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Dear Dr. Gushee: Can Sexual Orientation Ever Be Considered Grounds for Divorce?

I get lots of messages that follow up on my 2014 book, Changing Our Mind. That book, aiming to reach evangelical Christians, argued for an end to Christian stigma and rejection of LGBTQ people and an incorporation of same-sex relationships into the covenantal-marital standard I believe is the best expression of Christian sexual ethics.

Most evangelicals, it must be noted, were not a bit interested in this proposal other than to trash it. However, many, many others were quite interested — including evangelicalism’s myriads of LGBTQ exiles.

Here is a question I often receive from such Christians and received again as the New Year began:

Dear Dr. Gushee: I’m curious what advice you would give to an LGBTQIA individual who has only come to a new understanding of the gospel’s stance on sexual ethics after marrying someone of a different gender. Specifically, can sexual orientation ever be considered grounds for divorce?

The way this question is formed reveals that the questioner has understood well what I argue in Changing Our Mind. It distills to two main themes: a) Christians must drop their destructive rejection/stigmatizing of LGBTQ people and relationships, and b) this does not mean an abandonment of covenantal-marital Christian sexual ethics, but instead a broadening of the share of Christian persons to whom that ethic is understood to apply.

Covenantal sexual ethics

By covenantal sexual ethics, I meant (and still mean) that genital sexual expression and covenant commitment belong together, and that marriage is the best demonstration of such a covenant. This marks an affirmation on my part of important dimensions of traditional Christian sexual ethics. Among these are the following:

  • Sexual intimacy is morally significant because it involves the exposure and the uniting not just of human bodies but of personalities, emotions and selves. Where sex risks the procreation of children, that adds another profound dimension of moral significance.
  • It is appropriate to reserve this level of vulnerability and this dimension of interpersonal unity for a clear, articulate, mutual commitment between mature, empowered adults.
  • The lifetime promises made in the marriage covenant offer the most stringent, binding and secure form of such a relational covenant and the one Christian tradition has blessed.
  • Because marriage is a sacred, binding, lifetime covenant, it should only be ended based on a just cause; among those causes most recognized in the tradition are adultery (based on Matthew 19), abandonment (based on 1 Corinthians 7), and abuse (based on hard experience), although a broader list is clearly plausible in light of the diverse forms of misconduct and misery possible within marriage.

I recognize this approach to Christian marital covenant, while grounded in Scripture and tradition, is far more personalist, mutualist and egalitarian, and far less focused on gender and on procreation, than what Christian tradition generally has offered. I hope my work in this arena demonstrates both continuity with the best insights of Scripture and tradition while also learning from significant progress in contemporary understandings of human sexuality and healthy interpersonal relationships.

The question

Now we turn to the question itself: Can sexual orientation ever be considered grounds for divorce?

The fraught backstory is implied in the question and usually spelled out in the explanations offered by my correspondents. Someone raised in a conservative evangelical Christian family/church discovers in their adolescence, and much to their horror, that their sexuality does not fit the regnant Christian paradigm in which only heterosexual sex is pleasing to God. In part because the stigma against being gay or lesbian is so strong within their most important communities — and quite likely in their own souls — some of these people end up attempting heterosexual marriage.

Over a long, hard journey, a predictably large percentage of conservative gay and lesbian Christians who attempt such a “mixed-orientation marriage” conclude not only that it is excruciating but that the teaching that led them there is no longer persuasive to them. They conclude they made a mistake in getting married on this basis, and they begin contemplating divorce.

“Is marrying against one’s own sexual orientation among the legitimate grounds for divorce, for ending the binding lifetime covenant of marriage?”

But the same seriousness of Christian faith that led them (quite tragically) to marry against their own sexual orientation now makes it difficult for them to consider breaking what they understand to be the binding covenant of Christian marriage. Thus the question posed to me takes a covenantal form: Is marrying against one’s own sexual orientation among the legitimate grounds for divorce, for ending the binding lifetime covenant of marriage?

