Christian Nation series: would Jesus agree with “biblical” divorce?

Christian Nation series: would Jesus agree with “biblical” divorce? July 20, 2023

In this second installment of Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery vs. U.S. Constitution, we will look at one popular conservative website, and how it approaches the topic of divorce, and then consider the subtext of some of Jesus’ teachings. If you missed my last post, Toxic Masculinity Discusses Marriage, you might want to start there, as today’s post builds on that content.

Modern Western Christianity is much different from Bible times, to say the least. Everything has changed – some things for the better, some not so much. Of course, the world has changed too. Among other things, thanks to modern conveniences, housework and cooking take a lot less time than they used to. Both boys and girls go to school for most of the day. Financial pressures (both actual and socially imposed) are nothing like they were in Jesus’ time.

The increased number of women in the workforce is another huge change. (The website Biblical Gender Roles refers to this as “the scourge of feminism.”)

Of course, working women complicate family life – but that doesn’t make it wrong or bad. Parents in every era of human history have succeeded and failed to do a good job raising their kids. Kids have gone astray in every generation, some of them poorly raised, some impeccably raised.

Marriages today are usually built on mutuality and (at least in theory) equality; love and devotion are in place before the wedding. This is not like Bible times – does that make it wrong, or is it just different? Or might it even be an improvement?

Those who insist on “biblical” marriage standards like subservience, women as property, and (heaven help us) spanking in this context make the Bible irrelevant. This is a rebuke of Christian leaders’ faulty interpretations, not a reflection on the Bible itself.

Dr. Adrian Thatcher of the University of Exeter suggests that we expand our thinking:

Wives can love their husbands as Christ loved the Church, even if it never occurred to this first-century author to say so…There is more to marriage than adhering to particular details of its historical practice. Understanding of marriage can deepen.

In the quotes we looked at last time, love was not part of the discussion. The author made no attempt to understand marriage on a deeper level than its power structure. I saw only a self-privileged male writer drunk on the totalitarian control he had given himself. (Is this hyperbole, or accurate?)

With all that said, let’s move into a discussion of divorce.

We will start with an overview from everyone’s new favorite website, Biblical Gender Roles (BGR). What does this conservative “biblicist” have to say about divorce? (If you missed my last post, in which I quoted from BGR at length, go here. To catch this series from the beginning, go here.)

The big picture

Jesus was absolutely clear about the purpose of the law: to lead us to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

He saw the law as something pliable, a means to an end – not an end in itself. He innovated, reapplying parts to fit the new, improved, love-focused community of faith.

No doubt, this was jarring to his followers (and detractors). After centuries of Mosaic law, it would be hard to get used to those changes. Some rejected them completely.

Today, we are perfectly comfortable with Jesus’ innovations – we’ve never known a different kind of faith walk.

Fundamentalists (and whoever else adheres to the old law), in trying to practice “pure” Christianity, have lost the thread. They “tithe dill and mint and cumin” but neglect “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:33).

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Unfaithful husband (fasten your seatbelt – again)

(Reminder: I’m not suggesting that all fundamentalists, evangelicals, or Christian nationalists adhere to the exact beliefs below. Some do – probably many millions are in that camp. For example, Kenneth Copeland Ministries agrees with BGR’s basic tenets on divorce; so do Focus on the Family and the Gospel Coalition. Other organizations like and Crosswalk offer more liberal advice.)

As you read the following, imagine it becoming the law of the land, because that’s what many of these conservative orgs (including BGR, Kenneth Copeland, Focus on the Family, and the Gospel Coalition) have as their ultimate, Christian nationalist goal.

Biblical Gender Roles presents an apparently true story to exemplify its teachings on “Biblical divorce

My husband is openly and unrepentantly committing adultery with a teenager in our town. It’s common knowledge that he has rented an apartment where he spends three nights a week with her.

Everyone is telling me to leave him, even my pastor and my conservative Christian family, quoting Matthew to show that Jesus would approve. They claim by not imposing consequences I’m enabling his sin.

At times I feel absolutely crippled with jealousy. Especially grueling is submitting to him in the bedroom, knowing how he spent the previous night.

BGR counsels this woman to stay with her husband, explaining that he is not sinning against her, but against God. He is not committing adultery – he is “whore mongering.”

[H]is sin should bother you. But it should bother you because it is a sin against God [not against you].

Now if he leaves you for this woman, then the sin does become against both you and God. But do not worry yourself over it until it actually happens.

[If you are jealous of the other woman], you are actually taking up an offense against God and being upset at your husband’s God given polygynous sexual nature. [emphasis added]

Win him with your submission and your pure and respectful behavior toward him.

And part of your pure submissive, pure and reverent behavior toward him is you freely and willingly (without an attitude) giving yourself sexually to your husband and putting all thoughts of that other woman out of your mind.

Rid yourself of your jealousy and give it to God.

And all God’s people said….”WTF??”

