Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Teaching of David Instone-Brewer about Divorce

Q:  I just found out about your website and I am quite impressed.  I can see you are a faithful servant of God.  You taught me things about Noah's and Moses' Sinai covenant that I did not know before.

I also checked out your marriage and divorce info [see our article on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness].  I recommend you check out www.instone-brewer.com as this area is one that is very easy to misunderstand verses and take them out of context and not realize it (e.g., many miss the buzzword in Matt 19:3 that restricts the context and then miss when the answer is actually given) ; it is also very easy to only teach a portion of what the Bible teaches and not realize it (e.g., many do not teach that God divorced Israel and the Biblical reasons He did so)... --Don J.

A:  Thanks for the referral to David Instone-Brewer's writings.  [Instone-Brewer teaches that the traditional understanding of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on divorce is incorrect and that divorce with the right to remarry should be allowed in more situations than immorality (Matt. 19:9) and desertion (1 Cor. 7:15).  He proposes that the additional grounds of neglect and abuse should also be permitted, for which he claims the support of 1st century ideas about divorce.] 

I have looked carefully at Instone-Brewer’s ideas on his web site.  He is correct about the need to understand Jesus and Paul in their first century setting.  But he has mistaken their intentions by reading into their thinking things that they themselves do not say.  This has led him to misunderstand the words of Jesus in Matthew 19, and to ignore the lack of symmetry between men and women in Jewish thinking in the 1st century. 

1)  I mention Matthew 19:3-9 because Instone-Brewer accepts this as the most complete statement of Jesus' position.  Instone-Brewer would have us believe that Jesus is only talking here about divorce for "any cause": the idea that a man can divorce his wife for any cause at all, a new teaching of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.  Instone-Brewer states that since all divorces at the time were "any cause" type divorces, any New Testament reference to divorce necessarily refers only to this particular type of divorce.  In this way he is able to reinterpret the many New Testament verses that disagree with his conclusions.

But the debate over divorce, as he himself admits, was still going on in the time of Jesus.  It had begun only one generation earlier, between Hillel, who permitted “any cause” divorce, and Shammai, who permitted divorce only in the case of immorality, as Jesus did.  This debate was not resolved until after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, when the views of Hillel were finally accepted.  This means that there were still many of the school of Shammai teaching their view about divorce in the generation of Jesus and even later.  As a result, it's difficult to believe that the word "divorce" always and everywhere had the restricted meaning that Instone-Brewer claims, especially in the mouth of Jesus and others who disagreed with it.  And if not, his attempt to reinterpret the teaching of Jesus fails. 

This can be seen from the words of Jesus himself when he answered the Pharisees' question in Matt. 19:3:  "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?"  In Matt. 19:8, Jesus says, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives."  If "divorce" had the meaning that Instone-Brewer wants us to believe, Jesus would here be teaching that Moses himself permitted "any cause" divorce.  But this is the opposite of what Jesus actually taught. 

Jesus, instead, was very careful to avoid falling into a narrow legal debate of the kind called for by the Pharisees' question.  Instead, he refers back to the first principles of the book of Genesis to show what God's plan is for every marriage:  one man and one woman in a life-long relationship (Matt. 19:4-6).  He did not do this to ignore the issue raised by the Pharisees (as Instone-Brewer supposes), but instead to directly confront it:  God's plan is for the permanence of marriage, and any divorce--whether of the "any cause" kind or any other--is against the will of God.  Divorce--of any kind--is only permitted as a concession by God to man's sinful nature (Matt. 19:8).  And this concession, Jesus says, applies only in the case of actual sexual immorality, in which Jesus agrees with the school of Shammai (Matt. 19:9). 

Now notice exactly what Jesus says here.  Instone-Brewer claims that the words of Jesus and of Paul are in conflict on this issue, but in fact they're in perfect harmony.  In Matt. 19:9, Jesus addresses the situation in which a man divorces his wife for some other cause than sexual immorality and then remarries ("But I say to you that he who divorces his wife, not because of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery").  This remarriage, he says, is an act of adultery.  But notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say that the divorce itself (or "separation" as it is called in 1 Cor. 7:15) is forbidden:  only that remarriage in this situation is forbidden.  This is when it becomes adultery.  This leaves wide open the possibility for separation in the situation of abandonment mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 7:15, not to mention abuse and neglect, which are the issues of concern to Instone-Brewer.  But Jesus specifically does not permit remarriage in these other situations, in order, as Paul puts it, to leave open the possibility of reconciliation (1 Cor. 7:11).  Remarriage is only permitted if the divorce took place because of sexual immorality.      

In all of this, Paul agrees with Jesus: that any other kind of divorce, other than that because of sexual immorality, does not bring with it the possibility of remarriage, as Paul clearly states in the case of women in 1 Cor. 7:11 (“but if she is separated let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband...”; see also Rom. 7:2,3 and 1 Cor. 7:39).  The woman cannot be remarried as long as her husband lives.  These verses are in direct contradiction to the Jewish marriage contracts that Instone-Brewer mentions, in which a divorce is said to make the woman eligible for remarriage.  This is a contemporary practice that the New Testament opposes.

In other words, Jesus says that the only acceptable grounds for a man to divorce his wife and remarry is her immorality, a view that shows his acceptance of the traditional Jewish understanding that only a man can divorce his wife, and not vice versa as Instone-Brewer claims.  Therefore a woman divorced due to immorality is an adulteress already, as is a woman divorced for any other reason who then remarries.  This is why Jesus says in Matt. 5:32 that "whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

To simplify it still more, a woman is to be identified through the unity of marriage with only one living man, and can only be remarried once her husband dies, regardless of whether a divorce has taken place or not.  This has profound implications in the spiritual realm for the identification of believers with only one spiritual bridegroom--with God himself--and the permanence of that relationship.  It also accounts for the continuing identification of Israel with God in spite of their "divorce," in contrast to Instone-Brewer's understanding of this theme. 

So, far from addressing only the matter of "any cause" divorce in Matt. 19, Jesus clearly addresses any and all types of divorce, in language that is in perfect harmony with the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor. 7. 

2)  The situation with men is more complex than Instone-Brewer allows, owing to the lack of symmetry between men and women in Jewish and Biblical thinking.  I mentioned above Jesus' advocacy for the traditional view that only Jewish men can initiate a divorce, not women--which is still the case in Judaism today.  Also, polygamy was still permitted by Jewish law in the time of Jesus, and was only banned among Ashkenazi (Western) Jews hundreds of years later under the influence of Christianity.  But while Jesus did not accept polygamy, he did accept the Biblical asymmetry between men and women.  This is why both Jesus and Paul tolerate the remarriage of a divorced man (1 Cor. 7:27,28), but not the remarriage of a divorced woman (1 Cor. 7:11,39).  But such a remarriage by a man was only permitted in the case of a divorce due to the sexual immorality of the man’s wife (Matt. 19:9).

(For more on this topic, see our teaching on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness.  See, too, the Index category Marriage.)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comments on our To The Ends Of The Earth blog. Comments will be published that seek to establish a meaningful dialogue or response to the subject of the blog. It may take several days before comments are posted.