Culture,  Theology/Bible

TIME Covers Evangelicals and Divorce

A week or so ago, I directed your attention to David Instone-Brewer’s controversial cover story from the October issue of Christianity Today: “What God Has Joined: What does the Bible really teach about divorce?” In my original post, I noted the series of responses and rejoinders that resulted, chiefly from John Piper and Andreas Köstenberger.

Instone-Brewer’s article appeared to be broadening the grounds for legitimate divorce. Typically, evangelicals have understood divorce to be a sin, except in cases of adultery (Matthew 19:9) and abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:15). Instone-Brewer says that the Bible allows for divorce not only in cases of adultery and abandonment, but also in cases of emotional and/or physical neglect and in cases of abuse.

For obvious reasons, Instone-Brewer’s article was not well-received by more traditionalist evangelicals. What married person hasn’t felt that he or she has ever been “emotionally” neglected by his or her spouse? Almost every married person experiences that kind of alienation in some measure. Are we really going to say that it constitutes grounds for divorce?

In any case, TIME magazine picked up the ensuing controversy in an article written by David Van Biema: “An Evangelcial Rethink on Divorce?” Van Biema sums up the significance of the dispute this way:

“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. . . 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.”

Wow. Van Biema’s logic is this. If evangelicals are willing to back off of their opposition to divorce, they might be willing to back off from their opposition to homosexuality. The sad thing is that the willingness of evangelicals to call homosexuality sin is already waning. The diminished commitment to truth among “evangelicals” is not merely a future possibility; it is already a present reality.


  • Paul Findlay

    Just to touch on emotional neglect, you did see Mr. Instone-Brewer’s clarifications

    I share your main problem with my CT article, which is that some people who are not familiar with my work might conclude that I’m advocating divorce for minor reasons. My actual conclusions are closer to yours – that neglect has to be persistent and serious, ie more-or-less equivalent to abandonment (a concept which you rightly picked up from my books).

    I sometimes wonder if “traditionalist evangelicals” can follow Luther’s advice in his Smaller Catechism’s section on the Eighth Commandment.

    I’m not American, so I’m not involved in the culture war you guys seem to love (John Piper is writing for World Magazine on the military’s departure from biblical gender roles?), but what do you mean by “opposition to homosexuality”. Is it the same as opposition to original sin, or is it loudly going on about homosexuals in the public sphere? I think I know which one many younger evangelicals are sick of and mean by their churches being “anti-homosexual”. Anyway, the conclusion on that article seems forced to me (evangelicals are the most rule-bound Christians? Have you tasted Roman Catholic canon law..).

  • Frank

    In reading I-B works, one must question the concept of ‘Any Cause’ divorce of Mt 19:3. I-B and several authors before have noted that the ‘Any Cause’ divorce was a debate between two schools of Pharisees on the meaning of ‘indecency’ in Dt 24:1. Mt 19:9 would imply that Jesus sided with the school advocating for adultery only as the true meaning of ‘indecency’ rather than ‘any cause’.

    The ‘Any Cause’ divorce and the Dt 24:1 debate appears in the Talmud, Philo, and Josephus, something that biblical scholars missed until the 20th century. Whether you think that scripture should harmonize with history or stand by itself is perhaps a valid debate. I believe that scripture was often written in response to the problems of its day, i.e. in this case the 1st century Pharisaical debate on Dt 24:1.

    This leaves the rights of the in Ex 21:10-11. 1st century to modern day Jews accepted these rights. Does Jesus abrogate these as well in Mt 19:9? Apparently not, as Paul uses the Ex concepts in 1 Co 7. Note that he says ‘no longer enslaved’ in verse 15 in the proper Greek. This is in reference to the slave wife going free in Ex 21.

    As for when a divorce is righteous, Jesus gives us instructions in Mt 19:8. The cause whether, it’s abuse, adultery, or abandonment must be persistent and the offending party unrepentant, hence “hardness of heart”.

    I respectfully fail to see how any of this endorses homosexuality.


  • MatthewS


    Piper: So in the meantime, hundreds of wavering spouses may finally feel legitimized in their desire for divorce. “Here, at last, is a scholar who tells me that not only adultery, but neglect of honoring me is enough.” That just about releases all of us from our marriage covenants and puts an end to all church discipline. For there are no spouses who do not regularly dishonor their mate.

    Denny: Almost every married person experiences that kind of alienation in some measure. Are we really going to say that it constitutes grounds for divorce?

    I have two concerns with these quotes.
    1) They aren’t fair to Instone-Brewer’s intent
    2) They are concerned with someone who doesn’t exist, and they aren’t concerned with someone who does exist

    Here is what I mean by #2. As I read the given quotes, I get the picture of a church full of marriages with one or both spouses secretly wishing they could divorce, yet they stick together because the church keeps preaching that divorce is a sin. However, this article may be the thing that pushes them off the cliff and they will now head for divorce.

    But is this true? Is your church really full of these people? I don’t think mine is. Imperfect marriages, sure, but not ones hanging by a thread, with spouses pining away for an excuse to divorce.

    However, abuse happens in the Church. It is a fact and I have seen it up close and personal. Yet, Piper doesn’t offer any advice to victims of abuse. You don’t either. This, in response to an article that does discuss abuse.

    Why focus such fear on the group that doesn’t exist (the hundreds of spouses pining away for divorce) and ignore the group that does (the victims of abuse)?

    Let me put it succintly: You wouldln’t hold a woman down while her man hits her. But you do it with your words when you send her back into the situation with no escape clause.

    I am not trying to slam you against the wall. I have been thinking about the articles and this was part of the thinking that was rolling around in my head and I wanted to try to express it.

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