John Piper corrects misconceptions about my Christianity Today article

John Piper has written a gracious and well-argued response to my article in Christianity Today. He criticizes my conclusions and outlines his own, non-traditional, interpretation of the texts, which I will respond to below. He also says that the article has been misunderstood by many readers, pointing out that it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusions if you read the article, without having read my books (which he knows well).

Many readers have misunderstood the article to say that divorce is allowed for any breaking of marriage vows by emotional or physical neglect. But what my research demonstrates is that both Jesus and Paul criticized no-fault divorce and taught that we should forgive the faults of our marriage partners. Jesus did, however, allow divorce if the marriage vows were broken with ‘hardness of heart’ – an Old Testament word meaning continuing, or stubborn, unrepentance. This means, in effect, that divorce is allowed for adultery, abandonment or abuse. I am glad to have the opportunity to put this important distinction across.

John Piper’s own interpretation of the divorce passages is based on the view that porneia (Greek for ‘sexual indecency’) had a different meaning in first century Judaism, when it referred mainly to ‘fornication’ (ie sexual sin before marriage). This theory was stated first by E.G.Selwyn and expanded by the Qumran scholar Abel Isaksson. It is similar to the well-established theory of the French scholar Bonsirven which was was popularised a few decades ago by the Catholic scholar Murphy O’Connor, who found supporting evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This interpretation is important for Catholic scholars because it means that Jesus did not allow any divorce after marriage has occurred – the same teaching that Piper supports.

This evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls was based on only one passage, a particularly difficult one, in the Damascus Document, which relies on the translation of the word zenut (the Hebrew equivalent of porneia) as "sex before marriage". Since O’Connor put forward this theory, however, other scrolls have been studied (especially the Temple Scroll) and most scholars have concluded that the early interpretations of this passage were mistaken, and that it was actually forbidding polygamy.


I deal with these scholars and their theories briefly in chap.10 of Divorce & Remarriage in the Bible

This does not mean that John Piper’s non-traditional interpretation of porneia is wrong - it is scholarly theory waiting for more evidence. Most New Testament scholars agree that ‘porneia’ is a general term for sexual sin, as seen in the New Testament itself. It is used for visiting a prostitute (1 Cor.6.13-15, 18), incest (1 Cor.5.1), general sexual sin by a married person (1 Cor.7.2), use of cultic prostitutes (Rev.2.20-21) and the sin of the ‘whore of Babylon’ (Rev.17.2, 4; 18.3; 19.2) - though the most common meaning is ‘sexual sin in general’ (eg Acts 15.20; Eph.5.3; Col.3.5).

It is a pity that I wasn’t clearer when I summarised my book in the CT article, but that is the danger of trying to say a great deal in few words. I’d like to thank John Piper for helping to set aside some of the misconceptions which resulted.


23 comments:

Chris said...

I am very thankful you and Dr. Piper's gracious dialogue. As a pastor, this is an issue that I must regularly make decisions about. It is a tremendous benefit to study your interaction.

Christopher Tillman said...

