entire gamut of reported practice in which husbands and wives, by mutual agreement, are both involved in sexual relations with other partners"8 indicates positive benefits;

The reports on the experience are so favorable-including a great deal of unanimity on the improvement of the marriage as a result of such experience . - . a new and real warmth of gratitude toward the spouse . . . an actualization of freedom.9

Finally, scientific experimentation on these matters is held up as our only guide if we are to avoid simple subjective responses in the future;

Only from experimental data can we learn how various patterns of sexual behavior . - . fit the requirements of living as followers of Christ in our own day and situation . . . . We have no doubt that individual Christians and groups can be found to volunteer to try controlled experimental patterns of all kinds.10

The difficulty of carrying out authentic scientific investigations to establish cause and effect in the area of personal relationships is well known. How does one choose a control group for comparison, and how does one choose the experimental group itself without prejudging and predetermining the outcome of the investigation? We have all too often seen supposed scientific findings in psychology or sociology advanced as the last word-only to be overturned in a few years when the next wave of enthusiasm for a new approach rolled in.

Perhaps of even greater importance is the implicit assumption in these arguments that scientific investigations of sexual aberrations can be morally carried out, and that the investigations themselves will not have immoral consequences for the participants. H. B. Rubin carried out a research program on the effects of marijuana on the sexual stimulability of males by exposing males to pornographic movies after ingestion of marijuana, while penile volume was measured as an indication of sexual stimulation.11 The whole debate that followed was concerned with whether or not marijuana had effects that would warrant its legal restriction; no one appeared to he concerned with the human rights and dignity of those participating in the research program, or of the morality of subjecting human beings to immoral practices, harmful to them, for the sake of scientific understanding. But, of course we 'know" that exposure to pornography is not harmuful! By direct and indirect implication this approach to scientific research reduces the potentially unique sexual expression of love relationship between two whole persons to a simple matter of tumescence. It is an example of scientific reductionism at its worst, and a warning to any who would like to carry on scientific research to provide the clear light for sexual ethics.

Good science (science that is faithful to the real world as it is) and good theology (theology that is faithful to the biblical revelation) must ultimately agree even about human nature since there is only one Truth. Unfortunately it is easy to come by both bad theology and had science, and both of these enter discussions of the sexual revolution. Bad theology does not take full account of the biblical revelation concerning unredeemed human nature; it either neglects the creationintended redemption-restored potential goodness of human nature, or it neglects the fallen and sinful nature of man living in the world today. It is this neglect of roan's sinful nature that permits the fabrication of sexual Utopias (no less than political Utopias) based on the presupposition that human nature is essentially good and capable of self perfection. Bad science underestimates the problem of assessing the character of reality and attributes to limited empirical surveys ("half a dozen persons with some theologically informed self-awareness") significance beyond their merit. Bad theology and bad science are combined when it is concluded that because it appears that people can do something without serious harm, it follows first that all may do it, and then finally that all must do it. This is the familiar "is/ought" fallacy we discussed earlier, 12 which attends any and every attempt to derive a system of ethics from empirical investigations.

The biblical model offers the greater marriage blessings when the individual persons and rights of husband and wife are consciously and willingly subjected to the unity and joint rights of the married couple.

I believe that we are justified in viewing the results of such "scientific investigations," therefore, with a good deal of healthy skepticism. The opportunities for overlooking vital parameters, of mistaking our subjective involvement with objective investigation, and of neglecting the whole man in favor of a view that is at least partially if not totally reductionistic, are all so great that it is generally impossible to prevent the subjective orientation of the investigator from dominating the interpretation of the data.

