Monday, October 8, 2007

More To Divorce Than Meets The Eye?

The following article appeared earlier this week in Christianity Today. It deals with the different interpretations of biblically permissible divorce. I found this article to be in depth and fascinating in its findings. What are your thoughts on the topic?

"A divorce is like an amputation: you survive it, but there is less of you."--Margaret Atwood

What God Has Joined
What does the Bible really teach about divorce?
David Instone-Brewer


I was being interviewed for what would be my first church pastorate, and I was nervous and unsure what to expect. The twelve deacons sat in a row in front of me and took turns asking questions, which I answered as clearly as I could. All went smoothly until they posed this question: "What is your position on divorce and remarriage? Would you remarry a divorcée or divorced man?"

I didn't know if this was a trick question or an honest one. There might have been a deep-seated pastoral need behind it, or it might have been a test of my orthodoxy. Either way, I didn't think I could summarize my view in one sentence; when I thought about it further, I couldn't decide exactly what my view was. I gave a deliberately vague reply.


"Every case should be judged on its own merits." It worked; I got the job. But I made a mental note to study the subject of divorce, and to do it quickly.

It's a good thing I did. As it turned out, I was surrounded by people who needed answers to questions raised by divorce and remarriage. My Baptist church was located near an Anglican congregation and two Catholic churches. Divorced men and women from these congregations came asking if we would conduct their weddings, having been denied in their local churches. Then I found that some of my deacons had been divorced and remarried. Should I throw them out of church leadership? If I did, I would lose people I considered some of the most spiritual in the church, people with exemplary Christian homes and marriages.What Does the Bible Say?

The New Testament presents a problem in understanding both what the text says about divorce and its pastoral implications. Jesus appears to say that divorce is allowed only if adultery has occurred: "Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, and remarries, commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). However, this has been interpreted in many different ways. Most say that Jesus allows divorce only for adultery. But some argue that Jesus originally didn't allow even that. Only in Matthew does he offer an out from marriage: "except for sexual indecency." Beyond what Jesus says, Paul also allows divorce. He permits it for abandonment by a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Many theologians add this as a second ground for divorce.

Yet some pastors have found this teaching difficult to accept, because it seems so impractical—even cruel in certain situations. It suggests there can be no divorce for physical or emotional abuse, and Paul even seems to forbid separation (1 Cor. 7:10).

As a result, some Christians quietly ignore this seemingly "impractical" biblical teaching or find ways around it. For example, they suggest that when Jesus talked about "sexual immorality," perhaps he included other things like abuse. Or when Paul talked about abandonment by a nonbeliever, perhaps he included any behavior that is not supportive of the marriage or abandonment by anyone who is acting like a nonbeliever. Many have welcomed such stretching of Scripture because they couldn't accept what they believed the text apparently said.

But does the literal text mean what we think it does? While doing doctoral studies at Cambridge, I likely read every surviving writing of the rabbis of Jesus' time. I "got inside their heads" enough to begin to understand them. When I began working as a pastor and was confronted almost immediately with divorced men and women who wanted to remarry, my first response was to re-read the Bible. I'd read the biblical texts on divorce many times in the past, but I found something strange as I did so again. They now said something I hadn't heard before I read the rabbis!'Any Cause' Divorce

The texts hadn't changed, but my knowledge of the language and culture in which they were written had. I was now reading them like a first-century Jew would have read them, and this time those confusing passages made more sense. My book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (InterVarsity Press), is a summary of several academic papers and books I began writing with this new understanding of what Jesus taught.

One of my most dramatic findings concerns a question the Pharisees asked Jesus: "Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?" (Matt. 19:3). This question reminded me that a few decades before Jesus, some rabbis (the Hillelites) had invented a new form of divorce called the "any cause" divorce. By the time of Jesus, this "any cause" divorce had become so popular that almost no one relied on the literal Old Testament grounds for divorce.

