Divorce: the Unforgiveable Sin?

by Vicki Nunn  

Introduction: Divorce Was Never Part of God’s Original Plan

It’s true that divorce was never part of God’s original plan, but then neither was sin. Once sin entered the world, along with it came corruption of our once perfect natures and in crept selfishness, greed and unforgiveness etc. As no individual person is perfect, so no marriage can be without conflict or problems. Because we are all prone to selfishness and egotism, it is ultimately going to impact on every marriage relationship. Marriage is therefore going to be hard … really, really hard.

Does that mean we should never marry because it’s too difficult and we’ll end up hating each other and then have to divorce? No. It means that Christians who marry must enter the marriage commitment soberly, with their eyes fully opened to the difficulties and being willing to work hard at making their relationship work. They must truly understand that the marriage commitment is not about ‘being in love’ or ‘staying in love’ or believing that marriage is just an emotional connection. Marriage is so much more than that.

 Just as God continued to love and forgive the Jewish people time and time again and His relationship with His people was a solemn marriage-type commitment, so too should we be willing to repeatedly forgive our partners for their failings, despite the times when we do not feel an emotional love for or even a connection with them.

What is Marriage?

Before we can delve further into this topic of divorce, we must first be clear about marriage. What is it?

Marriage is not about ceremonies, pieces of paper, pretty dresses, flowers, churches nor even the vows we speak aloud. We should recognise that the foundation of the marriage commitment is not about an emotional connection, but it’s about a promised obligation that is far more intimate than sex or any kind of emotional bond.

When God created man and then made woman from man, He established the foundation for a committed relationship so that between the two of them they become a whole person. The part of man that was taken from him to make woman, means that both man and woman coming together, become a whole, and are together a stronger entity.

As one has weaknesses and strengths, so the partner often has weaknesses and strengths in other areas and they therefore complement each other. In a marriage, we must remain mindful of the strengths that our partner brings into the relationship, and not focus on things that we perceive as their weaknesses, which so often happens in marriages. When we focus on a partner’s weaknesses, it can lead to contempt and a break-down in that marriage bond.

While there is a physical unity during the sexual act, marriage is more than just a temporary coming together physically, but is a commitment to a union in all areas of marriage. While both are individuals, the marriage is to become a blending of the two into a commitment of one.

In western cultures, the word ‘love’ is tossed about and treated far too lightly. The word love as we use it, bears little resemblance to the love that God would wish between a man and a woman.

In our human weakness and selfishness, our concept of love is a pale, flimsy imitation that can rarely last the test of time.

Love is not about emotions or feeling good or having affection for another, nor wishing the best for the other person, though that is often how relationships can begin. Most people experience these emotions at some time in their lives, but in the long-term they are as fleeting and insubstantial as a cloud.

Marriage is not even about being half of a relationship but is a sober commitment to work at being part of a whole. It’s a conscious forcing of our will to comm-itting our loyalty, obedience and our service to the other, and to making the relationship work. It is daily putting the needs of our partner and our marriage above our own.

When we read it like that, it sounds extremely challenging if not impossible doesn’t it? This is a concept that is omitted from most marriage vows. The fact is, few of us are willing to give such incredible dedication to marriage and instead we settle for that pale and flimsy imitation which the world tells us is acceptable or is ‘real love.’

Is it any wonder then that so many relationships, including Christians marriages fail, since the foundation upon which they are built has so little substance?

Why Do Some Churches Treat Divorce as Unforgiveable?

Some churches base their approach to divorce on verses which are found in the Bible:

(a)     “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” Malachi 2:16 [ESV]

(b)     “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him (Jesus), “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Matthew 19:6b-9 [ESV]

(c) “And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:11-12 [ESV]

(d)     “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.” 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 [ESV]

We’ll review the previous Bible verses in connection with the concept of divorce, and put them into their proper context.

