Marriage and Divorce – A Reconsideration by Evangelicals?
For all of us who have ever felt guilty about stressing the importance of grammar, the absence of quotation marks in the Greek New Testament shows that we have not been overly obsessive. David Instone-Brewer, a British evangelical scripture scholar, in the October 5, 2007 cover article of Christianity Today, says that if we place quotation marks in Jesus’ answer regarding divorce (Matthew 19: 13-15), there are more justifications than adultery alone. In “When to Separate What God Has Joined: What Does the Bible Really Teach About Divorce?” Instone-Brewer makes the case that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is being asked if he supports an “any-cause” approach to divorce. According to Instone-Brewer, Jesus’ response is to quote Moses and reaffirm the limited justifications for divorce. Instone-Brewer is a specialist in Jewish thought during the time of Christ and he concludes that there are four reasons for permissible divorce in the Old and New Testaments: adultery, abuse, sexual or emotional abandonment, and neglect.
David Van Biema, in Time (November 6, 2007), reports on Instone-Brewer’s article and also cites the fact that divorce rates are the same or higher for Evangelicals in the United States compared to the national average, this according to the Barna Research Group poll taken in 2001. Van Biema speculates that the reason for publishing Instone-Brewer’s article was to provide Evangelicals with some way to deal with the conflict between the literal words of Jesus and St. Paul in the New Testament and their everyday experience.
This is an interesting example of how the way one approaches scripture affects the understandings gained from its study. A strictly literal approach, without a broader understanding of the culture and thinking of the time, can create unnecessary tensions with our everyday experience. There is an interesting commentary, “Grounds for Divorce in God’s Law,” at BibleGateway.com on Matthew 19: 13-15. Jesus’ teaching on marital commitment should be seen in its relationship to forgiveness – our ability to live in proper relationships with others. According to this commentary, Jesus’ teaching follows his teaching on forgiveness. One who refuses to forgive will tend to look down on weaker people – women and children. This approach is refreshing because it challenges us to see marriage in the context of proper or just relationships with others. What is often seen as an issue of “private” morality occurs in a much broader social matrix of justice.
In many respects, Evangelicals, who are often seen as focusing too narrowly on scripture, may help all of us go beyond the question of whether divorce is permissible for Christians. The broader challenge Jesus puts to us is whether we can live the deeper meaning of marriage as a living witness of peace, justice, and love.