Cornerstone Archives, Issue #55]
by Jon Trott
Despite reflection and prayer, an oppressive feeling had slowly settled over me. “I wonder‑what’s wrong?.” I asked a fellow Cornerstone writer. Under questioning, the realization of the oppression I’d been feeling became evident. A series of divorces among men and women I’d felt a kinship with, namely contemporary Christian musicians, had caused the unseen burdens. I felt both saddened and somehow betrayed.
A further examination of the divorce question opened new vistas which I hadn’t wanted to see. The disease of disposable marriage ran also throughout the “straight” gospel music industry, through church denominations, throughout those I’d known as “men of God.”
I was convicted of my lack of understanding or compassion concerning this Christian tragedy. There were so many conflicting opinions! Was divorce sometimes necessary? What about remarriage? Other questions followed. The answers weren’t as simple as I’d thought.
SCRIPTURE AND MARRIAGE
“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while be was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
“The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:21‑24 NIV)
To begin with, what is God’s view of marriage? A discussion on divorce does well to start here. George Peters, a scholar widely recognized for his biblical views on marriage and divorce, comments that there are at least four factors involved in the divine ideal for marital union.
First, the emphasis is on monogamous marriage (one man, one woman). The words “man” and “wife” are both singular in Genesis, the “two” becoming “one flesh.” Next, the permanency of marriage is exhibited in Mark 10:11 and 12, where Jesus states, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Thirdly, the intimacy of marriage both sexually and in fellow ship is emphasized by “they … shall be one flesh.” Finally, the mutuality of marri . age is, as George Peters notes, “for mutual supplementation and com plimentation, as stressed in the words ‘help meet’ (Gen. 2:18).” (Moody 146 Monthly, June 1978, p. 41)
We can be assured that divorce was never a part of God’s original plan. The marriage ideal was shattered by the fall of man. Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees (Matt. 19:1‑9) deals with the fact that God allowed divorce in the Mosaic law (Deut. 24:1‑4) only because of Israel’s “hardness of heart.”
Women in ancient times had the status of property which could be swapped or disposed of with case, an obvious example of this “hardness.” Mosaic law actually offered women more protection than any other society of that time, including special measures for divorced women (Numbers 30:9, Lev. 22:12, 13). However, this law was an admission of man’s unrighteousness not a mandate for divorce.
Jesus’ comments in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are echoed by Malachi in the Old Testament: “You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your bands. You ask ‘Why?’ It is because the Lord is acting as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
“Has not the Lord made them one’ *
In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seekingodly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel (Mal. 2:13‑16 NIV
So, in looking at Scripture, we see marriage as two human beings becoming united into a new and different creation. Divorce totally smashes this creative partnership. and cannot be biblically viewed as part of God’s highest hope for mankind. It is the sad exception, allowed under certain conditions.
BIBLICAL REASONS FOR DIVORCE
In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 we find the so‑called “exception clause.” Matt. 19:9 in entirety reads, ” I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (NIV) In both Matthew appearances the clause is identical; the RSV renders it “except for marital unchastity.” The word “unchastity” is translated from the Greek word porneia, covering nearly the entire sexual spectrum. This is in a broader sense than the idea of adultery only, which is signified by the word moickeia. For instance, an incestuous or homosexual husband or wife is an unchaste marriage partner.
Paul asks in I Cor. 6:16. “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ ” This fact strengthens the idea that Jesus did mean exactly what he said. The act of sex outside of marriage is an illicit bonding of one’s body to another, destroying the union consummated oil the married couple’s wedding night. The long‑ suff ering mate who finally asks for legal proceedings to begin is merely signing the coroner’s report on a marriage which is already dead.
If one partner is caught or confesses to adulterous liasons, must he or she be divorced ? Absolutely not! This is contrary to the Christian message of true repentance equals true forgiveness. Christ’s exception comes not in form of a command, but an allowance.
Paul’s words of reconciliation in Colossians 3:20 should apply: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” A reading of the first three chapters of Hosea will further exemplify how far a wronged partner can go in forgiveness and loving restoration of a marriage.
PAULINE TEACHINGS ON DIVORCE
The core of Paul’s teaching on divorce is found in I Corinthians 7:10‑16. Here he gives a straightforward reiteration of Jesus’ teachings, then expands upon a problem among first century churches concerning marriages containing one non‑believing partner. Verses 10 and 11 echo Jesus: “To the married I give this command (not I but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (NI V)
These verses, like those in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:2‑12 don’t contain the exception clause for unchastity. The reason is a simple one; as William Barclay notes, sexual misconduct was known in Jewish culture to be a stamp voiding marriage vows.
