So – What DO We Do With Divorce Part II

divorceSo I finished yesterday essentially asking what happens if it turns out you have married a complete psychopath who is doing permanent damage to you and your children, but who has not been unfaithful and is not looking like leaving?

Can you seek a divorce under those circumstances or is this your cross to bear for as long as you both live?

Its a cruel and twisted mutation of a Christian faith that would ever answer that with an ‘unfortunately yes’. While we want to be true to scripture in all we say and do, surely there is a point when we say ‘come on – we can’t be getting this right if its going to lead to the destruction of people?’

One my abhorrences of fundamentalism is the way it can take the ‘directives’ of scripture and apply them without context and often without compassion. I get the sense that this is what happens when we see divorce like this.

About now some of you are seeing me ‘go weak’ on scripture. And others of you are saying ‘please… someone… give an explanation for this bizarre two condition divorce clause that offers no comfort to those who are dying in abusive marriages’.

If we do our theology by working from directives to outcomes then chances are we will finish up in strange and disturbing places. But if we do theology by looking at broad themes and purposes and stories and then locate the directives within those then I think we have a better chance of arriving at sane and Christlike conclusions.

So my thinking starts like this:

God’s intention for this world is for the kingdom of God to come in fullness and for his ways and his plans to be the ones that shape everything. Immediately you know that a tyrannical abusive household is not a depiction of God’s kingdom. There is nothing of his goodness, love and grace in that picture. If relationships are at the core of the kingdom (and his ultimate hope is for ‘triune’ like relationships) then this is the antithesis. So why would he insist that people just suck it up in those settings?

When a passage of scripture leads to a conclusion that is completely contrary to the overall tone of scripture and the overall goal of scripture then we must question it – and possibly even reject our conclusions as false.

It simply is not within the character of God to command a person to remain in a hostile home situation when there is a solution. When we run with the two option and no more divorce scenario then we almost inevitably at some point turn God into a monster.

I got this far and got stuck…

If the ‘clear sense’ doesn’t make sense in the bigger picture then where do we go from there?

My only conclusion was to say that there was some knowledge we didn’t have that would complete the puzzle… if only we could find it…

So am I rejecting the traditional/historical view?

I guess I am. It doesn’t do justice to the rest of scripture or to the character of God. While those two conditions may still hold there isn’t scope in that view to manage the question I mentioned before.

Once Were Warriors 15

Fortunately at this point, late on a Friday evening, the ‘sun came up’ (see the intro to the previous post to make sense of this) I stumbled on some work by David Instone-Brewer, an English Baptist pastor and theologian (a practitioner and theorist)  who is able to articulate a coherent way of viewing this situation. A summary of his work is here on Christianity Today and you will need to read it all to get the gist of where he is coming from. But here’s a truncated version to get you in the loop of his thinking.

Essentially Brewer argues that in the OT marriage vows revolved around 3 core objectives –  fidelity, provision and love/care and as a result if any of these were violated repeatedly and unrepentantly there was grounds for divorce. These were the only reasons and obviously Rabbis spent their time interpreting what was legit and flawed cause.

A few decades before Jesus came along there arose a new divorce option – the ‘any cause’ divorce that allowed a husband to divorce his wife for whatever he chose. If she were late home, overweight, wore the wrong clothes… she was fair game. The Hillel Rabbis came up with this one as a new way forward and not surprisingly it became popular.

This was a more expensive option to implement but got men out of marriages quickly and easily. This was the option Joseph considered when Mary was pregnant and it would have avoided proving her adultery in court (would have been interesting to see him try though…)

So when the Pharisees come to ‘test jesus’ they are in fact asking him if he approves of ‘any cause’ divorce and part of their entrapment was to try and lure him into thereby condemning Herod for his marriage of Herodias after an ‘any cause’ divorce. They want to know if he is with the Hillel (any cause) or Shammai (traditional causes) crew and of course they are hoping that he will either ‘come out’ as liberal, or finish up like John the Baptist. Either way its a no win for Jesus.

