Marriage is not only the principal building block in society but also has a pivotal role in human life, not least in the church. There is no greater bond on earth between two mortals than the marital vow and covenant.
It is so intimate that it surpasses our relationship with our beloved parents. That is how God himself speaks of marriage in Genesis 2:22-24. In Malachi 2:14-16, God is described as a solemn witness at every wedding ceremony.
But in real life, the vows may be broken by either party. Adultery constitutes a breach of trust and a violation of the marriage vow. It is in those special circumstances that the concept of divorce was introduced in Scripture.
God hates divorce
Unlike marriage, divorce is not instituted by God. It comes about as a result of man’s fallen nature and sin in the marital relationship. Divorce, therefore, is not God’s will for men in a decretive sense, but it is allowed in a permissive sense. An early mention is in Leviticus 21:7,13,14 (see also Numbers 30:9; Deuteronomy 22:19; 24:1-4).
The Bible does not ignore the fact of divorce but takes cognisance of it and makes sure that those involved are fully aware of its consequences (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). We too must seek to understand it in the light of Scripture.
The Christian stand is that divorce is never desirable and never inevitable. While permitted as a last resort, in the case of sexual sin on the part of one party, divorce is never required or mandatory.
We should seek to salvage every hurting marriage. Every legitimate effort must be made to help persons contemplating divorce to reconsider and, if possible, be reconciled.
The question is raised by the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3-9. Is divorce lawful, they ask? ‘What God has joined together’, replies Jesus, ‘let no man separate’. But his questioners persist. ‘Why did Moses then command to give a certificate of divorce?’
The question reveals a misunderstanding of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Liberal Jews saw this passage as carte blanche for those who wanted to divorce their wives for the slightest reasons, but Jesus puts the Mosaic concession in perspective.
Divorce was given because of the hardness of men’s hearts and, he adds, ‘from the beginning it was not so’. The bill of divorcement was a written contract designed to protect a rejected wife, not an authorisation for the husband to divorce her at his will.
Jesus goes on to elaborate and give an ‘exception clause’: divorce is sinful ‘except it be for fornication’. The Greek word here is porneia which includes all types of sexual sin (Mark 10:12 makes it clear that this applies to either husband or wife).
The exception clause means that if a divorce occurs on the grounds of porneia, the innocent party is permitted to remarry. But apart from this, remarriage constitutes adultery (see also Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:31-32; Romans 7:1-3).
An important Scripture is 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. Paul here gives permission to divorce (the words ‘depart from’ mean to separate by divorce). But he also warns against further complications arising from additional sins.
Paul addresses more than one case. To the first group, believers married to believers, Paul says that neither the wife nor husband should initiate divorce. Paul’s command here is in opposition to Jewish laws, which permitted a man to divorce his wife on very trivial grounds (like cooking a bad meal).
Paul reiterates the Lord’s injunctions concerning the permanency of marriage and lays down four directives.
Firstly, the wife should not ‘depart from’ or be separated from her husband. The papyri contain references where ‘depart’ is a technical term for divorce.
Secondly, if divorce does occur in spite of Paul’s directive, the wife is to ‘remain unmarried’. (No cause for the departure is given here; this is a general statement and carries no implication either way for remarriage following adultery or wilful desertion).
Thirdly, the wife should seek to be ‘reconciled to her husband’.
Fourthly, the husband should not initiate divorce by ‘putting away’ his wife.
Believers and unbelievers
Next, the Apostle turns his attention to a second case, that of a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever (7:12-16). Although there is no direct instruction from God, Paul speaks with authority (there is no such thing as uninspired teaching in the Scriptures).
The permanence of the marriage bond applies to such ‘mixed’ marriages. It is a universal rule laid down by God. Paul is not intimating that believers are allowed to marry unbelievers. The Bible is clear that Christians should only marry ‘in the Lord’ (7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14). The situation here has to do with a person who got married while he was still an unbeliever but later received salvation.
Should the marriage end because the spouse is still an unbeliever? Paul’s answer is ‘no’. If the unbelieving spouse is willing to remain married, there should be no divorce. Charles Hodge, the Princeton theologian, explained the text this way.
‘The assertion of the apostle is that the unbelieving husband or wife is sanctified in virtue of the marriage relation with a believer … to sanctify means 1. To cleanse; 2. To render morally pure; 3. To consecrate, to regard as sacred, and hence, to reverence or to hallow…
‘When, therefore, it is said that the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife, and the unbelieving wife by the believing husband, the meaning is not that they are rendered inwardly holy, nor that they are brought under a sanctifying influence, but that they were sanctified by their intimate union with a believer, just as the temple sanctified the gold connected with it; or the altar the gift laid upon it (Matthew, 23:17, 19).’
S. Lewis Johnson is correct to say that ‘The union is lawful and confers privilege on the members . . . privileges such as the protection of God and the opportunity of being in close contact with one in God’s family. This might ease the path to conversion for the unbelieving’.
There are two cases in 1 Corinthians 7 that deal with remarriage. Firstly, remarriage is lawful when a spouse dies (7:39-40). ‘The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord’.
Death constitutes a dissolution of the marital contract and vow. If one of the spouses dies, the other is at liberty to remarry. There is no command that one must remain as a widow or widower for life (Romans 7:3). Paul allows remarriage if it is better emotionally not to remain single throughout their lives (1 Corinthians 7:9 is also relevant).
The second ground for remarriage is when an unbelieving spouse deserts. ‘But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace’.
If the unbelieving spouse deserts the other, and all efforts of reconciliation fails, then divorce is permitted. The innocent party is not under bondage. In other words, the marriage is officially dissolved by a divorce and the innocent party is free to remarry. God allows divorce in such a case of desertion because he has called us to peace, not acrimony (see Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24).
Persons with a past
What about those who were divorced as unbelievers but have now become believers? Paul says, ‘If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
God forgives us our past sins and the church must do the same. Forgiveness must be accompanied by a full restoration to fellowship, as taught in 2 Corinthians 2:7-8. David committed adultery and murder; Abraham lied about Sarah; but they were accepted by God when they truly repented.
We must not minimise the sinfulness of divorce on unbiblical grounds, but a biblical response to penitent believers must be understood and practised by the church. Sin is heinous but grace is greater than the most heinous sin (Romans 5:20).
The church and Christian family are perplexed with difficult marital situations that defy easy answers. Sociological, psychological and worldly considerations cannot be allowed to take the place of the infallible rule of faith, which is the Bible.
Divorce and remarriage are complex issues and we need to handle them prayerfully and discreetly, studying the Scripture and applying it prudently in every practical situation.
Do not let the devil destroy your home, but prayerfully commit your whole family to the Lord. Divorce will never raise its ugly head where there is a healthy, fruitful, edifying and God-centred marital partnership.
The dictates of Scriptures, coupled with godly discretion and the prayerful application of the Word, will be helpful in every circumstance. We must ask the Lord to guide us in every situation of family and matrimonial life, letting godly patience, forgiveness and prudence rule our lives at all times.