On our journey thought David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Church we come to chapter 13 where he raises the question why, if the church has had access to rabbinical literature and understanding of the issues at play during Jesus and Paul’s time, hasn’t the church revised it’s understanding of the divorce passages. If you have been following along, I-B has been arguing that most of the church was unaware of the controversy surrounding the “any cause” divorce during Jesus day and that was what he was reacting to in Matt. 19. But now that we have this background available to us again, it helps us understand the context of Jesus comments. So, why hasn’t the church revised divorce teachings? Is it conspiracy? Or just disagreement with I-B?
I-B tells an interesting story at the beginning of this chapter. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, one scholar refused to make public one particular scroll. After he died, the scroll was translated and made public. The controversy? The scroll contains a 1-2nd century divorce certificate written by a woman for an “any cause” (or better, no cause) divorce. The scholar had previously published that this sort of thing didn’t happen in this wonderful period of orthodox Judaism so he sat on the document to hide it. I-B tells the story here because he believes this shows how even Jews had forgotten the only reasons allowed for divorce in Exodus 21 (neglect, infidelity) and that no cause divorces were allowed by both men AND women.
Yet I-B doesn’t really believe conspiracy is the problem with the church. Just confusion. Why the confusion? I-B reviews the sexual mores of the early Christian world. Outside the church immorality was a given at levels we don’t even have today–open sexual contact with prostitutes, friends, etc. even when married. So, I-B reports that the church reacted to this to even become suspicious of conjugal love in marriage. If a marriage ended due to the death of a loved one, the widow should not remarry and if he/she did, it was a sign of lust. He quotes Tertullian’s belief on this matter that Christians should seek abstinence. It is I-B’s believe that this view of sex and celibacy is what grew until the 9th century when the Roman church instituted celibacy for priests and comes out the believe that Paul and Jesus both taught that celibacy was superior to marriage. (Remember that in a prior chapter I-B stated his believe that Paul’s comment in 1 Cor. 7:1 that it is good for a man to not marry is not Paul’s belief but his quotation of a common belief which he rejects in following verses).
Further, I-B reports to us that many early church fathers (and contemporaries as well) believed that the OT was for then and the NT is for the church. So, even if the OT had other rules about divorce, Jesus rules supercedes and is the only rule for Christians today.
But since this “any cause” dispute has been known to us for 150 years why haven’t we reconsidered the divorce interpretations? I-B ultimately says it is because of the status quo. Church doctrines shouldn’t change. He says the thinking goes like this: God doesn’t change, the bible doesn’t change, doctrine doesn’t change.
I-B ends this chapter rather abruptly (IMHO) with the admission that he has undertaken this scholarly study given our better understanding of the misery of abuse within the church. And yet he believes his understanding of the key issues surrounding the culture of the 1-2nd century Judaism and Christianity helps us re-consider the meaning of Jesus and Paul’s words on divorce.
So, what are we left with? There may be more ambiguity in some of our passages on divorce, reasons for divorce, and remarriage. Certainly, we must admit there are some silences that trouble us. We would have liked greater clarity. We all recognize that Jesus and Paul rejected baseless divorces. That sexual purity is essential. That marriage is good, sex is good, but not to be worshipped. I think we can also see that divorce is part of the fall but a reality. It is forgiveable but there remain questions of whether remarriage is possible. If we take the no remarriage passages as speaking about baseless divorces, then we are to work for reconciliation. But if that is not possible, we must acknowledge that there are many situations with the Scriptures do not provide us clear direction. In those cases we ought to be careful not to act as if we did get a clear message from the Lord. We ought to be very careful not to hang weights on the necks of believers and to bind their conscience where there is ambiguity. This does not mean we cannot seek to preserve marriages as our ideal.
Well, we are almost at the end of the book. Two more chapters on recommendations for what the pastor/church should do given the possible new interpretations.