The final talk in our series (31 mins) compares the teaching of Paul to that of Jesus. Before wrapping up, we also take a quick look at the 2nd/3rd century church, which had strict policies on divorce & remarriage, which I believe went beyond the teaching of the Bible.

The five talks are 26, 18, 21, 18, and 31 minutes each—a total of just under 2 hours.

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  1. The apostle Paul
    1. 1 Cor 7:10-12, 15
      1. “Not I, but the Lord” and “I, not the Lord.” Paul reveals the Lord’s will on an issue common in the Greco-Roman world: mixed marriages. (“I, not the Lord.”) A Christian has a pagan spouse.
      2. Paul and Jesus agree on the subject of divorces between covenant people. Assuming there are no grounds for divorce—and no remarriage—then anyone who deserts a Christian spouse is still married to them. Ideally reconciliation will be reached. Otherwise, one must live as a single person.
      3. Paul accepted neglect (abandonment) as grounds for divorce and remarriage. He refers also to withholding of conjugal love. Thus the promises of the marriage vows are in the background of everything he writes. In 1 Cor 7 Paul stresses the 4 obligations of marriage (corresponding to the 4 grounds for divorce).
      4. Divorce by separation: Desertion is grounds for divorce as it deprives one’s spouse of essential marital rights.
      5. Since separation was divorce in the Roman world, if the unbeliever left, the Christian spouse was free to remarry (“not under bondage”). If Christians could not remarry, they would still be in bondage to a spouse who had left, even if that spouse had remarried.
      6. 1 Cor 7:39: Paul frees the woman from the strictures of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5) – the brother of the widow is required to marry her so that her dead husband’s lineage will not die out. The language of 1 Cor 7:39 (free to marry whoever she may please) is part of all standard ancient divorce documents.
      7. Thus it appears that widows and divorcees had equal rights – permission to remarry. Yet the traditional church interpretation forbids remarriage except after death or adultery. This does not concur with the understanding of 1stcentury rabbis, Jesus, and Paul.
    2. Paul would say to us today
      1. Believers should never cause a divorce, and must not use (any-cause) divorce.
      2. If an unbelieving spouse leaves you, you may remarry.
      3. A believer who wrongly got a divorce should strive to be reconciled, not remarry (which would make the divorce irreversible). If they’re already remarried, of course, it’s too late.
  2. The Church Fathers (Patristic writers)
    1. Incorrect teaching because the original debate—the issues of a bygone age—had been forgotten.
    2. 2nd-C Judaism and Christianity alike overreacted in the area of sexual ethics.
    3. The early church often erred on the side of harshness.
      1. No forgiveness for those who deny Christ.
      2. By the 3rdcentury many leaders allowed only one sin after baptism (and some, none at all!). This led to the custom (4th C.) of delaying baptism till near one’s time of death.
      3. Severe church discipline.
      4. Skewed theology of martyrdom.
      5. Immortality of the soul – and the concomitant doctrine of infinite hell, increasingly explicit…
      6. Asceticism (leading in part to the rise of monasticism): Harsh treatment of the body (Col 2:20-23) easily led to harsh treatment of people.
      7. Church polity—the rise of the bishop, the decline of autonomy, and increasing heavy-handedness.
      8. Celibacy—a good thing, according to Jesus and Paul (Matt 19:11-12; 1 Cor 7:7), although it came to be viewed as a badge of spirituality. In the western church, celibacy was more and more expected of “clergy.”
      9. Divorce—lack of grace, lack of appreciation of nuance.
      10. Remarriage – discouraged, despite Paul’s counsel in 1 Tim 5.
    4. Did the 2nd-century church use certificates of divorce? How would we recognize whether such a document had been written for a Christian or a non-Christian?
      1. Keep in mind that the Gentiles wouldn't have this certificate—by far the greater number of Christ-followers—and in Palestine the Christians were still viewed as Jews.
      2. So it probably would not be obvious in a such document whether someone was a Jew (non-Christian) or a Jewish Christian. (This was long before the multitudinous documents of medieval canon law!)
      3. After the Patristic period
        1. The Catholic Church sacramentalized marriage.
          1. No release.
          2. A horrific form of entrapment, for some.
        2. Protestants normally allowed divorce for adultery and desertion.
        3. Later, liberal Protestants (today) are back to “no-fault” marriage.
  3. Final thoughts
    1. The four grounds for a valid divorce are found in one’s wedding vows. All are mentioned in the OT; two are mentioned and two more alluded to in the NT. These include adultery, abuse, abandonment, and neglect.
    2. Without proper grounds, a second marriage is adultery.
      1. And yet… we are not told to break up a second marriage, even if improperly grounded.
      2. For if we did, then there would be two wrongs. Consider 2 Sam 12, or John 4.
    3. Divorce is a last resort.
      1. Believers should never be the cause of a divorce—that is, they should not break their own marriage vows, or behave badly in hopes that will trigger a divorce.
