An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce

David Van Biema writes in Time magazine in 2007:


On questions relating to the Bible’s treatment of family and morals, one might expect assurance, if not rigidity, from Evangelical Christianity. So, it may surprise many to learn how “live” the topic of divorce remains in Evangelical circles. Last month, the cover story of the monthly Christianity Today was titled “When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce.” The heated controversy provoked by the story showed how Biblically flexible some Evangelicals can be — especially when God’s word seems at odds not just with modern American behavior, but also with simple human kindness.

As the article’s author, the British Evangelical scholar David Instone-Brewer, points out, for most of 2,000 years Christians have viewed divorce through two scriptural citations. In Matthew, the pharisees ask Christ, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Jesus refers to the Old Testament and then replies, “Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, commits adultery.” The apostle Paul adds in the book First Corinthians that a Christian is “not bound” to a non-Christian spouse who abandons him. Simple, right?

Instone-Brewer radically reinterprets the first passage using, of all things, quotation marks. The Greek of the New Testament didn’t always contain them, and scholars agree that sometimes they must be added in to make sense of it. Instone-Brewer, an expert in Jewish thought during Jesus’s era, writes that Christ’s interlocutors were not asking him whether there was any cause at all for divorce, but whether he supported something called “any-cause” divorce, a term a little bit like “no-fault” that allowed husbands to divorce wives for any reason at all. Instone-Brewer claims Jesus’s “no” was a response to this idea, and that his “except for sexual indecency” condition was not a statement of the sole exemption from God’s blanket prohibition, but merely Christ’s reiteration of one of several divorce permissions in the Old Testament — one he felt the “any-time” advocates had exaggerated. Finally, Instone-Brewer tallies four grounds for divorce he finds affirmed in both Old and New Testaments: adultery, emotional and sexual neglect, abandonment (by anyone) and abuse.

Christianity Today has written previously on divorce, often bemoaning how easy it is in today’s America. However, the Instone-Brewer essay appeared to be its editors’ attempt to offer Evangelicals an escape from a classic dilemma. The “plain sense” of Jesus’s words without quotes seems clear enough, but also inhumane: how could a loving God forbid divorce, even by omission, in cases of wife-beating, or of abandonment by a Christian spouse?

Each branch of Christianity deals with divorce in its own way: Catholicism grants some annulments but does not otherwise recognize divorce; those who divorce and remarry are expected to deny themselves the Eucharist. But many divorced people who remarry nonetheless find that their conscience permits them to take Communion.

Liberal Protestantism accepted divorce some decades ago without much engagement of the scriptural issue. Evangelicals define themselves as being tightly bound by scripture. But besides the humanitarian problem, there are some uncomfortable facts on the ground: The divorce rate among Evangelicals, which first became news after polls released by the Barna Research Group in 2001, has been as high or higher than the national average.

The Evangelical movement has actually made tremendous accommodations given the strictures it lives under. Ministries for the newly divorced are common at megachurches; and on the historically less-rigid Pentecostal side of the spectrum, celebrity preachers Juanita Bynum and Paula White both recently announced their intention to divorce. Most experts interviewed for this story attested that whereas 30 years ago, a pastor might well order a battered woman home to return her husband, that is rare today.

More conservative Evangelicals remain uneasy about divorce. If a split itself is inescapable, notes Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch, “remarriage is where the rubber meets the road,” and many remarried couples find themselves denied church membership. Says Russel Moore, dean of the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention’s influential Southern Seminary, “We teach our future pastors that marriage is a lifelong, one-flesh union.” Any woman in an abusive marriage should “leave that situation,” he acknowledges, and a “majority” probably accept remarriage. Asked if he does, Moore demurred: “Let me think about that for a little bit. I could answer in a way that would be very easily misunderstood.”

Evangelical conflict on the topic was obvious in reader response to the Instone-Brewer essay. Initially the mail was heavily negative. The most stinging broadside sas a column by John Piper, a respected theological conservative, that called the essay not just weak but “tragic.” The magazine’s editor in chief, David Neff, felt the need to explain online that “Instone-Brewer’s article did not… give people carte blanche on divorce.” The mail eventually leveled off at 60% negative to 40% positive.

