The Teaching of David Instone-Brewer about Divorce (Review)

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 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.)

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  1. Hmm. At this point my understanding is that Jesus granted the right to divorce and remarriage in cases of immorality precisely because it is covenant breaking and trust destroying behaviour. What I find hard to believe then, is the denial that ongoing maltreatment ( abuse ) and a refusal to love or care for one's spouse is not also covenant breaking behaviour. I mean, okay, you can get a divorce for immorality but someone systematically breaking you with hateful behaviour that clearly demonstrates they have no intention of keeping their covenant to love, honor and cherish you does not grant this right? Sex with someone else grants the right to end it, but being yelled at, told you are not a person because you are a woman, being bullied, intimidated and other forms of callous disregard for one's wellbeing, refusing to work to provide, etc are not equally destructive of trust and covenant? To say that except for one type of sin, we are stuck with a lousy unrepentant and destructive person is tantamount to saying that God is also stuck with US no matter how rotten we behave. Clearly He is not.

    1. Any situation of abuse is clearly a horrible and difficult situation. The Bible is clear that separation is permitted (though discouraged) in this situation (1 Cor. 7:11,15). The wife is permitted to leave, but not to remarry in the hope that, if the man is a believer, a reconciliation will eventually take place. If he is not a believer and leaves the marriage, the instruction is to let him go (1 Cor. 7:15). Paul counsels that then the believer left behind is free to devote herself (or himself) more fully to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32).

    2. So, the victim of abuse is punished under these terms by forced celibacy? If it's better to marry than to burn for the single person, what has changed that the victim, through no fault of her own, is forced to be lonely for the rest of her life? You ignore the provision for divorce in the OT under such circumstances.

    3. The victim of abuse is permitted to separate from the abuser according to the terms of 1 Cor. 7:11. But the hope expressed there is that there will be a reconciliation in the future. God’s desire is always to restore broken relationships. Remarriage destroys the possibility of reconciliation. But even if a reconciliation does not take place immediately, the instruction given there is to “remain unmarried.” From the Bible’s point of view, this is not a punishment, but a release into the Lord’s service. As Paul goes on to say in that same chapter: “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint on you, but to promote what is seemly and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Being alone after being married is difficult. But God supports and sustains us through his presence and through the support of Christian friends and family. It’s not impossible if our eyes are on the Lord and our hearts are open to his help.

  2. You misrepresent Dr. Brewer's position by saying that he asserts that all references to divorce in the NT refer to the "any cause" divorce.

    "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."

    This is NOT his position.

    He maintains that there are two categories of divorce: baseless and just. And within those two categories he examines two subsets within the baseless causes, Jewish and Roman.

    In Mt 19, Jesus was responding to a specific question confined to the Dt 24 controversy that the Hillel vs Shammai camps were arguing over. Jesus' answer was specific to the question, which was to say that the "any cause" type of divorce was not recognized as legitimate, and that the Dt 24 passage was to be understood as recognizing adultery as the just cause ONLY. Jesus was not addressing the question of causes that were "just", which were explicated in Ex 21 and had been the basis of not only Jewish family civil law since the time of Moses, but also seen as the basis of marriage and divorce by God Himself in the OT.

    You do Dr. Brewer, and the subject of divorce, an injustice by misrepresenting him.

    Neglect and abuse are absolutely reprehensible and biblically just causes for divorce and you should not counsel people to the contrary. You're clinging to a traditional (and incorrect) view of marriage and divorce.

  3. It’s true that Exodus 21 was used by the rabbis to derive some general principles about marriage. One of these is referred to by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 7:3, when he says, “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, but also the wife to her husband in the same way.” This idea of the husband’s duty is based on Exo. 21:10, which talks about the rights of a wife to adequate “food, clothing, and conjugal relations.” However, the passage as whole is talking about an enslaved woman, who was in a different legal category than a free wife. If she did not please the slave owner, the slave woman was to be allowed to be redeemed (rather than being sold, Exo. 21:8). But if he had accepted her and lived with her, and then took another woman, and he was no longer willing to continue providing for her needs as he did before, then she was to be set free (Exo. 21:10-11). This was a law that applied only in a situation where polygamy was permitted. However, Jesus specifically forbid polygamy in Matt. 19:9: “And I say to you that he who divorces his wife, not because of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” How could this be considered adultery? Only if a divorce on grounds other than sexual immorality does not free a person to remarry. Instone-Brewer misrepresents the Bible’s teaching by teaching otherwise.

  4. Thank you Jeff for the explanation. That reference on the spiritual realm make sense, especially if we accept that God is using the act of marriage to signify his relationship with Israel. Shalom!


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