Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible A Critical Review

Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible A Critical Review


Bible-believing Christians can, and frequently do, disagree on matters related to divorce and remarriage. If they value God’s Word as they should, however, their disagreements are based on differing interpretations of the written text of Scripture. As I hope to demonstrate in this review, Dr. David Instone-Brewer has arrived at what I believe are unbiblical conclusions about divorce and remarriage for one primary reason—he fails to recognize the written text of Scripture, particularly the New Testament, as a sufficient source of ethical instruction. In a culture filled with professing Christians who are addicted to comfort, prosperity, and self-gratification, Instone-Brewer’s book, endorsed by undiscerning though respected Christian leaders, will decrease confidence in the sufficiency of the Bible, encourage divorce for whatever reasons feel right, and discourage those in church leadership positions from doing anything about it.
Instone-Brewer holds the distinguished position of “Research Fellow” at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. He has received significant scholarly attention in recent years for his published research into divorce and remarriage in Old Testament Israel and first-century Judaism. He is a noteworthy scholar who has gained the respect of the intellectual/theological world in general, and in this sense I respect him for his work. The first part of this book, Instone-Brewer’s examination of the history of Jewish divorce and remarriage laws and traditions, is quite impressive. I do not intend to question or devalue his work in this area. I also do not intend to question his qualifications or credentials as a scholar. I simply hope to explain what I see as a disconnect between his qualifications and the validity of his practical counsel. In my opinion, the excellence of the first part of his book becomes irrelevant once his historical findings are allowed to stand as the authority over the plainly-written words of the New Testament.
Instone-Brewer’s practical counsel is frustratingly ambiguous. He does, at times, speak of “valid” and “invalid” reasons for divorce. He does say, “Both Jesus and Paul condemned divorce without valid grounds and discouraged divorce even for valid grounds.”[1] But in the end, the reader is left with no distinct boundaries concerning when divorce is valid or invalid. The closest he comes to actually defining his “position” is to say divorce is justifiable whenever marriage vows have been broken. This occurs, he says, when there are “failures” in areas like “provision of food, clothing, and love,” or “emotional and material support.”[2] Because of the subjective nature of these types of “failures,” the end result is a position in which divorce is unrestricted in actual practice. He even advocates a hands-off pastoral approach in which no one should ever be told what they are (or are not) allowed to do. Local churches that follow Instone-Brewer’s counsel would likely never hold a person accountable for a sin related to divorce or remarriage.
Instone-Brewer’s conclusions are largely based on two claims, both of which stem from his historical research, along with an interpretive philosophy that supports them. The first claim is his assertion that following the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews in and around 70 A.D., Christians lost nearly all connection with the Jewish traditions that characterized the culture prior to this momentous series of events. As a result, they lost the ability to properly interpret the written text of Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage in the divorce debate (cf. Matt. 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). His second claim, filling the obvious void created by the first, is that scholars are now able to “reconstruct” the original wording of that debate on the basis of a more complete understanding of pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture. This enables them (and us) to finally understand Jesus’ teaching rightly. Finally, the interpretive philosophy that undergirds these two claims creates a relationship in which the New Testament is relegated to a position of subjection, not only to the Old Testament, but also to the presuppositions of first-century Jewish readers.
I will first explain Instone-Brewer’s two claims in more detail. Then I will list what I believe to be the most serious flaws in each. Next, I will examine his basic interpretive philosophy and show what I believe to be perhaps his most serious error. Finally, I will show that Instone-Brewer’s practical counsel is unbiblical in other ways.
Instone-Brewer’s Two Claims  
Claim 1: Total Ignorance of Pre-70 A.D. Jewish Culture
Instone-Brewer’s first claim is that until recently, no one outside the first-century understood Jewish traditions related to divorce and remarriage well enough to properly interpret Jesus’ words. He writes (using C.E. to abbreviate “Common Era,” rather than the traditional A.D.).
The Early Church lost touch with its Jewish roots in or before 70 C.E. Various passages in the NT suggest that Christians were excommunicated from the synagogue before the NT canon was completed, and certainly before 70 C.E. This marked the beginning of the loss of Jewish culture within the Church. A few Christian groups such as the Nazarenes and Ebionites continued to follow Jewish customs, but these soon died out. The Church very quickly forgot its Jewish roots, and thereby lost contact with much of the Jewish background of the NT writings.[3]
Based on his assertion that the church “forgot its Jewish roots,” Instone-Brewer says,
Jesus’ teaching about divorce was now utterly incomprehensible to Christians, as well as to most Jews. Christians were no longer familiar with the terms “any matter” and “matter of indecency” that formed the basis of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees [cf. Matt. 19:3; Deut. 24:1]. Christians were ignorant of these phrases both because of their separation from Judaism in general and because most Jews were themselves now ignorant of these terms. Mark’s account, which did not mention these phrases because they were so well known, could not be understood at all after 70 C.E. Matthew, writing a little later than Mark, reinserted these phrases, presumably because he thought that the ordinary Christian might not immediately recognize that they were the subject of the debate. Yet even Matthew’s account became incomprehensible once the meaning of these phrases was forgotten by Christians.[4]
It is important to note that Instone-Brewer’s assertions (actually assumptions) in the above quote are completely unqualified. He actually claims that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage, as recorded in Mark 10:2-12, “could not be understood at all after 70 C.E.” (emphasis mine). Even Matthew’s more complete account, he says, became “incomprehensible.” Following these far-reaching and unqualified statements, he further explains what he believes was the early Church Fathers’ complete ignorance of pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture.
The Church Fathers generally approached the Gospel traditions about divorce and remarriage in a straightforward way. Without any information about the Jewish background, the text appeared to say that it is wrong to divorce, except in the case of adultery, and that it is wrong to remarry for any reason.[5]
