What God Teaches Us About Broken Vows

I was grateful to have this piece published by Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics yesterday. You can find the original post here.

divorce

Many divorced Christians have felt they step into church wearing a scarlet “D”. Author Elisabeth Corcoran was one of these. After her marriage of almost 19 years unraveled, Corcoran grappled with pain, confusion, and shame. Those feelings compounded when she was politely asked to step down from speaking at a church women’s Christmas event soon after her divorce. Hush-hush, of course.

Following the recent release of her book Unraveling: The End of a Christian Marriage, she moderates an online Facebook group for divorcees. She has heard hundreds of similar stories. Divorcees often hear the words “God hates divorce” from others. “I know,” one woman wrote, “I’m not such a fan myself.”

While research shows that marriages between actively practicing believers fare significantly better than others, the divorce rate within the church is still alarmingly high. Sadly, rather than experiencing the church as a place of comfort and restoration, divorcees often face a guilt-tripping response.

Differences in interpretation about when the Bible allows divorce (if ever) leaves some Christians feeling our hands are tied when we long to extend them in compassion. Plus, our deeply held belief that “it takes two” to make a marriage work mistakenly translates into a belief that “it takes two” to break a marriage up. We subconsciously assign blame accordingly.

However, the truth is that it only takes one to wreck a covenant, as we can learn from God’s own relationship with the northern kingdom of Israel.

Our own understanding of marriage is modeled on the very covenant God made with his people. As David Instone-Brewer explains in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, God was Israel’s husband (Isa. 54:5), who took her to be his own and vowed to feed, clothe, cherish, and be faithful to her (Ezek. 16). In stark contrast to God’s faithfulness and care, Israel and Judah shamelessly disregarded the covenant: neglecting, abusing and betraying him. The prophets repeatedly called their behavior out as the violation of the covenant it was: adultery (Ezek. 23:37, Jer. 5:7).

God’s marital covenant with the northern kingdom of Israel had been wrecked by her hard-hearted behavior, and in Jeremiah 3:8 we hear these words: “for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.” In Isaiah 50:1, he asks, “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away?”

God warns adulterous and apostate Judah to learn a lesson from Israel’s example. Both sister states had been unfaithful and broken their covenants with God, but while God had divorced Israel, he offered Judah a second (and third, and fourth) chance at mercy. His offer of restoration was beautifully enacted by Hosea in his marriage to unfaithful Gomer, and ultimately realized in the unbreakable marriage covenant between Christ and the church.

I had often noted God’s patient forgiveness and covenant renewal in Hosea, but God’s description of his own divorce with the northern kingdom of Israel was shocking to me. I had unquestioningly internalized the phrase “the sin of divorce.” Regardless of how I interpreted the debate about Jesus’ words on the topic, if God himself had experienced this unfaithfulness, I needed to re-think my understanding of sin and divorce.

Let me be clear: marriage covenants are meant to be permanent, and sin is always to blame when a marriage ends in divorce. We commit sin when we break our vows, and marriage requires the regular practice of confession and forgiveness for the failures and oversights between spouses. There is a difference, though, between minor, unintentional mistakes and willful violations of covenant vows. In the former, we are to forgive and “bear with one another in love.” In the latter, God allowed the victim a choice: to remain and forgive as he did with Judah, or to divorce where a covenant has been broken by “hardness of heart,” as happened with Israel.

The sin in divorce lies in the breaking of marriage vows, not necessarily in the divorce itself. God’s own divorce was entirely due to Israel’s hard-hearted sin. God was the blameless victim of divorce. When God says “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16), he says so not with the furious pointed finger of a judge, but with the broken-heartedness of One who has experienced the devastation of rejection and betrayal at the hands of his beloved.

Divorce is not God’s will or desire for us. Even where divorce is allowed, it is not commanded, and then it is still a tragedy. Divorce leaves behind devastation and victims in its wake.

