If you’ve been reading the first two parts of this then you already know that I don’t think this is a simple question to answer. And by “simple” I mean that it’s not always a matter of obvious choices or just a single cause. There can be some obvious presenting issues but an honest conversation will usually reveal a number of twists and turns that neither person in the relationship was even consciously aware of. I’m also of the opinion, and it’s only that – my opinion – that people outside of the relationship (including children, parents and best friends) are likely to be oblivious to the real issues no matter how close they feel they’ve been to the couple. For that reason – among others – it’s vital that those close, those who love these individuals, do their best to love them in crumbling times and reserve judgment and blame.
In the New Testament part of the Bible, Paul writes to a young church in the early days of the revolutionary expansion of the Jesus followers to guide them on what following Jesus will look like. In 1 Corinthians 7 he tells them that if a believer has an unbelieving spouse who wants to leave, let them, they’re not bound. I read on line teaching from Rick Warren’s church – Purpose Driven – which said that if you’re being abused by your spouse you don’t have biblical grounds for divorce. First, when I read it, I wanted to drive to California and Warren’s staff offices and poke someone in the eye. Second, I prayed God would send someone with half a brain to let those in abusive relationships know that God is not as crazy as Warren’s staff member would have us believe.
“A new creation” – a whole new person, is how Paul describes a follower of Jesus. It only makes sense that, if you really believe that happens, an “old creation” spouse isn’t bound to this new radical being. It wasn’t that suddenly the Jesus follower was up early on Sundays and out the door to Sunday School and Church services, mid-week meetings, home Bible studies, youth group leadership, kid’s church leader, worship team practice and available to anyone and everyone who needed a ‘spiritual’ ear to talk to. (Those collectively being the kind of things that can make a marriage crumble – Jesus really wants you to hang out with your spouse, he really doesn’t need that much help.) Truthfully, the most spiritual and Jesus centred way to spend your Sunday morning may be a long, slow breakfast in bed with your spouse.
The issue – why the unbelieving spouse was free to go – a believer’s life was rough. Following could mean – would probably mean – difficulty being employed, trouble buying or selling in the market, ostracism from old friends and from family, severe discrimination – basically a lot of what we do to unbelievers today is what used to happen to believers way back when. In fact, it still does in other places. A young woman who I met in China decided she wanted to be a Jesus follower. She finally “came out” to her parents who were heartbroken – for her – and begged her not to tell anyone else for fear she wouldn’t get a good job or ever find a good spouse.
This wasn’t a wholesale dissolution of marriage deal. The condition was that if the unbeliever wanted to go, not the other way around. So today we’d sell the whole thing by saying “Jesus will make you a better spouse!” Sadly, the opposite was on the posters in the first century. A marriage can crumble “simply” because one person has made a decision about what matters most that their spouse does not and will not share. It’s not irreconcilable or an inevitable conclusion – on the contrary – many spouses first discover what the unconditional love of God is through their spouse who met Jesus.
Back to Saddleback and Rick Warren’s church’s teaching on abuse not being “biblical” grounds for divorce. Let’s just play that out a little, shall we? Following the logic that the Bible doesn’t “permit” divorce except for unfaithfulness – oh, yeah, and the whole believer/unbeliever who wants out deal – then we can conclude that you are bound to a spouse who sexually molests your children, keeps people chained in your attic and regularly tortures them, who calls you by derogatory names both day and night and has done so for so long that you can’t remember when he ever called you by your real name, is an addict who continually entices you to come back to your favourite drug, is gone 364 days of every year, lies to you consistently (the only consistent thing in their character), and watches porn on the living room T.V. every night from 5 p.m. to midnight.
“The gospel sets standards brother, who are we to disagree with Scripture?”
“God also gave you a brain my brother, use it!”
Galatians is one of my favourite books. Its message, in part, grow up – stop looking for rules and know God’s heart. God’s heart is not expressed in a “he can treat you like crap and you can’t divorce him” relationship. Is divorce too easy these days? Heck yes. But there’s nothing easy about being abused. If you’re a Christian and your spouse is abusing you – real abuse – (not excuse abuse – “you’re speaking to me in a tone I find abusive” – not what I’m talking about) – physical, mental, emotional – get out if you can, turn to people you can trust, get help for you, your children if you have them and you may find this is the path that will get your spouse to finally seek the help they need. Jesus doesn’t want any man, or woman, to ever use their fists on people they claim to love. Never. Ever.
I’m not advocating divorce as ever being easy, good or simple. What needs to be clear is that sometimes a marriage crumbles because one person has changed to follow God and sometimes a marriage crumbles because someone choose to live hatefully and hurtfully and there’s nothing particularly spiritual about staying in a relationship where the vows and promises have already been broken. Marriage is not based on a piece of paper – most cultures don’t even sign on the dotted line – it is based on how we live in relationship with each other in the context of our culture. Violating that breaks the covenant – a condition we have always called ‘divorce’.
…to be concluded…