Questions From Readers
To what extent need a faithful Christian wife resist a divorce action brought by her mate?
When human marriage began, God said that a husband and wife should “stick” together. (Genesis 2:18-24) Humans became imperfect, with resulting problems in many marriages, but God’s desire is that mates should still stick together. The apostle Paul wrote: “To the married people I give instructions, yet not I but the Lord, that a wife should not depart from her husband; but if she should actually depart, let her remain unmarried or else make up again with her husband; and a husband should not leave his wife.”—1 Corinthians 7:10, 11.
Those words acknowledge that among imperfect humans a mate sometimes decides to leave. For example, Paul said that if a mate departed, both parties were to “remain unmarried.” Why? Well, the mate departed, but the two continued bound to each other in God’s eyes. Paul could say this because Jesus had set out the standard for Christian marriage: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication [Greek, por·neiʹa], and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9) Yes, the only basis for divorce that Scripturally ends a marriage is “fornication,” that is, sexual immorality. Evidently, in the case Paul referred to, neither mate had been immoral, so when the husband or wife departed, the marriage did not end in God’s sight.
Paul then spoke of the situation in which a true Christian has a mate who is an unbeliever. Consider Paul’s directions: “If the unbelieving one proceeds to depart, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not in servitude under such circumstances, but God has called you to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:12-16) What could a faithful wife do if her unbelieving husband left her, even seeking a legal divorce from her?
She may prefer that he remain with her. She may still love him, sense their mutual emotional and sexual needs, and know that she and any minor children need material support. She might also hope that, in time, her husband would become a believer and be saved. Yet, if he took steps to end the marriage (on some unscriptural ground), the wife could “let him depart,” as Paul wrote. The same would apply if a believing husband disregarded God’s view of marriage and insisted on departing.
In such a situation, though, she might need to protect herself and the children. How so? She would want to retain custody of her beloved children so that she could continue to show them motherly love, give them moral training, and instill in them faith based on fine Bible teachings. (2 Timothy 3:15) The divorce could endanger her rights. Hence, she might take steps to be represented properly before the authorities in order to protect her right to have access to her children and to be sure that her husband was obliged to support the family that he was abandoning. In some places, a woman contesting a divorce can sign legal documents that set out provisions for child custody and financial support, without agreeing to the divorce her husband is seeking. Elsewhere, the wording of the documents indicates that she agrees with the divorce; thus, if her husband was guilty of adultery, the wife’s signing these would mean that she rejects him.
Most in the community and in the congregation would not know the details, such as whether the divorce was obtained on Scriptural grounds. So before things advanced that far, it would be advisable for the wife to inform the presiding overseer and another elder in the congregation (preferably in writing) of the facts. In that way those facts would be available in case any question arose—then or later.
Let us return to Jesus’ comment: “Whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.” If a husband was actually guilty of sexual immorality but wanted to remain married to his wife, she (the innocent one in Jesus’ example) must choose whether to forgive him and continue sharing the marital bed or to reject him. If she is willing to forgive and continue with her legal husband, she is not morally stained in doing so.—Hosea 1:1-3; 3:1-3.
In a case where an immoral husband seeks a divorce, the wife still may be willing to forgive, hoping to have him back. It is up to her to determine, based on her conscience and situation, whether to contest his divorce action. In some places a woman contesting a divorce might be able to sign documents that stipulate custody of the children and financial support without indicating that she agrees with the divorce; her signing such papers would not in itself indicate that she was rejecting him. However, elsewhere a wife contesting a divorce might be asked to sign documents that indicate that she agrees with the divorce; signing such would expressly show that she rejects her guilty husband.
To avoid the possibility of misunderstanding, it would be advisable in this case as well for the wife to give representatives of the congregation a letter outlining what steps are being taken and the attitudes underlying them. She could state that she told her husband that she was willing to forgive him and to be his wife. That would mean that the divorce was being obtained against her wishes; rather than rejecting her husband, she was still ready to forgive. After thus making it clear that she was willing to forgive and remain married, her signing papers that merely indicate how financial and/or custody matters are to be settled would not indicate that she was rejecting her husband.*
Having established her willingness to forgive even after a divorce, neither she nor her husband would be free to marry another. If she, the innocent mate whose offer of forgiveness was refused, later decides to reject him because of his immorality, both would then be free. Jesus showed that the innocent mate has a right to make such a decision.—Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18.
Legal procedures and papers vary from place to place. The terms of the divorce set out in legal documents should be examined closely before signing. If an innocent mate signs papers that indicate that she (or he) does not object to a divorce that the mate is getting, that amounts to rejecting the mate.—Matthew 5:37.