Interview with Jim Newheiser, author of MARRIAGE, DIVORCE, AND REMARRIAGE: CRITICAL QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Published on February 13, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

P&R, 2017 | 336 pages

It has been a while since we’ve seen a new, biblical treatment of questions regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and Jim Newheiser has stepped up to provide an important study in his new book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers. I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and Dr. Newheiser is with us today to tell us about it.
Jim, welcome – congratulations on your new book, and thanks for talking to us about it.

James Newheiser:
It’s great to be with you, Fred.

 

Fred Zaspel:
This is hardly a new subject to you – besides being married a number of years yourself, you’ve been in pastoral ministry quite a while, and now you’re teaching counseling at RTS. I’m guessing in all this you’ve answered a few questions about marriage.

Newheiser:
Yes. I’m so thankful that the Lord providentially worked out the circumstances to write this, but as I did it, it really became the culmination of 38 years in marriage and over 30 years of pastoral ministry and counseling. We’re pulling everything related to marriage together, at least in a summary form. In counseling, especially, within the local church and also in a Christian or biblical counseling ministry, I’ve seen almost everything. And so, it’s helped me to have to work through a lot of situations. In fact, even in the early chapters of the book, Defining Marriage, and What Constitutes Marriage, just to give you an anecdotal story like how God in his providence brings circumstances into your life where you have to think things through biblically. When we were in Saudi Arabia where I was a tent-making pastor in the 80s, we had a couple who were from Africa, who wanted to get married. They were not in Saudi Arabia legally; they did not have a way to get out legally. They wanted to be married, but the question is, can we marry them, even though they can’t get a license from a government? And just thinking things through biblically – I always used to say, at a wedding, you need to show me the license before the wedding. I’m not saying that’s always a bad idea, but just working it through and studying it biblically, I realized that I think we as a community of God’s people there in Saudi Arabia could have a wedding for this couple even if there wasn’t a government to issue a piece of paper, a license, for them to marry.

 

Zaspel:
What is the contribution you’re hoping to make with your book? And who is your intended audience?

Newheiser:
The book is written in a way I think ordinary Christians can read it. I’m really kind of an ordinary pastor who can address subjects, I think, in a way that is not all that complicated or scholarly. Because of the length of the book, one way I envision it being used is pastors and counselors would buy it and might even have their counselees read sections that relate to their questions about pre-marriage, or situation relating to a divorce question, even. I think bigger chunks in the first half could be used to a member of the church or counselee buy the book. There are over 100 pages dealing with marriage in a positive way. I think it’s all pretty easy to read. It’s broken down into 40 chapters, each of which is a pretty bite-size answer to a different important question.

 

Zaspel:
I was going to ask you to give us an overview, so go ahead and do that.

Newheiser:
There are 40 questions and with the length of the book that would be about eight pages each, typically, with the answer. The first 20 are related to marriage. The second 20 deal with the questions of divorce and remarriage.

The section on marriage progresses from defining marriage, dealing with questions like polygamy, dealing with pre-marriage, how do you know whether you should be married, and singleness. And then, positively, what the Bible says about marriage, husbands, wives, sex, finances, all the typical stuff, dealing with sin in marriage, communication, conflict resolution. Kind of a summary of everything I’ve tried to practice in my own marriage and teach in counseling and teach and preach in the church.

The second half is dealing with divorce and remarriage questions. From my perspective, John Murray wrote, probably in the 60s, his book, which was very good, helpful, exegetical. Jay Adams, I think, in the 80s started there and updated and expanded some upon Murray, but relied upon that a lot. I think his book on divorce and remarriage is a great resource. Where my section on divorce and remarriage, I think, would make a new contribution, is that in the 30 or so years since Jay wrote, you’ve had two new thrusts that have affected Evangelicalism and even reformed Evangelicalism.

On the left side you’ve had David Instone-Brewer. And he has, through studies of cultural things back then, expanded significantly the idea of grounds for divorce being any failure to keep the covenant, almost. And then, on the right, you’ve had the expansion of people who hold to the permanence view, that virtually no Christian can initiate divorce and certainly can’t be remarried after divorce. People with John Piper, Jim Elliff and others taking a position like that. And so, where my book would expand would be to address the left and the right, try to present their views in a way that’s fair. I’ve loved having John Frame in the seminary, and I feel like when he dealt with people with whom he disagreed in apologetics he did so in a way that if they were sitting in the room they’d say that was an honest presentation of my views and it was kind. So, I would like to be kind and honest in my presentation of different views, but I come down more along the lines of the Westminster confession in terms of divorce and remarriage. But I’ve tried to understand the other views and interact with them.

The other thing that section of the book probably would contribute is just that you learn so much by the situations that come along in real life. You get quite a few in the local church but a counseling center just attracts a much larger number of difficult situations; and so working through those difficult situations has given real case examples. And how we’ve had to think those through, biblically, informs the second half of the book. I don’t think John Murray did a whole lot of that kind of counseling. Now, Jay has done a fair amount, but I think probably by the time at my age and experience, writing the book, I’ve probably had… it contains probably a lot more interactions with real examples that I’ve worked through with people.

 

Zaspel:
Why did God institute marriage? What is its purpose?

Newheiser:
For his own glory, to reflect the relationship he has to his people. For the benefit of men and women. I guess, in creation it would be the joyous union they would have reflecting perhaps intra-Trinitarian love. Post Fall it’s a great instrument for our sanctification, to learn to reflect the grace and love to each other that we’ve received in Christ. It’s to fill the earth. In my mind, from the human standpoint, God has done this for his glory to exalt his grace to us in the Gospel. It’s also next to my own salvation and conversion, the richest blessing God has shown me in this life and I think that is what God intends.

 

Zaspel:
What does a successful Christian marriage look like? Can you highlight the leading aspects?

Newheiser:
I think it certainly would begin with a man and woman who both love Christ more than they love each other. They view their marriage as a way that they can serve God together better than they could separately. They enter into the marriage because they understand the nature of the covenant; there’s a level of commitment and an acknowledgment that God is joining them as Jesus says in Matthew 19. Then that informs their commitment to exert effort to maintain and strengthen the marriage. The biggest single element I know in my own marriage for the success in the marriage is that we reflect God’s grace to each other. I especially like Dave Harvey’s book, When Sinners Say I Do; And Paul Tripp has written, So What Did You Expect? That you enter into marriage often with the happily-ever-after dream and then I’ve had so many people tell me that it was only after being married, I realized what a selfish sinner I am. And so, it reveals your own sin and becomes an instrument for your sanctification. Also, you realize you married a fellow sinner and it gives you an opportunity to show grace and love to somebody else that reflects the grace and love that you’ve received from the Lord Jesus Christ. And actually, one of the main things that really has helped enhance my marriage even in the last 15 to 20 years, things I didn’t get before, is to just thankfully receive grace from the other person, grace you completely didn’t deserve. Rather than feeling like you need to merit their love and be worthy, just accept that this person loves me as God loves me in Christ, even though she knows my sins and my faults. And that enhances my ability to understand and appreciate God’s love for me in Christ and hopefully it’s a circular thing in a positive way where we both hopefully understand the other.

 

Zaspel:
In your experience counseling, what have been the most common issues and mistakes that cause problems in marriage?

Newheiser:
Probably the heart of our counseling ministry, and Carolyn I do a lot of counseling of couples together, is dealing with conflict. And conflict, James says, what’s the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is it not your desires that war in your members, you lust and don’t have, so you kill. So, I think just selfishness, sinfulness. But in summary, I think a lot of marriages are law-based, when they need to learn to be grace-based. They tend to have expectations of the person, and when those expectations aren’t met, they tend to become judges of each other. In a grace-based marriage, it’s not that you don’t bring correction and try to resolve problems, but as Galatians 6:1 says, if someone is caught in a trespass, ye who are spiritual restore him gently, looking to yourself so that you won’t be tempted. And so, rather than approaching the sin of your spouse in a law-based way, as a judge, you learn to approach their sin, first of all, recognizing that it is against God, not primarily against you. But then you come as a healer, as a doctor, a nurse, instead of a judge, showing grace, seeking to restore them to the Lord, which is the heart of the problem instead of it being on the horizontal level just with you. And so, where we’ve seen great blessing in marriage counseling is when couples get the log out of their own eyes and learn to show grace, to lovingly restore and heal rather than judge. And also to enjoy thanking God for the blessing of receiving grace.

 

Zaspel:
In my own experience counseling marriage couples there have been countless times when I’ve wanted to say, simply, “Stop doing that. Start doing this. Be humble. Repent. Forgive. Don’t be so self-centered. Love as you have been loved in Christ. Problem solved.” Why is it never that simple?

Newheiser:
Well, all that would solve the problem; but, as you well know, the Lord has to work in someone’s heart to give them the capacity for that. I often use a term in marriage counseling, in other counseling, too, but in marriage counseling especially. There’s been this gospel disconnect where these people understand, intellectually, the gospel—they’re glad God has shown grace to them; but then they deal with the other person in a Mosaic law-based way.

Just to give one example in terms of how we try to address that problem. We’ve had couples where they know all that stuff, and actually those are the hardest people to counsel. They know everything, they have been in good churches; they’ve heard the teaching, they’re just not doing it. There’s been a recent case we had where there’s a couple that has just been stuck for a long time, and they got sent to us because their own church just didn’t know what else to do with them. We focused on Ephesians 4:31–32, about letting all bitterness, wrath, etc. But the focus was, be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each another as God has forgiven you. And we focused on the term, tenderhearted. They were externally doing this stuff, they actually figured out how to do the Ken Sande peacemaker stuff, and they could go through the steps, but they did not have a tender heart to each other. And I just told them to passionately plead with God to give them a heart of grace and love and compassion even for the pain the other person was experiencing, the embarrassment, the shame of it not working out great when they’re supposed to be these “together” Christians. To pray that God would transform their hearts to make them tender. There’s no technique I could teach them to love each other, to get along with each other. The gospel should do that for us. I also will often have people pray the prayer at the end of Ephesians 3, where Paul says we are praying that you would be strengthened in your inner man in that you would be able to grasp the height, the breadth, the length, the depth of the love of Christ. That if you would understand the love of Christ from the heart then, in the context of Ephesians, that’s what is going to give you the capacity to do all these hard things, including love your wife and submit to your husband, that come in chapter 5. So plead with God to give you this tender heart toward the sinner to whom you are married, and pray that you would know the love of Christ to you that, by the grace of God, would enable you to have that tender heart and to show love to them surpassing what judgment would say they deserve.

