Putting Asunder: Divorce and Remarriage in biblical and pastoral perspective

Written by Stephen Clark Reviewed By David Instone-Brewer

Stephen Clark is a lawyer who attempts to make sense of the seeming contradictions in the NT teaching on divorce. A straightforward reading of Mark 10 suggests that Jesus disallows divorce for ‘any matter’, while Matthew 19 allows the single exception of ‘indecency’. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 also has a single exception, which is desertion by an unbelieving partner. The most common ways of harmonising these texts is to combine them, so that there are two exceptions. This is the approach of both the Catholic and most Protestant churches. Some evangelicals (Heth and Wenham1, followed by Cornes2) say that these exceptions no longer apply. A Jew was forced to divorce an adulterous partner and a Gentile was divorced against their will by the act of desertion. Therefore, they say, the ‘exceptions’ simply recognised the fact that the marriage was forced to end in these circumstances in the society of the NT.

Clark is in the camp of more recent interpreters who attempt to show that there are other grounds for divorce, such as physical and emotional abuse. Some have done this by broadening the definition of ‘indecency’ while others have argued that ‘surely a God of love would allow divorce in these cases’. Clark has instead used the ingenious argument of Adams3 that a believer who abuses their partner can be disciplined by their church, and if they rebel they can be regarded as an unbeliever (as in Matt. 18:17). If the abusing partner has abandoned them, the believer can now divorce them using Paul’s exception. Clark develops this argument further by suggesting that 1 Corinthians 7:12 f. means a believer can divorce anyone who no longer wishes to remain in the marriage. This even means, he says, that a Christian can divorce someone for behaviour that is not conducive to a good marriage, because it indicates that they wish the marriage to end.

One of his case studies involves a man who was discovered watching pornographic videos that included acts of bestiality. After this, his wife found him repugnant and feared that their children might accidentally view the videos. Clark concludes that she could divorce him because ‘he is hardly consenting to live with her as a husband’ (188). Clark is aware that this might ‘open the floodgates to a new latitudinarianism’ (185) and counsels that the church leaders should be involved at every stage.

What about remarriage? The established churches teach that those ‘whom God has joined’ remain married in God’s eyes until one of them dies, even if they are divorced. This means they cannot remarry. Clark, like many non-conformists, does not hold to this ‘ontological’ view of marriage. He points out that Jesus’ command ‘whom God has joined, let no-one separate’ is like the command ‘do not kill’. Both are forbidden but both are possible. If it were impossible, it would not be a command. The sin consists in breaking up the marriage, not in the divorce. He therefore says that remarriage is possible after divorce.

There is much to commend in this book. The conclusion that God allows divorce in the case of abuse is self-evidently true, but the means by which he arrives at this conclusion is weak. It is not safe to say that abusive or offensive behaviour by one partner indicates that they want to end the marriage. Clark puts it more subtly, saying that such behaviour makes it ‘manifest that he or she is not content to live with the believer, even though remaining under the same roof (182). This is mere casuistry, and the creation of a legal loophole. However, it should be noted that I have a personal bias, as the author of a competing viewpoint which Clark interacts with throughout his work.

Where this book shines is in the details of UK law. Clark unravels the complexities and changes of UK divorce law and indicates the practical implications for Christians. His legal training has produced by far the best Christian summary of divorce legislation in print, as well as finding a new, though dubious, loophole in biblical legislation.

1 Heth, William A. and Wenham, Gordon J. Jesus and Divorce (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1984)

2 Cornes, Andrew Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical principles and pastoral practice (Hodder and Stoughton, 1993)

3 Adams, Jay E. Marriage Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, Philipsburg, New Jersey, 1980)

David Instone-Brewer

Tyndale House, Cambridge