Joel Rainey is the Director of Missions at Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, an adjunct professor at Capital Bible Seminary and blogs at Themelios (Twitter - @joelrainey).
Last month, the Christian music community was shocked to hear of the pending divorce between musicians Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken. After 13 years of marriage, the couple announce the dissolution of their union due to Derek’s infidelity.
As a pastor of more than 20 years, my heart breaks every time I hear of a couple splitting up. I’ve been in those counseling rooms, and the visceral emotions and long-term damage done to both spouses and their kids (if kids are involved) is enough to convince anyone that, regardless of the reasons or circumstances, divorce is ALWAYS a tragedy. Sometimes, as in this case where adultery was committed, the Scriptures allow the betrayed spouse the option of leaving, but even in that situation, the process is indescribably painful. Each time I encounter a situation like this as a pastor, I understand better and better why God bluntly says “I hate divorce!” (Malachi 2:16)
It would appear from the accounts surrounding the Webb/McCracken separation that each is under both the discipline and pastoral care of other believers. Webb specifically has submitted himself to the authority of brothers in Christ, and accounts like this make me as thankful for the church as I am sorrowful over divorce. So this post isn’t about Webb and McCracken. Nothing redemptive can come from seeking to dissect this situation in public, and the best thing we can do is pray for this couple as they face unspeakably difficult days ahead.
But I draw attention to Webb and McCracken primarily because of a Huffington Post article that appeared last week, in which this divorce was compared with prior situations, and held up against modern Christian assumptions about divorce. The stats cited by the Post are troubling to say the least, and two figures in particular should catch the attention of every Bible-preaching pastor. First, the article states that Christian couples have a 30% divorce rate today, compared to 19% in 1988. Second, and more troubling still, “10 percent of white evangelicals [in 1988] said divorce should be easier for couples to get, according to the General Social Survey data. By 2012, that figure had doubled, to more than 21%.”
In short, the number of American Christians who think our society should make it easier to split up has more than doubled. One of two things is happening here: either pastors aren’t faithfully preaching what God’s Word teaches in regard to the permanency of marriage, or people in the seats on Sunday just haven’t been listening.
From the opening chapters of Genesis, the Scriptures not only commend, but command that the marriage covenant be permanent. The language invoked describes a “joining together” of husband and wife in a way that makes them “one.” Though the Mosaic covenant would later prescribe specific case law to govern divorce, such rules weren’t given to encourage the practice so much as to protect the most vulnerable in the relationship if a divorce occurred. In short, Old Testament law recognized divorce as a reality in a sinful world, but never, ever commends it as a preferred path out of marital discord.
Jesus affirms this as well when he confronts the religious leaders of His own day, saying “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way.” Later in the New Testament, Paul expounds on the reason why permanent monogamy should remain not only the ideal, but the norm in any Christian environment when in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5, he draws a close parallel between the husband-wife relationship, and that which exists between Jesus and His church.
The bottom line is this: Marriage is a picture of the Gospel, which means that to divorce for unBiblical reasons is to preach with your actions a false Gospel. In this way, to divorce is to do with actions what a false teacher might do with his words. I recognize that the ubiquity of divorce in our churches makes this seem like a very harsh statement, but faithfulness to the Biblical text means when we see stats that demonstrate Christians think we should “make divorce easier,” we speak back with Christ-centered conviction and compassion that will hopefully keep this heretical attitude from growing within the body of Christ.
With rare exception, we should not permit divorce in our churches, because functionally, it is no different than permitting the denial of Jesus’ own faithfulness to His people. Each and every time a Christian couple have their marriage declared legally dead, they purposefully break the picture of Jesus and the church that God intends people see when they look at a married couple. In cases of infidelity or clear abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, sometimes it is necessary to declare what already is. (Matthew 19:9) But “Irreconcilable differences” is not a sufficient reason for a follower of Jesus to break God’s picture, and from the statistics above, it would appear we need to say this more in our churches.
Divorce can be forgiven, and I also happen to believe that God still uses divorced people, even as leaders in the church, but it would be best for the family, the church, and for all of society, if we could create an environment where said forgiveness isn’t needed, because we have prevented the perversion of the Gospel. Maybe a good way to get started is to reaffirm in pulpits everywhere that when you refuse to divorce and make up your mind to obey God, even in bad circumstances, you aren’t just trying to keep your mate, and you aren’t just fighting for your marriage. You are fighting for the Gospel itself!