Book Review
by Jim McGuiggan

Gary Collier's book,
Divorce & The Christ Community

So many books are written to “move” us and make us “soar”. This isn't one of them. So many books are a rehash of what went before. (An unfriendly critic wrote of some poor author, “Mr. X has written his book again.” Ouch!) Collier's book is no rehash of anything I've read.

Divorce Book What is he after in the book? A lot of things! But I came away from it what I think are two primary thrusts. One, he wants us to see divorce as the failure of the human family to live out God's heart's desire for our marriages. Two, he wants the church to respond with the heart of God before, during and after divorce.

Just offhand (and, then again, not just offhand) I don't know anyone who takes a more uncompromising stance against divorce than Collier.” God hates divorce,” he says, “always has and always will.” Gary isn't talking about “divorce in general”; he means any divorce, any time and under any circumstances.

The vast majority of us think that that's over the top. Even those of us who cluck our tongues while wagging our heads at “liberal” teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage think it's over the top. We feel good that our view on divorce is more demanding (we only allow it for fornication, you see) and so we gather our skirts about us in good Pharisee fashion (Shammai school of course!). Does this impress Collier? Not a bit of it! He would tend to think that we “conservatives” are more dangerous to marriage than the liberals. If we deride “liberal” views and offer a “tough” line we're more likely to make people think we're offering the full counsel of God on divorce rather than a watered down version of it. For Gary Collier the “hard line” on divorce is only another version of the old shell game and everybody gets scammed. “Hard” lines or “liberal” lines are all the same to this author—they don't express the heart of God about marriage.

So that's how Collier is, huh? Has no compassion for those involved in ugly divorces. No, that's not how he is at all. He knows all about nasty divorces and about people who are involved in them. He won't offer them the assurance that there's no sin involved in a “hard to get” divorce. What he offers these people is the gospel with its grace that covers all our sins. He insists that we all confess our sin and see divorce as our human failure to follow the heart of God in how he sees marriage.

Collier speaks of all divorces as sin so that he can speak of them all as open to God's grace! In the divorcing matter he concludes us all under sin that God might have mercy on us all. Instead of our going to God and saying, “My divorce was righteous and my ex is the one who needs mercy and forgiveness” Collier says we should all go before God and say, “My divorce is another case in which your heart was broken and for it I humbly ask for your forgiving grace.”

If a divorced person swaggered up to him and claimed that his/her divorce was the best thing that ever happened to him or her, Collier would speak intensely about a God who could never feel that way. If a beaten, depressed and anxious divorcee came to Collier asking to be assured that she did the right thing (for the children's sake) in leaving some brute, he'd give her comfort. He wouldn't comfort her by saying she did right in choosing to divorce. He would applaud her and comfort her for doing right in delivering her children. Though the divorce and the deliverance may be involved in the same set of actions, Collier insists that one of her purposes has God's full approval and the other has not.

But how can he “get around” the exception of Matthew 19:9? Read the book and see.

Since he holds that divorcing can never have God's approval that must mean he consigns all divorced people to a life of celibacy whether they can live with it or not, right? No it doesn't. Collier believes that divorced people may remarry and live to honor God in that union (his sustained discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 is part of his case for that). But surely if God forbids divorce then if one remarries they're committing adultery. Isn't that what Matthew 19:9 expressly says? You must read Collier's own treatment of this for yourself to get the sense of what Jesus is doing in that section. When we see what Christ does in Matthew 5:17-48 whole new possibilities open up for Matthew 19. In Matthew 5 Pharisees taught that adultery was sex with the wrong woman and Jesus said cherishing the thought is adultery. In Matthew 19, Collier tells us, it isn't marrying a second time that's adultery, it's the whole greedy attitude that leads them to divorce so that they can remarry—that's the adultery of the text. It's more than getting into bed with a woman when she's not your wife, it's the whole sick enterprise of divorcing the wife you're tired so you can get into bed with someone who's not yet your wife. Gary says that that is what Jesus is mad about in Matthew 5 and 19.

Collier is death on the habit of throwing a bunch of different texts together and homogenizing them. He fiercely insists that we be honest in our allowing the text to speak its own message rather than ours. And we're to let it speak to the situation before it. To hear Collier talk some section of scripture is liable to jump up in church one of these days and say to the preacher, “I wasn't talking about that at all!” So to take Matthew 19 and call it the whole story is to turn the Bible into elastic. He's sure that Christ isn't taking sides in the debate between the sages and it wasn't only their conclusions Christ was opposed to; he was disgusted by the way they went about drawing their conclusions. They built theological edifices with a verse from here and another from there, says Collier, and missed everything Christ saw because he looked for God's heart in regard to marriage. God's heart? What's it like? Well, Collier insists Genesis 1 & 2 reveals it but he has a riveting section about God's heart about marriage when he deals with David's repentance in Psalm 51. That section alone, for me, was worth the price of the book.

