In Sunday’s sermon (“What about divorce?“) I listed seven ways that Scripture speaks about divorce. They are outlined below, plus one more, making eight. From these eight truths, we can get a full, but not yet exhaustive, picture of divorce. Let me know what you think and what you might add.
First, divorce goes against God’s ideal.
Before the Fall, God establishes his pattern for all humanity in Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
This pre-fall ideal is reiterated when Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce. In Matthew 19, he goes back to the Garden to establish God’s ideal for marriage. In verses 4–6, he answers, “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.” From these two verses, it is plain that God desires for a man to hold fast to his wife and not divorce her (cf. Mal 2:14–15).
Second, divorce goes against God’s gospel.
In Ephesians 5 Paul is explaining how the gospel impacts marriage. In context, he calls Christians to be filled with the Spirit (v. 18), then to submit themselves to one another (v. 21), explaining how the wife should submit to the husband and the husband should die for his wife (vv. 22–33).
In this context, he compares the wife to the church and the husband to Christ himself. In verse 31 he quotes from Genesis 2:24 and says in vv. 32–33: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
The mystery is that every marriage is a living, moving, loving drama of the gospel. Husbands play the part of Christ; wives the part of the church. When husbands and wives play their parts well, they marvelously show the world Christ’s death and the church’s life. But when they don’t, and when they pursue divorce, they dramatize an anti-gospel. They tell the world that Christ will leave his bride, or that Christ’s bride has no commitment to her Lord.
Do you see why divorce is such a big deal? Not only is it God’s ideal; it was created to tell the world the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, God hates divorce.
Third, God hates divorce.
Malachi 2:14–15 is the key text that affirms this. In context, Malachi explains that the Lord does not accept his people’s offerings because “the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.“
To this, God says in 2:16: “For I hate divorce” (NASB).
In his designs, marriage in Israel was meant to produce godly offspring, but now divorce has eviscerated his plans and ruined his nation. And of course, the same can be said of any nation, where families are torn asunder by divorce. So, God does hate divorce, because it rejects his good designs and blasphemes the gospel.
However, Scripture does not only speak of divorce in idealistic and lawful ways, it also speaks of certain (unfortunate) circumstances where divorce is permissible.
Fourth, Moses permits divorce to restrain sin.
He writes in Deuteronomy 24,
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (vv. 1–4)
In short, the reason why Moses permitted divorce was to mitigate the effect of sinful hearts. Apparently, men were too quickly dismissing their wives for any number of different reasons.
Deuteronomy 24 steps in to say: “If you divorce your wife, you cannot have her back. Think twice before you act.” It by no means judges divorce as a good. Divorce is not a virtuous practice in itself. Rather, to minimize sin, it restrains the people of Israel.
Nevertheless, even this instruction was abused. By the time of Jesus, many in Israel were divorcing their wives for things like burning dinner. The disciples of Hillel interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 as saying that if a man found disfavor in his wife for any reason, he was within in his legal rights to divorce her. By contrast the disciples of Shammai said that disfavor only pertains to sexual sin—if a woman was sexually immoral, the man had the right to divorce his wife.
Not surprisingly, when Jesus entertained the questions about divorce, he presented an interpretation of this passage that was both more just and more gracious.
Fifth, Jesus forbids divorce except in the occasion of porneia.
In Matthew’s gospel, the subject of divorce comes up twice and in both instances, Jesus permits—but does not require—divorce in one circumstance— sexual immorality (porneia).
In the sermon on the Mount, he says, “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” (5:32). Likewise, in Matthew 19:8–9, Jesus says, “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.”
In these two places, Jesus affirms God’s rejection of divorce but permits divorce in the case of sexual immorality. His words surprise his disciples, who likely were inclined at the time to follow Hillel’s looser teachings, but they make perfect sense of Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24. Affirming God’s created ideal, marriage for life, but when one spouse breaks the covenant (via adultery or ongoing porneia) divorce is permissible.
In this way, Jesus makes the the law heavier. The only permissible reason for divorce is if one of the spouses commits adultery. But he also makes the law lighter. In the Old Testament adultery brought the death penalty, but now the unrepentant sinner was to be put out of the church. (I will talk more about church discipline and divorce tomorrow).
Sixth, Paul forbids divorce except in the case of abandonment.
In addition to sexual immorality, Paul says that when a believing man or woman is abandoned by their unbelieving spouse, they are free. Here are his words in 1 Corinthians 7:15: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved [or bound]. God has called you to peace.”
To understand what Paul means, we must ask: What does “bound” mean? We can know by reading a few verses later in verse 39: “A wife is bound [in marriage] to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whomever she wishes, only in the Lord.”
From that comparison, we can see that just as the widow is free to marry, so too the one who is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse is free to marry. In both cases, the covenant has been terminated—one by death the other by a longstanding abandonment. This leads to next point.
Seventh, if divorce is permissible in cases sexual immorality or abandonment, remarriage is permissible too.
If Jesus permits divorce in the case of sexual immorality and Paul permits remarriage in the case of abandonment, it seems that the overarching principle is that if someone has a biblical divorce, then a biblical remarriage is also possible. Of course, this is not the ideal and it comes with all kinds of complications, but in a fallen world, our heavenly father is both judicious and compassionate.
And with these seven principles, he gives his people a clear explanation of why divorce is wrong, even as he makes exceptions for divorce in some cases. These truths should not engender a flippant attitude towards divorce, as if because there are some permissions we can pursue divorce with ease. That would misunderstand God’s word and God’s grace.
At the same time, neither should God’s anger towards divorce bolster a cultural-warring mentality that stands to fight against divorce. In all instances where our ethics are based on reactions to culture, we will inadvertently harden ourselves against those who are hurt by the culture we oppose. Rather, with grace and truth guiding our minds we must stand against divorce, even as we lovingly offer gospel grace to those who have suffered or sought out a divorce. This is the last point.
Eighth, grace is available to pardon your past divorce and prevent a future divorce.
Indeed, as with all of life, the gospel of Jesus Christ should inform our minds about how we approach ethical dilemmas. With divorce, we must not forget how Jesus himself approached the woman with five divorces (John 4). He didn’t recount the horrors of Hillel’s lenient stance of divorce or prescribe that she chasten herself under Shammai’s tutelage. Rather, he engaged her heart and led her to drink from his living water.
We must do the same. With passion for God’s holiness and hearts filled with compassion we must let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform our severity towards divorce and our sympathy towards those who been devastated by it.
May God give us grace to keep such biblical balance.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds