...Let Man Not Separate

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.

Athol Dickson

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  


gb said... October 9, 2007 at 2:37 PM  

So well said. Thank you, Athol.

Athol Dickson said... October 9, 2007 at 3:16 PM  

I know these are unpopular beliefs, because they are sometimes very hard beliefs to follow. So I thought the first comment might be from someone who wants to rake me over the coals for being hard hearted. Thanks for taking time to offer your encouragment.

Michelle Pendergrass said... October 10, 2007 at 10:48 AM  

Sometimes people (like me) make uninformed, ignorant, and bad decisions.

I was a very new Christian, I had accepted Christ after being atheist. My boyfriend proposed and we got married because he had just accepted Christ (after being atheist) so he and others at this new church convinced me it was God's will. No one advised me to wait and I was excited about finally having God on my side.

Four months later, he left me saying he "didn't want to be married anymore." I was instructed by the pastor to reconcile or not ever marry again because I'd be committing a life of adultery.

I was 19.

My ex refused to reconcile, I gave my all to follow Christ, people promised me divorce was not God's will. The divorce was final, the church turned their back on me because I was a divorced woman. So I left and was on my own.

I should have never married him. God knew that and allowed what happened to happen. Then in a traffic jam some years later, I met the man God intended for me. We've been together 14 years now.

I understand that God does not wish for divorce, but he also hates lies and pride, but he never condemns us to a life wearing our sin as a scarlet letter. Yes, we reap what we sow. But there's forgiveness after repentance.

My divorce did not include physical abuse, but it did include emotional abuse. To ask a woman to remain "engaged" with her abuser is dangerous ground to tread.

Since only God knows the heart, it is impossible for us to know whether or not a husband is a true believer. Marriage is not ever one-sided and it should not be left for the woman to carry on her own.

I've went on long enough. I wish you'd include grace your opinion of this topic.

Athol Dickson said... October 10, 2007 at 3:04 PM  


Bear in mind that I can’t discuss every aspect of divorce in one blog entry. My purpose here was narrow and specific: to expose a false interpretation of one piece of Scripture by a man who seems to want to justify divorce on the basis of that Scripture.

I think it is deplorable that your church “turned their back” on you after your divorce. While Jesus and Paul both made it clear there are times when that is necessary, neither of them suggested it as punishment for past sins. The goal of it is always either to protect the members from temptation, or to restore a persistent sinner to peace with God. Rarely could either goal be achieved in the case of divorce, since it is not an ongoing or persistent kind of sin (being a single act in the past), and since the temptation to divorce does not arise merely by virtue of exposure to the divorce of others.

Furthermore, it may be that your first husband was not truly a believer as you imply, and as his actions certainly lead one to suspect. If so, Paul clearly says you had the freedom to divorce him.

People accuse me of hard-heartedness sometimes, because I will not cherry pick verses or “interpret” them in ways that contradict their plain sense meaning on divorce. I do know how painful a bad marriage is, having been in one myself many years ago. So I read the article mentioned in this blog with a sincere hope that the author had found something I have missed. I dearly wish the Bible allowed divorce and remarriage on the basis of neglect or abuse, be it physical or emotional. But the man’s scholarship was flawed as I wrote above, so I have still not seen a scripture that says two believers can divorce each other for any reason other than adultery, and I am very much afraid it is a post-modern gloss upon the text to say neglect or abuse are forms of adultery. The Greek word for "adultery" in Jesus' teaching is porneia, root of our "pornography," so that word in the time of Jesus had a specifically sexual meaning. It did not mean "abuse" or "neglect".

So...when I divorced and remarried, I sinned, pure and simple.

All I can do after that confession is seek the Lord’s forgiveness. This I did a long time ago, and of course God gave forgiveness on the basis of the cross. Anyone who would try to keep me tied up in guilt now could not possibly understand our Father’s amazing grace. The same is true of anyone who would condemn you, Michelle.


Michelle Pendergrass said... October 10, 2007 at 5:59 PM  

I was hesitant to post what I did because I know that every case can't be sifted through. I know that we need to stand firm on issues that more and more are getting diluted to suit some sects. The "feel-good" mentality disturbs me and from that aspect, I understand being firm.

The church seemed to think that by divorcing and getting remarried that I would be a persistent adulteress and therefore, I could not be reconciled. I get where they were coming from, but they left out the grace.

I absolutely do no agree with cherry-picking verses. I'm glad you study and interpret and I've found your essays engaging.

I don't have any evidence to back up my next thought, maybe one day I'll find it, maybe not. God knew in my heart I did not want to be divorced. I did what I could with what I had, I prayed the way I knew how to pray and hoped for the things I thought He would have me hope for. The divorce still happened and I had to move on from that.

Was it a sin that I divorced? Y'know what? That's hard for me to say since I didn't initiate it, I didn't want it and I was willing to do what it took to save the marriage. The Bible is clear that divorce is sin, so I guess I sinned. I repented even though I didn't really understand what part I played. I know not every case is like this. There are women who make choices to stay with their abusers. My ex emotionally abused me during the time we were together, though I couldn't have named it at the time, I would have stayed if something would have happened, if he'd have stopped the divorce.

Maybe where I sinned was the new marriage? How do I say in the same breath, "Father, Abba...thank you for this wonderful man that you've given me. I'm sorry I'm married to him because to marry again is adultery" Because repentance, as I understand it, is not just being sorry, but turning and walking the other way. So then, I guess I really haven't repented and I'm a perpetual adulteress.

And yet He blesses me anyway.

I think that may be the lesson wrapped up in the scriptures on divorce, just like the story of Hosea.

Like I said, I have no basis other than my experience.

