The CT divorce “storm”

October 27, 2007

I didn’t read the Oct Christianity Today issue when it was published, so I’m a bit slow to comment on it now. There was an article published there by David Instone-Brewer (DIB) advocating what many have concluded is a rather loose view of divorce. DIB argues that divorce is permissible on 3 grounds:

Putting all this together gives us a clear and consistent set of rules for divorce and remarriage. Divorce is only allowed for a limited number of grounds that are found in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New Testament:

* Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
* Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
* Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7)

There has been some vigorous discussion of this in the blogs, two of the more significant of which are by John Piper and Andreas Köstenberger.
Piper’s response can be summarized in these words:

What makes it especially amazing is that CT simply published [DIB’s article] 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).
To put it bluntly, the implication of this article is that every marriage I am aware of could already have legitimately ended in divorce…. I did not expect to read this astonishing extension of the divorce license. It is, in our context of easy divorce and cavalier covenant-breaking, tragic.

Köstenberger responds to both Piper and DIB:

I agree with Piper’s criticism of Instone-Brewer’s treatment of Exod 21:10–11 yet disagree with his criticism of Instone-Brewer’s handling of Matt 19:9 and Deut 24:1. Here, then, is the important point: Piper’s concern that Instone-Brewer “tragically widens the grounds of legitimate divorce” largely pertains to Instone-Brewer’s inclusion of spousal neglect as a legitimate grounds of divorce on the basis of Exod 21:10–11, which I also reject, while it does not equally apply to the understanding of the exception clause as allowing divorce in cases of adultery.

Also note that Köstenberger posted a second reply later which has some more detailed discussion; well worth reading.

So, Piper argues for no divorce, Köstenberger for divorce only on the grounds of adultery or desertion, and DIB for the 3 grounds listed above.
I am not going to attempt to defend a position in detail in the confines of a relatively short blog post. I have chosen to comment at all only to voice my concern that DIB’s argument, with as generous an interpretation of it as possible, and in light of his later response to Piper which tightens up the wording a bit, is a sad commentary on the state of the church these days. Although I do not agree with everything in Piper’s response, surely his is the emphasis that the church needs—and which our (“my”) students need to hear. I agree with Piper’s minority view that there is no biblical basis for divorce. None at all. And I think the disciples responded to Jesus’ words with that same understanding. Jesus had said:

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:4–6).

When Jesus later explained this to his disciples, their response was,

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10).

I can only understand that response if they understood Jesus to be forbidding divorce. Only that would be such a high standard as to cause a person to contemplate not marrying at all rather than to enter a relationship from which there was no remedy if things “went bad.”

I’ll venture just a few additional observations—and that without any attempted defense. I note them since they are so often overlooked.

  • First, I am quite surprised at the appeal to Exodus 21:10-11 as a basis for divorce. Read the context! It is not talking about marriage and divorce but about a young woman sold as a slave. To extrapolate that into a general principle justifying divorce for neglect is simply irresponsible exegesis.
  • Second, though I consider all divorce wrong, i.e., sin, I do not consider it to be an “unpardonable” sin. God does forgive.
  • Third (and this conclusion may surprise some), although all divorce is sin, divorce does terminate a marriage. Read John 4.
  • Fourth, as a pastor I will not perform a wedding if one party has been divorced, if for no other reason that to protect the reputation of the church and not to provide any appearance of condoning divorce. I know, they’ll just get married elsewhere. Yes. And a civil wedding is just as valid as a church one—there were marriages long before there was a church! But I will not be accountable for it. I learned a long time ago that there are seldom “innocent parties” in a divorce—and what people will tell you to defend the legitimacy of their divorce is seldom the whole truth, if it is truth at all.

All the other questions and circumstances, all the “messy details” (and divorce is always messy!), I’ll leave for you to grapple. But at least you have some things to think about.

4 responses to The CT divorce “storm”

  1. BryantJWilliamsIII October 30, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Dear Rodney,

    I agree with your assessment of the Ct Article by David Instone-Brewer, but would go a little further.

    First, Instone-Brewer’s pulling out of context a passage that is dealing with slavery is appalling. It is a total misuse of Scripture.

