The following article is a guest post by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, author of Uprooted: A Guide for Homesick Christians and Your Future ‘Other Half’: It Matters Whom You Marry. She is married to William VanDoodewaard, Professor of Church History at Puritan Theological Seminary. They have four children.
During a recent visit, my wife and I discussed these types of issues with Bill & Rebecca. I am thankful for her willingness to express her thoughts so clearly and powerfully in this article.
God hates divorce, doesn’t He? Absolutely. Isn’t the gospel about forgiveness and love? Yes, it is. And pastors and elders can use these two truths in isolation from the rest of Scripture and biblical principles to deny people divorce for biblical grounds. “But marriage is a precious thing,” one pastor told a woman whose husband was in prison for pedophilia. “It would be a wonderful picture of God’s grace to move on from this and focus on your marriage,” another one told the husband of an adulteress. “We’re working with him; he’s really struggling, and so you need to forgive him,” a session tells a woman whose husband has been using pornography for years.
Evangelical and confessional churches are striving to maintain a high view of marriage in a culture that is ripping the institution to shreds. So extra-biblical barriers to divorce can be well-meant. They try to protect marriage by doing everything possible to avoid divorce. In doing so, they not only fail to keep a high view of marriage. They also spread lies about the gospel, divorce, the value of people, the character of God, and the nature of sexual sin.
The first lie is that forgiveness means that the offended party is bound to continue living with the guilty party once there’s an apology. Wives in particular are told that God requires that they forgive a repentant spouse, which is true, and that this means that they need to stay in the marriage, which is not true. It’s like saying to parents who discover that the babysitter molested their children: “Oh, but the sitter said sorry. It would be unloving to not ask them to watch the kids again. You need to demonstrate your forgiveness.” The argument is that Jesus forgave you and took you in: why can’t you do the same for a spouse? Because I am not God: I am human, too, and can’t atone for my spouse’s sin in a way that can restore an earthly marriage.
Sacrificing a person to save a relationship is not the gospel. The gospel is that Someone was sacrificed to free us from sin and bring us to God. We cannot always bear the relational punishment for someone else’s sin. We can forgive them, and will if we are a Christian, but that doesn’t mean we have to live with them. You can forgive someone and divorce them. Scripture commands forgiveness where there is repentance, but it never requires that a relationship be continued in the way that it was before covenant was shattered. This lie of “forgiveness” places the burden on the innocent party. The sinner gets counsel, support, help, and prayer, while the sinned-against gets pressure, guilt, and a crushing future. Acceptance is often labelled the “Christian” thing to do. Since Christ gave divorce as an option in some circumstances, divorce can be the Christian thing to do, too. Forgiveness is always the Christian thing to do, and it simply means that the guilty party is forgiven, not absolved from all earthly consequences.
The second lie is implied: God hates divorce more than He hates abuse and sexual sin. To put the lie a different way, God loves marriage more than He loves the women in it. While God created marriage, loves marriage, and says that it is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church, Jesus didn’t die to save marriage. He died to save people. He sacrificed His life to protect His sons and daughters, and hates when they are abused, violated, and humiliated, particularly in a relationship that is supposed to picture Christ and the church.
This fact is especially true for women, who suffer at the hands of men whose actions mock servant leadership and so blaspheme the name of the Christ whom they are called to represent. Denying a woman legitimate divorce allows an unrepentant man to continue in this abuse and blasphemy. If we want to value and treat marriage rightly, we need to think about Jesus! His care for His Church is not an abstract idea. We see it lived out in the gospels every day in purity, tender care for widows, and intolerance of the Pharisees who thought they could be right with God while checking out beautiful women at the market. Christ’s love for His church found very concrete expression on the cross—willingness to die to save His beloved people. Yes, God hates divorce. And there are some things that He hates even more.
The third lie is that divorce is an unclean thing, often the fault of the innocent party. This is a misunderstanding of divorce. Divorce is not the innocent party ending a marriage. Divorce is the innocent party obtaining legal recognition that the guilty party has destroyed the marriage. So often, we see the divorcing person as the one who ends the marriage—they are not! Where there has been sexual unfaithfulness, abuse, or abandonment, it is the guilty party who ended it by breaking covenant. While legitimate divorce is not mandatory, it is a biblical option, on moral par with maintaining the marriage. The 1992 report by the PCA study committee on divorce and remarriage comments:
It is also interesting to recall in this connection Jeremiah 3:8, where Yahweh is said to divorce Israel for her spiritual adultery (idolatry):―“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.” If God himself can properly divorce his bride because of adultery, then, given Christ’s unqualified adherence to the authority of the Old Testament, it seems difficult to conclude that Jesus would not have had similar words on his own lips. (218)
The church needs to be clear about this: legitimate divorce is holy and biblical if God Himself can speak of initiating it. And it is initiated to publicly recognize the destruction already there. Divorce does not end a covenant. It protects the spouse whose covenant has been violated—a picture of covenant protection in the face of human unfaithfulness. Always discouraging divorce, always making it a last, desperate option that really fails to show gospel power, implies that we know more about marriage than God does and value it more highly. If there are legitimate reasons for divorce, then making divorce look like a lesser option is wrong. God allows it: who are we to discourage people from choosing a biblical option?
The fourth lie usually involved in this discussion is about pornography. It is often classified as not technically adultery, so spouses are denied the biblical right to divorce. This is mind boggling. Someone who seeks out sexually explicit material and has a physical response to it is in the same mental, physical, and spiritual condition as someone in bed with a coworker. The difference is that the relationship with the coworker is at least private and limited, while porn use accepts and subsidizes an entire industry of sexual sin that is maintained by abuse and slavery, involves hundreds of people, and is tracked by the producing companies and internet servers. Deliberate and repeated porn use is at least adultery, regardless of whether there is repentance at some point. Denying this makes people ask why some pastors are so committed to denying what porn really is. Our pre-technology definition of adultery allows souls and marriages to be ravaged from the inside out because we fail to admit what a porn habit really is. We look away from the institutionalized rape that it subsidizes. Countenancing sexual sin for any reason reveals a poor understanding of sexual sin as well as the gospel.
Do you see how these lies, sometimes borne out of a desire to protect marriage, actually bring about a low view of marriage? By granting, supporting, and even facilitating a biblical divorce, we take a stand to say that we can forgive without being forced to live with people who have shattered us. This protects marriage by allowing the innocent party to leave a relationship that has been broken. By backing biblical divorce, we protect women whom God loves, showing Christ’s love when spouses have not. This protects marriage by refusing to allow sinners to abuse the institution with impunity. By publicly stating that sexual sin and abuse, not wounded spouses, ends marriages, we hold the marriage bed in honor. This protects marriage by creating a holy fear of violating it. By offering biblical divorce, the church affirms that pornography is depravity, and will not be countenanced by Christ’s church. Naming and disciplining sexual sin as the evil it is and offering divorce to the innocent party makes the value of marriage clear as we refuse to see it damaged, abused, or treated lightly.
Developing and maintaining a high view of marriage does a lot. It protects women and children, often the people most hurt by sexual sin. It keeps us from falling into sin ourselves: the higher our view of marriage, the less likely we will be to dabble in something so devastating. And a high view of marriage honors the One who created it for our good and His glory—the One who promises to judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral.