I have been asked to answer the question, ‘How does the church deal with marriages moving to divorce?’
A Ton of Prevention
The first thing to say is that marriage should be handled more biblically and less Americanly from the start. This would vastly reduce the phenomenon of “marriages moving to divorce.” But it implies a more biblical and less American understanding and practice of the church itself, one in which Christians are committed to the local church more deeply than they are to any other social group in their lives, including their blood relatives. And this is difficult to foster in modernity in the West. Yet it must be done.
Romantic/sexual/marital love has been privatized and secularized—which is to say it has been dis-ecclesialized. Where it is understood that a Christian marriage is the not the private property of the couple and that the elders and others of their church have a proper claim to involvement in it, there is early detection of the things that bring death to marriages. In such a context, mistreatment between spouses will be under the discipline and loving correction of the church while the marriage is merely sick so that it will not as easily end up in the throes of death.
As a vital part of this ministry to marriages, it must be taught and rehearsed often in the church that marriage is not a means of personal happiness or fulfillment, but rather a school of sanctification into which some believers have been called. It is not a place where we go to find ourselves, but to lose ourselves and to receive ourselves anew. It is full of pain and death of the kind to which followers of Jesus are called (Phil. 2:1-11). But no one—no couple—is called to walk this road alone. Instead, we are called to walk it together in the church in the power and grace of the Spirit of Christ.
Dealing with Reality
Nevertheless, it remains true that we live in a world where evil sometimes is able to take up an entrenched existence in the human heart to such a degree that the realities of marital dissolution, even if reduced to great extent, will probably always be something with which we must deal in the church. Thus, it is worthwhile for the church to consider its way of dealing with marital disintegration. For two reasons, it is probably not the best idea to set forth a specific policy. First, policies have a way of inviting test cases, or at least a view of legitimacy of that which they address. Second, each marital situation is unique, and the complexity of a policy which would adequately address all the various minutiae would make it unmanageable.
Thus, the church should take as a single rule that all considerations of divorce should be addressed to phenomena of abuse. Abuse here is broadly defined as the harmful, objectifying treatment of one human being by another such that free forgiveness cannot be the only response. As such, we can see that abuse is a property of many different kinds of relationships, not just marriage. But most non-marital relationships may be dissolved without the level or kind of scandal before heaven and earth that is divorce. So the understanding and handling of abuse in the context of marriage is on a much higher plane of importance.
Every day, human beings fail to love each other in Christ. Thus, harmful, objectifying treatment occurs all the time. In terms of our discussion here, it is abusive when it is simply impossible (not just difficult) merely to forgive the sin and leave it at that. Factors such as a refusal to repent or ongoing danger of serious harm may be present. In such cases, it may be necessary to bring to bear on the relationship measures which protect a victim or which force a perpetrator from his or her settled position.
With this understanding, then, we can see that the presence of abuse does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the relationship, whether marital or whatever kind. In dealing with endangered marriages, the elders and pastoral counselors of the couple can examine the nature, level and degree of the abuse present in the relationship. And they can do so with a constant application of the brakes so as to keep divorce out of the picture until it absolutely must be allowed a place in it. In this way, there are numerous other steps which may be taken before divorce is even allowed in view. For example, in a case of physical abuse, physical separation may be necessary for an indefinite period, but it is possible that divorce may be kept out of the picture. And God may bring full restoration through the ministry of the church. In many cases, less drastic levels of church discipline may be sufficient.
It is more likely that the need to allow divorce into the picture will arise in the context of spiritual and emotional abuse where the spiritual toxicity threatens the very life of the spouse and/or children (usually in the form of depression or other kinds of spiritual ruin). This is precisely because of the ability of such abusers to deceive themselves and thereby resist the need to change.
In some cases, it may only be the reality of divorce that is able to shake such people from their self-deceptions. And this might happen at different points: when divorce is decided upon by the spouse they have abused, when the papers have been filed, when the divorce is final, or maybe a few years down the road when the realization of all that he or she has lost and the realities of the horrors he or she put the spouse through finally dawns on the abuser. And of course, it is possible that the abuser may finish life on earth stubbornly hanging on to his or her delusions like most of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.
Whether divorce is or is not to be allowed into the picture should be the decision of the elders; the abused spouse must follow their lead as they serve under the Lord. Whatever the actual outcome, it is important that both the church leadership and the abused spouse only make movements toward divorce with the goal of restoration always in view. In the most extreme of cases, a spouse may need to leave and, because it is necessary for their sanity, do so with a finality of mind.
Perhaps all this sounds rather like a policy, which we said above should be avoided. In the sense that it provides a basis for approaching endangered marriage and the possibility of divorce, it might be called a policy, but it intentionally eschews the clear categorizations and flow-charts of contingencies that usually characterize policies.
How Biblical is All of This?
In Matthew 5:32, the Lord Jesus seems to allow for divorce on the one ground of sexual immorality (porneia). Upon close inspection, however, it appears that what He actually says is that any man who divorces his wife on any ground other than this forces her to commit adultery. The truth is, while the Bible is keenly aware of the reality of divorce, it never gives any clear permission for it.
Anyone who reads the Prophets knows that God certainly understands how divorce can seem to be the only viable option when dealing with recalcitrant sinners. Debate continues as to whether YHWH actually divorced Israel or merely filed for separation for a while to wake her up. But there can be no doubt that He understands that it is sometimes necessary to let the possibility of divorce enter the picture.
Can we use the example of YHWH’s dealings with Israel as a guide to allowing divorce into the picture of endangered marriages? Before answering in the affirmative, we must take note of two differences between God and ourselves. First, there is the goodness gap. The most innocent human spouse of the most horrible human abuser is much closer to that abuser in goodness than any of us is to God. Israel was unfaithful to an infinitely good Husband. We must keep this clearly in mind. The second difference, however, is the power gap. God is also infinitely stronger than any of us. So it is that, while he was genuinely injured by Israel’s sin, He was not in danger of being destroyed by it. The human spouse of a human abuser simply may not have the strength to withstand the onslaught of abuse. It may actually lead to his or her destruction. And this may occasion a broken-hearted movement toward separation.
But lest anyone be tempted rashly to take comfort in the thought that he or she is following God’s example in approaching or enacting divorce, we must hasten to remind ourselves—again—that we are not God. We do not have His wisdom. We do not know very well how to use the power of righteous anger and righteous battle to love a stubbornly sinful heart. We do not have the divine strength needed to bring the awfulness of divorce to bear on a relationship while never wavering in a perfect commitment always to desire full reconciliation. So an abused spouse, following the lead of a praying and trembling eldership, may attempt to trace the steps of the divine Husband of Israel toward the tragedy of divorce, but not with anything less than the utmost of caution and humility.