An Ethic of Love in Marriage and Divorce

April 25th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

For years now, it has been reported that Christians divorce as often as everyone else in America. In an attempt to determine the validity of this assertion, various sociologists have employed different methods. Though no reliable data exists that has the divorce rate higher for Christians than the general population, statistics show that Christians are only 8 percent less likely to divorce than religiously unaffiliated persons. What this means is that the issue of divorce is significant enough in the church that pastors should be teaching and preaching about its implications for Christian discipleship.

In this article, I want to suggest several things based on my experience as a lawyer and pastor who has counseled persons on divorce, both inside and outside the church. First, a decision to marry and divorce should be guided by our commitment to Christian discipleship, which I define here as a commitment to follow the life and teachings of Jesus. Second, most crucial to Christian discipleship is a “love ethic,” which is comprised of two aspects that are inextricably linked—love of God and neighbor, and forgiveness. Finally, the issue of divorce is complex, thus the response of Christian communities to persons who divorce should always be guided by the love ethic.

Christian Discipleship and Marriage

No motif is more constant in the Wesleyan tradition than the connection between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Therefore, it is incumbent on those who are responsible for premarriage counseling, pastoral counseling, Christian education in both singles and couples ministries, and preaching to admonish persons that marriage commitments are not only to each other but to God. This means that those contemplating marriage should be willing to comport their behavior on the path to marriage as well as on the journey of marriage in accordance with the life and teachings of Jesus. The importance of Christian discipleship for a successful and flourishing marriage cannot be overlooked. Marriage, though a beautiful creation of God, is the coming together of two different and imperfect people. Christian discipleship keeps couples accountable to God, each other, and the Christian community to which they belong. And it also provides them with spiritual support when challenges arise.

Sometimes, however, despite the best intentions and the greatest efforts, one or both spouses will ultimately seek a divorce. Pastors must then remind both spouses—if possible—that their commitment to Christian discipleship does not end because the marriage is ending. Rather, it is just as important to what can often be a difficult process, for it can ensure that their attitudes and actions are guided by Christian principles instead of raw emotions.

The Love Ethic

Thus far, I have spoken generally about the importance of a couple’s commitment to Christian discipleship for both marriage and divorce. Now I would like to suggest that crucial to Christian discipleship is the “love ethic.” The love ethic is comprised of two aspects that are inextricably linked, the meaning of which can be derived from juxtaposing Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor and his discussion about why Moses permitted divorce.

In Matthew 22:37-39, a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment in the law is the greatest. And Jesus responded: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. . . You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (See also Luke 10:27; Deut. 6:5). Interestingly, though Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, he responds that there are two on which all the law and prophets centers. I believe this reflects the notion that our love of God is intricately tied up with our love of neighbor. Consequently, our commitment to Christian discipleship hinges on our love of God, which can be expressed only by our love of neighbor. This is no less the case when going through a divorce, despite the fact that it is more difficult to adhere to this principle when experiencing the pains of divorce as opposed to the joys of getting married.

The second aspect of the love ethic—forgiveness—can be gleaned from Matthew 19:8. There we find the Pharisees testing Jesus by posing the question whether it is lawful for any man to divorce his wife for any reason. The Pharisee’s question is rooted in the debate surrounding Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The School of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24 as indicating that a man could divorce his wife for the cause of unfaithfulness; the School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, even burning his toast. Regardless of their differences, both schools agreed that the law granted a man a right to divorce, regrettable as divorce was.

For Jesus, what seems most important is not whether Deuteronomy 24 grants the right to divorce but God's original desire for husbands and wives to be one flesh. Indeed, it appears that Jesus opposes divorce based on the Genesis principle from which he draws his application and explains that Moses permitted what was less than ideal because of people's hard hearts—i.e. their refusal to forgive made the ideal unattainable. To be able to exercise some restraint over human injustice, Moses' civil laws regulated some institutions rather than seeking to abolish them altogether. Jewish lawyers, in fact, recognized that God had allowed some behavior as a concession to human weakness. Thus, it is probably no coincidence that in Matthew, Jesus' teaching on marital commitment directly follows his teaching on forgiveness (18:21-35).

I, however, believe that Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness must be extended to both marital commitment and divorce. Divorce is the tearing apart of an intimate relationship; forgiveness is necessary to allow the parties involved to handle an already difficult situation with the love and grace of God. Forgiveness is also necessary to allow the healing process to begin for them and, oftentimes, for the faith community to which they belong.

The Love Ethic Embodied in Faith Communities

The starting point for a marriage discussion should never be an argument about what constitutes legal grounds for divorce. The reality is that Christian marriages will sometimes end in divorce. The question for ministers and the faith communities that they serve is how will they embody the love ethic exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus? I think my experience as a legal consultant to clients seeking divorce is a model for ministers, which can be used in parish ministry.

Whenever a potential client seeks a consult for a divorce, I always ask the same questions: (1) How long have you been married?; (2) How long did you know your spouse before marrying?; (3) Did you both attend premarriage counseling and for how long?; and (4) Did you attend marriage counseling with your pastor and/or a professional marriage counselor prior to your decision to divorce?

The point of such questions is to ascertain whether the couple was properly prepared for the responsibilities of marriage and, if not, to suggest to the potential client that they may want to consider giving the marriage an opportunity to succeed by seeking the appropriate resources and counseling. There are exceptions to the above scenario. As I mentioned earlier, divorces are complex. Sometimes, for example, they involve physical and/or emotional abuse. In such cases, I advise the person to quickly seek safety (i.e. to separate from the abusive spouse). However, divorce is not immediately recommended under these circumstances. I believe an environment free of abuse and its associated anxiety and fear can often provide the necessary space for forgiveness to occur. By forgiveness I mean the aggrieved spouse allowing the other spouse a chance to redeem him or herself. This entails enrolling in domestic violence treatment and engaging in subsequent marriage counseling. Of course, the preservation of a marriage depends on both wills, and one partner can sometimes end a marriage unilaterally against the other's will.

If, after answering the above questions to my satisfaction, a potential client is adamant about the divorce, I explain that my job is not that of a hired gun who will beat up on their spouse and/or child(ren). Rather, my job is to ensure that the dissolution of the marriage occurs expeditiously, fairly, and amicably. The job of pastors and preachers is similar in that we are called to counsel, teach, and preach in ways that ensure that parties to a divorce do not have to simultaneously experience spiritual and communal alienation in addition to a broken marriage. Our counseling, teaching, and preaching should make clear to members of a community of faith that sometimes divorces happen and behavior that judges or vilifies parties to a divorce is antithetical to the love ethic because it does not reflect a love of God or neighbor nor does it embody the forgiveness to which all Christians are called.

We must find loving and creative ways to constantly remind our faith communities that the love ethic is something to which all Christians are called, and from which we all benefit as sinners saved by God’s grace.

comments powered by Disqus