Note once again the unqualified claim Instone-Brewer makes. He says the Church Fathers interpreted Jesus’ teaching “without any information about the Jewish background” (emphasis mine). Could this be true? Did they really have no information whatsoever? I could not help but think this was a stretch. Certainly at least a shred of correct information remained. Whatever their actual level of familiarity with pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture, the Church Fathers were nearly unanimous in their views on divorce and remarriage. Instone-Brewer summarizes their position this way:
The general consensus [among the Church Fathers] is that marriage is indissoluble except by death, though husband and wife can separate ‘from bed and hearth’ [referring to physical separation but not divorce] if either commits adultery.[6]
Rather than taking the early view seriously, seeing that it was held so consistently and was based on a “straightforward” reading of the text of Scripture, he concludes his section on the Church Fathers with another self-serving and unqualified generalization about their ignorance.
The Fathers were ignorant of the Jewish background to Jesus’ divorce debate with the Pharisees. As a result, they were almost universal in their teaching that adultery was the only ground for separation and that remarriage could take place only after the death of a former spouse. (emphasis mine)[7]
Note the italicized words, “As a result,” in the above quote. According to Instone-Brewer, the reason the Church Fathers interpreted the text the way they did, disallowing divorce and remarriage after divorce, was the fact that they were “ignorant” of pre-70 A.D. Jewish traditions. Please do not miss this point. The only basis for Instone-Brewer’s accusation of cultural ignorance on the part of the Church Fathers is the fact that their interpretations were based on a straightforward reading of the text of Scripture, rather than on an amplified reconstruction of the text (which I will explain below). Those who believe that the text of the Bible is a sufficient and inspired guide to all significant matters concerning life and salvation should find this aspect of Instone-Brewer’s teaching deeply disturbing.
Claim 2: The Ability to “Reconstruct” the Divorce Debate
David Instone-Brewer claims that because of recent research that has provided more accurate knowledge of pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture, scholars can now “reconstruct” the divorce debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. We are now able, he says, to reinsert the words and phrases that were originally spoken by Jesus, but omitted in the gospel accounts. These words and phrases (he claims) are ones that an ordinary first-century reader of Matthew or Mark would have automatically understood to “be there,” even though they were not in the written text. Based on this new knowledge, and his ability to reconstruct the text, we may now know what Jesus really said. Instone-Brewer writes:
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching on divorce are portrayed in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 as a debate with the Pharisees. The concluding statement on the matter is found in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. The highly abbreviated form of these accounts requires considerable unpacking, which is only possible by knowing what could be omitted because it was obvious to a first-century Jew.[8]
Instone-Brewer insists that the phrases, “any matter,” and “matter of indecency” (cf. Matt. 19:3; Deut. 24:1) are critical to these divorce debates. Their frequent use in pre-70 A.D. Jewish proves conclusively, he says, that Jesus was merely settling a dispute between two differing schools of Pharisaical thought (i.e., the liberal Hillelite view, which allowed divorce for nearly “any [trivial] matter,” and the more conservative Shammaite view, which limited divorce to “matters of indecency,” which they interpreted as sexual indecency only). He confidently states,
These phrases (or their equivalent) were removed when the debate was summarized for oral or written transmission. They were so obvious and well known to the original audience that they were considered superfluous. They would have been mentally inserted whether they were included or not.[9]
After explaining how a first-century Jew would have automatically (though subconsciously) reconstructed the text of the divorce debate on the basis of these terms, and after lengthy and detailed explanations of first-century cultural factors that formulated this traditional understanding, Instone-Brewer writes,
We are now in a position to reconstruct the debate that Jesus had with the Pharisees. This debate was recorded in abbreviated form by Mark, and Matthew (probably writing later), reinserted some of the details that had been abbreviated out. Using Mark’s version as a basis and Matthew’s helpful additions and rearrangements as a guideline, we can produce the following version of the debate.
Not surprisingly, while Mark’s account of the debate contains 160 words (counting in the NASB), Instone-Brewer’s first reconstruction contains 211.[10] Fifty-one words are added by combining Matthew’s account with Mark’s. Even then he says that “the text is still too abbreviated for a modern reader to grasp easily. The following paraphrase attempts to reconstruct the text further, to unpack it for a modern reader.”[11] His second reconstruction, which adds words that are not contained in either Matthew or Mark (or anywhere else in Scripture), contains 268 words.
Instone-Brewer concedes, as one would hope, that his reconstructions are “not ‘original’ in any sense,”[12] but the reader is led to wonder what he means by this. He has already explained that the text as it appears in the Bible is “abbreviated.” Abbreviated from what? Well, from his first reconstruction (or something very close to it), which represents what he believes was originally said. When he goes on to explain that even the text of his first reconstruction is “too abbreviated for a modern reader to grasp easily,” we should once again ask, “Abbreviated from what?” If one follows Instone-Brewer’s line of reasoning, the answer would seem to be, “from something that closely resembles his second reconstruction.” When he presents his second reconstruction (or “paraphrase” as he cautiously calls it), one would naturally tend to conclude that he is presenting what he believes was the original intent of the words spoken by Jesus.
By including the disclaimer that his reconstructions are “not ‘original’ in any sense,” Instone-Brewer may have technically avoided a charge of adding to Scripture. But it would be difficult for him to avoid that charge in terms of the way he wants the reader to rely on his reconstructions. This section represents the apex of thought in his book, and his main point in presenting these two reconstructions of the divorce debate is to say that in order to know what Jesus actually said in the divorce debate, modern readers need to know how to accurately insert somewhere around 51 words into their English translations of Mark’s account. Then, in order to properly understand what Jesus was saying, 108 additional words are needed, including some that cannot be justified by appealing to any other biblical text. These two reconstructions, in other words, are absolutely necessary for modern readers to have access to the truth.