Verses 12 through 14 have to do with a believer/unbeliever marriage where the latter wishes to stay with his Christian partner. Paul commands the believer not to desert his or her spouse, both for the sake of any children and the possibility of the non‑Christian being converted.
The phrase “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord) . . .” (v. 12) does not mean that Paul was merely making a suggestion in the absence of clear ‑‑uidance from God. George Peters notes: “the problem in verses 12 to 15 has not been dealt with before. Here Paul bands down an authoritative apostolic verdict
Verse 15 deals with the abandonment of a believing husband or wife by an unbelieving marriage partner. George Peters again notes that this is “in relation not to legal divorce (putting away) but irresponsible desertion (going away) due to religious intolerance.” There is no contradiction therefore in what Jesus gave as grounds for divorce (unchastity) and Paul’s permission to recognize a divorce initiated by the non‑believing partner. The sin rests with he who separates from his spouse (condemned in I Tim. 5:8).
A further problem exists concerning the words “if an unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances . . .” Did Paul mean by “let him do so” that the door was open to divorce, or was Paul merely allowing for separation ? Didn’t the “not bound” refer only to the fact that the deserted believer could act freely in matters not pertaining to marriage?
- Edwin Bontrager appeals to the original Greek to clear up these queries. “A literal rendering from the Greek according to the Interlinear GreekEnglish New Testament for verse 15a is, ‘But if the unbelieving one separates him/herself, let him/herself be separated! And . . . it must be emphasized that the word for separation is choridzestho which is not a word only for separation from bed and board, but divorce.” (Divorce and the Faithful Church, Bontrager, 1978, p. 58)
This same Greek word is used by Jesus in Matthew 19:9 concerning marriage and divorce. Jesus is speaking of divorce, not mere separation, and Paul’s use of this same emphatic Greek word leaves no doubt that divorce, not separation, is his topic as well.
Concerning the words “not bound,” Bontrager observes that their Greek interpretation (ou dedoulotai) means “not to be made a slave of” or “not by constraint of law.” In this light, “The word for bondage was a legal term and it meant that persons were no longer held by constraint of law to a former contract.’ For the married person, it meant freedom from all that the married bond implied.” (Ibid., p. 59~)
CAN CHRISTIANS REMARRY AFTER DIVORCE?
The question over remarriage has sparked more arguments, legalism, and bitterness than any other aspect of the divorce issue.
Again we must return to Jesus and Paul to frame proper contexts for re’marriage. Most scholars are agreed that Matthew 19:3‑12 is the definitive teaching on divorce given by Jesus, since it incorporates His other statements into a cohesive whole. Verse 19:9 is again the focus of attention in a discussion concerning remarriage: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, another woman commits a ultery.” (NIV)
Remove the exception clause, and the verse would read, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adulterv.” According to such a verse, remarriage for any reason would be sin.
The only reason for including an exception clause is to clarify on what grounds both divorce and remarriage are legitimate. Additionally, it must be noted that, in Jesus’ time to ‘legally” divorce automatically meant one was free to remarry. The bill of divorcement specifically gave this freedom.
Once again we turn to Paul and I Cor. 7. In verses 27 and 28a we find: “Are you bound to a wife? Don’t seek to be released. Have you been released from a wife? Don’t seek a wife. But if you do marry, there is no sin in doing so.” (NBV) Dr. Jay Adams’ superlative book Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, notes concerning this passage:
- The word translated ‘released’ in both instances is the same word, luo.
- To be released from a wife in the second instance must mean what it does in the first or the intended contrast that is set up would be lost.
- It is plain that divorce is in view in both instances. Clearly, when Paul says that one must not seek to be released from a wife he doesn’t mean by death! The release in view can only mean one thing‑release by divorce. So too, the release in the second instance must refer to release from the bonds of marriage by divorce ( ‘released’ is the opposite of being ‘bound’ to a wife).
- Paul allows for the remarriage of those released from marriage bonds (i.e., divorced) even in a time of severe persecution when marriage, in general, is discouraged. (v. 28)
5, And, to boot, he affirms there is no sin in remarrying.” (p. 84)
In the light of both the Corinthian letter and the gospel accounts, “the question,” as Jay Adams says, “must be put more sharply. To call ‘sin’ what God expressly says is not sin (v. 28‑‑‑wittingly or unwittingly‑is a serious error that cannot be ignored or lightly passed over (cf. I Tim. 4:31). In effect, it amounts to placing the traditions of men (whose motives may be good, but whose judgement seems clouded) above the Word of the Lord by adding restrictions and burdens that God has not required us to bear. This can (and does) lead to nothing less than confusion, unrest and division in Christ’s church.” (Ibid, p. 85)
THE PRESENT DAY
Evangelical Christians presently are fighting a losing battle on two fronts; the arenas of law and of grace. Law thunders from the pulpit that once one has divorced, he cannot for any reason remarry. Some take this even farther saying that those who have remarried need to return to their first wives, and leave the adulterous liason they are now engaged in. Meanwhile the muddied banner of grace sways unsteadily in the hands of a generation of pseudoChristian ministers and celebrities, who proclaim not forgiveness but their rights as God’s heirs to do as they please. Scripture is wielded as a club or trodden underfoot, depending on which side has the upper hand at the moment.
