Instone-Brewer’s Views on Divorce Compared to Mine: Part 2, Differences.
To most outsiders, the person who leaves the marriage looks like the deserter. If a victim of domestic abuse leaves their abusive partner or in some other way declares the marriage over, and (as is so often the case) the abuser effectively manipulates the perceptions and opinions of the congregation, the church will definitely think that the spouse who left is at fault for deserting the marriage.
Should the victim of abuse leave their partner and refuse to refuse to return, bystanders who are using Instone-Brewer’s words as their guide may think that because this person is refusing to reverse the desertion, this person must be an unbeliever. Instone-Brewer doesn’t sufficiently take that scenario into account. So while he teaches that abuse is grounds for divorce, his wording unfortunately (and I’m sure inadvertently) leaves the door open to the church condemning an abuse victim for leaving the marriage and refusing to return to their partner.
This post spells out the points on which I differ from David Instone-Brewer. In part one of this two-part series I explained my appreciations and agreements with Instone-Brewer.
Unless otherwise stated, the indented quotes below are taken from Instone-Brewer’s scholarly book (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible). Quotes taken from his simplified book are cited as DRIC (Divorce and Remarriage in the Church).
I address abuse more than Instone-Brewer does
Instone-Brewer does not address abuse in as much depth as I do. In his scholarly book he talks about neglect more than he talks about abuse. He does not offer a definition of abuse (or of neglect). In contrast, I define and describe abuse in some detail because I know that without a robust definition of abuse my teaching could be used to open the door to divorce for trivial or self-centred reasons.
It seems to me that Instone-Brewer is less aware of the peculiar dynamics of domestic abuse than I am. Perhaps because of his relative lack of awareness, he says some things that might inadvertently compound the plight of victims of abuse. For example:
Jesus and Paul both emphasized that believers should hold marriages together even at great cost to themselves. (p 297, emphasis in original)
It seems to me that when Instone-Brewer wrote this he was not aware of how damaging that sentence could be for victims of domestic abuse. Why could it be damaging to victims? Because they would feel he was pressuring them to keep holding the marriage together no matter what it cost them, no matter how much the abuser mistreated them.
We deal with Malachi 2:16 differently
“God hates divorce” is a subhead in Instone-Brewer’s simple book, and he gives this explanation:
God does not criticise the legal process of divorce, or the person who carries it out — otherwise he would criticise himself because he had to divorce Israel. God hates the breaking of marriage vows which result in divorce. (DRIC p 31, emphasis in original)
He also says (in an endnote in that book just cited) that the ESV and other recent translations are better, because they don’t say ‘God hates’ in Malachi 2:16.
Since I know how harmful the ‘God hates divorce’ saying is to victims of marital mistreatment, I deplore any use of that saying, even when the author gives the caveats Instone-Brewer gives. I wonder whether Instone-Brewer was aware of how often people use ‘God hates divorce’ to coerce victims of abuse to refrain from divorcing their abusers.
We understand Deuteronomy 24:1-4 differently
Instone-Brewer believes the commonly-held assumption that in verse one of Deuteronomy 24, Moses was giving a law that allowed divorce. Commentators often call this ‘the Mosaic concession’. That assumption is one which has been passed down for millennia and accepted as given, but I don’t think it stands the test of exegetical logic.
I don’t believe that in verse one of Deuteronomy 24, Moses was giving a law that permitted divorce. Rather, I believe that in verses one to four of that chapter, Moses was giving a law that prohibited one particular type of remarriage after divorce. That law prohibited a man remarrying a woman he had previously divorced if she had married another man after he divorced her and if that subsequent marriage of hers had terminated (either by divorce or by the death of her second husband). I read verses 1 to 3 as the case study example which sets out the particular and limited conditions in which remarriage after divorce is not allowed.
In a nutshell:– I do not believe that verse 1 is a law giving grounds for divorce. Neither is it a ‘concession’ to divorce that Jesus later tightened up on. I believe verse 4 is the law Moses laid down. And that law prohibited remarriage-after-divorce only in the particular circumstances delineated in verses 1-3.
This means I don’t believe that in Deuteronomy 24 Moses gave a law permitting or enabling men to divorce their wives. Rather, I believe Moses gave a law prohibiting men from remarrying women they had divorced (when the woman had been married a second time and that marriage had ended). This law mentioned cases of men divorcing their wives, but that was only part of the pre-law narrative. It was not a positive ‘permission’ or a ‘concession to divorce’. It simply described what many men were doing already—divorcing their wives.
We disagree about the meaning of ‘erwat dabar’
Another point on which I disagree with Instone-Brewer is his view that erwat dabar (Hebrew) = porneia (Greek). Jesus used the word porneia in Matthew 19:9 and porneia means sexual immorality.