    Second, I would one passage of Scripture that is normally not associated with marriage, Ecclesiates 5:1-7. This passage is Solomon’s commentary on the making of vows (how ironic). This passage clearly applies to the making of MARRIAGE VOWS. Basically, the only reason to leave a marriage is in a pine box (death), cf. also I Corinthians 7 application by Paul.

    Third, considering what is stated in number two above, the NT still lists adultery (Mt 5 & 19) and desertion (I Cor 7) as scriptural reasons for divorce; howbeit, reluctantly. As Jesus said, Out of the hardness of man’s heart.

    Fourth, marriage ceremonies should be limited to those who have clearly not been married before and/or, in the case of one party being a widow/widower or both. Any other marriage that the Pastor of a church perfoms, in good conscience (remember the Baptist Distinctive of Individual Soul Liberty), should be off church premises. Remarriage is for only Christians.

    Fifth, reconciliation between separated parties should be of paramount importance.

    Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

  2. Dr. Decker,

    It appears as though your resetting now enabled me to post again, thanks.

    I’m glad you posted some comments on this issue with which we can interact. I am very sympathetic to your understanding and that posited by Piper. I’ve probably been most influenced by Gordon Wenham and William Heth (early Heth) in their book Jesus and Divorce and the subsequent articles they both published defending the Patristic View on Divorce and Remarriage.

    I do have a couple questions in light of where I’m coming from. You mentioned in your 3rd point above, that while all divorce is sin, and therefore you don’t think the Bible permits divorce for any reason, you do think that divorce does terminate a marriage. The scriptural support you referenced was Jn 4. You remark that this might suprise some of you, which it in fact did to me.

    I’m assuming that you are refering to the fact Jesus says the woman is right to say that she is currently not married though she has had 5 husbands in the past. The implication being that while she was married, now that she is divorced, she is unmarried. First, as you well know, it does not explicitly say that she is divorced, nor does it say that some or all of her former husbands are still living. If they are all dead, then this is a mute point. Now, for the sake of teasing out my question, I’ll assume it is a valid inference that at least some of her former husbands are living and that she has been divorced, that is why it she can be said to not currently be married. I suppose this could be a valid inference if she is presented as an unchaste woman in the passage. But all this is not the heart of my question.

    Could this not merely be phenomological language? Sure, in a earthly, human sense, once you are divorced you are not married. You do not have the joint legal entailments, etc. If someone has been civilly divorced (even ecclesiastically if you could find a situation like that), then you could truthly file your tax returns as “single” etc. In this sense, I agree that this woman in Jn 4 was not married, and that divorce does terminate a marriage. Because of this, if the partners of the divorce wanted to get back together, it would require a marriage again (I would encourage the spouse following 1 Cor. 7:11 to be ‘re-married’ in application of this ‘reconciliation’).

    The reason this concerns me, is because, as I see it, the emphasis on the Bible’s teaching focuses on remarriage. Divorce is not ‘permitted’ per se, but it does recognize the reality of divorce because of hardness of heart, and it seeks to regulate this. The rubber meets the road for me in the issue of remarriage. Most who follow the Erasmian interpretation, more or less assume that if the Bible teaches grounds for divorce, then it likewise assumes the permission to remarry. This is built off of 2 planks, (1) the common legal understanding of the 1st C Jews, and (2) divorce is covenant dissolution.

    I think if we grant that divorce does terminate a marriage, in that it dissolves the covenant between these two partners before God, then we have undercut the logic behind the prohibition to remarriage. The reason that persons can’t remarry, even if they are divorced, is because in God’s eyes they are still married, the covenant before God has not been dissolved. That is why remarriage is described as committing adultery. I’m hard pressed to understand how remarriage would be considered adultery in any other case.

    I would appreciate your response in light of these remarks. I have some other questions/comments about your position on divorce and remarriage, but I will save them until you can reply to this, seeing that this comment is already getting pretty lengthy.

    Richard Lucas

  3. This is a very tardy reply; life has been “complicated” of late. I can’t embark on an extensive discussion of divorce here. And I’ve not read much of the more recent literature on the subject (including DIB’s book). It an extremely vexing question for which I do not have all the answers. But a few notes.

