Divorce III: What is the Protestant perspective?
Protestants would criticise the Catholic view discussed yesterday. In particular they would criticise Catholic willingness to contemplate separation as a appropriate response to problem marriages. They would say that it fails to take account of human nature, and in particular our desire and need to be partnered, and also fails to take account of the role healthy conjugal partnerships play in God's plan for the world.
Historically Protestantism has been suspicious of celibacy or permanent abstinence, and is reluctant to accept that anyone could be called to such a life. Hence permanent separation is not seen as an outcome likely to be consistent with God's plan.
For that reason Protestants are more likely to favour an understanding of Paul which allows them fully to end a disastrous marriage, so that the spouses have at least the possibility of making a new, and hopefully successful, marriage.
Some (though, of course, no all) Protestants take the view than an "unbeliever", in Paul's terms, is anyone who behaves like an unbeliever, regardless of what they say they believe. (If we're honest, that might make most of us "unbelievers" at least some of the time, mightn't it?)
And what does it mean to "leave the marriage"? On a strict view, Paul only refers to a case in which the "unbeliever" repudiates the marriage by, for example, getting a civil divorce. But Paul clearly doesn't mean that. He talks about a wife leaving, but in Paul's world women could not initiate divorce. A more reasonable view would be that desertion or abandonment is "leaving the marriage", and a still more relaxed view would be that behaving in a way which makes the marriage intolerable, which effectively drives the other spouse out, is "leaving the marriage".
This last approach is attractive, because it gives us an "out" for the victims of domestic violence. A believing husband doesn't assault his wife, and a husband who puts his wife in that kind of danger is certainly making it intolerable for her to stick around. So the wife can bail out and not only can she bail out, but she can accept that the marriage is ended by the intolerable behaviour of her unbelieving husband, and she can move on with her life, and hopefully make a marriage more in accordance with God's plan for her.
The problem with this is, making a marriage intolerable isn't limited to making it dangerous. Where do we draw the line? What if my spouse is verbally abusive, but would never lift a finger against me? What if my spouse is tight-fisted? Puts me down all the time? Has an addiction to alcohol? Gambling? Pornography? Tobacco? Has lost all interest in sex? Has too much interest in sex? Spends too much time with mates and neglects me?
And, more importantly, who draws the line? Can I draw it myself? If I consider that my spouse's conduct makes my marriage intolerable, and that no truly believing spouse could engage in such conduct, can I regard my marriage as at an end? If not me, then does some outside tribunal, church or state, adjudicate on what makes a marriage intolerable, by reference perhaps to some set of standards which neither I nor my spouse ever accepted? The Protestant tradition would lean strongly in favour of the individual making (and taking responsibility for) this decision themselves.
The problem is that this potentially creates a huge exception in the prohibition on divorce. But the language used by Jesus indicates that, if he envisaged an exception at all, it was a very small one.
In reality, if I get to decide whether my spouse's bad conduct makes my marriage intolerable, aren't we really adopting the view of Rabbi Hillel (that a husband may divorce for any fault which he thinks justifies divorce)? But if Jesus accepted any view in that debate, which is questionable, it was at most the much stricter view of Rabbi Shammai that divorce could only be justified by adultery, or something very like it.
In short, I don't see that a very permissive interpretation of Paul can easily be reconciled with what the gospels have to say. The Catholic approach, harsh though it often is, does seem to be easier to justify scripturally (though I do not believe it is necessarily a perfect reflection of scripture).
Photo Credit: Animations by Brian Coyne.
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