Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Time Magazine and Christianity Today Rethink the Bible on Divorce, Separation, and Remarriage

The American Papist blog has an interesting review of an article in the recent issue of Time magazine regarding a growing flexibility among evangelicals when it comes to interpreting the Bible on the subject of divorce. Check it out:

Time Magazine Rethinks Scripture on Divorce, Separation and Remarriage

The fact-pattern: Christianity Today publishes an article entitled "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce" which attempted to revise the biblical teaching on these questions so that it could be reconciled to the modern prevalence of divorce in secular societies well as Evangelical circles.

David Van Biema covers the story for Time magazine, and it has become one of the most popular articles being read on the Internet.My take:A false assumption plagues this piece from the outset (all underlining mine):

Last month, the cover story of the monthly Christianity Today was titled "When to Separate What God has Joined: A Closer Reading on the Bible on Divorce." The heated controversy provoked by the story showed how Biblically flexible some Evangelicals can be — especially when God's word seems at odds not just with modern American behavior, but also with simple human kindness. Catch that? Jesus' teaching on marriage doesn't seem to square even with "simple human kindness." Jesus' historical teaching that husbands cannot put away their wives and thereby marginalize their subsistence was actually contrary not only to "modern American behavior" (the new normative guide to morality?), but also to "simple human kindness." You know, the stuff that's just darn evident to everyone. Cruel Jesus, making husbands keep their wives.

From the beginning the author operated upon the false premise that Jesus' teaching on marriage required all spouses to remain with their husbands no matter what. This false premise appears again in the second paragraph:
Finally, Instone-Brewer tallies four grounds for divorce he finds affirmed in both Old and New Testaments: adultery, emotional and sexual neglect, abandonment (by anyone) and abuse.

What is in fact allowed in these cases is separation (which no one would argue, if the grounds for separation are legitimate). Remarriage is an entirely different question, but don't expect Van Biema to present that consideration.Errors quickly compound as Van Biema's inability to distinguish separation from "divorce" play-out:

... the Instone-Brewer essay appeared to be its editors' attempt to offer Evangelicals an escape from a classic dilemma. The "plain sense" of Jesus's words without quotes seems clear enough, but also inhumane: how could a loving God forbid divorce, even by omission, in cases of wife-beating, or of abandonment by a Christian spouse?

See above. Jesus isn't teaching that women should stay in an abusive marriage. Perhaps the "plain sense" of scripture mentioned here isn't enough. That's no surprise. But it's wrong to conclude that a holistic reading of the biblical accounts contradicts the "plain sense" teaching of Jesus against divorce, when accurately understood.

Next it really gets good (by which I mean, of course, bad):

Each branch of Christianity deals with divorce in its own way: Catholicism bans it entirely, but many divorced and remarried couples nonetheless find that their conscience permits them to take Communion.

Error count rising. "Catholicism bans [divorce] entirely." False. Legal divorce which results in the de facto separation of spouses is allowed, and even suggested to spouses in an abusive relationship. Van Biema happily constructs a straw-man of the Church's teaching. And it's easy to destroy a straw-man. And it's rare to find anything but straw-men in this treatment.

Second error: "Many divorced and remarried couples nonetheless find that their conscience permits them to take Communion." Well, receiving Communion isn't only a matter of "finding oneself permitted." If one has remarried after a divorce, and has not received an annulment from their marriage, the Church presumes that they are committing fornication, which as a mortal sin, bars the communicant from receiving until they have confessed.

Amazingly, the article even quotes someone who brings up the significance of remarriage:

If a split itself is inescapable, notes Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch, "remarriage is where the rubber meets the road," and many remarried couples find themselves denied church membership.

It remains inextricable to me why Van Biema didn't claim something along the lines of "nonetheless, many Evangelicals find that their conscience permits them to remain part of their church." Such flawed ecclesiology evidently applies to Catholics - why don't Evangelicals get the same (false) primacy of conscience option?

Van Biema seems to have encountered at least one person who realized that he wasn't going to understand the problem, but incredibly, Van Biema takes this reticence to discuss the issue as some sort of "gotcha!":

Asked if he does [believe that an abused woman should leave the marriage], Moore demurred: "Let me think about that for a little bit. I could answer in a way that would be very easily misunderstood."

I don't think the interviewee was demurring because he thought his answer was incorrect, I think it is more likely the case that he didn't want his words twisted. Well, they were anyway.

Van Biema wraps it all up for us:

Still, the controversy suggests that even the country's most rule-bound Christians will search for a fresh understanding of scripture when it seems unjust to them. The implications? Flexibility on divorce may mean that evangelicals could also rethink their position on such things as gay marriage, as a generation of Christians far more accepting of homosexuality begins to move into power....It could also give heart to a certain twice-divorced former New York mayor who is running for President and seeking the conservative vote. But that may be pushing things a bit.

The message: when scripture doesn't square with a) your pre-conceived categories of justice, or b) the practice of individuals or c) could get in the way of your presidential-hopefuls candidacy then...Rethink scripture.

Oh! And hey, while we're at it, we can revise what the scriptures teach about homosexuality and "gay marriage". Isn't it amazing what new vistas of human self-fulfillment are available to those who ...Revise scripture.

(A note to Christianity Today: when Time Magazine starts agreeing with you, that's a warning sign.)

Update: And of course, if we want to be cynical about it (not saying we don't), this article is handily presented by Time just as Rudy Giuliani begins to take increasing flack for his multiple remarriages (this claim is supported by the fact that the Christianity Today article is evidently over a month old already) . And who, you might ask, is dishing out the Giuliani criticism? *drum roll* ... that's right: evangelicals and social conservatives! So what better time than the present to paint them as hypocrites? And hey, if we can call into doubt the teaching of Scripture on homosexuality, then all the better. Forget rethinking or revising, let's just forget it."


Some more background to the question of DIVORE & REMARRIAGE:

Jesus revealed that Moses allowed divorce in Dueteronomy 24:1-4 as a temporary provision because of "hardness of... heart" (Matt 19:7-9). But Jesus restored God's original plan of indissoluble marriage (Matt 19:3-9); therefore, the Catholic Church continues to teach that a valid marriage between a baptized man and woman cannot be dissolved for any reason except death. It can't be ended by a civil divorce (or even by an annulment, which is not "Catholic divorce" but rather the determination a marriage was not valid in the first place.) Some Protestants claim that Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 allow exceptions to Jesus' teaching on indissolubility: 'whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity [porneia in original Greek], and marries another, commits adultery" [Revised Standard Version]. Here, porneia is used in a technical senes to forbid incestuous marriages among close relatives (as in Acts 15:20 and 1 Cor 5:1). Those illicit unions are not valid marriages in the first place. Note that not a single Greek-speaking Church Father ever saw in Matthew 5 and 19 exceptions to Christ's law of indissolubility. Until Martin Luther declared that marriage was only a civil union in 1520, all Christians unanimously held that marriage is indissoluble and that divorce from a legitimate marriage cannot be followed by remarriage.

-Taken from The Bible Thumper - Vol. 2: Sacrament, Morality, Afterlife [pamphlet on the Scriptural basis for Catholic beliefs; Jim Burnham, Brian Butler, and Matthew Pinto authors; Ascension Press; - ]

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