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Can We Talk About Divorce?

David Instone-Brewer's CT article didn't say what many thought it did.

Christianity Today has repeatedly discussed the problems generated by no-fault divorce in the United States and the problem of the church's therapeutic accommodation to it. Readers should see for example, "The Christian Divorce Culture," an editorial from the year 2000. We received a lot of negative mail from readers who felt we were insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of divorced Christians. Our concerns were also expressed in the 2006 interview with Elizabeth Marquardt, which examines the painful impact of divorce on children.

So we were surprised at the way a number of people interpreted David Instone-Brewer's recent CT cover story, "What God Has Joined." Despite what some readers thought, Instone-Brewer's article did not contradict CT's consistent message, nor did it give people carte blanche on divorce (though we admit, we could have made that point more strongly).

Instead, Instone-Brewer's article was designed to help us understand Jesus' own words in his own religious and cultural context. Jesus' words on divorce have admittedly been problematic, and scholars have wrestled for centuries trying to understand their precise meaning. Multiple New Testament scholars that we respect have said they think Instone-Brewer's book has the analysis right. (For CT, Instone-Brewer just sketched out the general shape of his analysis, and we pointed readers to his IVP book for the details.)

Instone-Brewer's argument does not give us an infinitely elastic set of reasons for divorce, but it does recognize that marriage is constituted by more than sex, so that marriage can be irreparably harmed by something other than adultery. If, for example, a husband consistently fails to provide material support to his wife, then surely the marriage is as broken as if the husband has committed adultery.

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I suspect that most of my divorced friends are not divorced because a spouse failed to provide the biblical basics of marriage that Instone-Brewer identified. They divorced because they had trouble getting along or they had "fallen out of love" or they had "outgrown the relationship." None of those divorces are justified by Instone-Brewer's understanding of the text. Curiously, one blogger claimed that Instone-Brewer had said that if we are insufficiently "honored" by our spouses, we can legitimately divorce. I don't think so. As I carefully re-read Instone-Brewer's article, he said that our formal vows of "love, honor, and keep" reflect the Mosaic requirements of "food, clothing, and marital rights." (Instone-Brewer used the euphemistic "love" where most English translations of Exodus 21:10 use "marital rights" or "conjugal rights.") That is not creating an elastic "dishonoring" grounds for divorce, but it is defining "honor" in terms of its biblical roots. (Think of the old Prayer Book wedding service: "With my body I thee worship.")

But then I do know a few people who have been divorced following physical abuse or failure to provide. Those divorces, after one partner persisted in abuse or neglect after repeated attempts to restore the marriage, are indeed covered by Instone-Brewer. People who say they have been hurt by such a divorce should probably not blame the divorce, but the party who failed to live up to his promises.

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Some have also complained that Instone-Brewer's reasoning involves using extra-biblical material to silence the plain meaning of Scripture. Extra-biblical material must be handled carefully, and yet it is something that pastors and Bible scholars do every day. In my own generation, we used Moulton and Milligan's The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament to get a sense for how the words the New Testament writers used would have been understood by their contemporaries. Without comparing the biblical books with similar extra-biblical material, we just cannot know what words or phrases would mean to their original readers.

Similarly, my generation of seminary students was urged to use Strack and Billerbeck's Commentary on the New Testament from Talmud and Midrash to tune in to the way in which rabbinic writers discussed issues similar to those tackled by Jesus and Paul. Indeed, without following the particular forms of those rabbinic arguments, we cannot appreciate the shape of Jesus' and Paul's arguments.

Scholarly investigation of the relationship between rabbinical discussion and the way the New Testament writers dealt with issue has moved way beyond Strack and Billerbeck. And David Instone-Brewer is one of those who has advanced it.

Curiously, the 16th-century Reformers were much closer to Instone-Brewer's conclusions than to many of our more conservative contemporary expositors. They didn't have Instone-Brewer's knowledge of rabbinic writing, but like him they came out with more grounds for divorce than many of our churches do. Zwingli and Bucer had the longest lists of grounds for divorce, but even they had clear reasons that could not be stretched to cover just any situation. Many of them were dealing with divorce in a social framework that was no longer dominated by the Roman church. At Trent, Rome stuck by its narrow allowances for divorce and condemned these "liberal" Protestants. If Instone-Brewer is in line with these Reformers, his conclusions are hardly radical.

I am sorry that this particular cover story in CT struck many readers the way it did. We are seriously concerned about the effects of no-fault divorce in our society and the devastating impact it has on the economic and emotional lives of children. We urge churches not to succumb to the therapeutic society's tendency to indulge divorce. Instead, the church must reconnect with a strong marital ideal taught by the Bible and the church. We can teach that ideal to our young people. But we need not punish those whose spouses persistently fail to live up to their vows.

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