A Review of “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church” by David Instone-Brewer

brewerOne of the most difficult contemporary issues that the church has to wrestle with is the issue of divorce and remarriage. Is divorce every acceptable? On what grounds can a person divorce their spouse? What options are available to the victims of abuse within marriage? How should the church understand the teachings of Scripture on the subject? These and many more questions plague us. They plagued David-Instone-Brewer as well, that’s why he decided to research the subject and eventually write Divorce and Remarriage in the Church.  This book does a tremendous job of helping to explain some, though not all, of the tensions within the Bible’s teaching on divorce.

Instone-Brewer is research fellow at Tyndale House in Cambrige, England. Prior to that position he was, however, a “confused minister.” He was confused particularly on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Three particular issues confused him; he writes:

I had always found the Bible passages about this to be confusion and contradictory:

  • Why did Jesus sometimes say no to divorce and sometimes allow it?

  • Why did Jesus allow divorce only for adultery while Paul allowed it only for desertion?

  • Why was marriage equivalent to adultery, even though it was after a divorce for adultery? (12)

It was in this context that he began to research and study. He looked particularly at the Jewish and Roman contexts to help him understand the setting of Jesus’ and Paul’s words on divorce.

The book’s fifteen chapters span the Bible’s comprehensive teaching on divorce and end with practical suggestions for application in the local church. He focuses on two dominant passages in the Old Testament, Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24. He finds here, particularly in the Exodus passage, a three-fold justification for divorce: failure to provide food, clothing, or conjugal love. These three requirements become a central grid for looking at the rest of the Bible’s teaching on divorce, particularly as he moves into the New Testament.

The New Testament contains two primary texts on the issue of divorce. The first is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19, where he states the only ground for divorce is sexual immorality. The second text is Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, where he states that the only ground for divorce is abandonment by an unbeliever. These two texts seem to exist in tension. Jesus establishes one ground and yet Paul seems at liberty to expand it. This tension has confused many pastors and scholars, and it confused Instone-Brewer as well. Thus, he sought an explanation. By exploring the context of these teachings he finds a solution.

In particular, he notes the existence of a debate among the Jews about Deuteronomy 24. Some had suggested two grounds for divorce existed in this text: (1) adultery, and (2) “Any Cause.” As the religious leaders approach Jesus and ask him about divorce, Instone-Brewer claims, they are asking if Jesus accepts the “any cause” grounds for divorce. Jesus’ response, then, is simply answer their question, “No, Deuteronomy 24 only gives the grounds of marital unfaithfulness.” Jesus is not here giving us a complete theology of divorce. The argument helps to explain the tension that exists between Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not limiting all divorce to marital unfaithfulness, but simply stating that Deuteronomy 24 only speaks to this one ground. Exodus 21, instead, becomes the focus of broader divorce discussions, which Instone-Brewer claims Paul picks up in 1 Corinthians 7.

As a whole the book is incredibly well-written. Instone-Brewer deals directly with the primary texts of Scripture, highlights key secondary source documents that support his claims, and he includes references to them for further study. He offers Biblical-exegetical arguments to help resolve the tensions that many readers have found in the text of Scripture. I personally found many of his arguments compelling, insightful, and practically helpful. Not everything, however, is as crisp and clean as Instone-Brewer attempts to make it.

There are times where he assumes more than he proves. In particular, much of his discussion revolving around Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 assumes that the apostle is referencing Exodus 21 without actually proving this is his reference point. He also suggests that Jesus is being hyperbolic when he compares remarriage after divorce with adultery. This is not demonstratively proven, however, it is rather poorly developed and unconvincing (122). Not every argument is as well developed and exegetically grounded as the others.

At other times, the author seems to completely sideline the church in discussions of divorce. He articulates an approach to divorce that simply leaves it in the hands of the individuals to determine Biblical validity. The church has no part to play in helping the individuals discern truth (105). I completely disagree with this approach and find it to be poorly defended as a biblical position.

Overall there was much about this book that I found compelling and enlightening. Further work is needed for the full weight of Instone-Brewer’s arguments to be cogent; yet I do find much of what he says more convincing that the current contemporary options regarding the Biblical teaching on divorce. I am hopeful for future scholarship to expand upon this initial work. I commend Divorce and Remarriage in the Church as an important challenge to the church’s current approach to the subject. If it is not ultimately convincing to everyone, it may yet still help us to refine our approach in small ways.

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