I have been reading a book by an evangelical, megachurch pastor on the topic of church growth and reaching out to the unchurched. “Once every few years, I preach on Jesus’ view of divorce and remarriage,” he writes in one place. “I remind all the remarried people that they committed adultery when they remarried. People get upset.”
No doubt. The topic is upsetting. Both the gospels of Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying exactly that. On one occasion, the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking: “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2; Matthew 19:3). It was an open question at the time, much debated by the rabbis. Jesus avoided the trap with broad language, but once alone with his disciples, he said unambiguously, “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9; c.g. Mark 10:11).
Some scholars explain the harshness of Jesus’ teaching as disapproval aimed at the inequity of the rabbinic interpretation of the Mosaic Law on divorce. Men could hand a “bill of divorce” to their wives at any time for virtually any reason, but women unhappy in their marriages could not do likewise. But the fact remains that the ostensible words of Jesus on this topic are printed in black and white, even red letters in some versions of the Bible.
To make matters worse, there is no help from most Christian traditions. The pastor I mentioned earlier seems to offer no assistance other than to remind divorced and remarried people that they have sinned. In fact, no denomination does anything to accompany hurting people through this difficult journey in a systematic way, except the Roman Catholic Church.
I write about this because we received again this year many questions from you on divorce and remarriage as part of our current message series, Faith Answering Questions. Some of your submissions were heartbreaking. However, there is much hope in this area.
While formal and legalistic in many ways, the annulment process offered by the Church, at its core, is really a healing ministry. It gives reassurance and clarity to those who feel broken by divorce. Although Jesus by his words seems to have not permitted divorce, he did leave a broad exception for marriages that are “unlawful.” Through the authority given to it by God, the Church has interpreted this as grounds for granting annulments. Whereas a divorce is a dissolution of an otherwise lawful marriage, an annulment is a declaration that the marriage was not valid from the start because “the two [never became] one flesh” for a variety of possible reasons (Mark 10:8; Matthew 19:5).
If you’re divorced, talk to your local parish priest. He can help you start the annulment process and walk with you through the whole process. If you’re hurting because of divorce, we invite you to check out our divorce support group on the small groups page of our website. We love you and are here to help.
--Father Roger Gustafson, Pastor
Father Roger Gustafson