John Wilks

John Wilks, London School of Theology, Evangelical Quarterly, April 2009

I don’t doubt for one moment that divorce is there as a recognition of our weakness. The Bible’s overall approach to the value and importance of faithfulness within and to marriage is easy to see, and divorce is not something that Christians should ever enter into lightly. Readers of this journal will undoubtedly be aware of approaches to this topic ranging through the debate between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, the texts from Deuteronomy, Jesus and Paul, and their own denomination’s position on the topic. The prominence given to divorce on the restricted grounds of adultery or desertion will no doubt be familiar. This latest offering comes from the context of separation and divorce as an escape from an abusive spouse. Is this also a biblical ground, or only a cultural one?

This book adopts a no nonsense approach to the topic. There is little preamble as the author launches directly into her topic. Each chapter moves rapidly into tightly argued evaluation of the issue to hand. The text is not ‘softened’ with case histories or anecdotes; this is an intense read. That is different from being a heavy read, though; I had no problems with the style.

The urgency of a person with a mission comes across very readily. The author is up front about the fact that she is ‘a survivor of an abusive marriage’ (15). That might make some people wary: how can she be objective? But to dismiss the book on these grounds would be, I suggest, entirely inappropriate. The style is far from inflammatory, nor is it impassioned or unbalanced. After all, we should all be aware that there’s no such thing as a neutral viewpoint; the position of this author is clearly laid out without intruding on the content.

So what about the content? Abuse in its many forms remains a challenging topic for the church to grapple with. The idea that Christians could be so, bluntly put, unchristian is clearly beyond the ability of some to accept. Yet the evidence is increasingly clear to see. ‘No temptation has overtaken us that is not common to everyone’ Paul wisely writes (1 Corinthians 10:13), but that means that we in the church must deal with the worst of sins as well as the ‘easiest’, and that within our own ranks. It also means that church members married to non-Christians may face challenges and problems less common among the churched. So the book starts by explaining the style and patterns of abusers, the ease with which they present a reasonable public face, and the insidious nature of the treatment they hand out to their victims (chapter 1).

If divorce can only be contemplated for adultery and desertion how, then, if at all, can a victim of domestic abuse seek divorce and still be a faithful, Bible believing Christian? At the core of this book is a distinction between ‘treacherous divorce’ and ‘disciplinary divorce’. The former is defined as divorce on inappropriate grounds, the latter as divorce occasioned by unacceptable behaviour by a spouse. Aware of the need to attempt forgiveness or public rebuke, eventually the only possible action is separation and divorce (chapter 2 in particular).

There is extensive analysis of the expected biblical texts on the subject (chapters 3 to 11); the analysis of Malachi 2:16 (chapter 8 and appendix 7) deserves particular attention. But analysis is not restricted to these passages. Roberts also draws on narrative texts that describe marriages in various stages of failure and disarray. So this is not a book that argues purely from experience. The author’s marriage clearly was horrendous; but her argument does not depend on that. The book is a thorough look at the key biblical texts in order to establish the case for divorce from an abusive spouse on biblical grounds. (There are also 35 pages of appendixes giving detailed supporting information for the most technical parts of the analysis.)

A wide audience is suggested for this book, ranging from the ‘victim of marital abuse’ to anyone ‘who seeks to give biblical guidance on divorce and remarriage’ (15). In fact, I’d suggest this book be restricted to the academic end of that spectrum. There’s too much time spent on establishing the grounds for justified divorce following abuse. And that is good and proper, and we need this book. However, just as David Instone-Brewer has produced two books on divorce for two different audiences (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context, Eerdmans, 2002; Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Solutions for Pastoral Realities, Paternoster, 2003) so I suggest that a less technical version of this book (and a less relentless one?) needs to be written with the victim in mind, not the scholars. This should be a very valuable addition to the market. But don’t get me wrong: this book deserves widespread attention, with a positive acceptance and affirmation from the academy and the pastorate. This is the book to be on the shelves of every reader of this journal, and we look forward to the one that we can give to any victims that we are called upon to support.