That is a summary of a summary of Brewer’s teaching so if it doesn’t do it justice its because you can go to the article and read the whole thing. Or you can go to Amazon and buy the book here. Or you can watch a cartoon version of the teaching here. (No really… theological cartoons…)

But the point he makes is that there is a way of reading this stuff that is consistent with God’s character and the rest of scripture and isn’t a ‘fudge’. I sense that what often happens is we fudge and assume that ‘marital unfaithfulness or porneia’ can be extrapolated to mean domestic abuse.

Its a stretch – and we know it.

So while Instone Brewer is no advocate for divorce, he is seeking to provide a way to understand biblical teaching that makes sense and doesn’t have God becoming a monster.

I stumbled on Instone Brewer thru a John Ortberg article here and a sermon here. As I was throwing all this together on Friday I found myself spending most of Friday evening reading and poring over Instone Brewer’s academic papers and some of his more popular papers.

You wouldn’t put him in any kind of liberal/heretic camp. He is a biblical scholar – and a pastor who has been seeking to find a way to deal with the apparent incongruencies in our traditional theology of divorce.

That said, John Piper is not a fan. I think its good to read some push back on a person’s work and Piper certainly does that with an article entitled Tragically Widening the Grounds of Legitimate Divorce. It begins like this:

The October issue of Christianity Today carried an astonishing article on divorce and remarriage by David Instone-Brewer. What makes it especially amazing is that CT simply published it as if it were faithful to Scripture, with no counterpoint, and used the phrase on the cover “when to separate,” not “whether to separate”—even though Jesus said, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9).

Piper however doesn’t offer any way of making sense of the question I asked earlier and the more I read of him the angrier he sounds – in the name of Jesus and for his glory of course…

If you want an even broader approach to the topic that Instone Brewer then Dallas Willard has this to say here.

The basis for divorce among disciples is precisely the same as the basis for marriage. Where it is the case that the persons involved in a marriage would be substantially better off if the marriage were dissolved, the law of love dictates that a divorce should occur. If indeed the divorce is realized as a consequent of the law of love, the evil which is present in most divorces will not be present—and, indeed, very few divorces will occur. But the disciple will make sure of his or her obedience to the law of love in any divorce by making God his lawyer and judge through prayer.

Willard opens a pretty wide door I feel and I could see ‘substantially better off’ being interpreted in ways that are not at all healthy.

Of course that is what we do now anyway isn’t it?

Unless people are thoroughly rigorous in their own reasoning and considering of divorce, reality is that most will divorce because ‘it just isn’t working’ and ‘we’re better off apart’.

I think Willard paints with a broad brush but there is much good in what he says too, particularly his critique of our elevation of romantic love.

Back to Instone Brewer. I haven’t read his whole book, but I am assuming he is on the money with what he says as he is not a mug. I intend to read the whole thing as I have invested enough in this now to make it worth the extra mile.

How does all this play out practically?

For those with ‘marriage problems’

At the end of the day if I were to offer married couples with problems some advice what would it be?… Here is a 7 stage process assuming the previous stage has failed

1 Work it out amongst you

2. Go away and try again

3. Get some help to work it out

4. Keep getting help to work it out

5. Get better help to work it out

6. As above

7. Repeat as needed.

I will concede that there are times when a marriage is a farce and then divorce may be the only option, but I believe that wherever faith, hope and love are present there is always a chance of finding a way forward.

For those in destructive relationships…

If there are destructive things happening repeatedly in a home that are damaging both partner and children then I would have no hesitation in saying get out of there and work it out from there. It might something you can work out. But if there is no cooperation from the aggressor then a divorce may be the best option and the Bible would give you permission both for that and for a subsequent remarriage.

