If you play cards, you are probably familiar with the concept of “trump.” It is a certain suit or color that has more power than the others. Even if another color is higher in number, if a “trump” is played, it will beat it. Obviously, before playing a round, a key question is: What is Trump? It controls the outcome of each hand, and defines the strategy of the game.
In discussing the Bible, and certain passages, occasionally the phrase, “you must interpret Scripture with Scripture” is brought out. Typically when the claim is made that a skeptic is not reading a verse correctly, or that the verse means something entirely different than what it appears to say on its face.
When the phrase appears, the question that crosses my mind: “Which verse is controlling? What method do we put in place to determine which passage must bend to the other in our interpretation?”
In other words, which verse is Trump?
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives some very explicit direction regarding divorce. He emphasizes that it is not from him, but directly from God Himself. The direction? Don’t.
A wife is not to leave her husband. The husband is not to divorce his wife. If the wife leaves, she cannot re-marry. (1 Cor. 7:10-11) Paul goes on to emphasize that even if the spouse is not a believer, divorce is not an option. (vs. 12-14) However, Paul does give an exception to the rule of never re-marrying. If the unbelieving spouse leaves, then the believer is no longer bound. They can re-marry. (vs. 15)
A straightforward position. Never initiate a divorce. If you are divorced, you cannot re-marry, unless your ex-spouse was an unbeliever. Paul stays consistent with this position in Romans 7:2-3 where he uses marriage as an example, and notes that a person is bound to their spouse for as long as the spouse is alive.
Now let’s see what Jesus says about divorce. Mark 10: 2-11. In the typical polemic format, the Pharisees challenge Jesus with the question of whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus concedes that under Mosaic Law, it was allowed, because of the hardness of their hearts. However, Jesus then goes on to say that the more ancient law, the law of the Garden of Eden, was the intent that there would be no divorce.
Sadly, he leaves it a bit gray as to whether Mosaic Law would remain in effect, or whether he was supplanting Mosaic Law with a new law of no divorce. (Jesus would be eventually overturning the food laws.) In my opinion, the latter is the better reading, and I will utilize it to stay as consistent as we can under “scripture interprets scripture.”
The disciples question Jesus further, and Jesus indicated that whoever divorces their spouse and marries another, they have committed adultery. Curiously, according to Mark, Jesus talked about a woman divorcing her husband. Something that not technically allowed under Mosaic Law in the First Century Palestine. It is possible, although rare, that a woman could convince her husband to write out a writ of divorce, but it would not be the same as a woman divorcing her husband. Something allowed under Roman Law. Luke, recognizing the faux pas of Mark’s unfamiliarity with Jewish custom removes it. Matthew does as well. How is it that the first author of the Gospels did not know that a woman could not directly obtain a divorce?
Progressing forward on our current quest, however, Mark’s Jesus has a straightforward position. Never initiate divorce. If you do, you can never remarry. In line with what Paul has said.
(An astute reader may notice that nothing has been stated as to what happens if your spouse divorces you. That question has not been answered, as of yet.)
Luke records Jesus’ statement in a somewhat curious manner. Immediately before the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke records a two clause statement of Jesus. (Luke 16:18) First, he follows Mark in stating that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. Fine so far. (We could quibble about whether it is the remarriage that is the problem, and why it is limited to the male only, but giving the benefit of the doubt, we can still align these passages.) Secondly, he adds a new sentiment that whoever marries the woman so divorced ALSO commits adultery.
The answer as to what happens to the person who does not initiate the divorce begins to come into focus. While it is not exactly explicit as to whether she commits adultery, it certainly is clear that the second husband does! It is still a marriage that results in sin.
According to Luke, a man divorces his wife. If he remarries, adultery happens. If she remarries, adultery happens. It would seem that remarriage is barred, regardless of who instigates the divorce.