Still, the controversy suggests that even the country’s most rule-bound Christians will search for a fresh understanding of scripture when it seems unjust to them. The implications? Flexibility on divorce may mean that evangelicals could also rethink their position on such things as gay marriage, as a generation of Christians far more accepting of homosexuality begins to move into power. (The ever-active Barna folks have found that 57% of “born-again” Christians age 16-29 criticize their own church for being “anti-homosexual.”) It could also give heart to a certain twice-divorced former New York mayor who is running for President and seeking the conservative vote. But that may be pushing things a bit.

The original version of this article misstated the Catholic position on divorce. The Roman Catholic Church does not ban divorce. It simply does not recognize it, so that those who remarry without an annulment are expected to forego the Eucharist.

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36 thoughts on “An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce

  1. Fortunately, doctrine isn’t determined by polls.

    And the idea that we have to compromise one aspect of belief on the basis of another is just a distraction with no purpose.

  2. That is still not a reason to compromise another area. That is a very poor argument, you must agree.

    Should we also compromise on other issues, such as murder, theft, covetousness, etc?

    I don’t think using US Evangelicals, although there are substantial numbers, encompasses the entire Evangelical landscape either.

    There are far more in Africa and South America who are fundamental in their beliefs, whereas US Evangelicals, especially those of Episcopalian and Methodist background, have been severely liberalised, and had the gospel watered down by their leadership, who have been influenced by politically correct corrupted dogma seeping out of seminaries, where, as Greg has notably presented on this blog, gay theologians seem to abound.

    No wonder their youth has been misled, having been fed compromise, they now live it, preach it, and are getting ready to fight for it. You talk about Joel’s Army! If any group is mounting up for a battle it is the liberalised gay-marriage-upholding ex-evangelical tribe.

    Have you noticed the split between African Anglicans, traditionally Evangelical, and the rest of the Anglican communion, with the exception of the Sydney Anglicans? There is a divide in just bout every nation they represent apart from the African nations, and some South American nations, which are also sticking to Biblical principles rather than higher criticism scripture interpretations which pour water on truth (not holy water, either).

    The US Episcopalians, Methodists and the like do not have an exclusive hold on Evangelical doctrine. In fact, I put it to you that they have become so liberalised by seminarian dimming down of light that they no longer can claim to be Evangelicals.

    Divorce should not be an option for a true Christian. Marital fidelity and faithfulness should be preached from the hilltops. Believers should be encouraged at all times to hold on to their marriage with all their strength.

    Sadly, secular society has made divorce simple. Families are torn apart by issues which could be dealt with through godly living and wise counsel. Marriages are entered into on a Hollywood basis rather than holiness. Break-up and make-up is seen as a healthy way to conduct a relationship.

    I personally do not condone divorce. I do agree with Jesus that a person married to an unrepentant adulterer should be released from the arrangement, since the adulterer has broken vows which should never be broken. They are living as an unbeliever anyway. I do agree with Paul that a new believer should be allowed to separate from an unbelieving spouse who refuses to live with a Christian husband or wife. Should they be allowed to remarry? That is another discussion, and a hard one, but maybe we can look into it.

    None of these issues, however, have any resemblance whatsoever to the issue of gay marriage.

    I have challenged you to come up with one single instance Biblically which supports your endorsement of gay marriage, and you have not come up with anything, only diverting arguments such as the above, which are not relevant to what I am asking you for, and easily refuted.

    I have given you ample evidence from scripture of Christ’s support for the Biblical concept of marriage being between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, as is held in our constitution.

    If and when our Governments change the constitution on marriage to include same-sex couples, it will have moved away from the Judeo-Christian ethic, and family will never be seen in the same light again.

    If it is based on compromise to appease a cashed-up, vocal minority group at the expense of the whole community, then it weakens the very fabric of the nation.

  3. The high incidence of divorce is a tragedy. Simple. It’s terrible.

    But …

    “so that those who remarry without an annulment are expected to forego the Eucharist.”

    If I started a church I can’t imagine telling someone who divorced at 19, that for the next 70 years they aren’t allowed to have communion or get married.

    I could tell them not to live with someone or get married to a person of the same sex though.

  4. Ok … I am usually a brother-in-arms with Steve, but I have one question for him.

    If Jesus allowed ‘exit-strategies’ from marriage, apart from active physical adultery does this passage also include:

    1: Looking at pornography?
    2: Passive adultery – ie. leaving a wife who does not ‘put-out’ enough/at-all?

