A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Divorce is Sin… Says Who? – Guest Article by Joe Pote

“Divorce is sin…  God hates divorce…”  Most of us have heard this mantra so many times, that we’ve come to simply accept it as truth, without further scrutiny.  I have read many books by Christian authors, considered experts, written specifically for people who have experienced divorce, which made this very statement, “Divorce is sin.”

Says who?  Who says that divorce is sin?

The Bible never labels divorce as sin, nor does it contain any commandments prohibiting a just divorce.  On the contrary, the law given to Moses not only makes specific provision for divorce, but also ensures that the divorce is to be handled in a manner that is just, that neither party remains under obligation to the other, and each is free to marry another (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Where, in all of scripture, has God ever said that sin is permissible?  If God said that divorce is permissible, and even gave instruction on how to go about it in a godly manner, then it is not sin!  Why then, under Grace, would we presume to impose legalistic rules that are more restrictive than the Old Testament Law?

Many people claim that Jesus, in Matthew 19:3-9, denounced divorce, thereby over-riding the law given to Moses.  On the contrary, not once in this passage did Jesus say that divorce is sin, nor that the law given to Moses was erroneous in permitting divorce.  Jesus, in fact, defended the law given to Moses, stating that it was necessary to make provision for divorce because of hardened hearts…the heart of one partner being hardened against their spouse in unrepentant violation of their marriage vows.  In fact, Jesus included a specific example (immorality) when divorce is not only acceptable but expected.

Then Jesus addressed the heart of the question presented, by explaining that if a man chooses to commit adultery against his wife, he cannot escape guilt for his transgression by using divorce as a legalistic loophole.  If a man divorces his wife for the specific purpose of marrying another woman, that is still a betrayal of the marriage vows.

The message is very clear.  Adultery is sin.  Treachery is sin (Malachi 2:13-16).  Intentional repeated violation of sacred covenant vows to love, honor, cherish, protect and provide for is sin.  If these violations of covenant vows do not include divorce, they are still sin.  If these violations of covenant vows do include divorce, they are still sin.  Sin against a covenant partner is sin, whether or not it includes divorce.  The sin is not the divorce, but rather the violation of sacred covenant vows.

So, when I say that just divorce is not sin, am I saying it is okay to not take covenant vows very seriously?  That it is okay to just get a divorce for any frivolous reason?  Not at all!  On the contrary, sacred covenant vows should be taken very seriously!  In fact, part of the problem is that we don’t take the covenant vows seriously enough.

Our preoccupation with divorce (as a result of erroneously labeling divorce as sin) rather than elevating the sacredness of the covenant vows, actually diminishes them, by incorrectly placing the scrutiny on the longevity of the covenant, rather than on how well the covenant vows were lived out.  The question, in searching our hearts for sin, should not be, “Have I divorced?” but rather, “How well have I honored my covenant vows?”

This erroneous labeling of divorce as sin leads to all sorts of theological error.  Since the Bible very clearly makes allowance for divorce, including the words of Christ in Matthew 19:2-9, adherents to the myth that “divorce is sin” are forced to then state, “Divorce is only permissible when…”  While the rules for the “exception clause” vary widely, without some sort of “exception clause” one cannot claim that “divorce is sin” without directly contradicting both the words of Christ and the Old Testament Law.

Now think about how contradictory these two statements are.  “Divorce is sin.”  “Divorce is only permissible when…”  Folks, sin is NEVER permissible.  You cannot have it both ways.  Either divorce is inherently sinful, or it is not inherently sinful.  If divorce is not inherently sinful, then the sin is not in the divorce, but rather in either the cause of divorce or the manner in which the divorce is carried out.

Again, we see that the sin is not the divorce, but rather the intentional violation of sacred covenant vows.

Now, let’s look at another theological error related to this biblically unsubstantiated myth that “divorce is sin.”  The concept of redemption is fundamental to the Christian faith.  All Christians agree that Jesus Christ came to redeem us from the kingdom of darkness.

Yet, because of our erroneous view of divorce as inherently sinful, we seem to have forgotten what redemption is.  What exactly do we think Jesus did when He redeemed us?  He brought about the just dissolution of Adam’s covenant of bondage to the kingdom of darkness.

Jesus brought about our just divorce from the kingdom of darkness, and He calls it Redemption!

We see this clearly illustrated in God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt.  In Exodus 6:1, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land’” (Exodus 6:1).

When Pharaoh chose to “drive them out of his land” Israel was released from their covenant obligation to Pharaoh. At that moment, Israel was divorced from Egypt. The covenant was dissolved, and Israel was free to proceed to the Promised Land with no obligation of allegiance to Egypt.

