By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
Churches proclaim divorce to be a sin with certain exceptions. These exceptions depend on which church you attend. Some believe divorce is a sin unless there is sexual infidelity, but what about abuse or neglect of a spouse? Most would say that sexual infidelity may warrant a divorce, but an abused spouse may be recommended a separation until the abuser gets help, and a neglected spouse may be recommended to try and save the marriage. There are a number of ways to save a marriage. But when it comes to divorce, there are a number of factors to consider; one may not find God’s will simply based on one rule to stay married except for sexual infidelity. Even then, sexual infidelity does not automatically demand a divorce.
Further complications include how the divorced are treated by the church. If a spouse who was abused or neglected by his or her spouse, had a relationship with a kind friend that turned sexual, one of the spouses would be free to divorce and marry again and even serve as a church leader, and the other may be judged and shunned by people in the church. Which do you think is which? While both sides contributed to the breaking of the covenant of marriage, the side that sexually erred is often targeted for blame.
Divorce is a legal issue, and some treat the Bible as a legal document to justify or condemn divorce. The Bible moves from rules and regulations in the Old Testament toward behavior based on a growing personal relationship with God through Jesus. Laws are an external demand. God wants more than external change. He wants internal change through a personal interactive relationship. Both the Old and New Testament are clear about God’s intention for marriage. While the Old Testament permitted divorce, the New Testament made clear what the Old Testament also made clear: God meant marriage to last. The Bible underscores the need to save marriages. There is no doubt divorce has major negative consequences on a person and the family. There are a number of options to take before divorce is unavoidable. However, if one does not view the Bible as a legal document addressing every circumstance, the justification for divorce is not captured by rules alone. It is based on one’s relationship with God and other Biblical values that come into play.
So one’s view of divorce may rest on one’s view of the Bible. Is the Bible like a legal document that covers all situations? Or does the Bible present principles that need to be applied to individual situations? Either view can support the high value of saving the marriage and that divorce is only acceptable if a party crosses this line: sexual infidelity. But, does that position address every situation? Is the New Testament more restrictive than the Old in that divorce was permitted but now is not?
There is a line between the position that Biblical rules have no exceptions except what is stated, and the opposite position that rationalizes one’s decisions to the point that they are not based on Biblical principles nor a personal relationship with God. Each one must look to their own conscience and ask if they are seeking God in their decisions, and especially in this decision to divorce. This may be difficult to do without consultation. Most likely at the point of divorce there have been sins committed on both sides; each side has to take responsibility for their own by examining the impact of his or her behavior on the other, expressing sincere remorse, making a commitment to the marriage and making sustainable changes. However, one’s position on the issue of divorce that comes from a personal relationship with God and Biblical values like justice, mercy and grace is ultimately preferable than one that merely follows rules.
God is a God of redemption. God seeks to restore that which was lost, and make it better. “Plan A” is preferred, but God can create a “Plan B,” even after divorce. David, a man after God’s own heart, required a “Plan B” after he committed adultery with a woman who later became his wife. Their son was chosen to be heir to a throne over the son of his first wife. This lineage led to Jesus Himself. This Old Testament story is one of many underscoring the message of a God who takes the bad and turns it around for good for those who return to God after their sin. Consequences remain, but redemption has the last word. Is the New Testament meant to imprison people in unholy relationships, only to punish them indefinitely after a divorce? Does the Old Testament convey more grace under the Law than the New Testament where people are covered by God’s mercy and grace? The Pharisees in the New Testament followed the law but missed important values in applying the law. Instead, the more one builds a relationship with God based on personal knowledge of Him (as revealed through reliable sources) the more clarity on this personal decision. The decision has to be personal because very few want a marriage based merely on duty, and such a relationship is bound not to last. In contrast, while God does not control people, He also may be the one resource that enables one to save the marriage.
For an exploration of what the Bible says about divorce, remarriage and leadership in the church see What Does the Bible Say about Divorce?