The "any cause" divorce was invented from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses allowed divorce for "a cause of immorality," or, more literally, "a thing of nakedness." Most Jews recognized that this unusual phrase was talking about adultery. But the Hillelite rabbis wondered why Moses had added the word "thing" or "cause" when he only needed to use the word "immorality." They decided this extra word implied another ground for divorce—divorce for "a cause." They argued that anything, including a burnt meal or wrinkles not there when you married your wife, could be a cause! The text, they said, taught that divorce was allowed both for adultery and for "any cause."

Another group of rabbis (the Shammaites) disagreed with this interpretation. They said Moses' words were a single phrase that referred to no type of divorce "except immorality"—and therefore the new "any cause" divorces were invalid. These opposing views were well known to all first-century Jews. And the Pharisees wanted to know where Jesus stood. "Is it lawful to divorce your wife for any cause?" they asked. In other words: "Is it lawful for us to use the 'any cause' divorce?"

When Jesus answered with a resounding no, he wasn't condemning "divorce for any cause," but rather the newly invented "any cause" divorce. Jesus agreed firmly with the second group that the phrase didn't mean divorce was allowable for "immorality" and for "any cause," but that Deutermonomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce "except immorality."

This was a shocking statement for the crowd and for the disciples. It meant they couldn't get a divorce whenever they wanted it—there had to be a lawful cause. It also meant that virtually every divorced man or women was not really divorced, because most of them had "any cause" divorces. Luke and Matthew summarized the whole debate in one sentence: Any divorced person who remarried was committing adultery (Matt. 5:32; Luke 16:18), because they were still married. The fact that they said "any divorced person" instead of "virtually all divorced people" is typical Jewish hyperbole—like Mark saying that "everyone" in Jerusalem came to be baptized by John (Mark 1:5). It may not be obvious to us, but their first readers understood clearly what they meant.

Within a few decades, however, no one understood these terms any more. Language often changes quickly (as I found out when my children first heard the Flintstones sing about "a gay old time"). The early church, and even Jewish rabbis, forgot what the "any cause" divorce was, because soon after the days of Jesus, it became the only type of divorce on offer. It was simply called divorce. This meant that when Jesus condemned "divorce for 'any cause,' " later generations thought he meant "divorce for any cause."Reaffirming marriage
Now that we know what Jesus did reject, we can also see what he didn't reject. He wasn't rejecting the Old Testament—he was rejecting a faulty Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament. He defended the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. And there is one other surprising thing he didn't reject: Jesus didn't reject the other ground for divorce in the Old Testament, which all Jews accepted.


Although the church forgot the other cause for divorce, every Jew in Jesus' day knew about Exodus 21:10-11, which allowed divorce for neglect. Before rabbis introduced the "any cause" divorce, this was probably the most common type. Exodus says that everyone, even a slave wife, had three rights within marriage—the rights to food, clothing, and love. If these were neglected, the wronged spouse had the right to seek freedom from that marriage. Even women could, and did, get divorces for neglect—though the man still had to write out the divorce certificate. Rabbis said he had to do it voluntarily, so if he resisted, the courts had him beaten till he volunteered!

These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows—we find them listed in marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea. In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language became more formal, such as "love, honor, and keep." These vows, together with a vow of sexual faithfulness, have always been the basis for marriage. Thus, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce.

The three provisions of food, clothing, and love were understood literally by the Jews. The wife had to cook and sew, while the husband provided food and materials, or money. They both had to provide the emotional support of marital love, though they could abstain from sex for short periods. Paul taught the same thing. He said that married couples owed each other love (1 Cor. 7:3-5) and material support (1 Cor. 7:33-34). He didn't say that neglect of these rights was the basis of divorce because he didn't need to—it was stated on the marriage certificate. Anyone who was neglected, in terms of emotional support or physical support, could legally claim a divorce.

Divorce for neglect included divorce for abuse, because this was extreme neglect. There was no question about that end of the spectrum of neglect, but what about the other end? What about abandonment, which was merely a kind of passive neglect? This was an uncertain matter, so Paul deals with it. He says to all believers that they may not abandon their partners, and if they have done so, they should return (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In the case of someone who is abandoned by an unbeliever—someone who won't obey the command to return—he says that the abandoned person is "no longer bound."

