Here is a confession: I was married. Without sharing too many details, soon after we got married everything suddenly changed. At first, I dismissed it as simply the standard difficulties of the first year or two of marriage, but as the months went on, it became clear that these problems extended far deeper. Sadly, our marriage eventually came to an end.
This tragic end to what I thought was a forever, covenant relationship spurred me to study the teachings of the Bible and the church on divorce. I will admit, my views may be biased based on my experience, but at the same time, I have an inside look at this oft-veiled aspect of the Christian life.
When we hear “divorce” or “dissolution” in the church environment, it is often attributed to a lack of spirituality or a shortcoming of faith, especially if infidelity is not the reason for the separation. However, the teachings on dating, marriage, and divorce propagated by the evangelical church hold an alarming portion of the blame.
Christians must adopt a balanced approach to relationships that allows reasonable safeguards and encourages marriage covenants defined by both longevity and mutual enjoyment of the marriage.
What do we believe?
According to sociologist Bradley Wright of the University of Connecticut, Christians who attend church regularly have a divorce rate of 38%. This rate is alarmingly close to the secular divorce rate, which begs the question: Why? In a church setting where divorce is frowned upon, divorce rates should be much lower than those in a secular culture defined by casual sex and lax views on marriage and divorce. Why are the rates so similar?
As I grew up in the evangelical church, the topic of divorce was always a hot-button issue and considered a non-negotiable sin, apart from instances of sexual immorality. Focus on the Family says, “many Christians see nothing wrong with divorce, at least in their own particular situation. But the Bible clearly addresses marriage and divorce.”
Across the spectrum of denominations, Christian cliques, and innumerable “convictions,” divorce is approached as something that must never be considered in marriage.
I distinctly remember in one of my youth group classes in high school, a married couple told the class that even if one or the other cheated in the marriage, they would try to reconcile. While this is great in theory, it ignores significant trust issues that surface due to instances of infidelity.
Outside of the church and other Biblical organizations, divorce is viewed as little more than an inconvenience. Professor’s House magazine describes divorce as a way to improve your life, get out of uncomfortable situations, and escape toxic interactions.
Both the Biblical and the secular approaches to ending a marriage can be incredibly dangerous. For example, far too many believers are committed to their marriages at the expense of their physical safety. Many pastors have advocated for their members to remain in abusive marriages rather than pursue the unspeakable measure of divorce.
On the other hand, the idea of “casual marriage,” where marriage is simply a legal agreement between two partners that can be ended when it becomes inconvenient, can be incredibly dangerous because the marriage is characterized by an underlying uneasiness—a mutual understanding that “if you mess up, I can end this any time I want.” Both approaches are extreme perspectives on how to approach marriage and the unfortunate reality of divorce.
Beyond the innate fear of divorce that riddles evangelical circles, the promulgation of purity culture—the idea that all or most physical intimacy or attractiveness should be saved for marriage—has caused irreparable harm to the Biblical community and negatively affected Christian perspectives on divorce.
Even at Cedarville University, the inclusion of a dress code that targets women disproportionately to men places the blame of sexual impurity on the clothing choices of women rather than the eye-movement choices of men.
The problem with the purity approach to relationships is that it turns marriage, sex, or really intimacy of any kind into a sort of mystical thing we are all supposed to do rather than a normal, common, shared experience. It is placed on a pedestal above all other life goals as the “pinnacle” achievement of the Christian life. While marriage is of course a wonderful experience, it is not the be-all-end-all of our existence.
Another key issue with purity culture is that it limits any and all sexual expression to the confines of marriage. While there are certainly positive things to be said both practically and theologically for saving sex until marriage, the Bible really does not speak on other forms of physical affection. In fact, the Bible really only presents premarital sex as a threat to sexual purity, not necessarily as sexual purity itself.
The key verse used to define premarital sex as sin is 1 Corinthians 7:2: “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” So … to avoid the temptation to engage in sexual immorality, we should get married? That doesn’t really make much sense. But that begs the question, where is sexual immorality defined as premarital sex?
