I know, I know. No one, but no one, least of all me, wants to talk about it. But there are only a couple of subjects that I get more mail on than relationship trouble, generally, Divorce. Pastors won’t touch the subject with a ten-foot Bible. They tend to dodge it, duck it, or try to soft pedal it until there is an explosion of sufficient force to rock their particular Church.
There are three positions the Church has held on this. 1.) No divorce (that has not worked out particularly well for them). 2.) Divorce for any reason, or “No-fault-divorce” (the current cultural default position). 3.) Divorce only with sufficient cause. When the Pharisees approached Jesus on this they were asking him exactly the question, “Can a man divorce his wife for any old reason?” His answer was “No.” but it was certainly not that a man can’t divorce his wife under any conditions, the reason given being some kind of immoral sexual behavior (though the context has man and wife, apply woman and husband where appropriate). He gave some sufficient reasons for a divorce to take place, so the “no divorce” position seems to be off the table for Christians. Matthew 19.
The Apostle Paul then takes up the issue in 1st Corinthians chapter 7, giving additional reasons that a person might be allowed by God to get a divorce. His reasons have generally been interpreted as kinds of “Abandonment”. He also takes the time to explain some reasons why someone should not get one and that is very good information to have.
When it does arise, and it will, there is the complicated issue of how the Churches should handle it. How much immorality is enough immorality? How much abandonment or how long an abandonment? “Actual” cases are relatively easy to grasp, but what about cases where someone is “constructively” guilty? Does someone really need to be found “guilty” by the Church in order to be granted permission to Divorce? These things have been bounced around the Church and the State Courts for Millennia. More like two Millennia.
One thing seems plain, the contemporary cultural standard that our Courts have adopted, that anyone at any time can divorce their spouse for any reason or no reason at all, is as sub-rational and incoherent as it is sub-christian. Legally, a contract makes little sense if either party can dissolve it at any time for no reason. Marriage, in the Bible at least, is not taken to be a “Christian” institution. It is a general human institution ordained by God and applicable to all cultures, all peoples, and all states with a disregard even for a person’s particular religion. God considers marriage to be a valid institution regardless of whether or not people know Him. Marriage, like the integrity of the family and the authority of the state, falls under rules of general applicability, and whether or not someone is a Christian has little to do with whether or not God wants certain relationships protected by law and in very specific ways.
This is why Christians have traditionally been against things like no-fault divorce and gay marriage. Whether or not the persons in question are Christians is not to the point. There are many kinds of rules that are only applied within the covenantal setting of the Church; they are only for the Church and we only want them to be applied to the Church. Obviously, Christians are not supposed to impose “Christian morality” upon those that do not want it, but these are issues of “General morality” like not murdering and not stealing, and we are supposed to do everything we can peaceably do to see them observed. These are regulations for Mankind, not Christian kind. These kinds of rules are said to be for the Common Good and not merely for one’s personal interests.
Sometimes the old literature called this kind of rule a “natural law” and it was expected to be, and generally was, held by all civilized cultures of whatever background. Marriage is a natural law because it is a rule for the ultimate flourishing of the human being in accord with human nature, but also because the dissolution of it has extraordinary and powerful negative effects upon the entire society and every society together. Thus for Christians, Marriage is a “State” or a legal issue as much as it is a “religious” issue. We seem to have a sacred duty to respect the institution and this should inevitably manifest itself in the endorsement of certain kinds of laws in regard to its purity and protection.
Divorce and the Christian: Written Response
(In response to an inquiry)
You shouldn’t worry about asking. I get questions like this all the time. It’s much more common than you might think. Churches have a very unhealthy “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about Divorce that tends to leave everyone confused. These are very important questions because of the over all effect of Divorce upon the family and the larger society. My position, is that any marriage that can be saved, should be saved. Admittedly, a very unpopular approach, so let me try to explain.
A “brief” is the outline of law, history, and details of behavior related to the accusation that a court, be it a church court or otherwise, uses as the framework for the consideration of an accusation. The “indictment” that has been requested from you is really just an accusation, formalized. Most Christians don’t understand that churches, all churches, have some kind of a court, and that it is part of the very nature of a church to have one. It is, after all, an ethical community. The reason we might not understand this is because this function of a church only arises when there is trouble, and there is not aways trouble.