Dr. Instone-Brewer,
While I appreciate the desire to minister to those whose lives have been ravaged by divorce, I must disagree with what appears to be a missing of the point in what Jesus says in Matthew 19. In your response to John Piper's critique, you write, "Jesus did, however, allow divorce if the marriage vows were broken with ‘hardness of heart’ – an Old Testament word meaning continuing, or stubborn, unrepentance." (Perhaps you were not referring to the Matthew 19 passage, though I assume that is what you are referring to.) However, what Jesus said is this: "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives..." I do not believe that He "allows" divorce for hardness of heart for a believer - what I would suggest he does, here, is establishes that the hardness of heart owned by the rebellious Jews saw the allowance for divorce. What he does not do in this text is to make an allowance for those of us who are believers, because he continues by saying - "but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." Jesus appealed to the original order of Creation, how the Triune God had established marriage, and the teaching throughout the Scriptures is consistent, that marriage is to be a picture of God's relationship with His covenant people. Jesus does not divorce us who belong to Him - we have been chosen from before the foundation of the world to be His, washed by His Word, and kept by His power. So marriage is to be an illustration of this glorious reality. To allow for divorce in the life of a believer is to do serious damage to Gospel witness in one's life. Not only this, but the bulk of New Testament teaching on this issue does not warrant a different view on marriage than this: that a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall become one flesh. What God has joined together, let not man separate. That is clear teaching - and I must respectfully submit to you that searching through Near Eastern texts in search of deeper meanings will not provide an easier way out of holding to what the text says - the disciples themselves responded to what Jesus said by saying, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." While there may be some very awful, harsh, sin-laden situations being experienced by brothers and sisters whose marriages are falling apart because of gross sin, what should be addressed in those situations is first the sin leading to the suggestion of divorce. When I consider how patient and kind that God is with us who are His, and how He does not leave us though we sin but rather disciplines us and changes our hearts, the pattern for reconciliation within marriage seems to be one of patience and discipline and exhortation and rebuke, but not one which sees someone resign themselves to a situation that cannot be helped and seek divorce as a solution. I appreciate your clarification, that you do not desire divorce to be something easily pursued - yet at the same time, with a culture that sees any cause divorce as being the norm and with those in the church who have struggling marriages, what needs to be communicated is not that rethinking marriage yields more "biblically" lenient standards for divorce than have been traditionally held, but rather, that marriage is an institution to be treasured by us as Christians, for it is the institution that demonstrates, by God's design, the unbreakable covenant love that exists between us and the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you.
To God Alone Be the Glory,
-Chris

Anonymous said...

I believe that Dr. Instone-Brewer has attempted to clarify what was a very provcacative statement regarding abuse and divorce.

However, being a pastor (non-scholar) who has recently preached and exposited on this issue from Mark 10:1-10, my exegesis seems to concur with Piper, as we have not found any direct scriptural evidence to support divorce for ther grounds of emotional abuse, etc., no matter how practical and appealing that option may be.

In fact, the apostle Paul gives in 1 Cor. 7 and Ro. 7 exceptions to pornia (fornication) that include death and desertion (the unbelieving spouse)as means to remarriage, but seemingly nothing else.

Contextually, the Exo. passage of neglect and abuse does not pertain to marriage either. I might find the principles abandonment convered through desertion by application. However, I'm still left wondering where in scripture and the NT in particular, we find biblical justification for divorce via emotional abuse.

Rev. Bernie Diaz

Anonymous said...

By the time my wife asked for a divorce, her heart had indeed hardened to the point where reconciliation seemed impossible to her. It didn't seem impossible to me, but she refused to listen, refused to seek counseling, refused to come with me to the new church I'd found, refused to truly re-examine our marriage vows. My new pastor worked with me, and I prayed and talked to my wife, but since it was my problems which had hardened her heart, she refused to listen. Nonetheless, my pastor made a good point: God's perfect will is that a marriage should never be broken, but sometimes His will is that the marriage end so that we will be broken. My brokenness prompted enormous change in my life, for which I am a better man. That same pastor gave his blessing to my new marriage to a fine Christian woman who came into my life through God's sweet grace, and no one in our church has ever treated us badly. God broke me to bring me to repentance, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I am better for it.

Yes, by any means necessary, struggle to save a marriage, but be realistic in recognizing that sometimes a hardened heart cannot be changed. Jesus recognized that. Unfortunately, too many people today agree with the Apostles' remark about avoiding marriage altogether by just "living together", with the result that such people feel no obligation toward nor responsibility for such a pseudo-family. Marriage and family are to be honored, not tossed out the window for "any cause." But adultery doesn't start with lust, it starts with a heart already hardened to one's partner. Sexual immorality doesn't start with porn or a prostitute, it starts with a heart already wounded and mistakenly seeking "love" in the wrong way. Divorce doesn't start with an argument over money, it starts with a heart that is missing the love of God and that refuses to seek His power to overcome all problems in our lives.

Anonymous said...

Greetings. Well, I read through all this fuss and came to the conclusion that I should most certainly read your book, but Amazon seems to have two possibly different versions. What's the difference between Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible? Thanks!

