This is a three-part series about divorce and remarriage for Christians. I write from my background in Restoration Movement churches, which look to the Bible as the source for Christian authority. Part 1 explains in more detail.
My faith tradition teaches that divorce is a sin, and is allowed only for adultery. But as I’ve studied it and sought God on it, I think that the sin that ends a marriage is sometimes not the act of divorce itself. Certain sins can destroy a marriage; adultery is one of them. After a such a sin ends a marriage, the act of divorce is a step that recognizes that the marriage is already over, and dissolves it in the eyes of the state.
Marriage is a covenant relationship in which we vow before God that we will love, honor, and cherish each other until one of us dies.
Some Christian groups, including many if not most Restoration Movement churches, believe that the marriage covenant is unconditional and permanent. The exception for adultery is only because of “the hardness of our hearts,” as Jesus said in Matthew 19:8.
A covenant is like a contract in that it is an agreement between two parties. If you do this, I’ll do that, and vice versa. But a contract is a transactional exchange with protections for the parties should either one not live up to their end of the agreement. The parties are assumed to be on opposite sides. A covenant, however, is relational. It places the parties on the same side. Both parties agree to keep the covenant even when it’s not convenient, when another arrangement might be better, or when one of the parties isn’t living up to their end of the agreement.
The marriage covenant’s condition, the vow we make on our wedding day, is love. Each partner fulfills the covenant by behaving in loving ways toward the other.
It is through this, by the way, that marriage has the effect of sanctifying us and making us holy. Sticking with your partner through the difficulties inherent in relationship will stretch and grow our minds and spirits. It makes us more mature and equips us better for God’s service.
Even then, because covenants have conditions, they can be broken. All of God’s covenants with his people had conditions and could be broken. One of the earliest of God’s covenants was that Abraham and his descendants would be God’s people. A condition was that all males must be circumcised. Verses 10 and 14 of Genesis 10 say that an uncircumcised male did not fulfill that condition broke the covenant and was not one of God’s people. Later, in Exodus 19:5, God promised Abraham’s descendants that they would be his people if they listened to his voice; that is, if they obeyed him. Anyone who disobeyed God broke the covenant and was not one of his people.
God won’t break his conditions. He keeps his promises, always and perfectly. But God knows our sinfulness. We can and do break the conditions of his covenants with us. But critically, he is fast — he is eager — to forgive us and restore us to his covenants when we repent; that is, with regret and humility return to fulfilling the covenant’s conditions.
The marriage covenant works the same way. A marriage covenant is not automatically null and void the first minute we fail to love our partner or our partner fails to love us. God asks us to forgive each other liberally, as he forgives us liberally.
Some Christians think that the marriage covenant is different because of what Jesus said in Matthew 19:6 about marriage: what God has joined let no man separate. They interpret this to mean that because God has joined them, it’s impossible to separate them. Rather, this is more of a plea: God has joined them, so please, don’t separate them! Either partner absolutely can fail to live up to the covenant and thus cause separation.
All of us who have been or are married have at times acted in unloving ways toward our partners. We unintentionally hurt each other. Sometimes we act out of our weaknesses and broken places and do damage to our relationship. Some of us have made huge mistakes, egregious acts that brought our marriages to the brink. In love, we try hard not to keep doing those things because we know they’re hurtful and destructive. In other words, we repent. In time, our partner forgives us and we reconcile. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are essential for marriages to endure.
Sometimes, a partner doing something egregious won’t repent. Sometimes, egregiously unloving behaviors do so much damage that they shatter trust beyond repair. God has infinite patience and can endure anything. He will wait for us to repent right up until the day we die. But we humans aren’t so perfect. We can’t bear everything. There comes a point where we can’t take it anymore that our partner keeps egregiously mistreating us. Some sins against us are so bad that we’re not able to recover, and we can’t reconcile. I wrote about this at length in this article about forgiveness and this article about reconciliation.
When we marry, we say it is “for better or for worse.” This does not mean that if our partner keeps egregiously mistreating us we must suffer it for the rest of our lives. Rather, “for worse” speaks of external forces that stress or harm our marriage. The man loses his job and despite best efforts remains unemployed for a year? Covenant remains. The house burns down and everything is lost? Covenant remains. The wife is badly injured in an accident and will never walk again? Covenant remains.
The forces that break the covenant are egregiously unloving behaviors that come from within the marriage. I know of four, and all of these sins begin with the letter A: adultery, abuse, addiction, and abandonment.
Adultery is certainly on that list as the Bible calls it out specifically, and it destroys the core trust and intimacy of a marriage.
Abuse of any kind — physical, emotional, sexual — is on the list because it is one partner inflicting grave, direct harm that demeans and devalues the other’s very humanity.
Addiction is on the list because it places the object of addiction ahead of the spouse (and even of God) and because it creates intense harm in the home and in the relationship.
Abandonment is on the list because it is one partner’s choice to walk away from the other — to no longer participate in the relationship.
All of these four As inflict incredible pain and damage, destroy trust, and leave the partners’ lives in a shambles. There may be more sins that can destroy marriages, for all I know, but I know of these four.
We’re imperfect people. The evening cocktail ritual can turn into dependence. One of the partners can find themselves drawn away by someone outside the marriage and have an affair. In the heat of an argument or in a fit of anger, one of the partners can inflict abuse. A partner can stop coming home — or even while home, fully withdraw. Sometimes, these things keep happening. Marriages can often survive these things and thrive again. It’s hard, but possible. God loves it when marriages so troubled are restored!
At the same time, God does not want us to keep presenting ourselves for bad treatment from others. Even though you are as ordinary as a grain of sand on the beach, you are still of infinite worth to God. He loves you and it pains him to see you harmed. If you are in a relationship where you are regularly harmed and your partner won’t repent, God wants better for you. God also knows that in some extreme cases, we humans can simply be too badly hurt and damaged to continue in a marriage.
Under these circumstances, the broken covenant means that marriage has already ended. A divorce is then just a legal action that dissolves the union in the eyes of the state, and removes any state-sanctioned benefits of the marriage. In such cases, the act of divorce was not the sin. The behavior that broke the covenant was.
In my final post in this series, I’ll explain why I think that after you’re divorced for any reason, you are free to remarry.
I do not pretend to be an expert in these matters. I’m a sinner who tries to follow Jesus as best I can. Moreover, I write from my perspective as a Restoration Movement Christian (Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ), whose beliefs may differ greatly from those of your branch of Christianity. I welcome reasonable discussion that might open my mind to arguments I have overlooked and facts I am missing. I welcome your comments on these posts especially if you have a different Christian background from me. I will enjoy hearing your perspective and learning from you. However, I want to remind you of my comment policy — let’s keep it pleasant, eh?