It’s Narcissist Friday!
Every pastor has to deal with divorce and remarriage. It comes with the job. Some simply adopt the position of their church. Some try not to think about it too much. Many, like me, struggle with the issue almost every time it confronts us.
Beginning my ministry in the mainline church, where divorce was widespread and no longer a real issue, I did my share of second and third weddings. Yet, as I counseled people in the midst of their marriage struggles, I found that the ready acceptance and easy access to divorce weakened their commitment and they usually didn’t want to try to work things out in their marriages. Too often, by the time they saw me, another person was already in the picture and decisions were already made. Divorce was the way to legitimize a new and more exciting relationship.
Many of the pastors I have known truly struggled with this. I knew one man who left the ministry to become an attorney because he would be able to counsel conflicted couples earlier. We saw the pain divorce caused, but we also saw the pain people suffered within the marriage. We took marriage counseling classes, developed pre-marital counseling, and taught on the stresses and expectations of marriage—all to help people avoid the problem of divorce.
You see, one of the problems that we faced was that the Scriptures were just not as firm as some would have us believe. While we wanted to hold marriage as holy and permanent, we found “loopholes” and examples of divorce in the Scriptures. We saw, in Malachi, where God said that He hated divorce; but we also saw where He told His people to send away their foreign wives and that divorce was permitted in the case of adultery.
As I left the mainline church to enter the evangelical culture, things were not better. On one hand the answer was simpler, I suppose. Divorce was not allowed except for certain situations (ones with approved “grounds”) and sometimes not even in those situations. On the other hand, the Scripture still didn’t exactly say what the more conservative culture said. And people trapped in certain marriages because of the prohibition against divorce sometimes suffered greatly.
So, over the years, I came to the position that this was something I didn’t fully understand. My part was to teach what I could understand. I believe that marriage is a gift from the Lord and should be treated as something very special, something worth fighting for. I know many couples who have worked through very difficult circumstances and events and have restored their love and their families. In other words, I believe we are right to hold marriage in high regard and to warn people about the distractions and compromises that could destroy it.
At the same time, I could not hold people in marriages where they suffered. I would often say that I believe God wants people to stay married and I believe that marriage should be happy and good. When marriage was not good, when there was abuse or adultery, then I would tell people to seek the Lord. He would lead them if they went to Him with open hearts. I didn’t front-load their prayers with the “right answer.” I just helped them seek and follow the Lord. And several of them divorced.
I came to the place where I disconnected divorce from sin, not because I no longer thought it was sin, but because sin is also part of the struggle in marriage. Sin is the cause of our suffering. If divorce is sin, then it is only the end result of a long process of sin. And if God hates divorce, we should also be aware that God hates many things—all sin, in fact—because sin hurts the people He loves. Divorce is just one more broken thing in a broken world.
Do we uphold the sanctity of marriage when we force someone to remain in an abusive situation? Do we bless our culture and our children when we promote a façade of love and companionship in the church while hatred rules at home? I don’t think so. So I no longer counsel people to stay married; nor do I counsel anyone to get a divorce. They have to take that to the Lord and listen to His heart.
But even there we find a problem. How do they listen to Him? Most have been taught that they should go to Scripture. Then they are told what the Scripture says. So most Christians think that listening to the Lord is listening to the traditional perspective of the church, especially in the conservative church. Then they are burdened with the admonitions and guilt surrounding divorce. Have they really heard the Lord’s voice?
And what if the Scripture doesn’t say what the evangelical culture says? The mainline churches, in my experience, have simply stopped looking to the Scriptures. Yet, the evangelical culture has stopped as well, simply because the Scripture is so often viewed as a collection of proof-texts which support the ideas of the culture. We read Scripture through the grid of what we have been taught and try not to think about the nagging questions and inconsistencies when we see differences between our cultural interpretations and what the Bible actually says.
Then along comes Barbara Roberts and her book, “Not Under Bondage.” I can honestly say that I have never read a more careful or scholarly book on this subject. I have read many books written to teach the “party line,” but few actually look at each Scripture passage in the context of culture, grammar, and principles of interpretation. With pedantic logic and critical thinking, Roberts shows that the Scripture does teach a very high regard for marriage and a practical perspective on the effect of sin in the marriage relationship. This book has been needed for a long time.
Yes, Roberts has a personal background of divorce and a perspective which opens her to question the conservative positions. That certainly does not disqualify her writing, no more than the perspective of others who write to support their position. She holds marriage very high and never tells people what they ought to do. Her job is simply to examine the passages that are used to teach about divorce. In fact, I would love to read a conservative rebuttal to Roberts’ book. It would be interesting to see how the “indissolublists” would counter her Scriptural arguments.
Personally, I was impressed. I agree with the way Roberts views Scripture and find it very consistent with the way Jesus viewed the writings of the Old Testament. For example, she teaches that the general rule does not negate the specific exception when the rule is stated by itself. In other words, when Jesus says in Matthew that adultery is a possible reason to divorce and then omits that exception in Luke, the exception does not disappear. This is very consistent with the way we should see Scripture. We are told not to kill in the commandments, yet the people of Israel were sent to war and used capital punishment. There are exceptions to the general rules.
She also rightly extrapolates from one teaching to another, as Jesus did. In spite of the idea that Scripture does not overtly address physical or emotional abuse in marriage, Roberts claims that the principles taught about marriage do include these things. If the Scripture says that a man must not beat his animals, can we not rightly assume that he should not beat his children or his wife? If a man is to love his wife, does that not mean he is not to torture her emotionally? And, if he does these things, has he not broken the marriage covenant? Jesus said that a man who looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery with her. When a man looks on his wife with hatred and acts on this hatred through his abuse, has he not abandoned the marriage relationship? This extrapolation is not only reasonable, but instructive.
Obviously, we have to be careful. Most of us in the evangelical tradition have been taught that you can twist Scripture to say almost anything (then we sometimes proceed to do just that!) I would submit that Roberts has not done that. There may be some jumps of logic that feel uncomfortable and you will want to look at them carefully, but I think you will be surprised at how often you agree with her assessments. I would not pretend that I agree with everything Roberts writes, but I also would not hesitate to recommend it to others.
Two things struck me as particularly powerful in this book. First, the revealing of the cultural challenges brought by the Pharisees to Jesus, and how those challenges led to what Jesus taught on divorce. Do you know the difference between the schools of Hillel and Shammai and the importance of the phrase, “for any reason”? Yes, it matters—and it explains why Jesus said what He said.
Also, the section on the statement “God hates divorce,” which people pull out of Malachi, is worth the price of the book. Roberts’ teaching on the difference between disciplinary and treacherous divorce and how it ties into this passage is important.
The bottom line is that the traditional evangelical teaching that all divorce is wrong unless there has been intimacy with someone outside the marriage simply does not stand up to careful Scriptural interpretation. There are other reasons marriages can end without damaging the status of marriage among believers. And those evangelical churches that have chosen to look the other way, to accept divorce as long as the divorced person feels appropriately guilty, have helped no one. No, the decision to divorce is intensely personal and the one who struggles should be directed to the Lord—with the understanding that there are things other than adultery that signal the death and dissolution of the marriage covenant.
This is one of my longest posts and I need to summarize. If you are struggling with the guilt of divorce—if you are wondering what you ought to do in an abusive marriage—if you are counseling or teaching on the subject of divorce among believers—you should read this book. It is not an easy read, but it will pull you forward. I have only touched on what I thought were key points for me. I think your eyes will be opened to many things; and you may see the Scripture’s perspective on divorce more consistently.
Here’s a link to Roberts’ website and a link to the book on Amazon: