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Book review: Putting asunder

July 2000 | by Derek Swann

Derek Swann reviews the book Putting asunder by Stephen Clark (Bryntirion Press, 312pp, £9.99)

The subject of divorce is highly controversial and there is little consensus of understanding, even among Christians who hold a high view of Scripture. When the subject of remarriage after divorce is introduced into the equation, the difficulties increase.

The issue of divorce and remarriage is both complex and emotionally charged. It is not just about principles but also about people; real people, often in heart-breaking situations, who are crying out for helpful biblical solutions.

Courteous and fair

Ideally, if somebody who has studied law, practised as a solicitor, who is a pastor and a trained theologian, could be persuaded to write on the subject, the whole Christian world would surely be grateful.

Look no further, for such a man is Stephen Clark whose book Putting asunder – Divorce and remarriage in biblical and pastoral perspective has recently been published by Bryntirion Press.

The author takes a fresh look at the teaching of the Bible on these issues. He is courteous and fair in dealing with those with whom he disagrees, and the discussion and exposition are carried on in a calm, scholarly fashion.

The book falls into several sections: Part 1: ‘Divorce in England and Wales’; Part 2: ‘The OT teaching’ (with a 12-page excursus on the meaning of ‘something indecent’ in Deuteronomy 24:1); Part 3: ‘The NT teaching’: the teaching of the Gospels (with a 27-page excursus into the meaning of porneia) followed by Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7; and Part 4: ‘The application of biblical principles’: practical considerations, including five specific examples taken from real-life situations.

Seeing the wood

The remainder of the book, some 120 pages, is taken up with 5 appendices and copious notes bearing on the earlier section of the book. By relegating the essential notes to the end of the work, the main argument stands out. First we see the wood, and then we are invited to inspect the trees.

This is not a racy read. The reader (the book is aimed chiefly at church leaders) will have to sit on a hard chair and be prepared to have his mind moved up a gear or two (and possibly into overdrive).

Stephen Clark has read widely, probably exhaustively. But I was rather surprised to see no reference to Jay E. Adams’ excellent work Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the body of the book, though it is listed in the bibliography.

Though Adams’ book is not a ‘heavyweight’ like some of the others discussed, it is certainly influential, and probably the one book most pastors are familiar with. A modest assessment would have been helpful.

Divorce permissible

The writer argues that divorce is permissible where one or other of the spouses is guilty of sexual iniquity. In such a case divorce is permissible but not mandatory. Remarriage in some cases is also permissible.

He argues further that Paul allows for separation that does not amount to divorce (p.179) and that Jesus’ teaching is strongly ‘anti-divorce’ and ‘pro-marriage’ (p.50). All books on divorce and remarriage raise controversy, and this book is no exception.

In our present society sin is creating chaos, and that chaos sometimes spills over into the lives of believers, creating complex problems. Gone are the days of black and white, and we are confronted today with a range of greys. This book should provide some light to help Christians sort things out, but let me add a few practical observations.

The nature of love

Working from the old adage, ‘prevention is better than cure’, I believe we need to take positive action to slow down the rate of divorce among Christians. This can be done firstly, I suggest, by giving clear teaching on marriage to those about to enter into it.

Increasingly, many young people are converted out of non-Christian homes, and sometimes broken homes. They may bring with them a view of marriage which owes more to social trends than to Scripture. Such brethren need to be confronted by the biblical view of marriage. (In some ways I am sorry that Stephen Clark didn’t begin his book with a chapter on marriage.)

Secondly, the nature of Christian love needs to be emphasised, for it is far removed from the sentimentalism of the Beatles’ song – ‘All you need is love’. Young couples would benefit greatly from working through (perhaps with an older married couple) the practical implications for their marriage in the teachings of 1 Corinthians 13.

Reconciliation

Thirdly, Christian leaders need to be alert to marital problems in the church before they get out of hand. They should be ready to help, prayerfully and carefully, where marriages show signs of wear and tear. I know this is a tricky matter, but leaders too often practise ‘avoidance therapy’, hoping that problems will clear themselves up.

Usually they don’t. When, eventually, action is taken, a complex situation may have developed, involving bitterness and cruelty (mental and even physical). ‘I can’t take any more!’ is the cry of a broken heart. ‘I want out!’

While fully sympathising, we need to listen to some wise words from John Stott: ‘Speaking personally as a Christian pastor, whenever somebody asks to speak with me about divorce, I have now for some years steadfastly refused to do so. I have made the rule never to speak with anybody about divorce, until I have first spoken with him (or her) about two other subjects, namely marriage and reconciliation. Sometimes a discussion on these topics makes a discussion of the other unnecessary’ (Christian Counter-culture, p.98).

Forgiveness

Fourthly, there is a need for the note of forgiveness to be sounded. Not any old forgiveness but that of Colossians 3:13: ‘Forgive as the Lord forgave you’ or Ephesians 4:32: ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you’.

I like J. B. Philip’s paraphrase of Ephesians 4:26: ‘Never go to bed angry’. Now that’s a text worth hanging up on the landing!