Divorced Christians and the Church – Studying the Relationship – Part 2

March 14, 2006

For all the discussion, fuss and bother about divorced people in the church, you would think that the Bible itself is full of instructions about divorce. Surprisingly, there is not much contained in the Bible which is helpful for today’s church. The Old Testament certainly doesn’t help us much. Its pronouncements about divorce tell us things like that a priest shouldn’t marry a divorced woman (Lev. 21:7) or a prostitute. Yet, I find it interesting that God tells a Prophet (Hosea) to marry a prostitute and remarry her even after she went back to prostitution. I’m not sure then how to view the prohibition against marrying a divorced woman. Even God makes exceptions (don’t say that too loud or everyone will want one).

In another place, the priest may only marry a virgin. Hopefully, an honest one we would assume. The priest’s daughter, if she gets divorced can eat the food given to the priest. Here are some other teachings on divorce in the Old Testament. A man can’t divorce a woman that he has raped and subsequently married (Deuteronomy). Several times we are told that a man can’t divorce his wife and then remarry her later. She is to be given a “certificate of divorce” (see Deuteronomy 24:3). This is very important to understand and helps form Jesus’ position on divorce in one of his two teachings on the subject. Why is this prohibition important? Most scholars point to a practice in the early days of Israel’s formation, when men were divorcing their wives for any and all reasons. In essence, they did it when they didn’t like their wife’s cooking, her hairdo, her attitude or maybe their sex life. This left women in the precarious position of going back to their families, and if they would not take them back, into a life of prostitution. Prostitution was one of the only professions that a woman could take up if she was not married or supported by her father. They had no welfare system. It was “die” or “become a hooker”. Many women were desperate then when their ex-husbands came to them and asked if they were willing to come back (hopefully with a better attitude).

Moses put a stop to this by having men issue a “certificate of divorce”. Once this was done, the husband could not remarry his wife. This was to cut down on the flagrant use of divorce as a tool of manipulation. It was not meant to be a provision in Jewish law that was used very often. The ground for divorce, according to Deut. 24 was “something indecent” that the husband finds in his wife. The rabbis of Jesus’ day came to interpret this to mean anything that the husband does not like about his wife. Divorce started to skyrocket at the turn of the millennium because of this interpretation. Jesus sought to put a stop to this by saying that indecency really applies to adultery and not to frivolous things like disagreeing with your husband’s opinions.

The other teaching on divorce in the Old Testament is the most helpful and profound. But it actually teaches something different than what most people think. In Malachi 2 it says that “God hates divorce”. How many times have I heard Christians chastised and excoriated by this verse, taking it to mean that God also is not fond of those getting a divorce. In order to understand what he is saying, let’s look at the context of the book. The book of Malachi is all about covenant relationships. A covenant relationship is where two people promise to act a particular way regardless of how the other person acts. Malachi talks about the breaking of these covenants, especially the covenant between God and His people Israel. As an example of this covenant-breaking, God mentions the relationship between a husband and a wife:

Malachi 2:13-16 (NIV)13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands.14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.15 Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.16 “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.

Men were praying to God and asking why the blessing had left their families. The answer is found in v. 14. They had broken faith with the wife of their youth. The implication is two-fold. First, many of them were looking for younger women to replace the women they had married when they were young. It is an old saying, but somewhat accurate: “Women marry men and hope they will change and men marry women and hope they never will”. Both opinions are inaccurate.

The second way they broke faith was through violence. Look at v. 16, that oft-quoted verse. God hates divorce, but he also hate’s a man covering himself with violence. Violent people also break the covenant of marriage. Nowhere does God say that a marriage is still spiritually together if violence or adultery are present. God never counsels anyone to get a divorce, but violence and adultery have broken the covenant already. Divorce is an external recognition of this.

When Jesus talks to the Pharisees in Matthew 19:4-9 about divorce, he is pulling upon the prohibitions in Deuteronomy 24 and the regrets of God in Malachi 2:

Matthew 19:3-9 (NIV)3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Divorce comes about by the hardness of hearts. Men and women are both capable of pulling back from love and living with a hard heart. In v. 7 the Pharisees interpreted this to mean that a man is required to divorce his wife. Jesus clarifies in v. 8 saying they were permitted to divorce because their hearts were hard. There are many marriages where there is no love left, where affairs are common and violence is increasing. Their covenant is dead. Moses and Jesus permit the divorce in these circumstances. But that is not really the point, is it?

The point is that it is the actions that lead up to divorce that are the problem. We often treat the problem as the divorce itself. In future blog entries I want to focus on how we can help both married couples and divorcees in rebuilding their broken worlds. But in essence, we must understand the real teaching of the Bible on Divorce. It comes down to four essentials truths:

  1. A marriage is a covenant.
  2. Covenants are broken by violence, neglect and betrayal.
  3. A divorce is simply a recognition of the broken covenant.
  4. It is all very sad, and God hates what happens to us leading up to and including a divorce.

I added the word “neglect” in the second truth, because we are reminded in 1 Corinthians 7 that some spouses will not stay with their partners and should not be forced to do so. We will look at that passage later, especially as it relates to the church’s ministry to the divorced.

