Americans, by nature, resent governmental intrusion, especially when bureaucrats start meddling in personal relationships or religion. Because marriage involves both of these two sensitive matters, Christians especially resent the idea of a judge ruling over what they consider sacred and private. Therefore, believers feel betrayed when they discover their partner has invited government involvement in a relationship that has been sealed by God and should be governed by Him alone.
This perspective, while admirable on many levels, rests on two myths that frequently place the upright partner in danger, along with his or her children. (I invite you to reread Eva’s letter in the earlier post, “Five Court System Myths and the Truth about Justice.”)
Myth #3: Marriage is a sacred matter in which the government should not be involved.
I suspect most people would affirm this statement. It sounds reasonable, were it not for a particular misconception. The truth is, the state has no desire to involve itself in the details of anyone’s marriage, and will only become as involved in marriage as we allow.
A couple submits to a small amount of government involvement when they obtain a marriage license before the wedding ceremony. This formality does nothing more than satisfy the state’s need for documentation. Its purpose is to inform the government that two people are married and should be treated that way with respect to the law. For example, taxes are applied differently once two people merge their lives; two individuals have become one legal and financial entity in the eyes of the state.
Similarly, a parting couple must file for, and receive, a decree of divorce confirming that the state no longer recognizes them as married. All other matters concerning divorce or separation can be settled by mutual agreement, mediation, or some other means. The court has no other involvement unless the couple insists on fighting it out before a judge.
Many Christians avoid the courts altogether, fearing that in giving an inch, the government will take a mile. Moreover, they want to honor the apostle Paul’s exhortation to avoid taking disputes with fellow believers before the courts. (We will examine 1 Corinthians 6:1–8 in detail in another article). Decent, reasonable people always try to resolve conflict in person without dragging another before a judge. Therefore, even in extreme cases of abuse, infidelity, criminal behavior, and even abandonment, Christians steadfastly avoid any contact with the courts, leaving themselves legally vulnerable. That’s because they unconsciously believe myth #4.
Myth #4: Filing a petition for divorce is an unnecessary and cruel formality.
In an ideal world, everyone would be reasonable and we could settle our disputes honorably. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reason with unreasonable people. Furthermore, Christians frequently underestimate the lengths to which a wayward spouse will go to defend his or her sinful choices and are frequently surprised to find themselves on the defendant’s side of the courtroom. Because the legal system can become a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands (as Eva disovered), the upright partner must secure it and then place it out of reach so the wayward partner has less opportunity to hurt someone.
Filing a petition or complaint for divorce with the court protects the upright spouse in several important ways. (Keep in mind that the petition can be rescinded at any time.)
Simply packing up and leaving could constitute abandonment unless the upright spouse had to move out to preserve his or her own safety or the safety of the children. Even then, credible proof may be required later. In many states, the sinning spouse would have a strong case for a “fault” divorce. Furthermore, in some states, the person initiating the complaint enjoys greater control over the agenda, timing, and tone of the entire divorce process. If the upright spouse does not use the legal system with wisdom, he or she could forfeit significant legal power or even become legally powerless despite how “right” he or she may be.
Whatever physical and financial situation exists during separation commonly becomes the basis for the terms of the divorce. For instance, if the upright spouse vacates the home and, out of good conscience, provides one thousand dollars each month to cover bills, it will be almost impossible to convince the court that the living and financial arrangements should change after the divorce is final, especially if changing the existing arrangement affects the children in any way.
Filing a petition and using the courts will provide structure for the financial arrangement from the very beginning.
Temporary restraining orders are more easily obtained when they ask for reasonable protections in connection with a petition for divorce (the first official step in any divorce case). For instance, if the upright spouse is worried that his or her partner might become violent, disappear with the children, or deny access to bank funds or the family car, a temporary order can provide stability until the circumstances become less volatile.
Ironically, when a marriage experiences such crisis that separation is imminent or becomes necessary, filing a petition for divorce is the best way to minimize government involvement . . . but only when the upright partner does the filing. Who better to be in control of the legal process than the partner who wants the marriage to continue?
Have you or someone you know been victimized by malicious use of the legal system? How were you or this person affected?
Next, discover how Myth #5 hides the real cause of divorce.