The relationship between divorce and Christianity is fraught with tension, faith, and war.
The Bible comes down hard against divorce. “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel," states Malachi 2:16. In Matthew 5:32, the Bible clearly lays down the line: "But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." Yet, despite these strong edicts, in 1533, Henry VIII demanded that the Catholic Church give him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon so he could marry his new (and hopefully fertile) squeeze, Anne Boleyn.
Until then, Henry VIII had been a devout Catholic. But Catherine hadn't given him a son, and in politically tense England Henry needed an heir to fend off power hungry royals. Plus, Anne Boleyn was hot. Henry fought the Church for a divorce in a move that eventually ripped apart the Catholic Church and began a reformation of religion in England. This reformation redefined the rules of how people interacted with God and approached the Bible.
Today, in America, many American's are still caught in the Henry VIII conundrum.
The United States is the most Christian nation in the world yet has the highest divorce rates among all the developed nations. In a 2004 study done by the Barna Research Group, only 24% of Christians believed that divorce was a sin. The same study also showed that Christians are divorcing at the same rate as unbelievers.
And many Christians are dealing with the conflict between religion and divorce in the same way Henry VIII did, by redefining how they interact approach their faith. "When I sat down and thought about my divorce and my faith," says Dr. Linda Seger, who holds her doctorate in theology from The Graduate Theological Union, "I thought, if it's true that a divorced person can't get remarried and find happiness after the misery of a marriage, then a bad marriage is the only unforgivable sin. I could murder someone, serve my time, be forgiven, and start life again and, possibly, find happiness. But this would mean that I couldn't marry someone, divorce him, and then find happiness through love and marriage."
For Seger and a lot of Christians, reconciling their religion and divorce has to do with historical context.
"I do believe the Bible is the word of God," says Seger, "but it's not what I put my faith in. I look at a lot of verses in their historical context and the Matthew verses that talk about divorce were radical for Jesus to say in that day and age. "
Laura Harris, a Christian and twice divorced, explains, "The Christian counselor that I went to prior to filing for divorce said it best, 'God doesn't like divorce but sometimes it's the right thing to do.' I sat in his parking lot praying for 30 minutes before I went in to see him. I prayed that God would allow this counselor to give me peace if divorce was the right thing to do. I left knowing that divorce was an option and I only needed to be convinced myself that I had done everything in my power and God would still love me."
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, aka "Dr. Romance" notes, "Catholicism is the major Christian religion that forbids divorce, but even the Catholic clergy have come to realize there are good reasons, and provides a (difficult, but possible) avenue through annulment. Catholics who were married a long time with children have gotten annulments, even over the objections of one spouse. Most religions have come to realize that divorce is necessary in the case of violence, abandonment, mental illness, and alienation of affection. The more mainstream protestant religions are accepting of divorce in that they will remarry anyone who's legally divorced. "
Recently, one of my own friends, who was homeschooled with her seven siblings and raised in an Evangelical household explained that her own parents were considering a divorce. "My dad said even though he had no Biblical reason for divorce, he just couldn't understand why God would want him to live in misery," she said.
And while some Christians divorce for reasons that pertain to abuse and safety, many concur with that sentiment. Says Seger, "Why would God create me to be this person, with thoughts, talents and ambitions and then tell me that they all had to be sacrificed and compromised by this person that I was married to?"
Yet, despite this widespread acceptance of divorce many Christians find themselves at odds with their church over their decision.
Harris recalls her experience: "In a church of over 200 people I felt very supported by all but two people. The wife of a church leader called me and grilled me for 15 minutes regarding my reasons for filing for divorce. I barely knew this person and certainly didn't feel the need to justify my situation to her (although I did offer an explanation to the church leaders). By the time I got off the phone, I was crying hysterically and felt very judged."
In 1999, singer Amy Grant divorced her husband of 16 years. After their split, many Christians stopped listening to her music and questioned her faith. Some Christian radio stations stopped playing her music and a few Christian bookstores refused to sell her CDs. In a 2000 interview with CCM magazine, Grant stated, "Go look in a mirror and everything that's black and ugly about you, it's the same about me. That's what Jesus died for."
Today, as she looks back on that period of her life, Grant has come to terms with her religion and divorce. In a 2003, interview with ChristianMusicToday.com, Grant states, "Whenever I thought I was being dealt with unjustly, I would think, Some day, this is all going to play out in Heaven and everybody will see the full picture, and it won't even matter. That was always my thought process, just doing the things I felt I needed to do, and letting other people do what they felt they needed to do."
In a recent editorial in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, Christina Wicker author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, points to this rift in the church as a sign of religious growing pains. She writes, "What's clear is that people in the pews are taking back their faith, wresting it from leaders who helped sell the idea that only the most fundamentalist brands of Christian belief could succeed and that their words alone represented that belief."
This intricate power play between individuals and the institution of religion isn't easy, and underscores the deeply personal element of faith.
Wendy Rose, who divorced her husband 10 years ago, has come to terms with her decision in a way that falls outside of the scriptures and is deeply embedded in her idea of God and faith. "I had to believe," says Rose, "that God saw what I went through behind closed doors and it's between me and him when the time comes."
Whether this attitude is indicative of a reformation is hard to say, but at least no one is beheading anyone to get there.
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