In his second reconstruction, Instone-Brewer goes so far as to reverse the plain meaning of Matthew 19:8 and Mark 10:5. He concludes that the “hardness of heart” Jesus was referring to in these verses was that of Jewish wives who refused to repent of their adulteries, not Jewish husbands who were selfishly divorcing their innocent wives. But in the divorce debate, Jesus was addressing a group of Jewish men when He said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8, emphasis added). Instone-Brewer replaces this obvious criticism of Jewish men, living in a male-dominated culture, with a neutral sentence that could apply equally to men or women. He reconstructs Jesus’ statement to say (of Moses), “He allowed [divorce] in the situation of stubborn hardness of heart.” This neutral reconstruction is then explained by a parenthetic reference to Jeremiah 4:4 “. . . where God divorces Israel who stubbornly refused to repent of her adulteries.”[13] In other words, just as God was finally forced to divorce His stubborn and adulterous wife, men may sometimes be forced to divorce their stubborn and adulterous wives. That (Instone-Brewer claims) is what Jesus meant when He said to these men, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” This reconstructed wording may come in handy for someone who is trying to justify divorce, but it is clearly not what Jesus said.
Interestingly, five pages after saying that his second reconstruction is needed in order to “unpack” the text for the modern reader, Instone-Brewer admits that his conclusion about adulterous wives being the hard-hearted ones is less than certain. His very first sentence under the heading, “Divorce is allowable—if there is a stubborn refusal to stop committing adultery,” reads,
It is not certain that Jesus was teaching this. As was shown above, it is based on the assumption that “hardness of heart” is a reference to Jeremiah 4:4 . . . . This interpretation makes a lot of sense in the context of Jesus’ other teachings . . . but it should be treated with less certainty than those teachings.”[14]
I was glad he included this concession, but it may have been too little, too late. One can only hope that readers who had already become convinced of the accuracy of his reconstructions of Scripture were then willing to retreat cautiously back to what the text of Scripture actually says.
I hope Instone-Brewer’s practice of relying on reconstructions of the biblical text seems as dangerously subjective to you as it did to me, but Instone-Brewer insists that it is not far-fetched or subjective at all. It is his firm belief that a typical first-century Jewish reader would have easily and automatically inserted these words and their added meaning (subconsciously of course), based on the common understanding of current divorce and remarriage practices.
Flaws in Instone-Brewer’s Claims 
Flaws Related to Claim 1 (that the Church Fathers misunderstood the biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage because they had no knowledge of first-century Jewish culture)
  • When all factors are considered, the only “proof” Instone-Brewer ever offers to show that the early Christians were ignorant of pre-70 A.D. Jewish tradition is the fact that they interpreted Jesus’ teaching differently than he thinks they should have. He even admits that they interpreted Jesus’ words according to what the text actually says. But his investigation fails to account for one important possibility: Perhaps the Church Fathers did know about divorce and remarriage traditions in first-century Judaism, yet they still interpreted the New Testament the way they did. Perhaps they were completely committed to the validity and sufficiency of a “straightforward” reading of the text of Scripture—so committed that they refused to allow Jewish traditions or common interpretations of the Old Testament to override the plain teaching of Christ.
  • Instone-Brewer’s claim requires the reader to believe that God, in His providential control of all historical events, permitted Christians for nearly two-thousand years to be totally ignorant of the correct teaching about divorce and remarriage. Complete inaccessibility to the original wording of the divorce debate, however, would have relegated early Christians to unavoidable ignorance and error. Think of a second or third-century pastor, for example, a godly and sincere man who possessed only Mark’s gospel, or Mark and Luke, or even all three synoptic gospels, but not Instone-Brewer’s reconstruction. Basing his overall interpretation on the plain reading of three gospel accounts (and perhaps even 1 Corinthians 7), this man would have instructed his listeners to abstain from divorce (with the possible exception of allowing divorce for adultery), and from remarriage after divorce unless the former spouse had died. This well-meaning pastor (according to Instone-Brewer) would have been unable to avoid committing a serious error in his teaching, even though he based his teaching on the plain reading of three different New Testament authors (four if we include Paul).
Flaws Related to Claim 2 (Instone-Brewer’s assertion that modern scholars are able to “reconstruct” the divorce debate)
  • Instone-Brewer’s claim that his reconstructions of Mark 10:2-12 are absolutely necessary for a proper understanding of Jesus’ original wording and intent leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Scriptures themselves are not sufficient for revealing the will of God. He does not say this in so many words, of course, but it seems clear that he believes it. Not only does he reconstruct Mark’s account of the divorce debate by adding what he believes are omitted words (51 in his first reconstruction, and 108 in his second), he also says that without these reconstructions, Mark’s gospel could not be properly understood. Even Matthew’s gospel would be less than clear. He then imposes the meaning of his reconstructions onto Paul’s teaching in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7.[15] When all is said and done, not a single biblical text that deals with divorce and remarriage is interpreted according to a “straightforward” (to use Instone-Brewer’s word) reading of  text.A clarification is necessary here. It is perfectly justifiable to construct a more wordy interpretive rendering of a passage for purposes of clarity when other clear passages of Scripture affirm the validity of the added wording. This is a normal and necessary practice in biblical interpretation. Every expository preacher does this to some degree when he explains the meaning of a text in his preaching. It is another practice altogether, however, to add wording that is not affirmed elsewhere in the Bible. In the case of Instone-Brewer’s reconstructions of Mark 10:2-12, neither the wording nor the meaning can be affirmed from Scripture, but may only be gleaned from our understanding of pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture, which obviously calls for at least some speculation.
  • Instone-Brewer’s willingness to depend on non-textual data bears a striking resemblance to the writings of some of the proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul. According to the claims of some who advance one or the other variant of this complex theological innovation, enhanced understanding of first-century Jewish culture has enabled scholars to read what is “behind the text” (or, one might say, “between the lines”). We are now able (they claim) to understand accurately what Paul meant to say about atonement, imputation, justification, the righteousness of God, etc., even though he did not say it in the words he actually wrote. This interpretive philosophy has been called “critical realism.”Guy Prentiss Waters has provided an excellent overview and critique of the New  Perspectives on Paul in a book entitled, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response. On page 192 he aptly summarizes and criticizes the “critical realism” approach of one NPP writer’s method of interpreting Paul’s letter to the Romans:

