Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced?

A Catholic friend of mine is divorced. He has not sought—and does not believe he could obtain—an annulment. His ex-wife is still living and in good health, so he expects to remain single for the rest of his life.

Moody Radio recently asked the question, “Is it OK for Christians to identify as gay and celibate?” The host’s answer seemed to be no. It would seem, if we follow her logic—and the logic of other critics like her—that it would also be wrong for my friend to ever say, “I am divorced.” Doing so would involve defining himself based on something evil: “I hate divorce,” God says (Malachi 2:16).

For obvious reasons, I don’t follow Christian debates about remarriage and divorce nearly as closely as I follow debates about homosexuality. But I am not ignorant of them, either. And so far as I know, nobody—no matter where they lie on the spectrum of Christian beliefs about divorce and remarriage—has ever argued that people who have been divorced should not say, “I’m divorced.” Most people recognize that there are lots of practical reasons why someone would sometimes want to say that, why saying it would be relevant.

The pastoral care of divorced people raises a number of difficult problems, whether we are talking about my friend trying to be faithful to his own convictions as a divorced Catholic, or the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome trying to figure out how to provide pastoral care to more than a billion souls, many millions of whom are divorced, or are the children of divorce.

But one thing that is encouraging about the debates surrounding divorce is that you don’t have prominent voices wasting a lot of time trying to keep divorced people from talking about being divorced. The focus of the debate at the Synod was on how to provide care. That raised enough difficult pastoral and theological problems. Nobody borrowed trouble by getting worked up over whether divorced people should be allowed to say, “I’m divorced.”

It should be obvious why I draw this parallel. My interest is providing pastoral care to people who struggle with same-sex attraction, to the LGBT community—however you want to phrase it. In an interview published in America Magazine last year, Pope Francis said:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

The overwhelming majority of people I talk to feel more comfortable describing themselves as “gay” than as “same-sex attracted.” This is why I agree with the Pope’s choice to meet them where they are at with the language they understand.

I’m interested in reaching out to gay and lesbian people, and have been doing it for nearly two decades. I have always been clear that I believe that gay sex is contrary to God’s plan for human sexuality. I don’t think being gay defines who I am or is something to be “proud” of. It’s connected with a temptation to serious sin. But I think my experience is valuable to the Church’s outreach to the LGBT community, and I don’t want to artificially distance myself by choosing unfamiliar and alienating language.

Like the Pope, I meet people where they’re at by using the language they understand. If I’m talking with someone who’s more comfortable talking about being same-sex attracted, I talk about my experiences that way. I don’t insist on calling myself “gay.”

For example, earlier this year, I was invited to speak to a group of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors. In that setting, I talked about same-sex attraction, because I knew that language would be more familiar to them. In the question and answer session, the question of using the word “gay” came up, and I explained why I thought it could be useful in some cases and result in mis-communication in others. I explained how the word can have different meanings to different groups of people. I pointed out that there was a big generation gap here—the word “gay” has different connotations for those who came of age in the 60s and 70s than it has for their children or grandchildren. The pastors found this helpful, and thought it gave them insights into some of the difficulties they had had in communicating church teaching to the youth in their own parishes.

So I have reservations about the word “gay” myself. But I think that there are situations where it helps to use it and that those who rule it out are really making it more difficult to reach gay and lesbian people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am celibate. I speak about being gay and celibate to defend traditional Christian teaching and to support others in following it. My strategy has therefore been very different from the strategy I could have learned in the Southern Baptist church I grew up in. There, the hard teaching of the New Testament on divorce and remarriage was ignored, and the pastors “met people where they were at” by accepting the standards of the surrounding secular culture, rather than the standards of Christ.

However, I speak up because I don’t want to ignore the hard teaching: I want to help people to learn to obey it.

My friend is divorced, and that shapes many of the challenges he faces in day-to-day life in one way or another. When he looks to his friends for support and to his Church for pastoral guidance, it’s important to be able to talk about his situation, for his friends and his pastors to meet him where he is at. It’s also important for the Church to hear from Christians, like him, who are divorced and striving to follow the orthodox teaching.

If, whenever anyone in his situation tried to contribute to the public discussion, Christian magazines and radio programs attacked him for “identifying” as divorced, and a bunch of Christian bloggers piled on, the pastoral care of divorced people would be in an even sorrier state than it is now.

It would, in fact, look pretty much like a lot of the present pastoral care of gays and lesbians who want to obey Biblical teaching.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

20 thoughts on “Is It OK for Christians to Identify as Divorced?