(a)     “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” Malachi 2:16 [ESV]

Context: after their return from exile, the Jewish people failed to understand the seriousness of their rebellion against God, nor had they accepted that it was because of their sin that they’d been exiled.

Though upon their return many Jews had initially been zealous in their enthusiasm to rebuild the temple, they eventually became lazy and spiritually apathetic once more and came to doubt God’s love. They didn’t respect nor honour their marriages and were marrying people from other nations who knew nothing of God, and were divorcing and remarrying frequently.

Additionally, the priests became corrupt and they dishonoured God by contemptuously offering Him sub-par sacrifices, ie animals that were blemished, blind and lame etc.

Despite the centuries of evidence of God’s continued faithfulness to His people and His love for them, the Israelites repeatedly rebelled against God, and still did not trust Him nor obey His laws.

If divorce is an unforgivable sin, then consider that God Himself is not forgiven. In Jeremiah 3:6-8 God clearly tells us that He divorced Israel:

“Then the Eternal who rules over all of history reminded me of a lesson my people, Judah, should have learned from Israel a century ago. He spoke these words to Judah early in my career, during the days of Josiah the king.”

“Eternal One: Have you not learned anything from Israel’s unfaithful ways? How she turned away from Me, went up every high hill and under every green tree to worship another. She acted like a prostitute and broke our covenant there. I thought, “After she’s done all this, she’ll return home to Me,” but it never happened. She didn’t come back. And her deceitful sister, Judah, saw all of this and learned nothing. She saw that I sent unfaithful Israel away with a decree of divorce for these acts of adultery. But it didn’t matter to her deceitful sister, Judah. She wasn’t afraid or moved by any of this. She went her own way and played the prostitute as well.” [Voice]

Through the prophets Jeremiah and Malachi, God gave a message to Israel that He was divorcing them as His people (except for the tribe of Judah, even though He acknowledged that they weren’t much better.)

He stated that though He had earlier made a binding and holy covenant with His people, because of their continued rejection and rebellion over more than a thousand years, it had finally resulted in His divorce from them, and a severing of His commitment to them as His people.

It is also in Malachi that we hear of God’s promise that He would send someone who would bring a new covenant and a new promise. This new covenant (who we find out later comes about through Jesus and his sacrifice), would be between God and his new bride, the church.

While God appeared to be very unhappy with the rampant divorce going on in Israel as described in Malachi, the message in this book was focussed more on God’s relationship with His people rather than the Jews slack attitudes towards their marriage vows. While God Himself had made a ‘marriage’ commitment to the Israelites which began with Abraham, ultimately He was choosing to divorce all of Israel excepting the tribe of Judah.

Consider that this is perhaps an acknowledgement that sometimes, despite the best efforts to keep a marriage going, that divorce may be allowable, particularly if one party is unwilling to change their behaviours? I’m sure it must have broken God’s heart to see His beloved people rebel and sin, time and time again.

Let’s consider also the following Bible passages which some churches use in their condemnation of divorce:

(b)     “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Matthew 19:6b-9 [ESV]

AND Mark 10:11-12

(c) “And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:11-12 [ESV]

Context: Some religious leaders like to hold these up as the ultimate and most sacred commitment and law about marriage. Oddly enough, if the marriage vow is so sacred, why is it not mentioned as one of the ten commandments which form the foundation of our Christian faith?

Let’s look at these verses in context both Biblically and culturally to gain a better understanding.

In the hope they could trap Him, the Pharisees came over to Jesus and asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. Jesus replied:

“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Again the Pharisees tried to trick him:

“They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Jesus was saying that what God had intended for marriage between a man and a woman had become corrupted, ie initially it had been intended to be an equal partnership. The Jewish Pharisees though were asking if Jewish men could use any pathetic excuse they liked to divorce their wife.

We know though that over the centuries, the Israelite’s own concepts about women and marriage had been affected by other cultures that had infiltrated their own. It had become common then for Jewish men to treat women as second-class citizens, even sometimes as their possessions.