    Traditional readings of Romans, then [According to N. T. Wright, the scholar/author Waters is critiquing here], can be modified or discarded by recourse to the purported worldview that is said to underlie the letter. Propositions in Paul are at best mere instantiations of narrative or worldview. They are at worst Western perversions of this Jewish thinker. We have in Wright an aversion to conducting theology in the way that the church has classically conceived theology. We have, in Wright, not only a non-classical, self-consciously formulated approach to theology, but also an approach to revelation that is antithetical to that of classical Christianity.[16]

    To see the connection between N. T. Wright’s approach to Romans and Instone-Brewer’s approach to Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage, one need only insert Instone-Brewer’s name in place of Wright’s in the above quote, and Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in place of references to Paul and the letter to the Romans. The result would look something like this:

    Traditional readings of [the divorce debates], then, can be modified or discarded by recourse to the purported worldview that is said to underlie [them]. Propositions in [these gospel passages] are at best mere instantiations of narrative or worldview. They are at worst Western perversions of [what was really said]. We have in [Instone-Brewer] an aversion to conducting theology in the way that the church has classically conceived theology. We have, in [Instone-Brewer], not only a non-classical, self-consciously formulated approach to theology, but also an approach to revelation that is antithetical to that of classical Christianity.

    No one should be above correction, even concerning theological views that have been held for centuries, but if longstanding Christian doctrines are to be proven errant, let the proof be found in the written text of Scripture, not in what someone thinks he sees between the lines.