  1. I understand the point that the author is trying to make, but I’m afraid the illustration falls short. I’ve writing as someone who has had same-gender attractions since I was a child, and over many years with the Lord’s faithful guidance I experienced a change in my attractions, and am now married to a man.
    Stating that one is divorced is a declaration of one’s human relational status at a given point in time. It’s on the same scale as single / married / separated / widowed. The way in which our American culture currently views sexual orientation is completely different. It’s defined as a permanent state of being that is present from birth.
    As a believer in Jesus, I’ve found it most helpful to see myself as He sees me – I’m re-born into an eternal status as a daughter of the King. My earthly relationship status is temporary – although I hope to be married for the rest of my life, that is not guaranteed. My husband could be killed in a car accident on the way home from work today, or something else unpredictable and beyond my control could happen.
    I spent decades wrestling with SSA as a single woman, and it was hard to have the faith to put my identity in the Lord’s hands – to live in hope of something that I could literally not imagine in regards to having attractions to men. But to some degree, that is a tension which we all as believers have to live with – we want to be like Christ, and we’re not going to achieve that here on earth.
    This is how the Lord encourages us to live in the midst of that tension:
    “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
    Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
    ~ Philippians 3:7-14, NIV
    I was tempted to quote the whole chapter – in context, these words are even more stirring. Using terms such as “gay Christian” tends to drag one backwards, when we are called to press on in faith.
    One other note, the author wrote that when speaking to a specific audience, “…I don’t want to artificially distance myself by choosing unfamiliar and alienating language.” I think that is very well-meant, however, as followers of Christ, we are aliens and we live and speak in terms that many find unfamiliar. Rather than ditch my true identity in Christ, I try to find ways to explain what He has done in my life and who He has made me to be in terms that will help others to understand and bridge the gap. If I can listen and understand where others are coming from, the culturally embraced ideal of tolerance offers breathing room and encourages others to listen and try to understand my foreign ways.

    • The difference between divorced and single/separated/widowed/married is that none of those other categories are sin. It is not a sin to be single. It is not a sin to be married. It is a sin to divorce. And if church teaching is followed one remains in a divorced state. The difference between a divorced state and single/widowed for example is that a divorced person does not have the privilege of remarrying. So their condition is considered lifelong.

      • Actually if Church teaching is followed you are not divorced: you remain married. There is no divorce for Christians, only separation. You can live separated from your spouse for many reasons but there is no divorce. Divorce is a civil/legal term use by society to express the end of marriage. But there is no “end of marriage” in the Church.

    • ” Using terms such as “gay Christian” tends to drag one backwards, when we are called to press on in faith.”

      There are certain scenarios in which the bible passage quoted above could be applied to the above statement and be true – cases which involve one’s past actions or past lifestyles which are incompatible with our faith. However, there are certain scenarios ‘live’ with one daily and which one cannot get away from. From personal experience, I’d go with divorce as Ron Belgau has illustrated.

      However, I do appreciate your reasoning, because the LORD has ‘moved’ you ‘away’ from what you used to be – SSA individual. You have both a beginning and an ending point to your experience, therefore, it would be very clear to such a person how to ‘leave’ that life behind. But that is not (yet) the case for every person dealing with SSA. Such people have no such ‘past’ to leave behind (except if they were practicing). Rather, they must learn to die daily, in which case (I would think) it would seem appropriate to recognize what needs to be crucified by identifying (with) it in their lives.†

  2. I want to hear what you are saying, Ron, but you chose an inadequate and non-parallel metaphor.

    Having the status of being divorced is not comparable to having a daily desire to sexually engage with another man. Sure, the Bible condemns both, but the Bible condemns a lot of things.

    Sure, they are both issues that the church needs to address more fully; and they both involve a conversation about sex, and that’s about it.

    If this is the explanation you think I should hear and be content with so I can use the word “gay” to self describe, you’ve lost me.

    • Jim,

      You seem to be confusing the term “gay” with “lustful.”

      To equate gayness with “a daily desire to sexually engage with another man” is not really accurate, or fair. You object to self describing with the word “gay” because that is what it means to you (given your statement above), but for most same sex attracted people I know who use the word, and obviously for most, if not all, who write for this blog, gayness has more do with the very human desire for love and intimacy than with a desire for sex. (Most of the posts on here deal with the former, and I can’t recall any that deal with the latter.) It just cues the listeners into the particulars of those desires experienced by those who use the term.