We begin to wonder what method to use to have scripture interpret scripture. What is trump? Using the situation presented in Luke, assume an unbeliever divorces his believing wife. Sure, if he remarries, he is committing adultery, but he is an unbeliever. We expect unbelievers to sin. He is damned for much more than one more sin on top of many others.
But what about the believing wife? Can she remarry? According to Luke, her remarrying would cause another (the new husband) to sin. This would qualify as making a person stumble. (Rom 14:21) A sin for both. According to Paul, the unbelieving wife is not bound, she is free to re-marry.
Does Paul “trump” Luke, or does Luke “trump” Paul? Which one do we use as the measuring rod to claim the other must fall in line?
It won’t get better…
Next we look at Matthew. (Anyone who has ever researched divorce in the Bible is saying, “About time!”) Matthew discusses Jesus position on divorce in two spots; I will look at the longer portion first—Matthew 19.
Matthew follows Mark in presenting the story of the Pharisees approaching Jesus and questioning him about divorce. And, in following Mark, Matthew records Jesus as indicating God did not intend divorce from the time of the Garden of Eden, but allowed it under Mosaic Law because of the hardness of their hearts. (Matt. 19:3-8)
And at this point Matthew’s Jesus is prepared to give His discourse regarding divorce. First he copies Mark, “Whoever divorces his wife…and marries another commits adultery.” He ends with the same additional command as Luke records, “whoever marries the divorced wife commits adultery.”
But Matthew adds an additional clause, not found in Mark or Luke or 1 Corinthians. Matthew indicates Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality and marries another commits adultery.”
The term “sexual immorality” is vague. We know it is not the same as adultery, because the word for adultery is not used here, but is in the next clause. The author obviously knew the word for adultery, but choose to not use it. Unfortunately, this leaves it up to very broad interpretation.
Certainly it would include adultery. But what about masturbation? Viewing pornography? Looking too long at a gorgeous hunk, or bikini-clad babe on the beach? At what level could a person proclaim, “THAT is sexual immorality, and therefore grounds for divorce”? Does any lusting qualify? Matt. 5:27-30.
Whatever it is, Matthew introduces an “out” clause. Now, there may be some argument as to whether this “out” clause is applicable for divorce OR whether divorce is still prohibited, but remarriage is now an option. (That’s the fun of the opaque nature of these verses. They can be read a multitude of ways.)
Was Matthew saying Divorce was allowed for sexual immorality, or was Matthew saying Divorce is never allowed, but in the event it unhappily occurs, the person is barred from re-marrying unless there was sexual immorality.
A wife divorcing her husband. Sin. Because he beat her. Remarriage is sin.
A wife divorcing her husband. Sin. Because he beat off. Remarriage is O.K.
And, does the “out” clause apply to both, or just the innocent party? If the husband cheats on his wife, while that was a sin, is he free to divorce her and it would not be? Hmmm…divorce equals one sin…a wild affair and then divorce equals one sin…what to do?
Matt 5:32 makes this even more confusing. Take the first part, “Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality—“ Stop! Most people would think that the divorce is caused by the wife’s sexually immorality at this point. But it continues”—causes her to commit adultery—“ Huh? If my wife has an affair, I can divorce her because of sexual immorality. How did I “cause” her to commit adultery by divorcing her? She already did!
The verse continues, “—and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Is that an innocent woman? Or a woman who was sexually immoral, which allowed the man to divorce? But his divorcing causes her to commit adultery.
If divorce causes someone to sin, i.e. causes the woman to commit adultery, it is the same stumbling problem as before. Therefore the man cannot divorce. Meaning the rest of the verse is superfluous.
At this point we have Paul who says you can never divorce. And never remarry. The sole exception on the remarriage part is if an unbeliever divorces a believer. Sexual immorality (unusually) is not mentioned as any part of the equation.
Mark and Luke say you can never divorce. And never remarry. There is no exception. Not unbelievers; not sexual deviants.
Matthew says either 1) you can divorce for sexual immorality and remarry or 2) you can never divorce and never remarry, the sole exception on the remarriage part is if there was sexual immorality.
