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Does God Ever Approve of Divorce?

Today’s post from Gary Thomas isn’t something we talk a lot about here, but it’s vitally important: domestic abuse. Especially considering the controversial statements recently made by an influential evangelical leader, it’s important that we’re clear on this topic. God is always, always, always on the side of the person being abused. If that’s you, or you suspect someone you know is in an abusive relationship, visit this site for help. 

One of my close friends, Dr. Mike Dittman, recently challenged me with a profound statement: “Gary,” he said, “God doesn’t care about shells; He cares about the people in the shells.”

Mike was referring to churches, but let’s apply this to marriage. Keep in mind, Mike is ardently pro-local church. His ministry is singularly focused on local churches and pastors. What he meant by his statement is that if any one particular church goes “down,” God is more concerned about the people who make up the church, not the organizational shell that crumbles. God can build up another church, perhaps even a healthier church, on that very same spot, to become a new shell for the people hurting inside.

Can anyone deny that this is true? Shells—ministry organizations, church buildings, non-profits, schools, Christian publishers—even at their best, are still shells. Some go on to glory. Some collapse into infamy. Some become agents of darkness instead of beacons of light.

God isn’t into shells—He’s into people.

Look at the nations God has torn down and lifted up. Look at the temples He commanded to be built and allowed to be destroyed. Look at the rulers He exalted and then humbled. Look at the churches that flourished and now have disappeared. Tell me—does God care about shells, or people? And shouldn’t we look at marriage the same way?

That’s why I’ve recently been willing to speak up about the “shell” of marriage as it pertains to divorce. I’ve based a large part of my career and ministry on supporting hurting marriages, trying to build marriages back up. I’ve counseled couples, written books, spoken to thousands at conferences or millions on the radio or television. No one can say I haven’t tried to be faithful to the call to build up and even save marriages. The people who have told me that God used my book Sacred Marriage to “save” their marriage (their word) must number in the hundreds now.

God can and does heal and redeem broken marriages. But some individuals can and do marry evil people who resist God’s Holy Spirit but try to use God’s word as cover to keep perpetrating their evil. Marriage, like a church, to a certain extent is still a shell. If a marriage “shell” is used to allow real people to be abused and hurt, God may well take it down. Keep in mind, in the first century, Jewish women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands. Jesus fought divorce to protect women who could be easily discarded with little prospects. His comments on divorce were to protect women, not to keep them in a harmful situation. He was caring for real people more than he was idolizing a “shell.”

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Haven’t we turned this around a little? When a man preys on his wife and children, refusing to repent, almost laughing that they can’t escape his abuse because he has not been sexually unfaithful and won’t abandon them so any divorce would be “unbiblical,” and then he’s supported by well-meaning Christians who essentially say “the shell of marriage matters more than the woman and children inside the shell,” I think we’ve lost the heart of God.

God cared about Israel more than He cared about their land, their temple, even their freedom. He let plenty of shells crack in order to punish, renew, and ultimately, to rebuild His people. If God will take a throne away from a king, is it too much to think he might take a marriage away from a man, if that’s what He has to do to bring him to repentance?

One man—a serious drug addict and alcoholic—told me that the only thing that brought him to repentance was knowing for certain he would lose his wife and daughter if he slipped up one more time. He even told me, “Gary, if there was a one percent chance I could have both my addictions and my marriage, I would have held onto my addictions. It was only my certainty that my wife was done that made me be so ruthless in doing the work to get over my addictions.”

Of course, I hope any woman (or man) forced into separation or divorce will pray and work toward reconciliation. Remarriage is an entirely separate issue beyond the scope of this post. All I’m trying to say here is that the church shouldn’t enable wicked things to happen to people in the name of preserving a legalistic shell.

This might sound sketchy to some, but I believe God cares about the people in a marriage even more than He cares about preserving a marriage. If a friend or pastor becomes more concerned about preserving a shell and diminishes the people being destroyed within that shell, I believe the weight of Scripture is against that person, not with him.

I don’t want to argue about marriage or divorce in the comments section, so I won’t. I hate divorce. I wish nobody had to experience it. Biblically, it is clearly an absolute last resort when someone has persistently resisted repentance. It is not about escaping an unhappy or less than fulfilling marriage. But I’ve seen some women (and a few men) whose lives (and whose children’s lives) would have been ruined if they hadn’t gotten out. These are extreme situations so they shouldn’t be seen as the rule, but they are real situations and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Perhaps I’m wrong. But what Mike said to me rings true: “God isn’t into shells; He’s into people.”