You need to remember that without the physical act of adultery or a physical absence constituting abandonment, grounds for Divorce are very hard to prove. You would need to prove the charge at least to the degree that ‘X’ seems more obviously guilty than not. If ‘X’ is not willing to plainly state a refusal to change, or shown to be dismissive of the church’s counsel to change their untoward behavior, culpability will be difficult to show in any way that is conclusive.
Divorce is the highest available level of punishment and tends to be reserved for the most egregious cases. Emotional abandonment has not traditionally been viewed as grounds for Divorce in Church courts, and neither has spiritual abandonment, whatever that might be. These seem to be sins that are not crimes for the sake of ecclesiastical jurisprudence. You can see this by the fact that the Apostle Paul does not allow Divorce for a spouse’s Atheism or Paganism as stated in 1st Corinthians chapter 7. At the same time, for church courts, unrepentant sin after a call for repentance can rise to the level of a criminal act for the purposes of church jurisdiction and thus become actionable through the session as a church court. Put it this way: God judges private thoughts, intents, and actions; men can only judge actions.
Physical adultery and abandonment are traditionally thought to be criminal, and so an evident ground for court action. In the other case that you were using as an example, there were 6 years of behavior that showed “constructive desertion”, or a willful desertion that cuts to the heart of the marital covenant that does not include physical separation, while under the supervision of the Pastor, Elders, and the Session. I would think that even two or three years of this kind of thing without actual prolonged physical absence or provable extra-marital relations, would not be grounds for a Divorce decree, because it may not be sufficient to show “steadfast refusal to repent and a wanton disregard for authority” common to claims of constructive desertion.
Generally, as long as the accused shows a willingness to change, Divorce is not an available remedy at law. If the accused continually professes a willingness to change but does not actually do so, that behavior of refusal will be taken as the true profession of the heart, and the charge of giving false testimony to the court might be added to the charges. The court, should, be slow to act. That is normative for a church court. But not so slow as to let injustice continue unchecked or to allow increased damage to the offended party.
Remember that in church courts, “no-fault divorce”, does not exist. To provoke a decree of Divorce, or a judgment that provides grounds for a Civil (state) divorce to take place, fault must be shown, to a high degree of certitude, of a kind that is “irremediable” by either church or family as institutions of the divinely mandated social order. You can, of course, gain a civil divorce from the state without any grounds whatsoever. Such a thing is not only immoral but could be viewed as actionable by the church courts themselves as an act desertion on your part, so be careful of that. That divorces are given by the state without any recognition of blame is one of the most backward and uncivilized deconstructions of civil law in the history of statecraft, so even if the World demands it, let us choose not to participate in this particular failure of common sense and conscience. Someone is, or both parties are, to blame and that should be made known, publicly, and that blameworthiness should be sufficient to justify a Divorce, and grounds for sanctions and blessings to the offending and innocent party, or a divorce should not be granted. Anything else is just anarchy in the place of sensible polity.
Many churches become confused by this kind of thinking when they act upon issues of Abuse, not seeing plain standards written in the canons of biblical law. Most of the important things in the scriptures are not plain but require consideration, analysis, and inference. When we use the kind of casuistry applied by Jesus and the Apostles themselves to the content of scripture, we see that that which cuts to the heart of the covenant of Marriage, such as the when the husband who’s natural role is to be the protector of the household, becomes the source of danger, violence, and corruption in the household, it is an attack upon the very nature of the marriage itself as a divine-human covenant. Jesus argues in the same manner when in order to refute the Pharisee’s spurious interpretation of the law He references the original intent of marriage itself and the reason why God allowed divorce through Moses, not as an ideal, but as a necessary practice in a society of the fallen. Men are still fallen; the reason, and so the practice of marital dissolution still stand. Since marriage was originally formed for the purpose of sexual purity, sexual impurity is not a peripheral issue; it is primary. Thus sexual immorality is grounds for divorce. We can see why familial brutality has a similar effect being against the very nature of the loving bond of marital fidelity.
