It’s sad that “divorce” and “Christian” are ever in the same sentence. It’s sad that divorce ever happens, of course, but it’s particularly tragic when one or both spouses profess Christianity.
The good news for Christians is that it has been shown that an active faith actually does reduce divorce rates. Couples who regularly attend church together, and especially who participate in religious activities through the week (such as prayer and Bible study) have statistically significant lower divorce rates than the 50% average. Biblical behaviors like staying virgin until marriage and not cohabiting prior to marriage (particularly more than once or before commitments are made) are also factors for lower divorce rates.
Sometimes relationships face crises, however, and it can be very difficult to know what to do. Since some particularly conservative churches teach that all divorce and separation is wrong, and secular society allows divorce for pretty much any reason, these muddy waters can be difficult to tread.
God Hates Divorce
Divorce only happens because of sin. It ends the covenant relationship of marriage that was originally instituted by God when He gave Eve to Adam, the way a father gives away his daughter. In Malachi 2:16, God unequivocally states that he hates divorce.
Obviously, we should avoid sin and things God hates. It is not that God will hate us, any more than he hates us for any other sin, but it does mean that divorce — and the things that lead to it — are things we really should avoid. We should definitely not enter into divorce lightly or without trying to first work things out.
So, when is divorce permissible?
Like many Christians I know, I subscribe to the A’s of divorce. Adultery/sexual immorality is the most obvious of these. In fact, it is the only one that Jesus explicitly gave as justification for divorce (Matthew 19:9).
Adultery/sexual immorality does not have to result in divorce. It is possible to reconcile and rebuild the marriage, if the adulterer is repentant and their spouse willing to try to work things out. The victim of the adultery does not have to pretend that the offense is any less serious than it is, but can still extend the offer of reconciliation with that understanding.
Reconciliation after adultery takes work, and almost always requires counseling, preferably from a Christian source. Putting boundaries in place to help prevent future adultery is important as well. Most adultery starts on an emotional level — too close of a relationship with (usually) someone of the opposite sex, which develops over time into a physical relationship. Even where this isn’t the case, reasonable boundaries can be very helpful in protecting the relationship. Getting one or two mature Christians of the same sex to go to with problems and frustrations is also both safe and helpful, so that an inappropriate friendship with someone of the opposite sex isn’t established when in a rough spot.
However, with unrepentant adultery, especially repeat adultery, the victim of the adultery is permitted to seek divorce.
Sometimes, your spouse just won’t stay in the marriage. You have the responsibility to be the best spouse you can be, but you can’t force them to do anything. This is especially true when the spouse isn’t a Christian and therefore can’t be subjected to church discipline. (1 Corinthians 7:15)
Of course, it is wrong to be such a terrible, unrepentant spouse that you drive your husband or wife away. That is abusive and sinful, and you are then also at fault and guilty in the divorce.
I don’t limit abuse to physical/sexual abuse, but those are certainly the most dangerous. That’s especially true if children are involved.
Since abuse is not explicitly listed as a cause for divorce in the New Testament, as the above two A’s are, some believe this to not be a case in which divorce is permissible. I disagree, as marriage is not supposed to be a trap in which someone — usually the wife — is horribly mistreated over and over. God never intended that for marriage, and remaining in such a situation enables the abuser to remain in sin.
In cases of verbal or emotional abuse, the victim should stand up for him/herself, seek resources for help, and perhaps separate until the abuser attends counseling and shows change.
I do think that, like anything else, abuse doesn’t have to result in divorce. Sometimes an abuser will repent and change. If physical abuse, especially repeat abuse, is an issue, I would urge a woman to get herself and her children to safety and submit her husband to legal authority. He should be submitted to church authority if he is a Christian as well — a church that actually will call him to repentance and protect the wife and children. Between these two consequences, and the counseling he can receive from them, he may be repentant. If not, the wife does not have to put herself and her children in harm’s way.
If a woman truly doesn’t feel like she can biblically initiate divorce in such a situation, she doesn’t have to. Maintaining her safety by separation and submitting him to legal and church authority will likely cause an unrepentant abuser to initiate divorce, sooner or later, and she will then be without fault through abandonment. I don’t personally think that a person who initiates divorce with an unrepentant abuser is in the wrong, however.
This one is largely included because it usually results in or includes other A’s, to some degree. An addict may put the family in danger, or sleep around when under the influence, or abandon his or her family to pursue the addiction of choice. Addiction can even be a sexual addiction, falling under and/or leading to the first A.
Like the others, addiction doesn’t have to be the end, but should be treated with all the seriousness it deserves. An addict needs help if they decide to quit, whether it’s porn or drugs, because simply stopping the habit rarely lasts and doesn’t get to the underlying issues. 12 step programs, redemption groups, Christian counseling, and accountability partners can be vital.
In all instances, reconciliation should be a Christian couples’ first choice. It’s not an easy choice. Sometimes, it’s not possible, usually because one spouse refuses to or only pretends to. But when it’s possible, it’s the best choice. No-fault divorce simply isn’t a reality for Christians.