As a matter of fact, in this passage, Paul corrects the Corinthian church’s view that abstinence from all sexual contact, even within marriage, makes one “purer.” He is telling them that sexuality is a good—and potent—form of loving expression. And let’s remind ourselves that this is the same chapter where Paul encourages men to be single forever because of its advantages to ministry, which, while certainly valid, is not a widely encouraged lifestyle within the church. It seems to me that this chapter has simply been cherry-picked by theologians.
Another verse, 1 Corinthians 6:16, is used to argue against premarital sex. It says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.” However, this verse specifically addresses prostitution, which is and has always been an incredibly dark and abuse-ridden industry.
From my research, any other verse used to contend for abstinence specifically addresses prostitution, adultery, incest, and other forms of clear sexual immorality. I’m not necessarily encouraging premarital sex and certainly not promoting casual sex, but as I read theological opinions about premarital sex, I came away with these serious questions. Sex within marriage is certainly the best-case scenario and is an incredibly important part of a marriage covenant. But is it possible that it is not the only allowable form of sexual expression?
A practical issue with sexual abstinence until marriage is that Christians are driven to marry young in order to be able to have sex without any guilt. Virginity is held as a pinnacle of purity and pride which, if nothing else, raises it on an unnecessary pedestal that all too often borders on sexual idolatry.
Getting married too young, for the wrong reasons, and having unreasonable expectations for how amazing being married will be can all be catalysts for unhappy marriages and divorce. This rush to get married also leaves fewer opportunities to find major red flags that should suggest ending a relationship before marriage.
Beyond the scourge of purity culture, those who are forced to consider divorce are often terribly mistreated by the church. In addition to the shame, rumors, and judgment that begins to flow freely when you reveal you have been divorced, at John MacArthur’s church, you cannot even become a member if you have been divorced for a reason they determine to be “unbiblical.” The thing is, what about a past divorce disqualifies you from worshiping God with a community of believers? The answer, of course, is nothing.
What should we believe?
Believers at all levels must adjust their view of divorce in all its forms. Instead of viewing it as a dirty, sinful cop-out from difficulty or as an easy, convenient, selfish transition to a “better life,” the church must shift gears toward a far more balanced approach.
Specific to Cedarville, stop telling students they need to date and get married/have kids as soon as possible. There is no set timeline for when you have to find someone. The “ring by spring” culture is no joke, even though it is sold as one–it is very real and incredibly toxic.
Find a relationship when you are in a good place to do so and when you find someone with whom you have a genuine connection and that is in a good place too. But in the meantime, don’t avoid making friends or having fun because you’re waiting for that person to show up. We will never get these years of our lives back, so we should live life to the fullest and have some fun along the way.
In Genesis 2:24, we are told that God’s original design for marriage is that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh,” and the two shall not be separated. However, sin corrupted God’s perfect plan, and now we are left with broken marriages riddled with emotional, physical, and verbal abuse.
While situations of abuse are certainly cause for divorce, other circumstances, such as the physical or emotional absence of a spouse with no chance of reconciliation, should also be considered as causes for divorce. For example, 1 Corinthians 7:15 says, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”
In my situation, I fought for my marriage. I suggested counseling, tried to talk things out, and reached out to others for advice. In the end, my former spouse shot down all methods of reconciliation, and I was left with the incredibly difficult realization that dissolving our marriage was the only way forward. Believers must avoid treating people like me as if we are dirty or tainted because of our experiences.
Instead, the Biblical community of the global church must change its approach to recognize the heartbreaking reality of abuse, infidelity, and abandonment within marriages and accept victims of such circumstances with open arms. Most importantly, the church should shift its focus to reconsider the false and damaging doctrines that have fueled high divorce rates within the Christian community for decades.
Obviously, people who fail their spouse and never apologize or reconcile are wrong, and they must repent of that sinful approach to their marriage. But disturbing church policies exist, such as MacArthur’s church, which prohibits membership for someone who has been divorced and has not been reconciled to their spouse. What kind of message does this send to the world: that churches cast out and reject genuine believers who have faced incredibly difficult circumstances?
Such policies tell believers or potential believers that some sins are unforgivable, and they must live with shame for the rest of their lives. Stop rejecting divorced believers. Start accepting them and the unique experiences and perspectives they bring to the Biblical community.
Love God. Love others, especially those who are broken.