MDR: Questions and answers, Part 2

Q.       What about a couple who don’t violate the marriage covenant but who find they can’t stand each other? Sometimes couples grow apart. How does this answer their needs?

A.       I’m no marriage counselor, but I have run into people who clearly made a mistake in marrying each other. Sometimes they love each other but can’t stand to be around each other.

I think most couples who consider themselves incompatible are wrong. In fact, they’re usually too lazy to work through their problems — but they could. Or they may just not realize that it’s possible to mature and change to make things work. It really is true that many marriages fail purely from lack of motivation to make the sacrifice marriage requires.

But I’d hesitate to say that this is always right. There are people who just don’t have the personality or skills or motivation to be successfully married. On the other hand, this is much less likely to be true among Christians. Christians have renounced the selfishness and self-indulgence that non-Christians may enjoy. Over time, Christians grow to be more and like Jesus and so more and more alike.

Nonetheless, even among mature Christians, there are people who should never be married, and some married before becoming Christians or while so young that their personalities were not yet fully developed.

I honestly don’t know what to say to such a couple, other than to refer them for the best Christian counseling I can and to pray for them. If they divorce, they sin. If they live apart, they sin. Either sin is forgivable, but it’s certainly wrong to recommend sin — especially as serious a sin as divorce — to a Christian. I don’t think I could bear to have that on my conscience. And how would this couple repent of a sin that the undertook intentionally and gladly?

I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps the best way to look at it is this in light of these two observations:

First, Exodus 21:10-11 requires both material and emotional support by each spouse for the other, and allows divorce to resolve a failure to do so. It’s hard to imagine a marriage between two Christians, where both have genuinely tried to make it work, with the support of their congregation, where they can’t make a success of it. I’ve read books by counselors who claim astoundingly high success rates so long as both spouses are devout Christians and motivated to try. Therefore, in those marriages that remain miserable, there’s just got to be a violation of Exodus 21:10-11.

Second, no one is entitled to the happiest possible marriage or to be married to the most compatible person they’ve ever met. We can set the bar too high, expecting to live “happily ever after” despite the sad reality that life’s not perfect, and neither is your husband or wife. Contrary to the popular romantic myth, God has not promised each of us a “soul mate.”

In fact, Paul and Peter both insist that Christians live with their non-Christian spouses. We fail to fully realize the significance of this as we live in a culture where Christianity is accepted, even applauded (sometimes). In First Century Rome, becoming a Christian was often a death sentence and certainly grounds for social ostracism. A mixed marriage is hard today. It would have been vastly more difficult then. And yet the apostles teach us to tough it out for the sake of our spouses. If a divorce is to happen, it must be initiated by the non-Christian. Christians are not allowed — even to be happy.

There are exceptions, but we must not let the exception swallow the rule. Sloppy thinking regarding this essential principle has caused many a preacher not to bother teaching God’s will on divorce. It’s easier to leave that to the state judges or the couple, and so we’ve often willfully ignored God’s holy instructions on this subject. We’ve sometimes been so thrilled to escape the cruel legalism of the past that, as Alexander Campbell once said, in our anxiety to get “post haste out of Babylon,” we’ve “run past Jerusalem”[1] — and all the way to Rome.


[1] “To the Christian Messenger,” The Christian Baptist (Oct. 1, 1827), written to Barton W. Stone: “I do not think it strange that, in running post haste out of Babylon, you should have, in some angles of your course, run past Jerusalem.”

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  1. Wedding vows are made between husband, wife, and God. So in light of the following passage, I don't think it would be a good idea to break those vows when keeping them becomes difficult.

    Ecc 5:4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.
    Ecc 5:5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.
    Ecc 5:6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, "My vow was a mistake." Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?

    Another relevant passage:

    Psa 15:1 A psalm of David.
    LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
    Who may live on your holy hill?
    Psa 15:2 He whose walk is blameless
    and who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from his heart
    Psa 15:3 and has no slander on his tongue,
    who does his neighbor no wrong
    and casts no slur on his fellowman,
    Psa 15:4 who despises a vile man
    but honors those who fear the LORD,
    who keeps his oath
    even when it hurts,

    Psa 15:5 who lends his money without usury
    and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
    He who does these things
    will never be shaken.
    </blockquote