Mark 10:1-16, Household Relationships within the Church

[August 22, 2010] Today’s passage is about household relationships within the church. First we will consider the passage in its context, and then we will consider the larger issues as they apply to us who live in a very different culture and society.


As we know, the Gospel according to Mark is a call to the church and to individual believers to persevere on the way of the cross, even under the most distressing of circumstances. The first part of the gospel shows that Jesus cannot be truly known apart from His cross and His taking up the way of the cross. When Peter confesses (in 8:29) that Jesus is the Christ, it also becomes clear from his misunderstanding that the reason we cannot know Jesus in this way is that in order to do so, we too must takes up the way of the cross.

After Peter’s confession, Jesus makes His first prediction of His passion and outlines the way of discipleship for the individual Christian. It is the way of denying self, taking up one’s own cross, losing one’s soul, and following Him. The participation in the glory of God is the joy set before us on this path, but in the realities of day to day living we also need to rely on faith and prayer (Mark 8:31—9:29).

After Jesus predicts His passion for the second time (in 9:30-32), Jesus sets before us the way of the church—our life together. Our life together must also be in the way of the cross. Not only individually but corporately we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and lose our soul to follow Jesus. This subsection has two parts. First, in 9:33-50, Jesus focuses on the fellowship of the believers as such, that is, on their relationships to each other as believers. It needs to be characterized by openness, humility, and great care for one another. In the second part (10:1-31), Jesus applies this teaching to the life of the households in which the life of the church primarily takes place. The life of the church might no longer be located primarily in our households in our modern experience, but in the evangelical and apostolic vision of the church, the households of the believers within the local community were the “location” of the church, the “place” in which it primarily had its life.

In this part Jesus touches upon three topics: marriage, children and wealth. The gospels do not give us a full discussion of these things but only touch on them by way of selected stories. We need to read Acts and the epistles for a more complete view. And, of course, it helps to know the Jewish background.

In all this, Mark’s gospel follows Matthew’s gospel very closely but in a way that gives a distinct emphasis. Matthew is more concerned with living under the government of the kingdom of the heavens. Mark is concerned with persevering in the way of the cross.

10:1 tells us that Jesus left Galilee and was now in the region of Judea on the other side of the Jordan. This is the same as Matthew 19:1. The gospels often use places to signal the change in topic. This signals the change from 9:33-50 to 10:2-31 which we already pointed out. Where Matthew speaks of Jesus healing (19:2 and elsewhere), Mark has Him teaching. In Mark, Jesus’ acts of healing are part of His teaching.

Marriage (Mark 10:1-12)

In verse 2, some Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. There was a lively debate about divorce in the time of Jesus. In verse 4 the Pharisees refer to Deuteronomy 24:1 which says, “When a man takes a woman and marries her, if she does not find favor in his sight because he has found some indecency in her; and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her away from his house …” The debate had to do with how to interpret the word “indecency.” Rabbi Shammai interpreted it as meaning something unchaste, like adultery. Rabbi Hillel said that it means something unseemly, like her cooking. In actuality, Hillel was saying that incompatibility was acceptable grounds for divorce. Rabbi Akiva was the most liberal. He said that if a husband finds a more attractive woman, that was grounds for divorce.

In Matthew 5:32, where Jesus only permits divorce on the grounds of unchastity, He takes Shammai’s more conservative stance. The Greek word that Matthew uses literally means prostitution but in Jewish usage the word here could mean either incest or adultery. In Mark’s gospel Jesus does not discuss this.

Jesus dismisses the debate in this context by saying that Moses only permitted divorce (presumably excluding the case of incest, where you might have unknowingly married a close relative) because of the hardness of people’s heart. In other words, it happens—because we are sinful creatures, but it was never God’s intention.

