David Parker

David Parker, Australasian Pentecostal Studies, No. 12, 2009

Barbara Roberts is a ‘survivor’ of domestic abuse. After her daughter was born the marriage gradually became abusive until Barbara left her husband in 1994. Following this time, her husband made a profession of faith and subsequently the marriage was reconciled. Even so, the abuse recurred, leading to a final separation in 1999 and a divorce a few years later (Roberts 2008, 5) From this personal history the key concepts of her book “Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion” arose. It aimed to distinguish between Biblically condemned ‘treacherous divorce’ and Biblically sanctioned ‘disciplinary divorce’ for the reasons of abuse, adultery and desertion whereupon the non-offending partner is Biblically allowed to remarry (Roberts 2008, 7). The cover, a collage depicting an institutional corridor rotated by ninety degrees with an overlapping fuzzy duplicate and white cage, suggests a new way to viewing both the facts and proffered answers to this tragic reality. Five sections and eleven appendices are followed by a further reading list, bibliography, subject and scripture indices.

Part A carries the title ‘Setting the scene,’ and after an introduction surveying the confusing variegation of positions on divorce and remarriage, addresses the topics ‘What is abuse?’ and ‘Biblical action steps.’ Along with chapter 3 this provides an investigation into the ‘Biblical legitimacy’ of divorce for marital abuse. Although this is the special focus of the book, Roberts suggests those interested in the Bible’s position on divorce and remarriage, such as friends, counsellors, pastors or theologians will also find help (Roberts 2008, 15). She, correctly in my opinion, notes that scripture is interpreted through the grid of our and society’s experience, experience that until the “last decades of the twentieth century” did not appreciate the dynamics of marital abuse (Roberts 2008, 15). The corrective she proposes is to consider “how Jesus’ hearers would have understood his teachings” (Roberts 2008, 15). Plausible as this approach might appear, it is naïve and does not embrace the majority of her scriptural investigation which ranges through both OT and Pauline texts (e.g., Roberts 2008, 17). I will have more to say on this below.

Chapter 1, ‘What is abuse?’ offers the definition, “an abuser abuses power in a relationship at the expense of the victim…domestic abuse can include emotional, social, financial and other types of mistreatment and may not even involve physical violence” (Roberts 2008, 18). These various forms of abuse are then examined. While the documentation, both American and Australian, concerning physical abuse is copious and from excellent resources, there is little if any for the remaining categories. It is this disparity which may cause some to fear that Roberts is opening “the floodgates of excuses for divorce” (Roberts 2008, back cover), but she counters;

It is wrong to present the idea that we can cry “abuse” at any and every slight, but it is also wrong (sic) suggest that we have not been abused unless we have been beaten up…Fair-minded thinking will allow that many kinds of non-physical behavior, especially when persistent and repeated, can so undermine a person’s well-being that the result is abuse…Some of the behaviors might not be abuse if they are isolated incidents, just committed carelessly, as part of the occasional ups and downs of personal interaction. However, when these behaviors demonstrate a pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain ungodly control over another, they become serious (Roberts 2008, 20).

Within Chapter 2, ‘Biblical action steps’, I specifically encountered some problems. Roberts recognizes the problem of applying regulative principles from one domain (ecclesiastical) to another (spousal; Roberts 2008, 32) but does not elucidate how to overcome this. Her examination of Scripture on such things as discipline, defence and separation may be legitimate, once an ethical strategy (e.g., Hays 1996) is established. But given the nature of the work, recourse to the mere similarity of idea or parallel word/idea betrays a failure to inform the implied reader of such intricacies. I find her guilty of the very thing she accuses those who misuse Heb 13:4 to sanction any sexual activity (Roberts 2008, 22). That is the neglect of the specific contextual, sociological and rhetorical function of the texts. This concern is evident again in chapter 3 where in support of the idea that 1 Cor 7:15 could be rendered ‘if the unbeliever caused the separation’, Roberts (2008, 38) invokes David’s leaving Saul as a response to Saul’s abuse. While English law correctly provided for ‘Constructive Desertion,’ parallel ideas or Puritan quotations (see Roberts 2008, 117-118) do not constitute argument. I believe she has a much stronger case in the distinction between ‘treacherous’ (without biblical grounds) and ‘disciplinary’ divorce with 1 Cor 7:15 appropriate to the latter (Roberts 2008, 39-40).

Further, Roberts’ (e.g., 2008, 41) understanding of what constitutes a word study is naïve at best. A word’s meaning is the net result of grammatical semantics, lexeme, and context (Campbell 2008, 63), not simply a dictionary (lexicon) entry, even if it is BDAG! But her focus on syneudokeo could yield the outcomes she argues for, yet this was not satisfactorily accomplished. If a thorough investigation of the biblical and Hellenistic use of this term, using Campbell’s paradigm, was undertaken I am confident a case can be made for believer initiated divorce for the kinds of abuse Roberts’ highlights. Roberts’ (2008, 44) appraisal of 1 Cor 7:16 (and thus 14) is dismissive and is in need of much greater attention if she is to defend her position. Chapter 4, ‘May I remarry if I have suffered divorce?’ however, is handled well and demonstrates both exegetical skill and sage counsel.

