Christian Views on Divorce

Christian views on divorce find their basis both in biblical sources dating to the giving of the law to Moses (Deut 24:1–4) and political developments in the Christian world long after standardization of the Bible. According to the synoptic GospelsJesus emphasized the permanence of marriage, (see Mark 10 at verses 1 to 9, Matthew 19; Luke 16 v. 18) but also its integrity. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says

“Because of 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 sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”.

Both in the Gospel of Matthew and of Mark, Jesus remembers and quotes Genesis 1:27 (“male and female created He them”), and Genesis 2:24 (“shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twaine shall be one flesh.”). Paul the Apostle concurred but added an exception, known as the Pauline privilege.

The Catholic Church prohibits divorce, and permits annulment (a finding that the marriage was not canonically valid) under a narrow set of circumstances. The Eastern Orthodox Church permits divorce and remarriage in church in certain circumstances, though its rules are generally more restrictive than the civil divorce rules of most countries. Most Protestant churches discourage divorce except as a last resort, but do not actually prohibit it through church doctrine.

The Christian emperors Constantine and Theodosius restricted the grounds for divorce to grave cause, but this was relaxed by Justinian in the 6th century. After the fall of the empire, familial life was regulated more by ecclesiastical authority than civil authority.

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Divorce

Roman Catholic Church

Although marriage was not yet a declared, defined sacrament, by the ninth or tenth century, the divorce rate had been greatly reduced under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, which considered marriage to be instituted by God and Christ indissoluble by mere human action. Marriage was later defined as a sacrament, beginning in 1208, when Pope Innocent III required members of another religious movement to recognize that marriage was a sacrament as a condition for being received back into the Catholic Church. In 1254, Catholics accused Waldensians of condemning the sacrament of marriage, “saying that married persons sin mortally if they come together without the hope of offspring”. In 1439 the Council of Florence defined marriage as a sacrament, solidifying the development of doctrine from the previous twelve centuries and described marriage as ‘indisoluble’ “since it signifies the indivisible union of Christ and the church.” The passage follows, “Although the separation of bed is lawful on account of fornication, it is not lawful to contract another marriage since the bond of a legitimately contracted marriage is perpetual.”

Although divorce, as known today, was generally allowed in Western Europe after the 10th century, separation of husband and wife and the annulment of marriage were also well-known. What is today referred to as “separate maintenance” (or “legal separation”) was termed “divorce a mensa et thoro” (“divorce from bed-and-board”). The husband and wife physically separated and were forbidden to live or cohabit together; but their marital relationship did not fully terminate. Civil courts had no power over marriage or divorce.

The Catholic Church historically opposed the legalization of civil divorce in Catholic countries. For example, when Republican Spain legalized divorce in Spain for the first time, Pope Pius XI wrote: ‘the new Spanish legislation, with the deleterious introduction of divorce, dares to profane the sanctuary of the family, thus implanting, with the attempted dissolution of domestic society, the germs of saddest ruin for civil well-being.’

Canon law makes no provision for divorce, but a declaration of nullity may be granted when proof is produced that essential conditions for contracting a valid marriage were absent—i.e., that the sacrament did not take place due to some impediment. The grounds for annulment are determined by Church authority and applied in ecclesiastical courts. Annulment was known as “divorce a vinculo matrimonii”, or “divorce from all the bonds of marriage”, for canonical causes of impediment existing at the time of the marriage. “For in cases of total divorce, the marriage is declared null, as having been absolutely unlawful ab initio.”

The Church holds that the sacrament of marriage produces one person from two, inseparable from each other: “Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ The woman, ‘flesh of his flesh,’ his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a ‘helpmate’; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been ‘in the beginning’: ‘So they are no longer two, but one flesh.'” Since husband and wife became one person upon marriage, that oneness can only be seen as null if the parties improperly entered into the marriage initially, in which case the marriage does not validly exist.

In 2016, Pope Francis published Amoris laetitia, which pertains to the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried who live together “more uxorio”. However, there have been no updates to Roman Catholic Canon Law as a result of this apostolic exhortation.

