A Time to Refrain from Embracing: When Should A Christian Separate or Divorce? (Part 1 in Series)

Woman Sitting Down in Prayer SilhouetteI’ve been putting off writing about this for awhile because it is such a vast topic and God has given me so much to say on it, that it’s overwhelming to try to find the time to get it all down – much less organize all the ideas in the most coherent way.

So, I’ve just decided to start getting it out there in bits and pieces – short posts and sometimes long posts. I have no idea how many posts will be in this series.

So, today, I’m going to start by sharing one of the Bible passages God used to speak to me when I was making the difficult decision to separate from my husband (I did separate from him).

 

Joseph – A Righteous Man

And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. (Matt. 1:19, NASB)

God brought this verse front-and-center to my mind when I was grappling with the question of whether to separate. I mean, it was like it came to my mind in neon lights with a bullhorn – that’s the best way I can describe it. And with it, also came a sudden moment of clarity:

I have heard it preached that Joseph’s decision to divorce Mary (when he thought she had been unfaithful to him) was not a righteous decision and was not the result of Joseph being a righteous man. Rather (it is preached), his decision to divorce her was the result of either his hard-heartedness or a spiritual blind spot created by his cultural upbringing, or both, but his decision to do so quietly (and only that part of the decision) was indicative of his righteousness.

But when God brought that passage to my mind, I also saw with sudden clarity the power of scripture to affirm itself in its simplicity. Joseph was a righteous man. The scripture says it. It does not say that he was, on the one hand, hard-hearted and blinded by his culture, but, on the other hand, righteous. No, it says he was righteous, plain and simple. The plain meaning of righteous is “good.” He was a good man.

It also says that his decision to divorce her quietly came out of him being a righteous man (and therefore was a righteous decision). It did not say that one part of the decision was sinful (which anything that came out of hard-heartedness would be) and that the other part was righteous. No, it says that he made the decision (the entire decision) because he was a righteous man.

The fact that he did not want to disgrace her also came out of this righteousness.1 The entire decision came out of his righteousness.

The whole of scripture testifies that a righteous person is not divided.

A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water. (James 3:11-12).

So Joseph was a righteous man. And when he thought his spouse had been unfaithful to him, he made a righteous decision with the information he had. And that righteous decision was to divorce.

 

A Good Parent Too

Another thing that is important about this passage, it that Joseph is the man God chose to parent Jesus. When I first told people that I felt God was calling me to separate from my husband, I was met with many objections and accusations. The most common of which was, “But what about your children? Don’t you care about your children?”

Just like Joseph, I was accused of being hard-hearted. One person even accused me of not loving my children, which, if you know me at all, is so ludicrous that there is no doubt it came directly from Satan.

The “helpful suggestions” of things I should do “for the sake of the children,” ranged from deceitful: “Consider an in-house separation” (thereby deceiving my children into thinking their parents are in a marital relationship when in fact they are separted, not to mention giving them an incredibly unhealthy view of marriage)2 to contradictory: “Accept that he’s going to cheat again but stay with him anyway,” and (from the same person), “Stay with him, but this time keep him under your thumb so he doesn’t cheat again.” All completely unbiblical and all “for the sake of the children.”

But because I am not hard-hearted and I do love my children, it was the question of what was best for my children that gave me the most pause. God spoke to me about this in many ways – and one of those ways was to show me that the man whom HE chose to parent HIS child was faced with the same decision as I was (with the information he had at the time), and he chose to divorce because he was a righteous man.

God didn’t choose a hard-hearted person to parent Jesus. He probably chose Joseph for similar reasons as he chose Mary. What scripture emphasizes most about Mary was her willingness to yield to God’s will (Lk 1:38). This is the opposite of hard-heartedness and we see this in Joseph’s life too – both times in scripture when God spoke to Joseph, he responded immediately, without hesitation, and with complete obedience, even at great risk to himself – and he never looked back (Matt. 1:20-25; Matt. 2:13-16). That doesn’t sound like a hard-hearted person to me. It sounds like a person willing to bend his will to God, even when he doesn’t understand it.

So Joseph was another “friend” who had walked this walk before me and who spoke to me through the centuries and through the Word of God. The fact that he was Jesus’s earthly father makes his legacy so much more real to me. As I prayed over this verse, I could almost feel Jesus putting his arm around me and saying “Hey, my dad (step-dad) went through this too. I was raised by a parent who was willing to make the same choice I’m leading you to make. You are on the right track and it’s going to be ok for your kids.”

 

 Footnotes

1. Some have said that his desire not to disgrace her was in conflict with his “righteousness” and he came up with the decision to do so quietly as sort of a compromise. But there are several problems with this interpretation.

First, the scripture says he was righteous AND he did not want to disgrace her – the two go hand-in-hand. There is no conflict implied between the two. Had there been a conflict, another word like “but” would have been used instead of “and.”

Another problem with this interpretation is that it would require his righteousness to be interpreted as a false righteousness, like that of the Pharisees, because not wanting to shame her would not be in conflict with true righteousness.

The latest version of the NIV actually incorporates this interpretation into their translation. In order to do so, they translated righteous as “faithful to the law”. They also implied a conflict between his righteousness and his desire not to disgrace her by changing “and” to “and yet.” The word “yet” is not present in the Greek and inserting it completely changes the meaning, as “and” indicates two things that go together but “and yet,” indicates two things that are conflicting.

But the Greek word used for righteous here is the same word used to describe Jesus’s righteousness. Thre is no indication that it refers to a false righteousness or merely an obedience to the law. Nor is there any indication in scripture that Joseph was a man of false righteousness – he is always depicted in scripture as a good (the straightforward meaning of righteous) man. It also seems doubtful that God would choose a pharisaical person to parent HIS son – especially without offering any explanation as to the choice in scripture.

The NIV had to change the text in two places in order to make their interpretation work (they do include a footnote indicating these changes). That doesn’t bode well for this interpretation. The NASB translation of this verse, which I quoted above, is a straightforward English translation of the Greek.

(Incidentally, I have found other verses in which the NIV is closer to the Greek than the NASB. I am not a proponent of one Bible version over another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and they all can add something to our understanding.)

2. An in-house separation might be the right choice in some circumstances, but in my case, it would have been deceitful because God was leading me to truly separate from my husband and the people who were advising an in-house separation were doing so purely for the sake of hiding the separation from the children.

2 thoughts on “A Time to Refrain from Embracing: When Should A Christian Separate or Divorce? (Part 1 in Series)

  1. Great post – so insightful and full of truth! There are multiple places in the bible that reference divorce being wrong “except because of sexuality immorality”. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and shouldn’t be defiled. Just as Jesus chased the money changers out of his temple, so should we put away those that defile our temples. Love you and am so proud of you!!

    Like

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