In fact, the Hebrew words translated here as the phrases let them go (shalach) and drive them out (garash) are both translated elsewhere as divorce (Malachi 2:16, Leviticus 21:14).

God brought about the just divorce of Israel from Egypt, and He calls it Redemption.

Redemption is just divorce from a covenant of abusive bondage!

Thank God, He is still in the business of redeeming His children from covenants of abusive bondage!

27 Comments

  1. Excellent post, Joe 🙂

    Lots of insight. We have to rightly divide the word of truth and one of the biggest problems comes from lumping everything into one big basket.

    • joepote01

      Thank you, Ida Mae!

      When we focus on pursuing godliness, rather than on avoiding sin, things become much clearer.

  2. Joe,
    Thank you for such an excellent post, and thank you, Jeff, for passing this on to us. You have set hearts free tonight. I have often imagined what it would be like if a divorced woman came to Jesus. If she told him that she had been married to an abusive man and that her children had lived in terror in his house. What would he say to her when she told him that a loving man wished to be her husband and a protective father to her children? Would he refuse to bless this union and insist she remain legally bound to her abuser? I’m having a hard time picturing Jesus condemning her to a life of misery. He came to set captives free, not to insist they stay chained to their abusers.

    • joepote01

      “He came to set captives free, not to insist they stay chained to their abusers.”

      Amen!

      Morven, I think we can see the answer to that question in the person of Rahab the harlot. Rahab was a prostitute who made her living lying with men in exchange for money. She had countless physical unions with multiple men. Yet, by faith, Rahab protected and hid the Israelite spies, and God honored her faith by protecting her and her family during the defeat of Jericho. Later, Rahab married an Israelite, named Salmon. Not only did God approve of the marriage, but he honored it by choosing Rahab and Salmon to be in the direct lineage of Jesus Christ. Rahab is prominently listed in the first chapter of Matthew, as Messiah’s ancestor.

      When God redeems you, you are redeemed! That old covenant of bondage is dissolved and there remains no obligation to that dissolved covenant.

      Thank you!

  3. Survivor

    I think most Christians think divorce is sin because of their misunderstanding of the verse Malachi 2:16, which is translated in most versions as “‘I hate divorce’, says the LORD”. The conclusion is that if God hates it, it is sin. Barbara Roberts’ book Not Under Bondage addresses this misinterpretation very thoroughly and critically. Her well-researched argument will blow away all the half-baked presumptions that Christians go by to pronounce condemnation to the women whom God Himself is setting free.

    • joepote01

      I have not, yet, read Barbara’s book. However, from the Amazon description, I get the impression we are probably in close agreement on interpretation of that passage in Malachi 2.

      Reading the passage in context, it becomes clear that God is addressing the sin of treacherous violation of covenant vows, and that the verse is clearly not talking about just divorce, but a major injustice.

      You’re right, though, about many people reading this verse out of context…in fact they quote only one phrase and not even a complete verse or sentence. Context is everything, when it comes to understanding a writer’s intent!

      Thank you, Survivor!

  4. Maree

    Our preoccupation with divorce (as a result of erroneously labeling divorce as sin) rather than elevating the sacredness of the covenant vows, actually diminishes them, by incorrectly placing the scrutiny on the longevity of the covenant, rather than on how well the covenant vows were lived out. The question, in searching our hearts for sin, should not be, “Have I divorced?” but rather, “How well have I honored my covenant vows?”

    Now think about how contradictory these two statements are. “Divorce is sin.” “Divorce is only permissible when…” Folks, sin is NEVER permissible.

    Hey Joe, you bring up some good points here.

    • joepote01

      Thank you, Maree! It’s required a paradigm shift, for sure, from what I was taught growing up.

      God bless!

  5. Thanks Joe for your contribution here. I see that someone has already mentioned my book so I’ll add a link here:
    Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion

    I don’t want to appear argumentative Joe, but may I gently disagree with your take on Deut. 24:1-4? You said: “the law given to Moses not only makes specific provision for divorce, but also ensures that the divorce is to be handled in a manner that is just, that neither party remains under obligation to the other, and each is free to marry another.”

