Whither Divorce?

Internally Displaced Person

Back in 1995, the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, discussing a book called The Human Body Shop, wrote that the author’s argument “puts one in mind of the observation that when you come across an article titled ‘Whither Incest?’ you somehow know that it is not going to be a vigorous defense of traditional morality.”

I got the same feeling when I received the latest issue of Books & Culture. The center of the cover read “Divorce and the Congregation.” Not “Church,” but “Congregation.”

I somehow knew that what I was about to read would not be a vigorous defense of traditional Christian teaching about marriage and divorce. I wasn’t disappointed. (Well, I was, but you get the point.)

It started well enough. We’re told, as per ethicist David Gushee’s injunction, that we are not free to abandon, disdain, or reinvent marriage “at our whim.” The problem is that no one, not even Kim Kardashian, thinks that he or she is making decisions about their marriage whimsically. Everyone thinks that he or she is acting in good faith after much consideration. Those seeking to leave their marriage often, as Maggie Gallagher once told me, grant themselves “retroactive annulments,” i.e., they can cite a series of reasons that they shouldn’t have married their spouse in the first place.

Therefore, “don’t act whimsically” doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance. For that, the article turns to David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, which we are told has the potential to “change the church’s understanding of divorce through a more careful study of biblical texts.”

According to Instone-Brewer, the Old Testament — and by extension Jesus’ contemporaries –permitted divorce and remarriage under the following circumstances: (1) material neglect, (2) emotional/sexual neglect (which included childlessness), and (3) sexual unfaithfulness.

While the phrase “emotional neglect” strikes me as anachronistic (more about which, anon) let’s stipulate that Instone-Brewer is correct. He (and the piece) then tells us that “Jesus and Paul shared their Jewish contemporaries’ attitudes on divorce and remarriage.”

If you’re wondering if you missed something, you didn’t. “Instone-Brewer admits that this step in his argument depends on an argument from silence.” In his estimation, we should infer Jesus’ agreement because he never explicitly rejected his “contemporaries’ attitudes on divorce and remarriage” even when addressing the subject.

As Norm McDonald would say, “Wait, what?”

I jokingly call the Sermon on the Mount the “optional part of the Bible” because of the way that manymost virtually all Christians try to explain away our Lord’s injunctions, but this is ridiculous. What part of “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” sounds like “sharing Jesus’ contemporaries’ attitudes on divorce and remarriage” to you?

You can treat Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount as aspirational instead of as an everyday ethic; you can treat them, like many of the magisterial reformers treated the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, as a kind of impossible standard intended to make us despair and flee to grace; you can even disregard them altogether; but you cannot look at them and say that Jesus shared his contemporaries’ attitudes on marriage and divorce.

Yet, Instone-Brewer and the article’s authors somehow do, which leads them to conclude that the New Testament “affirms four grounds for divorce, equally applicable to both men and women: adultery; desertion (by either walking out or throwing out, which was the Greco-Roman divorce procedure); material neglect; and emotional/sexual neglect.”

According to them, “the biblical tradition recognized that the failure of one party to maintain his or her commitments freed the other party from continuing in the marriage,” and, thus, left them free to remarry.

As the kids’ song goes, “One of these things is not like the others.” Can you spot it? Yep, “emotional/sexual neglect.” My friend thought the same thing as I did (that happens a lot with us) when he read the passage: It’s the marital equivalent of the “health of the mother” exception fromDoe v. Bolton, the companion case to Roe v. Wade.

Just as the “health of the mother,” as defined in Doe, effectively made abortion-on-demand the law of the land, allowing divorce on the grounds of “emotional neglect” effectively justifies divorce on the grounds of marital unhappiness. Both are such vague and capacious expressions that the challenge lies in figuring out what isn’t covered, not what is. (Not that “sexual neglect” is all that clear, either.)

Tolstoy was wrong about all happy families being alike, but he nailed the part about unhappy ones being unhappy in their own way. Human beings have an almost limitless capacity to feel neglected about something. That capacity is usually accompanied by a lack of perspective: whatever makes you feel neglected is, almost by definition, The Most Important Thing in the World.

The idea that the biblical tradition sanctions divorce and remarriage based on something as subjective as “emotional neglect” becomes even more risible when you consider how foreign our notion of marriage as an expression of mutual affection, and very little else, would have been to the people of the New Testament.

The idea that spouses’ commitments included ensuring that the other one felt the way that person believed marriage ought to make him or her feel would have struck a first-century Christian as preposterous. You can be kind, gentle, courteous, generous, and self-sacrificial. In short, you can love your spouse with all your crooked little heart. But nothing you do can keep him or her from looking at you one day and deciding that he or she hates the way your ears press against your hat.

And unhappiness is what the article is talking about — it all but stipulates that victims of infidelity and abandonment, not to mention abuse, get a sympathetic, albeit sometimes awkward, hearing in most churches.

It’s difficult to see how this meaningfully differs from “irreconcilable differences.” In both instances, the marriage is deemed over when one or both of the spouses decides that being married to other person is incompatible with their definition of what it means to be happy.

It is also difficult to understand why it is necessary to “change the church’s understanding of divorce,” especially since, as the authors tell us, “in most cases members are no longer excluded from participation on the basis of being divorced, and blended families are more accepted than ever before in our society.”

It is undoubtedly true that “sometimes, despite our best efforts, divorces occur.” But the Church already has everything it needs to minister to those involved in these personal tragedies: grace, love, forgiveness, hope, and compassion.

If this isn’t enough, perhaps it’s because what is sought isn’t so much the balm of Gilead, but a kind of matrimonial mulligan in cases not involving infidelity and/or abandonment. And that, paceInstone-Brewer, cannot be squared with Dominical teaching.

As Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 19, the Mosaic teachings on divorce were a concession to the hardness of human hearts. There is something unseemly about the parties to a new and better covenant (Hebrews 7), whose terms have been written on our hearts (Hebrews 8) — hearts that have been transformed from stone to flesh (Ezekiel 36 and 2 Corinthian 3) — citing a Mosaic concession to human obstinacy. Call me naïve, but aren’t our standards supposed to be a wee bit higher?

We don’t so much need to change the church’s understanding of divorce as we need to change its understanding of what it means to be the Church. Yes, “divorces occur.” (Don’t you love the passive voice?) People hurt. You love them, support them, and pull them even closer to you. What you don’t do is make it easier to separate what God has joined together — that’s for lawyers and state legislatures.

“The disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.’” — The optional part of the Bible

Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.


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