(Painting: "The Divorce," by Jan Henrik van de Laar, 1846, oil on canvas)
Several years ago, our church leadership was asked to undertake a reassessment of what had been a longstanding, but unwritten, stipulation for the selection of deacons: anyone who had been divorced could not be considered for a deaconate position. It was not merely an academic question for us: there were two men in our congregation who were men of outstanding character and showed clear signs of giftedness in leadership, discernment, and teaching, but they both had been divorced and remarried before coming to know Christ, and so had never been considered for the deaconate (though they would have been at the top of everyone’s list if the no-divorce rule was gone). So we approached the subject through careful study, knowing that our first step would be to tackle the ethics of divorce itself—specifically the thorny question of whether it is morally permissible to divorce.
This question is thorny for several reasons. First, because it almost always misses the larger point. Second, because it has a tendency to expose our biases rather quickly, whether they tend toward legalism or permissiveness. And third, because the New Testament answers to that question are not without their gray areas.
To put this matter in the clear context of an ethical question, though, we ought to begin with a statement of our basic convictions on the subject, since that is where our principles and rules will flow from. As regards the character of God, we can affirm that our convictions tell us that God is a God who enacts permanent covenants of love with others (and that we, as Christians who ought to image forth God’s character to the world, ought to do the same)—thus we hold to a basic conviction of marriage, derived from Scripture, that it was intended by God to be a lifelong covenantal union which stands as a theological sign for the love of God. On the other hand, though, we also affirm a basic conviction that God is a God of compassion for the broken, and especially for those who are being subjected to injustice (including, one would imagine, spouses suffering under abusive conditions from their partners).
With our basic convictions in place, we then turn to the relevant Scriptural passages to try and discern and clear “principles,” and, if possible, “rules.” We begin with the earliest Gospel account of this question, addressed in Mark 10:2-12. In this passage some Pharisees ask the question of Jesus “whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” The clear answer to the question as stated would be “Yes” (cf. Deut. 24), but the parallel synoptic passages make clear that what they are really asking is the hotly-debated question in 1st-century Judaism of under what specific conditions it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife. There were two rival schools of thought on this question, championed on each side by the famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai, one side holding that almost any imaginable cause was legitimate grounds for divorce, the other that only in situations of marital infidelity could a man divorce his wife. Within the practice of contemporary Judaism, it is important to understand, divorce was almost always practiced as a means toward remarrying someone else (not many in that culture would have thought the single life desirable). Jesus, however, changes the rules of the game in his answer, focusing not on the Mosaic rule where they were basing their practice (and Jesus also clarifies that that rule was only a concession given by God, not an ideal), but focusing their attention further back, on the early chapters of Genesis and the nature of marriage as first enacted by God. In this light, Jesus affirms the marriage of two people as something that God has done, and therefore not to be tampered with by humans. In the following verses he then expounds further, equating divorce-and-remarriage (most probably, what he has in view is divorce with intent to remarry) as tantamount to adultery, and even (shockingly for his time), grants equality to the female partner by declaring that such an act can be adultery against her, something that no other contemporary teacher had dared to say (such questions were always phrased with the male in view).
A parallel passage occurs in Matt.19:3-9, of which the most notable feature is that an exception clause has been added: Jesus gives us once again his parallel between divorce/remarriage and adultery, but this time says, “except for immorality,” an exception repeated in the Sermon on the Mount version of the teaching, found in Matt. 5:31-32. (It is worth noting, then, that when Jesus equates divorce/remarriage with adultery, it does not represent a fully one-for-one parallel: while adultery is morally impermissible without exception, divorce allows at least one exception.) A further parallel is found in Luke 16:18, thrown in very quickly in the larger passage and without any contextual setting, and this verse also records the teaching that divorce/remarriage is tantamount to adultery (this time with no exceptions stated). It ought to be noted that in all of these Gospel passages, special stress is laid on the initiator of the divorce as the one who is most morally culpable.
