The Biblical Grounds for Divorce Aren't Biblical

I hate divorce. I've witnessed how it can destroy individuals, families, even entire communities. Sadly, our culture glorifies the unbridled pursuit of self-fulfillment and made marriage little more than dating with paperwork. When relationships are defined by selfishness instead of sacrifice, love becomes another trend to be discarded at the season's end.

But I've also witnessed how divorce can redeem relationships. Believe it or not, my family is better off since my folks got divorced. All situations, good and bad, are opportunities for redemption. The church should understand this better than anyone. But just like our culture needs to be re-educated on marriage, the church needs to be re-educated on divorce.

If you've been married and a Christian for any length of time, you're probably familiar with the "biblical grounds for divorce" nonsense. Depending on your church's denomination or capacity for compassion, these grounds would include one or more of the following:
  1. Adultery
  2. Abandonment
  3. Abuse
All Christians agree on adultery because Jesus said it. Most Christians agree on abandonment because Paul implied it. Fewer Christians agree on abuse because it has to be inferred from the law or the prophets. Indeed, Christians may know what the Bible says about divorce, but they don't know why it says it.

The biblical grounds for divorce are based on the assumption that marriage is a moral absolute. The law spoke of two becoming one, and Jesus added that we shouldn't separate that which God had joined. Thus, marriage was regarded as an institution God established and many churches continue to honor it as a sacrament.

However, moral absolutes don't have exceptions. When God said, "Don't have other gods before me," he never added later, "...unless I'm unfaithful to you, or abandon you, or abuse you." If marriage was innately holy to God like worship is, then nothing could justify divorce. Any exception would undermine the integrity of the institution as relative, not absolute.

God didn't establish marriage in and of itself. Let me say that again. God didn't establish marriage. Period. Marriage is simply an expression of the thing he did establish: love. And it hasn't always been expressed well.

In ancient times, marriage was little more than a transaction between two men. Women were exchanged like property to provide the giver with wealth and the receiver with children. There was nothing sacred about it, and women were frequently sent away if they failed to produce children.

Take the story of Abraham and Sarah, for example. God promised Abraham an heir, but he and Sarah were old and childless. So Sarah tells Abraham to marry her slave, Hagar. The ancient reader would understand that Sarah likely did this out of fear. Though Abraham had given up on an heir, God made him a promise that Sarah couldn't fulfill.

Of course, God reiterates his promise that Abraham's heir would come through Sarah. But there was enmity between Sarah and Hagar, and when both women bore children, Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and her son away so they wouldn't share in the inheritance.

It wasn't until the time of Moses that a divorce required more than oral dissolution. By sending Hagar away, Abraham was divorcing her. Typically, a divorced woman returned to her father's home, but in Hagar's case--an Egyptian slave living in modern-day Israel--a divorce was a death sentence. If not for God's provision, Hagar would have died in the wilderness.

God didn't hate divorce to preserve the sanctity of marriage; he hated it to protect the well-being of women.

For millennia, women had no rights and their survival was dependent on how the men in their lives treated them. God operated within this context for a time, but he also made it clear that women were to be treated justly. David called God "a defender of widows". The law even made provisions for widows, and the prophets spoke out against those who mistreated them.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for widow ('alman) literally means "discarded" or "forsaken" and applies to divorced women as well. So when Jesus defended widows, or when his disciples provided for widows, or when James called caring for widows true religion, or even when Paul criticized men who didn't provide for their wives, they were all referring to women who had been forsaken by men.

Just as the story of Hagar suggests, God equated divorce with violence (no seriously, that's what he really said in Malachi, read it). He wasn't defending traditional marriage, traditional families, or traditional values. God has always been in the business of defending the helpless, and he has always called his people to do the same.

Thankfully, the world is slowly catching up to God's concern for women. Education and good careers are more accessible to women than ever before, and divorces provide women with alimony and child support. Take a moment to celebrate the fact that divorce is no longer a death sentence for most women in the west.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that marriage is still a mysterious symbol of God's love and union with us and that it shouldn't be taken lightly. However, it's time to shed our beliefs of these archaic biblical grounds for divorce that are built on a contrived absolute, not the God of love and redemption.

A God who valued absolutes over redemption would have never included Ruth in Jesus' lineage. Ruth was the widow who found a home and redemption in a close relative. The law forbade incest, even with in-laws, but Ruth's poverty was redeemed by the kindness of Boaz (a man who's ancestor came from a similar, though less noble, story of redemption).

The days of condemning divorcees simply for being divorced are over. There are no biblical grounds for divorce. There are only the greatest commandments to love God and people. So love God and the union he's blessed us with called marriage, but love people too. Because sometimes loving people includes divorce. And sometimes divorce leads to redemption.

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