Divorce As A Justice Issue -- By: Craig S. Keener

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 13:4 (Fall 1999)
Article: Divorce As A Justice Issue
Author: Craig S. Keener

Divorce As A Justice Issue

Craig S. Keener

Craig Keener is a Professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary and author of nine books, including The IVP Bible Background Commentary; A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew; and Paul, Women & Wives. This article is reprinted from Prism magazine (5:7) with permission.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against his wife” (Mk 10:11). While I leave aside for the moment other matters of interpretation in this passage, I want to draw attention to the phrase, “against his wife.” In Jesus’ day some Pharisees allowed husbands to divorce their wives for almost any reason, but the law did not permit wives to divorce their husbands (though under extreme circumstances courts would force the husband to grant his wife a divorce). The wife had no legal recourse to prevent the divorce. In a society where only men received fair pay for their work, divorce put women at a severe economic disadvantage.

Jesus treated divorce as a justice issue: It could represent the sin of one person against another person, a betrayal of covenant fidelity. “‘The Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant...For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel... So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Mal 2:14-16, NASB). We recognize that while some sins require the consent of both parties, like adultery or fornication, other sins can be committed by one person against another, like murder and rape. Many American divorces today occur by mutual consent (or represent the lack of commitment of both spouses, in varying degrees, to make their marriage work). Yet many represent one person’s betrayal of another person. I think here especially of divorces involving unrepentant adultery, abandonment or abuse.

Yet many evangelicals today refuse to treat divorce as a justice issue and, what is worse, they often abuse the betrayed spouse in the name of opposing divorce. To punish a betrayed spouse in a divorce because we oppose divorce is like punishing a rape victim because we oppose rape. Jesus defended the betrayed party of many divorces of his day and challenged his contemporaries’ interpretation, charging that they allowed this betrayal because of the hardness of their hearts. Yet I have witnessed many evangelicals punishing the very people that Jesus was seeking to protect, thereby compounding the offense of the betrayer in oppressing the person betrayed. Is it possible that our abuse of Scripture to oppress others also reflec...

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