If your husband or wife isn’t a follower of the Lord and decides to divorce you, then you should agree to it. You are no longer bound to that person. After all, God chose you and wants you to live at peace. – I Corinthians 7:15, CEV
When I was going through the ecclesiastical trial to keep my minister’s license, I felt angry at the way the denomination made little to no provision for those of us abandoned by a spouse through the choice to sinfully divorce (as opposed to faithful spouses who do not sin by divorcing in the face of adultery). It did not seem to matter in the process who filed for divorce. The man was treated as always in the driver’s seat of the divorce–even though, this was not the case in my situation and probably many others’.
I will never forget the conversation I had with a denominational official about my divorce. I pointed out to this individual that I did not divorce my wife and ought not to be treated as liable for the divorce. His wicked response was simply to acknowledge that she did indeed “file the paper.”
This response irks me on multiple levels.
The divorce papers matter!
It is not just a formality. One is not divorced until the papers are signed. So, it matters who decides to force the papers through ending the marriage before the state.
While some might approach the dissolution of a marriage as happening in the heart, I maintain the marriage is not dissolved until the papers are signed. (This is why I exhort faithful spouses not to date until the papers are signs as it would be wrong to date someone other than your spouse while still married.)
Evangelical pastors know this. However, like my former denominational official, some may fail to extend this knowledge to divorce. They understand that marrying someone in “your heart” is not enough. You need to make it official. The paper matters. It means that you are truly married in the eyes of God, the church, and the state.
It is incredibly painful to be blamed for a divorce forced upon you by your spouse. This is doubly so when added to the divorce is known adultery by the divorcing party. So, you get both blamed for the divorce and subtly, for the adultery. You must have done something in part to cause this is the implication.
The talk of divorce being merely a piece of paper invalidates the real trauma and powerlessness an abandoned spouse is experiencing. And it leaves the suggestion that the abandoned spouse brought this upon themselves hanging in the air. In other words, it is a way to shame the abandoned and faithful spouse. And that is far from godly.
Looking at I Corinthians 7:15 ought to inform pastors in caring for abandoned, Christian spouses*:
1) The abandoned spouse may never have had a say in the divorce. Blaming them or shaming them over this is cruel and mean. Don’t do it.
2) If you believe the divorcing party is a non-Christian, I Corinthians 7:15 is clear what the abandoned spouse is to do: he/she is to allow the divorce to go through so as to live in peace (and he/she is free to remarry a Christian afterwards). The Apostle Paul tells us not to fight such an abandonment.
3) If you believe the divorcing spouse is sinning by divorcing (e.g. is divorcing so as to chase after an affair partner), you ought to enact church discipline (see Matthew 18). By not enacting church discipline, you are saying by your actions that the divorcing spouse is not a Christian. See point #2 then as to how you ought to respond to the abandoned, Christian spouse. Such is my opinion on the matter. If you–pastors, Christian counselors, and Christian lay leaders–are not willing to go to bat for the abandoned Christian spouse confronting the sinning Christian party, then you have no business blaming the abandoned spouse when the marriage ends and condemning them afterwards if/when they remarry.
*Note: To those of you who have chosen divorce in light of unrepentant adultery, my heart goes out to you. You have a very Biblical and legitimate reason to divorce. It is not your shame to bear. And any church trying to put you under church discipline in such a case is being spiritually abusive in my opinion. My comments above are more directed to church leaders confronting situations where adulterers/adulteresses are divorcing their spouses while maintaining that they are still “Christians.”