You must understand that Collier doesn't simply go to the New Testament texts and come back with some different conclusions. He comes back saying that Jesus (or Paul) isn't concerned with “conclusions” but is concerned about how we hear God. He would agree with N.T. Wright who said “Jesus was not debating with the Pharisees on their own terms, or about the detail of their own agendas. Two musicians may discuss which key is best for a particular Schubert song. Somebody who proposes rearranging the poem for a heavy metal band is not joining in the discussion, but challenging its very premises.”

Collier has the irritating habit of insisting that texts should be allowed to say only what they mean to say. If we asked him, “What does Matthew 5 or 19 say we should do with those who have sinned in pursuing divorce and remarriage?” it might gob-smack us to hear him say, “Nothing.” But that's the price he's willing to pay to keep integrity with a word from Christ. Without apology he would say, “Go elsewhere and find texts that teach us how to deal with sinners—even divorced sinners.” Even if you don't agree that the “divorce texts” say nothing about “possible discipline” there's no faulting Collier's approach to a given text.

Look, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 Paul said a woman is not to divorce her husband. If we ask, “What are we to do with her if she goes ahead and does it anyway?” 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 doesn't tell us! But if she does what she was told not to do Paul says she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. (That he gives her instruction after she did what she wasn't to do seems to imply that Paul thinks she is still part of the Christ community—see 1 Corinthians 5:12-13.) Now, what does Paul say we're to do if she remarries? 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 doesn't say and neither will Collier. So what do we do? Many of us go back to Matthew which links “commits adultery” with remarriage and then come back to 1 Corinthians 7 ready to disfellowship her for “living in adultery”. But what if Matthew isn't saying what we usually think he's saying? Read his book!

Collier is an experienced scholar who writes carefully and digs deep but he hasn't written this book for fellow-scholars. It's not a hard read as far as style goes but there's no denying many of us will have to work patiently in some sections. (“It isn't really difficult,” said the plumber to me, “all you have to do is bend that...and join that socket...” So spoke the master plumber to a plumbing nerd.) Scholars think they're making it easier because they avoid the technical (as Collier does, and offers Appendices). Well, they do, of course, but they move easily in the areas of their expertise and it's easy for them to forget that their ease of movement is because they're scholars and the rest of us are grade-schoolers. But it's worth the pursuit! Every blessed moment's labor! When we throw down another 200 pages of easily read froth and foam and grab something substantial instead, something that works with a profoundly important issue—when we do that I think someone in heaven jumps to his feet and applauds us for saying no to our addiction to sugar.

Mark you, I said the book wasn't written for scholars but even professors need to go to church and hear the word of the Lord. And if I had a friend who was a real scholar I wouldn't be ashamed to put it in his hand and say, “Here, this'll challenge you.”

Do I accept all his conclusions and arguments? No, I don't and the truth is I don't know at this moment if he is wrong or I am (or we both are). I know he wants to honor God and that he puts his head against God's chest to listen to the heartbeat, and he can't be wrong in that. But, then, that's what I want also and I still can't (yet) share all his conclusions or how he gets to them. I'm not interested here in listing points of disagreement other than what to him is a central one. I'm not yet able to say that every divorce (without exception) runs contrary to Genesis 1 & 2. Collier would praise the heart that wants to protect the children from a predatory and violent father but he adamantly refuses to declare any or good. At the moment I think that this goes beyond what Genesis 2:24 and Jesus' use of it in Matthew 19 warrants.

The book is geared mainly to the understanding of truth about divorce and remarriage so that we can know what it is we're dealing with when we deal with these realities. But there is some practical advice given, there are qualities called for and responses outlined that would help if we have the heart to pursue them. And (maybe) above all there is a deep underlying call for us all to acknowledge sin as a community and to engage in a healing ministry that would call for abundant mercy wisely extended.

Let me tell you where Collier has helped me.

He has helped me to speak more carefully. For I've been saying things I didn't really believe and I've been expressing things I really believe in a poor and misleading way.

He has helped me to be a more sensitive listener to God and he has deepened my resolve to get to the heart of things, which ultimately is God's heart that makes itself known to us in scripture and life.

He has helped me to see more clearly what exactly was happening in Matt 5 and 19 when Christ went behind legislation to the character of God to reveal the will of God. I already had some sense of what was happening there but he has assured me as well as enriching my vision. His treatment of Matthew 5:17-48 is sorely needed.

Whatever my shortcomings in life or biblical understanding I always thought I had a high view of marriage. I believe that's true. But I'm sure I have a higher and more nuanced view of it now since working my way through Collier's book. I sincerely hope it will be taken seriously by those who teach others.

Jim McGuiggan

Copyright © Tribunal Media, Version 3.0, October 2003
This page last edited on Thursday June 24, 2010