      2. Nor should they initiate a groundless divorce—that is, where a spouse hasn’t broken his or her wedding vows.
    4. Cautious humility required, because of:
      1. Naïvete. There are significant gaps in our knowledge. Background information is needed! For too long we may have been taught a naïve way of interpreting the Bible. The meaning of a biblical passage isn't always obvious. Interpretation is essential. Perspicuity of scriptures?
      2. Legalism: It’s too easy for all of us to drift into legalism. It’s easier sometimes to make a rule than to do extra reading, speak with those who know more than we do, or patiently explore the nuance of scripture. Nor will we learn if our hearts are full of hate and legalism.
      3. Pride: We tend to think we are right.
  4. A word to church leaders—7 strong suggestions
    1. Read critically—not just books supporting our own view!
      1. David Instone-Brewer, the world’s preeminent expert on 1stcentury M&D customs and documents.
        1. Visit his website, I-B is especially helpful because he provides the ancient Jewish and pagan sources, which paint of picture of expectations and practices in the ancient world.
        2. Click here for a précis of his two books.
      2. Jerry Jones (former head of the Bible Department, Harding College; elder, Boston Church of Christ; with his wife, teaches widely on marriage). Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Seen Through the Character of God and the Mind of Jesus (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2016).
        1. His position coincides with Instone-Brewer’s.
          1. “The ‘guilty’ and ‘innocent’ parties do not have to be identified.
          2. A divorce severs the marriage, and the couple is no longer married ‘in God’s eyes.’
          3. A past, failed marriage (or marriages) does not demand a future life of singleness.
          4. Marriages that are destructive or abusive do not have to be maintained until a spouse is sexually unfaithful” (127).
        2. Jones’s specific advice: “Before the decision to end the marriage is made, efforts to prevent divorce should be exhausted and the following questions considered:
          1. What does the character of God dictate?
          2. How does the mind of Christ impact this decision?
          3. Are any of the 4 elements of marriage being violated?” (p.126).
    2. Encourage people to think. Don’t tell them what to do. Jesus often did not immediately answer questions.
      1. “Who appointed me a judge or arbiter…?” “The Law—how do you read it?” “Come and see.” “Bring me a denarius.” “Go and learn what this means.”
      2. Biblical principles internalized help us to become spiritual people, instead of legalists (who tend to read the Bible like a rulebook).
    3. Consider the grounds for divorce carefully.
      1. Verbal abuse – the husband is not protecting his wife – a violation of his vow.
      2. Of course pornography is a violation of the wedding vows. However, that doesn’t mean the offended party should initiate a divorce. That’s up to her [him]. Yet there’s no need to wait to divorce until intercourse has taken place.
      3. Just because someone has stopped coming to church, he isn’t necessarily in the category of the “unbeliever” who leaves the faithful spouse (1 Cor 7). His faithful spouse should not divorce him if things can be worked out. Marriage matters can be intensely stressful, and I wouldn’t take someone’s failure to turn up for a couple of weeks—even if they announce they’re done with church—as the final word. They could well come back.
    4. The victim of broken vows is normally the one who can best decide when the marriage is over—not his or her spouse.
      1. Especially when there is abuse in a marriage.
      2. “Only the Lord knows the heart… We cannot leave it up to the minister or a church leadership team to decide when a marriage ends; it is up to the individual victim, in prayer before the Lord. Only they and the Lord know what their life is really like. Only they know if their partner has expressed repentance, and only they will have to live with the consequences of the decision” (Instone-Brewer).
      3. I’m not saying church leaders should never be involved. But sometimes we are unnecessarily involved—perhaps often siding with the husband over the wife, or siding with the spouse with the more pleasant personality.
    5. Refer the couple (or one of the spouses) to pastoral counseling if you’re not a professional.
      1. And even if you are a trained counselor, make sure your counsel is truly biblical, and not just a reflection of your denomination’s position.
      2. “Marriage counseling is often hampered by the lack of a coherent biblical approach to divorce and remarriage… A Christian counselor can say with confidence that believers do have grounds for divorce in cases of adultery, abuse or neglect but that Jesus asks us to forgive partners who repent after breaking their vows. Jesus allows us to divorce a ‘hardhearted’ partner, but neither he nor Paul chose to define how much neglect is too much—unlike the rabbis, who defined the minimum amount of food, clothing and conjugal love that was due. This biblical teaching gives people who are suffering within marriages both an encouragement to persevere and a safety net when they find they cannot cope with it anymore. They can, if necessary, divorce their ‘hard-hearted’ partner in the knowledge that God himself was forced down this route when Israel hardheartedly broke her marriage vows to him… Divorce is never good, but sometimes it is the only way to end the evil of a broken marriage” (Instone-Brewer, 170-171).
    6. Always be discreet; maintain confidentiality.
      1. Marriages should not be discussed in leaders’ meetings or staff meetings.
      2. There are laws governing the disclosure of personal details.
    7. Relate respectfully to other leaders who may not have arrived at the same conclusions you have. Although how we handle divorce and remarriage is important, it isn’t a central issue of the faith. It’s a “middle circle” item.