If our previous arguments are sound, 13 i.e., that the experiential realization of humanness is a progressive one from conception through to a restored relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, then it is essential that a distinction be made between different levels of humanness. Presumably the goal of the Christian is to live in such a way as to bring to fruition the purpose of God's good creation in which man was formed in order to live in relationship with God. In the pursuit of relevant scientific data it cannot be simply assumed that a person's relationship with God is an irrelevant variable. It is possible for human beings to live on various levels, each achieving some degree of the humanity potential for human beings, but choices made carelessly may limit the levels on which it is possible for an individual to live. Gardner reminds us,

There are those who point out, correctly, that other societies have different patterns of relationships between the sexes, patterns which often approve of pre-marital intercourse, and sometimes permit multiple partners. What they do not go on to point out is that the quality of family life in these societies is inferior, both as Las as the status of women is concerned, and in romantic love to our ideals. I write from experience of having worked among both polygamous and polyandrous peoples. Our traditional ideal of virginity before marriage and chastity within marriage can only be replaced by practices which are not only lower on an ethical standard, but yield less satisfaction to their practitioners. 14

I think it essential that we view these last two phrases, "not only lower on an ethical standard," and "but yield less satisfaction to their practitioners," not as two independent aspects that happen to coincidentally both be present, but as complementary ways of saying the same thing: in God's created order, to be lower on the ethical standard is to yield less satisfaction.

Proposed Difficulties with the Biblical Record

A second reason commonly offered in favor of a sexual revolution acceptable to Christians is that the Bible does not really serve us well in providing reliable guidance about these issues. When Ecclesiastes says that there is nothing new under the sun (1:9), "Ecclesiastes is dead wrong. In America today, nothing could be farther from the truth.15 Traditional sexual morality is useless,16 the sex ethics taught by the Church are only the ethics of a past society,17 "much of what Christian authority passed off as God's revealed truth was in fact human error with a Pauline flavor,18 modem man repeatedly verifies by his own experience that the Church's "eternal verities" are false,19 commands like "Thou shalt not commit adultery" are "Divine fiats" arising from "conflicting texts written for nomadic societies two or three thousand years ago.20 Such claims sound like propaganda or subjective bias related to a rejection of biblical inspiration and authority; what evidence are they based on?

There are many examples, it is argued, in the Old Testament law with which no Christian would any longer agree, as for example the death penalty for fornication in Deuteronomy 22, or the exclusion of eunuchs and bastards from the assembly of the Lord in Deuteronomy 23.21 In the context of the system of Old Testament law, that dealt with what is worn, property laws, lending laws, and dietary regulations, the commandment against adultery should he seen as a commandment against "cheating or stealing from the third party (partly connected with property and inheritance rights)," which does not apply to many totally different situations today such as those in which there is a "genuine acceptance of the third person into a relationship by husband or wife; mutually 'open marriages,' or even the honest 'swinging' of the Houston appartment houses.22 Since all these arguments fail to make the biblical distinction between the content of the moral law, which is a description of what it means to live in a human way as a result of the way in which human nature is created (and which is clearly reinforced by Jesus himself in Matthew 5:27-30), and the Old Testament ceremonial or civil law, which was a law prescribed for a time for the nation of Israel and which was done away with after the death and resurrection of Christ, they carry little weight in arguing for the unreliability or irrelevance of the biblical revelation on sexual ethics.

Another approach to removing the biblical testimony from the area of relevance is to call into question the real meaning of the original Greek words translated "fornication," "adultery" etc. in the New Testament, and to claim that these terms applied primarily to "pagan practices of cultic and commercialized prostitution,"23 or to invoke "modern scholarship" as the basis for stating

The many New Testament injunctions, therefore, against "fornication," in AV and RV ... cannot with certainty be construed in the traditional sense as explicitly forbidding all extra-marital intercourse.24

Amazement is expressed that the "typical American" could still believe that the Bible clearly indicates that God's law includes monogamy, premarital chastity and proscription of adultery; the appeal is to "scholarship":

Infinitely better scholars than we have established that one cannot find any literal or simple connection in the Bible claiming that the above statements were God's law or will . . . . There are no laws of sexual behavior consistently spelled out in the Bible.25

Unfortunately for this kind of argument, which is really an appeal to authority-just a different authority than that appealed to by a traditional biblical interpretation-"biblical scholarship" is, if anything, less concrete even than psychological or sociological scholarship. What passes for biblical scholarship is often heavily weighted by presuppositions that determine the conclusions reached quite independently of the biblical data. Historian Gary Ferngren has commented,

The currently dominant schools of New Testament scholars (who are mostly theologians and not historians) have limited themselves unnecessarily by allowing the intrusion of improper plsilosophical presuppositions into their work and by the use of hypercritical methods of research that are applied in no other area of history.26

The argument that we cannot accept what the Bible appears to be saying because some biblical scholars say we cannot must also be treated with considerable skepticism.

