IR: “Biblical Grounds”

I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]

9 thoughts on “IR: “Biblical Grounds”

  1. Thanks for this, Hannah. I was just talking with somone I know about divorce the other day. She won’t date this guy because he’s been divorced (and he didn’t choose it, the wife did), and she won’t date him because “biblically” the only reason for divorce is infidelity. I was so frustrated with our conversation, and the way Christians handle divorce in general. It’s so legalistic. I was like, “So you’re going to judge this guy the rest of his life for an action on his wife’s part that he couldn’t control?? (And when he obviously was crushed by it and wants to do things differently the next time??)” It literally makes no sense.

    I’ve also had pastors (men) tell me that when I get married, I better marry a good guy, because I can never, ever, ever get divorced once I’m it in. Never. Only if he cheats on me. But that is the only, only, only reason. It terrifies me to think of that (not that I want to divorce or take it lightly, but–I also know that sometimes, relationships can take awful turns, and being stuck to an abusive guy or something leaves me terrified). Language like that is the reason women so often stay in abusive situations.

    God never intended that. In fact, when Jesus talks about divorce in the NT, he was talking about it in the context of protecting women from men who just wanted to divorce their wives for NO grounds whatsoever, just because they wanted to, and they wanted justification to do so. He was giving some guidelines to divorce that protected the woman, not put a chain around her neck for the rest of her life. Yes, divorce is really hard and painful, and it should be the last option…but sometimes, it’s the only option.

    1. If the guy didn’t choose to divorce, the wife did, you could make a case for “desertion” on his part. Historically, Desertion was almost as Biblical(TM) a ground as Adultery (and on a par with being taken by pirates or slavers, which tells you how far back that ruling goes).

  2. Yes. It’s so easy to be glib when you’re not in the same place as someone else. Thank you for the reminder that I need to slow down, walk with, not in front of, and realize that I’m not the Holy Spirit. At all.

  3. Yes! (And p.s. I found instone-brewer’s books on divorce and remarriage to be the most helpful for untangling the cultural context on the NT’s teaching on divorce, as well as balanced and practical in suggesting ways to approach the topic today. One of his big themes: we just never know what went on in a marriage, so asking and assigning “blame” won’t help us that much anyway…)

  4. I would never ask a question like this. Aren’t they asking, in effect, if there was adultery involved? What can you say? – “Yeah, and not only that, it was with my best friend!” What do they want, the details?

  5. If one cannot infer a constant principle regarding marriage from the Scriptures, I’m afraid one cannot infer anything, including the principle of love. Christ makes His command about divorce, after all, not from Jewish or Gentile culture, but from Creation, of which we are all a part.
    Really, the question being asked when one asks you “was your divorce on Biblical grounds?” is really “what degree of fellowship may I have with you?” In your case, he left–pretty clear “live at peace” with one who was not going to obey Christ in this matter. You’re free to join a church, remarry, whatever.
    I understand that you’re sensitive to these questions, having experienced a legalistic church myself. Just make sure that you don’t confuse an ecstatic embrace of grace (good thing!) with a dogmatic rejection of even the trappings of legalism that you experienced.

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