David Instone-Brewer contributes an interesting piece in the opinion section of today’s Wall Street Journal. The article uses Rudy Guiliani’s multiple marriages as a springboard for discussing American evangelicalism’s attitudes about divorce. He writes,
Why are evangelicals so willing to accept divorce among their political leaders? It seems, increasingly, that political leaders look like evangelical church members. The divorce rate among evangelicals is actually as high as that of the general population.
The evangelical attempt to follow a literal interpretation of the Bible has always been difficult in the face of the realities of modern life. When Jesus was asked in the Gospels if he allowed “divorce for any cause,” he replied that anyone “who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3). This admonition has long been interpreted to mean that divorce, for Bible-based Christians, is allowed only in cases of adultery. Even then, the spouse who has been faithful is treated the same as the adulterer: Neither can remarry as long as the other is alive.
In modern life, of course, the reasons for divorce go well beyond adultery, and fairly rapid remarriage is common. Evangelicals are part of this modern trend: Many have privately abandoned the Bible’s teaching on divorce. American law has pushed them along. For many years, divorce was a tort–legally possible only if one party to the marriage contract had violated it. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, signed a no-fault divorce bill in 1970, and within 15 years every state in the union had a similar law. The cultural conversation shifted away from marriage’s mutual obligations–codified in law–and toward personal fulfillment.
The recent emphasis on the rights of individuals has even been encouraged by the current crop of evangelical preachers. Joel Osteen, the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, and Joyce Meyer, a Christian television and radio personality, have built their ministries on promoting individual development. It seems that this development can often be found in marriage, but also, for some, in divorce.
I’m not ready to endorse Instone-Brewer’s views on what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce, but I do think that he has correctly identified one of the most pernicious assaults on the sanctity of marriage that has ever occurred: the emergence of “no-fault” divorce laws. I regard “no-fault” divorce laws to be every bit as destructive to the sanctity of marriage as recent efforts to legalize homosexual “marriage.” As a matter of fact, I think the dumbing down of marriage expressed in “no-fault” divorce laws 30 years ago established the trajectory that has brought us homosexual “marriage” today. Both “no-fault” divorce laws and homosexual “marriage” advocates treat marriage like a trip to Burger King: “Have it your way.”
When evangelicals embrace the culture’s cavalier attitude toward marriage, they give up a giant piece of their prophetic witness to the culture. A husband’s sacrificial love for his wife is supposed to be a conspicuous, counter-cultural re-enactment of Christ’s love for His bride (Ephesians 5:25-33). Thus, Christian marriage becomes a crucial witness to the truth of the gospel.
Evangelical capitulation to the “no-fault” divorce culture bodes ill for the sanctity of marriage in American life. In my view, the greatest threat to the sanctity of marriage today is not so much that unbelievers would corrupt it, but that Christians would refuse to preserve and defend it in their own homes.