Moses used the words erwat dabar in Deuteronomy 24:1. And the school of Shammai in Jesus’ day thought erwat dabar meant sexual immorality. Many Christians including Instone-Brewer have followed suit with the school of Shammai and assumed it means sexual immorality. But I am not persuaded that erwat dabar = sexual immorality and only sexual immorality. I think it is more likely a generalised and vague phrase that men in Moses day were using when getting rid of their wives for a whole range of reasons. Some of those reasons might have been sound, like a wife’s adultery, but others could have been trivial reasons. “I’ve found some uncleanness in her” is so vague it could mean almost anything.
I see no reason why erwat dabar must refer only to sexual immorality. The phrase is used in just one other place in the bible and there it refers to human excrement that ought to be buried outside the camp, which has nothing to do with sexual immorality but is simply a matter of hygiene and infection control.
By Moses’ report, men in his day were saying, “I’m divorcing my wife because I find some uncleanness in her.” That could been rather like a man saying, “My wife’s disgusting. I’m divorcing her.” And come to think of it, “My wife is disgusting” is rather typical of the disparaging language abusive men use when they are speaking to people they’re not afraid to show their true colours to —particularly other men who share their entitlement mentality. Most of our readers here can think of similar put-downs that have been levelled at them ( fat b*#* … something the cat dragged in … nutcase … fruitcake… ).
We view Jesus’s words about “hard-heartedness” differently
Even if there is unfaithfulness, the Christian should attempt to forgive. Jesus disagreed with the rabbis who said that divorce was commanded in the case of adultery. Jesus said that divorce was merely permitted and that it should be used only if the adulterer is “hard hearted.” … Jesus taught that we should forgive seventy times seven times, though this is dependent on repentance (Luke 17:4). Jesus permitted divorce only if someone hard-heartedly refuses to repent. (p 297)
I think when Instone-Brewer stipulates that divorce is only valid if someone hard-heartedly refuses to repent, he is going beyond what Jesus said in Matthew 19. To give an extreme but plausible example, consider the possibility that a spouse had been unfaithful only once, but on that occasion he or she contracted HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and then he or she had become profoundly repentant. This example proves that it’s ludicrous to argue that “we should forgive seventy times seven times” in the case of adultery. In Matthew 19, Jesus didn’t stipulate that divorce was only permitted when the other spouse was hard-heartedly unrepentant. Jesus simply noted that divorce was permitted (though not obligatory) for sexual immorality. And He didn’t place restrictive conditions. He didn’t say it was only permitted for repeated, non-repented, hard-hearted sexual sin.
Instone-Brewer thinks Jesus said that Moses permitted (condoned) divorce for hard-heartedness. I do not think Moses condoned divorce for hard-heartedness. I think Moses reluctantly tolerated (suffered) the conduct of hard-hearted Jewish men who were dismissing their wives for trivial reasons — but Moses laid down the law that if a man did that, he could not remarry the wife he had cast off once she had been married to someone else.
I believe that when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus was referring to the fact that Moses suffered men divorcing their wives but drew the line against a man treating his wife as disposable and then re-marrying her after she’d been married to another man. It was this mentality that Moses forbade. Moses only had to institute that law because some men were so hard-hearted as to treat their wives as objects to be discarded like a piece of rubbish but later picked up again. If a man discarded his wife and, after her second marriage had ended, he married her again, it would show he’d been very hard-hearted to have discarded her in first place! It was that kind of male hardheartedness which led to Moses laying down the law in Deuteronomy 24.
Instone-Brewer and I both agree that Jesus was critical of hard-heartedness. But I don’t agree with Instone-Brewer’s view that Jesus was saying divorce is only valid when the vow-breaking spouse shows hard-heartedness in failing to repent.
We disagree about how Jesus stood re Shammai’s doctrine of divorce
Okay, I know this is heady stuff, but I have to say it to make this a thorough explanation of my differences with Instone-Brewer. So bear with me briefly.
I think that Jesus saw fault in how the School of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24. Instone-Brewer thinks that Jesus agreed with the Shammaites. But I don’t believe that. You really need to study my book to get your head around my argument. I am sad that most people don’t seem to have bothered to grasp the intricacies of my argument.
Why is my argument so intricate? The argument only had to be intricate because the multiple misunderstandings of the scriptures relating to divorce had been so convoluted, so inter-woven, so multi-layered … not to mention how many of them had been traditionally accepted and passed down for
These misunderstandings were like a complicated wooden puzzle that tests your IQ. Disassembling all the misunderstandings of the scriptural passages on divorce, and then working out where the pieces must correctly go to fit the whole counsel of God, requires brainwork!
