The increasing need to deal with divorce at a church level is both discouraging and encouraging. On the one hand it reflects the terrible decline in moral standards in society as a whole; on the other, it often indicates that people from that society are being converted. Whatever the reason, we need to think about the subject before a difficult case lands in our lap.
No one can provide a rule of thumb for all the permutations that arise when Christians find their marriages in difficulties; or when divorcees are converted and want to become church members; when they want to remarry; or when a divorced person is elected as a church officer.
Instead, I want to provide some simple and general guidelines, written from a pastoral point of view, to help church officers and others find their way through the mass (and morass) of details involved in such cases.
I will discuss two basic biblical principles, and the practical consequences that flow from them. If we work from these basic principles, rather than making snap decisions, we will have some hope of exercising consistent pastoral care.
Divorce is real
The first principle is that divorce ends the marriage relationship or covenant. This must be our basic position, contrary to those who maintain that there is no such thing as divorce in the eyes of God.
The Old Testament makes clear that God sanctioned the option of divorce for adultery; he tells us that he himself ‘gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries’ (Jeremiah 3:8; Isaiah 50:1). In support of this, two things must be made clear.
First, the rightly oft-quoted Matthew 19:6 does not say that man cannot separate what God has joined, but that man must not separate. This is quite different. Man must not murder, but men do.
Men and women must not divorce, but they do, and the marriage is ended. Thus the woman in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, who separated from her husband – against the apostle’s orders – is ‘unmarried’. Divorce is wrong but real, and we must not pretend otherwise.
Although some texts, such as Jeremiah 3:14 and 1 Corinthians 7:11, use the word ‘husband’ for the former partner (probably to stress the enormity of what has been done by the divorce and encourage return), Hosea 2:2 is most explicit: ‘Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife and I am not her husband’.
We must not confuse the modern situation, where the state administers divorce, with the biblical one. In New Testament times it was the husband who initiated and performed the divorce. The state played no part in it, nor did the ‘church’, except by way of teaching.
If a man said he was divorcing his wife, or simply did it, then the divorce had occurred. Thus, in the New Testament, words like separate, put away etc., all mean divorce, the end of the marriage.
It is, therefore, quite false for Christians to ‘separate’, in the modern sense, as if this were less abhorrent than divorce. Biblically, separation is divorce. Far from being an alternative to divorce, this kind of separation is clearly condemned by 1 Corinthians 7:5.
In the light of this we must treat divorce as real, however it happens and however sinful it may have been. We cannot talk about people still being ‘married in the eyes of God’, when God’s own Word pronounces them ‘unmarried’.
Divorce may be legitimate
Is divorce permissible, then? The answer must be, ‘Yes, in certain circumstances’. Those circumstances, according to Matthew 19:9, are where the partner is guilty of ‘sexual immorality’.
I use this expression because the Greek word used in the text cannot be limited to unfaithfulness during the betrothal period (or engagement). In places like 1 Corinthians 5:1, 10:8 and Jude 7, the word includes any sexual immorality that breaks the exclusive one-flesh union.
It therefore includes such things as incest, sexual child-abuse, homosexuality, lesbianism and bestiality, as well as adultery. In view of the context in Matthew 19, and the parallels in the Old Testament (e.g. Jeremiah 3:1-8), this must refer to an offence within marriage.
In short, Matthew 19:9 states that divorce is wrong ‘except for marital unfaithfulness’. But is this the only exception, the only legitimate ground for divorce?
What about desertion?
Some would add the so-called ‘Pauline privilege’, namely, the traditional Reformed teaching (as in the Westminster Confession) that 1 Corinthians 7:15 allows for divorce in the case of desertion.
The verse reads: ‘But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances’. Some would limit the application of this principle to a marriage where only one spouse is a believer, while others would also stipulate that the reason for desertion must be the believer’s faith.
To view these verses as a privilege for the believer is suspect, partly because it seems to contradict the clear, single exception of Matthew 19:9, but also because it seems to allow double standards.
Thus Jay Adams (whose book Marriage, divorce and remarriage I would recommend on almost every other aspect of the subject) has to resort to a complicated process of church discipline and excommunication, to ensure that the deserter can be regarded as an unbeliever!
The true explanation, I believe, is much simpler, and does not contradict Matthew 19. Paul is not here giving another ground for divorce. He has already made it clear in verses 12-14 that, in these circumstances, the believer should not initiate a separation.
Now, he gives pastoral counsel to a wife or husband who has been ‘separated from’, that is, in biblical terms, divorced. Whether the divorce was permissible or not, is irrelevant at this point; the divorce has simply happened.
What does the Christian do now? Are they bound for life? The answer of verse 15 is that they are ‘not bound’. No (unjustified) optimism that the departing partner might be converted (v.16) should prevent believers having the peace to which they have been called. The deserted one is surely entitled to legalise what in biblical terms is a fait accompli, by suing for divorce. Otherwise there is no peace.
This is not, however, another biblical ground for divorce – just wise counsel on what to do to achieve ‘peace’ when one has been wrongly divorced by the other party. In practice, the outcome may be the same – as is reflected in the Westminster Confession. But looking at it in this way preserves the clear biblical rule that there is only one legitimate ground for divorce – sexual immorality – and thus more clearly upholds the sanctity of marriage.
Liberty to remarry
Whether divorce implies liberty to remarry is, of course, the most controversial issue in the whole subject. Roman Catholics allow no divorce at all, although they have ways of getting around that, as Henry VIII discovered.
Others permit divorce but forbid remarriage in church. However, if being divorced results in being ‘unmarried’, then it seems logical that the ‘unmarried’ one should be free to marry. All divorced people can marry; innocent ones may. The ‘unmarried’ of 1 Corinthians 7.15 are not bound; they may marry again.
It is often asserted that the Bible never directly sanctions remarriage. This is not true. 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 (NKJV correctly) says: ‘Are you loosed (i.e. divorced) from a wife? Do not seek a wife’. But it then adds: ‘but even if you do marry, you have not sinned’.
Some try to limit the exception in Matthew 19:9 to divorce and not remarriage. This simply does not make sense (Prof. John Murray has dealt with the grammatical issues involved here). Remarriage is just as legitimate ‘as if the offending party were dead’ (as the Westminster Confession puts it).
The one verse which seems to argue the other way is Matthew 5:32, where the remarriage of the innocent party is said to be adultery. The context, in which lusting in the heart is described as adultery, suggests that our Lord does not intend this literally. Just as the inward adultery would not be grounds for divorce, so this stigma, which surely ‘attaches to the one who broke the marriage’ (Leon Morris on this verse), cannot invalidate the remarriage of the innocent party.
Sinful divorce can be forgiven
Contrary to what many people feel, divorce is not an unforgivable sin. Even the guilty party may be forgiven if they repent. The repentant divorcee is not to be regarded as a moral leper; still less is the innocent party. This has many implications (for membership, election to office, weddings in ‘church’, etc.) which we cannot discuss now.
Where there is divorce, there is always sin, pain and confusion. Like God himself, we must hate divorce (Malachi 2:16). Nevertheless, Scripture also affords grace to help and wisdom to guide those who experience the trauma of divorce.