Those who covenant themselves into a relationship with God through the Church are expected to act as members of that body just as much as those that covenant themselves into state citizenship are expected to obey the laws and respect the judgments of the state of which they are a member. One can leave the Church just as one can leave a state but neither can be disregarded without consequences. As to the three divinely ordained institutions: the Church, the State, and the Family, these are not, in Christian thought, synthetic institutions created by man, whether by social contract or evolutionary necessity, but natural ones ordained by God for the well being of mankind in community. Thus all three are involved in the process of the creation and/or dissolution of any part of these institutions collectively including marriage and if necessary, Divorce (at least when the institutions are interacting properly, which historically speaking, is rare.). You could think of this as a “Separation of Powers” of a sort that provides stability and accountability to the differing branches of authority within the wider community.
Church courts, and those vested with the authority to make judgments as to moral and legal culpability and blame, vary from church to church so be careful to recognize who is actually making the decisions. Churches have different ways of organizing authoritative structure. Also, pay attention to the way the individual Church actually functions as much as to how they are supposed to function on paper. If it is really just the Pastor that makes all of the decisions, that might be tragic, but it’s what you’re stuck with. If you find that the church you attend is incapable of coming to just conclusions or dealing with these matters in a way reconcilable with historic Christian orthodoxy, you might be able to “appeal” to a higher authority to which the highest authority in your church is accountable; a “synod” or a “general assembly” or something like that. A good church will be accountable to someone other than themselves. A bad church will eventually harm everyone involved. It’s only a matter of time until the weight of dilemma leans on the weak spots of character, ignorance, or lethargy and then the whole thing comes down in a heap.
You might notice that all of this seems a little subjective as to tone, time, and measurement. And so it is. Every church handles things a little differently, some of course with very little regard for scripture. These are mere human judgments and the actors involved do the best they can to judge rightly under the circumstances. In any case, do not expect anything to move quickly or without frustration, and do not expect to be pleased with the outcome whether or not it is decided in your favor. Things like this do not have a happy ending for anyone involved. There are no “winners”. There are only things that happen in life that we cannot avoid dealing with even when we would like to avoid the trouble of the day.
My prayers are with you in your time of trial and whatever happens, make sure that you do not fail yourself while in the prosecution of someone else. These are the easiest times to lose track of who you are and become something you are not. When the familial structure crumbles it is common for people to forget the most important things, since familial coherence is one of the things that God gives us to hold us together psychologically and socially. Without it things can get pretty tempestuous. Ask anyone that has already survived a Divorce and they will surely tell you that what looks attractive while far away is not so when up close and personal. Sometimes enduring the seemingly unendurable and waiting for God is better than enduring the actually unendurable after we act in our own interest.
COMMENTS and QUESTIONS? Chris@apologetics.com
“Hi Chris, I have come across two women who both were being regularly beaten by their boyfriend or husband and was wondering if there is anywhere in the bible that speaks of a life endangering situation that would allow for divorce. I have also had many non christian women I have worked with bring this up to me and I have always told them right away that if they are in fear for their physical well being that they should leave right away and not look back…
The marital covenant as God designed it has certain kinds of duties built into it. One for example, as Jesus taught, is sexual fidelity. But obviously, there are some things that a person can do that are worse than sexual immorality. The idea that if someone cheats on his wife she can divorce him but if he tries to kill her, she can’t, is just about as ridiculous as it sounds. Still, I know there are some people with the best of intentions that try to read the Bible that way. I try not to take them very seriously and hope that they don’t get anybody killed. Inherent in the marital covenant in relation to a man’s duties is the protection and nurture of his wife. That of course includes physical protection by the very nature of his maleness. Therefore to become the very source of danger and harm to the wife necessarily entails an abandonment of the marriage and an attack upon the sanctity of the union much more egregious than that even in sexual infidelity. If Jesus thought that sexual immorality was grounds for divorce, and Paul thought abandonment was grounds for divorce, then both thought that torture and aggravated assault were grounds for divorce.
I agree with that statement. It just makes sense. Another thing, with abuse and torture and children in the house the mother has a responsibility just as the father to protect the children. So to stay in that case is not an option. Of course, by herself, a woman being abused should leave too…
I’m always glad to be agreed with. It’s not as common as you might think.
And marriage is the natural setting for the begetting of children. I fear that in the in-vitro world of making children, we have lost the hugely significant mystery of the two flesh becoming one as it relates to our mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Sorry, a bit off topic from divorce/marriage but sex/procreation/marriage have been fragmented and we need to fix things that are broken. No fault divorce and baby making gone wild. Symptoms of a deeper disease.
I think all of the things that you’re bringing up are wholly relevant Jennifer.