There are several areas of Church doctrine that alienate people from the Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ.
Whereas Christ came to set us free from having to follow rigid religious rules intended to make us ‘more acceptable to God’, instead, over the decades and centuries since His time, the very people who claim to follow Jesus have laid down even more layers of rules, laws and ‘codes of conduct’ which instead make God appear to be even less accessible.
And in no area is this worse than in the area of divorce. There are certain Christians for whom divorce seems to be second only to murder. What you get here is divorced people who are already hurting – they have split up from their intended life partner for whatever reason, and often it’s not their fault – and who are then held in some sort of contempt by the very people who should be loving them in their pain.
But wait, it gets worse! Not only is it seen as ‘bad’ to be divorced, but if a divorced person should remarry, then hey presto! Now they’re committing adultery, which is SIN!! Which means that either the divorcee has to forever forsake any further lifelong companion or be, well, supposedly rejected by God forever. How cruel is that?
I’m going to leave aside for now the nature of sin and the forgiveness that Jesus bought – in other words, I’m not going to discuss today what happens when someone is in a known, persistent sinful habit. That’s a discussion for another time. Here, I’m going to simply discuss why divorced and remarried people need not worry that they are ‘living in sin’, or any variation on that. And I’m going to do it on the presumption that many of my hurting readers may still see the Bible as a book of Rules – which it should not be – and explain what the Bible really means, and in addition what it does not mean, on this subject. I want these hurting people to be set completely free from any guilt or condemnation that has been imposed on them by these erroneous Church doctrines. If you’re reading this and you’re divorced and remarried, please let me tell you in Jesus’s Name that you are loved by God, you are not sinning, and that God loves your new marriage!
I apologise that this is going to be a really, really long essay, but it contains a real-life example presented as a story (where the names have been changed, of course) and in any case I want to bring my readers into freedom. This is definitely worth spending the time on.
So first, let’s put up the ‘problem’ verse in which Jesus appears to condemn remarriage of divorced people.
“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’
‘Haven’t you read’, he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’
Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’
– Matthew 19:3-9
I’m going to talk you through this by using a real-life discussion I had with a hurting, divorced and remarried believer. Let’s call her ‘Debbie’ for the sake of this story. Debbie had strong guilt feelings, and even felt guilty about feeling guilty. So first off, I wanted to make sure that she was equipped to deal with guilt. I made sure that she knew that she did not need to own any guilty feelings, because of what Jesus did on the cross: He took all our shame and guilt and nailed it to the Cross. We don’t need to own the guilt any more. I said that she didn’t need to feel bad if her guilty feelings don’t go away instantly – they won’t! – but that it would help if she decided to generate the habit of being guilt-free. To do this, you don’t need to do anything, you don’t need to obey any rules, just accept what He has done already. Note that there is a difference between guilt and remorse, but again this is a point for another time.
Debbie thanked me for the compassion. She said she does believe in Jesus’ shed blood on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. But when she studies the words of Jesus in the Gospels, that some of them scare her. How can she believe in His forgiveness, she asked, when she is living in what He says is adultery, by her own choice? She had even been told she can’t expect forgiveness if she ‘boldly goes on living in sin as an adulteress’; even if she was the innocent party, she would still be guilty of this, and she just couldn’t reconcile any of it.
So my response, hopefully delivered in complete gentleness (it’s difficult for me to tell sometimes as I am Aspergic) was something like this.
I said, let me start by saying that my underlying assumption is this: ‘God is Good – All the Time!’ I read the Bible through the lens of God being Good all the time. This means that whatever I read, I assume that God wants me to receive good from it. Love is the baseline for interpreting all of Scripture.
And then I gave a bit of background for Jesus’s statements about divorce. Moses permitted divorce but only if the man gave the woman a certificate of divorce, and this allowed her to re-marry. That’s what it was for – it showed any prospective future husband that she was cleanly divorced and therefore free to re-marry. It showed that the reason why she was not a virgin – a really big deal in those days! – was because she’d previously had a husband but was now no longer bound to him.
