Earlier this week laid out a gospel-centered approach to understanding what Scripture says about divorce. Yesterday, I also listed eight points that the Bible makes about divorce. But today, I want to ask a practical question: What makes a divorce biblical?
That is to ask, if Jesus and Paul permit divorce in the cases of ongoing sexual immorality and/or abandonment, what should take place in the life of a believer and a church, if they come to the heart-breaking point of considering a divorce?
As a point of clarification, biblical does not mean the same thing as good or ideal. As with all relational strife, divorce is not good in itself. However, Scripture does give us commands, principles, and guidance on how to faithfully handle a divorce, so it is right to speak of divorce as “biblical” if it is in keeping with God’s Word. Likewise, a divorce pursued contrary to God’s Word makes it “unbiblical.”
Believing that Scripture has given us everything we need for understanding and pursuing a godly life, we should know what comprises a biblical divorce. Here is my attempt to begin to outline the steps of a “biblical” divorce.
Six Things to Consider in a Biblical Divorce
- For a divorce to be “biblical,” a Christian must go through the process of divorce with godly sorrow in their hearts. They cannot be moved by vengeance and anger. As much it depends on them, they must seek peace, submit to the Word of God, and seek the direction of godly church elders. Isolation is deadly in a process of divorce (Prov 18:1) and so is seeking counsel from people who are not informed by God’s Word, which reveals his will (Rom 12:1–2).
- A biblical divorce will be coupled with church discipline, where the faithful member seeks the protective oversight and intervention of the church. The church has the right and responsibility to determine guilty and innocent parties (i.e., the difference between someone seeking divorce and someone suffering a divorce unwillingly). They also have the right to render a “verdict” on the situation (cf. 1 Corinthians 6).
- It may be that both parties are guilty, because they equally desire to pursue divorce against the will of God. In such a case, the church must call them both to repent. If repentance is refused, the church has the right and responsibility to remove them from membership.
- It is more likely that in a divorce situation in the church, one spouse will desire reconciliation while the other does not. In such a case, the church has the responsibility to determine who is at fault for pursuing the divorce. If a church doesn’t do this, they fail to guard the heart of the innocent spouse who desires to submit to God.
- Such a statement does not insinuate that the innocent party is free from sin or did not play a part in damaging the marriage. It does mean that they admit their sin, desire reconciliation, and are willing to submit to God’s Word and the church’s leadership.
- Innocence in this case is a relative but important term. The church has the responsibility to affirm the Christian who is seeking reconciliation during the divorce, even as they have the responsibility to rebuke and discipline the member who is rejecting God’s word and pursuing divorce.
- In the end, the church must discipline the church member who refuses to be reconciled in marriage.
- Divorce that is pursued without the counsel and oversight of the church elders invites an individual to do what is right in their own eyes. It fails to guard them from themselves, something elders must do. It should be remembered that while divorce in our country is a legal matter, it is also a church matter.
- A biblical divorce may be initiated by the innocent spouse (as determined by the church), because the sin of the guilty spouse is so great (e.g., porneia, abandonment, or physical abuse), so repetitive,and so unrepentant that it is not possible to reconcile the marriage.
- A biblical divorce may also be accepted, when the guilty spouse pursues divorce against the will of the innocent spouse. In such a case, the guilty spouse is abandoning the believing spouse, and the innocent spouse is free to permit the marriage to dissolve.
- If a biblical remarriage will be possible in the future depends largely on how this process of divorce is handled. Conversely, a biblical divorce will enable that Christian suffering a divorce to marry at some point in the future.
All in all, divorce challenges Christians at every level. It is difficult to know what Scripture say about divorce; it is equally hard (even if we know the truth) to have emotions that conform to the truth. Moreover, in the life of the church, which runs so counter to the norms of culture, we find increasing difficulty rebuking those who seek an unbiblical divorce and counseling those who may are suffering an unwanted to divorce.
Nevertheless, in such circumstances, God’s word will be sufficient. While we, in and of ourselves, are never sufficient for these things, God and his grace is. And what has been outlined above is meant to help you think about how to walk through this process with someone, if the need shall arrive.
In addition to these steps, what else would you add? I’d love to think more clearly on this subject and would be benefitted by your biblically-informed principles and experiences.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds