Archive for category Divorce
Divorce and Remarriage in the Christian Context—Part Two: New Testament Texts That Address Divorce and Remarriage
A few months ago, I began a series on the topic of divorce and remarriage in the Christian context. The title of the first article was Divorce, Remarriage, and My Own Existence. It primarily focused on my own experiences with divorce and remarriage while growing up. Further, I admitted the complexity, thankfulness, and grace I feel knowing that without two divorces and a remarriage, I (humanly speaking) would not exist.
Judging from my personal experiences alone, I think that I could say that divorce is very painful and wrong, but also it is not unrecoverable nor unredeemable. In other words, as ugly as divorce is, God is able to take ugly things and make something shiny and new. I have learned this by experience.
However, the point of the second part of this study is to turn to the Scriptures. Experience alone—apart from tested morality and purity—can be quite dangerous. It should never serve as a solo guide. Experience needs objective counsel too, and so we now turn to the word of God. Here are the primary New Testament passages that directly deal with the topics of divorce and remarriage:
- Mark 10:2-12
- Matthew 19:3-12
- Matthew 5:31-32; Luke 16:18
- 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
Yes. Only five. It may be helpful to add a word about the “law of proportion” in biblical studies. There are 7,947 verses in the Greek New Testament1 and only 31 verses directly2 address the topic of divorce and remarriage. That’s 0.4% of the New Testament. So, what does this mean? Does this mean that it was not an important topic to the writers of the New Testament or to the Holy Spirit? I definitely do not think this is the case for a number of reasons. First, if we added verses that speak directly about marriage, the percentage would increase. Second, the Gospel writers include Jesus’ teaching on the matter. John gives us a general principle that is helpful—there are many other things that Jesus may have done or said that were not included in the Gospels (cf. Jn. 20:30-31). In other words, the Gospel writers made sure to include Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage. Therefore, I do not think that the “law of proportion” here teaches us that such a small number of verses should be interpreted to mean that this is an insignificant topic. What else could it mean? Another option could be that there was so much unity and agreement about the topics of divorce and remarriage that extensive repetition throughout the New Testament was not necessary. In other words, Jesus’ teaching is clear; the apostles echoed it exactly; no need to belabor the point; let’s move on. I think this is right. Therefore, it is our burden then to discover this clear, unified message on divorce and remarriage, and then orient our beliefs and practices to match the teaching of the Lord Jesus, his apostles, and the church.
Pastor Jeff VanGoethem, who serves with me at Scofield Church, has written extensively on divorce and remarriage. He has many helpful articles that demonstrate his years of study, reflection, prayer, and experience with these topics. I would advise any of you with an interest in further study to take a look at his writings (You can find some of his writings at the Scofield website by clicking here). Richard B. Hays is the author of The Moral Vision of the New Testament, and he pragmatically applies a New Testament ethic,3 which he ascertained from a study of the Scripture, to the topics of divorce and remarriage. The purpose of developing and applying such an ethic is to try to interpret and practice in a consistent manner across the variety of topics that one finds in the New Testament and in life. I mention both Pastor Jeff’s writings and the book by Hays because I will be interacting with these materials as I write.
New Testament Texts That
Address Divorce & Remarriage
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12, ESV)
These verses are located in the central section on discipleship in Mark’s Gospel (8:31-10:45) where he repeatedly stresses the costliness of discipleship. There is no doubt that Mark has arranged the location of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage precisely in this section so that his readers will make the connection that marriage is important in Christian discipleship. Following Jesus means believing and behaving in marriage in a way that involves service, suffering, and cost.