David IB said...

Dear Christopher Tillman

I agree with you that we should do all that we can to preserve marriages, and ideally a marriage covenant should be as permanent as the wonderful ‘New Covenant’ which the prophets heralded as unique in that it can never be ended. Unfortunately all other covenants suffer from the fact that they are made with fallible and sinful humans, and although they should never be broken, even believers sometimes break marriage vows. Even when that happens the message of Jesus is to forgive, but Jesus concurred with Moses that divorce is allowed when they are broken repeatedly with unrepentance. This and your other points are discussed much more fully in my books than I can do justice to in an email.

David IB said...

Dear Rev. Bernie Diaz

I think either you or I have misunderstood John Piper. I understood him to be teaching that Jesus only allowed divorce for fornication before marriage, and that adultery is not a ground for divorce.

“Emotional abuse” is a modern term I adopted in preference for refusal of conjugal rights – the right within marriage as named in Ex.21.10, on which Paul relies in 1 Cor. 7.3-5. In my article I was not able to look at this in any detail but I think you will find all your questions answered in my book “Divorce & Remarriage in the Church” which you can read at www.DivorceRemarriage.com

David IB said...

Dear Anonymous

You asked about the difference between my two books, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible and Divorce and Remarriage in the Church. The first is an academic book which has all the Hebrew, Aramiac and Greek texts in full (as well as translations), while the second is a summary of the findings with extra details about how they might apply in the church today. You can read them extensively at www.DivorceRemarriage.com

DJP said...

I've your second book on order and intend to read it. I think Piper's position un-Biblical, more stand on Kostenberger's position as I understand it (unless he thinks desertion is grounds for divorce only if the deserter is an unbeliever, a position for which I can imagine no rationale).

What picks at me is finding a rationale that makes Paul's and Jesus' position one. Don't think much of the approach that sees Jesus as saying, "There is one and only one grounds, and it's very narrow"; and then Paul coming along and saying, "That's right! Only one! Oh, and this one also."

So my understanding is that they in effect amount to the same in this way: Jesus says porneia, and porneia is breaking God's law in the area of sexuality. Sexually defrauding a mate breaks God's law (as Paul affirms in that very chapter, 1 Corinthians 7). Desertion necessarily involves defrauding. Ergo, the grounds are related.

But another way of seeing a rationale would be to relate to Exodus 21, which would also address more pastoral issues. But I'm not convinced yet; so I'll read K and you with genuine interest, and see if either gives me further light on the text.

But I'll say this in advance: any position that amounts to asserting that the text has been incomprehensible for 2000 years until a scholar found the answer under a rock (as it were) is facing a perpendicular climb with me.

Margaret Olu Elliott said...

Taking the whole discussion a step further, my viewpoint and not representing my denomination or church, the truth is many of the “unions” we deem to be marriages, are not marriages. The concept of “marriage” is not merely the vow made in itself, it’s the state of mind of the person vowing, the purpose of the vow and certainly what happens after the vows are taken.

Many vows are taken in falsehood, some partakers knowing lawful impediments, and others certainly not intending nor committing to either love, honour, keep, comfort, protect nor forsaking all others. Therefore, I can only assume that God did not do the joining together seeing he is not present in man’s falsehood (though the guests might have had a good time and assumed so). Stemming from that, it therefore implies that such marriages can be “put asunder”, seeing God hasn’t in reality “joined”.

A growing phenomena exists in many communities where people go into marriages for different reasons, other than “leaving, cleaving and becoming a flesh”, hence they might have left (or not left in some cases - constant family interference as an example), certainly not cleaving or seeking to cleave, consequently they parties end up not being a “united flesh” – the ultimate purpose of a marriage, but operate in antagonism or at best, parallel lines. This would imply there isn’t a marriage anyway (at least spiritually), as there was no cleaving. In these cases, what we might be seeking to do is actually annul a marriage (because in some cases there was never one), as opposed to sanction a divorce.

