Letter Concerning Divorce
To followers of Jesus who stumble upon this:
If this letter does not make you uncomfortable, then I will have failed in writing with honesty.
In fact, I write this letter in shame. Shame, not so much because I’m a soon-to-be-divorcee, though I’m battling that every day. Shame, because the cause I’m writing about is one I should have taken up long before it became personal for me.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMITMENT
Before I venture any further, I want to do something we don’t do as much as we should, which is acknowledge something positive about church culture.
The flow of mainstream culture right now is moving in many positive directions, from the fight for women’s rights to the struggle against systematic racism. But, at a time when we have a hard time even RSVP’ing, one value that I wish were not losing some of its luster is a traditional one, one that I see many churches trying to hold onto: the courage to make serious commitments and then muster the grit to keep them.
I first learned the impact that fierce commitment to your word can have when I was a middle school teacher. The vast majority of my students came from homes where they experienced broken promise after broken promise. I feared I would be the last person they would trust, because I didn’t come from their part of town. I didn’t look like, act like, or talk like them. But I quickly learned that what they valued the most wasn’t whether I looked or dressed like them. It wasn’t whether I listened to the same music as them. It wasn’t whether I was funny or smart or entertaining in my lessons. What they valued the most, and what would eventually have the biggest impact on their learning, was whether or not they felt they could trust me. Every day, especially early in the school year, they were evaluating, they were watching me and asking themselves – “Can I take this guy at his word?”
That question, of course, isn’t unique to a teacher-student relationship. The relationship where that question matters the most, of course, is marriage. And there’s no moment more significant than when you stand at an altar, with an officiant on one side, your friends and family on the other, and you look your soon-to-be-spouse in the eyes, full of tears and waiting expectantly, and you commit the rest of your life to them.
So I share the sadness many Christians feel that, with each passing decade, love for commitment seems to give way in our culture to an always-increasing obsession with personal fulfillment. Explanations like “I just don’t love you anymore” or “there’s another life I’d rather live” not only become reasons people give to break their commitments, but acceptable reasons, as if people – spouses – are just clothes we can put on and off as we wish.
There’s an old parable that I’ve heard given many times at our church, that I think applies here. It’s about two young fish. They’re swimming along one day when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, with looks of confusion, until eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What’s water?”
In an age of “no-fault divorce”, “you do you”, and “it’s your life”, a hope and prayer I have is that as a culture we’d see rays of light streaking in through the water, showing us there’s another way to be. Instead of living our lives based on a diet of our unpredictable feelings, the great surprise of the search for personal fulfillment is that the only way to find it is to fight for it in the lives of those you’ve committed yourself to.
It is because of that conviction that I believe successful marriage is more about becoming the right person than finding the right person. It is because of that conviction that I believe in the fierce commitment to the sanctity, to the tight bond of marriage, to hold people to the words they’ve vowed.
But it is also because of that belief that I urge church leaders and Christians reading this to thoughtfully and prayerfully reflect on your posture towards divorce and what the foundations for your views might actually be.
Over the last decade, I have had both the privilege and the grief of being intimately involved in dozens of marriages. Some of my favorite stories have been ones where a couple hits an impasse in their relationship, where they feel like they’re both running into a wall every day in their marriage, wondering if there’s any way to save it, and yet through prayer, the support of community, and small decisions to love the other person each day, together they find a way.
In most of those cases, it wouldn’t have been the right choice to even consider divorce. You would have two people who were committed to the other person but were emotionally worn down by the grind and challenge that marriage can become. They needed counseling, support, and time.
But I’ve also been involved in two marriages, where I felt that divorce could – or in one of the cases, should – be considered. It wasn’t because of an affair. It also wasn’t based on the words either spouse was saying - almost every spouse knows the right things to say. It was the history of their actions that would reveal that there just wasn’t anywhere close to the commitment that their words implied, and to insist the other spouse persevere in that situation would be to keep them tied to a neglectful situation at best, or an abusive one at worst. I took those positions with full conviction that “God hates divorce” (Mal 2:16), not as an arbitrary dictum, but as an outflow of his passion for sincere, meaningful covenantal love.
