The Question of Marriage and Divorce: A Starting Point

August 23, 2018

I talk to a lot of people about divorce. This can sometimes be unfortunate (I can’t say I recommend it as a topic for a first date or wedding reception; lessons learned), but also profoundly useful. As a historian, my interests can be esoteric and detached. I want to know how the doctrine of divorce and remarriage related to 1920s Fundamentalism or the failed Uniform Divorce Law movement of the 1880s or the rising biblical counseling movement of the 1950s (because it did and it’s fascinating!). However, almost everyone else wants to know how it applies to their life today. That’s fair.

 

 

These conversations with the non-historian crowd tend to revolve around the question of emotional fulfillment. It sounds like this: “but so many couples are miserable… doesn’t God want them to be happy?” Simple question, right? Eh, not really (simple questions rarely are). As I hope most Christians know intuitively, God doesn’t desire His people to be unhappy. Yet when we talk about the covenant of marriage, there is sufficient biblical evidence pointing to something deeper than happiness lying at the core of the theology of marriage.

 

Before you read on, a caveat: I’m not going to argue for a “correct” view of divorce and remarriage here. Rather than presenting you with my personal views (though I suspect it won’t be difficult to figure them out), I hope to show you a few key points that you should examine on your own. And, I might add, sooner rather than later. We tend to interrogate the biblical view of divorce in moments of extreme relevance to our lives: your parents have separated; a best friend left her abusive husband; you’re dating a divorcée; or you are absolutely convinced that your marriage is headed in one of two directions: divorce or murder. The doctrine of divorce—and the intrinsically related question of remarriage—is a high stakes game, and with the current divorce rate standing—at best—at 28% in the evangelical church (and, at worst, over 50%) everyone has skin in the game [1]. If we are to pursue a life in sync with the principals of our heavenly Father, determining a wise and godly approach to one of modern life’s most common and devastating challenges—both within and outside the church—seems fitting.

 

A few points of general agreement [2]

 

1) Marriage was intended by God as a lifelong, monogamous union. It is, ideally, to be severed only by death (Genesis 2:24; cf. Mark 10:9).

 

2) God hates divorce (it’s hard—though possible—to disagree with a direct quote; Malachi 2:16: ”For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce.”).

 

3) Under Mosaic law, divorce was permissible (Deut. 24:1-4).

 

4) The permissibility of divorce has been a consistently thorny issue (Matthew 19:1-10; indeed, it was because of such doctrinal complexity—and varying attitudes toward it in biblical times—that the Pharisees felt they could corner Christ with a question about it).

 

A starting point

 

The question, in my view, boils down to the issue of the marriage covenant. Can this covenant be severed by anything other than the death of one of its members? Does “divorce”—a legal action—break the bond of “two becoming one”? The answer to that question will determine your view of remarriage and what subsequent questions you’ll have to address. If you view the marriage covenant as permanent (even after a divorce dissolves the legal bond) then the remarriage question is a non-starter. Divorce if you wish, but you are to remain faithful to the covenant in a state of celibacy (this has profound implications on a church’s view of, and ministry to, their single population; but that’s a different conversation to be had). This then makes your interpretation of Matthew 5:31-32 relatively straightforward:

 

Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (emphasis added)

 

The reason that it is “adultery” to marry a divorced woman is because she is still bound by the marriage covenant, though legally divorced. It all gets more complicated, however, by that single, powerful, word: except.

 

The exception clause

 

Anyone familiar with the doctrine of divorce knows the exception clause (and has probably lost some hair over it). The book of Matthew presents the more controversial iteration, but it exists in Mark as well (you may have already caught it): “whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality…” In Mark, however, the focus of the exception is on the action of divorce, not the question of remarriage. In Matthew 19, the words of Christ have a different emphasis:

 

He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9; emphasis added)

 

Herein rests the crux of the argument for remarriage: sexual immorality (often translated more specifically as “fornication”) clearly does something to the marriage covenant [3]. Since adultery after a divorce can only occur if the person does not remain celibate, this must apply to the concept of remarriage; if there is an exception (i.e. a “good divorce”), then it frees the person to remarry, since you could rewrite this statement in the reverse to say: he who divorces his wife because of sexual immorality and marries another does not commit adultery. In short, this would mean the marriage covenant can be broken while both partners live. And the ramifications of that are myriad and complex [4].

 

Down the rabbit hole

 

First of all, let’s be clear: never does the Bible state that sexual immorality requires a divorce. Thus the very act of adultery does not, in and of itself, sever the marriage covenant (and one could argue—and many have—the entire book of Hosea represents an argument about the endurance of the covenant through such circumstances). However, if you view the exception clause as opening the door to potential remarriage after a divorce, a variety of questions remain to be answered: if divorce here frees one spouse to remarry, does it imply the same for the offending party? If not, who gets to act as judge and jury in deciding which spouse is free to remarry? In addition, this interpretation influences our understanding of I Corinthians 7, which pretty clearly states that a believing spouse should stay with an unbeliever unless abandoned, in which case they “are not bound.” Does this mean the covenant is broken? And if so, what other cases of abandonment might be equivalent? Speaking of equivalency, at what point does sexual immorality become “sexual immorality” worthy of a divorce? Should the church accept offenses that are morally equivalent to fornication as justification for divorce (and thus remarriage)? These are not easy questions and there are, I assure you, no easy answers for them.

 

So, miserable but still married?

