Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Heresy?

Question
Before we married, my husband and I committed to each other to remain faithful to the Lord and to raise our kids in the faith with a biblical, Christian worldview. My husband even worked in ministry for many years. But several years ago he began to doubt the Bible and his faith, and now he is a staunch unbeliever. He insists that as a matter of conscience, he must raise our kids contrarily to the word of God. He has been involved in pornography. And he has often treated the kids extremely harshly, but just short of leaving marks on them (except for once). My husband agrees that he has broken his covenant with me, and has said openly to me and others that he cannot keep his commitments or previous vows.

Through much counsel by people, pastors and elders who have known us both for many years, I have decided to take my children out of the home for a time to protect them. My husband does not want divorce or separation, and I am not seeking to divorce. My ultimate goal is to please the Lord, and I have decided not to divorce unless it seems wrong before the Lord to remain in my marriage.

I do believe this situation to be different than two unbelievers who were married and then later one became a Christian. My husband made public commitments and vows before God and others in our marriage, and then public vows before God and the church when our children were baptized. Is he right to say that I have a biblical obligation to stay and "just get over it"?  How far as parents are we to go in the training of our children and protecting them from things and people that teach contrary to the ways of the Lord? Is the sin of pornography sexual immorality and therefore grounds for divorce?
Answer
I am grieved to read of your difficult circumstances, the behavior of your husband, and the troubles you and your children face. I have prayed that the Lord will give you wisdom as you seek his will.

I will try to focus my comments to the theological aspects of your problems. While I hope my comments on this matter will be biblical, I cannot pretend to know precisely what to do in every instance. Moreover, I assume there are details you have omitted, and that these may properly have a bearing on what you ought to do. Also, please continue to gain counsel from other Christian teachers, ministers and friends, and to search Scripture for answers, and to pray about this matter. You might even consider fasting for the Lord's guidance.

Regarding your husband's unbelief, his actions fit the classic definition of apostasy. Apostasy is not loss of salvation or of true faith, but simply a revocation of a profession of faith. I think there is still room to hope that your husband will eventually come to true faith (see the Q&A "Backsliding Christians:" http://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/99831.qna/category/nt/page/questions/site/iiim). However, your decisions must take into account his present opposition to Christ and his treatment of the children.

You stated that you considered this situation to be different from one in which two unbelievers married and one was later converted. In some senses, I agree. Your husband made vows to you and to God, including vows to you that he would be a faithful Christian, and he has broken those vows. However, it seems to me that in teaching how husbands and wives are to relate to one another, Scripture does not distinguish between (1) circumstances in which an unbeliever has never made a profession of faith and (2) circumstances in which an unbeliever has revoked a profession of faith. Correspondingly, I think the biblical teachings on a believer married to an unbeliever are quite applicable to you. You do not seem to have denied this, but I wanted to make the point explicitly just in case you were wondering. We have a good article online by John Frame titled Mixed Marriages (http://www.thirdmill.org/files/english/practical_theology/8455~8_9_99_1-31-18_PM~PT.Frame.MixedMarriages.pdf) that has includes some good insight on living in situations like this.

You have essentially three options, though they are not all equally biblical or advisable.

Remain Together

First, you could remain with your husband. He does not want divorce, and Paul gives us the general rule that a believer should not divorce an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:13). I think this applies to apostates as well as to those who have never known the Lord. Peter indicates that marriage to an unbeliever is a form of unjust suffering that a believer should be willing to endure (see Frame's article). This is generally the best option, though there can be exceptions.

However, it also places your children at risk in a couple different ways. As you have mentioned, your husband will not permit you to evangelize them effectively. He also seems to be overly aggressive in disciplining them. Clearly these factors are significant, but from your description, it does not sound as if they require you immediately to remove them from his presence. First, God is able to convert and sanctify your children even in the midst of the sinful influence of their father. In fact, to one degree or another, we are all subjected to powerful sinful influences. Moreover, Paul specifically indicated that the children of religiously mixed marriages are typically better off if their parents stay together (1 Cor. 7:14).

At the same time, there is biblical precedent for exceptional circumstances in which it is more advisable to escape bad religious influences (Neh. 13:23ff.). I do think Frame is correct that the normal model for the church is to remain in mixed marriages. But I also think that from Nehemiah's instruction to put away foreign wives and children to avoid the horrible sin of idolatry can have some rather direct modern applications. When the threat of you being drawn away from God is great, it seems to me to be more advisable to escape. I think that by extension we can apply this same principle to our children. So, if your husband's influence is causing your children to reject Christ, it seems advisable to me to protect them from him. But if they are not drawn away into sin by him, it would seem best to keep the family intact.

Similarly, Peter advised women to follow the example of Christ, who went so far in his endurance of unjust suffering that he allowed himself to be crucified (1 Pet. 2-3). But Jesus did not always submit to death — he did that only once. Jesus' example also indicates that it can be moral to escape unjust suffering at times (e.g., John 8:59).

Separate Temporarily

Temporary separation is another possible alternative, and the preferable means of escape in most cases. Temporary separation involves setting up separate residences for a time. It is somewhat of a half-way step between divorce and remaining together. I do believe that when the Bible encourages people to remain together, it has in mind that they remain in the same household. Setting up separate residences requires some justification; it is not something to do lightly. But it does not require as much justification as divorce.