Instone-Brewer’s Interpretive Straightjacket for the New Testament

David Instone-Brewer consistently places the New Testament in a position of subjection, both to the Old Testament and to the common understanding of Jewish divorce and remarriage practices that were based on the Old Testament. This has all been demonstrated above in the examination of his two claims. The bizarre result of this interpretive approach is a situation in which a first-century Jewish reader, steeped in tradition and living in a culture fraught with misunderstandings of the Old Testament, becomes the authoritative interpreter of the words spoken by Jesus.
In the introduction to his book Instone-Brewer writes,

There is, of course, no such thing as a typical first-century reader. All readers come to the text with their own presuppositions. This was as true in NT times as now. However, one presupposition was shared by all first-century believers, both Jews and Christians: they all accepted that the Old Testament was God’s word and was the basis for ethics. The teaching of the New Testament would be tested against this groundwork.[17]

This statement is, of course, correct to some degree. There are no factual or ethical contradictions of Old Testament teaching in the New Testament. Furthermore, I agree with Instone-Brewer when he says, “the original intent of the Old Testament is important to the modern reader, if only to prevent us from reading the text through the presuppositions of our own culture.”[18] But he only makes this statement after accusing first-century readers (obviously referring to Christians) of having a lax attitude toward the original meaning of the Old Testament. He writes,

The first-century readers of the New Testament were not particularly interested in the original meaning of the Old Testament. They considered that God was speaking directly to them and that his words should be interpreted for their own time. The original intent of the words to the original audience of the Old Testament was of little interest to them.[19]

Why would he say this about first-century Christians? He makes this claim presumably because he recognizes that first-century Christians understood the plain wording of the New Testament to be their final authority. Even where it was difficult to understand how New Testament precepts harmonized with Old Testament law, they read the words of Christ and the apostles in a “straightforward” way, recognizing them as new revelation from God. As a result, the written text of the New Testament, God’s final and brightest revelation, became their authoritative and binding standard. This “straightforward” method of interpreting the New Testament, however, conflicts with Instone-Brewer’s interpretive philosophy, one in which the New Testament is subjected to his reconstruction, which is in based on what he believes would have been the traditional Jewish understanding of the Old Testament. Therefore, since the early Christians subjected the Old to the New, rather than the New to the Old (as he thinks they should have), he concludes that they had “little interest” in the original meaning of the Old Testament. I said this is “presumably” why he made the statement about Christians’ disinterest in the original meaning of the Old Testament, but “obviously” might have been a better choice of words. His reasoning in this area is quite transparent.

The Flaw in Instone-Brewer’s Interpretive Philosophy

Once again Instone-Brewer’s reasoning is presumptuous. He fails to deal with several important questions. For example, what if early Christians were not indifferent to the original intent of Old Testament texts but valued and studied them in earnest? What if they came to understand the true meaning more accurately than did most first-century Jews? What if, when comparing the New Testament to the Old, they discovered harmony as well as a challenging and sometimes mysterious picture of fulfillment? What if, when all was said and done, they concluded that despite remaining difficulties in interpretation, serious challenges to existing ethical traditions, and even some apparent ethical disharmony, Christ and His apostles had the final word?

Instone-Brewer seems to overlook the fact that the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the old covenant and revealed the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets were often shocking. Christians even had difficulty accepting His teaching at times, but ultimately came to see it as profound truth. Most Jews, on the other hand, remained unconvinced. They concluded that He was a lunatic and a liar. They never came to recognize His ethical teaching or His self-designation as the Messiah to be in harmony with the Old Testament. That is why they killed Him! In direct contrast, Instone-Brewer amazingly insists that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage, if properly understood, would have been well-accepted by first-century Jews. Furthermore, rather than recognizing Jesus’ claim that His teaching replaced the Old Testament as a new and final authority (see, for example, Matt. 5:21-48; 28:18-20, John 12:48; 14:6; etc.), Instone-Brewer implies that first-century Jews and Christians would have agreed that the Old Testament was the ultimate and final authority. As he said, “The teaching of the New Testament [including the words of Christ] would be tested against this groundwork.”

The critical point here, one that Instone-Brewer seems to miss entirely, is that the brightest light of revelation (that is, the revelation that came in the person and words of Jesus Christ) must be allowed to illuminate and explain the more shadowy forms of revelation—the often mysterious types and figures found in the Old Testament. Whether or not fulfillment arrives on the scene exactly as expected, fulfillment is more illuminating, and therefore more authoritative, than promise. This is arguably the most critical aspect of Instone-Brewer’s writing. If he is wrong—if Jesus did come to change things and stir things up, rather than to merely be and say what every first-century Jew would have expected and accepted—his argument falls to its death.

More Unbiblical Teaching

David Instone-Brewer’s teaching should be seen as suspect because of what has already been discussed, but in my view it should be found completely unacceptable when one considers the following factors.

Moral Standards that Change with the Culture
Instone-Brewer seems to insist that at least in some particulars, Christian morality is not timeless in its application to everyday life. Referring to the concept of wives submitting to their husbands, for example, he reasons like this:

The concept of women submitting to their husbands was an accepted norm during the centuries before the NT and, to a lesser extent, in Christian and Jewish culture during the centuries after the NT. However, during the first century, the submission of wives was a hotly contested subject that divided society into, very approximately, the moral and the immoral.[20]

He explains that women gradually came to exercise “more and more freedom in the disposal of their own money, in business, and in marriage.”[21] This increasing freedom, he says, also resulted in an increase of sexual freedom for women, which led to an increase in sexual immorality. Then he says, “These trends resulted in many men reacting against such changes and longing for the old days of submissive and sexually moral wives.”[22] This form of male “nostalgia” (as he calls it), along with the increase of sexual immorality among women, resulted in the New Testament authors’ decision to reaffirm a longstanding moral code related to submission. Referring to submission to husbands as a “non-Christian moral code,” he concludes that “the main reason for [Christians] following this submission code was to conform to the normal expectation of what morality meant in the first century.”[23]

Based on the above understanding of historical factors related to the concept of wives submitting to their husbands, Instone-Brewer explains how Christians should address the topic of submission today.

Many would argue that today’s Christian moralists should emphasize these same two subjects: sexual morality and the submission of wives and children. Others (including me) would say that there is no longer any need to teach submission because this is not considered part of normal morality, and it is no longer linked to sexual morality. In NT days it would cause a scandal if the submission of wives were omitted from moral instruction, but now it is likely to cause an equal scandal if it is included. The threefold teaching of submission [wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters] did not have a Christian origin, and the number of caveats and explanations added to this teaching by NT authors suggests that they were somewhat uncomfortable with it. They attempted to Christianize it by adding that the head of the household should show respect for those submitting to him, and perhaps submit to them in return.[24]

One can only wonder how Instone-Brewer would apply this flexible morality to other ethical concerns, such as abortion, homosexuality, and materialism, all of which are areas in where biblical ethics continue to be seen as scandalous. In any case, there is no question that in his opinion, the validity of Christian moral standards is subject to cultural approval. His idea that appropriate Christian conduct should be determined by the prevailing cultural morality appears again when he describes the behavior of early Christians as compared to that of unbelieving Jews. Specifically discussing the early church’s views on divorce and remarriage, he writes,

There was a general feeling [among early Christians] that Christians were morally superior to Jews because the indwelling Holy Spirit enabled them to live better lives, and that Jesus expected the Church to follow higher standards. Perhaps this was true for the Early Church, which lived under constant threat of persecution. However, with the growth of the Church, less committed individuals joined, and the moral superiority of the Church became very difficult to demonstrate.[25]

Instone-Brewer does not seem to recognize the declining morality among professing Christians for what it truly represents. He does not seem to understand that these large numbers of “less committed individuals” were and are, in many cases, false converts—people who have not experienced regeneration. They are represented in local churches (even whole denominations) that have totally rejected the idea that a saved person is also a changed person. Instead, he sees the decline in Christian morality as justification for not insisting on high standards of behavior.

In modern times those who think that Jesus forbade all divorce, in direct contrast to the OT, either represent highly committed Christian groups or regard Jesus’ moral teaching as idealism that will find fulfillment in a future kingdom.[26]

Who are these “highly committed Christian groups”? Although he may not realize this, it seems he is referring to groups comprised largely of true believers—people who take Jesus’ instructions in the Bible at face value and seek to obey them; people who embrace the commands of Christ as their standard for living no matter how difficult; local churches that seek to maintain a regenerate membership and faithfully practice biblical church discipline. By way of contrast, Instone-Brewer seems to think that not all Christians are obligated to live in this “highly committed” way. This becomes apparent when he says that the practical application of much of Christ’s teaching would not be a realistic goal “in this world.”

The law forbidding divorce is like the law to offer the other cheek and to lend without expecting repayment. In this world these laws would result in mayhem and oppression, and so they are generally relegated to a future kingdom or to small communities of self-sacrificing individuals.[27]

Instone-Brewer’s opinion seems to be that for Christians today, these laws from Christ are optional, at best. In fact, he seems to say that observing them would place Christians at a great disadvantage in modern society. In another place he relates this directly to divorce.

The biggest problem with the interpretation that the NT has no grounds for divorce is that it is totally impractical. It makes no provision for divorce or even separation from adulterous or abusive partners. One may argue that it is no more impractical than “turn the other cheek,” but in a non-ideal world we need protection from muggers and abusive spouses. . . . It is difficult to believe that the Bible can be as impractical as this interpretation implies.[28]

Apparently he believes that since we live in a “non-ideal world,” the right to divorce has been elevated to the status of a basic human need. One might even call it an inalienable right. On this pragmatic basis, he concludes that nothing the Bible says, regardless of how straightforward the wording, should ever be interpreted as taking away this right.

The Holy Spirit Preserving God’s Will Concerning Divorce, not in Scripture, but in Modern Marriage Vows
Instone-Brewer suggests that even though no one until now could understand the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage rightly, the content of modern marriage vows may be the Holy Spirit’s way of showing us when divorce is permissible. First he writes,

The OT and NT contain four grounds for divorce, which cover most of the circumstances that mark the end of a marriage. Perhaps this is surprising, or perhaps it is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s guidance over the writing and compilation of Scripture. It is also remarkable that these four grounds have found their way into the vows that make up the majority of Christian marriage services because they have based their language on Ephesians 5:28-29. Perhaps this is another sign of the activity of the Holy Spirit, inspiring leaders of the Church when they compiled the liturgies.[29]

In another place he writes,

The Holy Spirit can perhaps be seen at work in preserving the biblical marriage vows in the Christian wedding service. The same OT vows of faithfulness, food, clothing, and love have come into our wedding services via Ephesians 5:29. This means that, when Christians marry, they make the same promises that were made by Jews in the OT and NT, promises which became the basis of a divorce if they were broken.[30]

Finally he says,

Divorce is allowed only on the grounds of broken marriage vows, and the decision to divorce can be made only by the injured party. . . . All this would be obvious to a first-century believer, but the meaning of the text was obscured at a very early date due to ignorance about the Jewish background after 70 C.E. Modern Church practice can be easily adapted to this standard because our marriage services still preserve the four biblical grounds for divorce in the marriage vows.[31]

Although he uses the word “perhaps” in the above quotes, his own opinion of what the Holy Spirit has done (and is doing) comes through repeatedly and clearly. According to Instone-Brewer, from 70 A.D. until now no one has rightly interpreted Scripture concerning the grounds for divorce and remarriage. That information was lost, along with knowledge of pre-70 A.D. Jewish culture, and can only be replaced by today’s learned scholars. Because of this serious problem, God used modern wedding vows, written in church liturgies, to fill an amazing Scriptural void.

Subjective (and Therefore Unrestricted) Grounds for Divorce
Instone-Brewer’s basic view is that divorce is justified whenever marriage vows have been broken. He writes,

The biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage are all failures to keep the marriage vows—that is, promises of faithfulness and provision of food, clothing, and love. The latter three may be generalized as material and emotional support. Physical and emotional abuse are extreme failures of material and emotional support.[32]

As I mentioned earlier, such an ambiguous position as this has no distinct boundaries. A person could easily stretch these “restrictions” as far as required to justify ending any undesirable marriage. For example, what exactly would constitute a failure in the category of “emotional support”? Would it include a husband divorcing his wife because she belittles him in front of his friends? What about a wife who becomes cold and uncaring? As another example, what would constitute a failure in the area of “material support”? Would a tight budget qualify? How about a husband requiring his wife to give up her spa membership, or to drive a used car, or buy only discounted groceries? As you can see, there are no boundaries here—no “standard” in Instone-Brewer’s position.

A “Hands-off” Pastoral Approach
A final serious problem with Instone-Brewer’s book is the way he says divorce and remarriage regulations (if one can rightly apply the term “regulation” to his ambiguous counsel) should be applied pastorally. In the final analysis, he leaves people in troubled marriages with no pastoral hand to guide them, no one to explain the clear directives found in Scripture as a means of protecting them from their own unreliable feelings and intuitions. Instone-Brewer tells pastors, in essence, that they are to stay out of other people’s business in this area of life. In justifying this “hands-off” approach, he first declares that “a minister is rarely the best type of counselor.” Even where pastors are competent to counsel, their counsel should be passive and ambiguous, rather than doctrinally precise or corrective. In his view, “The role of a counselor is to listen and to explore options without telling the couple what to do.” The couple “should be enabled to come to informed decisions based on their own choices and their own determinations” (emphasis mine).[33] Then, if a couple does decide to get divorced (presumably in a case where the pastor thinks they should not), “the minister has to support them.” Instone-Brewer admits that “This is difficult where there are no clear grounds for divorce, and this should be pointed out.” But when all is said and done, “The role of the minister is to point out the right way, as he sees it, and then to support the individual, even if that person makes a morally wrong choice” (emphasis mine).[34]

First of all, one is led to wonder what could possibly constitute a “morally wrong choice,” given the wide-open door to divorce Instone-Brewer claims the Holy Spirit has provided through modern wedding vows. Secondly, this sort of passive, non-corrective response to “morally wrong choices” (what the Bible would call “sins”) hardly fits the New Testament picture of the way in which a shepherd should conduct himself when one of his sheep strays into danger.