Anyone in first-century Palestine reading this phrase would think immediately of the wording at the end of all Jewish, and most Roman, divorce certificates: "You are free to marry anyone you wish."
Putting all this together gives us a clear and consistent set of rules for divorce and remarriage. Divorce is only allowed for a limited number of grounds that are found in the Old Testament and affirmed in the


New Testament:
Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7)


Jewish couples listed these biblical grounds for divorce in their marriage vows. We reiterate them as love, honor, and keep and be faithful to each other. When these vows were broken, it threatened to break up the marriage. As in any broken contract, the wronged party had the right to say, "I forgive you; let's carry on," or, "I can't go on, because this marriage is broken."

Therefore, while divorce should never happen, God allows it (and subsequent remarriage) when your partner breaks the marriage vows.

Reading the Bible and ancient Jewish documents side-by-side helped me understand much more of the Bible's teaching about divorce and marriage, not all of which I can summarize here. Dusty scraps of parchment rescued from synagogue rubbish rooms, desert caves, and neglected scholarly collections shone fresh light on the New Testament. Theologians who have long felt that divorce should be allowed for abuse and abandonment may be vindicated. And, more importantly, victims of broken marriages can see that God's law is both practical and loving.

12 comments:

catrina said...

I have somany problems with this I hardly know where to begin. Once again we see where mans desires supercede the will of God. The Exodus reference was if your husband took another wife and left you by the curb so to speak. Not if you are his one wife and you don't like the clothes and food he provides. The whole emotional and physical neglect thing doesn't hold up either. I don't know a husband or wife who has not "broken" their marriage vows at one time or the other. The problem with his assumptions are that they are putting the focus on the individual instead of the heart of God. On a daily basis I could gripe and find ways that my emotional needs aren't met. Most marriages end today not over sexual misconduct, although that is a biggy and I do think their are allowances made in the bible to exit such a marriage. I think this writer condones what he appeared to criticize in the beginning, which was divorce for "any reason." I cringe when I think of all the marriages that end over these smaller issues like (not providing enough, not helping with housework/kids, not feeling loved, blah,blah,blah. God's heart is for their to never be divorce, but he does allow it for some extreme conditions but not the 1 in 2 that is so prevalent in the christian community as well as the world. We are no different in that respect and I think it's time we raise the bar about what is expected from a marriage. Hopefully I won't get blasted here, and I know I didn't defend my position as well as I good have, but we are late for P.E.
lol

Tia Lynn said...

I don't think you'll get blasted, atleast not from me... :)

I didn't take this author's use of the terms emotional and physical abuse/neglect to mean that if a spouse is unsatisfied with the littlest thing or if any needs have not been met, then it warrants a biblical reason for divorce. In fact, he limits the reasons for divorce to three or four very specific and extreme circumstances--all of which include unrepentent spouses, dessertion, or dangerous scenarios. Although it is broader than the traditional "only for adultery" stance, it is a far cry from "I'm cranky today, so let's get a divorce." I thought he made it clear that he was countering the belief that physical violence, emotional abuse (i've seen this one in action, and it can be more damaging than physical abuse), or physical abandonment from unrepentant spouses are not grounds for divorce. He also points out that forgiveness and reonciliation should ALWAYS be sought after by the wronged spouse. I think his point is that outsiders should not be so hasty to judge divorced people for the complicated reasons of adultery, sexual immorality, abandonment, and physical abuse. There are indeed examples in scripture for being released from a marriage that go beyond adultery.

I totally agree with you that our culture as reached a new extreme of casual divorces, often times with no attempts at forgiveness, reconciliation, or sacrifice. However, it is most often the spouses that endure abuse that fear to leave or believe they have no freedom to leave because of the OTHER extreme that says, "There is no reason for divorce EVER" or "maybe if there is adultery, but that's it." So, if your spouse is sexually faithful, but is violent, then basically too bad, so sad.