  5. SM says :

    If I started a church I can’t imagine telling someone who divorced at 19, that for the next 70 years they aren’t allowed to have communion or get married.

    I could tell them not to live with someone or get married to a person of the same sex though.

    Although this thread is not really about the gay issue, I don’t know why you are making this kind of distinction.

    Why is it unimaginable to tell a heterosexual they cant get married for 70 years, but perfectly ok to say that to a homosexual? There is more scriptural support for saying it to the divorced heterosexual.

  6. Sorry guys,It is interesting that none of u bloggers have looked at what I have posted about divorce, on prior occasions.I think that this Instone -Brewer is right,I have said basically the same as he does.By the way ,Jesus says that Moses gave people divorce,he did not,it was instituted by God himself.This fact proves to me,unless you wish to say that Jesus, was in error,that the issue,indeed was in connection with the way that the Jews,had bastardised ma ny of the laws that were practised at the time.History shows that they were giving a letter of divorce out willy nilly.hence the ‘for any cause’ in the question,they would have known, that Jesus disapproved of many of the ways in which they hade liberalised a lot of the Mosaic Law, which had been given to them, as a template.Read further in the passage, and you will see, that Jesus, knew, and did not expect, that everyone could abide by ‘this teaching’indeed,in my opinion, read correctly,He didn’t even expect all of His disciples to do, or to be able to do this>In conclusion,I would like to point out that I have come to this conclusion,by my own reasoning and understanding, helped by the HHoly Spirit.How is it that I have said basically the same as Instone Brewer?I’ve never heard of him, yet he says,in essence the same things as I have, on this blog, during the gay marriage debate.You are correct, in saying that for 2000 years Christians and the Churches have misunderstood this matter, but their error does not make them right.People often mistakenly marry, their hormones basically drive this, and very much, social mores expect them to marry and have kids.They haven’t a clue about life at this stage,nor do they understand really, the forever bit.God is able to forgive them, if they make mistakes, that is the power of Jesus’ shed blood,so why can’t we, and the Churches do the same,this issue has caused too much misery for far too many people, whilst giving Churches, priests and others excessive guilt inducing power, which they should not have over people.I personally, have learned to read and reason within the Holy Scriptures, not allowing myself to be unduly influenced and fettered by faulty interpretation of s criptures.People often, blindly,use scriptures to prop up THEIR beliefs, which are not nec essarily those that Scripture really teachesHappy New Year to all, by the way!!!

  7. If I started a church I can’t imagine telling someone who divorced at 19, that for the next 70 years they aren’t allowed to have communion or get married.

    I could tell them not to live with someone or get married to a person of the same sex though.

    Is that what it’s about? Telling others how to live their life. Is that the Good News?

  8. I see your point Bones.
    But, while there is good news, once people accept it and become Christians, there is a place for telling people God’s ways. Yes, I would tell people to stop certain things if they asked if it were okay.
    I would tell people to stop stealing, beating up their wives, fornicating, murdering, etc etc. There is a way of life.

  9. “Why is it unimaginable to tell a heterosexual they cant get married for 70 years, but perfectly ok to say that to a homosexual?”

    I was anticipating that, and I understand your logic. My answer is simply that that homosexual marriage would never be a situation that could be abided in.

    Here is my question for you Wazza. If you insist that your interpretation of Jesus on divorce means that it is ABSOLUTELY unlawful for a person to remarry, then if a person who has remarried come to your church do you tell them to get divorced? Refuse to serve them communion? Tell them they can’t come to church?

    My understanding is that Jesus is saying that marriage shouldn’t be put asunder. Read some of the other things that Jesus said re lust being equal to adultery, and cutting off your hand. The point is that marriage shouldn’t be ended, people shouldn’t steal, adultery and even lustful thoughts should be avoided.

    I don’t believe that Jesus was saying that if you have a lustful thought and confess it, that your partner can then accuse you of adultery, divorce you and then once you are divorced you can never remarry.

    Do you?

  10. If people have stolen and repent they are forgiven. If people have divorced for the wrong reason and repented they are forgiven. If they remarry, I wouldn’t tell them to go divorce their current wife and split up kids.

  11. If we are going to go by demographics, then the divorce rate in the Western church really has to be addressed. I’d like to know, though, how many of those who are divorcing are actually more than nominal in their faith.