The final relevant bit of NT data comes from 1 Cor. 7:10-16, where Paul touches on these teachings of Christ and then expands them to deal with a scenario unaddressed by the Gospels—that of a Christian married to an unbelieving spouse. Similarly to Jesus, Paul gives us a very firm starting ground: don’t divorce or separate. But then he goes on to soften it a bit…if you do separate, then don’t divorce; instead, seek reconciliation. And, further: if your unbelieving spouse leaves you, then you are not bound in that situation. Paul here shows a willingness to expand on the basic rule by applying it to new situations and even to add a possible further exception clause to the one given in Matthew.
With these verses in mind, what does the main ethical principle seem to be? From both Jesus and Paul, it is clear that the principle is to focus not on divorce first and foremost, but on marriage—aim at creating lifelong, healthy marriages; and in the case of discord, to seek reconciliation as our first impulse. The principle would seem to be: “Love, and be reconciled to, your spouse, because marriage is a lifelong union enacted by God.”
From the evidence of these verses, a few “rules” can be posited. But, once again, we must point out that Jesus and Paul both place their stress on the principle of marriage-and-reconciliation, not necessarily on the rules. We need to keep in mind that sometimes a desire for clear-cut rules is a desire to evade the spirit of the principle, and too often the “rules” of divorce have led to Christians becoming (ironically) more legalistic than the Pharisees on this particular issue. I would suggest a handful of possible guidelines:
1.) One ought not to divorce one’s spouse except in extreme cases (sexual infidelity or abandonment, as well as abuse, criminal endangerment, or gross immorality). The further exception for abuse, etc., represents my willingness to enter into the spirit of the NT teaching on this subject, as Paul did, and try to relate it to situations unaddressed by those texts. This exception derives from my basic conviction in the character of God as a God of compassion for those suffering injustice, as well as my personal experience in witnessing the devastation wrought by such marriages, and the healing liberation that can come as a result of a divorce from that union.
2.) Even in such extreme cases, separation with an aim to reconciliation is probably the best first step.
3.) If that step fails (perhaps due to the unresponsiveness of the other partner), divorce is permissible. The original OT law still stands as a God-given law—it may be a concession to human “hardness of heart,” but the sad fact of the matter is that even we Christians still need such concessions from time to time. If divorce is undertaken in this kind of case—prompted by one of the extreme affronts to the marital union mentioned above—then the divorcee is not morally culpable. Even so, however, it is the place of all Christians to mourn the tragic end of a union that was meant to be lifelong and holy.
4.) If a divorce is initiated by the other partner and not a result of any major transgression by the one being divorced, then that person is not morally culpable. As noted above, most of the NT texts specifically point out the culpability of the initiator, not the one being divorced.
5.) If a divorce occurs in either of the cases of #3 or #4, the person should feel free to remarry. Paul seems to leave this option open in his exception clause, and Jesus might also (for the innocent party, not the offender/initiator). I feel it is better to err on the side of grace, hoping for the possibility that a second marriage can be a redemption, at least in part, of the experience of the first (and I have seen just that sort of situation play out and bear wonderful fruit in the life of a divorcee).
6.) Further, it seems reasonable that if a person divorces (and/or remarries) for any reason before coming to faith in Christ, that person ought not to be held responsible during his subsequent life as part of the church for any sin thus entailed—“he is a new creation!”
Once this matter is in hand, one can then address the question of congregational practice, specifically regarding deacons. The key text here is 1 Timothy 3:12—“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife/woman.” To put it briefly, it is not entirely clear what situation the author is addressing—perhaps it is against polygamy (but that would not have been a common practice at the time); perhaps against someone who has divorced and remarried (but no one in that situation was commonly spoken of as being “the husband of more than one wife”; he was seen as the husband of his present wife alone); or perhaps against someone who had a wife and a concubine, or a female slave used for sexual purposes (a more common failing in that day). Without clarity on that point, one is forced merely to step back from the text and note that the “big picture” is concerned with the prospective deacon’s character. With this in view, our church decided to amend our informal rule of previous years, and not to make divorce/remarriage an automatic veto against someone being a deacon. Rather, we would progress on a case-by-case basis and assess carefully the question of what the circumstances of that divorce had to say about the prospective deacon’s character, if anything, and then, if nothing further stood in their way, they could be nominated for the position. The results of this decision, I’m happy to say, are currently bearing wonderful fruit for the Kingdom of God in the leadership and ministry of several of our new additions to the deaconate.