There will always be those who try to keep me chained in my sin, I have to learn to ignore them and focus on God's grace and mercy. It is in him that I find my worth. What I worry about is those that haven't learned their worth is solely and completely wrapped up in Him, those that are still looking for acceptance from this warped culture. And that is where I think people like this man who wrote that article are trying articulate, but you can't explain a grace so grand.

Dayle James Arceneaux said... October 10, 2007 at 8:33 PM  

What about the idea that since Michelle's ex left her, he intended on having sex with someone else. That may be interpreted by some as adultery of the heart.

However, if Mr. Dickson is correct about the true physical act equation, he will still eventually have sex with someone else. Probably very soon. So I suggest a spiritual divorce may not depend on the timing of the U.S. legal system.

Athol - What about the idea that he is divorcing her. She is not divorcing him?

Don't we also have to take into account the fact that only men could file for divorce?

Athol Dickson said... October 11, 2007 at 12:23 AM  


It seems like you still feel a burden in this matter, even though it all happened long ago. How I wish I could help! Possibly it’s just a lot of useless baggage the legalistic people in your church back then piled onto you, or maybe you really do have some unresolved issues to work out with the Lord. Who am I to say, one way or the other?

But I do think you might benefit from thinking about what Jesus said when the Pharisees accused his hungry disciples of dishonoring the Sabbath by doing the "work" of gleaning the fields. Remember? He reminded them of David, who allowed his men to eat the tabernacle bread—a capital offense, for which they were not punished. He said God's law exists for us, not the other way around. ("Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man.") So when you write, "I didn't initiate it [the divorce], I didn't want it and I was willing to do what it took to save the marriage," it seems to me God knows your heart’s condition, and can be trusted to judge your actions mercifully, just as He judged David. Also, if what you say is true, then one does not need to be God to see you did not divorce your husband; it was the other way around. Given that, it might also help you to read chapter 18 in Ezekiel, where we find: “No one sins for someone else.”

As for being in ongoing adultery due to your remarriage, it seems to me that too depends upon your heart’s desire regarding the divorce in the first place. And again, on that matter only you and God know where you stand. No one else on earth can judge you. It does seem to me that a marriage truly centered on the Lord will prosper, whereas one entered into without Him will not. So perhaps you should consider the spiritual fruit of your marriage, and let that be one proof of your condition.

Regarding God’s “grand grace” (a lovely turn of phrase) and the man who wrote the article, I can only hope you are right about his motivation, but even if so, his argument remains deeply flawed from a scriptural perspective.


You make some excellent points.

Any marriage between two Christians is first a spiritual covenant before God, and only secondarily a legal contract. Therefore, divorce between two Christians is also primarily a spiritual matter before God. Much as circumcision of the male sexual member seals a Jew’s spiritual covenant with God, so the spiritual covenant of marriage is sealed with sexual union. (Remember Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question on divorce: "...the two will become one flesh.") Jesus allows a legal divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness because spiritually speaking, in that case the divorce has already happened and the legal process is merely a formal acknowledgment of an accomplished fact. In other words, Jesus warns about “causing” adultery through a legal divorce because even legally divorced Christians are still married in God's eyes until one of them "divorces" the other with through sexually infidelity. This spiritual divorce could happen before or after a legal divorce, as you say, and once it happens, the other partner is freed of their spiritual obligation.

Also, your point about a woman's inability to divorce in first century Judaism is important. It means Jesus' teaching is in fact a blessing for women, who were being divorced “for any reason" and thrown out of their homes with nothing. By narrowing the acceptable cause for divorce down to sexual infidelity, Jesus protected women from this injustice.


Michelle Pendergrass said... October 11, 2007 at 6:13 AM  

I suppose it may seem that I still carry a burden, I can see how you'd feel that. The things I said and questions I posed are the valley I went through. I've had my time of circumcision and healing in Gilgal, the burden I carry now is that for other women who are desperate to know that God loves them individually, even though they're scarred by this divorce that God hates.

I never imagined that Christian women would feel so ashamed, dirty, and worthless because of husbands who have violated them emotionally. These are scarred women, crying out for God's mercy. Instead of taking His almighty hand, they're stuck on what the people of the church say.

I do understand that sometimes God's people live under oppression. But some are the Nehemiah's that come to rebuild. Some are the Joshua's that lead the oppressed into the promised land. Sometimes God makes His people go through battles and come out with scars to remember Him and what He has done.

I feel as if I've been through the valleys and the battles, I know without a doubt who it was that orchestrated every moment of it, and I feel like Peter when Jesus told him Satan wished to sift him like wheat then, "when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers."

The other burden I shoulder is that for the young women God has put in my life that need to understand the commitment level of marriage. Instead of ministering to already married women, God has often led unmarried women and divorced women to me.

And finally, I know I have issues with legalism. I've been hurt by many who have handed God's grace back to Him with a polite nod of the head while never shutting their legalistic mouths long enough to entertain they might be missing something important.

So yes, I do have burdens and issues, but I think I carry them for my hurting friends and people unaware of what is is to be healed by Grace.

Kay said... October 11, 2007 at 8:38 AM  

In the Bible, and I think it's the same now, it was a husband's place to care for his wife and provide for her. In Michelle's case, I don't think she was divorced. I think she was abandoned. I don't think she is/was in the wrong in any way.
Thank you for being hard hearted, Athol. :) I think too few people are these days.
I have done a lot of thinking on this topic, both for personal reasons and because I wanted to understand why women I know were so much more happy in their second marriage than in their first.
I believe it is because God is a Redeemer. He redeems people and He redeems circumstances.
I know a woman who stuck in a terrible, abusive marriage because God told her to. And her husband eventually came to Christ. She is now 90 and shines like no one I know!
God is gracious and forgiving. Not that we should ever abuse that grace. But we certainly should praise Him for it!

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