In those situations, my opinion was not shared by most of church leadership. In both cases, before there was much - or any - investigation or consideration of the issues, it was quickly determined that divorce was off the table, because “God hates divorce”. As a result, we insisted both couples should stay in their marriage, since each spouse was saying what they needed to say and because we serve a God big enough to turn things around. But in both situations, the abuse/neglect continued, and eventually they ended in divorce.
I’m convinced we were responsible for handcuffing people to abusive/neglectful situations by being careless in our theology and dismissive in our consideration of the evidence. I deeply regret that I was not more vocal about this issue before it became personal for me.
As you know, one of the criticisms that’s often leveled at the church is that we make our decisions based on feelings, not based on evidence, that we turn a blind eye to data in order to keep on believing what feels most comfortable. I am proud to say our core faith commitments don’t fall into that category. That’s what makes me a Christian. So when an honest evaluation of evidence is what helped bring me to faith, I can’t tell you how discouraging it has been to often see little investigation put into people’s potential grounds for divorce before making broad determinations about them. Now I find myself in the same seat, with no meaningful investigation put into my grounds for divorce before church leaders determined - and then voiced to our congregation only days after I decided to divorce - that what I was doing was unbiblical.
Of course, decisions like these have profound consequences. While I’ve had many people reach out in care and concern, which I’m grateful for, I’ve had just as many try to be Nathan to my David, feeling some sort of obligation to tell me how wrong they believe I am. Sometimes that comes in an email. Sometimes that comes in a text. Often, it comes in person, sometimes mixed with a harsh tone:
“Drew, what do you think it meant when you said for better or for worse?”
“I suppose you weren’t man enough to keep your word.”
“Drew, I don't want you out there as an ambassador for Christ…We have enough frauds out there.”
It’s tough enough to receive harsh words from people who don’t know my situation. It’s tough enough that this is having a detrimental impact to my career and ministry pursuits. But that is nothing compared to the consequences other Christians face who feel they must stay in an abusive or neglectful situation, when church leaders have failed to investigate and been too closed-minded to consider the true foundations of their views.
And I get it.
Divorce strikes a personal chord with everyone involved. If one person is allowed to “break” the most important commitment they could ever make, to the person they’re supposed to love and cherish the most, what does that say about the strength of all the rest of the commitments in the community?
But it’s fears like those that keep us from entering into people’s real-life situations - situations where someone comes in deep, daily pain and yet we assume their marital issues are probably something like ours, because “all marriage is hard”.
When involved in other people’s marriages, I can’t tell how many claims of a hurt spouse I’ve seen quickly dismissed by church leaders. It’s quickly assumed “You’re so stupid” or “You’re fucking stupid” is something that has perhaps been said in a moment or two of anger, not that it’s a regular part of what it means for this person to be “home”. It’s quickly assumed that a broken promise is something that unavoidably happens in marriage, not the end result of 95% of meaningful promises made. It’s quickly assumed there’s been moments and seasons of love and passion, not that this person’s basic sexual desires and parts of their body have been harshly referred to as “disgusting” since their wedding night. It’s quickly assumed that both spouses are working on their marriage, not that one spouse repeatedly, routinely dismisses any concerns of the other spouse as simply resulting from their childhood or their refusal to try an antidepressant. It’s quickly assumed the hurt spouse is contributing just as much to the hostility of the marriage, not that they carefully parse their words every day, because it’s what they have to do just to survive. We assume they just need more time.
Then it’s quickly assumed that the hurt spouse has all kinds of motivations for seeking divorce other than removing themselves from a truly neglectful/abusive situation:
“She just wants to date other people.”
“He just wants to sleep around.”
“He doesn’t want responsibility.”
“He’s too afraid of pain.”
“She doesn’t take the Bible seriously.”
