We live in a culture of divorce. In North America, fully one half of all marriages end in divorce, and sometimes persons have several divorces, divorcing one spouse after another. This leaves a hidden trail of broken families and the challenge of creating blended families. It also places tremendous strain on the children who come from divorced homes, so much so that some children sometimes find themselves vulnerable to gangs, drug use, and other risky behaviours. It is not politically correct to draw attention to these unfortunate facts, but they remains true even if one may not speak of it when discussing the causes of depression in children. The point of calling attention to these facts is not to heap blame on divorced persons, or to deny that God can forgive and heal anything when we repent and offer our wounds to Him, but to draw our real attention to the sanity and essentially compassionate nature of our Church’s teaching about marriage and divorce, and to call persons contemplating marriage or who are already married to heroism and perseverance.
But first, a little history. In the eighteenth century, divorce was stigmatized, and was correspondingly hard to get. It took years, and a pile of money, and you had to prove that your spouse abandoned you for a long time with no financial support. If you were female, you had to prove that your husband routinely beat you within an inch of your life, or that he was openly and brazenly womanizing. After you got the divorce, you were persona non grata socially, and not welcome at church events. I am not, I hasten to add, looking back at this state of affairs as if it were “the good old days”. But it is important to understand how much we have changed the fabric of our society. Now divorce is much easier to obtain, and the new concept of “no fault” divorce has been introduced, which allows one partner to unilaterally divorce the other, with no one taking any blame. No doubt the people introducing the changes and making divorce easier were motivated by compassion, and justified the changes by pointing to heart-rending cases where a woman found herself legally chained to a violent and womanizing brute and who had no way of escape from her terrible plight. No one at the time could have known that by making things easier for this poor woman they would within a generation begin weakening the glue which held all marriages together and altering society’s very understanding of what it meant to be married. But good intentions notwithstanding, they did weaken that glue and change society’s understanding all the same.
The Church’s teaching anyway is crystal clear: marriage (defined as the publically recognized union of one man with one woman, consummated by sexual congress) is for keeps. It fundamentally alters a person: before marriage one was a single individual; after marriage one is but one half of a new organism. When people describe their spouse as “my other half”, they are not so much being poetical as Biblical. It was Christ who said, “The two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder” (Mt. 19:6). Marriage alters a person, creating a new organism where it did not exist before.
The Orthodox Church reads Christ’s teaching a bit differently than her Roman Catholic friends read it. That is, it reads it as counsel and command, but not as law. Christ is not legislating, giving laws as inflexible as the law of gravity. Thus Orthodoxy not only believes the permanence of marriage, but also in repentance, and grace, and forgiveness, and healing, and the possibility of remarriage after divorce. But this grace should not be presumed upon, lest it become “cheap grace”. And there is no use talking about God’s forgiveness unless we also acknowledge that there is a sin present to forgive. And the Church always classed divorce and remarriage as a sin, and required those who remarry after divorce to undergo a period of penance, barring them from the Eucharist for a time. For how long a time? In such cases canon 87 of the Quinisext Council mandates seven years exclusion from the Chalice (see Meyendorff’s Marriage: an Orthodox Perspective, p. 64). This is not to assert that this canon should be applied today in the same way as it was in the seventh century when it was promulgated. But the canon does express the Church’s insistence that marriage is for keeps, and that Christians cannot walk away from it without sin.
This is the standard which Christ set for His disciples. St. Paul applied the Lord’s teaching to the different situations in which his converts found themselves in a pagan setting, and he produced a more comprehensive set of counsels—such as what to do if married to an unbeliever. Thus, St. Paul says, if one were married to an unbeliever (i.e. if one pagan in a pagan marriage converted to Christ while the other partner did not; it was assumed that no Christian would knowingly marry a pagan), then divorce and remarriage were possible. The Christian should still stay together with the pagan partner if the partner was willing, but if the pagan partner insisted upon divorcing the Christian, the Christian could acquiesce: “in such a case, the brother or sister is not bound” (1 Cor. 7:15). But if both partners were Christian, then of course divorce was simply not possible. Discipleship to Christ implied obedience, and the willingness to lay down one’s life for Him. It is nonsense to say that one will suffer martyrdom for Jesus, but not suffer in marriage for Him. Faith in Christ involves always being willing to change and forgive and love. Such a faith, if shared by two disciples who are married to each other, will always find a way to work out their problems and stay married.
Thus married Christians should never ever divorce one another. If they fall from the obedience of faith and their marriage ends in divorce, repentance and canonical penance still allow for the possibility of forgiveness and remarriage, as we have seen. But the original standard remains and the original command not to divorce still stands. And it is the clergy who are the standard bearers. That is why this economia is allowed for laity, but not for clergy. Someone has to keep the bar where it is, and that someone is the clergyman. Some have suggested that one should move the bar and lower the Church’s standards. Thus Joseph Allen in a book edited by himself (Vested in Grace) and in his article entitled, “Practical Hope for Positive Change”, argues that clergy should be allowed to remarry after being widowed and still remain clergy. He also asks the question, “Can a second chance for marriage be allowed to clergy in certain cases of divorce?” He doesn’t answer this second question specifically, but one can guess at his answer: the present status quo he denounces as “the archaic and crippling conditions of a dead past” (Vested in Grace, p. 266). Allen is clearly for lowering the bar.
Despite Allen’s show of scholarship, the question is not one for the scholar’s study, but must be answered on the front line. As the sky-rocketing divorce rate shows, marriage is under attack from all quarters. By this I do not mean that there is a chance that people will no longer get married. I mean something more alarming: that people in our culture already no longer understand what it means to be married even as they tie the knot. The Christians alone seem to know what God originally meant by marriage, and if we follow Allen in his suggestions even this will be soon be forgotten.
Marriage creates a permanent change in a person. It is not so much a civil or legal reality as an ontological one, so that divorce is less like dissolving a partnership and more like tearing a body in half. One can survive the sundering, but the wound and the scar will remain forever, even after the sin involved is forgiven. The trauma and the wound are why Christians must never divorce each. When married Christians hurt one another, the Church’s prescription is always repentance and forgiveness, not divorce. And when divorce happens it is a sin and a tragedy: ask any child. Come to that, ask the partners themselves while they are still in love. Love is exclusive and eternal. When people are in love they bind themselves with chains of eternal constancy, and separation from the other is intolerable and unthinkable. A person in love knows that marriage is for keeps, both in this age and in the age to come. That is what “eternal” means. The clergy must uphold this standard and embody it. And all Christians must strive for it.
It’s hard. Life in this age soon takes the sheen off of everything shiny, including marriage, and our omnipresent culture of divorce says this is all but inevitable. The hard work of making it work can feel like death and martyrdom. But Christians are not afraid of death and martyrdom, for we serve one who has triumphed over death, and who has taught us not to fear it. We are called to defy death, and to defy divorce. Christians once amazed the world by going to their martyrdoms without fear. Let us amaze the world once again by staying in our marriages with the same confidence and courage.