We come to chapter 7 of Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Church. In this chapter he tackles the question of what ends a marriage. After a couple of lame jokes to make his next point, he asks if a woman who is betrayed and cheated on and then involuntarily divorced by her husband is still married to him. Is she single? Divorced? Still married? I-B says many biblical scholars erroneously say, “married–because only death can end a marriage.” (p. 82) This chapter is designed to debunk the “forever married” doctrine.
People commit adultery or become cruel or abusive, and their marriages start to break down. What happens then? Most marriages can be healed with effort from both partners, but like cancer, if it is left untreated too long, broken vows are terminal because they kill a marriage. (p. 83)
What to do? I-B suggests 3 options are available at the terminal stage: remain together and suffer (hoping it will get better), separate without divorce, get divorced.
But what does the Bible have to say about these options? Doesn’t the bible suggest lifelong marriage? He reminds the reader that “let no one separate” doesn’t mean it can’t but it is “undesirable”. Beyond this passage, he explores 3 more: Mt 19:9, 1 Cor. 6:15f, and Eph. 5:32. The Matt passage is against any cause divorce and not against all divorce. Paul in 1 Cor 6 says that one flesh relationships are very intimate but not necessarily permanent because if that were the case, those that had been fornicators would have to be warned to stay single. Finally, in Ephesians 5 marriage is referred to as a mystery. Some have treated this as a sacrament (something that can’t be broken) but he and most evangelicals reject this translation/meaning.
I-B then goes on to talk about silence in the NT about divorce in two passages: Rom 7:2 and 1 Cor 7:39. Is it surprising the silence about divorce in these passages? The Romans passage seems on the surface to be about not being able to remarry while a husband is still alive. But I-B says it is really about the relationship we have with the law and with Christ. Just as the parable of the sower isn’t about farming, this one isn’t really about divorce law in that it doesn’t state all the options one might be able to have about divorce–only the part that is appropriate for making Paul’s point about belonging to Christ through death. Divorce is used to illustrate a point, not to teach about divorce here.
This can be summarized thus: People are tied to the law of Moses till they die, just as a wife is tied to her husband till death. If she went with another man this would be adultery, unless her husband died. Therefore God lets you die with Christ, in order to set you free to marry Christ. (p. 89)
1 Cor 7:39 is about what happens to a spouse when the other spouse dies. It is not teaching about divorce here, but is silent on the matter. What it is teaching on, says I-B is freeing widows from the levirate marriage which would require them to marry their brother-in-law.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whome she wishes, only in the Lord.
SO I-B ends the chapter with these findings
1. Jesus commands those who have been joined through marriage vows that they should never separate, but a sinner who disregards Jesus’ commands can still break up the marriage [even if they don’t initiate the divorce]
2. “one flesh” is descriptive not prescriptive; “not necessarily permanent.”
3. Some passages may mention marriage and divorce but since the passages aren’t about that, we shouldn’t squeeze meanings unintended from them or try to make much of the silence on the issues. The next chapter will look at when divorce is possible.
So, what do you think of his re-reading of these texts? Do you agree that divorce isn’t really the topic and so therefore we can’t use these texts to try to make them speak to our questions about when it is possible or not possible to divorce or remarry?