Coming back to the case at hand (grounds for permitting divorce), considering Gods graciousness exemplified in Christ, it would seem inconceivable that the party who has been “fooled” into such a union, (which inevitable would exhibit the emotional, physical, and all other neglect that some “liberals” agree is a grounds), is doomed to remaining in it, suffering a life filled with misery, because in the eyes of the “conservative” theologian adultery has not been committed and is deemed the only grounds for divorce (despite the harshness, the long term effect of abuse on the children, etc). Where then does grace come to pay? Furthermore, it is impossible to bind two people (or one willing person and an unwilling one) in a union against their resolve. The marriage being brought into a state of “divorce”, by default. Marriage and divorce are not necessarily about the paper given at each, but the state of the heart of both parties to each other.

A couple of years ago, I studied Counselling. On one occasion the class was treating “Endings”. We got to the issue of Marriage Ending. A student had made a comment that endings were a sad time. A fellow student took off some of her upper clothing to buttress her arguments that some endings were a relief, revealing the stab scars she had received from an alcoholic husband, and went on to narrate his attempts at throwing her out from a high rise building in a drunken stupor in an attempt to murder her. A friend’s sister suffered countless stabs from a partner who suffered a severe form of possessiveness, she died on the scene, so also their baby son. On numerous occasions, she had been asked to leave, but was bent on making her relationship work. I have heard of many other similar situations.

It becomes inevitable, that based on my experience of these scenarios, rather than engaging in never ending theological argument, we treat each case on merit. The church can’t be seen to be leading people to untimely death, psychiatric hospitals, and endless depression pills, in its attempts at being theologically right. Christ was practical in demonstrating and dealing with issues. We should be to!

The true question is what would Jesus have done, if he was on the scene of the specific marriage?

One issue I require an exposition on is the issue of remarriage in church leadership in light of Titus 1. An elder being required to be the husband of one woman. I ask this in light of the fact that many argue that marriage is for life and only death can “do part”. Some carrying the argument further, that if a man remarries, it still implies that he has more than a wife.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for having the courage to tackle this tough subject and to deviate from the traditional interpretation of this topic. To me, this is evidence of what the Reformers had in mind when they described the church as reformed but always reforming.
As a former pastor of 17 years who's marriage has ended in divorce, I read this article and then your book carefully. In my case there was no infidelity. Instead there was mental illness, accusation of emotional abuse, and then abandonment of the marriage on my wife's part.
I wrestle with the question of whether I can ever pastor again. I wrestle with the question of remarriage or do I adopt a life of singleness? Thank you for helping me sort through this issue.
My only concern from your position is the category of "emotional abuse" as a ground for divorce. As I have read the literature (having been accused of being an emotional abuser), it seems that the phrase has a very broad application of meaning. On the one hand clear cut sinful behaviors count as emotional abuse: destruction of a person's property, verbal put downs, derrogatory statements, etc. But on the other hand emotional states are also listed as emotional abuse: feeling worthless, unimportant, devalued, etc. These emotions are legitimate but not necessarily caused by the partner. So i think more clarification needs to be done on what qualifies as emotional abuse.

Anonymous said...

Jesus recognized several "husbands" and a "live in" when he met the woman at the well. Only of the latter did he say, "Is not your husband."

Anonymous said...

Could you comment on which sorts of immorality the school of Shammai believed were covered by Deut. 24:1, but not by Deut. 22:22? Dead people don't get divorced, so did they have a different category of indecency that wasn't adultery?

benvos329 said...

The Old Testament said "divorce is allowable" as a way to protect abused spouses from abuse and neglect. Jesus reminds us that "it was allowed because of hard-heartedness". But that doesn't mean that the divorcing person is innocent. Jesus also reminds us that the person who divorces makes an adulterer of himself and his spouse.

The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that, through the atoning blood of Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. This is a "righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees".

Does that mean that you MUST forgive and reconcile? Well, Jesus taught us to forgive "seventy times seven times". He went above and beyond the traditional teaching of his time. The disciples exclaimed that "this is a hard teaching". And it's true. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not for wimps or pushovers.

