The Great Divides
Part 4: Divorce
This is the final week of the Great Divides. We’ve talked about homosexuality, abortion and racism, subjects that divide people. Of all the subjects that I’ve talked about in this series, none affects more people directly than divorce. Roughly one in every two marriages ends in divorce—the US Census Bureau says that 43% of first marriages and 55% of other marriages end in divorce. With the advent of no-fault divorce laws and the relaxation of moral standards, the percentage of divorces is double what it was a generation ago. How many of you have either been divorced or have someone close to you who has been divorced—a mom or dad, brother or sister, son or daughter, or good friend? Almost all of us have been affected by this. And if it has happened to you personally, you know how emotional, how painful this subject is. What does God say about it in the Bible, and what should we do about it? That’s where we’re headed. Let’s pray!
Some people might wonder why I included divorce in this series. It is generally not something that Americans are divided about—it’s not hotly debated in our culture. But it is something that divides Christians—it’s hotly debated in the church. Basically there are three positions Christians take based on their understanding of the Bible:
God never allows divorce. In a poll of evangelical pastors, only about 10% held this view.
God allows divorce for one or two specific reasons. In that same poll, 64% of evangelical pastors held this view. And it’s only fair to tell you up front that this is my view as well.
God allows divorce for many reasons. That leaves about 26% who hold this view.
There are minor variations on each of those positions, but those are the major positions, and thoughtful Christians hold them based on their understanding of Scripture.
This book, Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, is a fascinating look at this debate. (This book addresses four views instead of three because the authors divide my first view in two parts.) Four theologians make a convincing
case for his position and then the other three write a rebuttal. What’s interesting is that all four base their positions on the same verses; they each interpret those verses differently. What does that tell us? We need to base our opinions on divorce on the Bible, but we ought to hold those opinions with humility and charity, knowing that good Christians may disagree with us.
Christians not only disagree about whether God allows divorce and remarriage, but they also differ about the status of divorced Christians in the church. Some churches won’t allow a divorced person to hold any position of service in the church: you can’t be an usher, or small group leader, or kid’s teacher, and certainly not a pastor. For other churches, it’s not an issue at all; divorce has no bearing on the opportunity to serve in the church, even at the highest levels of leadership.
And beyond that is the issue of how divorcees are treated by the individual members of their church. Many divorcees feel like they have a scarlet “D” stamped on their forehead. They feel ostracized and rejected exactly when they most need understanding and love.
I don’t claim to have all the answers on this subject. In fact, the older I get and the more difficult situations I face, the more humbly I hold and share my views. I’ll give you my best understanding of what the Bible says, but I want to be very clear that other Christians see it differently than I do. Some of you won’t like what I’m going to say, but please hear me out to the end. Here we go.
1. What does the Bible say about divorce?
I’ve listed on your outline the major passages that deal with this subject. I’ll read them and make a few comments, and encourage you to study them more on your own (resource table?).
Genesis 2:24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Marriage is God’s idea. It is not just a human institution, something that people dreamed up, or a cultural invention. God created marriage. It is not just a piece of paper, as some people say who want to skip marriage and just live together. By the way, recent research has shown that living together before marriage does not increase your chances of success in marriage, but actually decreases it! Those who live together have a higher divorce rate than those who don’t. The heart of marriage is a covenant between a man, a woman and God. Living together is utterly unlike marriage in that it lacks the covenant, the commitment made before God and man. Living together doesn’t prepare you for marriage at all. It doesn’t promote covenant and commitment; it evades them. In the words of one great theologian: “Why buy the cow if the milk is free?” So it’s no surprise that those who live together before marriage experience a higher rate of divorce.
Marriage is God’s idea. God created the first man and woman to complement each other, and in the very beginning ordained marriage to be a lifelong relationship of love between a husband and wife. A man leaves his parents, exchanging one primary relationship for another. He is united to his wife, pointing to the permanence of the relationship. And they become one flesh, meaning the relationship is consummated by sexual intercourse.
Here in the marriage ordinance there is no mention of divorce. That shows up in:
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.
Notice three things about this difficult passage.
First, divorce is not encouraged, commanded or required. The purpose of this legislation was simply to forbid a man from remarrying his former wife if she has remarried another man. It is believed that this law was to discourage frivolous divorce, people trading spouses back and forth. Once you divorced and remarried, there was no going back to the first marriage—so think twice before divorcing. By this point, divorce was happening, and this regulated it without condoning or commanding it.
