“The Traditional Church Script” is how I have come to refer to the legalists’ dogmatic and unbiblical mantra to oppose biblical divorce and keep abuse victims bound in ungodly marriages. On Christian websites and in countless books authored by well-known authors we often find a virtually identical refrain. The writers lay down the law and contend that the issue has been settled and no further discussion is worth consideration. The legalist dogma essentially declares: God hates divorce; adultery is the only biblical cause for divorce (with abandonment a possible second); divorce for any other purpose is a sin and constitutes adultery; and remarriage constitutes adultery unless the re-marrying partner was divorced from an adulterous spouse.
Having discovered many reputable experts with an opposing and completely defensible perspective, I’ll admit my frustration that so many mainstream Bible teachers are unwilling to reconsider. I also find it surprising that prominent men and women in authority and in the ministry seem to have taken so little time to more thoroughly examine God’s intent on a subject of such profound importance.
What purpose is served by holding to a doctrine that can be confirmed to have been misconstrued and misappropriated to the detriment of so many? We have a responsibility to confront and rebuke even the most entrenched vestiges of legalism. The issue of divorce is among them.
Having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the traditional view of divorce from early on in my faith, I accepted every word and attempted to live by its decrees and promises, even in the midst of a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage to a man who called himself a believer. Seventy times seven. Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials. Love never fails. A gentle and quiet spirit. The fervent prayer of a righteous one avails much.
But there came a point where the Lord released me from my abusive marriage. During my separation and divorce, walking in the freedom Christ had given, fellow believers questioned my standing, and offered up generous doses of condemnation that reflected the legalist stance: God hates divorce. Only in cases of adultery. Love covers a multitude of sins.
In the years since, as I sought to rectify the conflict, it was nothing short of ironic that I found the truth and freedom I was searching for in the very same Scriptures used to condemn me. The heart of God was revealed there; His truth has been horrifyingly misappropriated to the detriment of God’s nature and the men and women He so dearly loves.
So let’s look at the first of the most misappropriated Scriptures on the subject of divorce beginning with the legalists’ veritable trump card: “God hates divorce.” At least nine of ten believing women who find my website have been a victim of this Scripture’s misuse. That damning phrase is consistently tossed out by pastors, teachers and ignorant believers, held like a hatchet over the heads of many abused and hurting spouses seeking comfort and support.
Who wants to be counted among those standing on the side that God hates? So the victim of an ungodly marriage must choose whether to endure the abuse, neglect or abandonment of a wicked spouse or pursue personal and emotional safety at the risk of being abandoned by God and held in contempt by the church.
Yet the Scripture from which that assertion is taken has been grossly misinterpreted and therefore employed wrongly. What is even more appalling is how obvious the intent of the Scripture is when taken in context. How is it that so many of us fail to see what is clearly visible?
The utterance of God is taken from the second chapter of the Old Testament book of Malachi, and the section in question begins at verse 13; however, it is important to note that in the 12 verses that precede it, God is revealing through Malachi His anger toward His people because of ongoing disobedience. We will begin at verse 13 and conclude with verse 17.
“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.
“Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.
“For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously. You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?”
I have consulted several reputable commentaries to exercise due diligence and conscientiously endeavor to communicate the prophet’s intent with an appropriate measure of understanding. Join me on this important journey.
Verse 13: “This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.”
First, Malachi is chronicling God’s multiple complaints against the men of Judah. The Lord tells them, “This is another thing you do.” So, it is clear that God is already angered by a prior offense or multiple offenses. Two verses earlier in the text, the men were admonished for taking the women of foreign gods for their wives (verse 11). In verse 13, God rebukes these same men by acknowledging that the treachery of their offense resulted in the altar being covered with their tears. The prophet makes it clear that the men who claimed obedience to God had rationalized their sin and continued to bring offerings to God and wondered why God was not receiving or blessing their gifts.