    First, DIB has not been silent on the controversy. In addition to the links in the original post, see his own website:

    Second, the controversy has attracted national attention with an article in Time magazine in which the writer expresses his surprise at 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”! See the article at:,8816,1680709,00.html

    That has to viewed as a serious rebuke for a secular magazine to point out that some people are willing to follow culture instead of Scripture on this matter.

    Third, in response to Rich’s question, could John 4 be phenomological language? Yes. It’s an assumption either way. I happen to think it makes best sense as I described it, but I can’t prove it any more than someone can prove the alternative. Wish I could.

    Fourth, re. the relationship between remarriage and adultry, you may well be right. I don’t have anything better to offer at the moment. I’m not sure I’d put quite so much weight on marriage as a “covenant” relationship as some do. I don’t remember off-hand that such terminology is used in Scripture to describe marriage, but I may be wrong there–and I haven’t taken time to check.

  4. Dr. Decker,

    I’m glad you got a chance to respond to my question, and I trust the Lord is sustaining you through this “complicated” period of life.

    Surely the TIME mag piece is a strong rebuke, and I do feel that too many “evangelicals” do base their position on divorce and remarriage more on perceived notions of human justice, rather than on God’s standard of justice as revealed in his Word.

    A quick note in response to yours. I don’t want to put undo weight on marriage being a covenant either, although I do think it is a covenant. But, even if we don’t call it a covenant, we need some word to describe the nature of the marriage union. Kostenberger in his book lays out 3 broad possibilities, and sides with the nature of marriage union being primarily a covenant, over against a contract or a sacrament. I would agree with him, but perhaps nuance it and say that it is a covenant which also contains some contractual and sacramental elements (provided I get to explain that).

    In Matt 19 Jesus refers back to the institution of marriage by quoting Gen 1:27 and 2:24. Many have pointed to this scene in Genesis being a covenantal context even if the word is not used. However, I do think that Prov 2:17 and Mal 2:14 do provide direct textual support to the marriage union being described as a covenant as Gordon Hugenberger has shown in his “Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi.” [incidently, we can fairly infer that the Bible refers to at least one pre-lapsarian covenant here…but alas, a topic for another discussion]

    Erasmians I think are the ones that emphasize the covenantal nature of marriage as the primary OT support for their argument for divorce and remarriage. They simply point out that marriage is a covenant, and like other ANE covenants it can be made and broken, etc. They go on to assume that when divorce is permitted, so is remarriage, even if remarriage is not explicitly mentioned. In fact, Heth points to this argument as presented by Hugenberger as one of the major reasons he forsook his former Patristic view on this issue. He details this in his “coming out” article published in 2002 by SBJT. Kostenberger likewise relies heavily on the covenantal nature of marriage as an argument for why he believes the bible teaches both divorce AND remarriage while the original marriage partners are still alive. I’ve read much of Instone-Brewer’s more academic work on this a couple years ago, but I can’t seem to recall him emphasizing this as much as the 1st C Jewish understanding.

    I disagree with the Erasmians in maintaining that the Patristic view best aligns with the Scriptural teaching. Marriage is a covenant, but I think they have missed the “one-flesh” nature of the bond, as Wenham develops it from Scripture (this is what Jesus relies on in Matt 19 too). It seems to me that the uniform teaching of the Bible is that remarriage is not explicitly permitted apart from the death of the spouse, even if a divorce has already taken place. Hence the remarriage to another partner can accurately be described as committing adultry while both spouses are alive, precisely because they are still united in the marriage union before God…”until death do we part!”

    I agree that either understanding of Jn 4 cannot be proved from the immediate context either way. Though I still think that phenomological language does fit with the overall presentation of marriage in the Bible. I can understand how an Erasmian would argue the way you did from Jn 4, but it still surprises me that you do in light of the fact that you hold to a “No Divorce” position. I just want to understand how you reconcile the logic of remarriage as adultry with your understanding of Jn 4.

    We don’t have to continue this discussion on this blog post, as it is drifting from the original intent of your post. A comment you made sparked an interest to me, so I merely wanted to understand what you meant because I value your opinion so highly.

    Thanks for making yourself available through this blog. I appreciate your works about the “Good Wednesday Service” too on your other post.