The Risk of Divorce

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  June 20-27, 1979 p 666. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


If marriage involves a creative, courageous, demanding and risky act, then it also contains the possibility of failure. Our word to divorced persons must be that the failure and evil inherent in divorce (or any other human separation) would destroy us were it not for the fact that God keeps his promises and continues his love even when we break our promises and our love fails. The past cannot be erased, but it can be forgiven.

In the past ten years, the number of marriages in the U.S. that end in divorce has doubled. While the rapid rise in the divorce rate does appear to be leveling off as we end the 1970s, the numbers confirm what most of us have already experienced among our own families, friends and parishioners: that marital breakdown is a major phenomenon in contemporary society.

Complex Questions

Unfortunately, the church’s good intentions in regard to marriage have often resulted in bad dealings with divorce. While denouncing divorce, we have expended too little effort on improving the quality of marriages, preparing people for marriage, and supporting couples in the midst of marital difficulties. We must admit to the hypocrisy of condemning divorce while at the same time condoning as “marriage” a relationship that is little more than a cynical armistice, a mutual state of boredom, an arrangement of legalized prostitution, or an excuse for the continued subjugation of women. Too often we have been blind to the difficulties in marriage, treated divorced persons as pariahs and, in general, approached the subject with the attitude that “nice people like us don’t get divorced.”

But very many “nice people” in the church are getting divorced. If marriage involves a creative, courageous, demanding, risky act, then it also contains the possibility of failure. The acknowledgment of that failure is called divorce, and it is a tough decision to live through. A number of recent sociological and psychological studies seem to support Jacob Epstein’s assertion in his book Divorced in America that “in divorce there are only smaller and larger disasters.”

But despite available data on the trauma of divorce, there are some who argue that, far from being an unmitigated evil, divorce can be a good thing. Many people have come to view divorce as a natural consequence of “personal growth” and the “attainment of selfhood.” Instead of regarding divorce as a failure, Susan Gettleman and Janet Markowitz, authors of The Courage to Divorce, contend that “all married couples should be considered dependent, neurotic, and too fearful to divorce.” They ridicule the often-cited analogy between divorce and death: “Why should people want to mourn the ‘loss’ of someone they prefer to be rid of or have outgrown?”

The logic of such statements condoning divorce is as fuzzy as the reasoning behind some of the old condemnations of that act. There are more complex, more important human questions than have been addressed by either the stern denunciations of divorce or the accommodating “cheap grace” efforts to bless divorce -- or by the heralding of divorce as a liberation from outmoded bourgeois morality. It is time for the church to address some of those questions.

The Biblical Evidence

Malachi’s word from the Lord “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2: 16a) to the contrary notwithstanding, divorce was permitted by the Old Testament without stigma or litigation if the husband believed that his wife had “some uncleanness in her.” In the rabbis’ interpretations, “uncleanness” could denote an act of adultery (cf. Matt. 19:9), childlessness (Mal. 2:15), or even an inability to cook well! A woman’s position was extremely vulnerable.

Jesus’ thinking on the subject was different. When questioned about divorce, he replied:

 “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” [Matt. 19:4-9].

Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 also show Jesus taking a hard line against divorce.

In regard to the remarriage of divorced persons, Matthew’s later version seems to show a softening of Jesus’ tougher stance in Mark to allow for the extenuating circumstances of adultery. Paul, while simply repeating what must have been regarded as an authentic and basic teaching of Jesus against divorce, adds another extenuating circumstance: if one is married to an unbeliever who demands a divorce, then one may remarry (I Cor. 7:15).

The biblical evidence indicates that Jesus categorically condemns divorce and remarriage after divorce, basing his prohibition on an appeal to God’s original intention in creation (“. . . from the beginning it was not so”). Divorce is not part of the intended scheme of things. Remarriage after divorce is called “adultery.” Some have suggested that Jesus real concern here was with the abuse of women within the divorce practices of the day. But there is no sidestepping the fact that Jesus condemns divorce itself, not just its abuse, in the strongest possible words.

However, the biblical evidence shows also that the church, after stating Jesus’ unequivocal demands on this subject, felt free to permit some few exceptions, perhaps in a pastoral attempt to deal humanely with specific marital situations while still upholding Jesus’ demand. Robert F. Sinks has contended, in a Christian Century article (“A Theology of Divorce,” April 20, 1977, pp. 377-378), that Jesus was taking a “situationist” stance in which divorce might be deemed appropriate in order to fulfill “the law of love.”

