Porn, Abuse, or Just Plain Incompatibility… Is Divorce Ever a Sin?

Americans are a bunch of sick puppies.

Here’s why I say that: a recently released LifeWay Research survey on divorce found that 37% of all Americans consider it to be a sin to leave your spouse because of abuse within the relationship. That’s two points higher than those who think it’s a sin to ditch a spouse addicted to pornography.

Thankfully, only 28% of pastors surveyed agreed, which is still too high for comfort. Still: Christians are much more likely to say divorce as a result of abuse is a sin than non-Christians (43% to 22%); within Christians, Evangelicals say it’s wrong more than others (46% to 34%). Dear Christ, what is wrong with us?

Well, here’s one idea: David Gushee, looking at the same poll, apparently zeroes in on the 37% of lay people who think it’s not a sin to get divorced at all. Gushee denounces what he calls “routine divorce”:

In western culture today, individuals almost always are free to marry, or not marry, if and when they wish. They are free to choose their partner on the basis of their own entirely self-selected reasons. They are free to conduct themselves in marriage precisely as they choose to do. They are free to initiate divorce if and when they choose and for whatever reason might seem compelling to them.

In other words, a spouse has become a consumer product, to be bought, abandoned, or traded in for a new model at the will of the customer.

I dunno. Like Gushee, I’ve married dozens of couples. Maybe one of those couples wasn’t living together when they got married, probably the majority of them were on their first or second kid together, and right around half of them have gotten divorced. But none of them, as far as I can tell, has simply thrown their partner away in favor of something shinier and newer.

The social science I’ve read says that infidelity is a major factor. So are children, finances, and interpersonal issues. I guess if you wanted to say that coming to understand yourself as incompatible with your spouse is trading him or her in, sure, that’s something of a problem.

But it isn’t a new one. Divorce rates have been going up since 1860, with a brief, stiff, drop between the end of World War II and about 1960. Since 1980, they’ve been declining again, in part because fewer people are getting married at all.

And even the scriptures Gushee builds his argument around demonstrate that divorce isn’t any kind of newfangled invention. That Jesus has to remind his listeners that Mosaic law allowed divorce for “hardness of heart” indicates that even in his day, some people saw marriage as disposable.

In any case, Gushee calls the church to

attempt to create and sustain a counterculture in which we still believe in binding covenantal marriage—and attempt to nurture the character traits and skills that might make such marriages succeed.

Counterculture is good, counterculture is fine; Christianity is often at its best when it’s swimming against the current. And it’s commendable that Gushee wants to equip people for successful marriages, rather than just scold them when they fail.

But even though this is no doubt meant to be a positive, I can’t help thinking it’s a terrible idea. For one thing, it sets successfully navigating an extraordinarily complex social arrangement as the gold standard of faith. And what happens when they fail, as they inevitably will? People leaving the faith because they feel judged or shamed for being divorced is already a problem; I don’t see how making covenantal marriage a super-priority would help matters at all.

In addition, Gushee’s proposal doesn’t address the issue of abuse at all, unless it’s somehow vaguely swept up in “the character traits and skills” that make marriages succeed. I have a hard time thinking that Jesus would want people to stay in marriages where they were being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, yet that’s the message Christians broadcast all too often: you get married, you forgive, and you stay married no matter what. Otherwise, it’s a sin.

Gushee might say that’s not what he’s arguing, that of course spouses can leave abusers, but his rhetorical strategy is exactly how battered women get the idea that the church wants them to stay in violent relationships. When the emphasis is all on the sin of divorce without an explicit proclamation that abuse is not acceptable, that IT breaks the covenant of marriage, what do you expect them to conclude? That they’re “trading in” their husband for a “new model,” of course.

One last thing: Gushee also neglects an economic analysis of marriage. People get divorced more often these days because they can afford to. Essentially, they can buy their way out of a bad relationship and survive. That’s true of men, but particularly of women, who tend to have fewer financial resources than their male partners. Don’t think that there aren’t men who will use that to their advantage.

Part of Jesus’ concern with divorce stemmed from the plight of abandoned women in his day, who were often reduced to begging or prostitution to make ends meet. It was not acceptable, according to the rabbi, to simply walk away from one’s financial obligations to another person in favor of a better arrangement. Today we can say in the same way that it’s not morally acceptable to divorce because you don’t want to support your partner. Or, having been divorced, it’s not acceptable to neglect spousal and particularly child support. Unfortunately, that’s still all too common these days.

Along the same lines, it’s well-established that divorce decreases with education and income level. If churches really want to promote long-lasting marriages, they might want to advocate for economic justice for working families.

But, you know, it’s simpler just to make staying married a moral issue. I’m all for churches supporting and promoting stable marriages, but let’s be clear about the problem. It’s not that we’re sinful puppies in need of exhortation, it’s that we’re sick puppies in need of some healing. That starts with understanding and accepting the root causes of our broken relationships, rather than judging people for their brokenness. Jesus, I think, would have gotten that.

14 Comments

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    I would look it up but I recall reading that the state with the lowest divorce rate was the supposedly liberal one of Massachusetts, with relatively liberal residents as compared to the states with the highest divorce rates which tended to have high populations of fundamentalists which consistently voted Republican.

    Things are seldom what they seem in opinion polls which are almost uniformly pseudo-scientific.

  • pastordanschultz@gmail.com' pastordan says:

    I left a poll disclaimer out of the piece because it was getting too long as it was. LifeWay doesn’t release cross-tabs, which means it’s hard to evaluate their sample sizes. They could have had far more evangelicals than mainliners or Catholics; we just don’t know. Their total sample size (1,000) is not terribly big, either. So, as with any poll, take it with a grain of salt.