    I agree that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 indicates that a woman is free to marry a new husband after having been divorced by a previous husband. And by extension that same liberty would apply to men who have been divorced by their wives. The point on which I disagree with you, Joe, is this: I don’t see that Deut. 24 made *specific provision* for divorce. To my understanding the passage shows the following:
    (1) Israelite men had been divorcing their wives for a long time before that law was promulgated by Moses, and the man’s giving his wife a divorce certificate was part and parcel of that already established custom, so the procedure of issuing a divorce certificate was NOT instituted by Moses.
    (2) Moses/God gave that law in Deut. 24:4 solely in order to prevent the misuse of divorce and remarriage in a way that resembled pimping and adultery.
    (3) The ruling in verse 4 was not God’s approving provision for divorce; rather, it was an attempt to regulate the practice of divorce so women were not treated as saleable property by men.
    (4) God (and Moses) reluctantly suffered the practice of men divorcing their wives, but they drew the line emphatically against men using divorce and remarriage to traffic women as if they were commodities.

    Readers may be interested that in some Muslim communities to this day, divorce and remarriage can be used as a legalised form of pimping. A muslim husband merely needs to repeat the words “I divorce you” to his wife three times. This turns her into a divorcee who is thus able to be married to another man. She and her the new man’ can undergo a quick marriage ceremony courtesy of the nearest imam. They can have sex for one night, then the new husband can say to her “I divorce you” three times, after which she can then be remarried to the first husband. The process can continue indefinitely. You can imagine how the first husband can turn this religiously permitted procedure into a nice little money-spinner for himself. He can turn his wife into his ex-wife, pass her (for a fee) to another man, then take her back for himself. All this is permitted by the religious leaders. It is tantamount to legalised pimping under the guise of marriage and divorce. It was this kind of male-entitlement conduct that God was prohibiting in Deuteronomy 24:4.

    I wish more theologians and scholars would read my book so that the stock-standard interpretation of Deutreonomy 24 – which has been passed down unthinkingly from one generation of theologians to the next – would be more closely scrutinised.

    • joepote01

      Thank you, Barbara! Gentle disagreement is encouraged! Not only are we all seeing “through a glass, darkly,” but we are also all looking through different glasses. So, we should not expect to all see things exactly the same, this side of Glory.

      I have not yet read your book, though it is on my reading wish list for near-future purchase. You might also be interested in my book, “So You are a Believer…Who has been through Divorce: A Myth-Busting Biblical Perspective on Divorce” http://www.amazon.com/You-Believer-been-through-Divorce/dp/1463767161/ Though I understand your book to be a much more scholarly approach than my own.

      Yes, I absolutely agree with all that you have said about the history and background of Deuteronomy 24. I would also say that, in light of all the background, God did not forbid divorce, but rather made provision for how to go about divorce in a manner that is just, that left neither pary under obligation to the other, and that left both parties free to remarry.

      Thanks much! I love reading your input on this blog, Barbara, and look forward to reading your book!

      • Thanks Joe, I’ll be checking out your book!
        I agree with you that “God did not forbid divorce, but rather made provision for how to go about divorce in a manner that is just, that left neither pary under obligation to the other, and that left both parties free to remarry.” AMEN!

  6. Pippa

    Looking at this issue from the inside, I believe that there is another important point to make. I am sure that this is not true for all, but I believe that it is my sin nature that has kept me in this false marriage. Keep in mind that I made a marriage covenant almost 33 years ago. I have known essentially from the beginning, though I was blinded to the full significance of the deceit, that the EHTB was not acting on the promise. I have begun to recognize my sin in NOT divorcing long ago. Though the EHTB has managed to bamboozle numerous (but not all) pastors, church groups, friends, acquaintances and family, he has never totally pulled the wool over the eyes of the numerous Christian therapists we have seen. Two therapists of a dozen or so did the unthinkable and contacted me after a session and told me they were concerned for my safety, that I needed to GET AWAY. Another called me a FOOL for staying. But I have hung on. There are many factors here and few, or none, of them spiritually wise. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to acknowledge that my “husband” desired me only. I didn’t want to admit that my perfect fantasy of a life was not real. I didn’t want to think that I didn’t have what it takes to keep a marriage together. That is pride. It is vanity. It is sin. It is Eve continuing to allow the serpent to deceive her.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Pippa – You turn the prevailing church traditions on their head here, and rightly so. A sin to remain married? Yes. Of course, we don’t want to lay false guilt on victims who, generally, stay longer than they should. As you said, the deceptiveness and fogginess and confusion of the whole thing is amazing. However, it surely is helpful for us all to understand all of the forces that keep us under the power of the abuser, and you are confessing that in your case, pride came into play. Most all of us would have to fess up to the same thing. In addition of course, I wonder how much of your persistence in the “marriage” was due to wrong teaching you had received on what God says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage?

    • Pippa, thanks so much for your contribution. It echos what I’ve heard from many survivors. In a sense, the victim who remains in the marriage enables the abuser to continue to abuse. Some victims have told me “I was complicit, by staying.”

