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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Questions and Answers about Divorce

Two of my supporters on Patreon asked if I would post some of my writing about divorce in the Bible, so here are some excerpts from correspondence over the years...

To a parent whose daughter filed for divorce from an unbelieving husband who had moved out of the home, and now she wanted to marry someone else:

I don't understand why you say that your daughter didn't do right according to the scriptural teaching on divorce. First Corinthians 7:15 says, "If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace."

The initial command in that verse is to "let him leave" if he does "not consent to live with her" (v. 13). Marriage is viewed as a live-in relationship, so if the unbeliever leaves and does not want to be a part of that relationship, then divorce is only a matter of paperwork. In a sense the marriage has been dissolved when the leaving takes place, and in Paul's day that alone would have constituted a legal divorce.

So sometimes in our day it may be necessary for a believing wife to file for divorce, when there is no hope of reconciliation. This is because the unbeliever may not want to live with her, but may also not be willing to file for divorce because he does not want to pay alimony. In such cases the believing spouse has not sinned by asking for a legal divorce to correspond with the permanent marital separation that has already taken place. In fact, this accords with the last clause in 1 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul says "God has called us to peace." The Greek word for "peace" means a resolved situation, and being separated indefinitely without divorce can hardly be called a resolved situation.  In that situation the believing partner is still bound legally to his or her spouse, but is unable to fulfill any of the scriptural commands for a husband or wife because they do not live together (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5).

First Corinthians 7:15 also speaks to the issue of remarriage when it says, "The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases." The "bondage" Paul mentions can only be referring to the marriage in general, and specifically to those marriage duties that the deserted partner is unable to fulfill. And if the unbeliever's leaving frees the believer from any obligation to that marriage, then it necessarily follows that he or she is free to remarry. If that was not true, the believer would still be in bondage to a significant degree. Also notice that the term "bondage" is used to refer specifically to the issue of remarriage in Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39.

So it seems to me, based on the information you gave us, that your daughter did fulfill the scriptural teaching on divorce by letting her unbelieving spouse leave, and therefore in such a case she is not under bondage. Therefore, like a woman whose husband dies, "she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39; cf. 7:27-28). "Only in the Lord" would require, of course, that she is in the Lord, which means that she needs to be repentant of the sin she committed in marrying an unbeliever and examine herself carefully to make sure she is in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

You are right when you say that divorce is treated as if it were an "unpardonable sin." Unfortunately our Christian culture and sometimes our theology cause that kind of prejudice and spiritual pride. We just need to make sure individually that we stand for the truth of Scripture, but also cultivate compassion for those who have sinned in ways that we have not.

To a person who was thinking about divorcing without biblical grounds:

I hope you will realize that what I'm going to share with you is presented in a spirit of genuine love and concern for you. If you don't like what I say, please remember that "open rebuke is better than love that is concealed--faithful are the wounds of a friend" (Proverbs 27:5-6). I hope and pray that you will read this letter carefully and prayerfully and look up all the Scriptures I mention.

Getting a divorce in your situation would be disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture and a terrible sin against God, who hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Jesus said, "Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh'?  Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate...And I say to you, whoever divorces his or her spouse, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery" (Matthew 19:4-9). And the apostle Paul wrote, "To the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband" (1 Corinthians 7:10).

For a more extensive discussion of the Bible's teaching on divorce, I would recommend Jay Adams' book Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. I would also recommend that you read John MacArthur's book The Gospel According to Jesus, because it discusses the question of what it really means to be a Christian and how anyone who does not desire to obey God's Word has reason to doubt that their faith is genuine.

To a Christian woman who was recently divorced because of fault on both sides and now wants to date someone else:

Your situation is a difficult "egg to unscramble" because you and your ex-husband have apparently disregarded the teaching of the Word of God throughout much of the last several years. Your wrong responses to conflict and trials, your seeking help from secular counselors that cannot provide truth, your failure to obey Matthew 18:15-17 when one of you was sinning by seeking divorce or committing adultery--all this has made the situation a difficult one to assess. One thing is for sure, though, in light of those sins: Wholesale repentance on your part is where any reparation must start. You must realize and admit that you have sinned in the above areas (and others if that's the case), and commit yourself from now on to respond correctly to conflict and trial, seek godly biblical counsel, etc. Only with that commitment set clearly in your mind and heart can God lead you into His will for your present and future life.