  • jstoltz87@yahoo.com' John Stoltz says:

    I feel this article misrepresents the truth of of the Gospel in quoting Matthew 19. Any person claiming that to divorce is sin misrepresents the truth. The issue in Mt. 19 is humanity’s tendency to reject God by rejecting God’s statutes to fulfill their own desires. Jesus mentions the hardness of hearts as Moses’ way of trying to legitimize divorce, because the alternative would be, and still is in a lot of cases, abuse or worse within the relationship. The “hardness of hearts” deals with the rejection of God in humanity’s lust pre-marriage (that often leads to marriage by unrighteous reasoning), the selfishness of blaming others for unhappiness and/or an unwillingness to forbear and forgive one another in love within marriage, and the corrosive nature of a lot of relationships post-marriage. All of these represent how humanity hardens their hearts towards God regarding the godly design of marriage being between one man and one woman being joined as one flesh, which is meant to be the closest relationship aside from God, therefore the is best at drawing one another towards God.

    The bible comprehensively relays the message of single-pointed devotion to God as being the preferable option versus raising a family and being tied to those responsibilities, as one can clearly see if they continue reading in Mt. 19 (as well as other supporting scriptures). Lastly Jesus gives one legitimate exception for divorce – fornication. In that light, nearly all of western civilization has a legitimate reason to divorce their spouse, but only due to the hardness of our hearts (towards God). The effect of divorce because of fornication, if done to pursue a closer relationship to God, is the opportunity to magnify God’s glory in a way that could not have happened in an unrighteous and increasingly bitter union.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' Well_Read says:

    Another gift religion gives us, the concept of ‘sin’ and the denial of mental illness. Both force women to stay with psychopaths who beat them and/or sexually abuse the children.

    My mother left my father who was an abuser and took her 4 kids for a life uncertain, in 1955. I guess she loved her children more than Jesus……….probably a sin.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The church defines sin, and the congregation gives power to the church by listening. Like Jennifer Connelly finally learned to say to David Bowie, “You have no power over me”. With those words the evil disappears.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' Well_Read says:

    catholics have closed over 40 cathedrals in new england this year, lack of interest. for every 1 person converting to Catholicism, 6 are leaving it.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    Whether or not it is misrepresented kind of misses the larger point of how it is used day to day. When a large component of Christians essentially enact what is considered by you to be a misrepresentation – it becomes the de facto standard that must be addressed. I have the same issue when people claim that ISIS or Saudi Arabia (etc) are ignoring Islamic scholarship – it does not matter, we have to deal with their interpretation head on.

    Part of the problem is that with the multiple interpretations of these ancient texts, there is no real method for getting consensus on that is actually true. So we can try to education people with the “correct” interpretation, but you are competing with other views which may be more attractive due to preexisting biases.

    Oh course this doesn’t even come close to addressing the problems associated with inaccuracies in the Bible due to lost texts, modifications to scripture during copying, and the fact that all accounts of what Jesus said or did are just oral stories that were written down.

  • jstoltz87@yahoo.com' John Stoltz says:

    I thought the larger point of the article is how society has misused this particular teaching Jesus is tested on due to misunderstanding/misrepresentation of the teaching (interestingly enough, that’s what the preicope is about!). The author of the article adds to the confusion by alluding Jesus does not condemn divorce on a whim, but would rather everyone do as they please so long as they are happy. If the text in Matthew 19 is read in full, it is clear that Jesus advocates for being single or being married per God’s word, but does not condone divorce unless fornication is the reason for it.

    Getting at what is actually true, in terms of God’s word, comes by revelation studying the bible for the purpose of seeking to know God. The “problems” you mention regarding the bible and it’s apparent human component have very little to do with the faith to believe God can use a book like no other to relay what God wants to reveal to those who take up their cross.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Studying the Bible for purposes of revelation to know God seems to lead different groups of people in different directions. The whole enterprise just ends up dividing people into different camps, and each one believing God is guiding them more than the others. It seems the group becomes the God that that group is seeking, and the intersection between different groups seeking God can be deadly. The good news is we do seem to be slowly making some progress in understanding just how religion works, and figuring out how to straighten the path when they start arguing in circles.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    The number of people that use the methodology in your last paragraph and come to differing conclusions is larger than could reasonably be tallied.

  • jstoltz87@yahoo.com' John Stoltz says:

    Self-righteousness and idolatry are no doubt two of the biggest, and sneakiest challenges of the ego. As long as people seek truth, which transcends religion, there’s plenty of potential.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Seeking truth which transcends religion is what RD is all about. Religions have churches, and they teach people to listen to the church and its religion. Here we can seek truth with no concern for what a church might think about that.

  • jgsprks@bellsouth.net' John Sparks says:

    When Thomas Hardy first published “Jude the Obscure,” the backlash from religious authorities was so severe that he himself confessed that it cured him from the habit of writing novels. And the scandalous position he maintained? That the British divorce laws of that day and time should be relaxed to the point of using common sense. It appears some things never change.

  • wesseldawn@gmail.com' Duck says:

    “And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce.” Jeremiah 3:8

    ‘God’ divorced Israel because of her idolatrous ways (adultery). Furthermore it was also ‘God’ who gave his permission to divorce on the basis of ‘hardness of heart’.

    A literal translation of the meaning of ‘divorce’ is the culprit.

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