      I would actually agree that to call oneself lustful and Christian would be rather gratuitous and in bad taste (also, irrelevant). We should not let our sins and our struggle with sin define us in that way. Luckily, gay people are not defining themselves in that way when they use the term, because “gay” does not equate to “lustful,” and isn’t even similar. (Also, I’m sure Eve Tushnet’s book wouldn’t have sold as much if it were called “Lustful and Catholic”).

      At least, I think, that when people identify as “gay,” it means they have a more heightened awareness to the beauty of members of their own gender, and a desire for companionship directed towards the same. It does also mean that temptations to lust are therefore directed towards members of their own gender as well. The project of this blog and its authors is to explore how to leverage these facts of experience to the glory of God in one’s vocation despite (and through) this challenge.

      • Quote: At least, I think, that when people identify as “gay,” it means they have a more heightened awareness to the beauty of members of their own gender

        I agree. This ability to decide whether someone is “cute” or not, although personal, proceeds but doesn’t have to lead to lustful thoughts. I often completely fail to understand why straight male friends find certain women “very attractive” but almost always agree with the aesthetic choices of female friends.

        Having said that, there are probably several different forms of homosexuality (and heterosexuality) – so not every ‘gay’ man is experiencing the same ‘orientation’.

  3. I’ve read several posts on this topic in recent weeks, and I think my own reason for choosing “SSA” instead of LGBT language is that I don’t want it to define me. I really don’t want to be “the gay” in my community, or “the abuse survivor”, and if I was divorced I wouldn’t want to be “that divorcee”. I am a multi-faceted person with lots of sins that I deal with and this is not the most important thing about me.

    That being said, language is for communication and if the words I choose aren’t comminicating with my audience, I should choose different words. So I’ll be into girls, bisexual, lesbian, same-sex attracted, or whatever else will get it across to the people I’m speaking to. (Bisexuality adds a whole new dimension because I’m not a lesbian but it’s sometimes easier to just call myself one.)

    And of course everyone should be able to call themselves whatever they want – they just shouldn’t be surprised if the words they choose aren’t communicating what they want them to!

    • But words are more and less true.

      You can call yourself an “Independent,” but if you “just so happen” to always vote straight-ticket Republican…you’re being misleading to say the least.

      Why one word should “define” you more than any other is beyond me. People seem to be saying “I don’t want my sexuality politicized”…well too bad, it is whether you like it or not, and you can’t just opt out of your affinity with other gay people merely by playing a word game.

      Yes, gays have the luxury of the closet in a way that, say, blacks don’t. Doesn’t mean that closet isn’t a delusion.

      • Yes, I see what you’re saying, and after I posted this I kind of wondered if I wasn’t expressing myself clearly. I do agree with you that words have meanings and changing the label doesn’t change the facts – that’s what I was trying to get at in my last paragraph. I think what I wasn’t saying clearly is that I use the terminology of SSA because it better expresses where I’m at to who I’m usually talking to, but gay is a more appropriate term for other people and other audiences. Those who use gay and lesbian to describe themselves should not be policed; those who use SSA should also be allowed to; but use of either term can create communication barriers in the wrong context.

        I am curious what you mean by “opt out of your affinity with other gay people”. I think that yes, I can actually choose not to identify with other LGBT people (not that I have – obviously I’m here and engaging with gay brothers and sisters). Did you mean something else by that? Were you trying to say that the use of SSA terminology is hurtful to the gay community because it distances people from it? That use of SSA is being in the closet? Just want to make sure I understand you totally.

      • One more thing (haha) – you are absolutely correct that it doesn’t make any sense for “gay” to be more defining than “SSA”. (I think that’s what you were getting at.) In thinking about this more, I realize that what I meant is other people would more likely put me in a certain box if I use the word bisexual (which doesn’t describe me that well anyway). Communication is both giving and receiving and you have to make sure there’s clarity on both ends. I think that makes sense.

  4. By “can’t opt out of affinity” I mean just that. In terms of your experience of attraction, you ARE “like” them, you ARE part of that class/category…whether you like it or not.

    You might say your beliefs are different from most. Fine. But the category isn’t defined by ones beliefs. You might say your personality and values are different and that you don’t vote with them as a bloc or that your social circle doesn’t include many other gays. But that’s not what defines being part of the category.

    You might say the category isn’t relatively important to you. Fine. Doesn’t mean you aren’t a member of it. It’s an affinity category based on an objectively shared trait, not based on “opting in” like a political category.