Finally the claim is made that exegesis of biblical passages cannot be done to produce clear ethical guidance for today. For example,

Problems of exegesis make it very difficult to reach assured conclusions about what, if anything, Jesus actually taught to Jews about the morality of specific sexual acts . . . the question whether the details of sexual morality fall within or outside the range of revelation.27

Attempts to develop sexual ethics based on the "one flesh" concept are criticized because Matthew 19:3-6 represents only an ad hominum argument by Jesus against the Pharisees and cannot be universalized beyond its context, and because Paul's use of the "one flesh" idea in I Corinthians 6:16 "is questionable exegesis on his part and seems to involve the logical absurdity of a Casanova's being 'one flesh' with a multitude of women simultaneously."28 The Ephesians 5 passage relating human marriage with the relationship between Christ and the Church has been misunderstood,

The Pauline analogy to the union of Christ and his Church was surely used in reverse; i.e., Paul used the human experience of marriage to explain to his readers by an analogy his visions of Christ's relation to the Church. Regrettably the imputation of sacred tones to ordinary human sexuality, caused by repeating the erroneous reading of this passage has caused trouble for hundreds of years.22

Those who argue for a sexual revolution have exegetical problems because they do not accept an authoritative and reliable Scripture given by inspiration of God.

Investigation of these arguments soon reveals that what is at stake is not problems in exegesis, but rather two quite different views of the nature and authority of the biblical revelation. Those who argue for a sexual revolution have exegetical problems because they do not accept an authoritative and reliable Scripture given by inspiration of God. Confronted with any staternent that appears to contradict their extra-biblically constructed position on sexual ethics, they are constrained to throw up their hands and bemoan the difficulty of interpretation.

The Christian can welcome any genuinely authentic scientific investigation of the questions of human sexiuality that does not already import conclusions into its methodology or its interpretation. Confronted with apparent data that contradict the biblical revelation, the Christian should not reject them in some non-rational outpouring of indignation, but should instead demand to see how the canons of authentic scientific inquiry have been followed throughout the study under consideration. What the Bible teaches about human sexuality and marriage is so plain, often repeated, and ifflustrated in the biblical text that it should be readily testable provided only that authentic scientific frameworks are designed to test it.


The reader may feel that we are getting far off base by inserting a discussion of divorce at this point in our discussion. We cannot avoid it, however, for advocates of a sexual revolution regard the historic changes in the Church's attitude toward divorce as a prima facie case with which all others must be compared. Their related attempts to draw analogies between changing attitudes toward appropriate foods to cat and changing attitudes toward the appropriate place of sex in life22 may he once again discounted as a misunderstanding of the difference between the moral and ceremonial or civil laws. The ease of divorce, however, appears to be a rather more difficult one.

Hiding behind comfortable legalisms is one such artifice. For hundreds of years the Church used what is the most explicit Biblical material in the whole area of marriage and sex, i.e., the proscription against divorce (Mark 10:2; Matt. 19:3-9), to foil what was empirically obvious: That in some cases the loving thing for all, was to permit divorce (and re-marriage). Today everyone has forgotten that this was the cutting edge of the "moral" issue a century ago. If you don't believe me, try to find a legal loophole for divorce as practiced by tens of millions of Christians every year.28

The attitude of a majority of Christians toward divorce has changed over the years. If, however, the implication of the above quotation were valid, the response of the evangelical Christian should not be to look for other regions where the biblical injunctions can he disregarded, but rather to rethink current attitudes towards divorce and bring them hack into line with the biblical pattern. The question we must consider is whether the changing attitudes toward divorce do constitute an actual disregard of biblical teaching, and whether the situation is truly parallel to that dealing with adultery and sexual practices.