      I know of one survivor who says God told her to leave but she did not obey straight away, and then got raped by her husband. She left immediately after the rape, never to return. This woman says she was complicit with the abuse in that she did not obey God straight away when He told her to leave.

      But the notions of enablement and complicity cannot be use to blame the victim altogether, because there are myriads of reasons why victims don’t leave, as readers here well know. Some of the reasons may be misplaced theology – which may at times be linked to pride, as you say, Pippa. Other reasons are practical and these can be mountainous obstacles indeed: lack of money, lack of support, fear of retaliation, etc.

      For myself, one of my reasons for staying in my first marriage was related to my own sin: I was fearful that without a husband I would slip back into my old addiction to bulimia. Thankfully, when I left, I didn’t fall back into that black hole, and I attribute much of my success against bulimia to the fact that I started walking as a Christian after leaving that husband.

    • joepote01

      You raise a very good point, Pippa.

      I say this, not to condemn, but to encourage, as one who has been in a similar situation, and had to confess similar sin. Yes, to allow pride, or even advice of other believers, to keep me from doing what I know in my heart to be the right thing to do, is sin. For me to willfully continue believing a lie, because I don’t want to admit the truth, is sin.

      In fact, I would even say that in order to change course and take action to change the situation requires a confession of sin…an admission that what I have been doing until this point is not the best path, or the direction that God is leading me to take.

      To some extent, any time I must change my view to realign it with God’s view (something I daily pray for the Holy Spirit to enable me to do) it is a confession that I have been viewing a distortion of God’s truth…a blindness that is the result of sin and/or immaturity.

      Well stated and well done!

  7. Pippa

    To answer your question, Pastor Jeff, regarding how much my persistence was due to bad teaching
    I think at this point it is hard to say. I am a bit stubborn, resistant to change and not easily influenced, which can be good qualities, but when it comes to refusing the prompting of the Spirit, they can be lethal. I would have to say that I’ve known for a long time that God didn’t want me to continue in that dangerous position. I certainly don’t think that this is true for everyone in an abusive relationship.
    I appreciate everyone’s kind support and feedback.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thank you for the feedback, Pippa. And I appreciate your honest self-analysis as well. There are so many reasons that keep a person in an enslaving relationship, When we look back in hindsight they become easier to see. But everyone can learn from the experiences of others and maybe your experience will help someone else hear God’s promptings in their own life.

  8. Yikes–I hate to admit I’ve never even thought about it in this way, but it makes perfect sense now. You’re right; God would never condone sin under any circumstances, yet he does condone divorce in certain situations. Thanks, Joe!

    • joepote01

      LOL! Your “Yikes!” made me laugh, Lisa. That was pretty much my reaction when first confronted with this realization. It has been a definite paradigm shift from teaching I heard growing up…

  9. I agree with Lisa, I’ve never thought of it this way and have always been taught that divorce is sin. But I’ve come to realize that God hates divorce so much because of the pain it causes everyone involved, especially children. Thanks for your insight on this, I’m looking forward to digging into the word more on this.

    • joepote01

      “I’m looking forward to digging into the word more on this.”

      Always a great idea! I’m praying God will grant you insight as you study.

      Thank you, Alecia!

  10. REDEEMED!!

    Joe, I just had to post a THANK YOU. I have been reading your book, and the chapter on “Wasted Years, Effort and Emotions” was a much needed balm to my soul. I needed the reminder that when we love sacrificially, He accepts that gift as being done for Him.

    • 🙂

    • joepote01

      You are so welcome, Redeemed!

      Thank YOU for letting me know it was a blessing to you. It is such an encouragement to learn of God using my experiences and my words as a blessing to someone else!

      Most of that chapter came directly from God’s comforting words to me, as I sat in a church service, about a year after the divorce. I cannot even tell you what the sermon was about, but I know what God was saying to me. Over and over He repeated His love for me and His acceptance and appreciation of my love toward Him, demonstrated through acts of love in my former marriage. I just sat there with tears running down my face as the Holy Spirit bathed me in His healing love.

      He is such a faithful friend!

      BTW, I love your avatar name! I chose Redeemed as the name of my blog:
      http://josephjpote.com/

      I, too, am Redeemed! 🙂

      • I cannot even tell you what the sermon was about, but I know what God was saying to me. Over and over He repeated His love for me and His acceptance and appreciation of my love toward Him, demonstrated through acts of love in my former marriage. I just sat there with tears running down my face as the Holy Spirit bathed me in His healing love.

        Joe, you and me too! I’ve had so many times like that.

      • joepote01

        Barbara –

        God is so incredibly good to us! 🙂

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