Christian Divorce

Dear Reader,

There has been a lot of talk lately in the blogosphere on Christians and divorce (read some of it here and here). So I thought I would give my thoughts on this issue. These are meant to be general guidelines. How they apply to specific situations is a whole nother barrel of monkeys.

Christian grounds for divorce

I am not completely against divorce. Jesus says that, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matt. 19:8). The hardness of the human heart has not changed and so divorce, while never the ideal, is still a part of our world.

So in what circumstances can a Christian consider divorce? The same passage in Matthew 19, tell us that adultery is a suitable reason for divorce (Matt. 19:9). I would take this to mean that though you may divorce your spouse if they have been unfaithful, you do not have to. If you can forgive, then you can keep working on the marriage.

The other circumstance given is in the case of a couple where one spouse is not a believer (1 Cor. 7:12-16). In this case, if the non-believer wishes to end the marriage, the believer is told to let them. However, the believer is not to leave if the unbelieving spouse is willing to stay in the marriage. This situation can happen if one spouse comes to faith after the marriage. I think it can also happen if one spouse abandons the faith they have previously professed. Unfortunately, I have heard of a number of situations like this in recent years. In each case, the believer was understandably torn up by the situation and did not desire divorce. In at least one case I know of, the believer contested the divorce. Practically speaking this means that the divorce takes longer but it is only a postponement.

These are the only circumstances I find where the New Testament permits divorce. So what about all those other cases?

What about separation?

So what about all the other circumstances? Abuse, physical or emotional, is one that is commonly cited. I think it pains us all to think that God would just say that an abused spouse should stay in their marriage. But, on the other hand, abuse is not one of the outs the Bible gives. Is this because the Bible doesn’t imagine such a circumstance? I find that hard to believe. Is it because the Bible says that women (the usual victims of abuse) should just submit and take it? I find that hard to swallow too. This is not an easy situation. I am hesitant to say that there is just one solution for all situations. Here is what I would probably say to someone in an abusive marriage:

Staying in the house with your abuser and divorce are not the only options. You can get out of the abusive environment without leaving the marriage. In 1 Cor. 7, I find: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” Separation is not a first line of defense obviously. It should be a last resort. However, there are provisions given for it here. Again, I know it sounds harsh to say that one who separates from their spouse cannot remarry, but it is the command God gives us. If you do separate from your spouse because of abuse, I think you should be very clear in communicating what you are doing and why. A friend of a friend did this. Her husband was not abusive as far as I know but he was involved in some very sinful behaviors. The wife took the children and went to live with her parents for a time. She gave her husband very specific criteria about what he needed to change for her to come back. And she prayed and longed for him to make those changes. I think that is a very important point. The goal of separation should not be divorce but restoration. It is like church discipline. We discipline to bring repentance and restoration. It may not always work out that way, but that is the goal and it is the end for which we should be praying. 

How to Stay

So if one is not to get divorced, what other resources are there?

I said in response to someone else’s post in whether she should leave her abusive husband that the first thing she should do is pray. I got a couple of comments back telling me how insensitive I was to say she should “just pray.” Frankly, I don’t understand this. Since when is prayer “just” prayer? Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have. If we think it is useless or a last resort or anything but a first resort, we do not understand it. Prayer works because God exists and listens and is the only One with the power to actually change our circumstances. This is not to say that prayer is necessarily all we should do. There may be times when more steps should be taken at the same time. But anything else we do without prayer is useless. As it says in Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

The second thing I would say is that we must be faithful to God even if our spouse isn’t. I have heard a few times the argument that if the husband does not love his wife (as God commands), then it is not a real marriage and the wife is not obligated to stick with it or to do her part and submit to him. But this is not biblical. The wife’s submission is not dependent on her husband’s love nor vice-versa. We should love and submit because it is God’s command to us. Someone else’s failure to do their job does not mean you don’t have to do yours.

I do not, however, think that submission means taking abuse. Our submission to our husbands is a result of our submission to God. If the two are in conflict, then God’s commands take precedence. If, for example, your husband forbids you to go to church, you should disobey him in order to obey God’s command to observe the Sabbath and to not neglect fellowshipping with other believers. And I do not think that our submission to our husbands should include abetting their sin. If your husband is a drunk, you should not cover up for him. If he is an abuser, you should not allow him to continue in that behavior by submitting to it. Sin is serious. We do not love others by allowing them to continue in it.

But how can you affect your spouse’s behavior if they are in some serious sin? Well, the short answer is you can’t. Only God can change hearts. That is why prayer again is our primary weapon. Beyond that, I would say that we should follow the directions of Scripture for when we see a brother in Christ in serious sin (Matthew 18). First, we confront them individually. If that does not help, we confide in a few close, trusted believers and confront them together. And if that fails, we take it to the leadership of the church. Now, I know all this is hard. No one wants to admit their problems. Asking for help can be tough. It is humbling. But if you really want to save your marriage, I think this is what is called for. And what if you have no one to confide in? Well, my question would be why you don’t. We are commanded to fellowship with other Christians. If you have no other believers in your life that you can turn to, you are probably doing something wrong. You need to seek out a good church which will support you. It may take a few tries to find a church where people will care and help (sad to say). And the churches need to be places where these things are taken seriously. They need to be small enough that people can know each other so we know what is going on in one another’s lives and are there and available and ready to help when needed. And they need to exercise church discipline.

Bad Reasons to Divorce

I have talked about abusive relationships a fair amount because it is the situation people always cite. I don’t think any of us like the idea of telling an abused spouse they have to stay in the marriage. It seems to us like a good reason to leave. But a lot of times the reasons for divorce are a lot more mundane. I mentioned one above, the “it’s not a real marriage excuse.” For some reason, the spouse is not seen to be living up to his or her obligations and therefore the marriage is not “real” and the divorcing spouse feels justified in leaving. But this is just not biblical. There are contracts in life that can be broken and there are contracts that can’t. Marriage is one that can’t. One party’s failure to live up to their end doesn’t free the other party from obligation.

A second common argument is the “I’m not happy” excuse. Really? Who cares? Despite what the Declaration of Independence says, you are not really entitled to pursue happiness. This argument is usually combined with “God wants me to be happy” (seethis article).  But this is just not true. God does not desire your happiness above all else. What He wants for you is holiness.

The poorest argument is love. The logic seems to go  like this: God is love. Love is good. If I don’t love my spouse but do love someone else, I am pursuing the good by following that love. How could God possibly disapprove of love? This line of thought starts out okay (God is love) but then it completely derails. This is not what biblical love looks like. Biblical love is sacrificial. And above all it is obedient. As it says in 1 John, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:3-6). You cannot love God and not obey His commands.

I spoke in another post about thinking about our actions on three levels: motive, means, and end. If all three aren’t right, then the action itself is not acceptable to God. The person who says they are acting from love but then disobeys God’s explicit commands is not using the right means. And the person whose goal is their own happiness is not working toward the right end.

There is a lot of blame to go around here. And there are certainly many ways to not deal well with these situations. I know that churches have often failed their members by giving bad counsel or simply not knowing or caring what is going on. We can be too quick to judge and too slow to give real help. But above all we need to trust that the God who made us knows what’s best for us and that no situation is so bad that He can’t help and provide a godly solution.

Nebby

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Good post, Nebby!

    Reply

  2. Yes, this is a good post and well thought out. I will need to ponder it and especially the bit about possible scenarios for seperation.
    We live in an era where divorce is seen as a no fault option. But I guess, since sin is so easily overlooked thesed days, everything is no ones fault any more and everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
    Thanks for sharing these thoughts on what can be a very delicate matter both in and outside the church.

    Reply

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