Jesus understood that as a result of divorce, in the Jewish culture at that time, a divorced woman would likely be sent away with no money, possessions or home to call her own and little if any opportunity for an income.     With marriage and divorce being taken so lightly by the Jewish people, and particularly the men, Jesus was pointing out the seriousness of their attitude when it came to marriage and how differently God saw the marriage commitment.

If the Jews could grow so tired of their spouse so easily and then jumped into another marriage with little thought, then their marriage commitment was not done so with any concept of God at its core, but was based on mere selfishness and fickleness.

This kind of marriage was completely opposite to that which God had intended the marriage relationship to be. Flitting from one marriage to another on a whim, or out of lust was committing adultery, and they couldn’t excuse their sin with the flimsy claim of divorce, because in many cases, the former wife hadn’t done anything wrong.

Let’s look at another passage which the church uses to say that divorce is not acceptable:

(d)     “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.” 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 [ESV]

Context: In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, he is responding to a specific question about whether a believer and a non-believer should remain married. This question was put to Paul because believers wanted to be sure they weren’t committing a sin or disobeying God by remaining married to a non-believer. Paul clarified this question and encouraged them to remain married. There was no references here to sinfulness or disobedience to God through divorce.

If we look earlier at 1 Corinthians 7:6, Paul made it clear that this was his own personal opinion, and not a command from God.

This passage therefore is not really relevant when it comes to the question of whether divorce is an unforgiveable sin because it was a thought and a response from Paul about a particular situation in the church at Corinth, and wasn’t a direct command from God.

Finally, let us consider that Jesus made it clear that there is only one unforgiveable sin, ie blaspheming of the Holy Spirit which we find in Mark 3:28-29:

“Listen, the truth is that people can be forgiven of almost anything. God has been known to forgive many things, even blasphemy. But speaking evil of the Spirit of God is an unforgivable sin that will follow you into eternity.” [Voice]

This one and only unforgivable sin is when a person attributes the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan, and has nothing whatsoever to do with divorce. Any person or church that states otherwise or is suggesting that divorce is unforgiveable is claiming that they know better than Jesus, and perhaps that their wisdom is above God’s!

If we look at the punishment for adultery and fornication in Biblical times, the guilty parties were stoned to death and the innocent were allowed to remarry.   But when Jesus came, the New Testament gave us that wonderful term forgiveness and reconciliation.  This same forgiveness and reconciliation to Him is relevant today. Divorce doesn’t change that offer.

Instead of being punished in the old way, according to the old laws, today the guilty parties should be given instructions on how to correct their sin and repent, after which the innocent parties are free to remarry when the divorce has settled.

The Catholic Church and Divorce

The Catholic church looks upon divorce more sternly than most protestant churches nowadays. While divorced people may be welcomed into a Catholic church, they are no longer allowed to be full participants in the church eg, they are not allowed to receive Eucharist at mass.

The reason for not allowing divorce is that the Catholic church agrees to marry people with the understanding that a covenant agreement has been made between the couple and God to remain married, no matter what circumstances or difficulties arise.

 Additionally, the agreement means that the couple has entered into a relationship that will permanently change and transform them both together as a couple. The bond is indissoluble and therefore cannot be entered into lightly because the commitment is permanent. It is not therefore just a contract to simply try to make a marriage work.

The Catholic church sees marriage as a holy and binding agreement between the couple and God which cannot be broken except in extreme circumstances such as dishonesty at the time when the couple made the marriage vows.

I imagine that there are few couples in the Catholic church who truly understood the solemnity of their marriage commitment at the time they made it. Statistically, divorce rates are at a similar level in the Catholic church as they are in protestant churches.

Couples grow apart through immaturity and/or selfishness, and many divorce and may even remarry (outside of the church) and find that they are no longer able to fully participate in the Catholic church. After a breakup, many divorced/ remarried Catholics feel on the outer, confused, and rejected, and some walk away from the church.

