John S. Weaver
Q&A with Attorney and Author John Weaver
“The Seven Principles of a Just Divorce: Biblical Wisdom and Legal Insight”
Q: What motivated you to write this book?A: I’ve often thought about writing a practical book that would help my clients understand the divorce legal process, and I’ve studied the biblical basis for divorce for many years. But I wasn’t sure how to combine the two into a book. The catalyst for this book was an essay on divorce I wrote for a Pastoral and Social Ethics seminary course. As I was driving to the post office to mail my essay, it struck me that the general principles considered in deciding whether a war is just had counterparts in divorce that could help someone determine whether a divorce is just.
Q: How do “Just War” principles coincide with divorce? A: When deciding whether or not to divorce, we must consider not only (1) the biblical defense (just cause) but also the (2) motives (right intention); (3) alternatives to divorce (last resort); (4) the authority of the individual, church, and state in determining the validity of the divorce decision (legitimate authority); and the (5) goals of the divorce (limited objectives). In the pursuit of divorce, we must consider (6) the means used to attain the goals as well as the consequences of the divorce and its process (proportionate means), including (7) the impact on the minor children in the divorcing family (noncombatant immunity). This book summarizes the biblical teaching on divorce and presents practical legal insights to help people apply God’s Word to this matter of divorce, to grow in faith, to navigate the challenges faced, and to learn what is “right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1:3).
Q: How do you believe the Bible defines a “just” divorce?A: While divorce may be permissible under limited circumstances, the scriptures recognize that reconciliation should be considered, and that divorce is a last recourse. In all we do we are to seek to glorify God and to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and to consider the interests of others. Our subjective motives and our objective goals are also a significant factor in the wronged spouse’s decision whether divorce is just and righteous. Just conduct in all areas of life – including the manner in which a divorce is pursued – require that someone divorcing both engage in processes that are fair and reasonable under the circumstances, and act in a way that is reasonable, fair and equitable, and strives for peace. Parents have the moral responsibility to protect their children and to raise them in the fear of the Lord. A just divorce also involves showing unconditional love to the children, respecting the role of the other parent, and authoritative parenting that maintains appropriate boundaries and seeks to provide necessary guidance to support the children through the difficult and distressing transition.
Q: What do you believe the Bible teaches about the justified reasons for divorce?A: Although hardness of heart prompted Moses to recognize and regulate divorce, the presumption in his day was that marriage vows should be kept. Scripture does not permit divorce for aversion, “any and every” reason, “incompatibility,” or “irreconcilable differences,” as legitimate grounds for divorce. According to the Scriptures, divorce is expressly permitted on two grounds: a spouse’s adultery, a term which includes other serious sexual misconduct; and an unbelieving spouse’s desertion. Not only does physical abandonment destroy the marriage bond, but abuse and certain other egregious behaviors demonstrate the deserter’s deliberate renunciation of the marriage covenant. A believing spouse who is unrepentant may be functionally treated as if he or she is a deserting unbelieving spouse; the wronged spouse may be permitted to divorce on the basis of desertion. The bases for divorce are not trivial slights. Rather, they are intentional violations of marital vows, offenses of substantial magnitude for which the offender is morally responsible, and provide just cause to hold the offending spouse accountable through divorce.
Q: In your many years as an attorney assisting people with divorce, are there areas where you see churches lacking in terms of helping couples cope with divorce? What can churches do to improve their outreach to couples and families who are going through divorce?A: It is important that the Christian community exhibit compassion and extend love to individuals and families who are struggling through the painful reality of a ruptured marriage. Generally, I don’t think churches fully understand the tremendous spiritual, emotional, legal, and financial stress – as well as sense of loss – that those going through divorce are experiencing over an extended period of time. Churches also should seek to engage with the couple, most likely with each individually, and to try to understand and address the family’s needs – spiritual and emotional, as well as practical and financial – as much as possible. A deacon or similar person could inquire of their needs. The loss of established relationships within a church is often part of the collateral damage, and maintaining relationships with someone going through divorce is an important source of support for both the parents and children. Unfortunately, there’s often only a casual or informal connection between a couple going through divorce and a church. That makes a church’s oversight, counseling, and engagement difficult. In this regard, it may be appropriate and helpful for churches in a community to communicate and develop relationships so that they may offer a coordinated loving response to those going through divorce who are attending different churches.
It’s also important to recognize that a person may be reluctant to share details of marriage issues, so churches should not be hasty and harsh. Churches should pay special attention to one who has been subjected to abuse. Justin and Lindsay Holcomb stress that churches should become knowledgeable about abuse and its effects, reflect God cares for those who are at risk, don’t blame the victim; offer comfort and protection; and communicate hope and healing for the victim. When an abusive marriage is not reconciled, the church should wholeheartedly support the divorce survivor of abuse and her family. Churches should respect the decision to divorce from someone who has been wronged by a spouse’s adultery, desertion, or abuse.
Q: Is emotional abuse reason to divorce? Why or why not?A: Yes, in some circumstances emotional abuse signifies desertion by the offending spouse. Even where no physical abuse is present, emotional abuse can be part of a pattern of coercive behavior characterized by power and control of one spouse over the other. Emotional or verbal abuse includes humiliation, demeaning criticism, mocking, yelling, name-calling, and degradation. While not every harsh and intemperate word justifies divorce, emotional abuse can be so persistent, demeaning, and destructive that it displays the offender’s desertion – the desire to leave the marriage relationship that can be shown by words or actions. Scripture teaches that husbands are to nourish and cherish their wives as Christ loves, nourishes, and cherishes the church (Ephesians 5:28-33). Emotional abuse is the antithesis of this responsibility.
Q: What measures do couples need to take to make sure their children are spiritually and emotionally helped during and after divorce?A: Parents should try to keep their children in a “demilitarized zone,” sheltered from parental conflict. During the first two to three years after divorce, the level and intensity of parental conflict is the most significant factor in a child’s adjustment. Parents have the duty to limit potential harm to their child by reducing parental conflict. Parents need to maintain healthy boundaries, which John Chirban says “means maintaining our roles as much as possible, supporting our children in their age-appropriate activities and behaviors, and providing experiences and settings for our children to experience their lives as kids.” Maintaining both a parent’s and child’s spiritual engagement – church, Sunday school, youth groups can provide some significant stability.
Sometimes a parent becomes lax in discipline or even spoils a child. However, children benefit from authoritative parenting, namely: consistently placing a child’s needs above their own desires; not abdicating their parental role; maintaining clear boundaries for their children; providing necessary guidance and discipline; unconditionally loving and cherishing their children. Discipline is a parental responsibility exercised for a child’s own good and mature development (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:17; Hebrews 12:11), and parents are admonished to “not provoke your children to anger but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Parents should strive to manage their own emotions and seek to establish a mature co-parenting relationship and, consistent with safety, maintain the children’s meaningful relationship with both parents. Reduced parental conflict, authoritative parenting, appropriate respect for the other parent (Romans 13:7), and mature co-parenting foster a child’s spiritual and emotional welfare.
“This very readable book takes a unique and fascinating ap¬proach as it applies Augustine’s principles of a just war to consider what a Christian should do when being involved, when necessary, in a Just Divorce. When I started ministry nearly forty years ago I was unprepared for the number of Christians who would go through divorce and for the many challenges they would face. This book is a much-needed resource to help believers navigate the legal process while seeking to honor God by following the principles in His Word.” — Dr. Jim Newheiser, Director of the Christian Counseling program and Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC