Divorce is sin. Divorce is bad. God hates divorce. Divorced people can never remarry. If you remarry, you will be in a perpetual state of sin unless you remarry your former spouse. These are all the things that constitute good conservative Christian counsel to those who are considering divorce. Right?
Yet after divorce and subsiquent remarriage, the same person gives counsel to the repentant remarried person. God is gracious. Divorce is not a sin that cannot be forgiven. Two wrongs don’t make a right, so don’t divorce again in order to go back to your former spouse.
It would seem that with such bi-polar counsel, the one considering divorce should just act now and ask questions later!
My two previous posts asked Is Divorce Ever Good? and Is Divorce Ever Understandable? These two drew heavily on experience and situations that seemed to call for a “greater-good” approach to some divorce cases when abuse was present. Now I want to deal with the Bible and what it has to say about divorce asking the question Is Divorce Ever Biblical?
The problem comes when we begin to use Scripture to support our positions concerning divorce and remarriage. Those who believe that Scripture is the ultimate and final authority on all issues upon which it speaks will see these things differently. In my opinion, some have a more balanced hermeneutic, while others have a “proof-text” mentality. In the end, I believe that divorce is always sin in that it is the result of sin. I believe that our focus should be on marriage the way that it was intended, one man and one woman, both of whom are doing the best they can to sustain a godly marriage who don’t give up at the first sign of trouble. Yet I also believe that we need to rethink our hermeneutics with regards to divorce understanding that things are not the way they are supposed to be.
Here are some of the reasons why I don’t believe that the issue of divorce in the Bible is as black and white as people so often make it.
First, concerning experience: No one can separate their theology from their experience. This is not only impossible, it is, I believe, outside the will of God. Experience constitutes our life. Without it we find no point of referent to any Scriptural account. It is only when our hermeneutic recognizes the vitality of experience that it can be kept in check. I become very leery of those who act as if they have what I call the “white-coat-scientific” interpretation of Scripture. This is just not possible. If there is anything the failures of the Cartesian system have taught us, it is that we are not as objective as we would like to think. The overly literal proof-text approach to Scripture assumes that God wants us to step outside of experience and interpret it without its regards. While experience is not the final arbiter of truth, it has a needed and godly contribution to make. Without it, there is no wisdom.
Second, concerning systematic theology: Systematic theology assumes the contribution of many different elements to our quest for truth. Among other things, we must understand that all of Scripture contributes to our interpretation, not just one proof-text. Not only does each individual passage have a context, but there is also the canonical context, meaning that all that Scripture says about something must contribute to any formulation of a doctrine concerning such. Protestants should understand this well as Catholics have often attempted to proof-text a denial of sola fide by quoting James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Catholics rightly point out that this is the only place that the phrase “Faith alone” is used and it says justification is NOT by faith alone. Yet Protestants rightly understand the tension that this creates with Pauline theology. In the end, Protestants resolve this tension by suggesting a both/and approach rather than an either/or. “Salvation is by faith alone,” as the saying goes, “But not by faith that is alone.” We find the same issues with regards to divorce. There are some passages that, when the context is not fully understood,Â seem to suggest that the Bible teaches that divorce is always the wrong decision (with two exceptions). I argue that when systematic theology is taken into account and the full counsel of Scripture is allowed to speak that the teaching of Scripture is that divorce is always sin, but it can be the least sinful of two options. Therefore, my encouragement is for us to do systematic theology, not proof-text theology.
Third, problems of Biblical data: Let’s do a test using the Scripture for our support. If were were to seek proof-texts rather than a deeper understanding of the canonical whole, we are going to have a lot of problems.
Problem #1: Everyone Qualifies for Divorce. Using the overly literal hermeneutic all people have legitimate grounds for divorce. How? Let me demonstrate. Christ said that divorce was unacceptable except for immorality (pornia) (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Christ also said that anyone who has ever lusted has committed adultery (moicheuo) (Matt. 5:28). It would be a safe assumption to say that adultery constitutes immorality of the worst kind. Therefore, everyone who has ever lusted has given his or herÂ partner grounds for divorce. Since everyone has lusted, all marriages qualify for divorce.