Second, the cause or grounds for divorce is if the wife “becomes displeasing” to her husband “because he finds something indecent about her.” What does this mean? Jewish rabbis debated this for centuries. Some believed that it referred to sexual sin such as adultery, but others interpreted it more broadly as anything that displeased a husband. It was still being debated in Jesus’ day. Rabbi Shammai argued that it referred strictly to sexual sin as the only legitimate ground for divorce. Rabbi Hillel took the more liberal view that anything that displeased a husband was grounds for divorce. So a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast, or if she sassed him in public, or if he just found someone he liked better. So which is it? I don’t know. We’ll have to ask Moses when we get to heaven! We’ll come back to this.
Third, it was assumed that a divorced person was free to remarry, that divorce carried with it permission to remarry.
Malachi 2:13-16 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
15 Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. c So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.
16 “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself d with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
This is another passage that is difficult to translate. But these things are clear.
First, God was rejecting their prayers and worship because of the way the men were treating their wives. They were breaking faith with their wives, divorcing them, breaking the covenant they had made. It should be clear to us that God cares very deeply about our relationships, especially our marriages. If we don’t treat each other well, it displeases the Lord. Peter said a similar thing in 1 Peter 3:7.
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
Husband, if you mistreat your wife, your prayers are hindered—the Greek word means interrupted. If I’m not right with Laina and I pray, God interrupts me and says, “Before I answer your prayer, you’ve got some work to do. Go make it right with your wife.” God cares deeply about our marriages, so when things aren’t right between my wife and I, things aren’t right between God and me either. This applies to wives as well as to husbands. Don’t think that you can divorce your spouse without spiritual consequences. God cares.
Second, God clearly expresses his feelings about divorce. God hates divorce. It does not say that God hates divorced people. Jesus met a woman at a well in John 4, a woman who had 5 husbands and 5 divorces, and now was living with another man. How did Jesus treat her? With kindness and respect and love—and He offered her forgiveness and a fresh start. God hates divorce because of what it does to people, but God doesn’t hate divorced people.
God hates divorce—but He allows some. There are cases in which divorce is the lesser of two evils. There are times when divorce is the best thing to do, even though God hates it.
ILL: An example. I hate war, and I think God does too. Wars are awful—people die. But there are times when war is justified, when war is necessary, even right. We ought to do everything possible to avoid war—pursue peace by every diplomatic means available. But when Hitler invades Poland and begins to slaughter Jews, he must be stopped. I hate war, but in certain situations, I support it.
In the same way, God hates divorce, but as we’ll see in the next passages, there are situations in which He allows it.
Matthew 5:31-32 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
This is part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. He takes a number of Old Testament laws to a new level.
It’s been said, “You shall not kill,” but I say don’t be angry with your brother.
It’s been said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say don’t even lust after another woman.
And then here, it’s been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 24, which regulated divorce. But Jesus takes it to a new level. “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
Simply put, Jesus forbids divorce for any reason except sexual sin, marital unfaithfulness. If you divorce for any other reason and remarry, you commit adultery.
Matthew 19:3-9 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ a 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ b? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Mark 10 is Mark’s version of this story.) The Pharisees attempted to embroil Jesus in the debate between Rabbis Shammai and Hillel: is divorce permitted for adultery only (Shammai), or for any and every reason (Hillel)? Jesus came down squarely on the side of Shammai.
First, Jesus pointed them back to the marriage ordinance in Genesis 2:24, and reminded them that a married couple are no longer two but one. “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Who joins a married couple together? God does. Remember, marriage is God’s idea. It is a covenant between a man, a woman and God; and Jesus said that God joins them together, makes them one. We should not separate what God has joined. So Jesus pointed back to God’s original design for marriage and said that divorce is not God’s will.
The Pharisees then asked about Deuteronomy 24. “Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus points out that Moses didn’t command divorce, he permitted it, and then only as a concession to their hard hearts. God’s intention for marriage is that it be a lifelong loving relationship. But because we’re all sinners, that ideal is sometimes impossible and God allowed divorce because of our hard hearts. But once again Jesus pointed them back to the beginning and God’s original intention. “But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Jesus says essentially the same thing as in Matthew 5:32. Divorce is permissible for one reason: marital unfaithfulness. The Greek word is porneia—we get pornography from it—it refers to sexual sin in general. To divorce for any other reason and remarry is to commit adultery.