If Jesus allowed for breaking the honored Sabbath laws   would he not also allow for a suspension of the proscription against divorce if such were to liberate a person from the bondage of an intolerable marriage? . . . does it not follow that marriage was made for humanity, rather than humanity for marriage? If the institution, important as it is, does violence to the individual, then shouldn’t the institution be amended in order that the individual might flourish?

A major problem with Sinks’s argument is that he still has Jesus’ “hard sayings” on divorce to contend with. As is typical of the “situationist” approach, rules and codes are jettisoned in favor of the broad, unspecific, vague demands of “love.” Whether “love” alone is a sufficient basis for ethical behavior, particularly when the larger society has a stake in what happens to a marriage, is a matter which Sinks does not address.

It should be noted, however, that traditionally the church has shown a relative lack of concern about that vague thing called “love” -- particularly in regard to marriage and divorce. In the service of holy matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer, the basis for most Protestant marriage services, “love” is considered only one of the necessary requisites for marriage. Other moral values such as selflessness, honor, fidelity, sacrifice, permanence and commitment are also affirmed. Never does the minister ask “Do you love each other?” The question is “Will you love . . . ?” Love is assumed to be an act of the will.

I am particularly suspicious of situation ethicists like Sinks when they plead the “Great Commandment as a basis for ending a marriage “in order that the individual might flourish.” In today’s consumer-oriented, capitalistic culture, where people are used, abused and disposed of like nonreturnable soft-drink cans, where “liberation” has been invoked to justify selfishness, it may be that the time has come for the church to say again what it has always believed -- that there is no way for individuals to “flourish” without the kind of communion and community and the permanent, deep, risky commitment that true Christian love demands -- qualities that are perhaps best experienced in the yoking of a man and a woman in marriage.

The Two Become One

Many church people, responding to the “hard sayings” of Jesus, affirm a stand against divorce. We are not, however, upholding an impossible, perfectionist ideal, an unrealistic interim ethic, or a hardhearted legalistic command. In an irresponsible, pathologically uncommitted age, any bond may seem unduly restrictive. We may be rendering the greatest possible service to contemporary society in general and to our struggling fellow Christians in particular when we uphold the bond of marriage.

Jesus’ sayings about divorce seem to be grounded in his perception of God’s original intention in creation: “From the beginning it was not so.” Genesis 2 shows woman coming from the rib of man. This account in no way implies superior or inferior status for the man or the woman. Originally they were “one flesh” and, after creation of male and female, they now desire to restore their oneness. This, for Genesis 2, is the basis of marriage. Sex is reunion. Far from being a subservient afterthought, the woman is the often-neglected half of the male’s incomplete image of God. Separation is sin because it is a violation of this inherent, unifying purpose.

Good Jew that he was, Jesus was not able to conceive that a man and a woman could be joined and then separated. That union brings about an ontological transformation, a creation of a new entity which cannot be dissolved through Moses’ certificate of divorce, We have here, in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, not so much a command but an invitation to participate, through our marital unions, in the underlying, unifying purpose of all creation.

The Old Israel and the New Israel, in relationship to God, are frequently compared to a man and a woman in marriage (Isa. 50:1, Hos. 2: i6-2o, John 3:29). Our fathers and mothers in faith before us sensed that human marriage was an example, a human analogy for the union which the Creator sought to bring about not only among individual men and women but throughout the whole creation. Marriage is God doing in a man and a woman what God is doing in all creation. That union is real, and to sever it is to separate oneself from the union toward which God is moving us.

Undoing the Past

The comedian Jerry Lewis once remarked that the best wedding gift which he and his wife received was a home movie of their wedding ceremony. Now, whenever things are not going well for them, he takes out the film, goes into his viewing room, locks the door, runs the film through the projector backward, and walks out a free man! Sometimes we wish to God that we could do that with our history.

Aquinas once wrote that even God shares one limitation with us humans: “God cannot make what is past not to have been” (Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 25, 1023). Time is neither cyclic nor illusory; it is real, The past is behind us; the present is the time for decision; the future is determined by the sum of all our yesterdays and todays. Jesus’ word on forgiveness was not that what we do does not matter. His message was that the future is not utterly determined by the past and that, through repentance and conversion, we can receive the love of God despite what we have already done with our lives.

J. R. Lucas, writing in Theology (May 1975, pp. 226-230), reminds us that our neophilic society is constantly telling itself that the past is irrelevant and that our decisions are of no consequence. But the facts of our lives cannot be ignored. We are the sum total of all that we have been: past deeds, past promises, past loves. Even God cannot wipe that away.

Some human transactions -- for example, a business deal -- are adequately fulfilled in a brief encounter. Something is promised and something is given and the matter is concluded. But marriage is a relationship that extends “so long as ye both shall live.” The shared joys and sorrows, the mutual secrets and hopes, the contract of marriage and the union it effects have profound and continuing significance. Husband and wife may be estranged, but they will never again be strangers. We can never be totally free from a union once it is promised and participated in.