Verse 14: “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”
The men feign shock at God’s rejection and seemingly throw up their hands in frustration, “Why, God?” And the Lord tells them flatly, “Because I have witnessed the treachery you have committed against your wives.” Your sacrifices and offerings mean nothing to Me when your hearts and the actions you have taken against your wives are unjust and wrong. It is important to note here that many teach that the marital union is indivisible and that, once married, our God actually sees the two as one, but Malachi’s testament makes it clear that this is not so, saying, “…the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously…” (v. 14)
Another interesting point is how God makes it apparent how much He values women and insists that they be treated well under these men’s guardianship. Although legalists will minimize the harm caused by treacherous men, the Lord Himself rises up to defend women.
Let’s go on.
Verse 15: But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.
There are several variances with regard to verse 15 as it relates to one having a remnant of the Spirit and the commitment to raising godly offspring, rather than these men raising children with women who do not share their faith. Several commentators reference the Lord curtly rebuffing the accepted rationale in the minds of the offenders that Abraham himself had an unlawful wife in Hagar. God wastes no time rejecting their self-serving logic and infers that those possessing a remnant of the Spirit should know better.
Verse 16: “For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
This is what seems to be God’s pronouncement: “I hate divorce.” However, it is clear from the context and earlier, literal translations, that the term translated divorce here is not referencing an actual writ of divorce – provided in the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24) – but rather the act of “putting away.” A “put away” wife was released without a writ of divorce, left to fend for herself without the freedom to remarry.
Men had become accustomed to putting away their wives to take other wives, and it is apparent by verse 11 that this was among the issues God condemned. The act of putting away was a cruel and selfish misuse of authority, and God hated it. This anger is consistent and legitimate, grounded in righteousness and God’s intent for marriage.
Why would men put away their wives? The reasons were purely selfish. Under the conditions of the “ketubah,” the marriage contract, a woman would enter into the marriage with a dowry which would by contract have to be returned to the wife upon the issuance of a writ of divorce, and the wife was also generally entitled to a measure of financial support, usually for a few years following the separation. Putting away a wife without a writ would leave her financially destitute while benefiting the husband. This was a violation of the contract and practical care. And the woman who was put away without a writ of divorce was not free to marry. This cruel status was known as “agunah” in the Hebrew, which means “chained woman.” It is also implied from earlier verses that these women were not being put away for any legitimate cause but because these men had decided to pursue other women, “the daughters of a foreign god.” It was a cruel betrayal; it was treachery.
By twisting the law and violating the oaths they had made to their wives, these men had immersed themselves in sin while pretending to be righteous, walking about in priestly garments even though they were “covered with wrong.” They had wearied the Lord with their words – attempting to reason with or provoke the God who knew their motives.
Verse 17: The section concludes, “In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delights in them,” or, “Where is the God of justice?”
The men to whom Malachi spoke were asserting that the practices in which they were engaging had become acceptable in their culture. “Why” they essentially inquired, “should we suddenly be held to a higher standard? Why, God, have you decided to single us out?” Their provocations toward the Almighty highlight their lack of humility and their unwillingness to acknowledge the patience and forbearance of God. They thought they could simply get away with it.
How can we not see the heart of God in this section of Scripture – His design for marriage, His compassion for unprotected women, His call to humble and heartfelt obedience? How can it be that the church has twisted this powerful call to repentance into a dogmatic decree that God hates divorce – and thus the divorced? Nothing in this Scripture lends itself to any such interpretation.
The magnitude of the harm that has been done to so many through the misappropriation of this portion of Scripture cannot be understated. Yet, going forward, Jesus makes it clear that, in Him, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. So let us diligently seek His truth, for in doing so we will find freedom and begin tearing down the walls of legalism our Lord so despised and that continue to hold other victims of treacherous marriages captive.
More to come.
For further insights, see my book “God Is My Witness: Making a Case for Biblical Divorce.”
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