There are three keys to understanding Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage in this passage. First, notice the verb that Jesus uses in verse 3 compared to the verb that the Pharisees use in verse 4. Jesus asks, “What did Moses command (ἐντέλλω) you?” The Pharisees respond, “Moses permitted (ἐπιτρέπω) a man…” The difference is clear, and the error of the Pharisees is exposed quickly—the Law does not command divorce. The Old Testament passage in question is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Here, the situation of divorce is presupposed; it is not commanded or idealized. Moses is presupposing that such a tragic situation has occurred in order that he may give a command about not remarrying the first spouse after a second marriage has occurred. The point here is not the granting of permission; it is more like a case study, “In the case when a divorce has already occurred…” The Pharisees are wrong here in their interpretation of Moses, and Jesus nails them. Moses did not command divorce, neither did he give some sort of fatalistic permission to the practice. Instead, God gave Moses and Israel laws to lessen and manage the brokenness after such a tragic event. Again, Jesus is not ignoring the reality that divorces happen in the human experience—the fact that there was even such a thing as a “certificate of divorce” is representative that divorce sometimes happened (v. 5). Rather, Jesus is dusting off and reestablishing the forgotten desire of God concerning marriage from the very beginning, which exposes the hard heart that is behind the desire to divorce.
Second, Jesus attributes this “permissible position” to their “hardness of heart” (v. 5). There is an unwillingness to go deeper in sacrificial love in order to maintain the marriage. Hays writes,
For the reader of Mark’s Gospel, the inference is clear that “hardness of heart” is associated with lack of faith in Jesus and resistance to the power of God (cf. 3:5; 8:17). Those who trust God as revealed through Jesus will not seek such an escape clause from their marriages. For with God all things are possible (cf. 10:27), and for those who believe, hardness of heart can be overcome.4
Lastly, as Hays puts it, Jesus “trumps Scripture with Scripture” by appealing to the creation narrative, which establishes instruction on marriage that precedes the Mosaic Law. The ultimate intention of God is clear in the creation narrative—what God has joined together, let no human being tear apart. This has been God’s intention from the beginning concerning marriage, and although we are sinful and make marriage hard, God’s intention has remained the same. We need the gospel in our marriages. It has recreating power in our lives and relationships. The gospel puts to death all that needs to die in us, and it raises to life all that needs to be reborn in us.
In verses 11-12, Jesus addresses remarriage. There are two ways that these verses are typically interpreted. First, Jesus is forbidding remarriage. Those who hold this view assume that Jesus is presupposing that divorces will happen (sort of like what Moses did in Deuteronomy 24:1-4), and he is seeking to minimize the damage and brokenness by forbidding remarriage. Second, others view these two verses as further emphasizing the teaching in verse 9. That is to say, he again is forbidding divorce, which was usually done in order to marry someone else. Divorce is further renounced by the absolute exclusion of remarriage.
So what is Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage according to Mark? Simple. Stay in your marriage—no matter the perceived lack of satisfaction, no matter the struggle, no matter the suffering, no matter the cost. Don’t crave permission and give into a hard heart; instead, obey the command by the power of the gospel that was established in the beginning by God. If we consider Hays’ New Testament ethic, perhaps we would say that Mark gives the Christian community a look at marriage through the lenses of both the cross—by including it in his way-of-the-cross discipleship section—and the new creation—by appealing to the authority of the creation narrative.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:3-12, ESV)
Two things are immediately clear in Matthew’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage: (1) Matthew was aware of Mark’s writing, and (2) Matthew has notable additions, not found in Mark. A word about the nature of the Gospels is necessary here. The Gospels are perhaps best described as theological retellings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth inspired by the Holy Spirit to provide local Christian communities or churches with evangelistic and discipleship manuals. Simply put: God connected the past, present, and future in the person of Jesus; here’s how to follow him and how to go and tell everyone. The Gospels are historical, but they are not just historical. They are theological, giving expression to both God’s activity in the world and desires for his people in the world. The writers are also attempting to disciple their intended audiences in the way of Jesus. So, just as you or I when writing a personal letter may express ourselves in a variety of ways to get our points across depending on the recipient of our letter, we see some of this in the Gospels, but not to the extent that we see contradiction or tampering.
With that preface, let’s look at Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:3-12. There are two main additions in the Matthew account that must be explained. First, the question of the Pharisees in Matthew 19:3 is asked a little differently than the question the Pharisees ask in Mark 10:2. Here it is: “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” The words in italics are not found in Mark’s Gospel. I believe Hays is correct when he explains why Matthew has done this,
The question alludes to the dispute between different rabbinic schools reported in the Mishnah:
The School of Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, “Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.” And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, “Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. R. Akiba says: Even if he found another fairer than she, for it is written, “And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes…”5
Matthew and his audience are acquainted with the Rabbinic squabble of the day concerning divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew is placed in the center of this debate. The question debated by the Rabbis is not whether divorce was permissible; they would say, of course it is. The question they were asking concerned appropriate grounds that would lead to a permissible divorce, so that—no doubt—the offended party could be free to remarry and enjoy life happily ever after. Jesus’ response in Matthew 19:4-6 is very similar to his response in Mark 10:6-9. In both instances, Jesus restores the teaching on marriage in the creation narrative. Matthew and Mark both agree that Jesus taught this as God’s ultimate intention for married people. Matthew and Mark also agree on the heart issue behind the one seeking a certificate of divorce; compare Matthew 19:7-8 with Mark 10:3-5. Both Gospels agree that the one seeking the certificate of divorce has become hardened. The foremost lexicon for the Greek New Testament describes the term for “hardness” in this way: “an unyielding frame of mind, hardness of heart, coldness, obstinacy, stubbornness.”6 The idea here is that this kind of heart has become impossibly hard. Hebrews 3:8 employs the verbal form of the word (σκληρύνω), where the writer quotes the Old Testament in his exhortation to the people not to harden their hearts as in the wilderness rebellion recorded in the book of Numbers. He goes on in Hebrews 3:12 to say, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” So, we get a further description of the “hard heart” that explains its ultimate destination apart from divine intervention and grace—evil, unbelief, deceived by sin, and falling away from God. Loved ones, this is the condition of the heart that seeks divorce. This kind of heart has not only grown impossibly cold toward a spouse, but it has turned impossibly cold toward the desire of God for marriage. Now, as said earlier, nothing is impossible with God. God can thaw and soften any heart with his grace.
The second addition provided in the Matthew account is found in verse 9, “Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” Mark has no mention of this “exception clause.” As you can imagine, much ink has been spilled in attempt to interpret and explain Matthew’s recording of Jesus’ instruction here. Hays offers three of the common attempts, and they all focus on the meaning of the term πορνεία (porneia), which has a varied lexical range of meaning perhaps best communicated by an umbrella phrase such as “sexual immorality.” Some interpret the use of this term in Matthew 19:9 to mean adultery. Even though the specific word for adultery (μοιχεία, moicheia) is not found, the meaning of “adultery” is certainly within the lexical range of πορνεία. However, if Jesus wanted to clearly and specifically identify adultery as the grounds for divorce, his choice of words seems odd. Other interpreters offer a slight variation to the first view. They suggest that,
Porneia refers not to adultery but to premarital unchastity, so that the exception would refer to the situation described in Deuteronomy 22:13-21, in which a husband finds his new bride not to be a virgin. Under such circumstances, Deuteronomy prescribes capital punishment, but actual practice may have been for a man simply to dismiss the woman, as in Matthew 1:19, where Joseph resolves to send the pregnant Mary away quietly. This interpretation, which would restrict the range of application of the exception clause, would perhaps explain why the term moicheia is not used.7
If I am understanding him fully, this is Pastor Jeff’s interpretation of the term as written in his article entitled, Is Adultery a Grounds for Divorce? An Examination of Matthew’s ‘Exception Clause’. Pastor Jeff writes,
In Jewish marriage practice a contract was struck between the two families of a couple intending to marry. Money changed hands, a Ketuba or wedding document was executed. Then a year went by, the so-called betrothal period, and then the wedding ensued. During that year, the couple was to present evidence of purity and virginity, particularly the woman, as this was a matter of honor. The goods were not to be “damaged” so to speak — a potential husband had the right, culturally speaking, in this important transaction to expect a pure bride. If she turned out to be impure, the betrothed husband had the right to get out of the contract. This however required a divorce, even though the marriage had not been solemnized or consummated.8
Lastly, there is one additional view, which both Pastor Jeff mentions in his aforementioned article, and which Hays articulates in his book. This view connects the Greek term porneia to the forbidden unions and sexual practices of Leviticus 18. Some seem to limit this to incestuous marriages, because of the similar cultural contexts of the “Leviticus generation” of Israelites and the first century Christians. Both were familiar with the incestuous practices among the nations with political power in their days—Egypt and Rome. In fact, some interpret the apostolic decree of Acts 15:28–29, where we also find the term porneia, to also be dependent upon Leviticus 17–18. Hays explains Matthew’s intention in this view,
Matthew, by inserting the exception clause in the case of porneia, would then be following the precedent of the apostolic decree by allowing for the dissolution of incestuous unions. Such a provision, it is argued, would make good sense in a community engaged, as Matthew’s community was, in mission to the Gentiles; the termination of such abominations would be necessary for the Gentile converts to have fellowship with the Jewish Christians in the community.9
There are three primary reasons why I think this third view is to be preferred to the rest. First, I think that apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 is being applied here, which means that Matthew is not being divergent or rebellious against apostolic tradition and teaching, but rather upholding it strongly. He falls right in line with the agreement at the Jerusalem Council.10 The second reason is that porneia is allowed to have its natural function as a “catch-all” term if it is viewed as covering all the sexual abominations of Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18 not only speaks of incestuous relationships, but also of a number of forbidden sexual offenses and unions; thus, some people question how it is that Jesus could only be referring to those verses that speak to incest in Leviticus 18 and why not to the whole of the offenses? Therefore, whatever position one takes should allow porneia to function in its natural “catch-all” function. The lexical meaning of porneia is basically fornication, which refers to any sexual act or relationship that takes place outside of divinely sanctioned marriage. This is why I, at least at this point, do not agree with either the first or the second views above. In my opinion, they try too hard to make the term describe one technical usage. Lastly, even though Hays’ does not adopt this view himself, I think that his New Testament ethical principle of community demands this view. The New Testament writings are almost always concerned with the relations between Jews and Gentiles as they experience Christ’s salvation together in one body, the church. The apostolic decree in Acts 15:28-29 covers matters of blood and sexual immorality—as does Leviticus 18. Matthew is faithful with the apostolic decree and with the historical encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus identifies the indecency about which the Rabbis argued as porneia, which the apostles forbid in their decree (Acts 15:28-29), which has conceptual allusions back to Leviticus 18. Further, this type of exception, more than adultery or unfaithfulness during the betrothal period, serves the realities of the Jewish-Gentile church.
But if porneia is a “catch-all” term, does that mean adultery or sexual unfaithfulness in marriage is included? Does Leviticus 18 include a reference to adultery? Maybe, maybe not. Here’s a summary of the forbidden unions:
- Incest (vv. 6-18)
- During the Woman’s Menstrual Cycle (v. 19)
- With Your Neighbors Wife (v. 20)
- Your Offspring to (the false god) Molech (v. 21)
- Homosexuality (v. 22)
- Beastiality (v. 23)
These themes in these forbidden unions include blood, seed, offspring, and forbidden places for sexuality to be expressed. You will notice that verse 20 could potentially relate to the question of adultery.
