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Thursday, May 21, 2020

What God has joined together... (A Biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage)

In March of this year I had the gracious privilege of speaking to about 40 pastors and their wives at two conferences in Kampala, Uganda. During part of each conference, I presented what I believe is a biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage that takes into account all the relevant passages of Scripture and brings them together in a consistent system. As a summary and teaching tool, I used some carefully worded propositions with supporting references, which those Christian leaders (and others through the years) have found to be helpful.

I realized recently that the propositions weren't available anywhere online, so I'm remedying that with this post. Much of my learning about this issue can be found in this statement by the elders at John MacArthur's Grace Community Church, where I served on staff and wrote the original draft of the statement. But I've always found that these propositions are a simple and helpful format for teaching and discussion, so I'll reproduce below the one-page version of them that I've often printed out for those purposes.

At the center of my "system" for understanding and reconciling all the relevant passages (and also at the center of the propositions page, interestingly) is Jeremiah 3:6-10, which is often overlooked but absolutely critical to these issues. I think my best contribution to the thorny questions about divorce is how I point out that since Jesus used only one word for his "exception" in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, his Jewish audience must have known what he was talking about, and undoubtedly they would have been familiar with Jeremiah 3:6-10, a striking and memorable passage where God divorces Israel. And the word porneia that Jesus uses in Matthew is found four times in four verses in the Greek Septuagint version of that passage. So when they heard that word, they would have understand that Jesus was talking about unrepentant sexual sin, because that was the grounds for God's divorce of Israel (twice it says "she did not return"). It then follows, like I say in the propositions, that the only time divorce is acceptable to God is when reconciliation to a monogamous, cohabitant relationship is not possible.

I've also recently added a proposition (IV) about criminal physical abuse, because the issue always comes up in discussions about grounds for divorce and is in the spotlight now more than ever (see this post about a well-known theologian who changed his view).

Limits on time and space keep me from elaborating about all this further as I do in my teaching, but you can listen to the recordings at the link in the first paragraph below and also correspond with me in the comments or any other way. I welcome any and all dialogue about this important issue. But here are my propositions:


by Dave Swavely

The following propositions, summarizing my views on the biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage, are the result of many years of considering the exegetical, theological, and practical issues facing the church today. An explanation of the biblical basis for each of these propositions is available in a series of audio files that can be streamed at…

I.   Because of the sacredness of marriage and the seriousness of covenant vows (Gen. 2:24; Eccl. 5:4-6; Mal. 2:14-16; Mark 10:2-12), all biblical means should be exhausted to keep any marriage together (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 7:12; 1 Pet. 3:1‑7). Divorce is only allowed by God in rare and extreme circumstances (Matt. 19:8-10; 1 Cor. 7:10-15), and long-term separation as often practiced today is neither biblical nor wise (Matt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 7:1-5, 15).

II.   When even serious sins like abuse, sexual immorality, or separation occur in a marriage, but repentance occurs and reconciliation to a monogamous, cohabitant relationship is possible, then the faithful partner should forgive and reconcile (Luke 17:3‑4; Matt. 5:23‑24; Eph. 4:32). Reconciliation after divorce is not possible when one partner is remarried or is an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:14ff; 1 Cor. 7:39), but it is a necessary fruit of repentance when two believers have been divorced and are able to remarry one another (Mal. 2:13‑16; Matt. 5:32, 1 Cor. 7:11).

III.   When one partner resists all means of reconciliation and refuses to maintain a monogamous, cohabitant relationship (through unrepentant sexual sin or desertion), then the faithful spouse cannot fulfill his or her covenant obligations and is released from the moral responsibility to do so (Jer. 3:6‑10; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:15). When that marriage bond is severed through divorce (Deut. 24:1-4, 1 Cor. 7:11), the faithful spouse is then free to marry another Christian (1 Cor. 7:8‑9, 27‑28).

IV.   Criminal physical abuse often falls into the category of “desertion” (1 Cor. 7:15) because unrepentant abusers prove that they do not want to live with their spouses. Such abuse should be reported to the police as well as the church (Rom. 13:1-5, Matt. 18:15-17) and an initial separation should occur for the safety of the victim (Prov. 22:3, 27:12). If abusive partners do not repent and change significantly, they should be treated as unbelievers who don't really want to live with their partners, because legal and/or safety considerations would keep the abused partners from returning to the home.

V.   Believers who have been divorced prior to their identification with Christ and the church, and cannot be reconciled because their former spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, are free to remain single or marry another believer (1 Cor. 7:20, 24, 27; 2 Cor. 5:16‑17).

VI.   In cases where an unbiblical divorce has taken place in a single person's past, the leaders of the church should help that person to repent and "unscramble the egg" according to biblical principles (Heb. 13:17; Matt. 18:18). If true repentance has taken place and reconciliation is not possible with the former spouse, then the forgiven believer could pursue another relationship under the oversight of his or her spiritual authorities (1 Cor. 7:27-28, 36-39; 1 Tim. 5:11-14). 

VII.   In cases where believers have been divorced and remarried unbiblically, the answer is confession and repentance (Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:8-9) and then continuing in their current marriage according to biblical principles (Eph. 5:21-33), because they are now bound to the obligations of the covenant made with the new spouse (Deut. 24:1-4; 1 Cor. 7:17-24). 

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