Monthly Archives: June 2017
Recently I received an email from a former church member who asked whether there are biblical grounds for a Christian to divorce their spouse. If Jesus tells us we are not to separate (Matthew 19:6) what God has joined in a life-long covenant (Genesis 2:24), then are there biblical reasons for getting a divorce?
I turned this into a public post for several reasons: First, to answer the question. Second, to help others who know professing Christians who may be considering divorce. Third, to serve as a warning about pursuing divorces that go against God and His word. Finally, I want to remind each reader that divorce is not defining. The gospel of Jesus is greater than divorce. God’s grace is greater than all our sin.
The following answer is not exhaustive, but it is a beginning attempt to answer a very challenging question. Here is what I wrote in response to the aforementioned question.
(If you read any part of this, please read the next to last paragraph too. Also, please understand that while I am very firm on some of what I write below, my thinking is still evolving as I try to learn from others who may hold different convictions than my own. Also, consider watching the video below.)
To begin with, this is a very difficult topic because so many have been divorced. Also it is very emotional for people and that makes it a hard topic to address. People may feel strongly that they are justified in divorcing because of any number of reasons that makes keeping their commitment to their spouse undesirable. Maybe they just are not happy. Maybe they believe they chose the wrong “soulmate.” Maybe all trust was lost because of money. In a no-fault divorce culture, the reasons are many and varied. Very often people will steer clear of talking about divorce to avoid confrontation or causing further hurt, but the Bible has something to say about it. Are we to ignore God’s word and say nothing?
First, let’s reestablish what marriage is and what God has to do with it. The idea from the beginning is that marriage was intended to be a life-long, covenant commitment between one man and one woman (Gen. 1:27; 2:24 and Matthew 19:1-6). That is God’s beautiful design for the lives of those who would make this covenant that produces a one-flesh union. Jesus said in Matthew 19:6, “What God has brought together, let no man separate.” So when someone pursues a divorce, you can be sure of one thing: There is hardness of heart (Mark 10:5), and that means sin is flourishing instead of God’s original and perfect design. Divorce is ALWAYS the result of sin, and what is sin? Sin is the rejection of God’s goodness and God’s way, which results in trusting the way of the world and our way, and this leads to disobedience. Obedience is what we do when we trust God’s goodness toward us and others. When a divorce happens it means that at least one person chose not to trust God and His goodness. At least one person, and maybe both, chose to rebel against God and His will for their marriage.
Second, a divorce that is unsanctioned by the Bible leads to adultery. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18) Why is this so? Because the person who declares and acts like they have ended the existing marriage, then goes to another person and engages in a second marriage when the first marriage has not ended. They are committing adultery against the first union, which no one should separate. God brought the first union together, and the person who did the divorcing is acting like God and pretending they can dissolve the union. They can’t. It still exists, and they are going on to another relationship and living like they are unmarried. Biblically, they are still married, and, therefore, they are committing adultery.
However, there are biblical reasons for divorce. There are exceptions. But before we explore the exceptions, keep in mind that even if there are legitimate reasons for divorce, the sin that flows from a hard heart that is set against God is still the root problem. Sin always confuses, distorts, destroys, hurts, scars, etc. Divorce is never a good thing. Having said that, the first biblical exception that allows for divorce, resulting in termination of the covenant that God created, is physical adultery (Matthew 5:31-32). So if a man or woman commits physical adultery, that infidelity would be grounds for divorce. However, my hope would be that the one who was sinned against would grant forgiveness if the offending partner repented. Sometimes people make terrible decisions, but that doesn’t always mean they are not a believer who desires to trust and obey Jesus. If they repent, that is a good sign that the Holy Spirit lives within them, and has convicted them of their sin. The consequences will not soon be forgotten, but there is hope for that marriage if repentance happens. If adultery becomes a pattern, I don’t see how a person could do anything but get a divorce since the faithful partner would be forced to live as though they were in a loving covenant. It takes two faithful people to be married and stay married.
