*AUTHOR’S NOTE: A version of the following post was pitched recently to RELEVANT MAGAZINE ONLINE. They did not accept it for publication.
Does God hate divorce more than God hates adultery?
This is a critical question to answer.
This is not simply an exercise in abstract theology. The answer has real life implications. It is especially critical for those individuals who have found themselves staring down at the pieces of their own broken hearts after discovering adultery has ravaged their marriage. Assuming they even have a choice in the matter–some faithful spouses are abandoned by their adulterous spouse without any say, after all–faithful spouses need to make an important choice about the fate of their marriage and knowing God’s heart on these matters is important:
Do they demand an absolute end to adultery with divorce as an option or do they tolerate adultery because “God hates divorce?”
I regularly minister to people who are at this juncture in their marriages. They wash up here on my electronic shore dazed and often confused by the cacophony of “Christian” religious voices telling them all sort of crazy things including they are to blame for their spouse’s adulterous sin. As someone who can identify with such confusion as having survived my first wife’s infidelities, I have dedicated much of my free-time and professional expertise as an ordained evangelical minister plus Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) to helping people navigate these tricky and spiritually dangerous waters.
Many of those who come to my blog–or who communicated with me personally–have heard the Malachi 2:16 paraphrase quoted at them–i.e. “God hates divorce!”–and are often stuck trying to figure out what to do with a spouse who refuses to repent of adultery. They understand divorce is not a good option. But is tolerating adultery any better? This is why good theological work is so vital on this issue.
Does God hate divorce more than God hates adultery?
My short answer is “No.”
God always hates sin. Adultery is always a sin. Divorce is not.
Can divorce be a sin? Yes. Malachi 2 makes that clear–more on that later. However, unlike adultery, divorce is not prohibited in the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, when Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees in the New Testament about the Mosaic permission to divorce (e.g. Deut 24:1-4, Mt 19:1-12), Jesus does not deny a permission exists from God to divorce! This begs the question: Does God permit us to sin and then condemn us for exercising this explicitly granted freedom? I do not think so. God is more consistent than that.
God prohibits adultery proscribing the penalty of death in the Old Testament for committing this sin (e.g. Deut 22:22) while in the same book offers the permission to divorce free of any proscribed punishment (Deut 24:1-4). Clearly, adultery is treated more severely than divorce in the Mosaic Law. So, how can we say we are being Biblical if we reverse that relationship in the present age treating adultery as less problematic than divorce? God is the same God of both then and now, after all (see Heb. 13:8).
Another reason I am convinced divorce is not always sin is God is described as metaphorically divorcing Israel (see Jer 3:8). Can God sin even metaphorically? In the rush to paint divorce as always sinful are we then willing to say the Prophet Jeremiah was in error to describe God as divorcing Israel? I am not willing to go there theologically as that means challenging the inspiration and authority of the Bible. And what is the circumstances of this metaphorical divorce? Repeated, flagrant adultery. Clearly, God views divorce as a better option than tolerating ongoing adultery.
Moving to the New Testament, I am struck by how Scripture characterizes a man who is deciding to divorce his betrothed–a state similar to marriage today–over apparent sexual infidelity. I am speaking of Joseph. In Matthew 1:19, Scripture does not call Joseph “hard of heart” nor does Scripture characterize Joseph as wicked for deciding to divorce a pregnant Mary. Rather, Scripture takes the direct opposite position. Scripture calls Joseph righteous for choosing to divorce and do it quietly. Thankfully, God intervenes, but this is a stark contrast to the idea that divorce is worse than sexual infidelity. Clearly, Matthew, as inspired by God, thought otherwise.
Finally, Malachi 2:16–where God declares his hatred of divorce–is contextually about using the permission to divorce to cover up adultery. If one reads around this verse, one discovers a situation where Jewish men were discarding their Jewish wives just to marry pagan wives. God takes a firm stance against this. Divorce is clearly sinful if done simply to obtained a more desirous spouse–e.g. a younger pagan spouse in this case. Thus, the Jewish men in Malachi’s time abused the mercy of divorce in order to obtain the veneer of righteousness while acting on the adultery in their heart. The consistency here is how God hates adultery so much that God is willing to condemn the vehicle–i.e. divorce–being used to facilitate this evil. Context matters.
Divorce is not ideal.
God designed marriage to be lifelong. I suspect God preferred for Israel to repent and return to Him. But they chose otherwise. God is a realist and respects human agency. That is how sin entered the world. With sin comes less than ideal situations. Sometimes one has no good options. Divorce may not be a good option but enabling and/or tolerating adultery just to stay married is worse.
Does God hate divorce more than adultery?
No, God hates adultery more than divorce. Scripture is crystal clear on that point. And I hope someday the Church catches up on that truth.