Most people’s initial reaction is to declare divorce and remarriage as generally prohibited, but in applying “scripture interprets scripture” state that a few exceptions are carved out by Jesus and Paul to this general rule.
Wait a minute. Why do the exceptions “trump” the rule? What prevents the rule from “trumping” the exceptions?
For example, we could state that at the time of Paul’s writing 1 Corinthians, was a unique period in history, in which people were already alive prior to the opportunity of becoming believers. After Pentecost, every person was born, and from the instant of their birth had such a chance.
Because of the state of flux, this was the one time in which a person could become a believer, when their spouse never had an opportunity to become such prior to the marriage. Therefore during this time, and during this limited time only, a person was not bound if the unbeliever left. But from then on, Mark and Luke “trump” Paul.
See the difference, if we say Mark is trump, and not 1 Corinthians? Or we could say that Matthew only applied for the time of Mosaic law, and once Mosaic law was repealed (whenever that was) we revert back to Mark and Luke—no divorce; no remarriage.
It depends on which scripture must bend it its interruption to other scripture.
Further, by simply applying the exceptions of Paul and Matthew to the stated rule in Mark and Luke, we do a disservice to Mark and Luke. Are there other instances in which a flat rule is recorded, but “exceptions” exist that the authors didn’t bother to record? And we don’t know?
What other exceptions exist that Mark and Luke knew of, yet failed to mention? This would seem to introduce a dangerous methodology indeed, OR reduce some of the credibility of Mark and Luke.
And how does Paul not know of Jesus’ sexual immorality exception, and Jesus not know of Paul’s unbeliever exception? Again, if they knew and deliberately failed to chronicle it, this would indicate an intention to modify a stated rule. If they didn’t know—how much does that support the claim of a cohesive, inspired Scripture?
The author of Ephesians throws another wrench into the mix. S/he states that wives must submit to their husbands in the same way that the church submits to God. (Eph. 5:22-24.) And husbands must love their wives in the same way that Christ loved the church. (Eph. 5:25). Can a husband divorce his wife, even for sexual immorality, and still claim he loves her in the same way the Christ loved the church? If Christ could stop loving the church for something as broad as sexual immorality, He would have stopped loving it long, long ago!
If we are going to interpret scripture with scripture, how can a husband or wife be following the precepts of Eph. 5 and EVER divorce? Even if the other party commits adultery? OR, does Matthew 5 and 19 trump Eph. 5?
‘Course, Matthew 5 and 19 would also have to trump Colossians 3:18-19 and 1 Peter 3:1-7.
At some point, in the marriage/divorce discussion, a person will make the pragmatic choice (even unconsciously) to trump one part of scripture over the other. And what do we see? Most times they use the scripture that they desire for their situation to “trump” the one they do not.
Sell all you have for the poor and not worry about where your necessities of life will come from? (Matt. 19:21 & 6:25-34, Mark 12:42-43) Or do we start to hear tales of how we must interpret scripture with scripture, and one should be a good “steward.” (1 Cor. 4:2, 1 Pet. 4:10) Not surprisingly, it is the one with the SUV, and stock portfolio that finds “stewardship” trumps giving all one has to the poor.
Do you love your enemies (Matt. 5:43-48 ; Luke 6:27-36) or do you justify deceiving them and calling them names because they are apostates? (2 Cor. 11:13, 2 Peter 2:1) Again, not surprisingly, those that desire to call names and use deceit justify it with scripture interpreting scripture.
To me, the most plausible answer is that these were various books, written by various authors, with various positions on various topics. And, just like we see in the million or so blogs in internetsphere, they come up with different and contradictory doctrine. To attempt to align them with scripture interprets scripture, is like trying to align 10 different blogs written by 10 different people. We expect contradiction in that endeavor, and the Bible is no different.
So… the next time someone says they are using “scripture interprets scripture” to justify ignoring certain verses that seem to preclude what they want to do, my question is this—What method are you using to determine which verses are trump?