    Put more simply, if someone asked on of these folks in the “I’m a child of God afflicted with the cross of SSA” crowd, point blank, “Are you gay?” and they responded “No”…I would consider that a blatant lie. “Yes but that’s not my preferred label or terminology” could be acceptable, but “not gay” is a lie.

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  6. Thanks, Mr. Belgau, for your article. I just used this very ‘divorce vs. gay’ argument to explain to someone on Facebook why celibate gay Christians ‘may’ choose to ‘qualify” their celibacy with ‘gay,’ and so was pleasantly surprised to find this article while looking over SF Twitter site, which I just joined a few minutes ago. I’ll post my argument from that discussion, but first, I’d like to say thank you to you and Karen K., for correctly identifying the correlation between identifying as ‘gay’ and ‘divorced:’ according to Scripture, they are both deadly sins/circumstances to be avoided at all costs and those who unfortunately find themselves in those situations are pariah to the rest of the (church) world.

    While respecting the fact that some arguments here react against Mr. Belgau’s comparison of divorce:gay, I must say that my personal perception and experience in the church for the past 11yrs+ as a divorced Christian woman justifies and compels me to agree with his analogy. My position can be explained by the response I gave to my friend and brother’s comment that “My thinking is that a celibate is a celibate is a celibate. If you chose celibacy for the sake of your spiritual atonement or emancipation, then that’s absolutely wonderful, there should be no need to prefix it with the gay adjective. Celibacy would suffice on its own, unless there is an expectation of a special treatment to be provided or gained from the gay label.”

    This was my response (forgive it’s lengthiness, I didn’t think I’d be posting it somewhere else when I responded to him):

    Thanks, brother X, for your very gracious comment that “there is a place for the redemptive work of Christ to be allowed to reach out and touch these brethren within the four walls of the church, and not to excise them from the body as it were, since they are desirous of staying in the fold .“ It shows the kind of generous heart, understanding and grace that we need to show our LGBT brothers and sisters and their loved ones. The reverse has been the case for many Christians as they have responded with fear and ostracizing of people who are experiencing the ‘curse.’ I call this and anything else which Scripture forbids a ‘curse,’ including my own divorce.

    I fought very hard against my divorce. Oh how I fought, because I did not believe that divorce is God’s will for any believer and knowing the kind of reception that would be waiting for me in the church, I chose to rather endure the afflictions from my husband than accept being divorced from him. This created such a mystery to my husband that one day in perplexity, he asked me, “Why do you want me back? If anyone treated me the way I treat you, I would not want them in my life!” But for me, I wanted to preserve/hold onto what I *knew* to be biblically true – divorce is bad, no matter the circumstances in the marriage. And so I prayed, pleaded, fasted, subjected myself to my husband’s abuses and committed to continue to do so rather than accept divorce. When it happened anyway, I got ready to give up ever being a voice or active member of Christ’s Church. I resigned as a minister and quit every Christian leadership role, because I did not want to deal with the condemnation and rejection that I knew I would receive from Christian folk.

    But out of God’s great grace, He re-issued the call again in my life in many ways and confirmations through the ministers of the other churches I started attending when I quit my role as leader in mine. So I too, had to learn to ‘take up my cross (of divorce)’ and boldly wear it around my neck and follow Jesus. I learned to shake someone’s hand in the church, introduce myself and confidently and unashamedly answer “I’m divorced” when they asked about my husband. But it wasn’t and it isn’t still easy. To this very day, the minute they discover I am divorced, I am still treated with mistrust and disdain by many Christian folk and leaders. Once, through the LORD’s leading, I had extended fellowship and help to a young woman a mutual pastor acquaintance had introduced to me. When this young lady started treating me very badly, I turned to our two mutual pastor acquaintances, one of whom was very good friends with the lady. The very good friend of hers then bluntly told me, I was not the right person to offer help/assistance to anybody. I was shocked. Because their ministry reached out to the African-American community which was largely represented by single moms and their children, people whom they referred to as ‘broken,’ he (a pastor) refused to acknowledge the evidence of what God was doing in my life. He would rather accept the world’s testimony that as a divorcée, I was good for nothing, a casualty and just ‘damaged goods’ that had to be tolerated in the Body of Christ.