But by the time Jesus was asked His divorce question, men were able to divorce their wives for virtually no reason, hence the Pharisees asking Him, “…is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” What Jesus meant by calling remarriage ‘adultery’, was that He was condemning what you could call ‘serial monogamy’. A man could marry one woman, live with her for a time, and then when he got fed up with her for whatever reason, he could simply discard her by giving her a certificate, and then presumably, he’d marry another girl and the same would happen to her in due course.
Jesus was against this perfectly legal, but morally reprehensible, practice for obvious reasons. It created deep and irreparable hurt, it left a trail of broken women existing as sullied goods in, let’s not forget, a culture with no welfare state. And it was downright disgusting. That’s what Jesus was against here.
The part about the innocent party being called an adulterer/adulteress was simply Jesus using His Rabbinic hyperbole. He was exaggerating to prove a point. So, if you hate your brother, that’s like murder! Murder! No, of course it’s not; nobody dies. But He was proving a point by exaggerating. If you look at someone lustfully, that’s adultery! No, of course it’s not; nobody actually gets into bed with anyone else. But again it’s an exaggeration to prove a point. He’s saying you might as well get your ex to be an adulterer because that’s how much hurt it causes. Now Jesus’s statements were never intended to be legally-binding, ironclad rules that have to be followed come what may, after two thousand years of translation, re-translation, cultural changes and then through the filter of human nature and its propensity towards Religious Rules. No, Jesus wasn’t like that; he came to set people free from the rigid confines of the Law of Moses. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, love your enemies”. He took the principles of the Moses law and made it into freedom of choice.
And now, back to the original statement of God being Good all the time, I said to Debbie that Jesus’s words are not to destroy her, they are to bring her life in its fulness. And as she was already hurting, it was worth remembering that ‘A bruised reed He shall not break….’ I said that Jesus will handle her gently, and not to be afraid of Him. If she hears condemnatory whisperings in her head, that’s her conscience being oversensitive; it’s not God. Jesus looks after the orphans and widows – and in that we can include divorcees, even remarried ones!
I suggested she read positive blogs, and learn how God sees her, and in time the condemnatory feelings will fade away in the light of His love. Or it could even happen suddenly! Also, to ask Holy Spirit to reveal to her the truth of how God feels about her, because she is precious in His sight. And that she would gradually begin to feel different if she lets Him work his way in her.
For anyone in this sort of condemnation situation, I would say this: Soak yourself in positive theology – ‘God likes you’ theology! – and listen to no-one who would seek to steal your joy. Who cares if they accuse you of cherry-picking ‘nice’ scriptures? At the moment, for people in that sort of pain, you need all the encouragement you can get. Grab it with both hands and avoid all negativity, both from others and from Scripture – because it is possible, as we have seen, for it to be interpreted negatively!
Sure, God did not intend divorce, but then He also did not intend poverty, unemployment, or sickness. It’s not His optimum, and He prefers things to be right, sure. But He also understands that sometimes, despite our best efforts, things go wrong. And when that happens, he does not condemn the victims; rather, He upholds them and draws near to them.
So, to the victims of this sort of twisted, condemnatory theology, I would say do not let your heart feel guilty, oppressed or any such thing. Life is for living. God wants you to enjoy your life free from guilt and depression and oppression.
Look, the enemy destroys lives by using divorce and other catastrophic life events, then he destroys them even more by making people feel guilty about what he caused in the first place. This is plain wrong; it’s lies, and it deserves to be rejected. Live in the freedom! Sing out your freedom. Declare it and claim it; it’s yours.
I firmly believe that Jesus’ entire foundation for the ethic he expects from his followers is to love other people with genuine concern for their wellbeing and to avoid hurting people or causing harm as far as we are able.
So let’s apply this to Debbie’s re-married situation. If Jesus is opposed to divorce because it harms people and disrupts relationships, how can anyone tell her that Jesus requires her to divorce her current partner (to whom she had been happily married for over thirty years!!) when we know definitely that doing so will cause the very hurt, harm, and disruption of relationships that Jesus opposes?
