Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Biblical Teaching on Divorce, part 4

Read part 1, part 2 and part 3 here.

Let's review the five major principles concerning divorce and remarriage that I've developed so far.
  • PRINCIPLE #1: God forbids husbands and wives from sending their spouse away or separating themselves from them.
  • PRINCIPLE #2: There is a difference between "sending a spouse away" and a certificate of divorce. A spouse who is only separated and not legally divorced is not a candidate for remarriage. To do so is to commit adultery.
  • PRINCIPLE #3: God intended marriage to be permanent, but allows legal divorce (dissolution of marriage) because he knows that humanity’s heart is sinful.
  • PRINCIPLE #4: Divorce (dissolution of marriage) provides a way for the abandoned spouse to remarry. For women in the third world and the ancient world, marriage means/meant protection from poverty and danger. If the woman’s husband only separates from her, she can’t remarry and has very few options to provide for herself and her children.
  • PRINCIPLE #5: God gave Israel a certificate of divorce. In other words, He dissolved their marriage covenant because of their unfaithfulness. So in a sense, even God has gone through the pain of a divorce.

Now, let's apply these verses to various modern day situations.

1. Is marriage still binding in God's eyes even if a couple divorces?
I would say no. Marriage was not created to last "forever." For example, Jesus says there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:23-33). This, in my view, is the LDS error.
God recognizes divorce as a dissolution of marriage. In fact, God Himself gave Israel a bill of divorce. As my Old Testament prof, Ron Pierce, used to say, the ratification of the Mosaic covenant was a marriage ceremony between God and Israel and when Israel lost the Ark of the Covenant, they took off their wedding ring.
Here is my best understanding at this point: marriage in this creation is a picture of Christ's relationship with the church (Eph. 5:23–33). And I would argue that divorce is a picture of what sin can do between God and humanity when there isn't genuine repentance. Having a spouse abandon you or be unfaithful to you is a sad reality of what sometimes comes from living in a sinful world.

2. Does God "hate" divorce?
Technically, no. God doesn't want people to get divorced. But what the Bible actually says is that God "hates" the "sending away" or "putting away" of one spouse by the other. To say, "God hates divorce" is actually an unfortunate mistranslation. To complicate matters further, the most recent translations, such as the NIV (2010) and ESV don't have God as the subject of the sentence. The husband is the subject and the verb "hate" describes the husband's feelings toward his wife. This whole situation seems to be an unfortunate mistranslation combined with the practice of popular misquotation.
In addition, if an adulterous spouse is avoiding a legitimate divorce from the injured  party (i.e. not signing divorce papers, wanting to continue to co-habitate with the abandoned spouse while continuing to have an affair with someone else), then local church leaders (pastors and elders) should consider stepping in and make sure that the wounded party is being dealt with fairly. The innocent spouse should NOT be counseled that they need to reconcile with an unrepentant spouse. They SHOULD be supported by the church in their efforts to obtain a legal certificate of divorce. I believe this might even involve the church helping to finance a good attorney if necessary, especially if the wife is indigent and unable to hire one.

3. Doesn't "putting away" and "divorce" really mean the same thing?
Again, I would say no. The terms are different and in certain contexts, such as Jesus' teachings, he seems to differentiate between the two ideas. "Putting away" or separation from a spouse is a sin. God allows one spouse to give the other a certificate of divorce. This is a merciful concession by God to humanity's sinfulness so the abandoned spouse can remarry. This would be especially important for women in the ancient and third worlds. God made a provision for women to remarry and be taken care of. Husbands who abandon their wives or send them away frequently condemn them to a life of poverty and even prostitution.

