Gordon Preece — Zadok Perspectives, Autumn 2010

Even more than most books the author’s story is integral to this book. Barbara Roberts became a Christian in 1981, married a non-Christian in 1989 and had a daughter. Her marriage descended into abuse and she occasionally required a women’s refuge. She left her husband in 1994 and started going to a Presbyterian Church and Bible Study. Four years later her husband professed faith and they reconciled. Sadly the abuse was not abandoned and she finally separated in 1999, divorcing a few years after.

The book does not go into more detail, but is stamped by this experience. It will obviously find resonance in the lives of those who’ve suffered abusive marriages, the first two chapters particularly. But Roberts’ experience of abuse is an entry point to a careful and comprehensive study of Scripture’s teaching on divorce; it is rarely returned to nor imposed upon the text. She writes from a conservative Presbyterian perspective on inerrant Scripture which can give the text a wooden feeling. Nonetheless, this is softened and given life and breath by a passion for a very real pastoral problem which despite her valiant attempts at biblical objectivity, Roberts obviously feels in her bones.

The book is structured into five parts. A – setting the scene in the context of abuse; B – a biblical overview of Divorce and Remarriage, especially arguing that divorce is permissible for abused spouses from 1 Cor 7:15; C – Clearing Away Misconceptions where she uses laser-like logic to disprove and show the absurdity of the indissolubility of marriage, the misapplication of Christ’s faithfulness to the Church to all cases of divorce and the ‘husband of one wife’ texts allegedly banning divorcee remarriage. She finds much humanity and help about divorce in the O.T., and argues that Jesus uphold the Law in its true, female-friendly intent. She also demonstrates, drawing on 18 recent translations, that ‘God hates divorce’ (Mal 2:16 as commonly translated) is a mistranslated slogan, not really scriptural. It is a condemnation of treachery against wives by men who hate and divorce them, seeking pagan partners. It is better to say ‘God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce’ i.e. justifiable divorce for abuse, sexual immorality etc.

This distinction is crucial to Part D where it is seen as upheld by Jesus’ Teaching. Roberts ably defends the traditional view that Jesus allows divorce for the innocent victim of sexual immorality (porneia) but has an interesting argument that addiction to pornography qualifies as porneia (pp. 84-5). She argues that the only divorce Jesus condemns is treacherous divorce. The Pharisees’ particular question to Jesus – about whether a man can divorce his wife for ‘any matter’, rather than a female victim of abuse or abandonment who seeks to divorce her husband – shows that the topic was not about all kinds of divorce. Jesus condemns their patriarchal, legalistic, entitlement mentality, misusing Dt 24:1. Also, as she quotes Blomberg; ‘the specific historical background that informs this debate, the particular way in which the question is phrased, and the unscrupulous motives behind the Pharisees’ approach all warn us against the notion that Jesus was comprehensively addressing all relevant questions about marriage and divorce’ (86).

‘Jesus did not condemn other grounds for divorce, such as abuse or severe deprivation’ and by his silence upheld both Pharisaic parties’ interpretation that disciplinary divorce on the grounds of cruelty was justified (cf Ex 21:10-11). Both testaments support protection of the vulnerable, as Jesus does in his defence of women against arbitrary divorce here. ‘Additionally 1 Cor 7:12-15, which covers abuse under “constructive desertion”, is in complete harmony with the disciplinary divorce teaching in Mosaic law’(87). Jesus did not forbid all remarriage; his statement regarding the eunuchs in Mt 19:10-12 allows that some are forced to be celibate, some are gifted to be voluntary celibates, some, including some divorcees are not able to accept it, which implies the possibility of remarriage. Paul took a similar pastoral approach in 1 Cor. 7 concerning those burning with sexual desire.

More controversially and strictly, Roberts argues that ‘since Jesus taught that the Hillelite [lax Pharisees] system of easy divorce for males was sinful, we may apply this judgement to any system which permits treacherous divorce for either sex, such as … no-fault systems’ today (103). This is a large claim to make without considering the consequences of previous fault–based systems, but is one that some states in the US have taken seriously by reinstating fault based systems or even specifically covenantal Christian marriages. Roberts is similarly supportive of stricter systems for Christians through elder-based church ‘courts’.

Those who may have been attracted to Roberts’ softer biblical and pastoral approach to abuse and divorce issues may not however like her soft patriarch which takes male headship for granted and assumes women are created to be more submissive and receptive. For someone who is so perceptive in other areas against legalistic and patriarchal readings of scripture this comes as a surprise. While soft patriarchy does not necessarily lead to abuse, there is some research evidence that staunch supporters of male headship have higher rates of abuse. Is there a slippery slope there? This blindspot though, does not destroy the biblical and pastoral insights of this book, hard-won through painful experience.

Gordon Preece, Zadok Perspectives, issue 106, Autumn 2010.

Gordon Preece, is Editor of Zadok Perspectives and Director of ETHOS: EA Centre for Christianity and Society, Australian Evangelical Alliance.

He is also the Vicar of Yarraville Anglican Church, Victoria; an ethicist for Christian Super; and Adjunct Lecturer, Ridley Melbourne & Macquarie University School of Applied Finance.