How Should A Pastor Approach Divorce?
Marriage is at the center of God’s plan for creation. From the very beginning, God emphasized the sacredness of marriage and the family. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches about the importance of marriage and lifelong commitment: “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:6). In fact, the Bible tells us God “hates divorce” and desires married couples to remain committed to one another (Malachi 2:16).
Unfortunately, experience has taught us that Christians are not immune to sin and that this sin oftentimes leads to broken marriages and divorce. In dealing with marital problems, Christians turn to their pastor for counseling and advice. But, how can a pastor support God’s ideal for marriage while also preparing fellow Christians for the legal reality of divorce in the modern world?
Potential Biblical Grounds for Divorce
When pastors offer advice to their congregants regarding marriage, the first goal must be to set forth God’s ideal for marriage. Scripture, however, explores situations where divorce is permissible. First, adultery in the marriage relationship without repentance can sever the marital union and justify divorce (Matthew 19:8-9). Jesus specifically says that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. This standard greatly limits the situations in which divorce is permissible and rejects the modern concept of no-fault divorce now found in every state.
The Apostle Paul provided another interpretation of the Scriptural basis for divorce in what is called the Pauline privilege. Under this view of Biblical marriage, when a nonbeliever leaves a Christian spouse, the Christian spouse is free to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:15). This version of marital unfaithfulness emphasizes the desertion aspect of divorce as well as the desire for both spouses to place God at the center of their lives. In many ways, Paul’s view of divorce is just as limited as what Jesus presents in the Gospel of Matthew. Only when one spouse commits sexual immorality and/or rejects Christ, is divorce permissible.
Both of these potential grounds for divorce demonstrate that Christian spouses who remain faithful cannot base their decision to divorce on Scripture. Pastors who are counseling congregants should emphasize God’s plan for marriage and the sacredness of the union, especially when both spouses are committed Christians. Nevertheless, the reality of sin in our world and the rise in mixed religious marriages may lead to situations where the marital union is permanently broken. In these situations, pastors must carefully balance God’s call for repentance and forgiveness with the unavoidable reality of divorce.
Helping Christians Understand their Legal Options
While every pastor must seek to strengthen and protect Christian marriage, counseling those facing marital infidelity or abandonment requires presenting a full picture of their legal options. State laws permit one spouse to seek a divorce with or without the other party’s permission after a period of separation. Those who are abused or abandoned should obtain legal representation immediately to ensure their rights are protected. More important, when children are involved a host of legal issues are presented when couples separate. These include child custody, child support, and visitation. As a result, having experienced Christian legal representation is vital to protecting a congregant’s legal rights and helping them navigate the oftentimes intimidating legal system.
Simms Showers LLP can help explain the different divorce options available in Virginia. The most common type of divorce is from the bond of matrimony through a separation divorce. This type of divorce, commonly called “no fault,” may be granted after the parties have lived separate and apart for more than one year with no chance at reconciliation. Similarly, if no minor children are involved and the parties have entered into a property settlement agreement, the separation period can be reduced to six months. When a divorce is contested, however, there is always the possibility of court hearings to determine how to divide the couple’s estate and to resolve child custody/visitation issues.
Virginia also offers more traditional options when seeking a divorce including a divorce from bed and board on the grounds of abandonment or reasonable apprehension of bodily harm. These types of fault divorce are less common and require experienced legal counsel. To seek a divorce on the grounds of abandonment, the desertion must last at least one year before the court may grant it as a ground for divorce. Additionally, seeking a divorce on the grounds of apprehension of bodily harm also requires one year passing from the time of the alleged acts of cruelty.
The pastoral approach to divorce requires a delicate balance between Scripture’s emphasis on marriage as a lifelong commitment and the reality that Christians are not immune from irreconcilable marital problems. All Christian counseling calls us to forgive one another and seek spiritual redemption. This advice will always serve as the foundation of any pastor’s advice to his congregants. Yet ministry also requires pastors to be prepared for every situation, including those where the Bible recognizes the possibility of divorce. When one spouse engages in adultery or turns away from God, pastors are the first line of defense and should help believers understand their legal options. The attorneys at Simms Showers LLP can provide legal advice for pastors and their congregants on these difficult family law issues.
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