That is why it is not helpful to quibble over questions of whether a given marriage is “real” or “valid” in the first place. If vows were exchanged in freedom and sexual intercourse has occurred (it amazes me how realistically and seriously the church has always taken sex!), then there has been a marriage -- however unsatisfactory that marriage may have been. There was meeting and union. A promise was made. Promises can be broken, but they can never be retrieved. Such irrevocable deeds may be regretted or repented, but they cannot be undone.

A Sign of Failure

Those whose marriages have broken down can experience forgiveness and new beginnings, but only if they first recognize the reality of what has been done and its continuing significance for their situation. In my own pastoral counseling experiences, I have found that most divorcing couples are realistic enough not to want superficial, cheap attempts on the counselor’s part to heal their wounds lightly by telling them, in effect, that their divorce and their prior marriage are unimportant. To tell them this is to imply that all of their life’s deeds, promises and loves are without value. There will be no future healing if a couple delude themselves, through a pastor’s misguided attempts to provide loving support, into thinking that their divorce is a momentary inconvenience which is best forgotten rather than a broken relationship which will exert continuing influence on their lives. As Henri Nouwen says: “To forget our sins may be an even greater sin than to commit them. Why? Because what is forgotten cannot be healed easily becomes the cause of greater evil” (The Living Reminder, p. 17). We cannot face God unless we first face these facts of our lives which are unalterable and which will be of continuing relevance. “One flesh” is an empirical, experiential reality.

Helen Oppenheimer has spoken of the inherently unnatural, painful nature of divorce:

. . . a broken marriage is a broken marriage; something that stands out as an unnatural smashing of what was built to last, a blasphemy against the unity of Christ and his church, an amputation inflicted upon a living body. . . . The bond of marriage is indeed a real bond, affecting those who are joined in it for evermore. It can never be neatly untied, only harshly severed. When this injury has happened, the practical question is how the wound can best be healed, and the temptation is always either to cover it soothingly up at a grave risk of festering, or to keep it open forever as a warning to others [Theology, May 1975, p. 242].

I have always regarded “a friendly divorce” as an emotional non sequitur. There is something vaguely immoral about two people joining together in wedlock, sharing everything they have, beginning a home, and then one day politely shaking hands and amicably going their separate ways. Let us be honest about divorce, viewing it only as a painful last resort, rarely “good” or “right” in the eyes of God. Divorce is not a satisfactory solution for times when marriage becomes difficult, when love is tested, or when vows are hard to keep. Marriage can be difficult, but so can divorce. We have been relatively candid in recent years about the risk of marriage; now let us be honest about the risk of divorce! Divorce is a sign of failure and of the presence of evil. A union was severed; love was overcome; a promise was not kept.

A Note of Judgment

The practical burden upon pastors and parishioners in dealing with divorce (and with marriage) is to be bold in holding to the will of God as we see it expressed in marriage and at the same time audaciously doing God’s will by loving those in the throes of divorce. There will always be a note of judgment in the church’s dealings with divorce. If it is not there, we run the risk dishonesty and unfaithfulness. We are called to faith, hope and love in our dealings with God, women and men. But many of our “cheap grace” dealings with divorce, such as the experimental United Methodist “Ritual for the Divorced” (Ritual in a New Day [Abingdon, 1977]), speak more of our irresponsibility and unfaithfulness than of our love.

Our word to divorced persons must be that the failure and evil inherent in divorce (or any other human separation) would destroy us were it not for the fact that God keeps his promises and continues his love even when we break our promises and our love fails. The past cannot be erased, but it can be forgiven. Even the most grave wounds can be healed. Life’s painful actions of “last resort” can be done not by rationalizing away the difficulties of the moral situation but by firmly relying on the grace of God. “Love God and sin boldly,” Luther says.

While St. Augustine did not know everything about love, sex and marriage (and much of what he wrote on these subjects is less than helpful), he did know a great deal about the grace of God. He knew that our noblest attempts to risk ourselves and to do the good are doomed to failure unless we rely on God’s grace to aid us. He knew that our great failures to do the good can utterly crush us unless we rely on the grace of God to forgive us. I think the saint’s words to those of us involved in the risk of marriage and in the risk of divorce might be the same as those he addressed to the struggling Christians of his own day:

God does not impose impossible things, but by manifesting his command, he urges you to do what you can and to pray for what you can not yet do; by so doing you fulfill the will of God [On Nature and Grace, 43, 50].