Charles Sherlock

Charles Sherlock — St Mark’s Review, June 2009

Barbara Robert’s life experience has given birth to a unique book. Coming to Christian faith as a young adult, she married a man she describes as an ‘unbeliever’. Her book opens by telling the reader that the marriage turned abusive, they separated, he became a Christian, they reconciled but the abuse recurred and now they are divorced. Barbara’s acknowledgments read like a ‘who’s who’ of thoughtful Australian Presbyterian and Reformed leaders.

This is very important information if the book’s argument is to be appreciated. Conversely, this review may not be understood unless the reader knows that I am a life-long Anglican of evangelical conviction, married for 40 years, and engaged in significant theological engagement with the Roman Catholic Church.

What does a theologically conservative Christian woman do when her husband becomes abusive – physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually? As she reads the holy scriptures, and listens to the pastoral teaching in her congregation, she is very likely to conclude that she should just ‘cop it sweet’ (as Australian men might say) and suffer for the sake of Christ (or at least an unruffled church). That is the situation which Barbara seeks to address.

In reading her book, I found myself engaging with some utterly amazing ‘exegesis’ which Barbara has encountered of texts such as Deuteronomy 24.1, Numbers 30, Malachi 2.16 etc. Clearly there is a world of scriptural interpretation which grasps at unimpressive exegetical straws to maintain a rigidly ‘conservative’ response to marital abuse. The author is brave in exposing these, and (I suspect) risking significant misunderstanding and possible ecclesial and personal abuse in doing so.

The book is well organized, if somewhat repetitive, and has both the strengths and faults of the informed ‘amateur’ scholar: and by ‘amateur’ I mean both the old-fashioned sense of one who seriously engages in a pursuit without monetary interest, and also the work of one who is not professionally trained. Barbara Roberts’ very close exegetical work on the classic ‘divorce’ texts is precise, occasionally laboured, sometimes uncertain when original languages come into play, and relies heavily on the work of others. But it is well done, even if (to my mind) it leads to overstated conclusions.

The claim is made that this book would ‘revolutionise evangelical ethics’ – which is indeed the case. Barbara Roberts has in essence written a ‘liberationist’ text on gender relationships, ‘reading’ the scriptures ‘from below’, stressing many times the importance of ‘cultural context’ in interpretation. She is sometimes inconsistent: while stressing ‘gender equity’ in Paul and the gospels, she maintains ‘male headship’ (a term that does not occur in the scriptures): this is most apparent in pages 92-97, especially the discussion of Ephesians 5. This is the damaging root which must be removed if its fruits are to be truly healed.

If I had a criticism, it is that the author’s approach is very individualistic – the assumption is that each Christian is to make up her or his own mind independently regarding what the scriptures teach, rather than inter-dependently, in the context of ecclesial community and the wisdom of Christian tradition. Thus the Fathers (especially Augustine of Hippo) are appealed to as if their teaching was mere personal opinion, rather than received by the churches as in some way distilling the mind of Christ according to the scriptures. And the Appendix on ‘a brief history’ is wrong at several points, especially as regards what the Roman Catholic Church teaches (the author seems not to realize that the Catholic Church was her church until the 16th century!). But this assessment reflects our different starting places, and different assessments of the impact of the cultural contexts within which we live as Australians.

Barbara Roberts argues from the beginning towards a closely-defined openness to the legitimacy of ‘biblical’ divorce for ‘abuse, adultery and desertion’, with freedom to marry if the spouse was an ‘unbeliever’. The last point is given the least attention, however, and in practice could prove to be very difficult – the judgment that a church-goer is an ‘unbeliever’ could itself be a form of abuse. Despite her clear orientation towards what I might call ‘practical grace’, something of a legal tone remains: which raises the classic question in moral theology as to the place of ‘rules’.

All this said, Barbara Roberts’ experience-included approach to reading the scriptures to engage with a particular ethical issue is carried through very impressively. If it were taken with full seriousness, it would indeed ‘revolutionise evangelical ethics’. In particular, her method would offer considerable pastoral support to a homosexual woman struggling with lesbian desires, and very likely open the way to same-sex partnerships (for men or women) being seen as at least permitted for Christians. I very much doubt if Barbara would see it that way, however!

Both the strength and weakness of this impressive, passionately disciplined writing lies in the method. How are personal experience, ecclesial context and the Christian tradition inter-woven in the practical application of the scriptural testimony to the will of the Lord?