So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!”
– Genesis 12:18-19, NIV
Until The Village Church Scandal broke with Karen Hinkley obtaining a marriage annulment, I had not spent much time thinking Biblically about annulment. It is sort of a related category to divorce but is very different. They are not the same thing as a divorce acknowledges a valid marriage existed whereas an annulment says it was never a marriage.
Now, I have discussed the Roman Catholic practice of annulment that deals with sacrament validity. Many Catholics may be aware of this process since it is required for a Catholic to undergo in order to remarry in the Catholic Church following a divorce. I am not talking about that complex process here.
I am talking about the garden-variety civil annulment of a marriage. This is the type where someone is withholding important information in order to get married, for example.
Does the Bible support such an annulment or official recognition of an invalid marriage?
While the Bible does not tackle this issue using that exact term, I think it does say something about the matter through the life of the Patriarchs. In particular, I think the Bible gives us a clear picture from the life of Abraham who notoriously pushed his wife Sarah into fraudulent “marriages.”
To be clear: I am firmly in the camp of “Yes, the Bible supports marriage annulments.”
The verses quoted above form some of my Biblical support for this position (also see Genesis 20). Clearly, God does not view a “marriage” as valid when one party is already married as in the case of Sarah. This ought to be commonsense. But some have made it less than commonsense as in the case of Karen’s situation (see post here on how her situation qualifies). From Abraham’s poor example, I see a teaching here where fraudulent circumstances make ruling the marriage invalid acceptable for followers of Christ.
Now some pastoral thoughts:
Fighting for these “marriages” makes as much sense as saying that God ought to have insisted Sarah stay with Pharaoh (or Abimelech in the Genesis 20 story). This is an absurd stance to take. Furthermore, it is reality denying–e.g. Sarah’s marriage to Pharaoh never existed to begin with. She was ineligible to marry and Pharaoh (plus Abimelech) reportedly would have never attempted to marry her if they had known she was wed to Abraham.
Marriage annulment situations can demonstrate divorce prejudice bleed. In the effort to discourage divorce, pastors sometimes conflate categories by teaching annulment as the same thing as divorce. They end up defending a position God never intended them to defend–i.e. fighting for non-existent marriages. Focusing on divorce as the problem as opposed to the sin around marriage dissolution, it is easy to see how that pastoral laziness can result in such further errors as that.