Although adultery and sexual purity are mentioned in the Ten Commandments, divorce is not. Examination of a concordance shows that there are a total of 26 verses in the entire Bible in which any mention of divorce is made; just for comparison, there are 66 verses mentioning adultery Although divorced persons are mentioned earlier (Numbers 30:9; Leviticus 21:7, 14; 22:13), the introduction of divorce as a practice does not appear until Deuteronomy 24:1, 3, where permission is granted to a man to put away his wife in divorce if "he has found some indecency in her." This is the thrust of the attitude toward divorce throughout the Bible; in this context Joseph considered divorcing Mary, when he knew that she was pregnant but did not yet know the cause (Matt. 1:19). For a woman to receive a bill of divorce was a mark of impurity on her life, and this situation was used as a symbol of Israel's unfaithfulness to God in the Old Testament (Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:1,8). Malachi 2:6 says, "I hate divorce,' says the Lord God," When a man married a woman, he took responsibility for her life and welfare; if he put her aside by divorce without the most severe cause, he was doing her a grave injustice, for she became an outcast in society and barred from community life.

By the time Jesus was teaching on earth, the practice of divorce had been distorted as so many other practices through the years. The responsibility of the husband for his wife was no longer regarded seriously, and wives were put away in divorce for reasons that did not justify it. One of the strains of Jesus' teaching was that God is not satisfied with the external observation of regulations by his people. He points out that the sin of adultery does not require the actual act, but starts in the heart with its indulgence in lust (Matt. 5:27-29).29.)

Insight into Jesus' attitude toward divorce can be gained by looking at Matthew 19:3-9, where the Pharisees came to Jesus with another in their long list of puzzle questions, designed to trap him; his response is to show the creation-intended purpose of marriage. The Pharisees ask, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" It is evident that marital fidelity was part of Jesus' consistent message to those who would be his followers; the Pharisees hope to trap him by forcing him into a contradiction of the Mosaic custom. Jesus responds initially, therefore, not to their specific question, but to a clarification of the creation-intended purpose of marriage, an understanding of which is essential for a discussion of divorce. He points out that when men and women live in the way intended by God's good creation purpose (when they are fully human 13), the union between man and wife is full and complete. Under these conditions divorce is irrelevant. Here then we learn the ideal situation, the situation applying to those whom "God has joined together" because they belong to him. Such a situation can apply in only the most indirect way to a non-Christian husband and wife, of whom it would be foolish to say that their relationship represents in any existential form the relationship between Christ and the Church.

The Pharisees press on, hoping to close their trap, by asking how it was that Moses "commanded" that a certificate of divorce be given. Jesus immediately points out that it was not a matter of "command" but of "permission" because of their "hardness of heart." In an imperfect world, account must be taken of these imperfections in dealing with daily life. Although divorce is neither intended nor necessary if men and women live in a fully human way as God's people, in the actual contingencies of life divorce may become a necessary recourse. But then Jesus adds his final words as a warning against the contemporary custom of abusing divorce to indicate that a man's responsibility to his wife was so great that only infidelity was an appropriate grounds for divorce. The Pharisees had asked him if there were any cause that would justify divorce; Jesus replies that any cause is insufficient-only marital infidelity is of a grave enough nature to justify a man's treating a woman in that way The question Jesus was responding to is, When can a man put his wife away? His answer is, Under no conditions can he subject his wife to this judgmental action except if her own actions have already destroyed the marriage unity.

Our next task is to consider the application of these principles to life today. We have already pointed out that neither the permission of nor the commandments against divorce are a portion of the moral law, as is the commandment against adultery. Divorce is a practice admitted to deal with the imperfections of mankind; it is therefore in the nature of an exception to be tolerated, not a guide to he advocated as a general panacea. The person who jumps from spouse to spouse to satisfy his/her own self-indulgent whims, is indeed guilty of sequential adultery. Nothing has changed; the law still holds.

