Book Review: Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, by Rubel Shelly

Divorce & RemarriageIt’s not often I have a major shift in my theology, but it does happen. When it comes to the oh-so-controversial-and-convoluted-subject of marriage-divorce-&-remarriage, there are a number of systems that have been constructed through the centuries to explain various interpretations of what Jesus and Paul have to say about it in the New Testament. Up until a few days ago, I had already shifted my thinking a couple different times; however, no matter how seemingly logical the legal constructions fit together in my mind, nothing has set well with what I read elsewhere in Scripture as to how they fit with the heart of God.

For the past ten years, I have not been a part of a church, either in general membership or leadership, where there has not been a messy, or at least very uncomfortable, dealing with people who found themselves in the middle of trying to figure out what to do with their marriage, divorce, and potential for remarriage. I’ve often heard from those older than I that this is a growing concern in the church; however, I believe it’s simply that we become more and more aware of these difficult situations the older we get—things were always better back in the “good ol’ days,” whether that be when we were toddlers, teens, middle-aged, or what have you…or so they say. Though I’ve had discussions with many about my beliefs and interpretations of Scripture, something always kept me from speaking from some position of authority (ha!) to those I thought may be “in sin” when it came to my interpretations of Jesus and Paul on this subject. I either felt God holding me back and keeping me from speaking, or scheduled meetings simply didn’t happen for a number of reasons. I am so thankful they didn’t!

I come from a rather legalistic and “rule book” approach to Scripture, and looking for those legal systems is still a temptation, which isn’t to say that systematic theology is a bad thing! In my late college days I began to pray more, listen to God, and do my best to stay out of the way of the Spirit’s leading in my life. That has been the foundation of how I have since approached Scripture and my life. Those who know me can attest to the changes and far-off places to which that approach led! Once I began graduate work in theology, my academic endeavors were kept in check with my reliance on the Spirit, without which I could very easily jump right back into a purely “do and don’t” mentality on how to use Scripture. The deeper I leaned into God, the more these divorce and remarriage systems disturbed me, but I could not see what Jesus and Paul had to say any differently than how I’d been approaching them for decades prior.

Jumping to the present, my wife (Delana) and I recently moved to the greater Denver area where we believe God led us. We first visited back in January (2015) for an interview Delana had at a local university. We decided to spend a little of our own money to stick around for a couple more days so that we could get to know the area a little bit. One of our biggest desires was finding a church we could immediately plug into and glorify God through serving others. We had several recommendations, and had planned on visiting one in Denver proper—we only had time to visit one church on Sunday morning, so we wanted to make it count! Around 10:00 PM the Saturday before, getting ready to go to bed, I told Delana, “I think we’re supposed to go to [a particular Church of Christ].” Both of us were shocked by what I’d said because I’d not planned on going back to another denominational congregation, and she didn’t have the most pleasant experience with the CoC since learning about it and visiting a few after meeting me. We both felt a bit nervous about it, but I believe it’s where God wanted us to be. So, we followed. It was the best experience at any church we’ve ever had. We were welcomed warmly and joyfully, prayed with, immediately included, and encouraged. One of the ministers and a married couple kept in touch from that point until we moved to CO on June 29, and then we had breakfast at the minister’s house the next morning. Just awesome.

We were immediately plugged into different ministries and Bible studies, and began growing closer to several families in the church—we still haven’t even been here two months! In July I attended an information session about the church and what they expected from those who wanted to be “members.” Delana was out of town that weekend for work. At the beginning of this session one of the ministers, out of a desire to be transparent and wanting others to be the same, told us of his past marriage, his infidelity, and subsequent divorce and a host of other consequences. After fifteen years of celibacy, he remarried just a few months ago. The elders and the rest of the church fully supported him in this. I’d never seen that in a CoC, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew what I wanted to do with it, but not sure what I was supposed to do with it. This is where Delana and I truly believe God wants us. Our move to CO for her job and our coming to this church was purely a decision by faith, not by sight (we’re still trying to work it out financially!). When Delana returned, I gave her the bullet points of the meetings and shared with her the minister’s story. “What are we going to do?”

The minister and I had a few things to discuss anyway, so we set a time for earlier this week. There was much prayer beforehand, and when the time came we had a loving, nonjudgmental, brotherly conversation about how he read Scripture concerning divorce and remarriage and from where we both came. After going through every passage in the New Testament and looking at context from the Old Testament, I felt a peace about his conclusion that I’d never had before. Things clicked and I felt like God had lifted a weight from my shoulders that had been hanging there for over ten years.

It’s important to understand that he held this position before things went sour in his first marriage. This isn’t a case of someone subsequently trying to find justification for selfish desires in Scripture thereafter. In fact, he’d never planned on marrying again, but had a similar “God put us together” story with his current wife that Delana and I share.

So, what does all of this have to do with a book, let alone a book review? Context! When I first asked for the minister’s perspective on divorce and remarriage, he reached over to his bookshelf, pulled out Rubel Shelly’s Divorce & Remarriage: A Redemptive Theology, and said, “This is what I believe.” Of course, we didn’t read the book right then and there (he did read a few pages in conversation), but I did borrow it and read it over the next couple of days. I’d already been convinced by our conversation to change my perspective on the subject, but I wanted see what this book had to say, since it was likely going to be added to my library and recommended to others if it had anything to do with what we discussed! And it’s wonderful: full of love and compassion, and with no lack of scholarship and “sound” reading of Scripture. It includes the meat of the text (setting up context and addresses all necessary Scripture references for the subject, peppering a number of “what would you do?” narratives in mix the to help the reader think through these things), a lengthy question & answer section (he asks himself many of the questions he’s heard in the past and answers them well), and two brief letters, one to those who have been divorced and one to church leaders.

I highly recommend this book, especially to those who find themselves in any sort of church leadership position so that we do not continue to heap more burdens on people with whom we have no right to so do. Read with an open mind and heart toward God, and get ready for a life changing moment. It can happen.

To all those I’ve oppressed in the past regarding their divorce and remarriage, I ask for your forgiveness. We are always called to reconciliation, and that is what we first desire in any relationship, especially a marriage. We do live in a fallen world, and bad things happen. Let us continue from there in love, grace, and mercy. Lord, forgive us and grant us that capacity for one another. Amen.

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