Debbie explained that she had always seemed to understand Jesus and his hyperbole, but just never connected it to his words on adultery – but yes it made perfect sense to be reminded that Jesus was most likely being hyperbolic. And she agreed to avoid interpreting things negatively, even (and especially!) in Scripture. She did think that Jesus has to be happy with her (over 30) years in a loving marriage to a Christian man who had even adopted her young son and raised him as his own. There is a lot of love there. She liked the idea of seeking out the Holy Spirit and asking Him to show her how God feels about her.
Great so far. Freedom is approaching for Debbie. But there was something else. Debbie was in the habit of daily begging for forgiveness about the adultery, and wondered if she should give that up.
I remembered that she’d said, “I have been told I can’t expect forgiveness if I boldly go on living in sin as an adulteress”. So I reminded her that, based on what we’d just discussed she had done nothing wrong; she is not an adulteress. So, yes, she should stop asking forgiveness, partly because there is nothing to be forgiven for, and partly because I wonder if that feeling of not being forgiven is due to what that person had told her. In effect, that person has ‘cursed’ Debbie with their words. Well, here’s the freedom: she doesn’t have to accept that curse, and indeed she should reject it! So, yes, give up the asking/begging for forgiveness on that score; this will become part of her freedom – freedom from being tied to constantly asking forgiveness for a perceived sin. And to give that curse no more room in her life.
It sounded to me as if she had been subjected to what some call a ‘sin-management church’. A church who focus on rooting out and dealing with sin in its members. Surely their focus is wrong; Jesus dealt with sin once and for all on the Cross. He came to free us from not only the separation from God, but also the entangling effect of the guilt. I pointed her in the direction of this blog post where I provide some practical tips on how to leave sin behind with a clear conscience.
Regarding conscience: I firmly believe that the believer’s conscience needs to be brought into line. Sure, It’s your adviser, but it’s not your king. You can listen to it, you can give it consideration, but you don’t need to let it bully you, especially when it has been ‘trained’ by people who are harsh and bullying. Make Jesus the King of your conscience. Let Jesus transform your conscience by retraining you in His truth and freedom.
And then I reminded Debbie that she is not an adulteress. So there’s nothing to be forgiven for, at least on that score. I reminded her that her new freedom would bless her husband too, and suggested that perhaps they sit and pray it through together, and let him know of her decision to be free. For a remarried divorcee, it is vital to decide right now that you’re not going to let others’ rules taint your beautiful marriage, and apply that as a couple. This is a beautiful expression of your unity together and your decision to stand together against the ‘disapproval’ of the established religious system.
Finally, there was this. A parable, although a true story, which I wrote down and gave to Debbie:
“This morning, there was a moth on the inside of my kitchen window, wanting to get outside into the beautiful morning light out there. I opened the window right out (it swings really wide) and yet still the moth clung to the inside of the glass, even though that glass was now ‘outside’ the room. Not until I gave it a gentle prod with my fingernail did it fly out into freedom.
Debbie, the window is open for you. Fly out into your freedom”.
Later, I received a last communication from Debbie and it moved me to tears:
“Thank you so much. I am reading the blogs you suggested and all your kind advice has really helped. The begging for forgiveness has ended. Guilt not on my mind. Freedom opening up before me. God bless you”.
“Freedom opening up before me”. Wow, wow, wow! Praise the Lord! Thanks to the ministry of Holy Spirit in her life, leading her into ‘all truth’ (John 16:13), Debbie’s story has a happy ending. She now lives in the land where Jesus is all about freedom, not about Rules. If you interpret any of Jesus’s teaching as Rules, then you are missing the point. His only two commandments were, ‘Love God; love your neighbour’. He did reiterate the command to ‘love one another’, which amounts to the same thing, at the Last Supper. And so anything that Jesus said that looks like a Rule, needs to be viewed through what I have previously referred to as the ‘Lens of Love’ – does my interpretation of this passage fit with Jesus’s only two commandments: Love God; love your neighbour? Because if it doesn’t, you are almost certainly missing what He meant.