4. Is remarriage adultery?
No. Not as long as both parties have been legally divorced from their previous spouses. It is adultery, however, for one spouse (usually a man) to take another spouse when he or she hasn't properly divorced as his current spouse. While bigamy is illegal in some countries, this is a real problem today in the third world, especially for our Christian sisters. Understanding the difference between the terms "put away" and "divorce" clears up a host of confusion about this important and frequently painful subject.
5. What constitutes as "adultery"?
While the answer to this question may seem obvious, I believe the information age has opened the door for many new possibilities for adultery that are worth explicitly listing. First a definition: adultery is marital unfaithfulness. In other words, it is the sexual involvement of any other person than your spouse into your life. This would include the traditional act of having sex with your secretary, but also the following: the use of pornography (think about that - supposedly 1 out of 6 Christian women engage in the use of internet porn), threesomes, sending pictures of your body parts to anyone other than your spouse, sexting with anyone other than your spouse, hooking up, swinging ("open" marriages), oral sex with anyone other than your spouse, etc. These are all acts that for some reason our culture doesn't seem to count a "sex." Here's a memo - they're sex. And if you're engaging in them with anyone except your spouse, then you're committing adultery.

If your spouse engages in these acts, you have a legitimate reason to give him or her a certificate of divorce. Even if it's "just" for porn. Really. Pastors should NOT counsel the wronged party that porn is "no big deal" and that they should forgive or reconcile with a porn user. A porn user is an adulterer and the other spouse has a legitimate right to seek a certificate of divorce if they want to. Christian leaders need to be open to supporting the efforts of a wife to divorce an adulterous husband, not the preservation of marriage at all costs.
Now your spouse may repent and you may decide to forgive them, but that's between you and God. But this needs to be genuine repentance, not simply remorse (crying, saying "I'm sorry"). There is a BIG difference between the two. Repentance involves stopping the behavior completely. This ought to involve huge steps of accountability (i.e. spousal access to internet passwords, installation of internet blocking software, completing a 12-step program, counseling, etc.). Defensiveness and calls for "trust" are signs that genuine repentance has probably not taken place.

6. Can a woman divorce an abusive husband (or vice versa)?
This question came up for me recently as I was eating lunch with a Christian friend. Her mother endured a physically abusive marriage for 35 years (35 years!) because she believed that once you were married, it was forever; God didn't allow divorce. I thought, "Really? Is that what the Bible teaches?" I had to go home and think about that one.

Although it seems reasonable to divorce an abusive spouse, it's not quite that simple. The Bible gives only two explicit reasons in which divorce is permitted: marriage abandonment and adultery. Candidly speaking, I can't think of an example from Scripture of divorce on the basis of abuse. (Can you think of one?) Unfortunately, I think most of the arguments I've heard supporting divorce on the basis of abuse are...well...kinda thin on biblical evidence. They're mostly based on emotion and experience, rather than Scripture. That said, I do think we can say some things on the subject.

While the Bible doesn't explicitly state that abuse can be grounds for divorce, it is clear that God commands husbands to treat their wives in a loving way (Colossians 3:19, 1 Peter 3:7, Ephesians 5:25-33). I would say the opposite is true as well: wives should love their husbands. Examples of unloving behaviors might include such behaviors as physical beatings, alcoholism, excessive gambling, exorbitant unsustainable spending, psychological abuse and emotional neglect.

In my view, the procedure to follow here should be along the lines of Matthew 18. If it's not a dangerous situation and if both parties are Christians, then I think the place to start is for the hurt spouse to confront the other in a calm way, using specific examples of offensive behavior and ask for a change in behavior. If that doesn't work, then church leadership and trusted Christian friends need to get involved. This will help ensure that both parties are being dealt with fairly. It is critical that Christian leaders are mature and use sound judgment in determining who is the victim and who is the abuser. It might not be a bad idea to consult with professionals. (Pastors, are you listening?). Again, the offended party victim should offer specific examples to the abuser as evidence for the other's sinfulness. At this point, if the abuser gives the appearance of wanting reconciliation, church leadership should NOT simply send the victim home with the offender, especially if there is physical abuse involved. Rather, if the offense is found to be legitimate, the victim should be empowered to take steps to protect themselves from those who engage in abusive behaviors in order to test the offender's level of repentance. This might take the form of temporarily separating themselves and their children from the abusive spouse. In such cases, the church leadership needs to jump in with appropriate support, financial if necessary. Specific conditions ought to be laid down for reconciliation such as confession of sins (repentance), accountability for sinful behaviors, intensive long-term professional counseling both individually and as a couple, on-going humility, participation in a 12-step program, etc. If repentance doesn't occur then church leaders need to help the victimized spouse to inform the local church about the situation. The ultimately goal of this form of separation is reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness - not dissolution or abandonment of the marriage. That said, when boundaries like these are set, it's quite possible that a unrepentant and abusive spouse will become frustrated and commence divorce proceedings anyways.

