A November 5, 2007 Time Magazine article entitled "An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce?" caught my attention this week. It is an interesting examination of a report from British Evangelical scholar David Instone-Brewer entitled "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce." The conservative evangelical wing of the church has long held that divorce is forbidden and this has in many cases lead to pastors as soon as 30 years ago sending women home to abusive husbands to be dutiful wives. Now it seems, at least some, evangelicals are having a change of heart.
This is ironic in my mind. Truth be told, fundamentalist have always done this. Argue that scripture is in unwavering word of God and is not open to contextualization or new understanding. At the same time, they have long argued when reminded of scripture passages that espouse reducing the role of women, stoning adulterers, etc that these passages must be understood in “their context.” This sort of biblical dance has always been for me a bit on the ridiculous side and reduces the credibility of Christians who take seriously the need to journey in faith, and struggle with scripture and its meaning in our modern world. Now the evangelical church is opening a conversation about biblical teaching which hitherto has been untouchable for them. Cleverly, this scholar believes that the whole thing has been misunderstood all these years because the Greek manuscripts did not use quotation marks around certain phrases. The periocpe that is most often used is Matthew 19:3-6.
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ 4He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, 5and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 7They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ 8He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’*
The quotations are supposedly missing from the “for any cause” in verse 3. That would make this passage different in the sense of “No-fault” divorce. Jesus then answers – oh well of course not except if there is adultery involved. This then leads naturally enough to the assumption that Jesus would not have wanted people trapped in abusive and awful marriages.
Evangelicals have now found a convenient way to accept what many of us Christians have accepted for years – Sometimes there is a death in marriage long before either of the partners in that marriage dies. I wondered quietly these past few years when this might become a more vocal conversation for evangelicals. It is not uncommon for St. Mark’s by-the-Lake to be the home of marriages that are unwelcome in other sectors of the church. As more and more couples become disenfranchised by the evangelical understanding of divorce there is an emerging problem of loss of members to more liberal and I am sure in evangelical eyes, heretical churches. So now is a convenient time to get a new understanding of biblical teaching on marriage. Good for them – now the question becomes when will the conservative church find a new interpretation of biblical passages that relate to homosexuality?
I can’t wait.