The second exception that allows divorce is that of abandonment – particularly by an unbelieving spouse. The fact is that someone who is really a follower of Christ would not abandon their spouse permanently. And even if they did temporarily move out, we should expect them to show signs of listening to Godly counsel and moving toward repentance and restoration. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes that if a believing spouse has an unbelieving spouse, the believing spouse is not to divorce the unbeliever. However, if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believing spouse, Paul says to let them go (1 Cor. 7:15). The situation for this passages seems to be that either a husband or wife has become a new believer, and their spouse did not convert or get saved. The natural question would then be: “Should a new believer stay married to an unbeliever?” Paul says as long as the unbeliever consents to continue the covenant, stay with them, and work for peace in the relationship. The covenant should be honored, and the believer should not leave the unbeliever, but the opposite may indeed happen. I also want to suggest that any abandonment must be a physical abandonment. Many men, and sometimes women, are emotionally and spiritually absent. Still, it seems to me the context is one in which the unbeliever says I don’t want to stay together, and decides to move on literally (1 Cor. 7:12). These are the only two straightforward exceptions I see in scripture to Jesus’ command, “What God has brought together, let not man separate.”
There is at least one more option when it comes to biblical persmission for divorce. Some have suggested that abuse is a legitimate biblical grounds for divorce. In my opinion, this argument is not as straigtforward, and requires deductive reasoning, whereas the other two permissions are definitively stated as such. Those who advocate for divorce because of abuse do so by claiming that the abuser has abandoned his/her spouse. For instance, suppose a man is abusing his wife physically. Those who hold to this position might claim that the husband has abandoned his responsibility to the covenant as one who is to provide and protect (Genesis 2:15) and love his wife sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25). By abusing his wife, the man has broken the covenant he once made to fulfill the duties of marriage. I can appreciate why this argument is persuasive to many and deserves full consideration. I am still contemplating this as a biblical option and would be open to further explanation from those who are convinced of their position.
I want to be emphatically clear about something; I do not believe any woman or man should be foreced to endure abuse. If a woman is being abused, she should immediately find a safe place that she can stay. She should remove herself from the abusive situation so as to escape the harm from the abuser. As to whether or not the marriage can be saved and reconciliation can happen must be addressed on a case by case basis. I can’t begin to imagine how traumatizing abuse is, but just like the case of physical adultery, I would hope that all efforts would be made by the offended to pursue repentance and forgivness in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I would also hope for restoration, but only after it is absolutely certain that the threat of abuse is no more.
A couple of other thoughts might be helpful regarding this very difficult topic. When I have encountered this, it is always very messy and very confusing to those who are divorcing and to those who are trying to help the divorcing couple save their marriage. When the word divorce starts getting tossed around, it usually is the result of many years of hurt and pain that often leads to a really bad decision like adultery. I say this not to make an excuse for adultery, abandonment or divorce, but to point out that these twisted webs that have been woven, often take a lot of challenging work to untangle. Sometimes it will take many, many meetings and many years for relational health to flourish. There are often no quick fixes, and repentance often is a process of many decisions and many ups and downs, not just a one-time decision.
Perhaps an illustration will help us see this in a more vivid way. Imagine that every bad decision in a marriage is like a person digging a hole that they are standing in. As the years go on and more dirt gets shoveled out, the hole gets bigger and deeper. At some point both the man and the woman may see no way out, and so they desperately seek help. There is no pill for years of hurt. This relational hole won’t be repaired in a day or even weeks. The couple will have to fill the hole in over period of time shovel by shovel. There will have to be hundredds of acts of kindness that build trust to get the marriage back to ground level and out the hole. It will take hard work, but the marriage can be saved. I have seen it happen for people who really want to honor the marriage covenant of Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:6.