Concerning remarriage after divorce, Instone-Brewer takes a similarly passive (one might even say, evasive) approach. Describing his own pastoral practice he writes, “When divorcés come to ask to be married, I have made the personal decision to ask no questions about their former marriages . . . .”[35] Then, referring to the marriage of two adulterous lovers whose affair broke up their previous marriages, he admits, “I have probably conducted such marriages in ignorance because I do not inquire into the reasons for a past divorce.”[36] He says he does take a firm stand in cases where an “adulterous lover” situation is revealed to him voluntarily. “[I]f the couple admitted to me that their affair had broken up the marriage, I would refuse to marry them.” However conservative this commitment seems on the surface, it leaves him free to participate in the vast majority of other types of wrongful remarriages, even those involving divorcés who destroyed their former marriage by committing adultery, but who are now marrying someone other than their original lover. Furthermore, it would seem that his reputation of having a “Don’t ask” policy might actually encourage a “Don’t tell” response from divorcés (even adulterous lovers) who come to him to be married. Concerning the “adulterous lover” types of remarriages he says, “Personally I have not faced this decision.” But given his above admission that he has “probably conducted such marriages in ignorance,” it seems likely that the only reason he has not knowingly faced this decision is that he has chosen not to risk asking questions.

More importantly, it would seem impossible for Instone-Brewer to justify his practice of not asking questions before performing a wedding involving a divorcé. Bible-believing pastors sometimes disagree about when (or if) remarriage after divorce is permitted, but everyone who believes the Bible would surely agree that in at least some situations, remarriage after divorce is adultery, and therefore prohibited. Instone-Brewer admits that “both Jesus and Paul condemned remarriage after an invalid divorce” (emphasis mine).[37] The fact that there is such a thing as an invalid divorce (and therefore, wrongful remarriage after such a divorce) would seem to require at least some pastoral investigation into the circumstances of a past divorce before conducting a wedding involving a divorced person. Instone-Brewer’s willful evasion of this reality in practice, by refusing to ask questions about past divorces, amounts to nothing less than intentional neglect of his obligation not to facilitate the commission of a serious sin (i.e., adultery).

Finally, we should examine a comparison Instone-Brewer makes between a repentant murderer and a repentant adulterer. Justifying his decision to perform weddings involving divorcés without asking questions, he writes,

It is impossible to decide the rights or wrongs of former marriages without being intimately involved with both sides during the actual breakups. In any case, the past is past, and sins can be forgiven. I would not forbid a repentant murderer from joining the church, and so I cannot forbid a repentant adulterer from marrying in the church.[38]

Is this not comparing apples with oranges? With respect to the repentant murderer, Instone-Brewer is willing to accept someone who has no intention of committing a past sin again. In the case of the adulterer, however, he is referring to a person whose adultery led to divorce and who wants to marry again, thus committing an additional act of adultery. In order to make this a valid comparison, Instone-Brewer would need to be willing to permit a repentant murderer to murder again, only this time in the church building, with witnesses and a ceremony.

In his section about pastoral practice, Instone-Brewer includes a clichéd statement that will draw loud praise from many corners of modern “Christianity.” Referring to the obligation of ministers to support those who make “morally wrong choices” with respect to divorce and/or remarriage, he says, “If we threw all sinners out of the church, the pews would be empty, and so would the pulpit.”[39] Granted, true Christians, including faithful pastors, are still prone to sinning. No one achieves perfection in this life. But in the above statement Instone-Brewer erases all distinction between sinners who hate their sin and are earnestly pursuing holiness (cf. Heb. 12:14), and those for whom sin remains more appealing than holiness. The former sinners may also be called saints, while the latter, according to Jesus’ plain instructions in Matthew 18:15-17, are to be considered heathens and tax collectors, and removed from Christian fellowship. Sadly, for David Instone-Brewer as for much of modern “Christianity,” the practice of biblical church discipline has apparently gone the way of the dinosaur.


[1] David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: the Social and Literary Context, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2002), ix.
[2] Ibid., 308.
[3] Ibid., 238.
[4] Ibid., 239.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 258.
[7] Ibid. 266.
[8] Ibid., 133.
[9] Ibid. 134.
[10] Ibid., 175.
[11] Ibid., 176.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 181
[15] Ibid., 189-212.
[16] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Phillipsburg New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), 192.
[17] Ibid., ix-x.
[18] Ibid., x.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid. 233.
[21] Ibid., 234.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid., 236.
[25] Ibid., 290.
[26] Ibid., 290-291.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid., 272-273.
[29] Ibid., 296.
[30] Ibid., 306.
[31] Ibid., 314.
[32] Ibid., 308.
[33] Ibid., 311.
[34] Ibid., 311-312.
[35] Ibid., 312
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid., ix.
[38] Ibid. 312.
[39] Ibid.