Divorce and the church

All Woman

DESPITE a growing belief among millennials that marriage is not a life sentence that people need to serve — whether the institution is meeting their needs or not — there is still a stigma attached to divorce, especially when it happens within the church. In fact, some churches defend the marital union so staunchly that divorce means disbarment from the holy body, and only with the death of a spouse can one remarry and remain in the faith. Other denominations are more flexible, allowing divorce and remarriage after penance, and a few see divorce as a viable option when the couple is simply not compatible.

Many Christians will tell you that Malachi 2:16 states that God hates divorce, and for that reason subscribers to the Christian faith should also hate it, even in the face of abuse, infidelity or outright irreconcilable differences.

Consider the cases of two men who spoke with All Woman. The first, Dalton, a 36-year-old Christian, met a divorced Christian woman and pursued a relationship. When both approached their pastor with the news they had got engaged, they were told that they would have to find another marriage officer. His reason was that marrying a divorced individual whose spouse was still alive was adultery and went contrary to the conventions outlined in the church's manual.

For 28-year-old Carl, the situation was a bit different. After his divorce was finalised and he entered a new relationship and sought to get married, he was turned away by two pastors who felt his “abusive ways” would manifest in his new union.

“There were arguments about adultery, but what stood out the most was that they used an incident where I had hit my ex-wife out of anger to say I wasn't ready to recommit to anyone like that. This was after being divorced for over five years. I even heard arguments that I was still married because my ex-wife was still alive and, mark you, living her life,” he shared.

Carl had to request the services of a marriage officer at the Registrar General's Department.

“I could have gone to a more relaxed church or to a pastor brethren I knew, but I was so turned off. To me the church was comfortable and happy when I was in misery and had no peace of mind, and was constantly being verbally abused by my wife. The one time I retaliated, it was an axe above my head.”

The real question, though, is why the church can't accept divorce as a form of severance.

Delano Palmer, Bible teacher with the Christian Brethren Assemblies of Jamaica, said for his denomination it is a split view based on the elders' (church leaders) interpretation of Matthew 19.

“Matthew 19 says people should not divorce except for fornication, which means in the context sexual immorality. There are different views of interpreting the excepted clause in Matthew 19. Some Assemblies or member churches interpret the excepted clause as allowing for divorce, while another group of Bible scholars or elders interpret it to mean that once one divorces under proper grounds — the grounds mentioned in Matthew 19 — they can remarry; otherwise, no,” he said.

The Jamaica Union of Seventh-day Adventists' manual provided on their website outlines a few things regarding the church's position on divorce and remarriage. The manual says in the event that reconciliation is not effected, the spouse who has remained faithful to the spouse who violated the marriage vow has the biblical right to secure a divorce and also to remarry. It further states that a spouse who has violated the marriage vow shall be subject to discipline by the local church, and if genuinely repentant, the spouse may be placed under censure for a stated period of time instead of being removed from church membership. However, a spouse who gives no evidence of full and sincere repentance shall be removed from membership.

According to general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, Reverend Karl Johnson, regardless of whichever side of the fence we stand on, people in general see marriage as a permanent institution and not as a temporary driver's licence.

He added that, barring unusual circumstances, one would hardly find a church that would be in agreement with divorce and see it as a first rule of action.

“In fact, some secular counsellors will encourage a married couple to work things out if the situation is not one in which the parties involved would be seriously affected,” he said.

Johnson explained that on the flip side, some situations warrant only a divorce.

“Such circumstances include abuse, whether it be physical, psychological or emotional. If you're not experiencing the kind of sense of worth and value, if your physical life is at risk, your mental health is at risk, your children's life, that cannot be God's will for anyone,” he said.

However, Johnson said most churches have to accept that humans get married, humans are sinful, and the consequence of mistakes may lead to divorce, while also being careful not to stigmatise divorcees who may want to remarry, which is often where another set of issues arise.

“I find that a lot of persons who are irrational about remarriage use it as a way to affirm the seriousness of marriage. But if we agree that it is human sinfulness that leads to a break-up, unless you're arguing that God can't forgive that, you have no basis to prevent someone from being remarried,” he said.

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