It seems to me that on the one hand Jesus forbids divorce on any grounds except incest (a situation which would make the union unlawful to begin with). On the other hand He acknowledges that the Torah (Moses) permits it because of the hardness of heart of one or the other or both of the partners involved. I prefer this interpretation than the common one that allows divorce only in the case of sexual infidelity. By setting up only one condition, the common view disqualifies all other conditions, such as spousal abuse. From a pastoral perspective this is too oppressive. If, however, we say that divorce is forbidden on all grounds, we acknowledge divorce under the conditions of sin, where because of the hardness of our hearts—in conditions which seem innumerable—divorce may be all but unavoidable. This more compassionate position still acknowledges the hardness of the heart (under the human condition of sin) while recognizing the outer conditions that may require divorce, such as physical or emotional abuse or extreme unhappiness.

Originally God created human beings as male and female so that they could be together. Two males or two females do not, in this view, make a marriage. The problem in our modern world, probably dating back to the industrial revolution, is that we do not want to recognize gender. For us, everything is about sex. Apart from biological differences, everything else is the same and men and women must be treated equally. This is the way we think, consciously, but our natural tendencies have not disappeared. Until this modern period, culture has always been strictly gendered. That is, we each have both male and female sides of our psyche and we navigate between the two. We deny this about human nature in society, and this has caused us innumerable problems. Abstractly this seems like a subtle difference, but the concrete suffering this shift has caused has been immense.

In any case, the male and female genders are made to complement and complete one another, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:11. They are not just a partnership of two, but a partnership of two who are different. One does not see an extension of oneself in the other, but someone who is truly an other, someone with whom one is face-to-face, and in union with whom—because of the difference—one is complete as a person. A man and a woman joining together become one flesh. If this union is willed by God, then no human being should divide it.

A homosexual union, however, does not qualify as a “marriage” in this archetypical (Biblical) sense.  The world, if it continues on the course that it is on (which is not certain), will probably level all these human distinctions (having to do with personhood) and have people relate to each other purely in either narcissistic or in legal, institutional or organizational ways. The important question is whether anything truly personal (in the Biblical sense of face-to-face interpersonal communion) will survive.

(I am not opposed to the legal recognition of a homosexual civil union on equal terms with a heterosexual one. Having said that, however, I would like the reader to consider in addition whether every real marriage actually fulfills the gender archetype of marriage and must do so. What it ought to fulfill is the archetypical love that is possible between the genders, which in most marriages has yet to find fulfillment. The gender difference exists, and heterosexual sex may take place, but the love is not there. I doubt this is purely a modern problem, though in the modern world the issue of gender has become blurred and confused; we are both and neither, or some distorted extreme. Perhaps in actual cases, I speak pastorally, the archetypal gender distinction can be overlooked if the love is there, love that appreciates the subjective otherness of the partner. Though in the Biblical Middle East certain norms were assumed, this does not mean that those norms corresponded to divine revelation. The Bible, after all, nowhere forbids sexual love between women and only explicitly forbids the sexual act between men in the particular cultic context of Leviticus.)

In any case, let us consider Jesus’ private instructions to His disciples. At first this seems to be about whether remarriage is permissible. However, Brad Young, professor of Biblical Studies in the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, makes a sound case that the word “and”—as in, “whoever divorces his wife and marries another”—might be better translated “in order to.” Whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery. This is how Jesus would have been understood in Hebrew or Aramaic, he claims—and it would make perfect sense as a rejection of Rabbi Akiva’s position—but the sense is rather ambiguous when it is carried over into Greek.

Divorce happens, whether or not it is “permitted.” In the case of a believer and an unbeliever, it is discouraged but “permitted” (you are not enslaved in such a case, Paul says, but God has called us to peace—1 Corinthians 7:15). In any case, Paul says that “separated” couples should remain de-married or be reconciled (1 Corinthians 7:11). Is he referring to a couple that is divorced or merely separated (or was that even a real distinction to him)? The word normally translated “unmarried” could mean, as it does here, de-married. “I say to the de-married and to the widows, It is good for them if they remain even as I am. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with desire” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). From a pastoral point of view, it is often too much to ask people who are divorced to remain celibate for the remainder of their ex’s lives (1 Corinthians 7:39). Life-long celibacy is a gift not granted to everyone (1 Corinthians 7:6). People who are divorced have suffered enough. Let people, once they have ended their marriage definitely by divorce, be allowed to marry again.