Now, let’s walk across the bridge to real life. Does Leviticus 18:20 and Matthew 19:9 send the Christian on a straight line to the divorce attorney? No. What if it happens more than once? No, not necessarily. Besides, according to Jesus, all of us are repeat adulterous offenders anyway (Mt. 5:28). You say, “Well, I do not like it that my husband looks at porn or has impure thoughts, but I can live with it.” That may be, but God is not going to “live with it.” His standard of purity has been violated; he will be sure to deal with it at the right time. You say, “I can forgive his mind from wandering, but I cannot forgive the physical act.” But God will forgive any sinner who repents and turns to him for grace and mercy. You say, “My wife is not seeking forgiveness for what she did.” Is it possible that more time and prayer are needed? You say finally, “You do not understand!” I say, “That is not true either, and I am not going to speak those words that short circuit marriages that may just need time to heal—I am not going to say, “Your’s is a special case; you deserve a divorce.” The gospel won’t let me say that. Remember this? “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). How may I describe God’s forgiveness toward me in Christ?! The extreme forgiveness given to us is to in turn be practiced among us. When there is adultery in a marriage, the first response of the Christian spouse is forgiveness and an aim toward reconciliation. God’s intention for our marriages is permanence, and we should not let go of this easily. Of course, there are times when forgiveness is extended, reconciliation is pursued, and the offending partner keeps on following his or her path of wickedness, leading him or her to legally divorce, and even remarry, leaving the former family and spouse in ruin. To these dear ones, I am sorry; what pain and sorrow. May God’s grace allow you to continue living with such a soft heart, and may he be to you all that you need for the days ahead.
Regarding remarriage, it is clear that the exception clause modifies the verb for “divorce.” So, if such a divorce occurs, is a person allowed to remarry? It is not as clear. It seems that the exception clause would also allow for a person to be free from the previous marriage vow and allowed to remarry. It does not command someone to remarry, but rather a person whose divorce takes place due to the sexually immoral (Leviticus 18) nature of the relationship is no longer bound and is free to marry again. It is permissible. For example, if, during the days of the early church, a couple in an incestuous union were converted by the gospel, they would need to be divorced, and they would be allowed to remarry. Even if such a union was recognized by the “empire” as lawful, it would not be lawful in the church.
Matthew 5:31-32; Luke 16:18
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18, ESV)
I don’t have too much to say on these passages. There are some unique features regarding the emphases placed on one or the other gender, but I will not get into that here. It is notable that Matthew again mentions the exception clause, but Luke does not. We do gain a clear look into God’s viewpoint. Even after the human rendering of a certificate of divorce, with the exception of porneia, God still views the marriage as intact. Therefore, any joining together with someone else is adultery. Hays writes,
To dismiss a wife is to consign her to sin, or to singleness without protection in a patriarchal society; thus, Matthew calls husbands in the Christian community to a broader vision o the life of righteousness. They are to take full moral responsibility for maintaining their marriages faithfully—with the sole proviso that porneia can bring the marriage to an end.11
1 Corinthians 7:10-1612
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1Corinthians 7:10-16, ESV)
Here in 1 Corinthians, we add another layer to the discussion. Hays writes,
This passage, chronologically the earliest of our New Testament sources dealing with divorce, is the most interesting instance we have of a consciously reflective pastoral adaptation of the tradition concerning Jesus’ teaching on this topic.13
First, let’s clear up one thing. The use of the English term “separate” is not referring to our contemporary idea of separation in a marriage. In this passage, “separation” and “divorce” are referring to the same thing—divorce. Verses 10-11 have a simple message: stay married; no divorce. In following a pattern that we have seen elsewhere in this study, Paul does address what a women is to do if she finds herself in such a situation: do not remarry, or reconcile with your husband.
