As a pastor, one of the hardest things I deal with on a regular basis is walking with couples who get divorced. And secondarily the challenge of helping a person who is divorced walk through the biblical reality of whether remarriage is morally permissible in his or her situation. This is painful, hard work filled with suffering, guilt and doubt. Most Christians want to follow Christ in their marriage but not many know how to follow Christ in divorce and remarriage.
What I want to do in the next couple of posts is describe what I believe are biblically legitimate reasons for divorce, what aren’t, and explore biblical realities of remarriage. The hope is that this can help you personally or be a resource if you are walking with a couple or person navigating some of the most difficult relational/emotional waters of life.
This first post will consider biblical reasons for divorce. The second post will look at whether the Bible ever endorses remarriage after divorce.
Biblical Reasons for Divorce
There seems to be two biblical reasons for divorce.
- Adultery is the clearest and strongest reason for divorce by the aggrieved spouse. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus gives adultery as a reason for divorce. It is the clearest and strongest reason for a divorce but it is a relational concession not a command. Marriages can survive adultery and even become more beautiful on the other side. But some marriages are so broken after the affair and the years of pain that made adultery even possible that divorce is a suitable moral decision. For the sake of putting to death a union that has brought death to the couple and those around them, divorce might offer some kind of relief.
The word used here for adultery is porneia. This word is used in the New Testament for all sexual activity outside of the marital covenant. This of course includes physical, sexual relationships and I believe unrepentant, ongoing pornography use as well.
All this is said with a clear gospel caveat. The ethical framework of love which marriage is to embody (1 Cor 13) should be employed if the sinning spouse is convicted and doing the serious work of repentance. Love forgives all things and keeps no records of wrongs. If the adulterous spouse is seeking to follow Jesus, the aggrieved spouse is mandated by gospel love to follow Jesus by seeking marital reconciliation. No matter the sin, if the sinning spouse is repentant, the faithful spouse should seek to see if the marriage can be salvaged. Remember, marriage is for life.
- The second reason for divorce is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15. There, divorce is possible if an unbelieving spouse leaves one’s married partner. In such a case, the believing spouse need not hold on to a marriage which the other has abandoned. Paul says to live in peace. Divorce might make that possible.
I think this reason by Paul is actually an ethical framework for ending a broken marriage. It would be unthinkable for Paul that a believing spouse would ever leave his believing spouse. This is based upon Paul’s belief, expounded in Ephesians 5, that Christian marriage is a reflection of Christ and the church. Christ is the faithful spouse even when his bride is serially unfaithful. When she returns, he will always accept her without shame or condemnation. This gracious, kind love should always be on display in marriage. Thus, only an unbelieving spouse would leave his partner for no cause. A believing spouse would endure with Christian hope.
Thus, if a spouse leaves his spouse, he is revealing that he is an unbelieving spouse. Paul seems to say as much in 1 Timothy 5:8. There, Paul makes clear that if a “believer “ does not take care of his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. What can be worse than an unbeliever? A hypocrite–one who says one thing but acts contrary to his profession thus revealing no real faith. In marriage, when a spouse professes faith but serially does not keep his commitments to spouse and family, he is a hypocrite and the very act of not living up to one’s vows reveals that he is an unbelieving spouse. Consequently, it is my opinion that if a believer is left by one’s spouse, Paul gives an ethical concession for divorce.
The word for “leave” in the Corinthian’s text has as its connotation the idea of actively distancing yourself from your spouse. This for sure happens in physical abandonment but it can also happen emotionally too. One can be physically present but has left his or her partner in every sense of the word.
Here I think of the husband who gambles his salary against his wife’s wishes and leaves the bills unpaid. When she confronts him, he berates her as judgmental and nothing ever really changes. This lasts for years. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.
I think of the verbally abusive wife who for years belittles her husband for every mistake crushing his masculinity and destroying his soul. She always undermines him and he is reduced to a sheepish boy. He seeks to be faithful and loving but she won’t stop. But after years of trying, it is hell to be with her. Her meanness is one thing, her unwillingness to partner with her spouse to change the dynamics of the marriage is another. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.
I think of the addicted spouse who won’t get help. Whether drugs or alcohol, her addiction causes great harm to her partner. He tries to love her but she loves the high more than her commitments. She has become her addiction and has nothing relationally for her spouse. For years she lives in the cycle of her addiction and he pays with his very soul. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.
Finally, I think of the cold, harsh, abusive husband who is more tyrant than lover. Everywhere in the familial sphere he goes, he brings contempt and criticism. He belittles his spouse and won’t stop, no matter how many times she begs for them to get counseling or pastoral help. After years of this, she has lost her identity and any semblance of joy. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.
It seems to me that it is not incidents or even seasons of “separation” that give legitimacy to possible divorce for Paul. But instead, a settled condition over time in the sinning spouse that declares through actions that his or her heart has left the marriage. Where this has happened, divorce might be warranted.
A couple of caveats. First, divorce is never commanded and need not be chosen. There might be good reasons to stay in a marriage where a spouse has “left”. Perhaps God has given the faithful spouse deep hope, or patience in pain or joy in suffering. In such cases, one ought to endure. For as Paul says, your faithful, committed love might bring about salvation for your spouse (see 1 Cor 7:16). But sometimes, this is not possible or healthy.
So where a sinning spouse has “left” the marriage, how does the faithful spouse decide it is time to end the marriage? First, I think there is an obligation to do all one can to awaken the leaving spouse to his or her commitments. I’m thinking of significant time living out patient love. I also think that when crisis hits, it is imperative to bring in wise council long before one begins divorce proceedings. And if one wise person doesn’t make headway, then bring in another. A competent pastor or counselor can bring help to a marriage the two partners can’t imagine. We should fight for our marriage until there is nothing there to fight for.
What I want to make sure I don’t convey is that the next time your spouse is mean or distant or forgets pay the bills, you can get a divorce. No. Divorce is the last option. It is a horrible option. But sometimes, sadly things need to die. Divorce is to name dead what is horribly ill and has no chance at being resuscitated.
One point of necessary clarification: one should always physically leave a serial, abusive relationship until wholesale change in the abusing spouse has happened and has been verified by trustworthy pastors/counselors and proper boundaries have been put in place. A serial abuser is immersed in patterns of behavior and thought that are not easily broken. In such circumstances, clear boundaries must be set with the help of counselors and pastoral help. It is too easy for love to become a sick cycle of dependency and abuse without outside wisdom. Abusive relationships are serious and need serious intervention. But even with all that said, Christ can redeem anyone willing to nail his/her flesh on the cross. I know. I’ve seen it. Don’t give up easily. Christ can do unbelievable things.
When all this work has been done and the leaving spouse has not returned, the decision to divorce is based upon what will bring “peace” according to Paul. Here peace means the cessation of ongoing conflict. There comes a point where seeking faithfulness just brings chaos, bitterness, soul death and pain. No one can live there forever. When a marriage has degraded to the point of a living hell and the leaving spouse won’t live up to his commitments or even try, divorce might bring peace. However painful such peace might be.
I do not think most Christian marriages that end in divorce have legitimate reasons for divorce. Instead, embracing a cultural belief of romantic love or personal happiness as ultimate ends, couples break life long vows. I think most Christians who divorce give up far too easily. I cannot tell you how many times I have been with couples when the aggrieved spouse declares he or she is done (often for good reasons) but then the sinning spouse finally begins the kind of gospel, personal change that would make the marriage beautiful but the aggrieved spouse won’t seek reconciliation. This is sin, it has life-long consequences and tarnishes the name of Christ.
Life-long commitment to one person is hard work. It is not for the faint hearted. There will be suffering and pain. But also joy, laughter and love. It might be the hardest thing one can do but it is well worth it. In marriage, we become mature in the fire of love. It is worth the work. In it you can experience Christ and become like him.
But for some, the work becomes soul crushing. Unrepentant unfaithfulness or abandonment from an unrepentant spouse over a span of years is something no one should endure. In such cases, divorce is an option. There is little good in it but it is better than the alternative. Sometimes, in this world, this is the best we can hope for.
In the next post we will consider divorce and remarriage.