I struggle so much as a pastor with people who look at the divorced among us and want to make sweeping value judgments against them. They are looked upon by many Christians as “covenant failures” and thus should not be allowed any position of respect, leadership or teaching in the church. At the very least, the attitude of many is that they didn’t do enough to prevent the breaking up of something sacred. Most divorcees already fight with the sense of loss and failure anyways, so it is not difficult to convince them that they are losers. They wear a proverbial capital “L” on their foreheads for years and don’t even try to be involved in church life as a result. Is this what Jesus wants for his family? I doubt it.

So what can we do about it? First, we need to recognize that divorce leaves scars and that as a healing community, we must help those scars to heal. We certainly don’t need to make them worse.

Glenn and Tracy were members of our church and leaders as well. One day, my Associate pastor told me that Glenn was being charged with assaulting his wife. I went down to the police station to counsel with him and saw the most bedraggled man I have witnessed in pastoral ministry. He admitted that he pushed Tracy down and she hit her head on a chair and started to bleed. He spent the weekend in jail. By the time Sunday came, most of the church knew about the situation and were firmly on Tracy’s side. Many church members had told Tracy that she had grounds to divorce Glenn. However, none of them knew what I knew: That Glenn had gotten angry at Tracy because he caught her in bed with the next-door neighbor. Tracy had not told anyone that. Glenn was certainly wrong in his angry tirade, but the church and Tracy were wrong in how they treated him. In the days to come, Glenn would not allow me to instruct the church about Tracy’s involvement in this debacle. I did tell people to stop making life harder on the two of them. It didn’t work. They ended up divorcing about six months later and most of the church came and comforted Tracy.

It was one of the biggest mistakes I was ever involved in. There is so much more we could have done. Next time, I will tell you about when we did it right about three years later.

SPECIAL NOTE: My blog service has had problems with leaving comments. This should now be fixed. Feel free to comment as you see fit.



  1. I find it interesting in the research mentioned in part 1 that the Catholic Church has a lower divorce rate than born-again Christians. They are kicking our evangelical butts in this area and we might be wise to humble ourselves and examine the reasons why. For instance, the Catholic Church has a marriage-centered culture (if I could bottle and sell it I would be rich, and I wouldn’t leave my wife for younger wife version 7.9). They provide rather extensive pre-marriage counseling that includes compatibility testing. Prior to marriage, couples are invited to attend an engagement encounter retreat for the weekend. The parish priest also conveys a standing open invitation to married couples in the church that they can come for counseling any time. I suspect the priests are extremely well educated in marriage and counseling skills. The Catholic Church also has—for lack of a better term—a marriage missionary priest who travels the country getting churches to focus on marriage (this is a brilliant idea). I am told that programs in the Catholic Church are focused on couples and families, as opposed to being focused on children’s activities; the idea being that when mom and dad are o.k. the kids will reap the benefits. We evangelicals tend to focus more on providing programs and activities for the kids. Our culture already has too much for the kids to do. How many families do you know that are running in a dozen different directions every week in order to keep the kids busy? We demand lots of activities for the kids because it seems healthy.

    Another thing the Catholic Church does well is communication. The focus on marriage is communicated from top to bottom—from Rome to the local parish. Almost every member knows the church’s position on this issue. How many evangelical church members even know the name of the leader of their denomination, let alone the denomination’s values on marriage?

    All of these things help to create a culture within the organization that places a value on marriage as a commitment for life.

    I’m not suggesting the Catholic Church has all the answers, but they are doing something right. Those of you who grew up in the Catholic Church may have had some bad experiences, but that does not mean their best practices have no value.

    Oh irony! A church run exclusively by unmarried men having a lower divorce rate than those run by married men.

    Analysis of the problem is good, but when it’s all said and done we must decide if marriage is one of our precious values or not. If it is, that means pouring our heart and resources into it and letting go of some other diversions. It means commitment to the value. I also believe it must start with the men in the church.

  2. I agree with Anon. about looking to see what is successful in the Catholic Church. My husband and I went to a Catholic Engaged Encounter, and it was a wonderufl preperation for marriage … however, we were the only couple there by choice! All the other couples were complaining about a wasted weekend. I even have Catholic friends who got the encounter waived due to locations, etc……maybe Catholics do not realize how good they have it.
    I have heard of great counseling programs in Catholic churches, and they probably exist since divorce is taken so seriously…did you know that if you are divorced, and remarry without an anullment, you are not allowed to take communion????
    That is heartbreaking to me as I knoa some very spiritual people who are remarried, who are having a hard time with anulment process and the meaning for family, previus children, etc…. and they cannot even take communion to help with their walk!

  3. Catholic Religious tradition surrounding things like marriage, strip away free will in order to create the appearance of holiness.

    The catholic church refuses to allow second marriages. In other words if your convinced that Catholicism is the only true christianity (Catholic doctrine teaches this) then if you divorce you cant ever re-marry which is a strong deterrant from divorce.

    Personally Id like to think my fiancee when we get married is staying with me because I love her and make her WANT to stay… not because she feels trapped by religious dogma.

    In Christ there is freedom. We are the ones who make that freedom into good or bad situations.

    Also pre-marriatal counseling is a very good thing.

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