Next, Paul addresses something we have yet to address. What happens when one spouse is converted to Christianity and the other remains an unbeliever?14 Paul’s pastoral counsel to the church at Corinth was to remain in the marriage because the presence of a Christian has a sanctifying effect in the home. This is not hard to imagine—the Spirit of God dwells in the believer; the believer knows and speaks the gospel; the believer prays; the believer was hearing and sharing the word of God. All of these graces enter the home through the believer and are seemingly made available to the unbelievers in the household. There is much more that could be said on this topic, but our interest here pertains to divorce and remarriage, instead of sanctification. You need to imagine the cost of remaining in some of these marriages. The common, pagan Corinthian would have most likely been involved in the rituals associated with the various temples in the city. While “Old Corinth” seems to have been far more sexually depraved than “New Corinth,” the latter’s moral fabric was still far from “a reputation of moral probity.”15
Paul goes on. If the situation should arise that the unbeliever abandons the believer, Paul says, “…let it be so. In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” Hays comments that is one instance where the individual’s union to the church is weightier even than his or her union in marriage. The term “enslaved” means literally “to make someone a slave, enslave,” or “to make one subservient to one’s interests, cause to be like a slave.”16 Does this mean the believer can remarry? Paul does not directly address this. In the surrounding context, Paul is quite clear that he prefers the single person to not seek to change his or her status, but rather to serve the Lord. However, he also states that the single person does not sin if he or she does marry. But does this apply to the newly single person who was abandoned by his or her unbelieving spouse? Some take “bound” or “enslaved” to mean that the believer is no longer bound to continue the previous marriage. In a sense, Paul in compassion is saying, “Look it is not your fault; God is not angry with you; be at peace.” Others take it further to say that the believer is no longer bound in regard to marriage and liberated to marry again or to remain single. Those in this latter camp see a conceptual parallel between this passage and 7:39-40; that is, the abandoned spouse experiences the same liberation that a widow or widower experiences.
What further complicates this for modern readers is our desperate desire to be happy and to reach self-actualization. As Christians, we must reorient ourselves with God’s revelation; we cannot be primarily concerned with self-actualization, but rather we must find happiness and contentment in God and the things that he loves. We are not the center of the narrative of the world; he is. I know many good men who were born again after they were married, and as time went on, their unbelieving spouses left mostly due to their husbands new faith. What would Paul tell my friends? In this particular passage, I must admit that it is too vague for me to dogmatically and harshly hold a position. So in one sense, I want to say let each person be persuaded by the Spirit on this. However, I am a pastor, and inevitably, I will sit across the room from this very situation one day, which means that I do not have the liberty to avoid forming a position. I think my first response would be to encourage singleness and at the very least an agreed upon season in which the abandoned spouse, now single, seeks the Lord on behalf of their spouse who has left him or her (1 Cor. 7:11, 39-40). I think this also gives the newly single person an opportunity to experience what Paul goes to great effort to emphasize in 1 Corinthians 7; that is, the single person is able to be wholly devoted to the work of the Lord in a unique way. This I think is the minimum we can do in such a situation in an attempt to honor the intention of God for marriage. I would certainly discourage any hasty dating, engagements, or weddings and dismiss such actions as inappropriate conduct for a Christian given the New Testament’s serious teaching about God’s intention for marriage.
As I wrote in Part One of this series of articles, I am no stranger to divorce. While I have not experienced directly in my marriage, it surrounded my childhood and continues to have effects in my day to day life. For example, Delainey (my daughter) recently had a school project that involved a little house on which we were to attach pictures of her family, so that she could share about her family with her classmates. When we made it to the part where we add grandparents, I had choices to make because of a marriage that ended sixteen years ago. Do I put pictures of my mom and stepdad and my dad and stepmom? Will Delainey be able to explain this triad of grandparents to her classmates?
The New Testament instruction for the Christian church is clear about the will of God concerning marriage: it’s permanent “until death do us part” (Mk. 10:2-12; 1 Cor. 7:10-11; 39-40). It is also clear that porneia was taken seriously by the apostles and such deviant acts threatened the building up of families and local churches according to God’s ultimate intention for marriage (Mt. 19:3-12; 5:31-32; Acts 15:28-29).