Jesus raises a high standard. God joins marriages for a lifetime, and marital unfaithfulness is the only reason allowed for divorce.
Romans 7:1-3 Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to men who know the law—that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? 2 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. 3 So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.
Paul says here that one other thing legitimately ends marriage and allows a person to remarry: death. No theologian argues with that one.
1 Corinthians 7:10-16 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
1 Corinthians 7:39-40 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
This entire chapter is advice on marriage. It is written by Paul during a time of crisis that affects his thinking deeply, and leads him to strongly encourage people to stay single if at all possible. Notice the following.
First, Paul discourages divorce and remarriage. In verses 10-11 he says, “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” Don’t divorce, but if you do, you have two options: remain single or reconcile to your husband. He goes on, “And a husband must not divorce his wife.” He makes it clear that the standard applies to both genders in the marriage.
Second, in verses 39-40, Paul reminds them that death ends the marriage bond, and a widow or widower is free to remarry, but the new spouse must be a Christian. “He must belong to the Lord.”
Third, and this is where the debate rages, Paul says that a Christian spouse is free to remarry if a non-believing spouse deserts the marriage. If the non-believing spouse is willing to stay married, the Christian must not divorce them. “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.” Many scholars think the phrase “is not bound” means that the deserted Christian is no longer bound to marriage, but is now free to divorce and remarry. I agree, and think that Paul has added a second exception here. God allows divorce and remarriage for desertion by an unbelieving spouse. This and sexual sin are the two allowable grounds for divorce in the Bible.
Are there other permissible grounds for divorce? What about safety issues like physical, sexual or emotional abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, or severe mental illness? I would not advise someone to stay in an unsafe relationship, but I would recommend protected separation first to see if there is any way to save the marriage. What about cases of deception, emotional abandonment, financial disaster like crippling gambling debts…the list goes on and on. I would hold up God’s standard—no divorce except for the two reasons given in Scripture—and then humbly take each case on its own merits. We should try to do all we can to save the marriage and make it work, but sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils—like war. We hold up God’s ideals, but realize that we’re all sinners and sometimes we aren’t able to get there.
1 Timothy 3:2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
Titus 1:6 An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.
Paul writes to Timothy and Titus about the qualifications for church leaders. Overseers and elders and pastors are all terms used for the same position. One of the qualifications is that a pastor must be “the husband of but one wife.” Literally, the Greek phrase means “a one-woman man.” What does it mean? Here are some of the possibilities.
You must be married to be a spiritual leader.
Polygamy is forbidden: you can’t have multiple wives.
Promiscuity is forbidden: you can’t have multiple sexual partners.
Divorce is forbidden: you can’t be divorced and remarried.
Any second marriage is forbidden, even for a widower.
Many think “a one-woman man” refers to a man who is devoted to his wife. His affections are exclusive.
I’m a one-woman man! And I think that is the best interpretation, although I would agree that no spiritual leader should be polygamous or promiscuous. But I don’t think that divorce automatically excludes a person from spiritual leadership or service in the church.
ILL: For several years I served on our district’s ethics committee. Our job is to review pastoral license applications that have doctrinal or moral irregularities. Most of these have to do with divorce and remarriage. Examples:
This couple were both married and divorced before. After their divorces, they became Christians, met each other, were married, and now believe that God is calling them to be pastors. They’ve been married ten years. Would you give them a license? Some denominations would not. We did. That was 25 years ago. Today they pastor the largest church of any kind in the entire state of Montana, and are among the most respected leaders in our denomination.
Second example: this man and his wife were both Christians and had been married for 15 years, and he had been pastoring for most of that time in a small community. However, for the last 5 years, he was involved in multiple affairs with women in his church. When it came to light, his church fired him and his wife divorced him. He moved to a large city about 100 miles away, joined a large church and got involved in Christian therapy for his sexual problems. After a couple years, he met a Christian woman in the church. They dated and maintained a chaste relationship and finally married with the church’s blessing. Six years after his divorce, he asked us for a license to pastor again. Would you give him a license? We didn’t. For a number of reasons, primarily the size of his sin and the repercussions that were still being felt in that small community, we felt it was not wise.
Tough questions, aren’t they?
There is what the Bible says. What should we do about divorce?
