On Friday 24 May, Ireland votes in a Referendum on Divorce. At present, a couple can get divorced if their marriage has irretrievably broken down, and the Constitutional criteria for recognising this is that a couple must have lived apart for at least four of the past five years. The referendum proposes to remove this four-year clause from the Constitution. The government has announced an intention to legislate a lesser time frame, but that will not be in the Constitution so will not form part of the Referendum question. Of course, any legislated time-frame can be amended or removed altogether by future governments.
Most Evangelical Christians, while seeing marriage as a lifelong commitment, recognise that occasionally marriages do break down irretrievably. Jesus Himself, in teaching against divorce, made an exception where adultery had occurred (Matt 5:32 & Matt 19:9). Also, no victim of domestic abuse should be expected to remain married to their abuser.
However, this is not to normalise or trivialise divorce. Jesus said that divorce existed because of the hardness in men’s hearts (Matt 19:8). So, even where provision for divorce exists, Christians should still see divorce as an abnormal collapse of something that should last for a lifetime. It takes hard work to make marriage a success, and divorce should never become an easy option for giving up and trying again. Entering into another lifelong covenant after divorce is a serious matter indeed, and should never be something that is entered into lightly or quickly.
Evangelical Christians have historically understood marriage to be a lifelong commitment and covenant where one man and one woman become one flesh in the sight of one God for the duration of one lifetime. Although civil marriage ignores the part about marriage being ‘in the sight of God’, Christians have generally understood that civil marriage is close enough to the Christian concept of marriage for us to assume that when society and churches speak about ‘marriage’ that we are talking about the same institution. So, for example, most churches readily accept a new couple into fellowship and treat them as married where their marriage was civil rather than religious.
Today we are in a process where authorities in many parts of the world, including the Irish government, are determined to redefine marriage into something very different from the Christian understanding. We understand that, in a secular society, civil marriage makes no reference to God. But now ‘marriage’ is deemed to be between any two individuals, regardless of gender. The proposed change to the Constitution removing any time-frame by which a marriage might be deemed as having irretrievably broken down is designed to further weaken the concept of marriage as a lifelong commitment. As a result, the only similarity between civil marriage in Ireland, and marriage as understood by most Christians, will be that (for now, at least) they are both ceremonies that involve two people.
It is particularly worrying that some of the debate around the proposed changes to the Constitution concerning divorce have included calls for legislation to permit prenuptial agreements. Such agreements, where a bride and groom have already decided who gets what when they get divorced, make a mockery of the ideal of marriage as a lifelong commitment,
In effect, the Irish government appears determined to reduce and redefine marriage to the status of a civil partnership. This poses serious questions for the future as to how churches act as agents of the State in solemnising marriages, and whether churches should continue to view civil marriage as ‘marriage’ in any meaningful sense of the word. Those are necessary discussions, but not ones that can be conducted in the short time frame before this imminent Referendum.
We should not deceive ourselves. Evangelical Christians have neither the numbers or influence to sway this Referendum one way or the other. So this should not be interpreted as a call to campaign against or to defeat the Referendum proposals. But we should all vote with our consciences in this Referendum, and in a way that supports the idea that marriage is wonderful, special, and much more than a legal contract or a civil partnership.
Nick Park, Executive Director, Evangelical Alliance Ireland