Cecile and I first met during the summer after I had finished my first year in seminary. I was back home for the summer, and the job I thought I’d had lined up had fallen through. I got a temporary job doing data entry for a travel agency that was converting its files from one format into another. The job was from five at night to one in the morning, for about two and a half weeks.
I was one of three men among about a hundred women working on this project. Since I was shy, this was pretty intimidating, so when an attractive tall blonde in a red dress smiled at me, I stuck with her. Not for the reasons you might think. I went for short brunettes at the time, and I’d just had my heart broken, so I wasn’t looking for anything beyond a summer job. She smiled at me, so I thought she was safe.
She wasn’t safe.
Cecile liked to talk, so I soon found out that she had been divorced several months earlier and had just moved into her own apartment for the first time. She had three children who were living with their father, and she desperately wanted to get them back. Her divorce had been bitter. Another young woman who sat at our table was happily engaged; Cecile told her, “Give me five minutes, and I’ll have you talked out of it.”
And then she noticed my ring.
I wear a signet ring with a cross on it. It’s actually my college class ring. I decided when finishing college that I wanted a ring that I would want to wear forever, not a typical class ring that gets thrown into a box a year or so after graduation. Cecile saw my ring, grabbed my arm, and said, “You know God. Tell me everything.”
I had just been through a year of seminary. “Everything” seemed to be kind of a lot. “Ummm, what do you want to know?”
“Well, what’s this crap about women submitting to men, anyway?”
Oh, no. One of those.
I tried to give her an answer that would briefly smooth things over. “Well, it doesn’t really mean women submitting to men in general. It’s really about wives submitting to their own husbands.” I was young and naive. I thought that would mollify her.
Instead, I got a rundown of what a dictator her husband had been. How she had grown up Catholic and had wanted to be a submissive wife and how that had blown up in her face. How she was never going to put herself in that position again. Lord, I can’t back off on what the Bible says. What can I say that will be meaningful to her?
“Well, the Bible does say that women are supposed to submit to their own husbands. But let me tell you what the husband’s responsibility is. He’s supposed to love her like Jesus loved the church. That didn’t just mean that he died for us. It meant that he first lived for us, lived a perfect life in the middle of this corrupt world, took all kinds of suffering and abuse, all for us. That’s how husbands are supposed to love their wives. They don’t make decisions just for their own selfish reasons; they try to do what’s best based on what they truly believe is best for their wife and children, not for themselves. They do it in consultation with their wives; they make decisions as a team, as much as possible.”
I probably didn’t say anything quite so well put-together as all that, but whatever it was I managed to stammer out, Cecile seemed to accept without too much argument, and the conversation turned to other things. It wasn’t until much later that I found out her inward reaction: Really? You actually believe that? Do other guys know you talk like this?
The day our temporary job was finished was a Wednesday. I’d been actively involved in the College and Career ministry of my church and had been missing our Wednesday night services. Since we were off early, I invited her to come with me to the service.
“Um, I’m not dressed for church!”
“It’s casual, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
So she followed me to my church. I watched her in my rear view mirror smoking full tilt all the way there. When we got out of our cars, she grabbed my arm. “Don’t leave me!” Seems she was a little nervous to be around creepy church people.
But she came in and found that the girls weren’t catty and the guys looked her in the eyes, instead of other places, and a week later, she was back. Our pastor gave an invitation, uncharacteristically during the song service, and Cecile came up the aisle and publicly gave herself to Jesus. I found out later that two days earlier she had found a Bible in her apartment, began reading in Romans (just randomly chose Romans?), realized she’d committed every sin it described, and asked God how he could possibly forgive her. “But I do,” she felt in her spirit. And slept through the night for the first time in months.
To me, she was a baby Christian. To her, I was an innocent, not to be corrupted. We did a little dance, over the summer, pretending we weren’t attracted to one another, then admitting we were, then agreeing that it would be best if we didn’t act on it, then deciding we had to. We dated a few times before the end of the summer. I went back to seminary for the fall semester without knowing exactly where we stood.
Over the course of the next year, we were trying to figure that out. Specifically, I needed to figure out whether I wanted to get attached to a divorced woman with three children. Did I consider it morally okay? If I did, did I want this particular situation for my life? If I didn’t, what did that say about me and my integrity? As a helpful guy from my dorm told me, “Everyone comes with baggage, Keith. You can take this baggage, or you can take the naive young woman who hasn’t experienced any hardship and can’t relate to it. Or something else. You just have to decide what kind of baggage you’re willing to deal with.”
In the process of answering those questions, I had to do a lot of digging from scripture. What did God have to say about marriage and divorce? And although there would be plenty of passages I’d have to look up and deal with, I kept coming back to one particular event in Jesus’ life… which led me back even further.
Jesus and GenesisThe Pharisees, as usual, were trying to trap Jesus, this time asking him a stock question regarding divorce: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” It’s the “any and every” that gives it away. There was a debate between rabbinic schools during Jesus’ time. The school of Rabbi Shammai insisted that a wife could only be divorced for reasons of unchastity—improper sexual behavior—while the school of Rabbi Hillel argued that a wife could be divorced for “any and every reason”—for example, if she burned his meal. The Pharisees were evidently trying to bait Jesus into a debate on divorce which they expected to be waged on typical Shammai-Hillel lines. The school of Hillel was the more favored one, and the rabbis probably thought that they could beat Jesus, who was already known to have strict views regarding divorce, in such a contest.
The debate was based on two interpretations of a passage in Deuteronomy. The passage actually focuses on the circumstance of a woman who has been married and divorced twice, and forbids the first husband from remarrying his former wife in such a circumstance. The Rabbis appealed to that passage because there is little else in the Law that regulates divorce at all.
Jesus refused to take the bait. Rather than parsing the Deuteronomy passage, Jesus responded with the fact that, although “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard… it was not this way from the beginning.” Jesus is asked a question about divorce; he responds by talking about marriage. He is asked to interpret a particular law God had given through Moses; he responds by appealing to the order of creation itself. We would do well to follow Jesus’ wisdom.
We’re still asking questions about marriage and divorce. The right way to go about dealing with those questions is to go back to the beginning. The early chapters of Genesis describe the creation of human beings along with the creation of marriage and family relationships:
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...."The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."... So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.... Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.... Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man." Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.... When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man." When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (NIV)
In these passages, the elements of marriage, sexuality, parenthood, and the image of God are all woven together into one fabric. Marriage is the fundamental social relationship: it is the first one in existence, and it is the only one that is allowed to trump prior family ties. It is the context in which sexuality occurs, it is the context in which parenthood occurs, it reflects the image of God--the relationship among the members of the Trinity--and transmits that image to the children. All of these things are woven together; the Bible treats them as inseparable.
Our present-day world takes a different view, and is trying to rip this fabric into its constituent parts again. Why should marriage ("a piece of paper") be necessary for two people who are truly in love? Why should marriage be permanent, if the two fall out of love with one another? Why should sexuality be necessarily connected with marriage? In what ways should sexuality be connected with having children, when contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy are available? Why should parenthood be reserved for married couples? Why should any of this be affected by a person's religious beliefs?
We seem to want to have each of these things separately: sexuality without marriage, marriage without parenthood, parenthood without marriage, and the image of God (when it is considered at all) as completely individual and separate from all the others. We want to have our cake and eat it too, and we’re shocked, shocked, when agonizing breakups, shattered families, and less-than-whole children are the result.
My relationship with Cecile led me to Jesus’ teaching on marriage. Jesus’ teaching led me to the Genesis account of how man and woman were made in the first place. And the Genesis account led me to recognize that marriage, family, sexuality, and the image of God were all interwoven in the plan of God for us from the very beginning. Even in Christian circles, we usually deal with these things separately—there are books on marriage, books on parenthood, books on sex, and theological treatises on the image of God—but God created them as being all a part of one thing. My hope, in this book, is to bring them back together again. Even though the book is divided into sections that will deal with these topics in turn, we need constantly to be reminded that they are facets of a single reality that was created by God in the beginning.
Interesting beginning? Let me know what you think!