Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage

Anne was clearly angry. She relayed how her former husband had been abusive, had beaten her and sexually violated her. Despite this, however, he had never – as far as she knew – had an affair. Did this mean she had sinned before God for leaving her marriage? Was she now required to remain celibate for the rest of her life? Anne recited Jesus’ words with palpable sarcasm, “whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Christian MarriageAnne’s story was the real life face of an intellectual journey and struggle I had faced some years earlier during my theology studies. How should I understand the bibles teaching on divorce? When I was at Bible College I remember two approaches vividly.

The first was from a marriage counsellor who, when I asked him if we should counsel battered spouses to leave their marriages, responded “no, until death do we part”. He refused to take with any seriousness my suggestion that in some cases the death of one spouse might be a realistic outcome of the battered spouse does not leave.

The second was a lecturer who argued that the New Testament did not speak unequivocally on this topic. While Matthew’s gospel allowed an exception for adultery, Mark’s gospel seemed to condemn divorce outright with no exceptions. On the other hand Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, contended that a person abandoned by their spouse “is not bound”. The Greek in this epistle alluded to the wording of a Jewish divorce certificate, which stated that the person in question had a right to remarry. The lecturer, quite correctly, concluded that Paul allowed divorce and remarriage for abandonment. The lecturer then suggested that because Paul added to Jesus’ teaching so could we.

Both approaches seemed to me to be evidently problematic. My questions remained equally unsolved by the Pastor who told me that he accepted Jesus’ teaching as correct but did not follow it because it was “impractical” in the real world and in his experience. I was underwhelmed by the author who suggested that because Mark, Paul and Matthew disagreed, we should just choose the one we find the most congenial.

Then I discovered a study, which to my mind answered my questions and addressed Anne’s concerns. The book was Divorce and Re-Marriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context by David Instone-Brewer. Brewer is a scholar of first century rabbinical writings. In his book he places Christ’s teaching within the cultural context of first century Judaism; the results are interesting and enlightening.

The passage Anne cited comes from Matthew 19. This passage begins with a question from the Pharisees – the Jewish religious scholars at that time – which asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” In the dialogue the Pharisees appeal to Deuteronomy 24 and ask, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” The passage Anne cited is part of Christ’s response to this argument.

Brewer’s study documents the background of this debate. In the Judaism of Christ’s day there was a consensus that people could divorce on grounds of abuse or serious neglect. This was based on a passage in Exodus 21, which regulated a man’s relationship with a concubine; although I would argue that the bible does not condone this practice, its existence meant the Old Testament law (The Torah) did tolerate and regulate it. The Torah stated that if a concubine was deprived of “food,” “clothing” or “conjugal rights” then she was free to leave.  The Rabbis argued, quite sensibly, that if this was true of a concubine then how much more true is it for a wife?

The requirements to provide food, clothing and conjugal rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows. Hence, by the time of Christ the consensus was that divorce was allowed for the gross violation of these vows through abuse or neglect. This position was assumed both by the conservative school of Shammai and the liberal school of Hillel; the two dominant schools of thought in Christ’s day.

Where these schools differed was over Deuteronomy 24 – the very passage cited by the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. This passage refers to a man divorcing his wife for “a reason of sexual immorality”. The liberal Hillel Rabbis split this phrase into two separate clauses and argued it allowed a person to divorce for “immorality”, which they understood as adultery, and also for “a reason”, which they understood as any reason at all. Some liberal Rabbis were quite candid, the reference to “a reason” meant a man could divorce his wife if she cooked him a bad meal or if he thought she was too ugly or if perhaps he saw someone more attractive and he wanted to ‘trade her in’. However, the conservative Shammai Rabbis argued that it should be read as a single phrase, “a reason of sexual immorality” so that the passage only allows divorce for adultery.

Despite their differences, both schools recognised divorces granted by the other schools courts as valid. Hence, a person who had a Hillelite “any reason” divorce would have their divorce recognised as valid by a Shammaite court.