So, Is Divorce an Unforgiveable Sin?

Perhaps we should start by asking the question, why should we regard divorce as a worse sin than say sexual assault, paedophilia, blasphemy, murder or genocide?

If we look at the people that Jesus accepted and forgave, they were some of the worst sinners! If Jesus was willing to accept people who were truly contrite and willing to change and desiring to be forgiven, then shouldn’t we also be willing to do the same for divorcees if they are truly contrite and willing to change and desiring to be forgiven?

We could ask these difficult questions: does a church’s ruling on divorce supersede Jesus forgiveness of sinners and their sin?

If we are going to place human restrictions on what sins are forgivable, are we suggesting that our authority is superior to that of Jesus?

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone should rebel against their church’s laws, but I urge you to consider whether your own personal beliefs about divorce are based on your church’s rules or have you personally considered Jesus’ approach to the sinners that He encountered, as written in the New Testament?

I encourage you to reflect on the following questions:

   Is God’s forgiveness and love able to be measured?

   Is there any sin that God cannot overcome?

   Did Jesus restrict His acceptance of sinners to only a select few?

   Was Jesus’ purpose in dying on the cross to save only the perfect, or those with less sin or those who remain married?

If we reject divorcees or any sinners and claim they are unaccept-able in God’s church, what then can we claim is the Good News – that God’s message has limitations?

But I’m the One Who Committed Adultery

That’s a tough one for people to come to terms with or to forgive, but while people may regard you as the failure or the sinner that led to the marriage break-up, it still doesn’t mean that you cannot be forgiven.

I would suggest first that if there is any chance of reconciliation, to work at that if possible. Either way, you need to be doing some serious talking with God about the situation and seeking His forgiveness.

This is a very complex issue, so find a good Christian counsellor, preferably not your own pastor or someone from within your church, but someone who is impartial and doesn’t personally know you or your ex-partner. There are likely to be many things that you need to work through before you can move forward.

If you and your partner do decide to try reconciliation, then marriage counselling for both of you is going to be vital in this process.

So Can I Get a Divorce Now?

Whoa! Please don’t assume that I am encouraging anyone to seek a divorce if their marriage is difficult. In particular, please don’t make that kind of a decision on a whim, or because your marriage is too much hard work, or because your partner is not a Christian.

This article is by no means provided as a way to justify seeking a way to divorce your partner. In fact, those previous excuses are really quite flimsy.

While divorce is never claimed to be an unforgivable sin, the Bible urges Christians first of all not to rush into marriage without recognising the seriousness of the commitment, and then to earnestly work at the marriage by placing their relationship and their partner’s needs above their own.

Marriage is a relationship of equals with both sharing the burdens, depending upon each other in their own strengths and weaknesses. Man and woman were made to counter-balance,  support and encourage each other in marriage.

Under Which Circumstances Then Can I Divorce?

During the centuries that the Bible was written, domestic violence, paedophilia, and emotional and sexual abuse were uncommon amongst the Israelites. Today they seem to becoming much more prevalent across the world.

This is certainly at least one circumstance in which it is acceptable to leave a marriage. As God is a god of love and peace and not a god of pain or chaos, He would not desire that anyone stay in a marriage where they or their children may be harmed.

While God would prefer us to stay in a marriage, particularly when a partner is ill, on the other hand, abuse should never be tolerated. How often in the Bible does God speak against those who hurt the vulnerable?

Why Do Some Christians Treat Divorcees So Poorly?

The main reason many people in the church treat divorcees so poorly, usually comes down to one sin which God hates and repeatedly mentions how much He hates, in the Bible:

* the sin of pride *

 There is something inherent in human nature which encourages us to want to indulge in arrogance and one-upmanship. Divorcees and other perceived ‘sinners’ are a great source upon which we can foist our moral superiority and self-righteousness!

“Look at that failure!”

“There’s that sinner who divorced his wife!”

“How can she call herself a Christian?”