But forgiveness does not mean that you trust the person who harmed you. And it does not mean that you must continue to endure the abuse, shame, neglect, and sin of the other person. It means that you are willing to let go of the desire to ragefully punish the person who harmed you. You give vengeance to the One who said "Vengeance is mine". In other words, you let God be God and you acknowledge that you are also a sinner in need of grace.

All this debate about when divorce is allowed ... we're missing the point. The point is that any marriage CAN be saved and reconciled by God's grace and the gentle restoration of spiritually mature people.

Anonymous said...

One article asked for more clarification of emotional abuse..I have a few examples. Years ago when I was neglected to the point of suicide I told my spouse that I wanted to die and he still did nothing. I would go to bed praying to die, fall asleep and be woken up for his 'physical' reasons which I 'had' to do because it was my wifely duty. After crying myself to sleep I would wake the next day only to be told how the house wasn't clean enough, recieved no help with the children, and then had to cater food and drinks to all his friends he would bring over. Then I would be told I needed to see a Dr because I did not 'want' him. Everything would be thrown back at me if I ever tried to tell him how much I was hurting.

Oh there are so many things I could tell you. Probably one of the most important ones is that this was while we both served as missionaries overseas with a Christian organization.

Does God give us the strength to get through situations? Absolutely. He also mentions 'fools' and 'oppressors'. I stand and listen to those who do not agree with the arguement of emotional abuse. But I know God saw what went on and I know God loves me. I know he gave me the strength to go as long as I did..18 years. I think he knew I could not go any longer too and gave me the grace to do what I needed to do.

There is a line that is crossed in emotional abuse which goes above and beyond personal conflicts and fulfillment in marriage. It's not about being happy, sometimes it's if you are going to stay alive.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous posted November 17 2007.

My wife feels as if she can't survive that she is going to be destroyed which is similar to your phrase of sometimes its if you are going to stay alive. I don't want her to feel that way and would love to ask you some questions. Are you still around?

Dorothy said...

People should read this.

More Christ Like Blog said...

Les McFall has an interested way to deal with the exception clause in Matthew 19:9. He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmas. I reviewed McFall's paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9.

Jimmy Acree said...

I know I'm two years after this debate but I so appreciate your graciousness toward others. Thank you for setting an example of Christlike regard for those who disagree with you. Truly, that is a blessing.

Jimmy Acree

Gene Pool said...

I too appreciate your graciousness towards others who have differing understandings on this subject. However, when I lovingly expressed my understanding (similar to Piper's) at two small Baptist churches, I met with a firestorm of accusations, hateful remarks, and separation, especially by an influencial elder who has been divorced and remarried. It is truly a difficult subject, but one that needs to be taught more in today's broken society.

Anonymous said...

What if, instead of saying "what am I ALLOWED to do, in terms of divorce and remarriage" we asked the question "what brings God the most glory in this situation?".
Then the focus changes from "poor me" to "it's all about God".
You are teaching people to be self centered and to look out for themselves, and the Bible clearly teaches that it's not about us and that God has given us everything we need to be more than conquerors - regardless of our circumstances.
I'll tell you that if/ when I observe someone faithful to their marriage covenant, at a great personal cost, for the sake of bringing God the glory, it is a clear picture to everyone around that LOVE NEVER FAILS.
The very nature of following Christ is putting ourselves last and loving the unlovely.
I'm so thankful that God loved the unlovely. Where would I be without Him.
This is the picture that our marriages and families are to be to the lost world around us.
Sir, I believe that you are leading followers of Christ down a very dangerous path, and some day you will have to answer, like the rest of us, to a Mighty God who demands obedience from his children - not only when it feels comfortable, but even to death.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I saw an article that argued that divorce is more acceptable than we Christians permit because God supposedly divorced Israel. The author used your book as her support. I wondered if you make this argument in your book? The blog link follows.

Thank you

http://bronlea.com/2014/02/28/what-god-teaches-us-about-broken-vows/

David IB said...

Hi anonymous - Yes, I do deal with God's divorce of Israel as detailed in the prophets, eg Jer.3.8. See chap.3 of Divorce & Remarriage in the Church

Record your opinion:

In what circumstances do you believe a Christian may divorce their partner? (tick one or more)