NAVIGATING THE BIBLE
But what I find worse than the assumptions made about people’s motivations and personal lives without looking into it is the assumptions made about the Bible without truly studying it.
When I’ve been confronted about my decision, particularly by officers in the church, I have sometimes responded by saying, “I understand. Thank you for having the courage to say what you believe is right. What are you basing your views of marriage on?” “The Bible” “What part of the Bible?” And – most often - they can’t answer.
They might be familiar with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” While “sexual immorality” may be difficult to define (does porn addiction qualify? does a lack of sex in the marriage qualify?), Jesus’ statement otherwise seems pretty straightforward and stark. There is only one allowance for divorce. Period. End of conversation.
But one of the things I love about our theological tradition is that, when it comes to most issues, we don’t build whole doctrines based on isolated verses, but on the Bible as a whole. And there are a few challenges with isolating Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19.
One is that it’s coming from a man who often put things in stark language to make a point. Consider Luke 14:26 “Anyone who comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters….cannot be my disciple”. And in 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul certainly doesn’t treat Jesus’ statement as exclusive when he mentions physical desertion as grounds for divorce, not to mention God himself “divorces” his people in Jeremiah 3:8 for something that clearly wasn’t sexual.
And what about, say, a woman caught in a daily physically abusive relationship? Are we really going to say she must stay because Jesus doesn’t allow for it in Matthew 19? Tragically, many churches have, and the world is right to harshly condemn that kind of neglect from church leadership.
More reasonable church leaders have said physical abuse qualifies under Paul’s grounds in 1 Corinthians 7 as desertion, but, when you read the text, that’s definitely not what Paul is talking about there. Out of what I would say is very biblical compassion, we choose to be more flexible with the text in that situation. But if we’re going to be that flexible with the Bible, how far are we going to stretch it? And who gets to decide where to draw that line?
There are other texts to bring in that are helpful (Ex 21:7-11, Deut 24:1-4), but my point isn’t to get into exegetical minutiae. Here’s my point:
There are some things that are clear in the Bible (1 Cor 15: “I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins…. he was buried, and on the third day he was raised”), and there are some things that aren’t. But because we like clear lines, because we like the safety and security they provide, with colors drawn in black and white, we try to take things in the Bible that aren’t clear and act as if they are. We approach the Bible - this rich, robust, dynamic, true and yet very complex conglomeration of stories, poetry, and letters - and ask it to be the Q’uran. We don’t treat the Bible as “living and active” (Eph 4:12) when we don’t wrestle with it, when we instead treat it as a rulebook, as a list of easy-to-discern guidelines. We treat it as dead and cold, no more exciting or inspiring than the Code of Hammurabi.
What that translates into is that, when a marriage is dissolving, we look at Matthew 19 and turn what could be a meaningful investigation into grounds for divorce into a two-question checkbox: 1) “Was there an affair?” 2) “Does the other spouse want to end the marriage?” If the person is considering divorce and their answer to the first is no and to the second is yes, then the conversation immediately becomes all about helping that person see that they’re sinfully wrong for considering divorce. If they have a loving church, we’ll offer additional care and counseling, but that will also become a weekly conversation or two about how wrong they are for considering divorce.
When you get pastors alone on this topic, most of the time they’ll admit that the Bible is nowhere close to clear on this topic. Most, in fact, are much more open on this topic than churchgoers realize. But others, including my own church, will say we just have to trust church tradition. Unfortunately, that church tradition has a very mixed history on issues like slavery and women’s rights. And, on this specific topic of divorce, impotence has been cited as grounds for divorce/annulment more often than physical abuse. Is that really where we want to place our trust?
Of course, there’s a very valid point to be made that, no matter what the Bible or church tradition say, on a wedding day you make an unconditional vow is made: “to have and to hold….until death doest part.” The idea of an unconditional vow is definitely romantic. I prefer that idea. And I can’t imagine anyone standing at an altar ever thinking there’s any real chance they would leave.
