Why are evangelicals so willing to accept divorce among their political leaders? It seems, increasingly, that political leaders look like evangelical church members. The divorce rate among evangelicals is actually as high as that of the general population.My emphasis.
The evangelical attempt to follow a literal interpretation of the Bible has always been difficult in the face of the realities of modern life. When Jesus was asked in the Gospels if he allowed "divorce for any cause," he replied that anyone "who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matthew 19:3). This admonition has long been interpreted to mean that divorce, for Bible-based Christians, is allowed only in cases of adultery. Even then, the spouse who has been faithful is treated the same as the adulterer: Neither can remarry as long as the other is alive.
As it happens, new scholarship supports a slightly less strict biblical understanding of divorce than the traditional one. Scrolls found near the Dead Sea, which confirm indications found in ancient Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus, show that the key phrase "any cause" was actually the formal name of a type of divorce. That is, Jesus did not reject divorce for any cause but rather, he rejected the "Any Cause" divorce.
Rabbis at the time disagreed on the validity of "Any Cause" divorce, but thanks to marriage contracts found near the Dead Sea, we know that most allowed divorce based on Exodus 21:10-11. That is, they allowed men and women to divorce partners for physical or emotional neglect, including abuse and abandonment. Jesus said nothing against this, and in First Corinthians 7:15, Paul tells those who are abandoned by their partners that they are "no longer bound."
There is now a growing scholarly consensus among evangelicals on this issue. Even evangelical professors like Craig Keener of Duke University and William Heth at Taylor University, who have each previously published books with more traditional interpretations, now teach differently. Drawing on my own work, "Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible" (Eerdmans, 2002), they conclude that Jesus and Paul would have rejected no-fault divorce and that they would have permitted a wronged partner to initiate a divorce based on the Old Testament grounds of adultery or neglect.
This new scholarship may allow evangelical leaders to say what they have wanted to say for some time -- that divorce is permitted so long as there are strong grounds for it. A few, like Southern Baptist scholar Jim Denison, are already teaching that abuse and abandonment are valid grounds for divorce.
Episcopalians, including evangelical Episcopalians, have for a number of decades accepted divorce for reasons beyond adultery, abuse and abandonment. How did evangelical Episcopalians accomplish this and remain consistent with the principles following scripture and traditional teaching? It appears true that evangelical Episcopalians did have room to change their understanding of divorce. And therefore they do have room to at least to contemplate a change in their beliefs about homosexuality.
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