2. What can we do about divorce?
A. Understand and obey God’s word on marriage and divorce.
First, we ought to understand and obey God’s word on marriage and divorce. Obviously, God’s standards are high, and in today’s culture which is becoming increasingly lax morally, we need to be reminded of those standards. That’s what I’ve tried to do today in the first part of this talk. God takes marriage and divorce very seriously.
But if we’re going to obey God’s word on this, we’ve got some work to do. If we are going to promote a high view of marriage and prevent divorce, we need to do the following.
Be careful when choosing a mate. It’s a lifetime decision, so don’t make it hastily. Those who know each other well for a longer period of time before marriage have a much better chance of staying married. Why? Because there are fewer surprises. Take your time. Get to know that person well before you marry.
Prepare for marriage. You can’t get a driver’s license without taking a test to demonstrate reasonable proficiencies behind the wheel. But you can get a marriage license without any training or evidence that you know what you’re doing. Most couples spend more time getting ready for the wedding, which lasts a few minutes, than they do for the marriage which should last a lifetime. We require pre-marital training of every couple we marry, and it’s excellent stuff. We’ll train you on communications and conflict resolution and money management and sex—all the good stuff. And we’ll hook you up with a seasoned couple who will train and mentor you. Prepare for marriage.
Be the “right one.” Everyone is concerned with finding the right one—Mr. Right or Miss Perfect. But the Bible emphasizes that it’s more important to be the right one. Behave like a Christian husband or wife. Husbands, love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. Wives, treat your husbands as you would the Lord if He lived in your home, with love and respect. Stop worrying about how your mate behaves—you can’t change him or her. And start concentrating on your behavior—you are the only one you can change. Be the right one.
Seek help at the first sign of trouble. Why is it that when our car acts up, we take it to a mechanic right away, and when our body gets sick, we see a doctor right away, but when our marriage gets rough, we don’t do anything except let it get worse? If your marriage is sputtering, get help. Read a book on marriage together and apply it. Take a marriage refresher course. See a counselor. Ask another couple to mentor you. Talk with a friend. There are lots of ways to get help, but don’t wait until there are two outs in the bottom of the ninth—get help early. Did you know that couples who get divorced don’t argue any more frequently than couples who stay happily married? Did you know that both groups argue about the same basic things: money, kids, sex, work, in-laws and time? And in both groups, couples report having about 10 irreconcilable differences? The difference between those who divorce and those who don’t isn’t whether they have differences, but how they handle them. Those who stay married learn how to resolve conflict, how to live harmoniously in spite of the differences. These are skills you can learn. Get help and learn!
Be committed to your marriage. Do everything you can to make your marriage work. Building a great marriage is lots of hard work. Many people give up way too soon. Don’t seek a divorce without first seeking help to make sure you’ve done everything you can.
I believe that one of the church’s prophetic roles in our culture is to hold high and model God’s standards for marriage. At the same time, we must also:
B. Extend compassion and grace to the divorced.
We’re all people and we’re all sinners. And we’re all equally in need of the grace of God. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. If you have ended your marriage for reasons other than those Scripture allows, admit it and repent and be forgiven. I would never tell a married person, “Oh, get a divorce. You can always repent later and be forgiven.” I think God would see right through that kind of hypocrisy. But if you’ve been divorced and have been carrying that guilt around, it’s time to come clean and be forgiven. You can be forgiven, and you don’t have to be a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. You’re a forgiven sinner, just like me, just like all of us.
You might be thinking, “Yeah, but is my new marriage adulterous? Am I living in adultery?” No. I don’t believe you are. I believe that the act of divorcing and remarrying for the wrong reasons is an act of adultery. But I don’t believe that the new marriage is adulterous. If it was, the only solution would be to divorce and return to your first spouse, which Scripture forbids, and which would be chaos. Be forgiven, and then start where you are, with a clean heart in your new marriage.
One man wrote that you’d be better off to murder your spouse than to divorce him, because the church will forgive and restore a murderer, but a divorcee will always be a second-class citizen. Sadly, the church’s legalism on this issue has made this crazy statement true. Jesus said that wrongful divorce and remarriage is an act of adultery. If a married person confided to me that he was contemplating adultery, I would do everything in my power to dissuade him, and help him not to do it. Wouldn’t you? On the other hand, if a married person came to me and confessed that they had committed adultery, I would ask if he was genuinely repentant, and if he was, extend God’s forgiveness. Then we would talk about how to move forward without repeating that mistake.
Bottom line: We should do our best to obey God, but people make mistakes, and when we repent, God forgives us. And we will forgive you too.