First, where does the idea come from that proclaims a man who divorced his first wife and remarried should divorce the second and return to her? Such an idea is heretical, and comes from an improper understanding of marriage itself. Divorce no matter what the reason, is a real severance of the marriage vows. Further, by putting away the second wife an act of sinful divorce is committed again.
A less blatantly ridiculous but equally incorrect view is that which hunts for “innocent” and “guilty” parties in divorce. The “innocent” may remarry, but the “guilty” partner cannot. This idea is wrong for three reasons. First, one who truly repents, asks forgiveness, and attempts restitution and reconciliation (if his partner hasn’t already remarried), has discharged himself properly as a man of God. Second, his heart‑felt repentance if not accepted puts his sin in the category of “unforgivable,” different from other sins including murder, fornication, and greed. Finally, guilt and innocence are often very hard to apply to two sinful human beings, both of whom probably contributed to their marriage’s fall. (The church also has its guilt in the matter, as we shall see later.)
This isn’t to say that scars and problems will disappear the moment one repents from his or her part in destroying a marriage. It is always better to avoid sin in the first place: with sin comes confusion and complexity. Nonetheless, the penitent’s fellow Christians should aid him in biblically dealing with his problems, and not stand around wagging their tongues. Growth in the faith healing, and an adequate understanding of any future marriage’s demands should be prerequisites for remarriage and marriage both. (see Eph. 5:22‑33)
But now concerning the sullied flag of grace: what can be said of ministers, Christian TV personalities, and Christian recording artists who seem to be playing a Christian version of Hollywood wife‑swapping? This writer knows of one Christian “entertainer” who currently is married to his third wife; the first (unjustly accused of adultery) still vainly waits for her husband’s return.
Jerry Kirk must have surprised a number of friends with his book Homosexual Crisis in the Mainline Church. He begins not with an attack on homosexuality, but a scathing indictment against widespread immorality among leaders of his denomination. Pastor Kirk entitled the section “The Saga of the Reverend Lukewarm”:
“The church has not been taking Jesus seriously. Why not? Because we are gutless. We are influenced by the numbers game. ‘But everybody’s doing it.’
“Since when did number‑ determine morality? This is why we face the present crisis with homosexuality: Both the people and their leaders in the church are committing adultery with impunity. Do we respond? No, we’re afraid we’ll make. some waves.
“For example, when one of our leading clergy in the West divorced his wife and married another woman in his church, the incident was never discussed at the presbytery level. The man was ‘kicked upstairs’ to an administrative job in the denomination without any evidence of confrontation or repentance . . .
“A dear friend from seminary, a pastor in another part of the country, is divorcing his wife to marry his secretary, leaving his five children behind. I met his brother who is also a pastor and another friend of past years, at the General Assembly in Baltimore, only to have him sheepishly introduce me to his new (second) wife. That same day I beard that one of our national administrative staff members couldn’t be at the Assembly because he was on an around‑theworld trip with his new wife. I wanted to weep! Or shout! Or something!” (p. 42)
GETTING IN BALANCE
Where is the balance here? Obviously, the legalist wants to make nonbiblical divorce and remarriage the unforgivable sin. On the other hand, the Christian hedonist wants cheap grace that won’t interfere with his self‑centered pleasures. The true Christian must stand for biblical truth and ethics while always being willing to aid another who has fallen, rejecting both the religionist’s and the humanist’s views of sin and grace. Scripture alone gives us clear guidelines to light our way.
Grace entails two facets when dealing with sinful men. First, it demands recognition of one’s sin and repentance from it. Webster’s defines repentance as “to turn from sin out of penitence for past wrongdoings, abandon sinful or unworthy purposes and values, and dedicate one’s self to the amendment of one’s life.” Three aspects are covered by the definition.
- a rejection and sorrow for past sins; 2. a conscious reorientation towards biblical values; 8. a life exemplifying one’s love of God and hatred for sin.
The second aspect of grace is forgiveness, which can by its nature only occur in the sinner’s life when he asks for it. Forgiveness, like repentance is vertical (between man and God) and horizontal (between individual men), in both cases requiring a total “cleansing of accounts.” (Isaiah 1:18).
