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Divorce: what the Bible says

OPINION | Michael Jensen
Thursday 23 July 2015

When Katrina decided to leave him, Geoff felt like he had contracted a severe illness. Only, no one was sending him Get Well cards. That was the really awkward thing about it: the church community of which he was a part started to treat him oddly – giving him a bit more distance than he was asking for. Then one day, the pastor called him in and told him that, as a divorced person, he wouldn’t be leading a bible study in future. Mind you, Geoff didn’t feel much like being a bible study group leader, so he accepted the decision.

Jessica had married Rob after only dating for a year. She had felt deeply in love. Rob was a passionate and even intense guy and was touchingly protective of her. Only, once they were married, things took a turn for the worse. Rob became verbally abusive, and his sweet protectiveness turned into a bitter jealousy. When he lashed out at her physically, she felt that he had put a fist through the coloured window of her dreams. She packed and left immediately. However, her pastor told her to go back and work on the relationship.

It had taken till his late 40s, Kevin thought, to really find himself. He’d been married already. The first time was to the girl he’d met at uni, Karen, and that had lasted 15 years before just seeming to fizzle out. Neither of them had put up much of a fight, even though they had two kids. Then there was Angela. He’d met her at the office. He thought he’d outgrown the character flaws that blighted his first marriage – the inability to say what he felt, the tendency to the snide comment, the moody absorption – but he hadn’t. They didn’t marry, but lived together. It only lasted two years. Since then, he’d started attending church more regularly. He’d experience a renewal – or was it a discovery? – of his faith. And then, he was introduced to Jo. Here at last was a person who completed him, and whom he seemed to complete. He wondered: could marriage work this time around, and should he as a Christian be even contemplating it?

Divorce presents one of the thorniest issues for Christians and for Christian communities. Of course, many divorced people know this, which makes it worse. Who wants to be someone else’s thorny issue, after all?

Divorce presents one of the thorniest issues for Christians and for Christian communities. Of course, many divorced people know this, which makes it worse. Who wants to be someone else’s thorny issue, after all? There are a diversity of approaches to divorce and remarriage, even within the same denomination. Churches make rules about marriage and remarriage for good reason; and yet each and every case involves flesh and blood people and the agony of a failed marriage. Each of the stories above involves a unique set of circumstances.

So what are we to think? What guidance does Scripture give us? And how can grace been shown to triumph over law, without the ideal of Christian life-long marriage being undermined?

Jesus, it seems, speaks very directly about the issue in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever divorces a wife, except for sexual immorality, and remarries, commits adultery.”

Is Jesus saying that the only right cause for divorce (and possibly remarriage) is sexual unfaithfulness? One view would be to say: yes. Many Christian commentators and pastors have felt that divorce is only permissible for Christians on the grounds of adultery. Some have even said that, even in this instance, remarriage is off-limits.

Yet this reading is strangely at variance with Paul’s more flexible policy in 1 Corinthians 7, where he allows a spouse who is abandoned by a non-Christian partner to remarry – he says that they are “not bound”. (1 Cor 7:15) That language – “not bound” – also indicates that, in biblical thinking, the assumption is that legitimate divorce means “free to remarry”.

I have been prompted to rethink the issue by the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer from Tyndale House in Cambridge, whose landmark work on the issue – and pastoral advice – is contained in his Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (IVP, 2006).

Instone-Brewer notes that, when Jesus forbade divorce except for immorality, he was responding to the question that the Pharisees had posed in 19:3: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?”

What’s going on here? There were in Jesus’ day a set of rabbis who had interpreted the text of Deuteronomy 24:1 as meaning you could divorce your wife for … well, pretty much any reason you could find. She’s got a little (to sound a bit Dr Seuss about it) tubby, or naggy, or saggy?

Divorce her, it’s fine. Any reason you can find.

It was a kind of ancient “no fault” divorce.

