...Let Man Not Separate
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
If only it was true. Christianity Today published an article this month entitled “What God Has Joined,” which blesses divorce on the basis of “emotional neglect,” among other things. I wish I could agree with it, because I am a divorced person who remarried. Unfortunately, the author’s scholarship is flawed, which should come as no surprise since he disagrees with two thousand years of generally accepted church doctrine.
You might want to read the article before continuing here, but when you get to the reference to Exodus 21:10-11, remember to suspend belief for a few minutes, until you come back to read this letter I just sent to the editors of CT:
To the Editors:
According to The Barna Group, Christians abandon marriage in the United States at a rate equaling or exceeding that of unbelievers. David Instone-Brewer seeks scriptural support for this in Exodus 21:10, stating, “Exodus says that everyone…had three rights within marriage…food, clothing, and love.” He equates a lack of love with the “emotional neglect” so commonly cited as a basis for divorce today. But the Hebrew word he creatively interprets as “love” in that verse is not translated that way in any well-known English translation. Nor is it rendered as “love” elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, according to The Englishman’s Hebrew Concordance, the Hebrew word does not even occur in this same form elsewhere in the Bible. That alone should warn us not to base such a far-reaching application upon the verse, but there’s more. Instone-Brewer applies Exodus 21:10-11 to “everyone,” but the woman in the contemplated relationship is a concubine—essentially a slave—who was sold to her “husband” without any choice in the matter and thus cannot be accurately compared to a modern person who freely chooses marriage. Also, with the words “if he marries another woman” the Exodus passage specifically addresses polygamy in particular, and takes pains to exclude monogamous relationships. Although his entire argument is built upon these verses, Instone-Brewer fails to mention any of this.
Sadly, in divorce and many other difficulties millions of North American Christians base choices on the amount of pleasure or pain involved in a decision. As a divorced person myself, I sincerely wish it was that easy. Jesus warned us there would be crosses to bear if we follow Him, and even Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” the Lord would not remove. The hard reality of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is evident in the disciples’ stunned reaction: “…it is better not to marry.” Along with every other sin, our God of mercy will forgive divorce of course, but divorce is still sin in most cases and it is always caused by sin. Rather than joining the Pharisees who sought an easy way around the Bible’s teaching, we should focus on the plain sense meaning of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 19:3-11, and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength to do the hard work of healing our marriages.
I need to add a postscript, which was not part of the letter since it was already running long.
Nothing I have written here should be interpreted as a suggestion that Christian women should cohabit with physically abusive husbands. Far from it. If you are in that situation, my advice is simple: get away from him! But whenever someone treats a Christian like an enemy, it seems to me the commands Jesus gave will apply to the relationship. We must love them, which is to say, we must forgive them, which is to say, we must remain engaged with them. “Turn the other cheek” should not be taken literally in a physically abusive situation, but the metaphor does carry meaning that extends beyond the lips and into actions.
In short: a physically abused wife must keep her distance, but physical separation is not divorce. And short of adultery or an unbelieving spouse’s abandonment, if we don’t stay in a spouse’s life, if we cut ourselves off from all possible reconciliation with a divorce, then “I forgive you” becomes just an empty story told to make ourselves feel better, instead of the extension of Christ’s sacrificial love on earth it ought to be.
Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:58 PM