We interpret 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 differently
Instone-Brewer thinks that in these two verses Paul was condemning Greco-Roman ‘divorce-by-separation’. He says:
Paul did not allow any Christian to use the Greco-Roman procedure of divorce by separation. (p 201)
Paul added that if divorce by separation had occurred, believers must do everything they can to reverse it. (p 199)
In verses 10-11, I don’t see Paul telling two believing spouses that they must do everything they can to reverse the separation. Paul gives two options for the spouses in such circumstances:
- remain unmarried (= Greco-Roman divorce by separation)
- or reconcile.
He does not say one option is better than the other, and he certainly doesn’t demand or require reconciliation of the marriage. I don’t understand how Instone-Brewer thinks that Paul is telling the spouses to “do everything they can to reverse the separation”. While that may be an allowable inference/application from other parts of Scripture, it is not spelled out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.
We interpret 1 Corinthians 7:15 differently
Instone-Brewer think this verse only refers to ‘simple’ desertion — when the unbeliever walks out, or throws the believer out/tells the believer to leave. He does not seem to consider the scenario that often occurs in domestic abuse, where a believer might leave an unbeliever because of abuse. He is therefore silent on the idea of constructive desertion as an application of verse 15.
EXPLAINER: In a case of constructive desertion, spouse B separates from spouse A, but the behaviour and attitude of spouse A is what caused spouse B to separate. The legal term ‘constructive desertion’ points to the fact that although B appears to be the one who left, A is construed as having the caused marital breakdown.
Paul emphasised that the believer should try to maintain a marriage even if the spouse was not a believer. He was writing when some believers had already separated (i.e., divorced) their unbelieving partners, and he told them to seek reconciliation. It was only when their unbelieving partners divorced them against their will that Paul allowed them to regard the marriage as ended in divorce. (p 297)
Consider the typical scenario that occurs in abuse, where the victimized Christian wants to divorce the abuser, but the abuser—the nonbeliever who masquerades as a Christian—is all the time protesting that he wants the marriage to continue. Now think about how that scenario configures with Instone-Brewer’s rule cited just above, that “It was only when their unbelieving partners divorced them against their will that Paul allowed them to regard the marriage as ended in divorce.” Instone-Brewer seems to have been unaware that his rule would deny the victim the liberty to divorce her abuser. I’m sure Instone-Brewer didn’t mean to deny victims of abuse their freedom. I think he was simply unaware of how his rule would affect victims, because he hadn’t understood enough about the inverted dynamics that characterize abuse. And I’m deliberately speaking in the past tense in this paragraph because for all I know Instone-Brewer is now more aware of the inverted dynamics of abuse. After all, he read my book and wrote an endorsement of it which I was very glad to feature on my back cover! (Thanks, David!)
We differ on Church discipline in relation to 1 Corinthians 7:15
Here is what I believe: an abuser cannot be a Christian. Why do I believe this? A regenerate person who has been born again by God’s grace, could not continue to exert the patterns of coercive control which abusers engage in without being driven to repentance by the Holy Spirit.
When I wrote my book, I advocated for Matthew 18 to be used to determine whether a covenant-breaking spouse who professes Christ is actually an unbeliever and can thus be divorced by the believing partner (1 Cor 7:15 /constructive desertion). Later I changed my mind (link). I now think that 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 is the most appropriate text when dealing with heinously sinning spouses such as abusers.
Instone-Brewer rejects as ‘legalistic casuistry’ the notion that a person who refuses church discipline is to be treated as a nonbeliever — bringing the situation into the purview of of 1 Cor 7:15. And he doesn’t discuss 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 at all.
He says that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows divorce for desertion by a nonbeliever OR a so-called believer. He thinks verse 15 applies to any desertion that cannot be reversed.
If believers are deserted by believing partners, Paul commands the deserters to return. There appears to be no doubt that the believers will obey this command. Paul says it is not his own command, but that of Jesus (v. 10: “not I, but the Lord”). Paul therefore does not even discuss the possibility that believing deserters will not return to their partners. If believers did refuse to obey this command, and thereby refuse to obey the direct command of Jesus, the church would presumably be forced to excommunicate them.
Therefore verse 15 applies not only to desertion by an nonbeliever, but to any desertion that cannot be reversed. Paul assumes that this will occur only if the deserter is a nonbeliever, but in a secular minded church, even a so-called believer disobeys the direct command of Christ. (282, emphasis in original)
In light of his mention of the church being “presumably forced to excommunicate a deserting believer who refused to reconcile,” I find it strange that Instone-Brewer pretty much dismisses the idea of church discipline as a preliminary to obtaining a valid divorce.
