Divorcing Loopholes

As Jesus continues reframing spirituality he explores divorce and more generally, sin avoidance loopholes. Again, if we skip the broader context, we miss this. If we miss the big picture, we start making rules about when people can and cannot divorce. Similar rules come up about remarriage. This is largely why the church is infamous for telling a woman to stay with an abusive husband. After all, he might hit her or verbally assault her, but he did not cheat.

Jesus on Divorce

So here is what Jesus said:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 

Matthew 5:31–32 (NRSV)

Both explicitly and implicitly, Jesus links this statement to the previous one one on adultery. So what happens when we read them together in light of gender power structures in the First Century? If we do this, we can begin to paint a picture of the situation Jesus speaks into.

Women In The Ancient World

As a simple introduction to First Century gender power structures in Israel, women had no power. In the Ancient Roman world, only the elite women with Roman citizenship could own property. This means only elite Roman women had the opportunity to live without a man’s support. But in Jesus’ day, this was a rather new development. Those women received that legal right less than 100 years earlier. In other words, across the Roman world, women existed at the whims of the men. Women depended on men for survival.

Marriage and Divorce in the Ancient World

So let us follow the logical loopholes of an externally devout married man who craves another woman. Obviously, it begins with lust. But his commitment to external purity and checklist obedience prevents him from going any further. At least right away. Instead, he starts plotting how to divorce his current wife so he can morally marry the other woman.

Now, legally, he holds the power to divorce her. In many ancient cultures he could simply declare the two of them divorced. The woman, in an instance, found herself cast out on the streets. She became a beggar. Her best hope, would be a return to her parents’ home. But for that to happen, her father would have to welcome her after her divorce brought shame upon the family.

This is where the Law of Moses, which seems so repressive to us becomes progressive in its day. According to the Law, a Jewish man needs to grant his wife a certificate of divorce. Now that might not sound like much, but that certificate is a public document outlining the reason for the divorce. Essentially the man communicates to his neighbors and his wife’s family why he is divorcing her. If he does not provide solid and legitimate grounds for the divorce, he bore the shame. This creates an opportunity for the woman to return to her father’s home. It also makes her more likely to remarry. In other words, it increased her chances of survival.

So our hypothetical man now faces a bit of a conundrum. He really wants to divorce his wife because he desires another woman. But if he lists that reason on the marriage certificate, he faces public rejection. Moreover, the other woman’s father will find him an unsuitable choice for his daughter. What would prevent him from divorcing her sometime in the future?

Loopholes are like slight of hand, making things appear different than they are.
Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

The Divorce Loophole

This is where the idea of sin loopholes comes into play. If the man works the system and identifies a “legitimate” reason for divorce, he is now free to marry another. He does it without shame. He quite literally gets to have his cake and eat it too.

You can imagine how, after over a thousand years, men identified a wide array of loopholes to do just that. In Jesus’ day, it was easy for me to divorce while fulfilling the requirements of checklist obedience. But the certificate of divorce rarely fulfilled its intended purpose of caring for women. It became a power move. It allowed men to look good at the expense of the women the Law aimed to protect. When Jesus defines the only legitimate reason for divorce as adultery, his aim is to close the loophole.

Other Sin Loopholes

This begs the question about other sin loopholes designed to maintain the illusion of holiness. Some of them revolve around sexuality. Some Christian teens have anal sex so the girl can keep her hymen intact and technically remain a virgin. I have heard others argue it does not count if the man only puts the tip in. But a loopholes can link to anything that helps you maintain an illusion of holiness. They are about identifying technicalities so you can justify unloving behavior.

So when my son’s mom and I divorced, I blamed my infidelity on her. After all, she failed to fulfilling my emotional and relational needs. That was an attempted loophole. Or in my second marriage. There I blamed my emotional and relational problems on my history with abuse. That was an attempted loophole. In both instances I followed a spirit of power. I tried to craft a situation where I could continue to appear good, or at least feel justified in my behavior no matter how unloving.

When you engage in loopholes, you will never be salt or light. You will never have blessed happiness. You will never fulfill the Law.

The Series

This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.

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