Review: Divorce and Remarriage in the Church
by David Instone-Brewer
Ever since George Barna released his much-disputed survey about Christians having a higher divorce rate than their secular counterparts, the church has been on the defensive about the issue of marriage and divorce. There’s so much confusion and conflicting teaching about the issue from church to church, sometimes within the same denomination. All the flap compelled Instone-Brewerto do a much broader (and some say better) analysis. The conclusion he reaches in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church may surprise some and encourage others. I found the book to be well-researched and at the same time faithful to scripture while being practical in ministry. It doesn’t dispute Barna’s findings but rather seeks to bring biblical and practical ministry light to a desperately-needed topic.
Essentially, Instone-Brewer examines Jesus’ words that were a response to a specific question posed to him in Matthew 19.3-9:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The author then does an analytical study of the causes and teachings related to divorce in the Old Testament (to which Jesus was referring) and the understanding of first century Judaism and the Roman Empire. What he helps us see is just how prevalent divorce was. It was extremely common, and more often than not, women were the victims of fickle husbands. When that was the case, they were left without recourse and help.
Instone-Brewer shows how the Old Testament changed all that in passages like Exodus 21.7-11 and Deuteronomy 24.1-4. He also uses findings and teachings from first century divorce documents and Judaism to show that what Jesus was disputing was one of the two schools of thought in Judaism: the Hillel school. The Hillel school of thought had reinterpreted the Exodus 21 passage to mean a husband could divorce his wife for “any cause.”
When the Pharisees approached Jesus, they were essentially referring to this well-understood issue of his day. Brewer says they were asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for ‘any cause?’” To which Jesus upheld the sanctity of marriage. He was not, Brewer says, addressing the neglect issues present in the Deuteronomy 24 passage.
There were two prevailing schools of thought in Judaism during Jesus’ day. One of them (Shammaite) eventually was snuffed out during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Instone-Brewer says that this and other mitigating factors led to the church’s misunderstanding of what Jesus taught about divorce and even led the Catholic Church to see marriage as something undesirable for its priests. This ongoing misinterpretation and misapplication of scripture about this issue has led to countless conflicts and pain in churches over the issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
I highly recommend the book to you for your own research and conclusions. However, it should be essential for every church to have a scripturally-grounded and grace-based policy related to marriage and divorce.
Brewer suggests the following:
1. The biblical grounds for divorce are adultery, neglect and abuse, any of which is equivalent to broken marriage vows. 2. No one should initiate a divorce unless their partner is guilty of repeatedly or unrepentantly breaking their marriage vows. 3. No one should separate from their marriage partner without intending to divorce them. 4. If someone has divorced or separated without biblical grounds, they should attempt a reconciliation with their former partner. 5. Remarriage is allowed in church for any divorce after a service or repentance, unless they have divorced a wronged partner who wants to be reconciled.
Overall, it’s one of the best books on the topic presently out. If your church has not adopted a clear policy on marriage, divorce and remarriage, what is it waiting for? Clarity, grace, love, and ministry demand it. By communicating the truth redemptively, a church can become proactively involved in defining, saving and redeeming marriages than by simply adding to the statistics linked above.