By Paul E. Boatman
“The Bible says. . . .”
With that authoritative claim, many a sermon has articulated what sounds like a clear, scriptural doctrine. But the thoughtful Christian may observe that such assertions are often no more than opinions empowered by uncritical adoption of traditional, nonbiblical dogma.
Myth 1: Divorce is a sin.
This assertion seems self-evident. After all, Malachi quotes the Lord saying, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16*). Further, Jesus takes his audience to task for their cavalier divorce practices (Matthew 5:31, 32).
It would be absurd to label Scripture as “pro-divorce.” Yet generalizing all divorce as “sin” simply has no support in holy writ. Never, in any list of sinners (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; Revelation 21:8) are divorced persons listed.
Further, a simplistic labeling of divorce as sin must face stark realities: God describes himself as a divorcé (Jeremiah 3:8), and Scripture gives specific prescription about how to divorce—what is and what is not allowable (Deuteronomy 24:1ff). What other “sin” has such affirmation in the law?
Why, then, does God hate divorce? For the same reason he hates all covenant faithlessness. It is reasonable to say that sin is involved in every divorce. The primary sin is the sin of covenant violation. Moses allowed divorce as an expedient to deal with the sinful situation. Jesus in no way negated that allowance.
Myth 2: A divorced person is an adulterer.
This assumption is rooted in misinterpretation (and mistranslation) of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:31, 32). The teaching is challenging. In contrast to what was then a common understanding of Moses’ teaching, Jesus offered his caution. Some comments are in order:
The “exception clause” is not limited to adultery or marital unfaithfulness, as porneia is usually translated. This is an inclusive term for a wide range of immoralities, particularly prostituting of God’s intent for our bodies. While the typical use of the term relates to sexual violations, one might infer God’s tolerance for divorce in other instances of covenant violation, such as instances of abuse. It makes almost no contextual sense to translate the term as “fornication” in its classical sense of sex between unmarried persons.
The rendering of moikeuthenai, “causes her to become an adulteress,” is particularly challenging. Good hermeneutics simply will not support the common translation. In the context of other offenses in Matthew 5, the victim is never held accountable for the offense.
But the term itself warrants attention. The identification is aorist passive infinitive, literally rendered, “he makes her one against whom adultery is committed,” or more plainly, “he makes her a victim of adultery.” Whose adultery? The adultery is committed against her by the one who violates the covenant. Jesus was demonstrating that the lighthearted approach to divorce had deep and extensive impact. Such divorce is a covenant violation that leaves a stigma on the victim. Even the victim’s eventual second husband would be victimized by this covenant violation.
Jesus may have said many other words concerning divorce, but none of those few passages that the Gospel writers included (Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18) conflict with this perspective. Unreasoned casting off of marriage is a covenant violation tantamount to adultery, but a victim of such abusive behavior is not the one to be held accountable.
Myth 3: It is a sin for a divorced person to remarry.
The background of this myth is rooted both in the above misinterpretation and the entrenched perspective of medieval monasticism. Some even stretch the notion to suggest there is really only one marriage and any subsequent alliances are “adulterous marriages”—a term never found in the Bible.
Observe that the New Testament is consistent in recognizing whatever marriage exists at the moment as the marriage to which covenant commitment is to be maintained. The Samaritan woman in John 4 had had five husbands. Jesus contrasted those covenant relationships with her current, noncovenant relationship. Interestingly, Paul even gives a specific permission for remarriage, but once again translators have let established doctrine override good translation. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:27, 28, give pause: “Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? [literally, “divorced”—the same word used in the previous sentence.] Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned [author emphasis]; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.” There is no question that the “unmarried” person is a divorcée, contrasted to the unmarried virgin in the next sentence. Paul’s ensuing pastoral effort to spare the troubles is compassionate counsel, but cannot be interpreted as an apostolic directive.
Myth 4: A history of divorce does not affect Christian leadership.
Many churches have shifted from rigidly excluding all divorced persons from leadership roles. Some churches evaluate divorced leaders or candidates for leadership on a case-by-case basis, considering such issues as the reasons for and the instigation of the divorce, the degree of healing/forgiveness that has occurred since the divorce, and the nature of the ministry to which the leader may be assigned. It is unclear whether this change in practice is motivated by a reassessment of biblical teaching and values, or if it merely reflects a resignation to the frequency of divorce within the church and culture.
Pertinent Scriptures are debated by scholars. In calling for a leader to be “the husband of one wife,” Paul was clearly indicating that marital relationships—their nature, quality, and reliability—give a standard by which to judge the leader’s character and competence. Whether Paul was offering helpful windows of insight in these lists or rigid (and rigidly interpreted) doctrine needs to be discussed in another article. But because divorce inflicts suffering and raises character questions, a history of divorce should always be a factor warranting serious consideration in discussing any leader’s commissioning.
Myth 5: God wants me to be happy, so the divorce is God’s will.
This notion emerges out of a spiritual narcissism that nurtures a tunnel-vision perspective on our own self and feelings. There are spiritual mandates for divorce, but by far the majority of divorces are filed as “no fault.” The subsequent feelings of peace are not always God’s stamp of approval. The “God wants me to be happy” mantra often recited by Christians contemplating divorce overlooks the significance of the God/husband/wife covenant into which they previously entered.
When God’s people Israel broke covenant, God grieved. He laments no less when a couple disavows a covenant made with him. Marriage is not filled with endless happy days and exultant glowing. Biblical characters walked through painful and complicated experiences. There is no expectation that 21st-century relationships would be much easier. Happiness is not to be the primary goal of marriage. Joy may be the by-product of living and loving faithfully within the covenant, even in times where circumstances produce unhappiness.
Myth 6: “My family can make a fresh start after the divorce.”
This “grass is greener” myth was born out of a desire to minimize the aftereffects of divorce. There is no doubt that divorce affects the fractured family forever. The repercussions of breaking any covenant relationship are especially acute and extended in light of the fact that the marriage covenant is both highly public and powerfully intimate. Regardless of how easily the divorce process occurs, it leaves psychological/spiritual scar tissue that intrudes upon all present and future family/covenant relationships.
When “till do us part” is replaced by “so long as we both have feelings of love,” intimate commitments simply have no credibility. Parents, children, and close friends of the divorcing persons all experience collateral damage when divorce occurs. Lasting effects from the divorce are multifaceted and cannot be avoided. Any dissolution of an intimate covenantal bond undermines the ability to trust.
Divorce is not God’s best wish for his people. Any divorce produces pain. My prayer is that Christian people will practice redemption, actively seeking to heal damaged marriages, and to bring healing to those individuals wounded by divorce.
By all means, let us not heap needless and inappropriate guilt upon those whose lives have borne the horrible burden of a violated covenant. May God’s grace reign.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, 1984.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois. He served as a professional counselor for 40 years and as professor of pastoral counseling for 34 years at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.