How Can Christians Avoid Divorce?

by W.F. Price on June 25, 2012

It’s hard to take Christians seriously when they criticize divorce, because they are functionally supporting it. Lowering the divorce rate – if only in the Christian community – would be remarkably easy. How can we know this? Because divorce remains almost unknown amongst the Amish.

The Amish may have a lot of peculiar views on the world from our perspective, but their take on marriage is pretty much the exact same ours used to be long ago. When one Amish spouse decides to divorce another for “no fault,” he or she is promptly expelled from the community. Even at fault divorces are frowned upon, and all but prohibited.

It’s a very strict marital regime, and I think a lot of us, if we were honest with ourselves, might want to think twice about such an arrangement. But there’s no doubt it works.

Could some of these principles be applied to a more mainstream faith community? Absolutely yes, and they wouldn’t have to be so severe to be effective. Changing divorce law is a tall order, but religious groups do not have to run their congregations according to the principles of marriage equality. While people can easily sue for divorce in state courts, churches are not prohibited from having their own rules.

If Christians want to lower the divorce rate in their churches, it would be as simple as kicking out those who frivolously divorce, and treating divorcées as adulteresses. As it is today, abandoned husbands are usually the ones left in the ditch by churches, so this would be a major change. But if churches want to stay true to Christianity, they would do well to recognize that from the beginning, Christian women were not allowed to sue for divorce. There is no precedent in ancient Hebrew, Greek or Roman law for women to divorce their husbands. This is why the Christian church is so ill-prepared to deal with the revolutionary idea of granting women the right to divorce. Even today, Orthodox Jews do not allow it, nor do Muslims (civil law differs, but here we are speaking of ecclesiastic law). Rabbinic and Sharia courts may order men to divorce their wives, but women cannot legally divorce without their husband’s consent.

Women were first granted the right to divorce in revolutionary France, in 1792. This was rescinded shortly thereafter, in 1804, and French women had to wait another 80 years before regaining the right to kick their husbands to the curb. The revolutionary edict was a first in civilized society (if you could apply that moniker to revolutionary France), to be followed some decades later by Great Britain with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Naturally, some fifteen years later mother custody became the norm in the UK.

The transfer of marriage from ecclesiastic to civil law has continued apace since “reforms” of the 19th century, with devastating consequences for traditional marriage. However, this doesn’t mean that churches have to follow civil law — at least not in the United States (not yet, anyway). To this day, rabbinic courts have authority over Orthodox Jewish marriages, including in some civil matters. Given that it contradicts core Christian doctrine, I’m not sure this would be appropriate for Christian churches, but it probably isn’t necessary in any event.

The point is that granting women the right to initiate divorce goes entirely against Christianity, as well as all other major religions. According to the Christian faith, a woman who leaves her husband is an adulteress — even if he consents. So why is it that divorced women are so quickly forgiven and fostered by “Christian” churches? I’m fairly certain that it’s about the money they bring to the table (divorced men are often impoverished), but if Christians looked deep within themselves they’d have to admit that there’s nothing Christian about such an arrangement.

New Agers often claim that women were free to leave husbands in pre-Christian societies, and this was sometimes true, but in such societies women were generally chattel, especially if they had no children of their own. Typically, if a woman left a husband for another man the aggrieved husband could demand compensation in the form of livestock or some other goods, so that he could fetch himself another wife.

Amongst the Cheyenne, for example, a man who absconded with another’s wife was expected to provide compensation. The Cheyenne were remarkably tolerant of divorce and affairs, unlike some other tribes, but the man still retained the privilege of “drum divorce” in which he could cast out his wife in front of witnesses and sever all responsibility toward her. There was nothing to be gained materially from leaving a husband, and absconding with another incurred a material penalty. The going rate in the 19th century seemed to have been a horse or two, although some Cheyenne husbands reportedly said a dog would be acceptable compensation.

Thus we see that in pre-Christian societies women were not so much empowered by divorce as devalued by it.

So Christians really have nothing to fear from holding a different line from the secular world. The advantages accrued in contemporary divorce hang by a thread, and are often more illusion than fact. Divorced women are not, in general, richer, happier or healthier. And if the churches themselves stopped extending sympathy and succor to women who flout the teachings of the church, there would be even less incentive to “eat, pray, love.” Any church that held a strict line could eliminate divorce amongst the lay people. It might mean throwing out those who break the rules, but drastic times call for drastic measures, and it would work.

Unfortunately, Christians are up against heresy on a massive scale. It isn’t going to be easy to change the culture of a church that allows itself to be led by the secular, civil regime. However, ultimately, this will probably be the only way the Christian church can survive in the West. The first Christians of Rome didn’t grow and prosper because they followed the ways of their depraved, secular neighbors. They followed their own rules; their own good book. It served them well, and they came to be the most powerful social force in Europe.

I write this not as a missionary, or even a committed Christian. I’m a bit of a stand-off, and a student of a number of religions, but I’d consider it neglect to hold off on giving advice to the majority religion in my country. And if anyone leads the way in restoring a semblance of normality to domestic relations, I’m convinced it’s going to be those with religious convictions. This is how it has always been.

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