That God himself is a divorcee, despite his faultless covenant faithfulness, calls us to a more nuanced understanding of marriage and divorce. In our own marriages, God calls us to follow his example of covenant faithfulness, and has demonstrated how much grace and forgiveness is needed to maintain a relationship in the face of human sinfulness. God’s example give us a framework to talk meaningfully about commitment and grace, and yet also to say that in situations of hard-hearted and deliberate covenant violation, divorce was allowed as God’s way of officially declaring a broken covenant “broken”.

We find wisdom when we view hot topics within the larger framework of Scripture. A discussion on purity should not just be about whether a person is a virgin when they marry (even if they’ve done “everything but”), but about how they steward their sexuality throughout their lives. Similarly, the litmus test for covenant faithfulness in marriage should not just be about whether or not someone got divorced (even if they did “everything but”), but about how we steward our marriages and make daily attempts to model God’s faithfulness to our spouses.

God calls us to covenant faithfulness. We need to mourn the sins we commit when we fail to keep our vows to our spouses before we lament the “sin of divorce.” Upholding and honoring marriage is not going to be accomplished by shaming and opposing divorce as much as it is by our gracious and firm commitment to upholding wedding-day vows of love, nurture, care and faithfulness. We are called to consider covenant faithfulness long before we consider divorce, and we are called to grace in the tragic event that divorce does happen.

12 thoughts on “What God Teaches Us About Broken Vows

  1. Hi Bronwyn, would you like a review copy of my book “Not Under Bondage”? Just drop me an email me if you do.

    Also, I’d like to suggest you check out this post I wrote debunking the slogan “God Hates Divorce”. I believe — and I have many Hebrew scholars who agree with me — that Malachi 2:16 has been mistranslated in many versions of the Bible. Rather than God doing the hating in that Malachi 2:16, it is the *divorcing man* who is doing the hating. Read here for more explanation:
    http://cryingoutforjustice.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going about the divorce doctrine and how mistaken ideas on divorce are hurting many many Christians and inducing a lot of false guilt and unfair judgementalism.

    • Hi Barbara, thanks so much for your comment on the CT site and for the work you are doing in speaking out on this topic. Reading Dr Instone-Brewer’s book was such an eye-opener for me and made sense of the various parts of the biblical data in a way which I had not understood before! I am thankful that people like you are continuing to fight for a better, healthier understanding of the whole counsel of scripture. Thank you too for the link – I’m off to read it now. I am interested in reading about your book, but unable to commit to any book reviews at this time. I have about 4 to do in the next 3 months, which is more than this full-time mama can really keep up with in terms of scheduled reading. I may only be able to get to it in the Fall!
      Thanks again for your encouragement and your ministry in this area.

  2. There’s so much going on in these verses, and topic. First, I too have been thru a divorce and understand the painful issues and conflicting messages one gets from well meaning Christians. I searched for clarity and eventually found it in the council of a wonderful pastor.

    That being said, I’d like to comment on a few things.
    First, thankfully, God is always more faithful than His people. If He was not, I’m afraid we’d have nothing to stand upon.
    It is true that Israel, and Judah, broke covenant and played the “whore” time and time again. His heart is wrenched and He uses metaphors to describe this situation that their paganism is as if they’ve gone after other lovers, and their lack of obedience to His Torah, which would bring them blessing and life, instead will be what gets them expelled from the land and then, when they come back later, they will suffer under forign rule as a result of disobedience. As first born son, He promises to give them a double portion for their sin (Is 40:1-2).
    But notice too, there is no “get” (legal divorce document), it doesn’t exist. He is using metaphor here too, just like the “whore” and adultry metaphor. If you keep reading in Jeremiah you see He proclaims 5 times for them to come back to Him. In Ezekiel 16 it’s the same thing if you pick it up at vs 60: “yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant.”
    Ez 36 and Jer 31 deal with the New Covenant. Ez 36 says He is furious that Israel has “suffered the reproach of the nations”, and for His own namesake He will redeem and restore Israel.
    Jer. 31 says that His new covenant is made with: “…the house of Israeland the house of Judah
    Notice too Hosea 3:5 “Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”

    Jer 16:14-18 says there will come a day when He will no longer be known as the God who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, but rather as the God who brought them out of the north country and out of all the other countries He scattered them, bringing them back to their own land that He gave to their fathers. This is rather shocking, when you think about it.