    In the US, as in other Western nations, it seems that many who claim to be Christian, and may even attend church, turn out to be very secular most of the week and put on holy suits every Sunday.

    How many true devout believers are divorcing? I think the figures may be misleading.

    Whenever there is a census many more people claim to be Christian than are. Unless a person is a practicing Christian can they actually claim to be one?

    In answer to Lionfish: If a person lives and talks like an unbeliever, they probably are. If a husband is delving into pornography he is not living as a believer. He may need deliverance, or at least to break free of a bad habit. If a wife denies her husband conjugal rights she is possibly in sin, but there may may be other factors, such as health, emotional or relational issues. Neither is grounds for divorce. Rather for repentance.

    Couples need to work at marriage, find out how to fix these issues. Why are they engaging in these practices? What is behind them? How can they be addressed Biblically and relationally?

    In my view most marriages can be sorted out long before they get to the separation or divorce stage, but the longer couples leave it to chance, the more difficult it is to recover.

    And one of the great killers of a reationship is lack of communication. Working through issues, and we all have them, is key to longevity in marriage.

  12. Happy new year SM.

    The question that follows then, if we can forgive thieves and remarried people, can we forgive people who are attracted to the same sex – even if our understanding is that the physical expression of this attraction is a sin?

  13. My wife and I lived together for 12 months before we were married. And we were leaders in our church. Primarily because of what the financial expectations are. Actually getting married in my family is a rarity. I have a feeling it’s because of the cost and if they have to get married in a registry office then why get married at all.

  14. Bones, I wonder whether you told your wife you and your wife were screwing each other 12 months before being married?

    Your fiscal explanation is rubbish. So is your sociological “married in my family is a rarity” garbage.

    Else- misleading & deceptive conduct, fraud (misleading to gain) – anybody? Court action against these church “leaders”??

  15. I wonder whether you told your wife you and your wife were screwing each other 12 months before being married?

    Yep that makes sense.

  16. wazza2,
    ‘The question that follows then, if we can forgive thieves and remarried people, can we forgive people who are attracted to the same sex – even if our understanding is that the physical expression of this attraction is a sin?’

    Of course they are forgiven as soon as they receive Christ, but just as thieves are told to steal no more, homosexuals are told to desist from their sin.

    I don’t understand why you don’t already realise this.

  17. “The question that follows then, if we can forgive thieves and remarried people, can we forgive people who are attracted to the same sex – even if our understanding is that the physical expression of this attraction is a sin?”

    Sure. Yes. You bet.

    I don’t even think the being “attracted” to the same sex is a sin.

    I personally don’t think a someone who has had some kind of sex with someone of their own sex is worse than someone who has had sex with someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage.

    I have all the compassion in the world for someone who has stolen, fornicated, looked at pornography, lost their temper, taken drugs, paid a gay prostitute for sex, etc etc etc etc etc …..

    I believe in forgiveness. I believe in repentance, I believe some people will sin, be forgiven, and sin again. Like me.

    But do I believe it’s okay for two men to get married? No.
    Do I believe I can tell two women who play in the church band that it’s okay to have lesbian sex before the night service if they love each other? No.

    You still don’t understand that?

    To quote the Right Reverend, all round good guy Mr Steve …

    “I don’t understand why you don’t already realise this.”

  18. Dr Anon. I am intrigued. Are you really an atheist? Are you a recent ex-Christian? Or a you a Christian who attends church regularly who is using this blog to vent and dialogue?

    Anyway, Twiggy, I am not really into criticizing churches. I don’t think there are any perfect ones out there. I think if you have been hurt or left something or a simply against a person or organization, you can find fault in everything. Happens in politics, and happens when lovers break up.

    “what about CHILD PEDOPHILES? Aren’t you missing that one.? ”

    It wasn’t mean to be a complete list.

    Or is that the “unforgivable sin”??


    Will pedos be forgiven afer they “repent” ?
    Yes. I have compassion for someone who feels sexual desire toward a child. Like in other thins, I don’t believe that desire and inclination need to be acted on. I believe that a person with those desires/inclinations can be helped to a point where they don’t have them again. But even if they still had those desires (which I don’t understand at all!!!), until the day they die, it’s possible for them to not act on them.

