Time Magazine’s recent article, An Evangelical Rethink on Divorce? by David Van Biema suggests that some in Evangelical Christianity are starting to wrestle with Scripture in some new ways … ways that I believe will likely be very problematic for that branch of Christendom. Don’t get me wrong, I think the wrestling with Scripture in some new ways will be helpful and is a long-time coming, but to accept the new scholarship just might mean giving up some long-held and tightly held principles.
As the article’s [in Christianity Today] author, the British Evangelical scholar David Instone-Brewer, points out, for most of 2,000 years Christians have viewed divorce through two scriptural citations. In Matthew, the pharisees ask Christ, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” Jesus refers to the Old Testament and then replies, “Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual indecency, commits adultery.” The apostle Paul adds in the book First Corinthians that a Christian is “not bound” to a non-Christian spouse who abandons him. Simple, right?
Instone-Brewer radically reinterprets the first passage using, of all things, quotation marks. The Greek of the New Testament didn’t always contain them, and scholars agree that sometimes they must be added in to make sense of it. Instone-Brewer, an expert in Jewish thought during Jesus’s era, writes that Christ’s interlocutors 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. Instone-Brewer claims Jesus’s “no” was a response to this idea, and that his “except for sexual indecency” condition was not a statement of the sole exemption from God’s blanket prohibition, but merely Christ’s reiteration of one of several divorce permissions in the Old Testament — one he felt the “any-time” advocates had exaggerated. Finally, Instone-Brewer tallies four grounds for divorce he finds affirmed in both Old and New Testaments: adultery, emotional and sexual neglect, abandonment (by anyone) and abuse.
… and later …
Still, 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. (The ever-active Barna folks have found that 57% of “born-again” Christians age 16-29 criticize their own church for being “anti-homosexual.”) 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.
Several comments about David Van Biema’s article.
First, David, it is a very long way for Evangelicals to go from reconsidering divorce to reconsidering a stance on homosexuality. Granted, that was one of my first reactions to the opening paragraphs of the Time article, but I wouldn’t go that far yet. The scholarship would have to go through several layers of interpretation before it gets there. Notice that even the Evangelicals you interviewed were very careful, and mail to Instone-Brewer still remains generally negative.
That’s not surprising. What is at stake for our Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters is the integrity, the inerrancy, the truthfulness, the reliability, the validity of Scripture itself. Instone-Brewer, from these perspectives, has gone past Evangelical Christianity and is pandering to the left. Remember, many of our Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters rely on the King James Version of the Bible, or at least the New International Version (NIV) with its own biased translations choices. People who continue to read a translation that is nearly 400 years old, despite some very good modern renderings, tend to be suspicious of modern scholarship. Some of them build museums to their faithfulness to a particular reading. They’ve heard these things before … and rejected some pretty convincing things.
I think Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church will have more influence on Evangelicals reconsidering their stance on homosexuality than will Instone-Brewer.