The conservative point of view (in terms of Christian history) is that a married couple is bound to each other for the duration of the other’s life even if they chose to divorce. This means that if they remarry while their partner is still alive, they are committing adultery against them. The words of Jesus and the apostles can be interpreted this way. For me this seems like “testing God by placing a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10).

Morality Versus Ethics

What is really the issue here? Of course we live in a time when marriage as an institution is failing and we all are presented with tempting options that were never available to our ancestors. A woman can chose to have children without a father ever being part of the household. People can choose to never have children and change from one partner to another over a period of years. Or a person may chose to never settle in with a partner; they engage in sex as an aspect of friendship, not as part of a sustained commitment.

It is a fact that the structure of the “family” has constantly changed. Our idea of the family—the nuclear family—is very modern, though we read it into the Judaic and Hellenistic households of the New Testament. But a brief survey of the Old Testament should quickly dissuade anyone of thinking that our idea of the family is universal. Families exist in many forms, and the families of the Bible, even of the New Testament, were not like our own.

Nevertheless, anthropologists have said that the thing which distinguishes the human species from animals is the invention of the family as a social unit. Perhaps. It is certainly structural, not only to society but to the human psyche. As much as the modern world would like to farm the family out to various social institutions (like daycare and public school for children and care-facilities for the elderly), no one has changed this fundamental psychological fact. People certainly survive without families (for example, in orphanages), and sometimes quite well, but only because others stand surrogate for the roles of family.

The issue, it seems to me, is whether Jesus and the apostles are concerned with laying down rules of morality that we ought to follow or if they are not teaching us about ethics—the discernment of right or wrong, of God’s will, in the particular situations in which we find ourselves. Morality really has to do with the rules of a particular society. The Bible has plenty of these. The question is whether it presents these as ethical standards within a particular society or if they are universal rules to be applied to every society. For example, should a woman be stoned to death if it turns out that she had sex with someone before she got married? (Maybe her uncle raped her.) One would have to wonder about what kind of society it would have to be that could make that ethical. Where hearts were as hard as stone, such fearful punishments might act as a deterrence to others, but what would ever justify the cost to the woman? Today we would consider such an act the height of barbarity and cruelty (I hope). I would like to believe that this is one of those laws that was never enacted, but we have seen in the modern Middle East that societies really can be capable of this. Another example is the New Testament’s obvious tolerance of slavery (Colossians 3:22-25) even when at the same time it seems to disapprove of the institution (Philemon).

It would be more helpful to think of the New Testament being concerned with household ethics than with sexual morality. What is healthy and good behavior towards one another within a household? How ought men and women to treat one another? What are the considerations demanded by love? That is what Jesus and the apostles seem to be addressing in their culture-specific language. Their language needs to be explicated, not dismissed. The intention of the revelation given in the Scriptures, though, is not to give us moral rules but to give us an extremely solid and amazing basis for ethical behavior, thinking and decision making. What seem to be “rules” are examples of how the ethics of revelation applies.

As to one’s own particular location within a particular cultural or social setting, there is nothing relative or ambivalent about those ethics. The ethical imperative of revelation demands something specific, but sometimes it takes true spiritual perception to discern what that is.

Children (10:13-16)

In the following verses, Jesus welcomes the children whom that society often ignored. Indeed, Mark adds that Jesus became indignant when the disciples tried to prevent the children from coming to Him. “Allow the children to come to Me. Do not forbid them!” In the church we must follow the example of Jesus and give the children an important place. Mark also adds what is not in the gospels of Matthew or Luke: that Jesus took the children in His arms and fervently blessed them, laying His hands on them.

Jesus had no delusions that childhood is a happy experience for many children or that children are innocent. Children are the most vulnerable members of society and childhood in reality is very painful. All children suffer at the hands of their parents. It is unavoidable that they suffer from their parents’ psychological wounds. But they also suffer from society’s neglect and insensitivity. Children all need the “unconditional positive regard” of adults, but rarely get it. They are victims of our marketplace mentality and we put them in settings where they are prey, not only to other adults, but to their peers. It is horrible what we do to children, instead of allowing them to grow up naturally. Jesus’ welcoming of the children and the unrestrained love that He shows them addresses this. In the church it ought to be this way. It ought to be this way in our homes most of all.

Jesus says, “For of such is the kingdom of God.” Children, if anything, are dependent and have a sense of openness (if they are emotionally healthy) and humility (without lose of self-esteem) because of this. It is unhealthy for children to have to compete with one another for any of their needs, including the need for affection. Instead, they should have enough trust to cooperate with each other. In any case, Mark transposes 18:3 and inserts it between Matthew 19:14 and 15 to get Mark 10:15. Jesus sets children up as a model for the disciples of how they should treat one another. The kingdom of God has to do with the government of the Father within the church (that is, it assumes the possession of eternal life). To enter the kingdom of God refers to winning approval at the judgment seat of Christ. To enter the kingdom we must receive the Father’s government over us with the trust and humility of little children, which—according to Matthew 18—is reflected in how we treat one another.

So, actual children within our actual households are a constant role model to the believers—either the believers who live within the household or to the believers who enjoy the household hospitality of other believers.

Our Need for Others

Not all believers are married or have children. This is especially true today in our urban culture. Some of us have widowed or divorced and the children have all moved away and we live alone. The reason this passage is here in Mark is because it is important for us not to be alone. In fact, friendship and family life are important Christian disciplines that aid our spiritual growth. Whether or not we have a spouse, everyone ought to have two or three close friends who are available, whom they can confide in, and whom they can count on for support.

We suffer from isolation, loneliness, and lack of love and support. Dr. Dean Ornish has shown that anything that promotes a sense of isolation leads to chronic stress and often to illness. People who live alone have more heart disease than others, and among people with illnesses such as cancer, those who participate in weekly support group meetings have twice the survival rate of those who do not. Loneliness also significantly lowers the functioning of our immune system. People who do not share their private feelings with others or who do not have close contact with others at least once a week are most at risk. In fact, social isolation affects mortality rates more significantly than smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise. [Thomas Ryan, Disciplines for Christian Living, pages 36-37.]

Neither friendship nor family life is easy. To make them work requires much self-denial, much losing of the soul, and often taking up our own cross. For this reason we should pay attention to what they offer us in terms of our spiritual development. If we neglect them we not only endanger our emotional and even our physical health but also our spiritual development. Being in close relationship to others is hard (though rewarding) but the alternative is worse.

Tom Ryan points out two factors that threaten our need for closeness. They are our famine of time and our—often unavoidable—mobility. This is where discipline is necessary. In order to maintain our closeness to others, we need to make time for it. This requires that we live much more deliberately and consciously, for our modern life strips away the time we need for relationships. Also, because we usually do not stay in one place but move many times in the course of our lives, we need to develop the skill of making new friends in the new places where we find ourselves. Of course we keep our old friends, but they are now separated from us by distance. It is important that we also have friends who are available to us on an as-needed basis and with whom we can be physically and talk face-to-face.

This—friendship—is a spiritual discipline as much as gathering to remember the Lord on the Lord’s Day, prayer, meditation and contemplation, Bible reading and study, generosity, service to others, and so forth. It is one that we neglect to our peril. The church can be—and should, though it may not be—an important place to make friends. In the New Testament the believers were close enough to count each other as friends. We will only be able to recapture some of this if we become less judgmental; may it be so.

May the Lord help us (and help me). In faithfulness to our highest priority (the Lord), there is health, freedom and the fullness of joy.

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