Let’s talk about divorce.
This is a controversial subject. You probably won’t agree with everything I say, but I hope it stirs you to consider God’s design and ground rules. We need to begin with marriage, before looking at divorce.
Marriage is an earthly covenant, not an eternal, absolute or metaphysical union of souls. God designed marriage to end at death, and it can end sooner than that.
Obligations in marriage
We find marriage defined and its obligations laid out in Genesis 2:24 and Exodus 21:10-11: leave parents, cleave to wife, be one flesh. Provide sustenance and companionship to each other. The context of Exodus 21 is regulating slavery and polygamy, weird to us Western moderns. But those two phenomena are similar to divorce in this way: all three are restricted and regulated in Scripture without God endorsing them. This makes the Exodus text particularly relevant, as it addresses circumstances where people aren't living rightly, and it specifies when a spouse can be free of a marriage.
So there are three basic principles. 1. Be physically present with your spouse. Live with them. 2. Make common cause together – it’s not just a contractual relationship. Unite in heart and mind and common effort. 3. Be one flesh. Don’t deprive each other sexually (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).
Establishment and dissolution of marriage by God
Marriage is established by God, not by the church or the state. Church & state pronounce marriages valid, and register the formation and dissolution of marriages, but they don’t create it out of thin air by their authority. Church and state have to follow the Word of God in administering the covenant of marriage. Today, civil governments widely admit no-fault divorce, flat-out disobeying God. In the past church or state would not admit divorce where there were no clear grounds. Church and state can err in this: an illegitimate (unbiblical) divorce isn’t made right before God just because the church or state says it is okay. Same sex marriage isn’t valid before God just because the state says it is. God sets the terms for the formation and dissolution of this covenant of marriage.
Though church and state don’t establish marriage they should both be involved at its birth and death. The state needs to be informed of its occurrence at least, for property concerns. I might also advocate (as a for instance) lower tax rates for a married sole bread winner with six children than for a single person. Regarding the church, Christians especially should cherish the church’s wisdom and counsel and community in pre-marital counseling and helping with the ceremony or receptions, for instance. The church does not have to be involved for it to be a true marriage, however, as this is a creation ordinance established before the covenant of grace began. On the other side, at a divorce, too often the church is left out of the whole process, not even consulted in the heat of a hostile relationship. But Paul sets a precedent in 1 Corithians 7 for the church being involved in intimate family affairs, advising how God wants husband and wife to live together or separate in difficult situations.
Next time we will jump into Old Testament teaching on divorce.