The Gospel And Divorce
The Gospel And Divorce249
The Gospel And Divorce
Main Idea: God created and defined the covenant of marriage, and therefore He alone sets the grounds for divorce, which He hates; nevertheless, God continues to hold out hope in the gospel for all who have disobeyed Him in this area.
- God Created Marriage.
- Marriage is defined by God; only God can make marriage and only God can break marriage.
- Marriage is a covenant under God, a demonstration to the world of Christ's covenant with His people.
- God Hates Divorce.
- Divorce is always a result of sin.
- Divorce is almost always sinful.
- God Regulates Divorce.
- One ground for divorce in Matthew 19: adultery
- One ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7: abandonment
- Remarriage is biblically permissible only for the offended spouse after a biblical divorce.
- God Redeems Divorce.
- He is always forgiving and He is always faithful.
- He will never commit adultery against you and He will never abandon you.
- Practical Application
- If you are single, maximize your singleness to advance the gospel.
- If you are married, love your spouse in a way that portrays the gospel.
- If you are considering divorce, remember the preciousness and power of the gospel.
- If you are divorced for a biblical reason and single, rest in the gospel in your singleness or possibly in a future marriage.
- If you are divorced for an unbiblical reason and single, repent and rely on the gospel to glorify God in your singleness.250
- If you are divorced for an unbiblical reason and remarried, repent and reflect the gospel in your current marriage.
It's probably not a stretch to say that every member of your church has been affected in some way by divorce. Whether it's someone in the family, a friend, or another church member, this issue likely hits close to home. Few things are more painful than divorce, and its impact on our culture cannot be overestimated. This is the very issue Jesus is asked about at the beginning of chapter 19. His reply certainly doesn't fit with our current cultural expectations, and many people today consider it outdated. However, God's design for marriage hasn't changed, and His Word is still the authority in this matter. For the good of our marriages and the glory of His name, we desperately need to hear the voice of the One who created marriage in the first place.
This first section of Matthew 19 centers on Jesus' dialogue with the Pharisees about divorce (vv. 3-9). He has just come to Judea from Galilee, and His ministry of healing continues. The dialogue began as the Pharisees posed the following question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?"
As we think about the Pharisees' question and Jesus' reply in this passage, we can't help but think of the issue of divorce in our own context. We must consider this issue with care in the church, and at the same time we must have confidence in God's design as we engage our culture. Few times in history has it been so easy to break one's commitment to marriage. All you need is a statement of irreconcilable differences. In fact, you can even get divorced online—cheaply, quickly, and without leaving your computer. Far too often, we practically ignore this issue in the church. We insulate ourselves and isolate one another as we struggle to know how to walk alongside brothers and sisters who are considering divorce or have been divorced. The result is that Christians oftentimes go running to court to address marital conflict when we should be running to the church.
If a Christian is contemplating divorce today, the first person he or she often contacts is sadly a divorce lawyer. Now to be clear, I'm not advocating disobedience to civil law, but based on Scripture, God has a different way of dealing with these issues among His people. Paul says to the Corinthians, "If any of you has a legal dispute against another, do you dare go to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?" (1 Cor 6:1). In Matthew 18, Jesus laid out how251 disputes between Christian husbands and wives are intended to be addressed, namely, through church discipline and restoration (Matt 18:15-20). As believers, we share life with each other, and among married couples, this inevitably involves sharing marital struggles with one another. Authentic biblical community is intended to provide a nurturing environment for all sorts of conflict in our lives, including marital conflict. In my own church, this happens primarily in small groups, where members walk together honestly and lovingly through conflict and struggle.