    Truthfully, if someone molested my kids, I would probably beat them to death. (Just being honest, and I’m not boasting by saying that, just saying,)

  19. btw, I’m not saying this with sarcasm, but in all seriousness.

    I think you are probably have a history of mental illness. If you are on medication, you should change it. If you aren’t then you need to get some, or at least not post while you are aren’t taking it.

  20. “And as you said, you’d “beat them to death”: yeah, that’s not forgiveness, buddy.”

    Exactly. Just showing that while I talk about forgiveness, I am explaining that I have the natural human responses. Easy to talk about forgiveness. And I’m not sure I’d be a Corrie Ten Boom either, but I’d like to think I would be. Get me?

    Also, rather than using “argumentum ad hominem” (attacking against a person, rather than their statements) – try to guide yourself away from saying someone has a “history of mental illness” and that sort of garbage?

    Sorry Mr, I just honestly think that your comments that you either are just role playing, or have mental problems. That’s not a slur or an insult. There’s a difference between thinking someone’s an idiot/fool and thinking they have mental problems.

    It’s just like how Richard Dawkins says Christians have “mental illness”, but because SO many ppl believe it it’s not seen like that………… so let’s keep it on the arguments.

    You wrote so many things I lost track of the arguments my friend….

  21. Okay, your arguments…?

    Firstly, this thread is about Evangelicals and Divorce. You turned it into an attack on the people on this thread, and I don’t get it.

    You have problems with the origins of the Anglican Church. I think there was a little more to it than how you explained it, but I’m not Anglican.

    I’d say that if there was a thread about what people thought about problems in the Anglican church, that could go on for ages too.

    Can’t talk about others, but I am not really against HIllsong, CCC etc anyway. There are certain doctrines I disagree with, but other things I have talked about because I think they are in excess. But, that’s just my opinion.

    Actually, there aren’t so many regular commenters here anymore, and they don’t seem to have much of a grudge against the churches you mentioned anyway.

    So…. I think it’s mainly a matter of your offensive language, and the gross things you say. Put it this way, if you wanted to discuss the trees over the neighbors fence, but used the same abusive language, attacks, and gross insults, the neighbor is hardly going to calmly discuss council by-laws.

    If you are a regular who is having fun and role-playing, I’m not sure if it’s been that satisfying for you. DId you achieve anything, or learn anything?

    If you are really someone new, then just change the language, and the obviously offensive comments.

    If all you are trying to say is that people attack certain churches way too much – then actually I agree with you.


    PS, I think pentecostals, liberal Christians, and lesbian atheists should all use clean language even on anonymous internet sites.
    Is that too old-fashioned?

  22. “It’s funny how you think only “Christians” can have knowledge of the bible, theology, christian philosophy… many atheists have knowledge of it too, just to argue back to the hypocritical “christians”…”

    Yes, I’m sure you’re right. But I don’t know any atheists who have never gone to church who have such a knowledge of all the churches you mentioned.

    btw, I totally understand the position of atheists. But you can be an atheist and still be a nice, respectful person. 🙂

  23. I’d be seriously disappointed if this was 5P. I don’t think it is.

    btw, whoever you are, Greg has made very favorable comments re Hillsong recently.

    This party is getting rough …

  24. It sounds to me that it is someone who wants to destroy the site. It’s all just nonsense, innuendo, lies, libellous and gutter talk.

    (This person is so pro-Hillsong they want to bone Brooke Frasier).

    How long are we going to accept this crap.

    Chirpy was more reasonable than this.

  25. Ahhh!

    The old hillsonger in disuguise trick once again. Hitting GroupSects and Signposts02 at the same time. They always leave the same footprints – gutter talk, little logic and an attempt to defend Brian Houston.

  26. No, not a Hillsonger. Just someone who knows enough to make a mess, but not enough to be an authentic anything.

    Anyone who pretends to be smart but, even after a revision, probably based on a wikipedia dip, doesn’t know that it was Henry viii who kicked off the Church of England is just pissing in the wind.

    Just a plain old angry troll with a foul, obsessive mind.

    More likely a gay-rights sympathiser with an axe to grind.

    It will go away anon, for this is what we find.

  27. Has a problem with us for some reason. Bye bye Chuck.

    I wish you well, but I will keep an eye on the comments … I can ban IP’s all day long.


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