So what if someone has divorced their spouse but did not have a legitimate biblical reason, and after many years of living in sin, they realize that they were wrong? The good news is this: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are a new creation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1 and 1 Corinthians 5:17). Be careful though, no one should continue to sin that grace may abound or increase (Romans 6:1). But if you are just now realizing, “Oh No! I was wrong!” – that is good news. That means you are sensitive to the work of God’s Spirit through the Word of God. One of the most certain marks of a true believer in Christ is that of conviction of sin (John 16:8-11). What then can be done? Especially since there are those who likely can’t undo what they have undone with divorce? Begin with repentence. Trust in God’s forgiving grace and boldly confess to Him the wrong that has been done (1 John 1:9). Then seek forgiveness from those you hurt, as much as it depends on you. This may mean contacting by phone or letter a former spouse, children or anyone who was hurt in the process. If you can change course in the short term, then do that before too much time goes by. The good news of the gospel is that when Jesus saves us and transforms us, we have a righteous standing before the Holy God of the universe. We are righteous in Christ by faith alone in Christ alone. God’s grace through Jesus Christ is greater than all our sins. A divorce that is not biblically sanctioned may seem like a special sin that can’t be forgiven, but God can forgive, and despite the hurt there is something to rejoice about. The person that I am most concerned about is the person who claims to be a Christian, and runs headlong into sin thinking: “Well, I will just ask for forgiveness later. After all, God wants me to be happy.” Yes, God wants you to be happy. But the kind of happiness God has for you is not the kind of happiness the world promises. Eternal and lasting happiness is the kind that comes from pursuing holiness and obeying God’s commands. Any happiness that comes from opposing God’s clear and written word will not last.
Divorce is never good. It tears apart what God has done. It comes from a hard heart toward God and is not loving toward others. It produces a lot of damage and can even lead to spiritual death. But keep in mind that God can rescue and restore. By the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray the Lord uses Bible-trusting Christians for the good of others and His glory. There is lasting joy in trusting and obeying God’s word and loving others with it.
I hope this helps far more than it hurts. But sometimes things have to hurt before there can help and heal. If you made it this far, the following video is well worth the watch:
This past Sunday the Elders and I met and we ended our meeting discussing what we were encouraged about, as well as, what areas we would like to see more fruit. We hope to see more of us sharing the gospel where the Lord has placed us. We hope to see more families come and stay with us to labor in a small city, university context that is very transient. I would like to see us excel in prayer more and more since it is an expression of our faith in God. Do we trust God and depend on Him? How much do we trust Him? The biblical quality and frequency of our praying tells the story. We will never arrive on this side of heaven, but we always seek to press forward and grow in the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11). There is more work to do.
On the other hand, one of the themes of encouragement that came from our meeting was what God is doing in mobilizing and sending people to the ends of the earth to preach the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Several examples were mentioned and one the opportunities we are really excited about is the possibility of doing more with international students right here in Stillwater. That was on Sunday.
On Monday my family and I gathered with the Roger’s Core Group to hear Ryan Johnson talk about what God is doing through his family and team with Syrian Refugees. The Roger’s CG has developed a relationship with the Johnsons and they support them by prayer and financial giving. I was highly encouraged and challenged to see the depth of the work, but was also encouraged to see the biblical simplicity of it. I didn’t get to hear about all they were doing because I was watching my kiddos and we had to leave early, but one portion was particularly interesting to me when he described how they are discipling people to disciple others.
Once someone comes to Christ, this is their process:
- They read or listen to the Bible together.
- They ask what the text means and what it teaches them about Jesus.
- They then ask how those listening to identify how they should trust and obey Jesus based on what they have heard. What would Jesus have them do to trust and obey Him?
- Once they grasp the meaning of God’s word, they ask who they can share this with.
- Finally, to the best of my memory, they ask those in the group how they can serve in their community.
They begin with God’s word and challenge their listeners to hear and obey Jesus so they can help others do the same.
This isn’t all they do to serve and share Christ with people, but it struck me how simple this process is and how easy it is to replicate for multiplication. They are living and serving in a very different context than that of our local church, but since Jesus walked on earth, this is really how those who follow Jesus have been doing gospel ministry. This is exactly what Eagle Heights is trying to do as well: Glorifying God together by trusting Jesus and obeying all He commands – and teaching others to do the same.
You all know that we are not a perfect local church, but we have much to be thankful to God for as He continues to work among us to make disciples of all the nations, beginning here in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I hope and pray that we will excel still more and more.