It becomes readily apparent that repentance followed by forgiveness is touching near the heart of grace. A striking biblical example of grace can be found in the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. (Though many early manuscripts don’t include the story inJohn 8: 1‑11, scholars are in basic agreement as to its authenticity.) The case was extremely clearcut. The woman was an adulterer, and as the Pharisees knew, deserved death according to the law. Jesus’ response was a unique one. Rather than address ing her particular sin, he poses the im, mortal statement: “If any one of you is without sin let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one took up the challenge.
Can this story be applied to non‑biblical divorce? It must be! Re‑reading the Sermon on the mount (Matt. 5, 6, 7), a Christian will discover that he or she has broken most of the commandments Jesus set up, from adultery of the heart (5:27‑30) to materialism (6:19‑24). Is divorce alone on the list of sins in its gravity?
Further, the story of the adulteress has an additional lesson. One man who stood before her was sinless, and could have “cast the first stone.” Jesus, however, chose the way of forgiveness while lovingly demanding repentance; (“Go now and leave your life of sin.”) In short, His was the way of grace.
One other ingredient must be added to repentance and forgiveness in order to give them form and substance. That element is accountability. Men are eternally accountable to God, but are also accountable to one another (Matt. 1.8:15‑17). In the case of non‑biblical divorce within the church, Christians have sometimes behaved as though this were not the case. Confrontation and loving demands for repentance before the divorce occurs should be the norm, but due to the (non‑biblical!) model of “just me and Jesus,” many churches have failed in their calling. Anger at the already‑divorced Christian should often become rather conviction that such a thing was allowed to occur unchallenged among God’s elect.
Paul, in I Corinthians ‑ 5, demands that the Corinthians deal witha believer who is living in sin with his mother by expelling “the wicked man from among you.” Apparently this rejection by the church of Corinth occurred and bore good fruit, for Paul in his second letter (2:5‑11) explains that the sinner should be forgiven and comforted. This presupposes the man’s sorrowful repentance.
Dr. Jay Adams applies this biblical model of accountability specifically to divorce. He initially notes that a church must be instructed and convinced of the need for church discipline. This should be first done with the elders or board of the church, preferably by the pastor. and then with the congregation, ostensibly through a teaching or sermon. “Finally,” he adds, “begin exercising scriptural discipline in the very next incident that arises.”
The church should point out to the Christian couple considering divorce that it is not an option, and that they should rather focus on biblical reconciliation and restoration of their relationship. Scripture, not feeling, holds top priority for a Christian, and the Bible does not allow for divorce between believers!
The church who lovingly confronts such a problem but does not see repentance must then turn to Jesus’ discipline model (Matt. 18:15‑17). Jay Adams give‑, an example: “Let us say that a husband who is a professing Christian refuses to be reconciled to his wife. Perhaps he has even left her. Reconciliation has been attempted by the wife, If she continues to insist upon reconciliation (according to Matthew 18), but fails in her attempts at private confrontation, she must take one or two others from the church and confront her husband. Suppose she does and that be also refuses to hear them. In that case she is required to submit the problem officially to the church, which ultimately may be forced, by his adamant refusal to be reconciled, to excommunicate him for contumacy [willful contempt of authority.]” (The Christian Counselor’s Manual, Jay Adams, p. 61)
Following Paul’s example (I Cor. 5:11‑13), the husband would then be treated as an unbeliever.
Such an act changes the husband’s status to that of an unbeliever. Jay Adams further notes that, in case of his desertion, the wife could now sue for divorce since her husband is no longer to be approached as a Christian. Of course most Christians faithfully confronted in this manner by their church will repent; few truly desire the death of their marriage and/or to be disfellowshipped by their church.
Here we see the difference between biblical grace and “cheap” grace, the primary “parting of the ways” being true repentance and a return to Scriptural standards. Cheap grace is not grace at all, for it presupposes a God who “winks at sin” and denies the awesome price Jesus paid on the cross to redeem men from sin’s power.
By the time many Christians get around to addressing (usually in condemnatory terms) their fellow believers who have divorced and/or remarried for non‑scriptural reasons, it’s too late! The single divorcee’s marriage partner is, often remarried. Many churches deny the power of forgiveness even then by disallowing remarriage for the repentant sinner.
Accountability is the missing ingredient in both individual marriages and the church itself. When church leaders live out what they claim as truth, and when Christians are willing to go to men of God for help in marriage difficulty, perhaps the tragedy of Christian divorce will be solved. Until churches and those within them are willing to be honest and responsible toward one another, the climbing divorce rate among Christians will be yet one more example of the shallowness of our faith. 0
We recommend highly for further reading Jay Adam’s book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. A refreshingly biblical approach, it can be purchased for $3.50 from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 08865.