“The Sin of Divorce” Language


“The Sin of Divorce”

Language matters. Distinctions matter. Context matters.

All of these are reasons for why I dislike the phrase “the sin of divorce.” It fails theologically and pastorally on many levels. My hope is that those who teach on divorce in the church stop using it altogether.

The biggest issue I have with the utilization of this phrase is how conveys that divorce–all divorce–is sin. The phrase lumps every divorced person in the same category–namely, as having sinned by divorcing their spouse. This is theologically sloppy and flat out wrong!

If divorce is always sin, then God sinned–metaphorically–by divorcing Israel (see Jeremiah 3:8). God cannot sin. Ergo, divorce is not always sin. It clearly–as in Jeremiah 3:8–is not when one is divorcing an adulterous spouse. Therefore, “the sin of divorce” is a theologically incorrect phrase.

The usage of this phrase is what we philosophically trained individuals would call a “category error.” Just like killing another human being is not always sin–e.g. the numerous examples in the Old Testament where it was required of the Jewish state as well as in times of war–divorce under specific circumstances is not sin. However, murder is always sin. Similarly, adultery is always sin.

It would be completely categorically and theologically correct to talk about “the sin of murder” or “the sin of adultery;” whereas it is not correct to talk about “the sin of killing” or “the sin of divorce” in the same way.

The collapsing of these distinctions between “killing” and “murder” plus “adulterous divorce” and “Biblically acceptable divorce” creates spiritually abusive environments where innocent people are condemned and shamed. It communicates to soldiers who did their duty in war that God condemns them for it, which He does not. Similarly, the collapsing of the divorce distinction communicates to divorced adultery victims that God views them as just as wrong as their adulterous spouse in being divorced. Both are false messages. And both are spiritually wounding messages to innocent parties in regards to killing in war and divorcing in light of an adulterous spouse.

In other words, using “the sin of divorce” is a pastoral care fail.

It is sloppy. Plus, it feeds a “Christian” culture that remains deeply and subtly entrenched in unbiblical divorce prejudice, which says all are wrong or sinful simply by virtue of being divorced.

Killing another human can be sin. That is true.

I am thinking of cases in society where one man murders another. Yet, once again, context matters. It is important a pastor does not get sloppy on this one either. If the pastor condemns all killing as in “the sin of killing,” then he condemns, for example, a soldier killing to protect his country or a police officer killing to protect his partner under fire. The imprecision of using the phrase “killing is sin” treats all these killers as the same–i.e. the police officer is treated the same as the murderer.

That isn’t right or just.

Similarly, divorce can be sin. That is true.

I am thinking of situations where an older man divorces his wife of 20 years for an 18 year old affair partner. Besides being creepy, that divorce–on the part of the unfaithful husband–is clearly sin (e.g. Mark 10:11-12). But it is not sin for his (now) ex-wife. Yes, she is now divorced. But she did not sin by divorcing her adulterous spouse (e.g. Jer. 3:8, Mt. 19:9).

It is not just or right to treat the faithful wife as in the same moral category as her adulterous husband in regards to the divorce.

Language matters. If we are truly serious as Christians about jettisoning unbiblical divorce prejudice, we need to learn to be more precise in our words when talking about divorce. We need to stop writing and speaking as if divorce is like adultery in always being a sin when divorce is not.

A good place to start is to permanently retire the phrase “the sin of divorce.”