Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Evangelical Scholar Rethinks Divorce

It seems as if some conservative evangelical Christians may be coming to the view that one cannot always take the Bible literally, at face value. It seems as if some conservative evangelicals are reconsidering what it meant by the Bible passages concerning divorce.

Last month, Christianity Today featured an article, "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce." In this article, the author, David Instone-Brewer, focuses on the two Bible passages that the most extremely conservative of Christians still use today as a scriptural justification to ban divorce.

In Matthew, the Pharisees ask Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?", to which Jesus is credited as having responded, "Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, commits adultery." In First Corinthians, Paul later asserted that a Christian is no longer bound to a non-Christian spouse who abandons them.

Instone-Brewer, puts forth the idea that Jesus' questioners 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. He further asserted that Jesus' "no" was a response to the no-fault idea; that his "except for sexual indecency" condition was not the sole exemption from a blanket prohibition, but merely his reiteration of one of several divorce conditions in the Old Testament. Instone-Brewer gave four grounds for divorce he found affirmed in both Testaments: adultery, emotional and sexual neglect, abandonment (by anyone) and abuse.

Indeed, to allow for adultery and not physical abuse would be inhumane: how could a loving God forbid divorce, even by omission, in cases of wife-beating, or of abandonment by a Christian spouse?

Catholicism bans divorce entirely, and extreme fundamentalist Protestants adhered to a literal interpretation of scripture. As a case in point, it was common as recently as 30 years ago for fundamentalist pastors to counsel battered women to return home to their abusive husbands and to tell them to be more submissive so that he'd not have cause to beat them. Some slightly more "enlightened' fundamentalists would allow for divorce in extreme cases, but would mandate that the divorced person not ever remarry.

Instone-Brewer's article indicates that even the most hidebound denominations can eventually accept reality and to finally take a humane approach and use some common sense in reponse to social issues in today's society.

And statistics indicate that most fundamentalists ignore the traditional teachings, anyway:
polls released by the Barna Research Group in 2001, showed that the divorce rate for evangelicals has been as high or higher than the national average.

This isn't the first time, they've budged and given in to reality. Christians once believed in the divine right of kings, but that went by the wayside a couple of centuries ago. Similarly, as recently as the middle sixties, fundamentalists still asserted that racial segregation was God's plan and spoke out against "interracial" marriage -- read some of Jerry Falwell's old sermons from that era if you don't believe me -- even though more enlightened Christians began realizing that racism was wrong as early as the 18th century;.

And if Christianity is to survive as a dynamic faith and not die of obdurate "static-ness", they'll do so again. The most likely issues where they'll likely eventually give in to common sense are the ideas of women's equality in marriage and to accept same-sex marriage.

We can only hope.

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