If conditions exist today comparable to those that existed when Jesus discussed the question, i.e., if divorce involves a husband cutting off support of his wife and ruining her reputation, while she still desires to be with him and has not been unfaithful, then divorce today is just as reprehensible as it was then. It is also essential, however, that we take note of changes in the social customs and conditions since New Testament days. If it is not a question of "a husband putting away his wife," but of two persons agreeing that the marriage is dead, the situation is quite different. If it is not a question of a woman being disgraced, thrown out without support, and effectively disenfranchised from her place in society by the capricious acts of her husband in a male-dominated society, but of two people agreeing to part with each sharing part of the burden of divorce, the requirements arc not at all the same, In an imperfect world the best course may well be to make divorce legally possible so that each partner to the broken marriage may be free to seek to build a better life independently. Such a conclusion does not invalidate the basic reality that an unbreakable onion between husband and wife, each living in close relationship to God and fulfilling as nearly as possible the creation-intended structure of marriage, is still God's best. But it recognizes that to attempt to impose "God's best" upon those both unable and unwilling to experience it can so distort "God's best" that it ceases to be that at all.

Paul points out in Romans 7:2 and I Corinthians 7:39 that death frees the surviving husband or wife from the commitments of the marriage relationship. It may be argued that this is the reason that infidelity is sufficient grounds for divorce even in Old Testament times; infidelity is an act that marks the death of the marriage commitment. Repentance, confession and forgiveness are all necessary for the resurrection of the marriage. The severity with which infidelity is judged both in the Old Testament and by Jesus and other authors in the New Testament is additional testimony to the non-biblical nature of arguments for the relaxation of sanctions against it. There are other acts or conditions, however, that also mark the death of a marriage; when a marriage is recognized by both husband and wife as being dead, divorce may be justified on the same grounds as those justifying infidelity as the grounds for divorce. This is not the time to attempt to fix blame, to define guilty and innocent parties, or to indulge in legal efforts at retribution for real or imagined wrongs; this is the time for a quiet burial of the marriage with grief, and for the picking up of new lives.

Divorce, although an exceedingly difficult and challenging problem to treat in general terms, does not provide a useful analogy for those who would argue for the abolishment of "adultery" or the encouragement of open sex. In many ways, a consideration of the biblical context of divorce heightens the sanctity of marriage and the basic roles of sexuality in human relationships.


1Albert Ellis in talk sponsored by the Center for Creativity and Growth, Palo Alto, California, June 23 1972, as reported in the Palo Alto Times.
2Ralph D. Yanev in talk to California Medical Association convention at Anaheim, California, as reported in the Palo Alto Times, March 12, 1973.
3The biblical concept of "one flesh" in marriage expresses a unity that does no violence to the individual personalities involved, hot rather frees them to he truly themselves in what most be described as a genuine and mystical union.
4Sexuality and the Human Community (SHC), a report of a Task Force of the Council on Church and Society of the United Presbyterian Church (1970), p. 29.
51969 Report of a Study of the Faith and Order Commission of the Canadian Council of Church, "The Biblical and Theological Understanding of Sexuality and Family Life," p. 44.
6R. and D. Roy, Honest Sex, Signet (1968), pp. 27-36.
7lbid., p. 115
8Ibid., p. 122.
91bid., p. 123, 124.
101hid., p. 200, 201.
11See, for example, Science 192, 1086 (1976).
12R. Bube, "Science Isn't Everything," Journal ASA 28, 33 (1976).
13R. H. Bube, "The Significance of Being Human," Journal ASA 31, (1979).
14R. F. R. Gardner, Abortion: the Personal Dilemma, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids (1972), p. 256.
15R. and D. Roy, op cit., p. 26.
16Ibid., p. 15.
17Ibid., p. 17.
18lbid., p. 60.
19Ibid., p. 17.
20Ibid., p. 24.
21SHC, p. 9.
22R. Roy, "Is There a Christian Basis for a Sexual Revolution?" Journal ASA 26, 76 (1974)
23SHC, p. 27.
24Ibid., p. 44.
25R. and D. Roy, op. cit., p. 68.
26B. Ferngren, "The New Testament and Historical Criticism," Journal ASA 26, 46 (1974).
27SHC, p. 41.
28bid,, p. 44.
29By these comments Jesus does not abolish the law against adultery, as some have contended, but instead intensifies its relevance by showing that ft is not only an act of adultery which is an offense against God, but the attitude of lust that precedes and nourishes the act.