If your partner refuses to reconcile and seek help with you?…

It is down to us to ‘live at peace’ with everyone as much as it depends on you. You can’t force someone into a marriage. You can’t change someone else’s heart and tragically you may find yourself the innocent victim of a person who just wants out. I’d say the Corinthians passage addresses you. You are free to move on and remarry. You are not an ‘adulterer’.

But if you’re just ‘over each other’?…


Grow up and work it out. Because if you don’t you will do it again. Seriously – that may sound harsh, but selfish, fickle people need a really hard kick up the butt.

Finally what about if you have been the aggressor – the one who has been the source of the problem?

The beauty of the gospel is that there is always hope, forgiveness and grace to be found in Jesus. Nothing we can ever do is beyond the pale of God’s love, so even if you think negatively and destructively about yourself there is a way forward.

So those are my thoughts. Many thanks to David Instone Brewer for his work in this area and for helping us make sense of an area that has long been a difficult one.

There is an online sermon and if you are part of QBC you will be able to access it. If not then email me, let me know who you are and I may send you the link. Because its an issue we have been discussing as a community it isn’t necessarily something I want digitised and spread anywhere.


8 thoughts on “So – What DO We Do With Divorce Part II

  1. Pingback: So – What DO We Do With Divorce Part II |

  2. Piper’s article there seems to make a straw man of what Brewer has to say.

    Looking at other things Piper has written, he says ” Divorce may be permitted when a spouse deserts the relationship, commits adultery, or is dangerously abusive” but he does not allow for remarriage in any of these cases.

  3. By the way, I really appreciate how you have wrestled with this issue.

    Its vexed.

    Ultimately the best response will be one that comes from a Pastor, or someone who has dealings with real people. And a God seeker, someone who truly seeks God’s heart. And someone who has a high view of scriptures relevance and truth for our lives.

    Love and truth kissing. Something like that.

    • Thanks Mark

      Actually found it quite energising to have to dig deep into a subject that was unfamiliar. Probably helped that it wasn’t deeply personal, but also good to come to some conclusions that make sense both biblically and practically

  4. Pingback: Dealing with divorce | Markedly

  5. Great post, Hamo. I learn a lot simply by watching your “technique” for working through an issue like this. I agree with your distaste for fundamentalism and “applying directives without regard to context”.

    But I’d like to bring up another element of the context. Throughout the Bible, marriage (fidelity and infidelity) is repeatedly used as a “type” of God’s relationship to mankind as well as Christ’s relationship to the church. Prostitution, fornication, whoring are the ugly words used to describe God’s view of the infidelity of Israel. Revelation uses the Wedding Supper of the Lamb to describe the “restoration of all things”.

    The convicting aspect of this context is that in these situations, we offend and God is the offended. This incurs His wrath and judgement (exile, defeat in battle, etc.) but does not break His covenant or love for His people. He will call that which was “Forsaken”, “Beloved” in the end.

    I think we are too quick to set up the straw man of a bad marriage by characterizing it as a case of extreme physical, mental, and emotional abuse that is destroying lives. These happen but I don’t think the majority of the divorces are like this. Most are infidelity–maybe not sexual but to the vows to love, honor, and obey–or simply changes or heart and wanting to “move on”. (Which, I agree, are invalid circumstances).

    In my mind (and my $.02), there are two aspects of marriage: a civil aspect which ties our finances, children, and social status and a covenantal aspect which ties our body, mind, and soul together. One is secular and temporal. The other is sacred and eternal. It is when we hold these two in tension within the context of God’s covenantal relationship with us that divorce (especially repeated marriage, divorce, re-marriage, and re-divorce?) takes on its true weight and significance. In the end I’d say, if you are in a marriage that has gone wrong and is beyond repair (both parties need to work toward reconciliation) then end the civil portion but pray continually over the covenantal portion and in this way, imitate God.

  6. I really appreciate that you’re not only wrestling with this, but that you’re posting your wrestling match for others of us to wrestle with the truth as well. Thank you. Some great thoughts here. I want to read that article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *