The subject of divorce can be a controversial issue in the church. Bring it up in a Bible study and you can get into some heated debates. There are various views on this subject from “divorce is always wrong” to “it is no big deal” and everything in between. A person’s marital or divorced status can determine what positions they can hold and where they can serve in the church. It causes many Christians to feel like second-class citizens or stigmatized in the church. At the same time if the church does not uphold the sanctity and permanence of marriage in today’s society, who else will? This short article will not settle the issue of what the Bible teaches on this subject for everyone, but perhaps it will help give clarity to someone.
The Permanence of Marriage
Let us start with God’s ideal plan for marriage. Marriage was God’s idea, not man’s. God performed the first one in the Garden of Eden, giving us the model for all marriages. His plan for marriage was one man with one woman for a lifetime (Genesis 2:18-25). Jesus reaffirmed this teaching in Matthew 19:3-6. God created us for relationship with Him and others. God blessed marriage and it is the one unique relationship designed to meet our need for attachment and intimacy.
Adam and Eve were told to multiply, have children and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). The family was to be the foundation of the society. The home would be a microcosm for relating and functioning in the world. Here, parents would teach their children how to love God and others (Deuteronomy 6:1-7). This training would make for a stable, honorable, peaceful, and pleasant society in which to live. Today we can trace so many of the ills and problems of our culture to the breakdown of marriage and the family. Broken homes have resulted in increased prison populations, crime, angry youth, poverty, and many more social problems. Even a secular government acknowledges these problems and realizes the need to help people keep their marriages together.
Marriage also has a spiritual significance that goes beyond our lives and its happiness. It is to picture the relationship between Christ and His church. God often uses temporal things, which we can understand to teach us spiritual truth. Marriage is designed to help believers understand the intimate relationship Christ wants to have with them (Ephesians 5:25-33). Marriage was also designed not just to bring forth children but also to raise up a spiritual seed – generations that would love God with all their hearts (Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 59:21). Divorce strikes at the heart of all God intends for marriage to be and accomplish in His grand economy. It seeks to destroy His plan; this is why God hates it just as He hates any sin (Malachi 2:16). However, we need to remember that God does not hate divorced people. Jesus hated sin, but loved the sinner. The church should model this spirit.
Even though the permanence of marriage was God’s ideal, we live in a world under the curse of sin. Sin has entered the human race and ruined what was once ideal. The reality is people get divorced, even Christian people. The divorced rate for first marriages in America is between 45-50 percent, second marriages – 60-67 percent, and third marriages – 70-73 percent (source: Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri). The divorce rate for couples with children is 40 percent (source: the Discovery Channel). This is not a new issue – it was around in Jesus’ time. How did He deal with it?
Jesus on Divorce
In Matthew 19:1-12, some Pharisees came to question Jesus on this subject of divorce. They were not sincere in their inquiry but came with ulterior motives. However, the response of Jesus to their question is quite helpful to us. These events and similar teaching are recorded in Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:18. In the time of Jesus there were two schools of thought concerning divorce based on the teachings of two rabbis. Hillel held the more liberal view that basically a man could divorce his wife for anything he disliked about her. Shammai held the more conservative view that a man could only divorce his wife for some “indecency,” meaning immorality.
So, they asked Jesus where He stood on this issue. If it was unlawful to get a divorce why then did Moses give the people instructions for issuing a certificate of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4? Jesus reaffirmed God’s ideal of permanency for marriage (v.4-6). Then He went on to explain why Moses gave them the instructions; it was because of the hardness of their hearts (v. 8). The real problem was their sin, their unwillingness to do things God’s way. The decree was designed to protect the innocent. When we do not do things God’s way we hurt ourselves but also others. Provision has to be made for this. If everyone did things God’s way we might not need laws, police, or prisons, but not everyone does things His way. This is the reality of sin.
Jesus then went on to hold to the more conservative view of Shammai. Divorce would only be permitted when the mate had committed some act of sexual immorality. This is not a command that you must get divorced. There have been many marriages were one or both mates have been unfaithful to each other and, through forgiveness and counseling, restored their marriage to health. It is not easy but it can be done. God is here acknowledging the reality that a marriage cannot succeed if a mate continues in an immoral lifestyle. The bigger issue for most people is not as much the idea of divorce, as it is the idea of remarriage. Scripture makes it clear that marrying someone who is lawfully married in the eyes of God is guilty of adultery. However, if a person has biblical grounds for divorce, they are no longer married and have a biblical right to remarry.
The question that often comes up is if there are other biblical grounds for divorce beside immorality? What about physical or verbal abuse, addictions, desertion or a mate engaged in illegal activity? The major passages in the Bible that speak to the subject of divorce and remarriage besides the ones already mentioned are Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7. The passage in Romans is using marriage as an illustration that the law only has power over a person while they are alive. Death changes the relationship just has the death of a spouse ends a marriage. Paul is teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 that salvation does not change the reality of our position socially or economically in society. In particular, if you were married to an unbeliever and then got saved, you would stay married to them. You would not divorce them just because you got saved and they did not. However, if the unbeliever does not want to stay married to you and they depart, Paul says the believer is not under bondage in such cases (v.15).
The next step is to understand the meaning of the phrase “not under bondage?” Some feel this means you are free to divorce and remarry. They would also include under the desertion clause the idea of abuse, addictions, or criminal activity. Notice that Paul makes a distinction between the believer leaving h/her mate and the unbeliever being the one to leave (v.10-11). If the believer leaves, s/he is to remain unmarried or reconcile. Certainly no person should stay in a situation where s/he or children are in danger of being harmed. This is a separate issue from remarriage. Often people can find themselves in a situation where they feel they have biblical grounds for divorce, but they are waiting for h/her mate to come to h/her senses. They will ask the question, “How long do I wait?” I have not been able to find a biblical answer for that. I tell people they will have to get before the Lord and have Him show them.
Life is Messy
Divorce is painful for all involved. When children are in the picture the reality is the divorced couple will always be dealing with each other. Divorce does not fix a problem; it just creates another set of problems. This is why you want to do all you can to try to fix the real problems in the marriage. Don’t just run away and recycle problems. For you who are divorced, God’s plan is not for you to live forever in guilt even if you feel you never had biblical grounds for the divorce or had the right to remarry. You do what everyone does with their sin; go to the cross, confess it and accept His forgiveness. There may be ongoing challenges in your life but you can still be committed to the permanence of marriage – the one you are currently in.