And I know many, many people, good Christian people, in whom the Spirit of God lives and through whom He works in power, who are remarried divorcees. Street missionaries whom God uses in great power in healing, deliverance and evangelism. Gifted worship leaders who lead people into God’s presence effortlessly and under His anointing. According to the legalistic rules of the Pharisees, if God were displeased with these people, He would not anoint their ministries. But He does so anoint them. Which means that either He does indeed anoint people who are living in deliberate sin, or in fact they are not in deliberate sin. Personally, I do not believe that God waits for us to be perfect before He uses us, but that’s my own opinion; I am simply arguing this from the point of view of the Bible legalists. But the main thing is that these remarried divorcees are in a real state of grace, and God is pleased with them. Either God is wrong, and should therefore not be anointing those people like that, or the legalistic interpretation of His Word is wrong. I wonder which it is…..
Finally, how then should remarried divorcees approach the thorny subject of being accepted into Churches? Well, I have to ask, whose business is it except yours and God’s how many relationships you have been in? If you and your spouse turn up at a Church and are welcomed there, why mention that you have had previous partners? Any kids you have are your kids, not kids ‘from my previous partner’. Just don’t tell them. They don’t need to know. And if they do get really silly about it, just go somewhere else, where you are better accepted. If the people in that Church are so preoccupied with Rules about divorce and whatnot, they’re not going to really be Kingdom-focused anyway, are they? And if they don’t let you take Communion, well, just do it yourself at home. A bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, or a glass of water and a cracker; God doesn’t mind. He will bless you through it just the same.
I hope this has helped today. Bless you.
As a postscript, I’d also like to point out how ludicrous the whole Church stance on divorce and remarriage is.
You have a couple who decide that they want their relationship to be ‘proper’, and so they get married in preference to living in an unmarried state. They want to ‘do the right thing’, shall we say, for whatever reason.
Is it right, then, to essentially persecute people who have, in the past, ‘done the right thing’, then for whatever reason (and usually at least one of the parties is innocent) they have found it hasn’t worked out. Pain all around, for them, their families and their children, if they have any.
Then they meet someone else, with whom they also want to ‘do the right thing’. And they want to do it with the blessing of the Church, who will not do so. So their choice is either to live together unmarried or to get married out of Church. And of course if they’d simply lived together, unmarried, in the first place, remarriage would not even be an issue!
How stupid is that? They give people a series of impossible choices, or at least a choice of not being able to do the right thing, and doing the wrong thing. How can that be just? How can that reflect God’s character? How can that be the product of anything but a twisted theology where completely the wrong thing has been inferred from Jesus’s teaching.
Looking at this through the ‘Lens of Love’, as I encouraged Debbie to do in the story, it is clear that there is no way – absolutely no way – that this state of affairs is anything remotely related to what my all-loving Jesus was talking about on that day nearly 2,000 years ago.
Even though I am a member of the Church of England, I do not necessarily hold to all its doctrines, and especially that doctrine (whose enactment, I appreciate, is left to the discretion of the Priest) which often forbids remarriage of divorced people. As far as I can see, the Catholic Church does not allow remarriage, at least not without the people in question being effectively excommunicated. (Yes, this still does happen even in the 21st Century!) The Church should be a safe place where we celebrate joy, love and forgiveness not alienation and cold-heartedness.
No. This is an archaic, misinformed religious law which has no place either in modern society or in the Kingdom of God.
Also, there is a groundbreaking book on divorce and remarriage in the Christian Church: Divorce & Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer (Paternoster, 2003, ISBN 1-84227-180-6). Here is a link to a review of the book by respected Christian teacher, David Matthew; there are also links on that page to both a more detailed summary (which is excellent) and to the book itself which can be perused on the author’s website.
Edit: Wendy Francisco also published an excellent explanation of the Divorce scriptures on Facebook about nine months after I wrote this piece. Here it is: