Divorce & Marriage: A Former Perspective

For some reason, I was compelled yesterday to write upon divorce and marriage. I am not sure why, but I shall write a post upon it in the coming days. I have written on the subject before, and I have since essentially reversed my opinion on the matter. I was told at that time by a friend that my thoughts on the matter were at points, “Uncharacteristically Arminian,” and to that I must agree. Below I have posted my former posts on the matter so that you might have them for reference:

Sacred Marriage: An Old Perspective
Christian Divorce and the Distortion of the Gospel
When is Divorce Justified?

Sacred Marriage: An Old Perspective

As a student in a conservative Christian school, I often have the benefit of reading books that I would not otherwise read, because they are required texts. I am currently taking a class called Marriage and Family, taught by Dr. David W. Jones, who co-authored God, Marriage, and Family, an excellent book written with Dr. Andreas Kostenberger. The book that Dr. Jones requires us to read in his class however is Sacred Marriage, by Gary Thomas. I have just begun to read said book, and it is to me a breath of fresh air in a sea of books that offer five steps to better intimacy and ten steps for a better sex life, not to say that books of that nature are not beneficial, but those books more often than not offer superficial solutions to deeper problems.

The subtitle of Sacred Marriage is, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?” That title flies in the face of most preconceived notions of marriage even among evangelicals. What if God’s purpose for marriage transcended the temporal and the physical and was meant to prepare us for the spiritual and the eternal? What if God created marriage to be a battleground on which God reveals to us things about ourselves that need to change and need to be conformed to Christ?

I must concede that I am not married and that I have just a fuzzy glimpse of what marriage is like in real life. However even in the short period of my courtship and engagement to Haley, my bride-to-be in January 2007, God has brought to light to me through her countless things about my own heart and life that need to change that I would have otherwise been oblivious to. In that way, I can whole-heartedly affirm Thomas’s thesis that marriage is firstly to be a place where God draws us closer to him.

The Common Misconception
We live in an age where self gratification is the highest virtue. We are taught by our culture from our infancy to pursue that which drives our passions at all costs. Therein lies an obvious tension with the claims of Christianity, expressly with that we are to carry our crosses (an expression of death to self, not the carrying of minuscule burdens) and that we are put to death the fleshly passions of our hearts. Rather than concede that Christ calls us to live radically different lives, many Christians try to marry the two opposing concepts, creating a Christianity that is more worldly than it is biblical. What is formed then is a Christianity that attempts to use Christ firstly as a mean to self gratification and views holiness as something that is secondary and optional. This philosophy has obviously spread to realm of marriage, where Christian couples are just as likely to get divorced as non-Christian couples simply because their marriage did not make them happy, and their false religion dictates that they pursue at all costs that which makes them happy.

An Higher Calling
Thomas however brings Christians back to their base–the Bible. Thomas does not seek to make happy marriages, which he says so explicitly, but he seeks to show Christians that marriage’s first priority is not to make happy people, but rather it is to make people who can glorify God better by being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Holiness–conformity to Christ, should be the ambition and passion of every Christian regardless of their marital state. All too often (and I am guilty of this as well), we look at marriage as a means to personal fulfillment and happiness (not to say that marriage cannot contribute to happiness), and we snub God of his role as the Great Fulfiller and Joy-Maker. In essence, marriage becomes our God. No wonder there are so many failing marriages!

Shadows of Eternity
As with all of God’s good gifts to men, marriage is intended to direct our gaze to that which is eternal and infinitely splendorous, not blind us to it. As a young, betrothed man, I am oftentimes guilty of allowing the God-given grace of my future bride and family to blind me to that which is eternal and holy (which is easy to do with such a beautiful bride;) ). I know however that there will be times in the future after the “honeymoon” period where marriage is going to be tough and ugly. Such is always the case when to two sinful, fallen, and selfish human beings decide to give their lives to each other. I know now that in times such as those that I have two options: either I can place my eyes on the temporal and seek to gratify my self and abandon the marriage, or I can set my eyes on the eternal and seek to gratify my Maker and my spouse.

