Marriage and Divorce Continued…

I have received some very thoughtful comments both privately and publicly posted in response to the two recent blogs on Marriage and Divorce (20 June and 8 July). I am not sure how representative they are of general opinion among our community. The gist of their thoughts is that it is probably better for children whose parents are having major problems together that the parents separate rather than remaining in a house full of acrimony.

I have certainly known rare situations where there is little doubt that the child or one spouse was in grave danger, whether from physical, sexual or emotional abuse. No one would say that in these extreme cases separation is not justified, if not compulsory.

But whether formal divorce is acceptable in these cases is a little more complicated. The New Testament imperative is fairly straightforward:

Matthew 5:31 ” Furthermore it has been said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce .’ 32 “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. 33 ”

Mark 10:2 The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce [his] wife?” testing Him. 3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses permitted [a] [man] to write a certificate of divorce , and to dismiss [her].” 5 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6 “But from the beginning of the creation, God `made them male and female.’ 7 `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 `and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” 10 In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same [matter]. 11 So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 “And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

We are a Biblical Church, which means we must base all that we do on the teachings of the Bible. If Christ seems to have been so emphatic on the topic of the sanctity of marriage and the wrongness of divorce, we have little wiggle room. Turning to the Old Testament, there are numerous references to fairly specific situations, but nothing that simply says, of your average married couple, what the rules for divorce are. Of course, from numerous other verses it is possible to deduce the Old Testament Law on this topic:

Malachi 2:14 Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness Between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion And your wife by covenant. 15 But did He not make [them] one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. 16 “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce , For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously.”

Certainly, human marriage is often used as an icon or image of the relationship between God and humanity. God would never ‘divorce’ us, but it is we who might leave Him, our Divine Husband. The Book of Amos is centred around the theme of unfaithful people of God who commit spiritual adultery by leaving their lawful spiritual Groom to worship the idols of the neighbours. Often God uses this imagery to describe how His beloved people have betrayed Him:

Isaiah 50:1 Thus says the Lord: “Where [is] the certificate of your mother’s divorce , Whom I have put away? Or which of My creditors [is] [it] to whom I have sold you? For your iniquities you have sold yourselves, And for your transgressions your mother has been put away.

Jeremiah 3:8 “Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce ; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. 9 “So it came to pass, through her casual harlotry, that she defiled the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. 10 “And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah has not turned to Me with her whole heart, but in pretense,” says the Lord.

From these examples we can draw the conclusion that divorce in the Old Testament was seen as a betrayal, the guilty adulterous party reneging on the commitment made to love and care for the spouse until death. The permanence of this commitment to another human being is ‘practice’ for our eternal comitment to the Heavenly Bridegroom, Christ:

Ephesians 5:22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. 24 Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, 27 that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. 28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord [does] the church. 30 For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 31 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife [see] that she respects [her] husband.

St Paul also gives us some of the most detailed instructions to be found in the Bible on this matter:

1 Corinthians 7:10 Now to the married I command, [yet] not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from [her] husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to [her] husband. And a husband is not to divorce [his] wife. 12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such [cases]. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save [your] husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save [your] wife?

So there are some pretty compelling spiritual imperatives against divorce. The Church tries to balance these imperatives with the very real and practical needs of couples in trouble. The first step is always to seek reconciliation and resolution of the problems so that the commitment is not broken. No one could disagree that the best solution would be the resolution of the problems, and this can be achieved with varying degrees of success in many cases. But what about those cases where it can not? What is the Church to say to them? It is not an easy question to answer.

If the Church accepted ‘no fault’ divorces, would that not cheapen the meaning and value of marriage? Would it not be another step away from the concepts of commitment and loyalty, even in dire circumstances? And if this is what we learn to do in our relationships with each other, are we setting ourselves up to do the same with God? And yet, all this must be balanced against the daily agony of being in a seriously bitter relationship, and feeling as though one is trapped in a prison of misery. These are not easy questions to answer, and I do not have simple answers for many of them.

But I do see a guide in the research that I mentioned in the other posts. If you are looking at the welfare of the children, it seems fairly certain that by and large, it is generally better psychologically for children to remain with two parents than with divorced parents in all but the most extreme cases. I also see the logic behind it. Losing a parent to illness or disease is a very different situation to knowing that your missing parent is still alive but has chosen to leave the house.

A wise Father pointed out once that all serious marriage problems have at their core a lack of love, humility and repentance. Experience has made me come to appreciate the truth of this principle more and more. It follows from this that even serious marriage problems can be resolved through the couple returning to God in humility and repentance. I have seen this approach work miracles in marriages, but alas, all too rarely are people willing to let go of their perceived wounds and injustices long enough to truly repent of their own part in the mess. Perhaps the growing rate of divorce in our community is a sign of a deeper spiritual disease? And perhaps the solution to the divorce problem lies in treating that deeper problem?

I would be really interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone whose parents did in fact divorce when they were young. What effect did it have on your life? Do you think they did the right thing? Please post a comment, anonymously if you like, and let us know what your experience was like, and whether you feel that life would have been better or worse had your parents stayed together and toughed it out.

Fr Ant

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