    Again, Jer chap 30 He speaks to Israel and Judah saying He will “discipline you in just measure,
    and I will by no means leave you unpunished” Yet He will ultimately have mercy one them, restore them, and severly punish those who harmed them.

    Although our entry into Israel’s beautiful promises are through Jesus, we cannot forget that our security is bound up in God’s (and Jesus’) faithfulness to the covenant promises made to Israel. Thankfully, He always relents, and just as He doesn’t give us the full weight of what we deserve, the “God of Israel” is also gracious to those who He chose to be known by.
    Hosea 11:8, and 14:4-7 among many others:
    “I will heal their apostasy;
    I will love them freely,
    for my anger has turned from them.
    I will be like the dew to Israel;
    he shall blossom like the lily;
    he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
    his shoots shall spread out;
    his beauty shall be like the olive,
    and his fragrance like Lebanon.
    They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;…”

    Sorry it’s so lengthy!

    • Thanks for the comment! Lots to think about here! I confess I am among those somewhat confused by what’s going on with Israel/Judah/Ephraim in both the naming and the chronology of the prophets – it is hard for me to trace well, and I appreciate (and defer to!) your much more detailed grasp of these things. That being said, though, I do want to push back on the idea that divorce for God is “just a metaphor” because there is no “get”. God’s description of adultery and divorce may use language which is metaphorical, but it still implies a REAL covenant betrayal and breach. That the prophets describe God’s breach of relationship with the northern kingdoms as “divorce” (and maybe the Southern Kingdom’s exile as a “separation”, then?) is God’s description of the relationship, and whatever we make of the promises of restoration (remarriage, perhaps?), I think we still need to grapple with the fact that God speaks those words of himself.
      A secondary thought, though: I am so grateful to be on the other side of God’s gracious promises of covenant restoration with Israel, fulfilled through Jesus. “Though we are faithless, he is faithful.” Thanks for reading and commenting – I appreciate the dialog!

  3. An excellent article, Bronwyn, on a very important topic!

    Our modern church culture has, to a large extent, embraced a divorce mythology that is not biblically based (though propped up with Bible verses plucked out of context).

    Thank you for helping bust some of those myths!

    • Thanks, Joe. I so appreciate your encouragement. Reading your pieces on the topic have been very helpful! Reading over the comment thread at CT this morning reminded me (with sadness) of how many damaging people and opinions there are on this topic, and I am increasingly grateful for biblical and gracious voices on the topic.

  4. Beautiful the way you brought this back to the Bible! Just what we need when Christians are unsure what the right response is: to look back at the Word.

  5. Great thoughts on a very difficult subject. I discovered that my wife filed for divorce three day before Christmas (2013). The Friday after Christmas I was served with the paperwork. I found myself caught between my beliefs and my wedding vows and the laws of the state of California. I waited to see if she would drop her lawsuit but she did not so I was forced to respond. I have felt uncomfortable in church but several very well respected Christians have stepped up and shown me grace and said they were praying for me. Even though we counseled with our pastor for nine months, he has yet to talk to me since my wife filed with the court. At this point I know I did everything to save my marriage. Now I am caught up in the legal system. Thanks for sharing these thoughts on Christians and divorce.
    Patrick

    • Hi Patrick. Thank you so much for your comment. I am so very sorry to hear of what you have gone through – it is tragic that so little compassion and grace is sometimes offered to people who are victims and not perpetrators of broken wedding vows. I am grateful that there have been some who have offered support and prayer, but sad to hear of your pastor’s silence. If my article was a comfort to you, I am grateful. Grace, brother. Bronwyn

  6. God divorced Judah on July 30, 2014 in order to marry another woman. He has remarried and has never been happier.

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