Brewer also documents how records of rabbinical debates tended to not spell out all the background details and qualifications, which everyone at the time knew about.  An example from contemporary moral debates might illustrate this. In New Zealand society today there is an ongoing debate over the drinking age. Now suppose I hear someone on the radio saying “the drinking age should be 18.” I would not interpret this to mean that the person supports a ban on drinking per se, that they were arguing for young people to consume no fluids – no water, milk, Coca Cola, orange juice or anything – until age 18. That would be a ridiculous interpretation. Rather, I assume they mean to limit their use of the term ‘drinking’, in that context, to refer only to alcoholic drinks. I make this assumption despite the fact that the phrase “drinking age” is commonly used without any explicit qualifications because everyone knows what it means when they hear it. In a similar way, when a conservative Rabbi stated that it was “not lawful to divorce” or it is “not lawful to divorce except for adultery,” people knew the Rabbi was saying that it was wrong to divorce on grounds of “any reason”, a reference to the practice advocated by the liberal school.

This background sheds an interesting light on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 19. When the passage begins with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” it seems that Christ is being asked to comment on the specific proposal of the liberal school. Is it lawful to divorce for not just material and physical neglect and infidelity but does The Torah, in fact, allow a fourth category of “any reason”? The appeal to Deuteronomy 24 to back this up by the Pharisees then fits quite nicely in this context as this was the standard liberal argument.

Christ’s response, in this context, is a rejection of the liberal reading in favour of the conservative one. In fact, Brewer notes the very phraseology and wording Christ used was the same as that used by the Shammaites; however, his claim “whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, and marries another woman commits adultery” took the conservative reading one step further. Not only are liberal “any reason” divorces wrong but they are invalid. People who have divorced on the “any reason” ground did not gain a legitimate divorce.

Brewer’s analysis is the best I have come across to date; it makes sense of the text without requiring the reader to turn a blind eye to the bits that don’t seem to sit right. His argument further explains the apparent differences between Mark, Matthew and Paul. Mark’s gospel is significantly more summarised than Matthew’s, hence his unqualified claim that divorce is forbidden is simply a summary without qualification. Similarly, Paul’s application in 1 Corinthians is not in any real conflict with Jesus’. Taken in its context, Jesus was not condemning a person who, after being abandoned, walked away from the marriage and remarried. Material and physical neglect as a ground of divorce was not in question. In Jesus’ teaching he was simply rejecting the “any reason” approach of the liberal school.

This background to Paul’s writing is strongly suggested by the fact that in the same passage he refers to sexual activity between spouses as a ‘debt’ mutually owed to each other. Brewer notes that Paul’s language and teaching here reflects rabbinical understandings of Exodus 21, which allowed divorce for failure to provide “conjugal rights”. Paul is therefore not adding to Christ’s teaching, he is simply applying it to a different situation.

Brewer’s analysis addresses the concern that we need to adjust Christ’s teaching to the “practical realities of life today”. Brewer shows that Christ’s teaching is immensely practical; it avoids the extreme permissiveness of our modern no-fault culture, where women are abandoned to single parenthood at the whim of a man’s lust (and sometimes vice versa). It also avoids the harsh heartlessness of the counsellor I questioned as a student which condemns abuse victims to a life of brutality and sometimes death.

It also directly addresses the concerns Anne raised. Christ is not saying that a woman who flees a violent spouse is an adulterer if she re-marries; he was addressing a situation where men believed they could divorce their wives for any reason, including frivolous and poor reasons. Beating one’s spouse is a fairly obvious case of serious mistreatment and divorce for reasons like this were taken for granted in Christ’s discussion (it is why dowry’s were paid for brides – so they had financial means if their husbands mistreated them).

As I have met with the Anne’s of this world, I have discovered this information is profoundly important to them. They don’t want to disobey God and yet have often taken years to gain the courage needed to escape an abusive relationship. The Church has not always appropriately responded to their plight; it has felt torn between the harrowing situations their congregants are sometimes living with and what they perceived to be Christ’s teaching on divorce. Brewer’s study helps us see there is no dilemma, people like Anne are free to leave and remarry.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the Feb 2011 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

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