So… What DO We Do With ‘Divorce’ Then?…

A number of years back – probably around 30 as I think about it now – I went away to Margaret River for a few days on my own. I had a mate down there and we arranged to head out for a surf at mainbreak one morning. ‘I’ll pick you up at 4.00am.’ he said.

‘Won’t it be dark?’ I countered. Mainbreak can be challenging enough, but at least with the sun up and the waves visible I figured I had a small chance of not dying.

‘Yeah – but we’ll beat the crowds – and the sun will come up soon enough…’

I didn’t want to sound like a woose so I just ‘no worriesed’ him and was there at 4.00am in the pitch black to be picked up.

Sure enough we rolled into the carpark and no one else was there. It was the middle of the night after all. I pulled the wetty on slowly… very slowly… He, a local now, was racing and keen to get out there. I could hear it, but I couldn’t see it.

It felt like madness. Kinda fun madness, but still madness all the same.

I had no idea quite what I was paddling into.

The sun would come up. That much was sure. But managing to survive between now and then was the top priority.

A couple of weeks back I decided to take a crack at this subject of divorce and I got that same feeling. Like paddling out to mainbreak in the dark… You’re not quite sure what’s out there, but fairly sure you want to be there and ‘ride it’.

On that day the sun came up, the wind stayed offshore and the surf was a good 4ft and was classic MR. I think the sun might have come up on some of my questions about divorce, but I’m still tentative, knowing that a trip over the falls is only an error of judgement away.

So – where has a couple of weeks of ruminating taken me?…

I’ll start writing and see if this is a ‘one post’, two or even three post blog.

It began with reading Mark’s gospel ch 10, where the Pharisees test Jesus with their question ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’

The conversation rolls on and ends up with Jesus speaking about anyone who divorces being an adulterer. Matthew’s account includes the ‘except for sexual immorality’ clause.

The obvious question it raises is ‘for what reasons can a person get a divorce?’ What does the Bible say and how do we make sense of it?

Apart from adultery the only other explicit stuff on divorce is by Paul in 1 Cor 7:12-16 who gives a person freedom to divorce if the non-believing partner moves out and moves on.

So the long held biblical view is that divorce is permissible either for adultery (‘porneia’ – could be other forms of sexual immorality) or if one unbelieving partner deserts the other. There are no other clear and simple instructions given on this matter.

And John Stott says unequivocally:

“We should have the courage to resist the prevailing tide of permissiveness and to set ourselves against divorce and remarriage on any other ground than the two mentioned in scripture (immorality and desertion of the unbelieving partner)” (Divorce 1973)

I think we can establish a couple of things quickly and easily:

a) Marriage is intended to be for life and with one person.

Jesus speaks of this in Mark 10 when he says:

At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

I don’t think anyone sees marriage as a temporary arrangement so we can nail that as a given.

b) Divorce is a possibility and has been a possibility since the ‘get go’.

And Jesus cites Moses willingness to allow divorce as a concession to ‘hardness of heart’ , or perhaps self centredness is a more modern rendering of that idea.

So while we know marriage is for life and divorce is a valid option in some circumstances the murkiness and struggle hits when we try to discern what those circumstances are.

Perhaps it is just adultery and desertion?…

But Jesus made that one a bit tricky when he spoke of adultery being something we do when we lust in our hearts (Matthew 5). I’m guessing many of us are therefore guilty of adultery and (while divorce is always a last resort) surely a grieved wife could call a husband on ‘lust’ as adultery if she wanted to?… It’d be divorce on a technicality and the scribes and pharisees would be cheering with glee, but she’d win the point.