Our advice to you at this point would be to follow Matthew 18:15-17 in seeking repentance from your ex-husband and reconciliation with him (I'm assuming that he still claims to be a Christian). He has committed sin against God by divorcing you and seeking other relationships, so he needs to be dealt with by Jesus' plan for dealing with sin (which is in the above passage). If repentance doesn't take place and reconciliation is impossible with him, then at some point in the future you may be able to think about remarriage, because unrepentant adultery has taken place. But too much unrepentant and unresolved sin has taken place on both sides in this situation for you to simply forget everything that has happened and find someone else. You need to deal with the things you have done and your ex-husband has done in a fully biblical manner. The ideal situation would be if both of you would repent fully before God, commit yourselves to living holy lives according to a biblical standard, and be reconciled. Only after you have tried to make that ideal work and it has proven impossible should you even think about having a relationship with someone else.

To a friend about a woman who has been convinced by her new church leaders that since her previous divorce was not on biblical grounds, based on Mark 10:12 she is "still married in God's eyes" to her first husband and is committing adultery by living with her second husband.  Therefore she is planning to divorce him (after twenty years of marriage) so they won't be "living in adultery" any longer: 

As with all Scriptures, Mark 10:12 needs to be understood in its context and genre, and especially in light of the parallel passages elsewhere in the gospels, like Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Mark abbreviates almost everything in his gospel, and those other passages contain the "exception clause" that Jesus added ("except for sexual immorality"), making it clear that he wasn't saying it's always wrong to divorce and/or remarry. In passages like Mark 10:12, Jesus' point it to apply the law to his self-righteous hearers' hearts, so that they will be convicted of their sin rather than justifying it. He is not covering every possible situation, but assuming that the divorces and remarriages he is talking about are sinful ones on the part of those who did them. He was not trying to make people like your friends feel guilty, but the hard-hearted Jews (Pharisees and scribes especially) who thought they were righteous.

Christ's use of the term "adultery" simply doesn't mean that they're "still married in God's eyes." He was using the term "adultery" like in his words right before he had used "murder," as a title for all the sins prohibited by the sixth and seventh of the Ten Commandments. His saying that a hating person has committed "murder" doesn't mean that the person they hated is dead, and his saying that a divorced person has committed "adultery" doesn't mean they are still married to the former spouse. That is an over-literal reading of the words of Christ, who constantly used figures of speech and overstatement as a way of making his point, and especially bringing conviction and condemnation to hard-hearted people.

Other passages make clear that God recognizes a legal divorce through the state as a real divorce, and that the couple is not married anymore, even if the divorce was sinful. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is an example...notice in that passage that even if the woman was divorced wrongly, she still legally (and in God's eyes) became the wife of the second husband, and the first is called her "former husband."  They were not still married in God's eyes. Also, 1 Corinthians 7:11 says that if a woman divorces sinfully, "she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband." Notice two things about that verse... 1) She is "unmarried" (really divorced) even though it was sinful choice, and 2) the reason for remaining unmarried is to be reconciled if possible. I say "if possible," because if it's not possible, because the former spouse is an unbeliever or won't have her, then Paul goes on to say that she can remarry (verse 28 is referring to the formerly married when it says, "if you do marry, you have not sinned"). Also, the whole point of 1 Corinthians 7:17-23, in its context, seems to be that once someone comes to Christ, they start over from where they are. Apparently the converts in Corinth had the same type thoughts your friend has, and so Paul makes a big point that they should "remain in the state in which you were called" and not abandon your current spouse (same in verses 12-14). Finally, 1 Timothy 5:14 almost certainly includes divorced women (the word for "widows" means "those left alone"), and Paul says they should get remarried.

Two wrongs don't make a right! Or as the founder of my university said more convolutedly, "It's never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right."

As always, heart motives are a huge issue in this. If she wants to keep her vows to her current husband (which she must...Eccl. 5:4-6!), then she needs to be delivered from the bad teaching she's receiving and have her conscience realigned with the word so it can be clear in loving and serving him. If, however, she in her heart actually wants a way out of the marriage, then that is the real issue that needs to be addressed, and no instruction in the Word will make a difference until she repents.


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