Is it in part because we fail to see lawful divorce as good and holy?
Here is a not unheard-of scenario in the life of the church: a wife discovers the devastating, sickening reality that her spouse is an adulterer. The husband is either engaged in a physical affair with someone else, or virtual, pornographic affairs with multiple others. The betrayed spouse calls her elder or pastor. The leadership of the church steps in to provide shepherding, counsel, and discipline.
The guilty husband confesses sin, professes sorrow, and asks for reconciliation. The innocent wife, betrayed, wounded, and concerned for her children, feels that she cannot continue in marriage with this man, nor have him lead and nurture their children.
The pastors and elders strongly counsel her to accept his repentance by remaining married to him. When a few weeks later she states that she still does not want to remain married to him, she is rebuked for being unforgiving; she is pressured and counseled to remain in the marriage. Two months pass by. In anger and frustration she lashes out at her husband or the pastor and elders counseling her. They bar her from taking part in the Lord’s Supper until she repents of her “anger” and “bitterness”. Her husband, to every appearance broken and repentant, is welcome at communion. Eventually she acquiesces. A number of years later, her husband is once again found enmeshed in pornography.
How often is this story is repeated across evangelical churches? Anecdotally it seems at least an occasional reality. Why? Are these elders employing a biblically faithful model of counsel when they advise the innocent party to remain in a marriage?
Some pastors and elders may be more prone to this kind of an approach. Pastors and elders are often well aware of their own history of sin, whether of heart, mind, or body. As they come into counseling situations of marital infidelity, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7) looms large in the minds of men who have been tempted to sin in the same ways. This can provide an impetus to be overly gentle towards the guilty. When combined with the good desires for forgiveness and restoration, and a high view of marriage, it can create a powerful push to keep the marriage intact.
But does this model cohere with Jesus’ ministry? With God’s Word?
When we turn to the gospel of John to consider the interaction of Jesus with the Pharisees and the caught adulteress, it becomes clear that Jesus spoke to a situation of injustice, and at the same time declared his grace to the woman, calling her to a restored, or new life of obedience. He made no comment in that passage whether divorce would have been legitimate or illegitimate for her husband. Neither his rebuke of Pharisaism, nor his gospel compassion stand contrary to his call elsewhere to the ministerial pursuit of faithful shepherding according to his Word. In the well-known passage on marriage and divorce found in Matthew 19:1-9, with its corollary in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus clearly retains the abiding legitimacy of divorce for marital unfaithfulness–as he had already done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:32).
The disciples’ response in Matthew 19 was that the standard was too tough. Jesus’ upholding of the scriptural limitation on escape from marriage to occasions where the marriage covenant of fidelity was broken seemed too restrictive for them.
We evangelicals, however, seem to have adopted a rather different standard: so long as the unfaithful spouse comes to repent it is unadvisable to divorce. And if there are children, there is often more pressure on the innocent spouse to remain in the marriage. We label divorce of a repentant spouse “unforgiving” of the innocent party. But, if God’s precepts are our delight, more precious than gold, then certainly we ought to see Jesus’ upholding of the legitimacy of divorce as a good and holy option. When the faithful spouse decides to divorce the unfaithful one because trust has been so shattered that he/she believes the marriage cannot continue, that is biblically legitimate. The primary criteria is not that the marriage can potentially be salvaged. The primary criteria is her God-given freedom to choose which route she thinks is wisest, taking counsel from believers who know and love her.
God’s precepts are not contradictory. Divorce can be a good and holy option–standing fully in harmony with Scriptural forgiveness. You can come to divorce a spouse who has violated covenant, by God’s grace, without bitterness or vengeance, in Christian wisdom and love–and at the same time, pursue divorce. You can pursue the divorce of an adulterous spouse–and forgive them as a fellow believer, upon their confession and repentance of sin.
Those of us who are pastors and elders ought to present this Christ-given option to the spouse whose covenant has been violated. We should do so with gratitude and in faith, knowing that we are providing the innocent spouse with a an option that Christ has graciously and lovingly provided for them.
This is the case for an innocent husband or an innocent wife. Men and especially women who have been so hurt need our biblical, protecting care. We ought to leave the decision to divorce or not with the innocent spouse, without pressuring them one way or another, but with affirmation of love, protection, and commitment to prayer. We ought to give her space to seek further godly counsel. The congregation should openly express a willingness to practically provide for and help her along every step of the way, including helping raise her children. There should also be clear support for remarriage, should God provide and she/he desire in time to do so. Why? Because God has told us that for the innocent spouse, divorce can be a good and holy option. The innocent spouse’s choice to take up the option of divorce does not negate forgiving the guilty spouse. Rather, it gives what God intends to give to his faithful children in this painful circumstance: freedom, options, and protection. And upholding this option does not in any way negate the opportunity for divine mercy to restore a marriage shipwrecked by a spouse’s violations.
God hates treacherous divorce, yes (Malachi 2:14-16). He hates adultery, abuse, and abandonment. He does not hate godly divorce. He has provided the opportunity for a way out of a violated covenant for the innocent party. He is just, holy and good. He is a father to the fatherless, and a husband to the widow.
When the sanctity of marriage and the legitimacy of biblical divorce is recovered more broadly, there will be a more sober, discipling consequence for men (and women) in the church. Hard temporal consequences for our sin can slow and stop our pursuits of sin. Perhaps evangelical divorce rates would actually decline. Certainly it will comfort and deliver women from a bondage to men when they know that they are protected by their pastors and elders in their God-given freedom of choice. It will facilitate forgiveness in either the case of divorce or restoration. Perhaps, as for some godly women we know, it will allow for the sweet joy of remarriage to a godly man and the blessing of a new, faithful father in the home. One thing is certain, it will honor the God who gave this good and holy option.