Some would also suggest that a divorced and remarried person (for reasons other than adultery/desertion) is always an adulterer and because ‘adulterers cannot enter the kingdom of heaven’ (1 Cor 6:9) then they have lost their salvation, are no longer Christian and cannot be part of the church community.  Yeah – I know its a totally dodgy interpretation of that verse and passage because then the greedy, liars and cheats would be out of the kingdom too… So maybe that’s not the case… (Oh but there’s an exception for gay folks though – right?… Because they are still in the ‘really really’ bad camp…)

I grew up in this kind of world. People didn’t get divorced in our church – or if they did they didn’t come back. It was clear that divorce was a special kind of sin that took you out of the orbit of faith and left you in no man’s land. At best on the bench and at worst completely unwelcome. That was the 70’s as best I remember it. Debates raged over whether divorced people could take communion, lead a creche, serve on a leadership team and if you could swallow all of that, whether they could be pastors.

I remember when one of our elders in the church I was attending got divorced. A man I had always perceived as a godly good man was now doing something unthinkable. What did this mean for his life, his faith?… It threw me into a turmoil.

Now – 40 years on – divorce is commonplace. There is no question over your status before God. Leaders can be divorced. Pastors can have divorced – multiple times even – and still be in the game. Divorced people are welcome in church and the whole tenor of things has shifted enormously.

Have we just gone soft?

Have we discovered some new learning/theological understanding that we didn’t have in the 70’s?

John Stott wasn’t unclear in his stance – even if it was 1973 when he took it. I wonder what he would have said if we had been able to speak with him before his death?

So let me pose a question:

If your husband is an aggressive violent man who beats you and the kids up, is feeding your 10 year son a steady diet of amphetamines and selling your 13 year old daughter for sex, while refusing to provide any money for food in the home and has threatened to kill you repeatedly, BUT he hasn’t been sexually unfaithful do you need to stick it out and suck it up?

Or – because it cuts both ways – your wife is a vindictive, manipulative and controlling tyrant who inflicts both emotional and physical harm on you and your children and refuses to change or even acknowledge a problem BUT has not been unfaithful… do you simply have to suck it up and find a way to manage within it?

Doesn’t everything inside you just say ‘what a stupid outrageous and absurd question?! Doesn’t it just seem ridiculous to even have to ask that? And sure – they are extreme examples – but they make the point.

The problem is that historically/traditionally if there has been no infidelity or desertion then there is apparently no biblical grounds for divorce.

John Ortberg says it well:

“For many Christians, sex and sex alone is the key to the dissolution of a marriage. The rub is that if you are humane about divorce you cannot be biblical, and if you are biblical you cannot be humane.”

That bites, doesn’t it?

I realise most divorces are still because people have ‘gone off each other’, and ‘need a change’, so hardness of heart is still the biggie in terms of causes, but there are plenty of situations where Christian people have stuck out incredible nonsense because of this biblical framing of legit reasons for divorce.

In fact studies have shown that Christians (both men and women) put up with much more abuse than those outside of the church because of these theological convictions. Christian divorcees are often more damaged and broken that those outside the church who will simply say ‘I don’t have to put up with this crap.’

So how do we come at this subject in a way is true to scripture but doesn’t lead us to bizarre places? Because Ortberg’s words are so true. There is a cross to carry in following Jesus, but is that how we would see a devastatingly abusive and destructive household?

I’m teaching on that tomorrow so I’ll finish this blog after I’ve said my piece.

