Correction Appended: November 15, 2007
On questions relating to the Bible's treatment of family and morals, one might expect assurance, if not rigidity, from Evangelical Christianity. So, it may surprise many to learn how "live" the topic of divorce remains in Evangelical circles. Last month, the cover story of the monthly Christianity Today was titled "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce." The heated controversy provoked by the story showed how Biblically flexible some Evangelicals can be especially when God's word seems at odds not just with modern American behavior, but also with simple human kindness.
As the article's author, the British Evangelical scholar David Instone-Brewer, points out, for most of 2,000 years Christians have viewed divorce through two scriptural citations. In Matthew, the pharisees ask Christ, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" Jesus refers to the Old Testament and then replies, "Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, commits adultery." The apostle Paul adds in the book First Corinthians that a Christian is "not bound" to a non-Christian spouse who abandons him. Simple, right?
Instone-Brewer radically reinterprets the first passage using, of all things, quotation marks. The Greek of the New Testament didn't always contain them, and scholars agree that sometimes they must be added in to make sense of it. Instone-Brewer, an expert in Jewish thought during Jesus's era, writes that Christ's interlocutors were not asking him whether there was any cause at all for divorce, but whether he supported something called "any-cause" divorce, a term a little bit like "no-fault" that allowed husbands to divorce wives for any reason at all. Instone-Brewer claims Jesus's "no" was a response to this idea, and that his "except for sexual indecency" condition was not a statement of the sole exemption from God's blanket prohibition, but merely Christ's reiteration of one of several divorce permissions in the Old Testament one he felt the "any-time" advocates had exaggerated. Finally, Instone-Brewer tallies four grounds for divorce he finds affirmed in both Old and New Testaments: adultery, emotional and sexual neglect, abandonment (by anyone) and abuse.
Christianity Today has written previously on divorce, often bemoaning how easy it is in today's America. However, the Instone-Brewer essay appeared to be its editors' attempt to offer Evangelicals an escape from a classic dilemma. The "plain sense" of Jesus's words without quotes seems clear enough, but also inhumane: how could a loving God forbid divorce, even by omission, in cases of wife-beating, or of abandonment by a Christian spouse?
Each branch of Christianity deals with divorce in its own way: Catholicism grants some annulments but does not otherwise recognize divorce; those who divorce and remarry are expected to deny themselves the Eucharist. But many divorced people who remarry nonetheless find that their conscience permits them to take Communion.
Liberal Protestantism accepted divorce some decades ago without much engagement of the scriptural issue. Evangelicals define themselves as being tightly bound by scripture. But besides the humanitarian problem, there are some uncomfortable facts on the ground: The divorce rate among Evangelicals, which first became news after polls released by the Barna Research Group in 2001, has been as high or higher than the national average.
The Evangelical movement has actually made tremendous accommodations given the strictures it lives under. Ministries for the newly divorced are common at megachurches; and on the historically less-rigid Pentecostal side of the spectrum, celebrity preachers Juanita Bynum and Paula White both recently announced their intention to divorce. Most experts interviewed for this story attested that whereas 30 years ago, a pastor might well order a battered woman home to return her husband, that is rare today.
More conservative Evangelicals remain uneasy about divorce. If a split itself is inescapable, notes Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch, "remarriage is where the rubber meets the road," and many remarried couples find themselves denied church membership. Says Russel Moore, dean of the 16.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention's influential Southern Seminary, "We teach our future pastors that marriage is a lifelong, one-flesh union." Any woman in an abusive marriage should "leave that situation," he acknowledges, and a "majority" probably accept remarriage. Asked if he does, Moore demurred: "Let me think about that for a little bit. I could answer in a way that would be very easily misunderstood."
Evangelical conflict on the topic was obvious in reader response to the Instone-Brewer essay. Initially the mail was heavily negative. The most stinging broadside sas a column by John Piper, a respected theological conservative, that called the essay not just weak but "tragic." The magazine's editor in chief, David Neff, felt the need to explain online that "Instone-Brewer's article did not... give people carte blanche on divorce." The mail eventually leveled off at 60% negative to 40% positive.
Still, the controversy suggests that even the country's most rule-bound Christians will search for a fresh understanding of scripture when it seems unjust to them. The implications? Flexibility on divorce may mean that evangelicals could also rethink their position on such things as gay marriage, as a generation of Christians far more accepting of homosexuality begins to move into power. (The ever-active Barna folks have found that 57% of "born-again" Christians age 16-29 criticize their own church for being "anti-homosexual.") It could also give heart to a certain twice-divorced former New York mayor who is running for President and seeking the conservative vote. But that may be pushing things a bit.
The original version of this article misstated the Catholic position on divorce. The Roman Catholic Church does not ban divorce. It simply does not recognize it, so that those who remarry without an annulment are expected to forego the Eucharist.