Divorce Separation Marriage Breakup Split Argument

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Eastern Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church does recognize that there are occasions when it is better that couples do separate, and permits remarriage in Church, though its divorce rules are stricter than civil divorce in most countries. For the Eastern Orthodox, the marriage is “indissoluble” as in it should not be broken, the violation of such a union, perceived as holy, being an offence resulted from either adultery or the prolonged absence of one of the partners. Thus, permitting remarriage is an act of compassion of the Church towards sinful man. A very low rate of divorce among Orthodox Christians in Greece may suggest that the same may be said for Orthodox Christians in the U.S. However, U.S. rates are inconclusive. The actual divorce rate is probably somewhat higher due to civil divorces obtained without an accompanying ecclesiastical divorce. Divorced individuals are usually allowed to remarry though there is usually imposed on them a penance by their bishop and the services for a second marriage in this case are more penitential than joyful. The Orthodox Church traditionally states that “it blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth”. Widowed spouses are permitted to remarry without repercussion and their second marriage is considered just as blessed as the first. One exception to this rule is the clergy and their wives. Should a married priest die, it is expected that his widow will not remarry. Widowed priests are not allowed to remarry and frequently end up in monasteries.

Oriental Orthodox Churches

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are more severe than the Eastern Orthodox Church in terms of divorce and adopt an intermediate position between Rome and Constantinople, allowing it only in the case of adultery. This position is true for both Syriacs Orthodox, Armenians Orthodoxs, Ethiopians Orthodox and Copts Orthodoxs.

Reformed Churches

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which is a secondary standard of the Presbyterian Church, allows for divorce under certain circumstances. In chapter 24, section 5, it states that the contract of marriage may be dissolved in the case of adultery or abandonment, citing Matthew 5.31 as proof.

Methodist Churches

The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, in its 2014 Discipline, teaches:

We believe that the only legitimate marriage is the joining of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:10; Eph. 5:22, 23). We deplore the evils of divorce and remarriage. We regard adultery as the only scripturally justifiable grounds for divorce; and the party guilty of adultery has by his or her act forfeited membership in the church. In the case of divorce for other cause, neither party shall be permitted to marry again during the lifetime of the other; and violation of this law shall be punished by expulsion from the church (Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11, 12). In the carrying out of these principles, guilt shall be established in accordance with judicial procedures set forth in The Discipline.

The United Methodist Church, in its 2012 Book of Discipline, states:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens. As the church we are concerned about high divorce rates. It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible. We also support efforts by governments to reform divorce laws and other aspects of family law in order to address negative trends such as high divorce rates.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in the custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration.

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

Baptist Churches

Many conservative evangelical and Protestant churches, such as some Baptists, strongly oppose divorce, viewing it as a sin, pointing out Malachi 2:16 – “‘For I hate divorce,’ says Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with violence!’ says Yahweh of Armies. ‘Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you don’t deal treacherously'” (WEB). However interfaith marriages are handled differently in Ezra 9–10 and 1 Corinthians 7 (the Pauline privilege). Protestant scholar Bill Heth states that this is the majority view.

Anabaptist Churches

Some Anabaptist churches forbid divorce altogether.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) officially discourages divorce. The LDS Church encourages its members to work around marital problems before they lead to annulment or divorce, yet allows both practices in circumstances of infidelity or other serious cases. Divorce is regarded with heavy social stigma, and Church authorities maintain that “Latter-day Saints need not divorce—there are solutions to marriage problems.” LDS Church policy allows members to seek civil divorce independent of ecclesiastical authority, but cancellation of a temple sealing may only be performed with special permission from the First Presidency of the Church.

The LDS Church discourages divorce largely on account of its theology of the family. Early church leaders taught that God himself lives in a family and with a wife. Tim B. Heaton, a sociologist from Brigham Young University, explains, “The key tenet in the Mormon Theology of the family is that, given the proper circumstances, family relationships will be perpetuated in heaven.”