At chapter 5 Roberts believes she has established that 1 Cor 7:15 permits divorce for abuse and moves to address, in the remainder of the book, those arguments/texts (‘giants’) which would appear to challenge this position. However, I am not convinced she has successfully proved the claim. In fact, it is Instone-Brewer (Instone-Brewer 2002), whom she quotes so frequently, who has convincingly provided the necessary argumentation. Given the case is made by Instone-Brewer I conclude her resolution of Rom 7:1-4, 1 Cor 7:39, Eph 5, Gen 2:24, 1 Tim 3:2, 12, Titus 1:6 (Chapter 5), Exod 21:7-11, Deut 21:10-14, 24:1-4 (Chapter 6), are adequate and in some cases, excellent. Although where Instone-Brewer (D. Instone-Brewer 2003) addresses the identical issue the result is more rigorous.

Chapter 7 addresses the issue of the marriage contract and concludes it is not unilateral and unconditional. Instead it is violated by the abuses described earlier and thus can be biblically terminated. This is followed by what I consider one of the best chapters in the book dealing with the wounding phrase ‘God hates divorce’ (Mal 2:16). Exampling good exegesis and surveying excellent scholarship (Roberts 2008, 127-131: Appendix 7) I concur that a better translation, correctly rendering the third person ‘he’ as the husband, is the ESV, ‘For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts.’ She (Roberts 2008, 75) correctly advises:

God did not say “I hate divorce”, nor did he condemn all divorce. We should therefore stop using the slogan “God hates divorce”. If we still need a slogan, it would be better to say, “God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce.”

Finally Roberts investigates the words of Jesus beginning with Mt 19. A quick survey of the footnotes reveals her indebtedness again to Instone-Brewer, and since I have already revealed my avid support for his rigorous scholarship, I find her (Roberts 2008, 86) conclusion that Jesus is not addressing divorce per se, but answering the implicit question put to him as to which of the Pharisaic schools (Hillel or Shammai) he advocated, as correct. Jesus agreed with both schools. That is with Exodus 21 which allowed divorce for abuse and neglect (Roberts 2008, 87) and, with correction (Roberts 2008, 86 and 132-135: Appendix 8), Jesus agreed with the Shammaite interpretation of Deut 24 which restricted erwat dabar to porneia, that is, sexual infidelity. Noting that Mt 19:9 is a ‘pronouncement story,’ she again correctly translates ‘is guilty of adultery,’ rather than emphasising the continuous ‘is committing adultery,’ thus avoiding needless speculation as to whether the new marriage should be terminated to end the adultery (Roberts 2008, 87-88). Chapters 10 and 11 display exemplary redactional exegetical sensitivity to the synoptic parallels of Mk and Lk with cognisance of the situation specificity of each and their rhetorical intent.

A concluding chapter (12) summarises all the material presented with a final plea to teachers and speakers to change the damaging words ‘God hates divorce;’

It takes only eleven words to say “God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce.” (Roberts 2008, 113)

While I have problems with some parts of Roberts’ book, I am in agreement with the larger whole and the sage counsel this monograph presents. However, the title could be misleading. The majority of the book has to do with divorce and remarriage in general or porneia in particular, not, as the sub title reads, ‘for Abuse, Adultery & Desertion.’ Since she herself is a ‘victim’ of divorce by abuse, fellow victims would find in her an identifiable resonance. Rather than re-present the excellent works she cites, such as Adams (1980), Duty (1983), Murray (1961) and particularly Instone-Brewer (2002, 2003), I believe the Christian community would have benefited from a greater focus on the abuse issue. Having said this, many who would never read such scholars (as listed previously), will read Roberts and gain enormously from her faithful ‘popularising’ of their scholarship.

Roberts is obviously working with a (soft/complementarian) patriarchal model of marriage e.g., ‘his headship’ (Roberts 2008, 23, 25, 57, 160 n. 138) where she cites the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with approval, and especially “God created woman with a submissive and responsive nature (Gen 2:18)…man’s nature is to lead rather than to respond” Roberts 2008, 99). I am persuaded her work will be enhanced by a “complementarity without hierarchy” model (Groothuis 2004, 15).

Works Cited in this review:
Campbell, Constantine R. Basics of Verbal Aspect in Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Groothuis, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill.Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without hierarchy. Edited by Gordon D. Fee. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003.
Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

(At the time he wrote this review David Parker was Head of NT Studies, Alphacrusis College.)