Over the last two years I’ve had to do a lot of wrestling with my theology of marriage and divorce. Far too often too many of us try to do theology in a vacuum, divorced (if you’ll forgive the pun), from lived experience. The problem is, that’s not how Jesus teaches us to do theology. In becoming flesh and dwelling among us, Jesus shows us that God does not interact with his people in a sterile lab or an ivory tower, but in the real, messy world where all of us actually live. For many years, my theology of marriage and divorce was, for the most part, merely theoretical. My parents are still married and I have been married for almost eleven years, so basically all of my own experience with marriage has been (relatively) happy, healthy, and stable. Because of that, I could get away with holding on to a very surface-level reading of the Bible’s teaching on marriage, and especially divorce. It was easy for me to say that “the Bible clearly teaches that God hates divorce” and that “the only permissible grounds for divorce, according to Jesus, was adultery (and maybe not even that).” I could get away with that because it didn’t really affect me. But when someone very close to me found themselves going through a complicated divorce and turned to me for pastoral counsel, this “issue” was suddenly a lot more than an “issue,” it had a face and feelings, and I had to wrestle with my theology in a new way, and, to be honest, I’m still wrestling with it.
I’m writing this now because a prominent Southern Baptist leader has recently come under fire, and rightly so, for counseling a woman to return home to a physically abusive husband and to submit to him and to pray for him. And here’s my confession, I can understand why he did that. I can even make a “biblical” case for that advice. (By “biblical,” I mean appealing to certain passages and stories in the Bible for support.) After all, there are plenty of passages in scripture that teach that Christians’ loving response to mistreatment can serve as a powerful witness. But what I have come to realize is, and let me make sure this is absolutely clear, using these passages of scripture to counsel someone to remain in an abusive relationship is absolutely contrary to God’s intention for marriage. It is, in fact, spiritual abuse. Furthemore, as I have come to learn through further study, the Bible’s teaching on divorce, rightly understood within its historical context, is ALWAYS meant to protect the women. To misuse these teachings to subject women to greater harm is to directly contradict the very intention of the teachings themselves. To the extent I have been guilty of or silent about this in the past, I repent and apologize.
This brings me to a related point. The “institution of marriage” has become something of an idol in the Christian church. While the church has often rightly emphasized the importance of marriage, it has often done so either for the wrong reasons or in the wrong ways. God cares about marriage, yes, but not simply for marriage’s sake. God cares about marriage because God cares about people. God hates divorce, but the reason God hates divorce is because divorce hurts people and God hates seeing people get hurt. Here’s what I’ve come to understand, when we prioritize the marriage itself over the well-being of the people in it, we completely miss God’s heart for marriage. To put it another way, marriage was made for people, not people for marriage. When we think of it that way, it becomes easy to see that there are worse things for the people in a marriage than divorce. And while divorce is never ideal, and I can’t think of anyone who would argue that it is, it is certainly a far better alternative than forcing someone to stay in a dangerous, abusive environment. We should remember that very few things angered Jesus more than seeing people harmed by the religious leaders’ legalistic misapplication of the scriptures.
For those of you who would like more guidance on how the church should respond to domestic violence, I’d like to recommend the book, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know by Al Miles. I was assigned this text in seminary and it is full of excellent information.
So many great points, Thomas.
Have you seen that some scholars argue that God doesn’t say “I hate divorce” in Malachi 2:16?
I would highly recommend Lundy Bancroft’s resources on domestic violence. I attended a six week online seminar he did for women, and it was life changing. I don’t remember if he’s a believer, but I can tell you this: he carries God’s heart for those in abusive relationships.