As far as man trying to supercede God's wisdom, I don't think this is a case of that. There are many parts of scripture that cannot be fully understood apart from understanding the original culture and the original language. All this author did was bring to light the debates of Jesus' day, the traditions of Old Testament practices, and the meaning of the original language. When human reason tries to supercede God, it has been perverted, but human reason in and of itself is a gift from God and we are called to love Him with our entire minds. If that means digging into the scriptures and the history from which they emerged to gain a fuller understanding or to correct the perversion of His Word, then human reason is a blessing and a valid tool for the believer.

Good discussion! Thanks for weighing in Catrina!

catrina said...

I think I was more disturbed about the emotional abuse and the abandonment issue. Of course if a spouse wants to literally walk away I would be happy to hold the door for him. While I agree that emotional abuse can be horrific and incredibly severe I know of someone who divorced her husband because she caught him looking at porno a couple of times, she used the verse about if a man lusts after a woman. While this was definite sin and hurtful, I knew this guy was a good guy and not a porno freak, years later I can see that she was being offended and holding to her rights. They of course had some other small issues that lots of young couples have, nothing insurmountable. I knew of someone else who claimed yrs of emotional abuse as the reason for her divorce. I was a regular babysitter in their home and I saw an overbearing nagging wife not giving her husband a moments peace. he would flat out refuse to do her bidding and she would cry abuse. I know that there are true cases of broken marriages, but I think the body of christ needs to be very careful where our sympathies lie. By the way I think that unbelievers and people that got saved later in life have some absolution because they were devoid of knowledge that the holy spirit imparts. I don't think this article was dangerous just not as clear as I would have prefered. You know how some people read into stuff like the MP/DP, the pendelum can swing the other way also.

Tia Lynn said...

Oh definitely. I think the extremes on BOTH sides are dangerous and that most issues can be manipulated by people who want to justify their own sins. That's just an ugly reality about humanity, using the truth to strengthen the lies we tell ourselves and others.

But I don't think the answer is to discount emotional abuse, neglect, or abandonment as valid reasons for divorce because some will inevitably abuse and stretch those reasons. These reasons should be discussed as a body and taught with a clearer meaning of those terms, really defining WHAT constitutes as neglect and abandonment as found in biblical principles.

When parents are charged with neglecting their children, there is a criteria that helps define what constitutes as neglect...perhaps there should be some thought about how the term "neglect" applies to marriages in a biblical worldview. Obviously, the old "my spouse doesn't pay enough attention to me" line is not the sort of thing that would justify divorce. But the kind of neglect that puts a spouse in danger or leaves them destitute may be another matter. I'm not sure where the line is, but I do know (personally) people trapped in HORRIBLE dangerous marriages, and they stay because they have been taught they have no other option. So, I think an open discussion about this topic is a good thing, both to grant the freedom to those who desperately need it and to expose those who abuse such freedom to exaggerate their circumstances to justify their actions.

from Christy Fritz said...

i am so glad people have time to study the scriptures, especially the original texts. it is so enlightening to hear about different rabbis ideas, as well as how the early church would have "heard" something in their day. let's see, first, i don't think the reasons he lists would let just anyone "off the hook" so to speak... real neglect or abuse is serious, and so is abandonment. i think many discount that fact these days, especially in some churches. and adultury is, well, just awful for the whole family. it is even worse IMO, when either situation, is never dealt with and people pretend to live the good "christian" life, without any help or consequences...for fear it might look like the couple may be headed towards "divorce".
god hates it, bottom line, he hates several things. he gives grace, and we move on and grow, everyday. god certainly seems to do so,in this case especially...(although, as always, and as with any sin, not without consequence) to think that he would give us permission to do something he hates, IMO must make one stop and think about the whole issue a little more deeply, for a bit. in the end i don't think "we" are going to raise the bar, by having more people stay married, or getting people to think marriage is a "really" important commitment to stick with. it's always got to be about the transformation of individual hearts, and finding our indentity in christ.i know lots of christians who will never divorce, but keep the status quo of companionship with bitterness,etc. and call it done for life, from seperate corners in their marriages. i don't know if that is any "better" than divorce. only god working through individuals can make relationships "work", whether married or not...and i think that is where the focus needs to shift and stay. encouraging others in our families and churches towards that end, is all we can do to have an impact on the "family", or this world. saying we don't believe in divorce,to uphold family values, doesn't seem to be making much headway in the numbers. not that numbers are the most important thing. each case is personal and should be left to deal with at the time of the problem, by the community of believers involved with the situation.
if we keep our eyes on our personal responsiblity in our marriages before god, and encourage one another to do so.. than the new perspective presented by this article, IMO is in no way a threat to marriages. i don't think the author was excusing divorce for "any cause"...only the few listed at the end.
i've never lived through emotional or physical abuse...let's be careful not to minimize it when we haven't experienced it.( i think it's also important to not let anyone minimize it, by "playing" victim, which happens alot) i don't know a true believer who would encourage another to divorce someone, over a year's worth of bad cooking or even unemployment.
i think this article is only meant to provide hope to those trapped in real abuse or adulturous situations, so they can pursue truth and healing.
i can tell you from experience that healing often never occurs, and cycles of sin continue in many of these relationships, for fear of "divorce". i truly believe this grieves the heart of god just as much as divorce, and in light of the fact that he does give us some "outs" i can maybe see why... it seems pretty straigtforward that there are biblical reasons for divorce, as much as god hates it. maybe he hates the "pretending things are fine, and not dealing with it" just as much. keeping an "image" seems to be the downfall of many christian families, just as much as divorce.
it's never our first option, but it is a biblical option in certain cases, and i think saying that, does not make the divorce rate go up, or give people an easy out.
it's just the truth...
this is truly stepping over the line i'm sure, but i've often wondered (and that's exactly what i mean-just wondered-i obviously don't know) if divorce were used as an option more often for the reasons reccomended here, that it might truly have an impact on the "christian" family. it seems god might have presented it as a negative consequence for breaking the law and your vows. i don't know, just a thought. god often uses negative consequences to get our attention. i've also seen several christian divorced couples be reconciled and truly healed...after going through the process. thanks for sharing this tia. i will share it with josh and let you know what he thinks. i have a feeling he might have some comments. :)

actually he just got home, so here he is:
you can't change someone else, only yourself. if you are fighting for nothing,(the other person is not stopping sin or refusing to change) and in the mean time you are hurting yourself and others (children), than it may be necessary to divorce. it's everyone's own personal desicion and not our's to make judgements about, especially when someone is in danger. i've always thought the bible is pretty clear IMO about abuse and adultury. divorce is always ugly, and should never be treated lightly,or as an easy way out. it is sad the statistics are so high, even in the church. divorce should always be the absolute last, when all options are exhausted. no one should ever be stuck in bondage, when somebody isn't willing to change or reconcile. these are just my thoughts on this, i hope this helps this discussion.

Tia Lynn said...

Thanks Christy and Josh for weighing in! :) I have seen first hand what the extreme teaching of NO DIVORCE EVER can do to a family. One spouse is beaten down, constantly giving and sacrificing, while the children suffer in the midst of dysfunction and abuse, and the other spouse has no real reason to change because the other is bound to "deal with it." That's why these conversations are important, to test the prevailing mindsets in churches that contribute to these situations: either no freedom for divorce no matter how dire the circumstances or too much leeway for casual divorces.

People in broken, dangerous marriages are real people in need of support and biblical guidance and if the church holds to the extremes of either side of the divorce issue, we will never be able to give it to them.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Talk about raging nazi-feminism cloaked in "equality" and "victimhood." This whole article is throwing women's inner feminist justification for their desire to be free from their husbands and out from under their control. There is no grey on this issue. Marriage is for life, period. If a husband is irresponsible, a cheater, or even abusive, then that is the wife's lot in life and she'll be greatly rewarded in the next life for obeying God and staying married. I agree with Catrina, the whole idea of valid EXCUSES for divorce are nothing more than man trying to supercede God's wisdom. God said it, I believe it. Do yourself a favor a get on board with the truth.

musicmommy3 said...