In response to this challenge, Jesus is clear. No, he didn’t agree with the idea of divorce “for any reason”. What Deuteronomy 24 meant was that there had to be a lawful and genuine cause. And if you didn’t have a lawful cause, if you’d exercised the very loose reading of that text, then you’d not actually been faithful either to your spouse or to the Bible. In which case, Jesus’ words would have made you feel somewhat awkward.

But, as Instone-Brewer points out, the Old Testament did allow divorce on other grounds than adultery. Exodus 21:10-11 make provision for divorce on the grounds of neglect. A spouse had the right to be taken care of materially and to be loved in a marriage.

It is not a surprise then to learn that Jewish marriage vows of Jesus’ time contained these rights in them, as well as a vow to maintain sexual faithfulness. And this is the basis for the concept of marriage we find in Christian services, with the promises “to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live”. Neglect of these promises invalidated the marriage.

This is extremely significant, because it helps us to see why physical abuse is definite biblical grounds for divorce. It is not “cherishing” your partner. Sadly, I have heard pieces of Scripture used to keep an abused spouse from leaving the marriage – for example, Paul’s direction that “a wife must not separate from her husband”. (1 Cor 7:10) It is important to recognise the context of Paul’s command: he is urging Christians not to abandon marriage out of concern for purity or from a desire for a holy singleness. (see 1 Cor 7:1)

Let me say it again, to be perfectly clear: spousal abuse is an entirely biblical ground for separation and divorce.

Let me say it again, to be perfectly clear: spousal abuse is an entirely biblical ground for separation and divorce.

In attempting to stand against the trivialisation of marriage and to stand for persistence in marriage, the Christian community and its leaders should not be heard to be insisting that a person suffering physical or emotional abuse has to stay to be further victimised.

So how are church communities and those that pastor them to help in these often traumatic and complex situations?

Like Jesus and Paul and Moses, I think we must remember that we need to set a high standard for marriage. Marriage matters, and it is God who unites a man and woman and makes them one flesh. The unity of marriage is profound. The promises of Christian marriage are not for “as long as our love shall last”, but “until we are parted by death”. For that reason, “marriage is not to be entered into lightly” – and neither is it to be ended flippantly.

A couple I know have persisted through some very difficult decades of marriage when in fact there may have been grounds for divorce on the basis of neglect. Many couples in our “no fault” era would have separated. But to meet them now is to find them to be warm and mature companions. There’s something deeply Christian and God-honouring about this persistent endurance.

Divorce, as I am sure many of the divorced will recognise, can be a costly exercise in every sense – personally and materially. In the throes of a marriage breakdown, it is hard for people to think with clarity about their situation. Pastors need to be particularly sympathetic to the abandoned, the neglected and the abused, and recognise the stigma that often comes with being a divorced person. Just as people are proud of getting married, and share the photos with everyone, so people feel shame when marriage fails.

The promises of Christian marriage are not for “as long as our love shall last”, but “until we are parted by death”. For that reason, “marriage is not to be entered into lightly” – and neither is it to be ended flippantly.

In the case of Jessica, then, the pastor and the church community, should have offered her support and as much help as possible.

In the case of Geoff, there needs to be a patient and sympathetic approach, which recognises his trauma and helps him to heal from his abandonment. There may well have been things he did in the marriage that contributed to its failure, which he needs prayerful help and a reminder of God’s grace to address. It may be appropriate for him to have a rest from a ministry position while he does this.

For Kevin, things are more complex. Were I his pastor, I would be asking: do you have any unfinished business in those previous relationships? Have you asked for forgiveness? Are they suitably provided for? Do we have grounds to believe you when you make the marriage vows this time? That would be just the start.

As in every part of life, in the failure of marriages we are called to enact the graciousness and righteousness of God. That is the balance we are invited to strike. We have to make our judgments as imperfect and sinful human beings, in the midst of a broken world, with the word of God and the character of God as our guides. But the gracious and merciful character of our God is our hope that, even as we bumble our way forward as best we can, we do so in anticipation of his final and perfect judgment.

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