What if you are reading today and you find yourself feeling like a piece of human debris? You know, like, against your own will and desires the impossible coldness of divorce has entered into your life and left you emotionally, mentally, bodily, and spiritually on the sidelines of life. What I would like to say to you today is be comforted, for something greater than marital status has come. All the treasures in Christ are yours through faith in him.
Come ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and pow’r.
I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior, O there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome, God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance, ev’ry grace that brings you nigh.
Come ye weary, heavy laden, lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better, you will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him.
-Come Ye Sinners, Joseph Hart
“Arise and go to Jesus.” Give yourself to the work of his gospel. If Jesus is not enough, then I have nothing more to say or offer. As one surrounded by divorce, I have come to know and experience that his grace can overcome and redeem.
1 Kurt and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, 29.
2 Surely, we could many more verses is we expanded the conversation to those passages that indirectly speak to attitudes and behaviors that relate to marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
3 I will briefly mention the key components of his ethic here. They are (1) Community, (2) Cross, and (3) New Creation. He also adds a sort of appendix that states, “Why Love and Liberation Are Not Sufficient.” The way this works in his book is like this. First, he develops why he thinks these three themes of Scripture should function as governing principles when constructing a distinctly, Christian, ethical response to topics such as violence and justice, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, ethnic conflict, and abortion. Then, he deals with each of these real world issues by interpreting and applying the relevant passages of the New Testament using these governing principles as his “lens” or “glasses” so to speak.
4 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 350.
5 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 353.
6 A Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, on the term σκληροκαρδία.
7 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 354.
8 Jeff VanGoethem, Is Adultery a Grounds for Divorce? An Examination of Matthew’s ‘Exception Clause’, 2.
9 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 355.
10 The Jerusalem Council took place in 48 A.D. according to D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 464. Matthew wrote his Gospel prior to 70 A.D., not much prior, according to the same source on page 156. Therefore, Matthew most definitely would have been aware of the apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 that was distributed orally and in writing (15:23) to all the churches.
11 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 357.
12 1 Corinthians was written during Paul’s time in Ephesus between 52-55 A.D., most likely toward the latter. Therefore, the apostolic decree of the Jerusalem Council would have already been given (Acts 15:28-29). I would argue that you do see allusions to the decree here—note the warning and instruction concerning porneia (“sexual immorality”) in 1 Corinthians 7:2 and note that chapter 8 is wholly devoted to the topic of food sacrificed to idols. In these chapters, Paul is answering questions posed to him by the Corinthian church in light of the apostolic decree.
13 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 357.
14 To be clear, these people were already married. This is not in any way condoning the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer.
15 Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 420.
16 A Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, on the term δουλόω.
In a 2014 article with Catalyst entitled, “Everything We Think We Know About Marriage and Divorce Is Wrong,” Shaunti Feldhahn challenges the oft quoted divorce statistics with which most of us have grown too accustomed and familiar. She writes,
Perhaps most surprising, half of all marriages are not ending in divorce. According to the Census Bureau, 72% of those who have ever been married, are still married to their first spouse! And the 28% who aren’t includes everyone who was married for many years, until a spouse died. Non-one knows what the average first-marriage divorce rate actually is, but based on the rate of widowhood and other factors, we can estimate it is probably closer to 20–25%. For all marriages (including second marriages, and so on), it is in the 31–35% range, depending on the study.
She goes on later in the article to mention her partnership with The Barna Group during which both Feldhahn and Barna calculate that the divorce rate among those who regularly attend church is 27%.
These statistics are certainly more encouraging than what we typically hear about marriage in the world and in the church. Although in my opinion, if Feldhahn and Barna are correct in their calculation about the divorce rate among regular church goers is 1 in 4, I still say we can do better. Comparing Feldhahn’s numbers according the the Census Bureau and in her partnership with Barna, the divorce statistics in our nation and in the church are still basically the same. Don’t get me wrong; I am elated if these lower figures are correct! However, I believe that the effect of the grace of the gospel and the ministry of the Spirit in marriages of Christians should cause our numbers to be lower in comparison to the general population. I recognize that even as Christians we still wrestle against the sinful nature, but we also by grace have been given power and awareness to overcome and then yield to the will of God for our lives and marriages.
