Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—
the Lord detests them both.
-Proverbs 17:15, NIV
When going through my ecclesiastical trial to keep my license, I experienced many questions unrelated to the most important issue regarding my divorce–namely, that my former spouse committed adultery and refused to repent. I remember all sorts of exploration about the marriage relationship and history. Some time was spent talking about the adultery but that hardly filled the almost three hour hearing I endured.
This experience highlights a frustration I have with fellow brother/sister ministers when it comes to divorce in church. They seem to either unknowingly or wickedly hold a position that is seriously flawed:
On one hand, they are very strict over what they will accept as Biblical grounds for divorce (e.g. only adultery or physical abandonment). Yet they open the door to all sorts of “justifiable” reasons why an adulterous spouse may have abandoned their faithful spouse in their investigation. It is inconsistent.
The actual Biblical grounds–when present for the faithful spouse–is treated as almost uninteresting. Instead, they spend the lion’s share of the time investigating the faithful spouse for relationship issues that they themselves have already explicitly agreed are not grounds for divorce. In other words, they are pummeling the faithful spouse for what they consider a unbiblical divorce on the part of the adulterous spouse. They are holding the sinned against for the sin of the adulterous-abandoning spouse.
Derek Prince makes a similar point in his book, God Is A Matchmaker, when he points out that Scripture teaches us the focus in on whether or not sexual immorality has taken place when deciding who is guilty regarding the divorce:
People sometimes argue that there are two sides to a marriage breakup and that it is not possible to know who the guilty party really is. But this obscures the real question at issue. It is not whether there has been selfishness or insensitivity or quarreling on both sides. It is simply this: Has one partner committed porneia [sexual immorality including adultery] and the other not? In many cases today, one partner openly acknowledges his or her guilt.
God, at least, obviously envisaged the possibility that the guilt of one partner would be established, to the exclusion of the other; for under the Law of Moses He ordained the death of the proven adulterer or adulteress. (150)*
As Prince makes clear, the focus ought to be on what Bible teaches as the grounds for divorce and not on side issues of the relationship. I fully agree with this quote here even though I do not agree with everything else he and his wife write in the same book. It is a helpful reminder to keep Biblical focus on the issues as God sees them. To focus on the relationship side issues like bickering, etc (while helpful in learning to have healthy relationships) is to suggest those issues may cause a Biblically acceptable divorce or “justifiable” divorce. That is false Scripturally.
If the concern is for the divorced individual to develop healthy relationship skills, then I suggest the pastor refer this individual to a good counselor or therapist where the divorced individual is learning skills apart from the judgment on his/her divorce. In other words, a Biblically consistent position holds the distinction between relationship skill issues and Biblical grounds for divorce. So, the investigation ought to focus on the issues that the pastor has discerned from Scripture as grounds for divorce and teach with consistency when the story being sold is not grounds for divorce (e.g. she did not have enough sex with me or he did not listen to me well enough, etc.)
And if we–pastors–do not want to hold such distinctions, then I have a suggestion. Be honest about your divorce position. Tell the congregant up front that you see a variety of issues as causes for divorce besides what are Biblical reasons and will not call to account the person sinning who chooses to justify an unbiblical divorce on those other grounds. At least then, the congregant may be prepared for the ensuring conversation where they are blamed for the destruction of a relationship the Bible said was destroyed not by them, as Prince aptly explained, but by their former spouse’s sexual immorality.
*Prince, Derek and Ruth Prince. God Is A Matchmaker: Seven Biblical Principles for Finding Your Mate. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen, 2011.