 

Let’s circle back to the question of happiness. Grounding a Christian marriage in something other than emotion is, without doubt, a staple in the biblical teaching of marriage. And even if one takes a relatively permissive approach to the question of remarriage, it’s important to note that emotions never played a role in Christ’s so-called “exception clause.” In fact, He soundly criticized the Mosaic law for liberally allowing divorce. However, that’s not to say that emotion does not matter. There is a powerful testimony in the symbolism employed by biblical texts. Marriage, after all, is one of the key images used to describe Christ’s relationship with believers (His bride!). This isn’t something devoid of joy, but rather the opposite: we are His beloved and should undeniably be in a state of rejoicing at that prospect. That joy is a powerful image.

 

The church, in an effort to maintain marriages come hell or high water, has often promoted a “just hold out until someone dies” approach to struggling marriages. Clearly, this is making an impact on the world’s view of Christian marriage (and not a good one) [5]. The statistics of divorce in the church (writ-large), I argue, are not as important as the state of the marriages within our church. We often get so carried away trying to delineate the rules of divorce and remarriage that we forget the starting point. In short, we focus our energy on the exception rather than the rule. This is not to say that focusing on the exception is inherently bad (I did, after all, start this article with a plea for more people to examine the issue for themselves), but rather that our focus on simply preventing divorce is insufficient as it often fails to engage with the root of the problem. Remember, when confronted with this issue, our Savior did not immediately launch into a discussion of what constitutes a good divorce or an allowable remarriage, but instead reminded the Pharisees of the original intent of marriage.

 

Have you not read that He who made them at 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 then, they are no longer two but one flesh. (Matthew 19:4-6)

 

No longer two but one flesh. This was so important He repeated it! When they pressed Him on Mosaic law, our King again went back to the origin of marriage: “From the beginning it was not so.”

 

As a church, we need to support marriages. It’s relatively easy to sit back and issue judgment on whether or not a divorce is permissible (or use our own local church’s divorce “policy” as an easy answer). On the other hand, walking alongside those who are struggling or guiding a couple through reconciliation takes a substantial investment of our time, energy, and emotion. This, I believe, is as much the responsibility of your average churchgoer (i.e. here’s looking at you) as it is that of a counselor, pastor, or therapist [6]. If we, as followers of Christ, are really as concerned about the rates of divorce as we claim, we need to fight the inclination to be passive observers to the struggles around us. It is only then, I argue, that the church may finally move beyond indulging in a constant state of near-panic over the “marriage crisis” in America and instead provide an alternative by living out the kind of marriages that God desires for us; and yes, those marriages are happy ones.

About the Author: Maggie Flamingo, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former co-editor at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution, specializes in the intellectual and religious history of America. Her research focuses on the intersection of ideas, theology, and practice within twentieth-century evangelicalism, especially as it pertains to the doctrine of divorce and remarriage. She finds everything just a bit too interesting for her own good and can often be found researching topics with little to no connection to her dissertation; this no longer bothers her. Her love of footnotes runs deep.

 

Footnotes:

 

[1] Statistics are an infamously tricky beast, and I’m largely unconvinced that most are accurate, but in a nutshell, the variance can be accounted for by shifting your definition of Christian. If someone who simply self-identifies as Christian is among those polled, the rates are quite high; however, when narrowed down to those who live a life more committed to Christian practice (i.e. church attendance, bible study, etc.) the rates drop. For a brief discussion of some relatively recent rates of divorce in the Christian church, see Glenn Stanton, FactChecker: Divorce Rate Among Christians. If you’re looking for more than a summation, a key study from Baylor University, which spurred a flurry of controversy several years ago with the claim that evangelicals had a higher divorce rate than atheists, can be found here. As a historical aside (because I can’t help myself), in 1910, when the divorce rate was roughly 14% nationwide, ministers and politicians alike were convinced civilization was about to end and simply couldn’t imagine it getting much worse. Again, that’s 1 in 7 marriages; we are now at, roughly, 2 in 5 and, for some reason, seemingly proud of having a rate of 28% in the evangelical church.

 

[2] Marriage does not exist in eternity. This might distress or delight you—depending, I suppose, on the current state of your love life—but nonetheless, Christ made the temporal state of marriage clear in Luke 20:27-38. Thus the considerations of divorce and remarriage are inherently limited. Like so many other visceral struggles we share, this one is unique to our current earthly state. There is, however, an exception to this temporal view. Though a decidedly minority view amongst Protestants, there is an interpretation of remarriage that argues the covenant can never be broken whilst the members are both alive, thus any remarriage results in a consistent state of adultery. The implications are serious: 1 Cor. 6:9 clearly calls out both fornicators and adulterers as those who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Couple this with a belief that salvation is not eternally secure (i.e. you can lose your salvation based on just such consistent sinful practices) and the consequences of remarriage are severe and eternal.

 

[3] There is a significant debate amongst biblical scholars over the use of “fornication” vs. “adultery” in this verse; with some (most notably John Piper) arguing that it refers to the sexual immorality of someone betrothed, but not yet married, which would obviously relate differently to the question of the covenant.

 

[4] An important aside: Luke 16:18 also addresses divorce and remarriage but makes no note of an exception.

 

[5] For a painfully recent example, look no further than the recent controversy over the counsel and comments of Paige Patterson within the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

[6] Though, admittedly, we may all play different roles in the support system. I’m not advocating that everyone offers marriage counseling in their living rooms, but rather that we stop shifting the responsibility of burden-sharing to those with professional degrees and just go on with our lives as if the marriages of those we care about are not disintegrating around us.

 

 

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