Monday, August 28, 2023

Anonymous Asks (264)

“Are there any valid reasons for divorce or separation beyond what the Bible specifically identifies?”

Matthew records that the Lord Jesus told his disciples, “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” God hates divorce and forbids it between his children. The linked phrase above beginning with “except” constitutes what most Bible students today feel is the only possible circumstance under which that general principle does not apply.

Separation is a little more nebulous.

Separation and Divorce

I distinguish the two states because although the Bible’s teaching on separation is not extensive, it does clearly permit a woman to separate from her husband provided she remains unmarried, and therefore would presumably permit a man in very bad home circumstances to do the same. I think it reasonable to construe these verses as providing a safe, ideally temporary “out” for men, women and children who are being physically or verbally abused, have a spouse who is an addict, mentally ill, a financial meltdown or otherwise makes themselves dangerous or impossible to live with. The hope in separating, scripturally speaking, is that the other partner will wake up, seek help and that reconciliation may eventually take place.

Unfortunately, a chaste separation with the freedom to operate independently of an out-of-control spouse to serve the Lord is not good enough for some Christians today, especially if it’s only a temporary solution with the ultimate goal of reconciling. They wish the Bible would give them a marriage “do-over” when their choice of partner turns out to be less than fully satisfactory, and would like to expand the acceptable reasons for divorce among believers accordingly. The scripture just doesn’t accommodate that kind of fickle, selfish, disloyal thinking. As the Lord Jesus put it, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Bad Reasons for Separating

If this principle were well understood, and if churches stood united in agreement behind it, I guarantee we’d see fewer divorces among Christians. More than once, I’ve heard a woman who has no evidence her partner has ever been unfaithful express that she has left him primarily because she “wants to be loved” (according to her personal definition of the term), even though there is not even a hint of physical danger to mother or children. She’s not leaving because her partner has broken the marriage or is a threat to her, but simply because she wants to trade up. So ending a marriage in hope of scoring a “better” partner is now becoming acceptable to some Christians, even though it is not remotely a biblical reason for divorce, and reliably ends unhappily for the person seeking a more fulfilling relationship. Usually, though not always, such partings are accompanied by ex post facto rationalizations involving accusations of “emotional abuse”, which, in my limited experience, women are every bit as accomplished at inflicting as men, but are less inclined to see as “abusive” when they are the ones dishing out the nastiness.

People in this situation are looking for an “out” the Lord never offered them. The only way they will ever be biblically free to remarry is if their former partner blinks first and pairs up again before they do, effectively committing adultery themselves, but freeing up the abandoning partner to invoke Matthew 5:32 in the process.

Does contriving a situation like that seem either fair or Christian to you? Me neither.

Complicating a Simple Verse

Some Christians also consider abandonment a legitimate reason for divorce on the basis of the teaching of 1 Corinthians 7:15, but that verse only deals with the situation where the person doing the abandoning is an unbeliever. Unless you’re prepared to make the assumption everyone who separates from his or her partner is a fake (rather than merely failed) Christian simply because they have walked away from a situation they found intolerable, this verse doesn’t provide the “out” some think it does. It is also unclear in the context whether the abandoned person is actually free to remarry without effectively committing adultery, or is simply “free” of a restrictive relationship with an unbeliever to serve the Lord more efficiently. In comparing scripture with scripture, I do not believe the marriage would be genuinely over until one partner begins a new sexual relationship.

By the way, nothing about the Matthew 5:32 “exception” to divorce obliges the aggrieved party to divorce his or her partner for unfaithfulness. It may well be that the Lord was simply pointing out that a man who divorces his wife compels her to commit adultery* EXCEPT in the case where he divorces her for having had an affair, in which case she has ALREADY committed sexual immorality, so that the husband who divorces her is not introducing any new sin into the existing mess; his wife has already crossed that line voluntarily. I am sufficiently self aware to suspect I could not bring myself to continue living under the same roof with an unfaithful partner, but many Christians are considerably more charitable than I am. So then, the “exception clause” only introduces the possibility of divorce as an option for the aggrieved party. It does not require it or affirm it as the best possible course of action in every situation. The Old Testament occasionally gave glimpses of higher motivations even in cases where reconciliation would have been exceedingly difficult.

Expanding the Exceptions?

Okay, so we’ve considered the biblical limitations on divorce and separation, but let’s just for a moment consider the possibility that the range of reasons for legitimately calling off a marriage may actually be a little wider than is sometimes thought.

The word translated “sexual immorality” in Matthew 5 and 19 is πορνείας, a broad term that includes adultery but is not limited to it. It also includes homosexuality and a range of other expressions of sexual incontinence best not described in detail. In days past, almost every marriage that ended under the Matthew 5:32 exception was the consequence of a dalliance with an adult, heterosexual third party, so the Greek term was often translated as “fornication” or “adultery”. In our permissive days, these are far from the only possibilities, and the language of scripture takes this into account.

Stretching πορνείας to its outer limits, some women would like to include their husband’s pornography addiction as a cause for divorce. I think it highly unlikely the Lord intended them to have that option. The mind is a danger zone for Christians, and we need to keep opportunities for sexual fantasizing strictly in check, but these are not problems unique to Christian men. Fantasizing about someone not your partner is sinful whether the food for fantasy is visual or literary, whether by way of watching porn or by way of seeking inappropriate intimacy with strangers on social media.

* A woman might be “made” to commit adultery by being divorced simply in order to be able to carry on living in first century Jewish culture since little or no social safety net existed for her in those days. When a wife was kicked to the curb unexpectedly by a straying husband, she had no bank account, no claim to welfare, and likely little or no opportunity to find safe employment. She would either have to remarry or else turn to prostitution to put bread on her table. Needless to say, this is not the case today. Divorced women have plenty of options to get by in reasonable style without committing adultery with the first passable male replacement they come across.

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