My plan is to make this something like a five part series on Divorce and Remarriage in the Christian Context. Other than this first article, I’ll be interacting with a book entitled, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics by Richard B. Hays. In this article, I hope to share briefly about my own experience and identification with both divorce and remarriage. In the articles to follow, I plan to interact with Hays (1) on those New Testament texts that address divorce and remarriage, (2) on the (canonical) development of the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, (3) on his hermeneutical principles in response to the New Testament’s witness against divorce and remarriage, and (4) on his exhortation that the Christian Church is a community making the love of God visible (and one way we do this is through our marriages).
But before interacting with Hays, first let me say that I would not exist were it not for two divorces and a remarriage. Neither would my sister Jade. I find the complexity of my own existence in light of the will of God quite confounding. If the Scriptural commands to uphold marriage had been completely obeyed by my mother and father, then I seemingly would not exist. I suppose an appropriate response from me on this is that I should always rejoice when the word of God is obeyed, even at the cost of my own life. The divorces that took place prior to my existence, that indeed paved the way for the possibility of my own existence, were not without causing deep pain, confusion, and heartache for others, including children. I suppose another appropriate response from me on this is that I thank God for his grace in allowing me to have existence despite the messy circumstances that preceded my life; and moreover, I thank him for his grace in calling me into relationship with him. And as dysfunctional as it may be, I am thankful for my mother, my father, my two half-brothers, my half sister, and my full sister. I love them and continue to grow in relationship with them.
Today, my extended family has grown larger as a result of four other divorces and two remarriages. My mother and father divorced when I was 16, and they both remarried. My stepfather was also previously married, as was my stepmother. Confused yet? So, in addition to the family I started with, I now have a stepfather, a stepmother, two stepsisters, and three stepbrothers, not to mention the numerous nephews, nieces, uncles, aunts, etc. While I look back upon the divorces that led to my own existence with some sort of gladness that I was able to have life, I can’t say that I have always looked at the divorce of my mother and my father with such grace and gladness. I am learning. I am learning that Christ’s redemptive grace is able to reach deeply into broken families, heal any and every wound, and make relationships into friendships, even if there was once hostility and brokenness.
As I write and interact with the Scriptures, Hays’ book, and the topics of Divorce and Remarriage, I wanted you to know that I do not come to these topics somehow lacking in experience. The temptations that lead to divorce has surrounded and bullied my family. While I am a grown man, I am still a child of divorce, and there isn’t a day that goes by in which I am somehow still affected by my family dynamics. I don’t say this resentfully; it’s just reality for me. I am eager to learn God’s grace and how to lean on his love and show his love in this family context. In other words, I’m not a slave to the dysfunction of my family; none of us are. The power of the gospel sets us free, and we are growing in this freedom.
These experiences came with me when one glorious day, Jesus reached down and saved me. Very early in my conversation, he taught me that Ephesians 4:32 is part of the new life that he had for me, “Be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” This forgiveness that I received has allowed me to continue to have an extended family. It has transformed my heart to seek out these new step-relationships with charity. God in Christ has forgiven me every sin, and O how great a sinner I am. Therefore, I must then extend forgiveness, kindness, and gentleness to others whose sins may have had some affect on my life. Interestingly, the teaching in this verse that has brought healing in my experience of divorces and remarriages is the same teaching that serves as the foundation to my marriage to Aimee. I ought always to forgive Aimee, and Aimee ought always to forgive me because God in Christ has forgiven us both. Perhaps, you feel that I am a bit naive here, and I may very well be a bit naive about some things. However, as per my experiences listed above, I don’t think divorce is one of those things. I look forward to writing and interacting with you more in the coming months about what the Bible teaches about Divorce and Remarriage. God’s grace to you and your families.