Candidly speaking, I don't see any biblical basis for the common evangelical belief/practice that "marriage is forever, no matter what, even abuse." In my opinion, such a view constitutes a legalistic adherence to the letter of the law, one which violates God's other commands about spouses treating each other in a loving way.

God's intent is for people to stay married. That's clear. Christians should place a high value on marriage, much more than the world. I'm not in any way trying to undermine or trivialize the importance of marriage. But God also knows the depths of the sinfulness of humanity's heart so he allows divorce (the dissolution of marriage), which is a merciful provision for the wronged/abandoned spouse, freeing that person to remarry. Again, this would have been especially important for women in the ancient world and third world women today. In addition, the wronged party has the right to enact divorce proceedings. This is the exact opposite of how our culture sees divorce - usually as an escape hatch for an unhappy spouse who wants to go find personal happiness with someone else. And it's the opposite of the messages many churches give wronged/abandoned spouses - hang onto your marriage at all costs and never initiate a divorce. Such ideas are, in my view, unbiblical.

Church leaders need to do a better job of distinguishing between the adulterer/abandoner and the victim. We need to STOP telling people that marriage is forever in God's eyes and inducing guilt concerning situations of legitimate divorce. We need to call people who abandon their marriages for unbiblical reasons into accountability. We need to look after indigent women who are unable to financially take steps to get rid of an abusive or adulterous husband.

If you've been sexually and/or physically abandoned by your spouse and suffered through the pain of a divorce, you're not alone. God has endured the situation of an unfaithful "spouse" as well. He sees you and He loves you. Find restoration and comfort in Him.



Patti Townley-Covert said...

I'm so impressed with your thoughtful analysis of this topic. Divorce is painful and complicated. I especially appreciate your comments on "abuse." Scripture has much to say about the way husbands are to treat their wives. When a husband consistently refuses to care for his wife and threatens her psychological, emotional, or physical well-being or that of the children--it seems right that churches take a stand against that type of behavior. The same may be true for wives who subject their husbands to unhealthy behaviors. When there is no repentance, it seems consistent with God's love for his children not to subject them to ongoing harm. Thank you for your insights and the compassion with which you shared them.

Virginia Peterson said...

Reading between the lines, one could imagine that Abigail's husband Nabal (I Samuel 25) was the type of man to be an abuser. She certainly didn't want to anger him when she took supplies to David and didn't tell him. But then someone could argue that the story shows she was right to stay with him and let God work it out.

D. K. Stangeland said...

Thank you for this entire series of posts. It was very helpful to me. I think your analysis was very thoughtful and well laid out.

I especially like your statement that God created divorce as a protection for those who have been abandoned. You repeatedly stated that this was important for women in the ancient and third worlds. I would contend that it has become important for women in our society today too. For those who want to do what is right in the eyes of God - this is an important way for them to remain faithful to Him. (in spite of the sinful decisions of others.)

Your words about porn in part 4 section 5 are right on. Thank you for including that in your discussion. We just don't talk about this enough.

Finally, thank you for taking the time to write this series and for communicating in such a loving and rational way. I really appreciate your work.

Kathryn said...

You were correct--it was not wise to presume I knew where you were going. I came to your site through a comment on another blog, and I'm so glad I did. Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful analysis.

Your last two paragraphs were a quite eloquent summation. Thank you for challenging the church to handle legitimate divorces differently and for reminding victims of abuse that God understands their pain. Many blessings to you.

Theology Mom said...


Thank you so much. That's quite possibly the nicest comment I've ever received. I'm glad you found the discussion helpful.