One July morning in 1994, I found myself sitting in my pastor’s living room. He had graciously responded to my desperate phone call with an invitation to come over and talk. My wife had left me, and I had no idea what to do. All I wanted was God’s best for our family of four young children.
“Joe, you know divorce is permissible for adultery and abandonment. If you divorce, you would still be eligible to remarry.”
His words supported what I had been taught…and he meant the words to be gracious and helpful. He was sharing the truth of God’s word as he understood it, viewing the permissibility of divorce for specific situations as God’s grace to deal with harsh realities of life in this world. In fact, by even bringing up divorce as a valid option, he was being much more liberal than many pastors would have been.
But at that moment, those words were no help at all.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12, the Apostle Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”
In the New Covenant, we live under grace, not under the law. So, I was not interested in what was permissible…what I could get by with. My heart was, and is, to wholeheartedly pursue God’s will and seek God’s best!
See, this whole concept of divorce being permissible only for specific rigidly predefined situations is founded on a false paradigm. First it assumes that divorce is sin, although the Bible never calls it sin. Second, it interprets Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7 as providing rigidly narrow “exception clauses” for when divorce is permissible.
Now, there are some basic logic errors in this paradigm.
As discussed in this post, sin is never permissible. Therefore, since both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul discussed situations where divorce may be a godly course of action, divorce cannot be inherently sinful. The sin is either in what led to the divorce or in how the divorce is handled, not in the act of divorce, itself.
Also, if Matthew 19:9 is interpreted as Jesus saying all divorce is forbidden with the solitary exception of adultery, and 1 Corinthians 7:11-15 is interpreted as Paul saying all divorce is forbidden with the solitary exception of abandonment, then we have the Apostle Paul contradicting Jesus. They cannot both be providing a rigid solitary exception in which the solitary exception is not the same. So the whole paradigm of divorce being unlawful with the exception of certain specific narrow instances listed in scriptural exception clauses falls apart. It is based on flawed logic.
But that summer morning in 1994, I was not thinking about flawed logic and biblical hermeneutics. At that time, I accepted the prevailing Divorce Mythology as truth. It was what I had been taught by men I respected and trusted. I had never had serious reason to question its validity, and to be honest, I had never studied the topic closely enough to recognize the obvious errors.
What I was struggling with that morning was of a much deeper emotional nature.
See, this whole concept of divorce being forbidden, but then having narrowly defined exception clauses for when it is permissible…it fundamentally assumes divorce is never the best course of action.
When presented in sermons, we can almost always count on the preacher to immediately add, “…but not required.” For example, in a sermon on Matthew 19, he might say, “Divorce is permissible for adultery…but not required.” The implication being it really would always be better to not divorce …that the truly godly course of action would be to find a way to reconcile…no matter the circumstances. It implies that no matter what led to the divorce, people who have divorced are somehow less spiritual, less faithful, less holy than if they had remained legally married.
It felt to me at the time as though divorce would be a deviation from God’s best plan for my life… condemning myself and my family to a life of something less than God’s best…some sort of second-rate grace begging scraps from the children’s table.
This false assumption of divorce never being the best course of action is reinforced even in the terminology.
Consider the word permissible. It means permitted or allowed, and that’s exactly how it is treated… as though divorce is always wrong but sometimes grudgingly permitted under specific narrowly defined exceptions. Many churches treat divorce as something that should always be discouraged, never encouraged…no matter the circumstances. In effect, divorce is sometimes permissible…but always discouraged.
Then there are these exception clauses used to rigidly define when divorce is permissible. Do you see how legalistic this whole paradigm is? Even the terms forbidden, permissible and exception clauses are legal terms, illustrating the inherent legalistic nature of this false paradigm.
Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus consistently spoke against the legalism of the religious leaders, repeatedly demonstrating that righteousness is a heart matter. He often condemned the system of rigid rules, legal loopholes, and exception clauses debated among the religious leaders of His day.
Yet, somehow, many Christians (including many learned theologians) have embraced an unscriptural paradigm making Jesus out to have (on the solitary topic of divorce) replaced the law of Moses with a much more stringent law, including rigidly applied exception clauses for legal loopholes. This is the epitome of legalism and the very thing Jesus denounced the Pharisees for doing!
That summer morning, as I was reeling from shock trying to figure out what to do next, I didn’t need to be told divorce was permissible for my situation. I needed to be told God is the God of divorce just as He is the God of marriage. I needed to be told, divorce is sometimes the best and most godly course of action. I needed to be told God’s blessing in my life and the lives of my children was not dependent on my staying married to their mother.
Who can you encourage with a message of God’s blessing and faithfulness through divorce?