I get emails —
I have done some counseling with people in the church. One brother in his 60’s told me recently that he had been very unhappy and even miserable in his married life for over 35 years. They stayed married but now his grown children are fairly miserable and depressed themselves. This man told me he wonders if he will go to heaven because he was such a bad father (not abusive or a drunkard, just ineffectual and unhappy). Have we (Christian teachers) led people to believe they would be better off being miserable for 40 years than getting a divorce and going to hell?
I am so blessed to be with someone I could love for many years. But not everyone is so fortunate. Is it right for me to tell someone less fortunate you must remain in this wretched, pathetic marriage for the rest of your life because you made a bad decision when you were a 19 year old? In fact, I haven’t said that , but that is what most church of Christ people believe and if a preacher told them differently it would start a firestorm of trouble.
I usually say something like, “knowing that God wants you to be faithful and happy, what do you need to do for that to happen?” Any further feedback or advice from scripture you or your readers can give me?
Asking the right questions
For those new to the blog, I need to mention my ebook posted online But If You Do Marry … and the earlier series on divorce called “MDR.” We’ve covered the theology of divorce and remarriage extensively here, and so I hesitated to post the question — not because it’s not a good question but because I know it’ll be hard to keep the discussion on task. You see, there are at least three ways this could go —
Question 1 — is divorce for some reason other than fornication ever permissible?
Question 2 — for an impermissible divorce, is remarriage permitted?
Question 3 — how does the church deal with someone who has impermissibly divorced? or impermissible remarried?
Those are kind of the usual questions. But in this case, only Question 1 is on the table. And I’m thinking that may not even be the right question. Maybe we should instead ask —
Question 4 — how important is my happiness in the grand scheme of things? And not much gets written on that one.
One wrong answer
And while I struggle to find a good answer, I’m pretty confident that some answers are wrong.
We dare not recommend to someone that he sin (by divorcing or otherwise) just because forgiveness or remarriage or church fellowship is possible. That’s rebellion. It’s a very dangerous path. It would be the height of irresponsibility to say: “Go ahead and commit this sin. God will forgive you.” That is exactly the sin that Hebrews warns us against —
(Heb 12:15-16 ESV) 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.
The root of bitterness is found in —
(Deu 29:18-20 ESV) 18 Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
(Compare Heb 10:26-27.) So that line of reasoning is just not available to us. That doesn’t mean it’s our place to invoke God’s judgment on those who’ve traveled down this path. It’s not. But we can certainly not recommend such a course of action.
What about a legal separation?
But does God allow divorce on other grounds? Well, as I considered at some length in the book and earlier series, the “putting away” that ends a marriage is not the filing of the divorce petition in court — a practice foreign to First Century thought. The “divorce” is the ending of the marriage, which could happen by abandonment or other serious breach of the marriage covenant.
Therefore, a legal separation would be, in the eyes of the New Testament writers, a divorce. It’s not the legal status of the spouses that matters so much as how they treat each other and their relationship. A legal separation is simply a divorce by another name except that the state won’t allow remarriage. Being legally married while living apart as though single is not a marriage. Not having sex with someone not your spouse is hardly sufficient for a marriage. I mean, the goal here isn’t celibacy but for the husband and wife to be “one flesh” and united.
Therefore, the marriage may well have already been ended by one spouse or the other long before the divorce papers are filed in the courthouse. And, therefore, if it’s a sin to divorce your spouse in a given situation, it would be sin to be legally separated in that situation, too.
Let’s assume for purposes of this discussion, however, that the spouses simply can’t stand each other. They honor their marital obligations to one another. The husband supports his wife. They don’t deny sexual relations. They do the usual husband-and-wife things. They just detest one another. Does God intend that we be miserable? And doesn’t that misery have an impact on the children and future generations, perhaps leading to another several generations of dysfunctional marriages?
Of course, in the First Century, marriages were arranged. The idea of building a marriage on romantic love and having a soul-mate would have been quite foreign to most of Jesus’ audience. It’s not that no one ever made their own match, but normally the spouses were selected by the parents, and family loyalty and honor were much more important than individual autonomy or even happiness. Surely, therefore, there were countless miserable marriages!
I mean, the modern, working theory of marriage is all about compatibility — and it’s unlikely that the parents did that well selecting mates for their children. I know that the girls my parents wanted me to date were not the ones I wanted to date. And I’m sure my kids feel that same way about my taste in potential girlfriends! I doubt that First Century parents were any better at it that we’d be today.
Then again, many lousy marriages would be avoided if the kids would listen to their parents! I think parents are pretty good at seeing losers and mistakes. We’re not so good at finding ideal matches.
So we have to read the New Testament in light of First Century culture and practices. And I’m very fortunate to have married well. I know plenty of people who didn’t do so well — and it would be hard to exaggerate just how terrible life can be with a bad choice of spouse.
Therefore, if you were approached by a beloved friend who is miserable in his or her marriage, and yet the spouses aren’t guilty of any heinous sins against the other, what would you recommend? What’s the best counsel we can give?
I’m sure the readers will remember —
(1Pe 3:1-2 ESV) Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
Peter taught Christian women to remain married to their unbelieving husbands in hopes of saving them. And a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever can be a very difficult one. Imagine what it would have been like in pagan society! Do the children worship the God of the Jews or Apollo? Do they suffer persecution or become good citizens who honor the gods of the city? It would likely have been much tougher then than it is today in the US. It would be not unlike the wife of a Muslim converting to Christianity today. And yet Peter says the chance to convert the husband requires the wife to remain married.
Paul says much the same thing in 1 Cor 7 —
(1Co 7:12-17 ESV) 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
By the way, “separates” should not be considered the equivalent of a modern legal separation. No such legal process existed in the First Century. Rather, the way a Greek man divorced his wife was by kicking her out of the house or by leaving, announcing the divorce in the presence of witnesses.
The strking thing about these passages is the flow of thought. It’s all about the kingdom — how to save your spouse — not how to be happy. But what if the spouse is already saved but a terrible husband?
Consider a spouse who becomes paranoid schizophrenic after the marriage and refuses to take medication (paranoid people don’t trust their doctors!) The condition is permanent.
Consider a spouse who is in a persistent vegetative state — entirely unresponsive to external stimuli and kept alive on machines because her parents won’t allow her to die. She might stay on the machines for decades before “dying.”
Consider the spouse who becomes increasingly self-absorbed and shows no love for his wife and children. He doesn’t cheat on his wife; he pays for the mortgage and household expenses. But he has no interest in his family. Medical tests show no problems. He’s just a jerk.
Assume both spouses are otherwise good, Bible-toting Christians. What advice do you give?
(Oh, and you can’t cite the Book of Common Prayer as authority here, even though that’s where we get our wedding vows from.)