    I was very shocked by this revelation, until I understood that except one has experienced the healing power of God that comes through His abiding Presence during one’s troubles (Isaiah 43:1-3), it is *impossible* to believe a person can experience great pain and tragedy and not be damaged by it. Hard to understand that although one might be experiencing death in one’s body or circumstances, through the power of the Holy Spirit, one might be experiencing renewal and life inwardly (2 Cor. 4:16). Instead, many (including Christians) would rather hold onto only psychological statistics rather than bring the truth of God’s Word to bear alongside their carnal knowledge. Such Christians will never fully accept anyone who does not possess the things we normally use as yardsticks for measuring success.These celibate gay Christians experience life on a plain that clearly defines/marks them as ‘homosexual;’ something that robs them of a very important measuring yardstick of success in society – a healthy, heterosexual appetite and marriage. But beyond that, these celibate gay Christians also experience the mighty power of God’s presence in their situation, and I believe that is what they are trying/choosing to proclaim to the world by identifying as celibate ‘gay’ Christians.

    I also think (I may be wrong) you are correct in thinking that by classifying themselves as celibate ‘gay’ Christians, they may be asking for some kind of benefit…from reading some of the articles and comments on SF blog, it appears homosexuals experience a lot of loneliness. Perhaps from people not wanting to be too close to them, or from the irrational fear of catching or being stained by ‘their’ homosexuality. By this, the world (and church) forces them into a sort of solitary confinement, because they cannot be with people and truly be themselves. And I don’t mean sexually. For example, they cannot be with heterosexual folks and simply start a discussion about issues peculiar to their situation, without receiving condemnatory or condescending responses. So apparently, their lives have been narrowed down to lifestyles that ‘cut them off’ complete living.

    Again, as someone who’s divorced, but who by God’s help and grace still walks the straight and narrow road of Christian discipleship, this is something I can resonate with. People who are different need a different kind of response from the church community; and not a response that treats them as ‘not whole’ or ‘broken’ as my former pastor acquaintance was fond of labeling those whose lives were not full of the perfect picture of health, wealth and marriage. Where it matters, all humans are all broken, no matter how perfect our outward lives are. And we, the Church, need to stop using the external yardsticks as measurement for those with less-than perfect outward lives and ask God’s help to start seeing people with/through His eyes (1 Sam.16:7).

    I do not deny the massive earth-shattering tragedy of divorce I experienced. I have no desire to, and I suspect this is also why the celibate gay Christians define their celibacy with ‘gay.’ They do not wish to deny/hide their tragedy. They want to be *known* *that way* and still be *fully* *loved* as they are. So it wouldn’t be the same to just call them celibate. What would happen the first time a celibate gay priest revealed to a parishioner, I’m gay? Most likely the parishioner would flip out. I once had the wife of a pastor say to me, “Tega, I can’t sit under your ministration, you’re divorced.” And this came from a woman whom I thought was my friend!! So much for friendship. So you see how hard it is for us Christian folks to really/truly accept people once they fall into the category of ‘not-so-blessed.’ We tend to tolerate them, rather than ‘truly’ embrace, love and accept them without making them feel as if we’re doing them a favor.

    Although I have not asked this question of any c.g.C, I suspect that it would be at the bottom of their self-label. True love needs to be able to ‘love’ beyond/despite the peculiarities of a person’s affliction. And we all need help trying to ‘truly’ love. Love is the greatest, but it is also the hardest to do and give.†

  7. Just wanted to add re Mr. Belgau’s comment that,

    “But one thing that is encouraging about the debates surrounding divorce is that you don’t have prominent voices wasting a lot of time trying to keep divorced people from talking about being divorced.”

    I think that one of the reasons you don’t have prominent voices denying divorced people (and other pariah’ed groups in the church) talking spaces about their situations is that people in those groups haven’t learned (as the LGBT community has) to ‘speak’ for themselves and their situations. Instead, such people ‘hide’ themselves (pretty much akin to the days before ‘coming out’ was accepted) and or try to rectify their situation through remarriage. If as many marginalized divorced individuals in church ministry or church life were to speak up, there’d certainly be voices against them, because the traditional world/church response to anything outside the ‘normal’ standard is ‘rejection.’

    The LGBT voice ‘in the church’ has been greatly assisted by the efforts of the LGBT community ‘outside’ the church. Once society began to accept and create space for LGBT, then Christian LGBT folks could find and amplify their voices. However, because marriage is *still* a desirable status in both church and secular spheres, there’s not yet a strong enough push against divorcées or singles’ advocates.

    However, I think the scene is about to change from quiet to loud for a lot of pariah’ed/marginalized groups in the church. As more people experience and testify of God’s grace to be ‘fully’ Christian and so demand ‘full’ membership of Christ’s Body despite their once discriminated statuses, I believe the church will start to see/hear more from such groups.

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