We come to chapter 10 of David Instone-Brewer’s book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church(IVP). He starts with this question: “Do people whose divorces were not biblically valid have to stay unmarried for the rest of their life?” (p. 118).
In answering this question I-B starts and finishes the chapter with the problem of how we might know whether a divorce was valid or not. Unless there is a trial, pertinent information may not come to light (abuse, adultery, etc.). So, I-B takes the stand that there are many who have valid grounds who are considered to have divorced for unbiblical reasons. He considers that God is to be the judge of this. Second, I-B reminds us that he has already covered the issue of being forced into an unbiblical divorce. The wronged partner is not enslaved and is free to remarry (1 Cor 7:15)
Third, and this is the most controversial, I-B states that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:32 (that the one who divorces for any reason other than unfaithfulness and then remarries commits adultery) is rhetorical and not literal. I-B believes this verse falls in a section of high rhetoric (5:21-31). Just as Jesus is not advocating gouging out eyes, nor is he saying that a woman has grounds for divorce if her husband lusted after another woman, neither is he saying that we ought to treat remarriage for groundless divorcees as literal adultery. This, I-B says, is not to take away the serious violation of groundless divorces. They should not happen and it is a sin if they do and all sin is serious!
Finally, I-B takes on the issue of whether an invalid divorce BEFORE conversion is any different from after conversion. Should they be treated differently as many churches do? I-B says no. He points again to 1 Cor 7:12-14 where Paul tells converts not to look down upon their marriages and not to leave their unbelieving spouses but only to let them go if they demand to leave. Here Paul is saying to honor the vow and not to be the cause of breaking up a marriage.
He concludes that since divorce is forgiveable, churches ought to be willing to remarry even the person who demanded an unbiblical divorce:
I think that a church should remarry somone even if that person had forced a wronged partner into a divorce–though only after that person has gone back to their former partner with a genuine offer of reconciliation and has truly repented of this sin. (p. 124)
I-B tries to steer clear of having churches decide guilt or innocence. Seems he wants to do this because we often don’t get all the information and don’t have clear procedures for how we do this. And yet, it seems that elders and pastors are called to be leaders and to make Solomonic decisions. Maybe the problem has been church leaders too unwilling to get their hands dirty in a messy situation, or too unwilling to take the time.
Following his mindset a person who forces an unbiblical divorce ought to remain unmarried and open to reconciliation until their former spouse remarries. However, he doesn’t really say this.
I’m reminded of Philip Yancey’s line in “What’s So Amazing about Grace.” He tells the tale of a friend who asks him if God will forgive him if he divorces his longtime wife and marries a young woman. Yancey says something like this, “Yes, but the question is whether you will want it” (meaning if you want God’s forgiveness then you have to repent and turn AWAY from your sin and back to righteousness).