“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11; TNIV)
The Denver Post had a cover story in its “Lifestyle” section recently on how older, long-married wives are increasingly divorcing their husbands. “Unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart are among the reasons more boomers are single than any previous cohort of 40-60 somethings” (Sheba R. Wheeler, “A gray area for women” [July 21, 2010], section D, page 1).
Debates over divorce and/or remarriage in Christian circles have tended to focus on the meanings of what have come to be known as Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 19:9; divorce and remarriage can be considered in the case of adultery) and the Pauline privilege (1 Cor. 7:15-16; if a non-Christian partner wants to leave). Some Christian exegetes and/or therapists have argued for other similar worst-case scenarios to provide acceptable grounds for divorce—serious physical abuse, prolonged unrepentant addictions, life imprisonment, irreversible Alzheimer’s and the like.
Virtually no disagreement has existed, however, over the fact that, from a biblical perspective, mere “unhappiness, emotional estrangement and drifting apart” hardly qualify as acceptable reasons for divorce. All of these can be reversed if both partners make a good faith effort. But nothing in this newspaper article suggests these three reasons are limited to non-Christians, and personal experience shows that they are certainly not so limited.
One suburban Denver woman is quoted as saying, “The biggest thing was knowing I was approaching 50 and thinking I didn’t want to live the rest of my life married to someone I no longer loved” (section D, page 10). As is so endemic in our cultures and our churches, “love” is used here to describe a feeling. If you can fall in love, then you can fall out of love (or at least climb out of it)! If love, as in the Bible, is a choice, a commitment, then there is no falling. There is nothing that just happens to us outside of our control. Little wonder that cultures with arranged marriages (like many in biblical times) have microscopic divorce rates. The partners understand that it’s about how you behave toward one another, not about how you feel, that is most foundational to a marriage.
One might ask why this is “news” for the Denver Post. The article makes that answer clear also. Graying-haired men have been divorcing their wives in record numbers for some time now, often for “trophy wives”—noticeably younger, more attractive women who apparently care more about what their new, older partners can provide economically or socially in the short term than anything else, since second marriages on average dissolve faster than first ones. (Funny how in all the alleged interest in family values in the last presidential election, conservative Christians made next to nothing of the fact that this was precisely what the nominee of many of those voters’ choice had done years ago, whereas the other candidate had proved an exemplary husband and father. Guess the race really was about politics after all—which is probably what it should be—let’s just be honest about what we’re doing. But I digress.)
It’s not news either that most marriages that are going to end in divorce do so within their first eight years. What made this article worthy of publication was that the last bastion of faithfulness is falling. With younger men, younger women, and older men all leaving their spouses in record numbers for reasons far beyond anything remotely biblical, the only category of people left to join the bandwagon are older women. And now they have jumped on board.
It’s time to return to basics. Love is a commitment, not a feeling. Feelings follow from godly actions, not vice-versa. Wedding vows are promises: “till death do us part.” A divorcee by definition is a promise-breaker. Occasionally, it is impossible to keep promises no matter how much one wants to do so, because “it takes two to tango.” I cannot stay married if my spouse refuses to do so. But taking the initiative to divorce, and for no better reason than lack of personal fulfillment, simply cannot by any stretch of the Christian imagination ever be right.
I remember being shocked as a young adult by some Hollywood wedding (a true story) in which the traditional vows were replaced with promises to be faithful “until the death of love parts us.” That’s really what has become the norm today, even if we’re not honest enough to admit it. How many Christians getting married [now] would be prepared to go through with the wedding if those were the words they were told to repeat? Those who would be so prepared should save their money and skip the ceremony altogether. Especially for those already living together, wedding vows add nothing to what already exists unless they promise permanence. Might as well just keep “shacking up” with each other, to use some slang from my father’s lifetime, because it doesn’t take a promise to be faithful when good feelings are present. As C. S. Lewis put it years ago in objecting to shotgun weddings, why compound the sin of fornication with the sin of perjury? The whole point of wedding vows is to seal the relationship for the hard times.
Those who wouldn’t be prepared to have a wedding with such trivial promises need to think long and hard about what they are promising with the traditional vows. And keep thinking about it every week, month, and year of their lives thereafter.
The organization Bill McCartney founded had it right. It boils down to whether or not we are going to be promise keepers. And if I can’t trust someone in the most solemn pronouncement they will ever make in their lives, why should I trust them in anything else?
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.