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Janel Curry, David Crump, Debra Freeberg, Cynthia Kok, Christina Van Dyke, and James Vanden Bosch


Divorce and the Congregation

Practical wisdom informed by biblical teaching.

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In his chapter entitled "The Kingdom Possibilities of Marriage," Gushee asserts that marriages provide a context for shared kingdom work. When marriages endure and flourish, couples are better able to serve God and others. Gushee views the role of the church as being countercultural in that it calls members to be faithful to their marriages in a culture that makes divorce too easy. The role of the church, he writes, is "to preserve, care for, and honor something valuable that God has entrusted to us." Thus, he encourages churches to teach and preach about marriage, care for those harmed by divorce, and provide marriage enrichment.

Marriage occurs within a community context of the church and of the broader society. Gushee argues that these institutions have a responsibility to support marriages. In addition to the advice he gives to churches, Gushee suggests changes in the law that would convey that the state values marriages, such as a longer waiting period prior to marriage, premarital education, and incentives for marriage enrichment and counseling. To prevent unnecessary divorces, he recommends that the law support substantial waiting periods prior to divorce, required counseling and education, and greater judicial discretion in granting requests for divorce and in setting conditions for divorce.

Gushee is a strong advocate for marriage, yet he understands that sometimes, despite our best efforts, divorces occur. When marriages are broken beyond repair, the church is called to care for those who are divorced. Gushee's advocacy for marriage does not prevent him from taking a caring and gentle tone toward those who bear the pain of divorce. Perhaps by learning how to "get marriage right," we can begin to halt the ever-increasing divorce rate, both in our churches and in the broader society.

The strength of Gushee's approach is that it recognizes the reality of suffering and the need to clearly incorporate an understanding and expectation for it within our theology of marriage and family. And Gushee does not let individuals use excuses for an unwillingness to work on their character. He draws a distinction between character and personality. Someone's personality is no excuse for not working on building character and developing virtues, shaping oneself more closely to the mind of Christ. This distinction is also helpful for leading us into deeper discussions on why marriages fail. Fundamental character issues are often at the heart of failed marriages, but are not as obvious to those outside the marriage as are infidelity or physical abandonment.

David Instone-Brewer's Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context has the potential to change the church's understanding of divorce through a more careful study of biblical texts. His work leaves one with a profound respect for the power of Scripture and its connection to concrete lives. Instone-Brewer, a Baptist pastor as well as a biblical scholar, develops nuanced answers to the troubling ethical questions surrounding divorce and remarriage within the church. This book's particular contribution appears in the author's mastery of the relevant 1st-century social and legal practices, both Jewish and Greco-Roman. The author is currently working on a multi-volume analysis of the rabbinic literature and its relevance to New Testament interpretation, a monumental work entitled Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament. He has raised the bar considerably for how the New Testament passages on divorce/remarriage must be read in light of the beliefs and practices of 1st-century Judaism, beginning with the accepted interpretations of Exodus 21:10-11 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

Instone-Brewer begins by establishing that the two pivotal Old Testament texts were understood to permit divorce (for both husband and wife) on the grounds of (1) material neglect, (2) emotional/sexual neglect (which included childlessness), and (3) sexual unfaithfulness. Remarriage after a legitimate divorce was the Jewish norm, with no stigma attached. Second, he then argues that both Jesus and Paul shared their Jewish contemporaries' attitudes on divorce and remarriage. Thus the relevant New Testament passages must all be read in a context that accepts the circumstances listed above, to which must be added abandonment, a subject that Paul explicitly takes up.

To his credit, Instone-Brewer admits that this step in his argument depends on an argument from silence. However, he maintains that "[w]hen the silence concerns an opinion that was universally held at the time of writing, and there is a suitable context where this subject has been discussed, it becomes increasingly safe to infer that the silence indicates agreement …. The fact that Jesus debated the topic of divorce with his contemporaries makes it very likely that his silence was deliberate, and that it indicated agreement with them on this matter." Consequently, the New Testament affirms four grounds for divorce, equally applicable to both men and women: adultery; desertion (by either walking out or throwing out, which was the Greco-Roman divorce procedure); material neglect; and emotional/sexual neglect. Remarriage after a valid divorce remains completely acceptable. Again, building on another argument from silence, he argues, "The fact that [Jesus] did not forbid remarriage, even after a divorce certificate [the principle purpose of which was to allow a woman to remarry] had been mentioned, is very significant."

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