Mary and Joseph and Roy Moore: a quest for moral clarity
We live in a politically charged climate these days. As a pastor, it is a climate I usually try to avoid entering whenever possible. However, when politics crosses wires with the Church (typically evangelicalism) and issues of moral concern, I am compelled to share my own voice when other voices are effectively speaking for me. The case of Roy Moore is such an instance of the wires crossing.
In summary, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has been accused of sexual harassment/assault principally comprised by his relationships with teenage girls, one being as young as 14 years old when he himself was 32. I’m not interested in adjudicating the evidence against Moore in this space. My interest lies in clarifying the moral lines that have been brought to the surface by his case.
At the outset, there are bright lines of ethical demarcation that provide a rather obvious black and white moral assessment. Accordingly, I think it can be simply said that sexual harassment/assault is grossly immoral in all places, at all times, at all ages, for all persons. To disagree with this assessment is to stand against the testimony of Scripture and Christ himself and to make oneself an enemy of God. Its seriousness should never be diminished and its consequences never lightly dismissed. In the case of Roy Moore, if these accusations should prove true it ought to be consequential for his candidacy, especially in light of his fervent denial.
However, one of the major factors applied in morally assessing Moore’s case seems to derive from the fact that he had a romantic relationship with any teenage girl in the first place. Sensing this, there have been defenders of Moore who have tried to wipe away any sense of impropriety by introducing the example of a teenage Mary married to an older Joseph. In response to this, leading evangelicals, Ed Stetzer in particular, have retorted that such a comparison is ridiculous.
In his article for Christianity Today, Stetzer writes:
“Yes, in case you were wondering, there may have been an age difference between Joseph and Mary. And there were customs then that we don’t follow now. But they were married, not molested.”
He provides a rhetorically rich response that strikes hard against those who would seek to explain away Moore’s purported actions, but I believe it leaves much wanting in the way of a moral assessment. To demonstrate my point, I would ask, “Would we feel any better if Roy Moore married a 14-year-old?” When given a bit more thought, I think it becomes clear that this is not simply an issue of being married versus being molested. If that were the case, we would feel quite glad if Moore had chosen marriage instead. At play here is an underlying belief that a romantic relationship with someone so young and with such an age disparity constitutes a form of sexual assault irrespective of the younger person’s consent. However, presupposing this does not answer the challenge presented by the example of Mary and Joseph.
I had been hoping for a biblical response from Stetzer, but it is understandable that he could not easily provide one. As he himself says, the biblical record offers no record of the ages of Mary and Joseph. It seems to be universally agreed upon that Mary was likely between the ages of 12 and 19, probably being on the younger side of that spectrum. The age of Joseph is likewise unknown, though it is likely that he was older. Given the lack of solid evidence, and the analysis offered below, it is a poor line of defense to marshal for Roy Moore. However, my task here is not to politick but to offer a moral analysis. For that purpose, I’ll grant the comparison and assume that Mary was 14 and that Joseph was 32.
Stetzer and others have noted that customs were different in the past. Besides teenage, age-disparate marriages, we know that polygamy was also once practiced, as was slavery. While polygamy and slavery are not commended in the Bible, we do see that they are negotiated, regulated, and at times utilized in the realization of God’s redemptive mission. However, there is a principle that is typically called upon to condemn these practices which seems to arise from Jesus’ teaching on the issue of divorce. The Pharisees said to Jesus,
"Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away." And Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.’”[Mark 10:4-6 ESV]
The principle at work seems to be that God has permitted certain practices because of the hardness of man’s heart. It indicates that God has become more stringent, not less, in his moral expectations. When applied in the same manner elsewhere, polygamy and slavery can quickly be seen as evils that were only tolerated until Christ could be revealed.
Looking to the issue of teenage, age-disparate marriages, I think that the same principle can be applied. When you add together a patriarchal society, short life-spans, and the non-existence of further education, we are presented with a very broken world, albeit only differently broken than our own. Under such harsh realities, there was no opportunity to “enjoy being a teenager”. Consenting to marriage as a 14-year-old girl was simply a means to ensure your survival. It was hardly Edenic.
When we look to our own day, we see that much has changed. Women are recognized as being of equal worth to men, we are all living much longer, and there is greater access to education for continued development into adulthood. These are all good things that ought to be promoted and protected to honor the image of God made manifest in females. Given this new reality, there is virtually no good reason to be married before 18, not to speak of 14.
Add to this the age disparity presented in the Moore case, and we have every reason to judge the pursuit of such a relationship to be immoral. We are talking about an age difference of 18 years. The disparity itself is not what is immoral (e.g. there’s nothing wrong with a 48 yr old & 30 yr old couple); what is immoral is the advantage gained by the inarguable difference in maturity, which will invariably result in manipulation. In the case of two 14-year-olds deciding to be married, we would judge their parents as being immoral to allow them to act without the proper maturity to make such a decision. In the case of a 32-year-old and a 14-year-old, we would do that and judge the 32-year-old as being immoral for taking advantage of such immaturity. Physical maturity is irrelevant on this point. It does not matter how old the 14-year-old may look; all that matters is her mental maturity. It is on this same basis that we might judge the formation of a marriage between a person with a significant mental handicap and a typical person to be out of bounds.
It may be that ancient teenagers were more mature and that a fair comparison cannot be made today. Whatever the case may be, I believe that the biblical principle that God does not endorse but rather only tolerates broken human practices frees us from being captive to these same broken practices today. I do not think it puts us in any quandary to say that the customs that brought together a possibly older Joseph and teenage Mary are morally inferior to the relevant standards we have today. These standards are morally superior in that they promote a higher welfare for women than what could or would be achieved in the past. Accordingly, the relationships purportedly pursued by Roy Moore have no moral justification because they represent a move backward, not forward. They degrade the full moral worth of those girls he would have invariably manipulated- this aside from the immediate degradation that would have been inflicted by any explicit non-consensual sexual advances.
It is important that you carefully consider the unintended message you may be sending if you call into question the veracity of the accusations made against Roy Moore. If you do so, you should make it all the more abundantly clear, to the point of being excessive, that if proven true his actions are inexcusable and morally abhorrent. Of all people, Christians should speak with moral clarity and not equivocate for the sake of political partisanship. As salt and light, we must promote what is good and decry what is immoral and destructive.
 I stress the word relevent to admit that in many other ways our standards for marriage have deteriorated.