Divorce. It’s an awful word. There’s some words in the English language that evoke pleasant thoughts and happy images. Divorce isn’t one of them. In fact, for me, there’s few words in the dictionary that conjure up such troublesome connotations. When I hear “divorce” I think of broken hearts, broken families, broken homes, broken children–broken promises. If there’s anything in our society that demonstrates the human heart’s propensity to lie, it’s divorce.
Recently, Gentle Reformation was asked to address the issue of divorce and remarriage. When I was training to be a pastor the problems leading to and resulting from divorce were, in my mind, thought to be some of the most challenging and difficult. This isn’t a fine point of theology we can afford to discuss in an ivory tower or fireside chat. Divorcees aren’t faceless strangers–they’re co-workers, friends, family and church members. But a commitment to Jesus and “all that he commanded” must compel us to speak with clarity, sensitivity, and compassion into a culture that’s addicted to divorce.
Of course one of the difficulties are all the what ifs. There’s a thousand seemingly hopeless scenarios where divorce almost seems to be the only option. But before one can be equipped to speak to particular circumstances–which require sanctified wisdom and godly counsel–we need to see the directing principles God in the Bible has given us on this difficult topic.
When the Pharisees tried to challenge Jesus’ teaching on marriage they asked him, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3). Jesus’ answer is compelling. In his typical and wise way he doesn’t say “Yes,” and he doesn’t say “No.” Why? I think it’s because the Pharisees were beginning in the wrong place–they were asking the wrong question. That’s why Jesus points them back to the original design of God for marriage–that the two have become one flesh, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (see also Genesis 2:23-25 and Malachi 2:15). God’s original purpose for marriage didn’t include divorce, but was a mutually committed lifelong covenant, that’s the ideal.
But life isn’t always lived in the ideal–especially in reality of sin. The Pharisees, as can be read, challenged his response, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (see Deuteronomy 24:1-14). Again, Jesus’ answer is somewhat unexpected, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t yield to their point of Moses “commanding” divorce, but merely states it as something permissible–he “allowed you to divorce.” More importantly, we see that God through Moses made provision for divorce “because of the hardness of your heart.” Sin changed things, and there’s many areas where God has provided us with something to deal, at least in part, with the damage sin has brought. No, divorce wasn’t God’s original purpose for marriage. But he has given provision for it. While not all divorces are sinful, they are all the result of sin.
There is, however, a limit to God’s provision. He doesn’t invite or allow people to get a divorce for any and every reason. Remember, the Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Unlike the Pharisees who probably misunderstood Moses, Jesus’ response denies that “any cause” is ground for divorce. It’s very important to understand that Jesus isn’t throwing the door wide open. Quite the opposite! In fact, he prohibits divorce for any reason “except for sexual immorality” (v 9, see also Matthew 5:32). I’m suspicious that this very narrow view is why his disciples responded the way they did, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v 10). I’m familiar with all the questions regarding what constitutes “sexual immorality.” It’s a word that is more expansive than “adultery” as we commonly think of it (e.g. sexual unfaithfulness to your spouse), but includes all kinds of sexual sin. Is Jesus, then, giving permission for divorce if a husband looks at another woman with lust in his heart (Matthew 5:28)? I don’t think so. If that were the case Jesus would be opening the door of divorce so wide, any man or woman would have legitimate reasons. But he’s not broadening the reasons for divorce; he’s restricting it. We need to feel the force of that “except for sexual immorality.”
But I need to also mention Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. Apparently, in the church of Corinth there were those who were believers, but their spouse wasn’t. It appears that they asked Paul what that meant for their marriage–was it legitimate or illegitimate? Paul says that if the unbelieving spouse is willing to remain married, then the believing spouse needs to remain married. Even this unequal yoking is not a reason for a believer to pursue a divorce. Why? Because God loves the institution of marriage and he hates divorce (Malachi 2:14). But, he adds, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (v 15–emphasis mine). This has been called “abandonment” or “desertion,” and is a legitimate reason for divorce.
It’s not easy to always determine what is “sexual immorality” and what is “desertion.” There are complex questions: what about pornographic addiction? Spousal abuse whether physical or emotional? Withholding marital privileges? Dangerous drug use? etc, etc. I have my own convictions, but these things require wisdom and care. Wwhat the Bible does teach, is that in light of sin there are certain things–two in number–that so violate the “oneness” of the marriage covenant, that it is rendered covenantally dead. And, if I can be so bold to assert it, in such cases divorce is a God glorifying option. But, and this is the important point, God is the one who regulates marriage and divorce. Apart from his provision all divorce is prohibited.
What about remarriage? If God’s prohibition wasn’t counter-culture enough this is where Jesus’ teaching really goes against our society. He says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (v 9). It’s a hard truth to hear–not that Christianity has ever been about easy truths–but Jesus’ point is that remarriage after an unbiblical divorce will result in adultery. However, implicit in these words is that in the case of a biblical divorce remarriage is permissible–at least for the innocent party. To the same effect, I think, is what Paul means when he says the believing brother or sister is “not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
This is, by no means, an easy topic. Let us learn to pray for wisdom (James 1:5). For those whose marriages are on the brink of divorce, I encourage you to seek reconciliation with the help of godly men and women. The gospel of Jesus Christ is strong enough to strengthen what is growing weak. And I want to remind those who may be reading this that have gotten an unbiblical divorce or remarriage, that the promises of the gospel speak even to these sins–they are not unforgiveable. There is grace even for divorcees. He remains the God who promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
May God by his Spirit graciously invite and draw us all into that marriage that cannot be broken with the Lord Jesus Christ.