Wow Anonymous, you obviously don't live in an abusive relationship.

"If a husband is irresponsible, a cheater, or even abusive, then that is the wife's lot in life and she'll be greatly rewarded in the next life for obeying God and staying married."

I hope you are not a counselour by profession because if I were an abused woman and I came to someone who told me that I should just "suck it up because that's my lot in life and I'll get a gold star when I get to heaven" I may go out an commit suicide.

This is such a loaded topic I'm not sure that I'm going to really weigh in. I see in the Bible where divorce is allowed for marital unfaithfulness and also for the unbelieving spouses who want to divorce their believing ones. I think covenant is always God's heart. I think that forgiveness and mercy is amazing in those situations.
I just cannot say what I would do in an abusive situation. I don't live in one so I'm not sure. I cannot make someone else's decision for them. I would probably be inclined to separate because we have children. I would remain married and not divorce because I feel strongly that God wants us to HONOR covenants; however, a separation could get someone out of a dangerous situation without destroying the possibility of reconciliation.
I'm obviously not talking about those who are playing victim roles. I'm talking about REAL victims here.

Telling someone what to do without ANY compassion for their situation doesn't seem much like love to me. It seems like a system of rules and regulations that we must somehow adhere to,to be righteous or religious.
I'm ALL for obeying God even when it's hard. That's why I have such a hard time with this topic. Scripture is strangely silent on the abusive marriage.
For now I would have to say that I would separate with hope of reconciliation.

You know, I also have to say one last thing. At one point we were having a REALLY hard time in our marriage and an elder of our church said, "Either work on your marriage or just get divorced." I was SHOCKED because I knew he wouldn't advocate divorce. I really didn't understand the point he was trying to convey.
A wise friend of mine put it this way...I don't think those people who stay married and yet live separate lives or never work on their relationship and feel they are OK because they "don't get divorced" are fooling God. They may not have officially gotten divorced on paper but they are divorced in their hearts. A piece of paper doesn't fool God.

Just some things to think about.

from Christy Fritz said...

i agree wholeheartedly with that last paragraph angela...great advice you got, even though i'm sure the truth was hard to hear at the time.

Tia Lynn said...

I cannot reconcile The Christ of the scriptures who sought to proclaim GOOD news, to free to the captives and opressed with the ideology of anonymous that asserts abuse should be tolerated by ANYONE. That is not of the God I serve.

Angela, thank you for sharing. I think you are right. How many people remain married but are divorced in their hearts? How terribly sad. Like most issues marriage and divorce are VERY complex and need to be dealt with compassion and great care. Good discussion!

Marissa said...

I agree 100% with musicmommy, especially the part about leaving but remaining married. I had this whole thing typed out to send, changed my mind, then saw your comment. It was pretty much exactly what I was going to convey. I believe that although God may "allow" divorce in certain situations, He also says that He hates divorce.

"I think covenant is always God's heart. I think that forgiveness and mercy is amazing in those situations." So well put musicmommy!

Tia Lynn said...

I, too, agree with angela and mariss. Divorce should NEVER be the first go to. All other options should be EXHAUSTED before making such a drastic decision. However, if a spouse is repeatedly violent and dangerous and CONTINUES in this way with no attempt at repentance, rehabilitation or remorse after counseling, jailtime, or whatever, I do not believe a person must remain married, even if separated, in such a situation. But the heart of God is always reconciliation and forgiveness. If there is repentence, we absolutely have an obligation to forgive, reconcile, and heal. However, God is a respecter of free will and cannot/willnot force a person to change. If an abusive spouse refuses to hold up their end of the reconciliation process (i.e. repentence, accountability, counseling, etc.), the other spouse should in no way be bound any longer. While God hates divorce because of how it tears right through the heart of individuals, families, and societies, He also HATES oppression, violence, and betrayal. If we are to forgive as Christ forgives, we need to ask HOW does Christ forgive? Can we be restored without acknowledging our sin and then turning from it? How does that translate to unrepentant spouses? These are hard questions and the answer will be different in each individual case.