But my more serious concern is this: Instone-Brewer’s teaching in the above quote is dangerous for victims of abuse. It doesn’t take into account that abusers tell everyone they want the separation reversed, which makes the victim looks like a deserter who is sinfully refusing to reverse the separation. (My first two paragraphs in this post highlighted this problem.) So Instone-Brewer’s interpretation unfortunately—and I’m sure inadvertently—leaves the door open to the church condemning an abuse victim for leaving the marriage and refusing to return to her partner. And many churches DO condemn victims in that way because they do not think the person is a victim of domestic abuse, they only think the person is a sinful for deserting the marriage and refusing to reconcile.
We differ in how we talk about remarriage after divorce
Due to his not taking into account that abusers typically say they want the marriage to continue when their partner decides to divorce, Instone-Brewer says some things that are likely to hurt victims. Here is an example —
Paul’s gives very clear instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:11 that the person who has separated from their partner must remain unmarried and attempt to be reconciled with the person they have divorced. … Few people who divorce someone against their will would bother to obey this command unless, like these Corinthians, they were convicted they had done something wrong soon after the divorce. (DRIC, p 103-4)
Clarification added Dec 27 2016. Just before this quote Instone-Brewer stated that he was talking about “a groundless divorce”. He believes that Paul, in 1 Cor 7:10f, is referring only to divorces that have no biblical grounds. But I don’t agree: I think 1 Cor 7:10-15 is referring to more kinds of divorces than only the groundless kind.
Instone-Brewer appears to think that his readers will all be persuaded by his view that 1 Cor 7:10-15 is referring ONLY to groundless divorce. But not all his readers interpret 1 Corinthians 7:10-15 the way he does.
In reality, a sincere Christian who divorces an abuser against the abuser’s will has not only ‘bothered’ to try to obey verses 10 & 11 — “the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife” — the sincere Christian has felt intense conviction at the very prospect of disobeying verse 11 by taking the radical step of divorce. And the sincere Christian may well be suffering condemnation from the church for resisting the church’s pressure to reconcile … because so many churches misjudge abuse situations by perceiving the abuser as the innocent partner.
If a reader is not persuaded by Instone-Brewer’s view that 1 Cor 7:10-15 refers ONLY to groundless divorce, then Instone-Brewer’s words which I quoted above could make a victim of abuse feel guilty for divorcing against their partner’s will and not attempting to be reconciled with the person they have divorced. That’s not helpful at all! It could increase the false guilt of victims, rather than liberating them from false guilt.
End of clarification
Instone-Brewer does not try not to judge who is the guilty and who is the innocent party. The result is that sometimes he uses mutually blaming language.
Instone-Brewer states that he does not try not to judge who is the guilty and who is the innocent party:
(DRIC p 114) I have come across too many instances where the innocent partner is ostracised by a church — wives of highly respected ministers who, in private, are abusive or unfaithful, or husbands who are assumed to be guilty of some unknown sin because their wives walked out on them. Only God can reliably judge who is the guilty and who is the innocent partner. In any case, by the time most marriages break up, both partners have broken their vows to support each other.
My own practice therefore is to not attempt to judge who is the innocent and who is the guilty. I feel that it is better to leave justice and forgiveness to God. This does not mean that we should ignore the sin of breaking up the marriage, but we should remember that we are not the ones against whom the sin has been committed. The person who breaks their marriage vows has sinned against their partner and against God before whom those vows were made, and they should ask forgiveness from both of them. I therefore always have a Service of Repentance for broken promises before any marriage involving a divorcee…
How can he acknowledge the injustice of churches ostracising the innocent partner, but not be prepared to come down and say that Lesley is the innocent partner and Lindsey is the guilty partner? (I chose gender neutral names on purpose.) It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s contradictory. His practice means he can end up mutualizing the blame when it ought not be mutualized. He doesn’t wholly see that in the vast majority of abuse situations, the blame is only, wholly, to be laid on the abuser for breaking the covenant.
And here is another example of him mutualizing the blame; he is writing in response to a victim of abuse.
God loves you and knows that you are a victim, as well as knowing the ways in which you may perhaps have contributed to this marriage breakdown. (DRIC p 166)
The victim of abuse cannot be held guilty for breaking their marriage vows, just as the Christians in concentration camps couldn’t be held guilty for working on the Sabbath when the Nazis forced them to. I deal with marriage vows in chapter 7 of my book. And unlike Instone-Brewer, I would never suggest a victim of abuse who has divorced the abuser and is going to remarry ought to partake in a Service of Repentance for breaking marriage vows. In my view, that would be laying false blame on the victim. If the victim asked for that kind of Service, it’s a different matter, but I don’t think it’s up to the pastor to suggest it.
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Defining domestic abuse by a list of behaviors is never going to capture it – by Barbara Roberts
How to Spot an Abuser Who Claims to be the Victim – by Jeff Crippen