Far too often, we as the church have sat back, abdicated our biblical responsibilities, and watched the state take over the institution of marriage in such a way that the church is hardly involved at all. While I have great respect for men and women who work in the legal profession, we should not let lawyers or judges determine the fate of our families. Taking a Christian brother or sister to court for divorce discredits the testimony of the church and it disgraces the name of Christ (1 Cor 6:1-8). What are we saying to an increasingly secular court system when half of the divorce cases they are dealing with involve two supposed Christians? In the same way, lawyers who are professing Christians should not be building their careers on making divorce cheap and easy. Such individuals should repent and seek the forgiveness of God for scorning His design for the glory of Christ in marriage.
So how should all of this affect the way we approach divorce in the church? The church, I believe, has a two-fold responsibility in addressing divorce. First, God calls us to comfort one another with love. We come alongside divorced persons, including children of divorce, in order to help them find joy, forgiveness, and strength in Christ. Instead of isolating them or ignoring their situation, we weep with them, serve them, and point them to the ever-constant presence of God and the ever-faithful Word of God.
The second responsibility of the church is to confront one another with truth. We want to comfort others, but we don't want to comfort with falsehood; that would be no comfort at all. We want to avoid saying what "feels" best in divorce situations, or possibly even twisting what Scripture says to make it fit what a struggling husband or wife wants to hear. That is unloving and deceptive, and though it may seem to have benefits in the short-term, it has disastrous consequences. In the long-term, we trust that communicating scriptural truths will produce countless blessings for future generations.252
God Created Marriage
Based on Matthew 19, four truths emerge related to divorce from the mouth of Jesus. First, in an appeal to God's original design, Jesus points out that God created marriage. He quotes Genesis 2:24 to make the point that a man is to be "joined to his wife" and that the "two will become one flesh" (Matt 19:5). Jesus very clearly says that marriage is defined by God. God authored it and designed it; therefore He defines it.
We cannot redefine what only God has the prerogative to define. Marriage is the one-flesh union of a man and a woman in a wholehearted, mutual, and lifelong relationship. This is Jesus' point in verse 6: "Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate" (emphasis added). Only God can make marriage and only God can break marriage. One author has put it this way:
If marriage were of human origin, then human beings would have a right to set it aside. But since God instituted marriage, only He has the right to do so.... Marriage as an institution (which includes individual marriages, of course) is subject to the rules and regulations set down by God.... Individuals may marry, be divorced and be remarried only if, when and how He says they may without sinning.... The state has been given the task of keeping orderly records, etc., but it has no right (or competence) to determine the rules for marriage and for divorce; that prerogative is God's. (Adams, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible, 4)
It's not only the state that lacks the right and competence to define marriage; we all lack this authority. God's Word must be the starting point for any discussion of divorce. We must be willing to submit our lives and our churches to His authority.
Once we've established that marriage is defined by God, we also need to see that marriage is a covenant under God. This covenant between a man and a woman is a reflection of God's covenant-keeping nature, for marriage is a demonstration to the world of Christ's covenant with His people. In Ephesians 5:22-33 Paul says that God created marriage to be a depiction of Christ's love for His church. As long as Christ is faithful to His bride, husbands must be faithful to their brides; on the day that Christ discards His church, then a man can divorce his253 wife. But that won't happen, and marriage is designed to show that it won't happen.
God Hates Divorce
Given that marriage was created by God, and given the implications that flow from that, it makes sense that God hates divorce. Divorce is fundamentally at odds with His purpose in creation. This helps us understand Jesus' response to the Pharisees when they asked Him about Moses' teaching on divorce. In verse 7 the Pharisees pointed to allowances for divorce in the Old Testament, and Jesus tells them that these allowances were made to address the hardness of the hearts of God's people. These permissions of divorce were definitively not God's original design. Divorce is always a result of sin. Remember that marriage is the uniting of two dreadful sinners, so that in any marital conflict, no matter how complex, sin is always involved. Furthermore, divorce is almost always sinful. The cases where divorce is allowed in Scripture, which we'll see more about below, are few.
God Regulates Divorce
As we consider the possible scenarios in which Scripture allows for divorce, we need to keep in mind that God regulates divorce. Although divorce was not a part of God's original plan for marriage, passages like Deuteronomy 24, Matthew 19, and 1 Corinthians 7 all address this issue. God isn't giving us truths that are open to be added to or taken away from by pastors, counselors, lawyers, or anyone else in the twenty-first century. He is giving us non-negotiable commands to be obeyed. Pastors and scholars whom I respect deeply have disagreed over the meaning of these passages, but none of us has the right to alter God's regulations.
After Jesus quoted from Genesis 2:24 and spoke of the permanence of the marital union, the Pharisees gave a follow-up question based on the permission for divorce in the Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They were essentially trying to pin Jesus down, as there were different schools of thought in first-century Judaism about what might allow for divorce. One school of thought believed that a man could divorce his wife if she had committed any type of immodest behavior or sexual254 immorality (the school of Shammai). The other school of thought (Hillel, the more dominant point of view) interpreted Deuteronomy 24 much more broadly, saying that divorce was possible whenever a wife did anything displeasing to her husband. This latter interpretation of the law basically led to men divorcing their wives for just about any reason. This is the background for the question posed to Jesus (Blomberg, Matthew, 289-90).
Scripture arguably gives two biblical grounds for divorce, and one of them is given in Matthew 19:9. Jesus replied to the Pharisees, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." In that one sweeping statement, Jesus clearly narrowed the parameters in this discussion by allowing for one ground for divorce in Matthew 19: adultery. There's some debate about the word for sexual immorality here—porneia—which is a word used to refer to all kinds of sexual sin in the Bible. Yet in the context of this passage where Jesus has just referred to the one-flesh union of marriage, the picture seems to be one of a spouse who violates that one-flesh union. That is a serious violation, not only against a spouse, but also against God.
Adultery in the Old Testament was punishable by stoning. Deuteronomy 22:22 says, "If a man is discovered having sexual relations with another man's wife, both the man who had sex with the woman and the woman must die" (see also Lev 20:10). No wonder Proverbs 6:32 says that the one who commits adultery "lacks sense" and "destroys himself." Anyone even flirting with the idea of adultery ought to consider the warning in Proverbs 7 about the seductive adulteress. Here's a sample:
She seduces him with her persistent pleading;
she lures with her flattering talk.
He follows her impulsively like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer bounding toward a trap
until an arrow pierces its liver,
like a bird darting into a snare—
he doesn't know it will cost him his life.
Now, my sons, listen to me,
and pay attention to the words of my mouth.
Don't let your heart turn aside to her ways;
don't stray onto her paths.
For she has brought many down to death;255
her victims are countless.
Her house is the road to Sheol,
descending to the chambers of death. (Prov 7:21-27)
To further underscore the seriousness of adultery, consider the following warnings in the New Testament:
Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people... adulterers... will inherit God's kingdom. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
Marriage must be respected by all, and the marriage bed kept undefiled, because God will judge immoral people and adulterers. (Heb 13:4)
[The] sexually immoral... their share will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. (Rev 21:8)
In light of these and other verses, adultery is an extremely serious offense against God. But notice that Jesus did not say that divorce is certain or required in such situations. Instead, He says that divorce is possible in this situation. Initially, it may sound as if Jesus were lining up with the first school of thought among first-century Jews (those who allowed for divorce in cases of sexual immorality), but these Jews would have seen divorce as more certain in cases of sexual immorality. In Jesus' view we begin to see the radical implications of the gospel for divorce in Scripture. He is approaching the possibility of divorce in a redemptive manner, which was a totally different perspective from these Pharisees.
The Pharisees were searching for circumstances in which it would be possible to end a marriage relationship, but Jesus says that we are not looking for reasons to divorce. The goal is not to look for a loophole in the law; instead, we are longing for reconciliation to occur. Remember that this teaching in Matthew 19 comes right on the heels of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, where Jesus taught His disciples to forgive extravagantly (Matt 18:21-35). The implication is that we are to work and pray toward reconciliation and restoration, not because it's easy, but because Christ is in you. Divorce is possible, but because of the gospel, it's not inevitable.
In addition to this passage in Matthew 19, Scripture does seem to point to one ground for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7: abandonment. Paul is talking about marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, and he says the following in verses 12-14:256
If any brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not leave her. Also, if any woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not leave her husband. For the unbelieving husband is set apart for God by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is set apart for God by the husband.
Paul teaches that a believing spouse should not initiate divorce with an unbelieving spouse, but should stay married and work toward that unbelieving spouse's salvation. However, in the case that the unbelieving spouse wants to leave, he says that the Christian spouse is "not bound in such cases" (v. 15). In other words, if an unbelieving spouse chooses to abandon a believing spouse despite that believing spouse's love for them, then divorce is preferable in this situation. We don't initiate this kind of divorce, but we don't have to fight it if someone insists on leaving.
The fact that the Bible mentions adultery and abandonment as the only proper grounds for divorce has caused some people to conclude that the Bible's teaching is impractical or unrealistically narrow. But God is wise. He has not been caught unaware by the challenges of the twenty-first century, for even though there are all sorts of new challenges and struggles that marriages encounter, God doesn't leave us to fend for ourselves. He has given us the church, including its discipline and restoration, to be the means by which we walk through pain, hurt, neglect, and marital strife together. When a brother or sister continues in sin against his or her spouse, we address that in a serious manner with the gospel. This is yet another reason church membership, the sharing of life with one another, is so crucial as we follow Christ.
Outside of adultery and abandonment, divorce leads to adultery in remarriage. Remarriage is biblically permissible only for the offended spouse after a biblical divorce. Again, there are biblical scholars and Bible-believing pastors who would say that remarriage is not even permissible then; however, it seems that Scripture is at least implying that remarriage is permissible when divorce is permissible. Practically speaking, then, the non-adulterous spouse in the first exception (adultery) and the Christian spouse in the second exception (abandonment) can remarry according to these passages. Outside of these parameters, if a man or woman divorces his or her spouse, then he or she is not free to remarry (widows and widowers being the only exceptions). Such remarriage would be adulterous.257
God Redeems Divorce
So far we've looked at the following truths: God created marriage, God hates divorce, and God regulates divorce as a result of sin in our hearts. All of that may sound like very bad news if you've been a part of a divorce; however, that's not the whole story. God redeems divorce, and those who have been involved in a divorce still have reason to hope.
Undoubtedly this subject brings old and new wounds to the surface, as these are tough words in Scripture for some people to hear, but there's a reason divorce is addressed like this. The reason God is so serious in His Word about our marriage covenants with each other is because He is so serious about His marriage covenant with us. Christians who have been a part of a divorce are still part of the bride of Christ. Jesus is worthy of our praise because He is always forgiving and He is always faithful.
Even if the marriage covenant in your life was broken in the past, know that the ultimate marriage covenant is still firmly intact. God picks you up daily where you are, and He carries on His covenant of love with you. Unlike an earthly spouse, He will never commit adultery against you and He will never abandon you. No matter what happens in this world, Jesus never forsakes His bride—never! This is the gospel.
There's a risk in emphasizing God's grace like this, and it might lead some who are thinking of getting a divorce to think, "Even if this is not biblical, God will forgive me." This thought process completely misses the gospel and deliberately dishonors God. Nevertheless, this is a risk we must take for the sake of divorced brothers and sisters who are sincerely looking to the grace of Jesus Christ. He is an Eternal Savior who is gracious and merciful, and He is committed to sustaining and satisfying you forever.
There are a number of ways these truths play out practically. In verse 10 the disciples responded to Jesus' teaching on divorce by saying, "If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it's better not to marry!" Jesus told them that people were eunuchs—that is, single and pure—for different reasons, but that some were eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 12). That is, there are individuals who, for the sake258 of usefulness in the Lord's work, feel as if God has given them an ability to stay single and pure. Even for singles who desire to marry someday, there is still a secondary application: if you are single, maximize your singleness to advance the gospel. More of your time and attention can be given to the Lord.
In Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7, we see Jesus and Paul commending singleness for the spread of God's kingdom. It's not that marriage is bad, but it is not best for all people. Many people think that you have to be married in order to live a complete life, but that is simply not true. Jesus was the most complete man, the most fully human person who ever lived, yet He was not married. In fact, many of the heroes of the New Testament and church history were not married. God has used and continues to use single people for His purposes.
Whatever your situation, there are biblical applications that can be drawn from this passage. Consider where you fit it in among these possibilities.
If you are married, love your spouse in a way that portrays the gospel. Husbands, love your wives with sacrificial love and take responsibility for the glory of Christ in your marriage. Wives, respect your husbands and honor Christ through building your husband up as the spiritual leader of your home.
If you are considering divorce, remember the preciousness and power of the gospel. I encourage you to ask, first, if you have biblical grounds for divorce. If you do not, I want to urge you to consider how in the context of your marriage, and possibly with the help of the church, you can resolve the conflict, which is undeniably real and damaging. This is only possible through the preciousness and power of the gospel, but any other route is sinfully disobedient to God. On the other hand, if you do have biblical grounds for divorce, I want to likewise encourage you to consider the preciousness and power of the gospel with a view toward reconciliation in your marriage, possibly with the help of others in the church. The gospel can change even the hardest and darkest of hearts, so keep restoration and reconciliation at the forefront of your desires even if you begin the process of divorce.
If you are divorced for a biblical reason and single, rest in the gospel in your singleness or possibly in a future marriage. If you were divorced on biblical grounds, i.e., in cases of adultery or abandonment, then I encourage you to rest in the singleness God has given to you at this time. If He grants you continued singleness, I pray that by the power of the259 gospel He will enable you to rejoice in it. If He doesn't and He leads you to remarry, I pray that by the power of the gospel you will display the love of Christ for His church in your remarriage.
If you are divorced for an unbiblical reason and single, repent and rely on the gospel to glorify God in your singleness. Repent of your sin both to God and to your former spouse. Then let the gospel of Christ give you great hope for a life that thrives in the advancement of the gospel as a single while you await the next wedding where we will join Jesus together for all of eternity.
If you are divorced for an unbiblical reason and married, repent and reflect the gospel in your current marriage. If you divorced for unbiblical reasons, Scripture encourages you to repent genuinely before God and your former spouse. However, Scripture nowhere indicates that you should break another covenant marriage by divorcing again. Instead, Scripture encourages you to focus on magnifying Christ in the marriage you have now by the power of the gospel.
Based on Jesus' teaching in Matthew 19 and the whole of God's Word, let's pray that the grace and glory of Christ will be displayed in the church through the way we obey the Word and apply the gospel to marriage, divorce, and singleness in our day.
Reflect and Discuss
- List some ways that our culture's view of marriage is unbiblical (think TV, radio, advertising, etc.).
- Why is it crucial to begin our discussion on marriage with God's design in Genesis? Discuss the idea that divorce is fundamentally an offense against God.
- What wrong messages about Christ and His redemption are communicated to the world when Christians don't obey God's Word concerning marriage and divorce?
- How can churches show both tenderness and courage in confronting the issue of divorce?
- Why was the Pharisees' questioning misguided and wrongly motivated?
- If a friend asked, "When is it OK to get a divorce?" how would you answer?
- Why is it so crucial for Christians to take the approach that we ought to be looking for every opportunity to reconcile?260
- What are practical steps to strengthen an existing marriage?
- What does it mean practically for a single person to maximize his singleness?
- What counsel would you give to someone who had been divorced and who thought their usefulness in God's kingdom had ended? How would you counsel someone who had abandoned a spouse?
- How might a wrong view of marriage and divorce be a precursor to other issues in society such as homosexuality, abortion, etc.?