In terms of people being stuck, that’s how I would try to unstick them from the standpoint of my counseling. But then the Holy Spirit has to work that I can’t do. That’s where we’re all pleading with God to do something. They’re completely incapable of doing all these good things that you just said they should do, apart from the work of the Spirit in their hearts. They have responsibility to seek that and to try to do that; but without him they can do nothing. And yet, I’m so thankful to see, in our counseling, so many cases where the Lord has worked powerfully. And pleading with God and Carol and I were pleading too, for example, this couple, that God would give them this tender heart. We’ve seen a transformation that only the Spirit could do. It’s not because we were talented at counseling, but God has given them that new heart that you can just see in their body language when they’re together – that’s the work of the Spirit.

 

Zaspel:
I would love to ask you some specific questions about divorce and remarriage, but those questions can become so complex so quickly that time limitations here would only frustrate you. So maybe you can give us a sketch of the kinds of questions you take up in your book. Can you give us a glimpse of what we can expect?

Newheiser:
As I said, I tried to interact with both the extreme of anything goes. If you watch what’s happening in the church right now, there are a lot of people who are probably influenced by the David Instone-Brewer views. You have women who are married to guys who are perceived by the women as being kind of a loser. He’s a poor provider, he’s selfish, he’s not very loving, he’s not positively fulfilling the commands. He’s not committing adultery, he’s not beating her, but she just realized either she married badly to begin with or he’s just not turned out like she wanted and she’s looking for a way out. And I’m concerned about that trend. There could be men doing the same thing. I’ve seen more lately with women and they are encouraging each other in it, and I think they’re using bad exegesis and bad historical studies, trying to impose that on the Scriptures. But God has called some people to suffering even in marriage and if God has joined you, then God is calling you to show grace. I love the story that Spurgeon told in a sermon where you have a woman married to an unbeliever and describing how she showed grace to this guy and even the unbelievers friends were stunned, seeing how she treated him. But her view was that I know I have eternity to be joyful and happy and this may be the only happiness he has, and I want to show that to him and I’m praying that God would save him.

So that’s one side and then the other side is women who have been beaten and abused and sometimes have been sent back by churches. I think that abandonment in marriage is not always a person moving out to find somebody else or just to get away. But I think there are such extreme cases of mistreatment that… And then I’ve had men who had been horribly abused in marriages and there are incredible stories to tell. So, in some of these cases, wisely from Scripture, with the involvement of the church in godly counsel from the elders, protecting someone from a serial adulterer, a physical abuser. From the Scriptures understanding how to deal with these situations, keep someone safe. And then there are circumstances, I think, in which a person is free to divorce, free to remarry. I give an example in the book, taken from a compilation of real cases, of a woman in her early 20s with a toddler whose husband has abandoned the marriage. He’s abusive; he goes to live with his girlfriend. There are some people who would say, okay, she’s 23 years old, she can never remarry. And if that’s what the Bible teaches, I don’t want to encourage her to commit adultery. On the other hand, if the Bible does give her that freedom, which I believe it does, then a remarriage can be a great blessing for a believer who’s been abandoned by an unbelieving, adulterous, abusive, former spouse.

Again, we want to work things through carefully under the Scriptures. And that’s another reason why it’s just so important that if somebody’s in trouble that they are in a good local church with godly leaders who will honor the Scriptures and compassionately care for people as they walk through these things. This isn’t something that you want to be going through alone. You need godly elders, elders’ wives, to help these people—the person who is the victim, who is trying to figure out what is God’s will, what does the Scriptures say, what can we do. And we’ve had people say I don’t know what I would’ve done if I wasn’t in a church where I would be cared for and helped through this process

 

Zaspel:
Books are for individual reading, of course, but your “Questions for Reflection” at the end of each chapter suggest you may be hoping for use in group settings also. How do you suggest we might use your book profitably?

Newheiser:
I think that the first half of the book could be used as a marriage study. I’ve been told by others that it would be good for that. Tim Challies mentioned that he thought the early part of the book, because it deals with a lot of premarital issues as well as how marriage works, would be a good resource, along with the questions for pre-marriage. So, I would love to see it used that way. I have to admit sometimes, since I wrote it, I think, wow, would people really want to do that with my book? But I hope so. I’m sure the publisher hopes so.

 

Zaspel:
Sure. Absolutely.

We’re talking to Jim Newheiser about his new book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers. It’s an insightful and helpful work we are glad to commend. Jim has obviously done some good thinking through the Scriptures on this subject, with careful application. We encourage you to get a copy and put to good use.
Jim, thanks for your good ministry and for talking to us today about your new book.

Newheiser:
It’s been a delight and I’m very grateful for your encouragement.

Buy the books

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers

P&R, 2017 | 336 pages