A good question

Let me begin by saying I respect this question deeply. I respect it because it takes the marriage covenant seriously. In a culture (and a church) in which marriage is fading, and in which many marriages are not undertaken based on a covenantal understanding, I respect it whenever I see people articulate that, to them, marriage is a covenant, and thus not to be ended lightly. It is not a bad starting point to ask whether marrying against one’s own sexual orientation, on the basis of a mistaken understanding of Scripture, can fall within the legitimate grounds for divorce, like adultery or abandonment.

Still, I do note this whole way of framing when it is appropriate to leave a marriage risks falling into what ethicists call moral casuistry or legalism. Certainly, few liberal Protestants frame their moral choices in legalistic (would this act be morally lawful?) or casuistic (is this the type of case that meets the relevant moral law/rule?) terms. Legalism and casuistry are certainly problematic, as they tend to reduce the moral dimension of discipleship to moral law and exceptions. But at least as problematic are antinomianism, relativism and emotions as a basis for moral decision making.

Annulment vs. divorce

So let’s follow this rule/exception thread a bit more. I want to propose the category of annulment rather than divorce seems the most promising for this situation. Essentially, an annulment is a legal, ecclesial and/or moral response to a marriage that was not validly constituted.

If a state bans marriage between siblings, and you marry your sibling, that marriage was never validly constituted and will be annulled. If a marriage requires volition, and you married while someone held a gun to your head to force you to do so, an annulment is appropriate. If you marry a person who is at that moment married to someone else, the second marriage is not valid.

“While a divorce recognizes a marriage has failed, an annulment recognizes that a marriage never validly existed in the first place.”

While a divorce recognizes a marriage has failed, an annulment recognizes that a marriage never validly existed in the first place. The difference should be apparent upon reflection.

Marrying against one’s own sexual orientation under the impact (one might even say coercion) of a traditionalist rendering of Christian sexual ethics does not fit a narrow understanding of annulment, but it has interesting implications for persons in that awful situation.

Given the central role of sexuality in human personality, and of sex in marriage, being pressured to marry against one’s own sexual orientation certainly gets into the ballpark of a marriage that never validly existed in the first place. That is from the perspective of the gay/lesbian person trying to conduct a heterosexual marriage. If one considers the straight person who unknowingly marries a gay or lesbian person, the argument for annulment is even stronger. This was a marriage contracted under false pretenses, with crucial information withheld relevant to the choice to marry.

In the most recent letter I received on this issue, I was told both spouses in this situation believe this marriage should end. This is obviously very important. It appears the couple has come to a shared recognition that this marriage never should have been contracted. The couple recognizes the fault lies with the tradition that created the conditions for this marriage, rather than covenant-violating actions of either spouse. That puts it in the annulment rather than divorce category. Regardless of whether a religious community or court of law is willing to call the end of this marriage an annulment, the couple can think of what they are doing in this way. They can release each other from a misbegotten covenant and move on amicably with their lives.

This is my answer to the question posed to me.

But my far bigger point is this: We must change the misguided religious teaching that creates the conditions for such tragic situations in the first place. We must stop forcing LGBTQ people into marriages they are only contracting so they can avoid going to hell.

This article first appeared on Baptist News Global.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Dr. Gushee: Can Sexual Orientation Ever Be Considered Grounds for Divorce?”

  1. Thank you on behalf of one who cares for individuals in this situation. Your article is instructional as well as compassionate.

  2. Annulment or divorce, it doesn’t matter. Who picks up the pieces of the shattered
    Iives of the spouse and children while the gay/lesbian walks happily into their future? Who tells the 8-year and 12-year old that daddy was “forced” into marrying mommy, even though he didn’t want to? Do I sound angry? It’s because I am. For decades we’ve heard “Don’t discriminate against LBGTQ people; let them have what they want, let them do what they want.” I am totally against discrimination against any human. But I am tired of watching LGBTQ people leave a heterosexual marriage where lives are destroyed and nobody is there to help that family understand the tornado that just blew their home apart.

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