5 thoughts on “So… What DO We Do With ‘Divorce’ Then?…

  1. Good Afternoon Andrew,
    Its a brave decision to discuss this topic which is at best controversial and at worst highly emotional.
    As it does appear in the Bible and is an unescapable part of modern life, I suppose that it was inevitable, probably even mandatory, that at some stage the Church needs to open a discussion regarding the moralities of divorce as it effects so many people, not least of which comprises many members of the congregation of churches.
    Both Liz and I feel very strongly against divorce and having been through this traumatic event ourselves after 21-22 years with our original partners, we have seen first hand the damage that happens to the family circle, the circle of friends and saddest of all, the children involved. It was a terrible time in our lives but fortunately we found each other and have been very happily married for just under 20 years. Our children, 6 in all (4 of mine and 2 of Liz’s) have grown a very strong bond with us yet even after all these years a hint of bitterness remains and none of the children is too keen to look back on their “previous lives” with all the childhood memories without a degree of sadness.
    Right, that covers the emotional and social sides but how does this fit into the parameters of the discussion as mentioned above? The Bible, as put forward above, appears to suggest that everyone has an option regarding divorce, this is not true. Both Liz and I were the innocent parties in our divorces and battled to get our marriages back on track but we were up against the law of the land as opposed to the moral outlook from the church and of course the law of the land always wins.
    So there you have it, forced into a divorce and now destined to be denied entry into the Kingdom of Heaven, doesn’t sound very fair to me at all.
    The point of my comments is that not all divorces are unanimous and it is highly disturbing that there doesn’t appear to be an “escape clause” for those of us who have had no alternative regarding divorce.
    Surely the comments made by Jesus overrules the softer approach by anyone else (Matthew et al.) so if we are to take the Biblical interpretation literally we are both destined for a very “hot” eternity which is not an option we are looking forward to.
    Worse still, we are considered “adulterers” in the eyes of the church despite the fact that we are fiercely loyal partners who have never been adulterers in the modern sense of the word.
    I know when Liz and I decided to get married we were denied a marriage ceremony by the Anglican Church and this upset me so much I refused to set foot in a church for the next 16 years and only relented when we came to Australia.
    Under the circumstances (for us), being destined to spend eternity in a place that makes Kununurra seem like the North Pole it is tempting adopt the mindset that if we are irrevocable sinners who wont be allowed into Heaven under any circumstances, we may as well “go big” and enjoy the rest of our lives unencumbered by future efforts to remain on the straight and narrow path.
    Pity we are now too old to really give a sin filled life a good go so I guess we will just carry on doing our best to be good people and good Christians and hope that the Lord takes pity on us and that an exclusion clause for us reluctant divorcees does exist somewhere in the Bible, maybe lost in translation or even in some long lost yet to be discovered Gospel.
    Good luck tomorrow and I assume that Peter wont be handing out tomatoes at the door instead of literature. Maybe I’ll bring my own…that’s a thought!!

    • Hi John

      Thanks for your comments and for being so honest about where you have been with this.

      I didn’t reply here as I was hoping I might catch you at church this morning and talk in person. But as you weren’t around I’ll say a couple of things now.

      I think you were obviously in one of the most difficult situations at a very difficult time in our history as a church. You were left by someone else who gave you no opportunity for reconciliation and because of that (and our take on the subject at the time) you were considered an adulterer.

      I can imagine that would be devastating and would certainly shape your ideas of what it means to be part of the christian community.

      That said I think the church got some stuff wrong back then – despite its best endeavours – and there have been people like yourself and Liz who have suffered as a result.

      I can’t see the Bible making you an adulterer or any kind of second class citizen in the kingdom. As for ‘hell’, that is a nonsense and you can throw that idea out the window!

      I could go on, but if you read the next post or listen to the sermon online you will see where I am coming from.

      Glad to have you and Liz in our church and part of our community and thanks for your honest response. I pray you continue to find healing and know grace as you know God and enjoy following him


  2. I want to hear your sermon! Although married for over 40 years and very happy at Gods choice of my life partner I recognise this is not the case for everyone. I do believe that Gods grace covers much and many prof the mistakes and mess people get into in their lives, and that divorce should not and done not condemn a person, anymore than any other sin does, so there is always room for repairing ones relationship with our God and that does not mean being unable to find happiness ion a new relationship, even for those situations where one has been “at fault” and been a principle cause of the breakdown.

  3. In the cases of abuse it is easy to argue that the abuser has well & truly broken their marriage vow. Even if someone insists that divorce shouldn’t happen then, plain separation rather than divorce lets you keep safety & sanity and still keep the letter of the law.

    Cases of adultery, abuse, desertion etc are difficult. But there are plenty of cases where two Christians have divorced and gone on to remarry. Whatever kind of “pointing the finger” is appropriate, these are the cases to point at first.

    The other issue here is a general one for all moral teaching. How do we strongly encourage Christians to do the right thing (and commend those doing the right thing when it’s hard) without being unloving to those who have done it wrong?

  4. Pingback: So – What DO We Do With Divorce Part II | Backyard Missionary

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