Problem #2: Many people are polygamists in God’s eyes. Not only does an overly literal approach to Christ’s words cause a problem, but let’s add another proof-text. Paul tells the Corinthians that whoever sleeps with a prostitute has become one flesh with this person (1 Cor. 6:16). Paul utilizes that same text that Christ used to illustrate his point “The two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Christ said that those who have become one flesh are forever bound in God’s sight, right? Paul said that the person is one flesh with whomever he or she has had sex with. Ergo option #1: You are joined in marriage to all those with whom you have had sex. Ergo option #2: You are only married to the first person you had sex with and any after this are those with whom you are committing adultery, even your present wife!
Problem #3: God seems to approve of divorce for something other than adultery. Most people don’t realize this, but in the Old Testament post-exilic period, the Israelites were required to divorce their spouses. Israel had broken the covenant of God and married foreign women. God informed Israel in Deut 7:3Â that intermarriage was not allowed. Therefore, as the narrative of Ezra suggests, in order to be reconciled to God, they had to divorce their foreign spouses. Ezra 10:10-11 “Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have behaved in an unfaithful manner by taking foreign wives! This has contributed to the guilt of Israel. Now give praise to the Lord God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the local residents and from these foreign wives‘” (emphasis mine). They did just that. In this case, while their spouses were not guilty of infidelity, the greater good was for them to divorce. This introduces an explicit instance of the greater good possibility. While divorce is always evil, it might be the lesser of two evils.
Problem #4: When Christ speaks of divorce and remarriage in Matt. 5, the context is that of universal condemnation. In other words, this section of Matthew has Christ presenting to the people a seemingly impossible code of ethics. Many of the religious leaders thought that they stood before God as righteous due to their own self-righteousness. By Christ’s seemingly radical words, these leadersÂ were condemned based upon a higher standard of Kingdom ethic. While these ethics are not wrong, there is no one who can stand in their site without a pronouncement of guilt. Christ was bringing a universal condemnation upon mankind. Everyone who hates has broken the fifth commandment. Everyone who lusts has broken the sixth commandment. Everyone who has divorced has broken the law. In the end, this evidences universal sinfulness and universal need.
Humanity is inherently sinful with no hope outside of Christ. In this context, divorce is seen to be out of concert with God’s original intent just as all sin is. Divorce is not the way it was supposed to be. In Matt 19:4-6, Christ says about marriage, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” God did not intend divorce, He intended faithfulness. God did not intend lust, He intended fidelity. God did not intend hate, He intended love. Yet the world is not what it was intended to be. Divorce happens because we are fallen and relationships take on characteristics of the fall. Sometimes, this fallen condition is more evidenced in one spouse while the other, in futility, fights for the preservation of the marriage. Once divorce occurs, the fault cannot ever be laid at the feet of the abused. The fault is always the abuser. Yet, ironically, those who divorce their spouse due to abuse are often villified more severely than the abuser. Who is really at fault?
Nevertheless, the divorce is a result of sin, therefore the divorce should always beÂ defined as sinful since it is not the way it was supposed to be.
Is divorce ever biblical? Well it depends on what you mean by “biblical.” Objectively, from the standpoint of the way things were meant to be, divorce is always bad, just as killing is also always bad. But because of the hardness of the human heart, as Christ put it, because of the falleness of man, divorce, like killing, is often a necessary evil. Only in this sense it is biblical.
In the end, I would caution those who use proof-text to counsel about divorce and remarriage. Please consider the entirety of the Scriptural witness and clothe this with the wisdom of experience. In the end, while you will not have the black and white answers that you may seek or desire, you will find that the tension with which the Scripture speaks on such matters is a healthy tension that, only when recognized, makes the Scripture sufficient to deal with such issues. Imbalanced proof-texting is not the way it is supposed to be and can be very sinful.
My counsel to those who are struggling through marriage is always to understand the terrible effects that divorce has on a family and culture. It is never a good thing. But if the abuse of the other spouse is so severe that it is doing damage, physically or mentally, to either yourself or your children, consideration needs to be made if an ultimate divorce is not the greater good of the situation.