But I don't think any of us actually believes in a fully unconditional vow. Wouldn’t it be an act of cruelty if we did? Otherwise, we would say that woman caught in a physically abusive relationship must stay, because her vow was unconditional.
So again, we’re back to the question – who gets to determine where to draw that line?
I am not proposing that I should. But if you have strong opinions on marriage and divorce without having wrestled with where that line should be, I plead with you to withhold your opinions until you’ve deeply thought about it. This goes for church leaders more than anyone, because of the very real consequences people face because of your decisions. I plead with you, to treat a decision about something as robust and complicated and messy as two lives becoming one as much more intellectually and spiritually demanding than a two-question checkbox.
Isn’t it worth further consideration for hurt spouses, like the ones I’ve known, who throw their heart and soul into loving someone, who read every book on marriage they can get their hands on, who prepare with care for every sit-down conversation, who write notes of affection regularly, who ask friends to hold them accountable towards being a loving spouse, and yet run into a buzzsaw of abuse and the pain of rejection almost daily? Isn’t it worth further consideration for people who hear the three words “piece of shit” more than the three words they crave, “I love you”? Isn’t it worth further consideration for people who experience broken promise after broken promise, most of all a consistent disregard of the vows made to them on their wedding day? Isn’t it worth further consideration for people who never became “one” in any sincere way?
Because what can often be a deeper breaking of covenant vows isn’t certain actions; it’s consistent and willful inaction. When certain basic marital requests have been neglected and then begged for, for the marriage to be prioritized in some form or fashion, when Monday goes by and it isn’t, when Tuesday goes by and it isn’t, when Wednesday goes by and it isn’t, and all of a sudden it’s been years of the same consistent disregard day in and day out, despite dozens and dozens of careful pleas. Do you know how much more painful that consistent disregard can be than a drunken moment of passion with another person?
Are you that confident in your view of marriage in general and in other people’s marriages in particular that those situations don’t even warrant a sincere investigation?
There is only one reason you could be that confident:
This is our water.
We are right to criticize secular culture for not being aware of the water they’re swimming in, for accepting certain norms and values without questioning them. But we deserve at least as much criticism if we fail to do the same with ours.
What we tend to fear the most in our world is the slippery slope. If we loosen the grip on one view, what happens to the next? How far might we slide down the slope? But don’t you realize that avoiding the slippery slope at all costs is also the same criticism Jesus had of the Pharisees?
One of the great sins of our cultural moment, the sin that will be written about in history books, is a rush to confident assertions without gathering the necessary information. Rural people believing what rural people believe not because’ they’ve honestly evaluated the facts, but because it’s what’s comfortable. City people believing what city people believe, not because they’ve honestly evaluated the facts, but because it’s what’s comfortable.
I happened to pastor at one of the churches most often cited for its strong intellectual reputation and nuance of thought, and yet as soon as I touched a sacred cow like marriage and divorce, things became very un-nuanced, very accusatory, very fast.
Most of us have spent decades in churches where divorce isn’t talked about much - that was the case at mine - where it’s commonly assumed sexual infidelity is the only thing that breaks the seal of a covenant, but it’s not something most Christians or church leaders have actually contemplated. Why not? If our views are not based on a deep, open wrestling with the Bible and the compassion that it teaches, what is it based on?
I am not the best voice on this topic, nor will I ever be. But this is about future people you’ll meet who will be in the most horrific seasons of their lives. If you’re a follower of Jesus, how will you respond to them? Can you withhold the need to have an opinion if you don’t know what happened? If you’re a church leader, people’s lives will sometimes be in your hands. Are you that confident that you have the right view on marriage and divorce, that you don’t even need to contemplate what the Bible actually teaches, nor meaningfully investigate people’s situations before voicing a conclusion that dramatically impacts their lives?
If this letter stirs outrage or a quick dismissal, simply because you disagree with it, then it was never intended for you. This letter is for the people who are willing to consider that perhaps we have not yet found all the right answers.
This is our water. Please reconsider your place in it. People are hurting.
Warmly in Christ,