“Can you believe they had the audacity to remarry? Adulterer!”

How dare we judge other Christians! How dare we put ourselves on a pedestal and claim we are less of a sinner! Are we really better or superior just because we aren’t divorced?

Philippians 2:3 reminds us:

“Don’t let selfishness and prideful agendas take over. Embrace true humility, and lift your heads to extend love to others.” [Voice]

It takes a lot of work for us to let go of our own ego and to be loving towards sinners. The Holy Spirit wants to work with us to rid ourselves of our natural selfishness and pride. It is a battle with ourselves and our own innate nature that is well worth fighting.

Divorcees and the Church

People going through divorce will usually experience an emotional, spiritual, mental and financial roller-coaster ride. The relationships between the couple, friends, family and children can cause enormous pain and suffering for those involved.

Unfortunately, the church can add hugely to these struggles at a time when the divorcee needs a high level of support. Attitudes from Pastors, Elders and the Church Board towards divorcees can include the arrogance we discussed earlier through to mistrust, contempt and outright rejection.

If either of the couple had earlier  been given positions of authority within the church,  after the break-up, the church may seek to remove them from those positions, as if the divorce itself had somehow proven their unworthiness by their inadequacy in maintaining a marriage.

This is both hurtful, confusing and distressing to the divorcee, particularly at a time when they need more support from their church. It can often appear as if their own church wishes to punish them and treat them as if they are disgustingly sinful failures.

If the divorcee seeks out another church family, they may encounter similar attitudes and remain on the outer within what is supposed to be a loving and supportive church family.

Thankfully this does not happen in all churches, but where it does occur, the church needs to seriously reconsider their approach, and their unloving and unchristian attitude towards divorcees.

In fact I would suggest that if a church is wondering why it’s losing members as its congregation is shrinking, it may need to consider its own actions towards its members, particularly those it regards as unforgiveable sinners.

Conclusion

In a struggling marriage, one or both of the partners may think it would be easier to separate then to continue trying to work through the pain and the struggles. We must understand that staying together or divorcing are going to be equally as difficult and painful as the other.

Divorce often has far-reaching consequences of which people outside of the relationship are often unaware. It usually impacts negatively upon the children which arise from the marriage, on friends and also family members. Emotionally, mentally, financially and spiritually it can be devastating for the couple who have broken up and can leave each with long-term pain and emotional issues that remain with them for life.

There is also the fact that as a divorcee, others will see them as failures or if they’ve remarried, as active sinners because they are living in sin and committing adultery.

Divorcees may be shunned, treated as contemptible or worthless, and may even lose trusted Christian friends and their church family.

While divorce should never be undertaken lightly, it is not an unforgivable sin.

Pastors and church members should recognise the difficult decisions involved in divorce and the terrible pain and suffering that goes with it.

Rather than allowing themselves to indulge in feelings of superiority or deliberately treating the divorcee as failures, church leaders and other Christians should acknowledge that they need to leave their own ego out of the equation, and face divorcees with compassion and love.

Let’s acknowledge that Jesus never asked us to be punishers of our fellow sinners. Each of us should recognise that we need to be both the heart and the hands of Christ to our suffering and hurting brothers and sisters and help them along their journey.   [End]

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Bibliography:

Casey, Friar, 10 October 2010, Breaking In the Habit, “The Unforgivable Sin” available: https://breakinginthehabit.org/2015/10/10/the-unforgivable-sin

Lawler, Michael G, Liturgical Press 1993, “Marriage and Sacrament: A Theology of Christian Marriage” available: https://books. google.com.au

Richison, Grant, 21 September 2002, Verse by Verse Commentary, “1 Corinthians 7:12-13” available: http://versebyversecommentary.com/ 1-corinthians/1-corinthians-712-13/

Myers, Jeremy, no date, Redeeming God, “Is Divorce the Unforgivable Sin?” available: https://redeeminggod.com/divorce-unforgivable-sin/