In the past, my beliefs about divorce were as black and white as the text on the pages of the Bible. From this legalistic perspective, there were really only two conditions within which divorce would be acceptable — Jesus’ teaching about adultery in Matt. 19:9, and Paul’s teaching about an unbelieving spouse departing in 1Co. 7:15. I believed that divorce for any other reason wouldn’t be valid in God’s eyes, which would make any prospect of remarriage spiritually impossible.
It’s so hard being legalistic!
Whenever my grandmother and I would have a conversation that would veer into a topic or experience that I hadn’t had yet, she would say, “Keep living,” which was to say that if I haven’t come across a particular scenario yet, life will usually bring it to my doorstep at some point in time, whether directly or indirectly. This was certainly what happened with my perspective on divorce.
You don’t have to live long to discover people in your life who have been the victims of domestic violence, or of spouses with dangerously addictive behavior, like gambling away mortgage payments, alcoholism, etc. What in the world could I, as a pastor, advise someone in my flock to do in such instances? Would I — could I — be capable of telling someone to remain married to such a person because of some legalistic approach to Scripture? An even better question: Was this form of marital bondage really the point Scripture was trying to get across?
When I stopped viewing the Bible as a legal document — as a rulebook for life — I came to understand that its narratives and its writers addressed specific situations that existed in their specific cultures and specific time periods. To take what it says and apply it at face value to radically different circumstances would be careless and abusive.
So, rather than being restrictively tied to two specific verses, I had to ask myself a simple question:
Is this understanding of divorce consistent not just with what God said, but with who He is?
That’s such an easy question to answer! Of course it’s not consistent! But how could such an inconsistency be possible? Does it make the Bible a lie?
We have to remember that although God doesn’t change, the situations surrounding people do all the time. At one point, for example, a woman was considered the property of her husband, so for her to be beaten was a socially tolerable — if not acceptable — practice.
Thank God we no longer live in such times! But for Christians who legalistically approach Scripture, they’re stuck back there in a 2000 year old worldview because they can never allow their application of the written text to evolve and remain relevant to our ever-changing cultural context. How can we consider that anything but a form of bondage? Bondage to the past… Bondage to the letter of the law…
So, what I tell people about divorce is that God hates divorce because as a breaking of covenant, it is contrary to His character. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations where divorce would not only be tolerable, but expedient. It’s interesting that one of the keys to understanding this fact is found in the very two passages I referenced before: Matt. 19:9 and 1Co. 7:15.
In Matthew, Jesus clearly states that the only justification for divorce is adultery. Yet when we turn to 1Co. 7:15, Paul states that if an unbelieving spouse departs, the other spouse is freed from obligation to that covenant and can move on. But this contradicts what Jesus said.
So, how do we harmonize those two teachings? The answer is found in Paul’s justification. He says that the Christian spouse is not in bondage under such circumstances because “God has called us to peace.” He appealed to God’s character! He appealed to God’s heart as justification for opening the crack in the door of divorce a little wider. He knew that Jesus was addressing a specific set of people who were accustomed to getting divorced for any simple, ridiculous reason. He understand that Jesus only used such strong language in order to make a point to “hard-hearted” people. So, rather than falling into a trap of legalism, Paul appealed to God’s heart, and released people from lifelong bondage to a spouse who abandoned them.
What prevents us from doing the same thing with a myriad of other situations? If God’s desire for our peace can justify divorce in instances of abandonment, surely it can justify divorce in instances of physical (or even verbal) abuse. Surely it can justify divorce in instances of addictive behavior that can destroy people’s lives. Surely it can justify it in many more circumstances that I can’t take the time to enumerate.
The challenge is to not take our marital covenants lightly, simply because divorce is acceptable in a number of circumstances. Divorce was never mean to be an easy out, but rather, a way of escape from oppressive circumstances–not just because the person gets on your nerves, or you think you fell out of love.
So, the fact that God is who He is makes it evident that there are circumstances that the Bible doesn’t specifically address that must be considered just cause for divorce; and in such instances, remarriage is perfectly acceptable. As long as we take our covenant seriously, and don’t take lightly the prospect of divorce, we’ll generally remain on steady ground.
Our Takeaway: Knowing God’s word without knowing His heart is a recipe for disaster.
• Read Pastor Weekly’s original version of this article on Third Day Faith.
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