Latter-day Saint culture places an extreme emphasis on success in family life, leading to high expectations for marital success. David O. McKay, former President of the Church, stated that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.” Church publications often publish articles instructing members on means to improve married life, and, on rare occasions, will become involved politically when it feels the institution of marriage is threatened by proposed public policy. General Authority of the Church have repeatedly warned against an impermanent view of marriage. “[The view of marriage] as a mere contract that may be entered into at pleasure … and severed at the first difficulty … is an evil meriting severe condemnation, especially where children are made to suffer.” In 2007 Dallin H. Oaks, a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and a former judge on the Utah Supreme Court, has counseled church members that “the weakening of the concept that marriages are permanent and precious has far-reaching consequences.”

Latter-day Saint couples (both with and without temple sealings) are found to have slightly lower rates of divorce when compared with Protestants and Catholics, and significantly lower rates when compared with those who state no religious preference. The following is a chart showing the rate of divorce among various religions with data copied from the study “Religion and Family Formation”, conducted by Tim B. Heaton and Kristen L. Goodman.

Sex Catholics Liberal Protestants Conservative Protestants Latter-day Saints No Religion
Male 19.8% 24.4% 27.7% 14.3% 39.2%
Female 23.1% 30.8% 30.9% 18.8% 44.7%

A lower divorce rate among Latter-day Saints may be due to a strong family culture, the difficulty of securing a cancellation of sealing, and other religious influences. Al Thornton, from the University of Michigan, comments that, “With its unique theology and heritage concerning marriage, family, and children, it should not be surprising to find that Mormon behavior differs from that of the larger society.” Certain doctrines which are unique to Latter-Day Saint theology may help account for the lower divorce rate among active members. These doctrines include the literal parenthood of God the Father, the eternal nature of families, and the requirement of a successful temple marriage in order to gain salvation. For Latter-day Saints, divorce is “a very serious undertaking”, both socially and religiously.

Various factors have been shown to lower incidence of divorce among church members, including church activity. Heaton says that, “Overall, church attendance is associated with lower rates of nonmarriage and divorce, [and] higher probabilities of remarriage after divorce.” Studies suggest that the most important statistical variable affecting marital dissolution rates of Latter-day Saints is marriage in the temple, with some studies finding that non-temple marriages entered into by Latter-day Saints are almost five times more likely to result in divorce than are temple marriages.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism states that “[t]he Church distinguishes between (1) civil marriages, which are valid for “time” (until divorce or the death of one spouse), and (2) temple marriages, or sealings, solemnized by proper ecclesiastical authority, which are binding for “time and all eternity.” In order for a marriage to be considered eternally binding, it must be performed in a Latter-Day Saint temple by properly authorized temple workers. Marriage in the temple is strongly encouraged by church leaders, as Latter-day Saint marriages performed in the temple have less than a 7% chance of dissolution.

Latter-day Saints Women Men
Married in Temple 7% 6%
Not married in Temple 33% 28%

There is some debate over the validity of these figures. The LDS Church itself notes that “In reporting their findings, the two researchers noted that if there were some measure of religious commitment comparable to temple marriage among other religions, statistics for those groups might also be more favorable.” The accuracy of this statistic is also disputed on the grounds that the process required to obtain a temple recommend artificially limits the test group to those who are already less likely to divorce. For example, the temple recommend requires Church members to abstain from pre-marital sex, a behavior associated with a higher divorce rate. This statistic also fails to take into account couples who enter into a temple marriage and subsequently obtain a civil divorce, yet fail to apply for a cancellation of temple sealings. Nevertheless, numerous studies show a strong link in the Latter-day Saint culture between marriage in the temple and a lower divorce rate, and that among members “the temple marriage [is] the most resistant to divorce.”

In order to obtain a cancellation of temple sealings, permission from the First Presidency is required. Applicants for divorce are required to submit a request for a cancellation of sealings through their local ecclesiastical authorities, including information about the couple, and a personal appeal. The resulting cultural impact of a divorce upon an LDS couple is significant. Church leaders have stated that “every divorce is the result of selfishness on the part of one or both”, and that selfishness is a leading cause of marital stress and divorce. Divorced Latter-day Saints may report feelings of alienation from fellow church-members and some Latter-day Saints may see divorce as “a sign of failure”.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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