Let’s review: a married Christian man is having an affair, and the wife should not be bothered by it because he is not defrauding her, but God. She should be her usual jolly, submissive self. After all, God created men to crave multiple women. Stop being jealous, and just don’t think about the other woman.

Raise your hand if that sounds even remotely godly to you.

Can a woman initiate divorce?

By now, this will not surprise you:

God only allows a man “to put away his WIFE” for fornication and that he makes no such allowance for women to put away their husbands for fornication…The only way a man can commit adultery against his wife is by wrongly divorcing her.

This is exactly the situation that Christ is addressing…[in] Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9…

You do not own your husband; your husband owns you.

[E]ven in cases of biblically justifiable divorce, the Bible never prescribes a method for a woman to initiate divorce from her husband. 

Instead, the Bible uses the language of the woman being freed from her husband if he does not provide her with three things required by his marriage covenant. Exodus 21:10-11 says that if a man does not provide his wife with food, clothing and sex “then shall she go out free.”

Why does this bizarre system still exist in the 21st century? It was developed by men, for men

Jesus and women

Oddly, BGR doesn’t mention Jesus very often. From what I could see, the website is silent about some of Jesus’ important conversations – for example, with the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well with multiple divorces.  So let’s talk about them now.

The woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5): This woman was considered an “untouchable,” but Jesus did not consider himself defiled by her touch (that is, her touch put him in violation of purity laws). He gave her his attention, commended her faith, and even called her “Daughter.”

The woman crippled for eighteen years (Luke 13): Jesus broke the Sabbath law to heal her. When the religious leaders rebuked him for it, he reminded them of her inherent value.

The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4): Jesus didn’t care that she was a woman, a divorcee, and a Samaritan. She was a person. He openly talked to her and even asked for a drink from her ritually unclean water vessel.

The Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15, Mark 7): Jesus gave this woman a hard time, but ultimately, he praised her great faith and granted her request, even though she was a non-Jew.

Mary and Martha (Luke 10): Jesus was happy to have Mary sitting at his feet as he taught, although this was not allowed for women. He even said that by choosing to learn instead of cook, she chose “the good part.”

The woman in Bethany who anointed Jesus (Matthew 26, Mark 14, John 12): She spent money extravagantly on Jesus, upsetting the disciples – but Jesus defended her, and declared that her act would always be remembered.

The “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus (Luke 7): Though this woman was known to be a sinner (as was everyone else), Jesus did not rebuke her, but treated her as a person.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18): This parable of Jesus features a woman who wouldn’t shut up till she got justice.  Jesus was commending persistence in this story.

Some takeaways from these conversations:

  • Jesus cared about people as human beings, and did not scorn women as somehow “less than.”
  • Jesus absolutely put people’s needs ahead of the law, and regarded motive instead of judging actions.
  • Jesus encouraged at least one woman to neglect the kitchen in favor of education.
  • Jesus showed that women should not be silent in the face of injustice.

This might be a good place to recall that in the Bible, women operated businesses (eg. Priscilla, Lydia, Proverbs 31) and held very powerful positions (eg. Deborah, Esther). Women were in Jesus’ entourage and integral to Paul’s ministry.

How might Jesus’ conversations with women influence our stance on divorce?

  • If all human beings are equally valuable, women should have an equal voice in marriage – and be able to demand a divorce from a man who does not treat her with the respect Jesus advises. Men need to respect and love their wives and see them as equals if they want a happy, godly marriage.
  • If the law – in the hands of a Christlike believer – is subordinate to human needs, then a Christian woman should be able to ask for a divorce for reasons other than unfaithfulness. If Christian men know this is an option, they will be less likely to treat women like property.
  • If other worthwhile activities really can trump housework, then Christian women should be able to have a career if they choose. Christian men should be ready to compromise on this issue.
  • If women should not be silent in the face of injustice, they can use their voices to speak out against being spanked, belittled, neglected, treated like property, and other forms of wrongdoing. Christian men should not provoke their wives by doing those things in the first place.

The only way “biblicist” men can disagree with the above points is by ignoring Jesus’ ministry. They may be reluctant to give up their power – but hey, Jesus “emptied himself” (Philippians 2:7).

In a marriage already rooted in love and equality, men don’t need to be told not to spank or treat their wives like property. They already love sacrificially – and so do their wives.

And just maybe, they will live happily ever after.

(Next time: gay marriage.)

(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, please subscribe to my newsletter! If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts.)



About Kathryn Shihadah
I was raised as a conservative Christian, and was perfectly content to stay that way – until the day my stable, predictable world was rocked. A curtain was pulled back on conservative Christianity, and instead of ignoring the ugliness I saw, I confronted it. I began to ask questions I never thought I’d ask, and found answers I’d never expected. Old things began to fall away, and – behold! – the new me has come. What a gift to be a new, still-evolving creation. I found out that it’s better to look at the world through Progressive Lenses, with Grace-Colored Glasses.  You can read more about the author here.

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