Jesus and other praiseworthy biblical characters sometimes escaped unjust suffering and other types of threats (e.g., John 8:59; 2 Cor. 11:32-33). In the same way, if the harsh physical treatment of your children or the religious misleading is significant enough, it may warrant temporary separation. This may be a good solution if divorce is either unwarranted or unwanted, but the danger threatened (either to body or soul) is severe.

Divorce

It does not sound to me as if divorce is a good option for you at this point. You have mentioned a few possible grounds for divorce, but from the information you have provided I don't think they are sufficient to justify it at this stage.

First, while I do believe that lust/pornography violate the commandment against adultery (Matt. 5:28), they are of a lesser degree. That is, they violate the same principle, but their violations are not as severe as adultery. In the same way, unjust anger violates the commandment against murder (Matt. 5:21-22), but it would be wrong to inflict the same punishments on angry people as we do on murderers (see also the Q&A Emotional Infidelity at http://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/99781.qna/category/pt/page/questions/site/iiim).

Second, the physical punishments of your children, while probably sinful, do not sound as if they are harmful enough to warrant criminal action against your husband. Again, it is a matter of degree. Generally speaking, it seems to me that the way of wisdom is to use more extreme solutions (such as divorce) only when the circumstances are extreme. There are better and more effective means of protecting your children's physical health, such as restraining orders and imprisonment. A divorced husband with visitation rights is still a physical threat. Separation provides a similar degree of protection to divorce, but allows more room for repentance and reconciliation.

Third, the threat to your children's faith is significant. This may warrant immediate separation if it your husband has been effective in his dis-evangelism. But the biblical example of divorce on this ground is rather extreme. That is, the people in the days of Nehemiah were exceptionally sinful, and their intermarriage with pagans was a strong threat to their faith (cf. Ralph Davis' article Is Reformation an Event or Process? At http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/ral_davis/OT.Davis.Neh.13.4-31.html). Moreover, their sin of intermarriage was a direct violation of a covenant they had sword to God (Neh. 10:30). Divorce is not generally required when a Christian is married to an unbeliever or apostate, but it was required here because the people had sworn an oath not to marry foreigners. Your situation is different enough from this that Nehemiah does not provide sufficient grounds for divorce, unless your husband's actions against your children's faith are extreme and ongoing. One outburst denying Christ is clearly insufficient grounds. But a consistent, aggressive schedule of dis-evangelism might justify a divorce.

Fourth, your husband has broken his vows to you. Besides the pornography issue, there are broken vows regarding faith, raising children, etc. However, the proper biblical response to broken vows is patience and reconciliation. Of all the possible broken vows in marriage, Jesus permitted divorce only in the case of sexual (not emotional) infidelity. This is one line your husband has apparently not crossed.

Finally, it does not seem to me that the combination of these factors is unusual, or that their compound effect justifies divorce.

Other thoughts

You did not clearly indicate how consistent and intense your husband's program of dis-evangelization has been. This seems to me to be the most significant problem you are facing, since it threatens the salvation of your children. In this regard, it may be reassuring to remember that our salvation is not determined by arguments for or against the faith, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Consider that Paul refused to use fancy arguments with the Corinthians, though he was perfectly capable of arguing in educated and compelling ways. Instead, he preached a simple, foolish message, in order that it might be all the more certain that those he converted had been moved by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:17-29). This does not mean that you should feel comfortable throwing them to the wolves — the Bible encourages us to use all possible means to save souls (1 Cor. 9:22). But it does offer reassurance that God is capable of saving whom he will regardless of the opposition.

It may be worth continuing to fight for your family and your husband's salvation. God may yet save him, and your prayers may be the means that move the Holy Spirit to action (cf. the Q&A Unanswered Prayers at http://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/99734.qna/category/pt/page/questions/site/iiim). The standard biblical picture is that we should remain with an unbelieving spouse unless the circumstances are extreme. One reason is that the unbeliever might be converted (see Frame's article).

I do not at all mean to accuse your husband of further sin, or to cause you to suspect him without warrant, but one common reason that people reject Christ is moral: they reject him because they love to do evil (e.g., John 3:19-20; 2 Thess. 2:10). Did a moral failing spur his fall from faith? Or was it more intellectual? Was it anger at God for something that went terribly wrong? Or did he simply lose his first love when the honeymoon phase of salvation was over? Knowing what triggered his change may help you find common ground with him, or figure out what to do in the alternative.

Finally, there are many mixed marriages in which the unbelieving spouse is not on a crusade to prevent his/her children from coming to Christ. I have to wonder why your husband is different in this regard. After all, if Christianity is a lie, what does he think the big loss is to Christians? If his kids are "duped" into believing the Bible, why is this so bad? My own father was raised in church but is an atheist. When I was a child, he did not object to my faith or try to convince me otherwise. This, in my experience, is the normal pattern. Why is your husband different? Does he really value his crusade so highly that he doesn't care how it hurts you and your relationship with him? Would he be willing to seek marital counseling with you?

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.