Christian Divorce and the Distortion of the Gospel

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31).

In his book, The Great Divorce (which by the way has nothing to do with divorce)¹, C. S. Lewis tells a dream of his concerning Heaven and hell. This dream begins in a dull, muggy, and almost colorless town aptly named Grey Town. In this town, no one gets along, and every person is continually moving farther and farther away from the center of the town so that he can be farther away from everyone else and closer to himself. There was but one way out of the town, and it was by a bus that often stopped at a bus stop near the center of the town. Those who had not lived in Grey Town very long could reach the bus stop while those who had lived there for some time had moved so much that they were now thousands of miles away from the bus stop.

Some passengers had boarded the bus, and they knew immediately that the bus was no ordinary bus, for it seemed to them that it flew as it departed Grey Town. The bus trip was not very long, but the passengers knew that when they had arrived at the bus’ destination that they were far from that which was familiar to them. Stepping onto the new turf and looking around, they saw that the place where they had parked was infinitely more vibrant in color than their home, and they noticed that they themselves looked like gray and translucent phantoms compared to everything else in the new world. The grass that they walked upon cut their feet, because they, for some reason, could not bend the grass. One passenger attempted to lift an apple that had fallen from a tree, and it seemed to him that it weighed an hundred pounds. Most of the passengers were disgusted with the new world that they had been brought to because everything in it seemed worthless for they could not comprehend and manipulate it. They were all too eager to return to their familiar and beloved Grey Town. Upon further reading, the reader finds that in actuality, the Grey Town from which the passengers departed is hell, and the incomprehensible place that they visited was the lowlands of Heaven. That which was real to the passengers, the gray town, was to them more real than that which they beheld in Heaven, for they were powerless to grasp it with their wicked minds.

What Lewis accomplishes is not meant to be an accurate depiction of Heaven and hell, but it is meant to confound the reader’s common perspective. All too often we look at this world as that which is real and look at the spiritual realm as somewhat unreal and fantastic, when in actuality the spiritual realm is more real than the world in which we live, we just cannot comprehend it.

Shadows and Phantoms
We are told in the Bible (especially in the letter to the Hebrews) numerous times that God created things in this world for the sole purpose of foreshadowing the eternal. The tabernacle of the Law was meant to foreshadow the heavenly tabernacle, the Levitical sacrifices were meant to foreshadow the sacrifice of Christ, the circumcision of infant males was meant to foreshadow the circumcision of the heart, and marriage was meant to foreshadow the great Marriage of Christ and the Church. It is not the other way around. God did not firstly create marriage and then decide to use it as an analogy. He planned first in eternity past that his Son should be wed to a Bride that he redeemed by his blood, and then when God created the world he instituted marriage to be a picture of his redemption plan.

Living a Lie
Much too often, Christians show the world that they are blind to reality. They forget that marriage, even marriage among non-believers, was created to foreshadow the covenant faithfulness of God toward true Israel. When Christians divorce, they distort that reality and inaccurately portray God’s eternal plan to the world. If Christians were grounded as they ought, divorce would hardly be an issue no matter the circumstances, for God did not consider divorcing the Church, but rather he gave himself up so that she might be sanctified.

Husbands, Love Your Wives as Christ Loved the Church
What does loving your wife as Christ loved the Church really mean? It certainly does not mean divorcing your wife under any circumstances. ANY. Many would argue that there is one stipulation that Christ gives in Matthew 5 that says:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery (Matthew 5:32).

Notice that it never says that divorce is right even in the case of sexual immorality, but it says that when a man divorces a woman on those grounds that he does not cause her to sin. Loving your wife as Christ loved the Church means to love your wife even if she falls into sexual immorality, for that is exactly what Christ did. Countless times the idolatry of Israel / the Church is called adultery by God (cf. Hosea 1:2), yet God was still faithful to keep his Covenant to his People. To place the aforementioned in context, Matthew writes later:

[The Pharisees] said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send [his wife] 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 (Matthew 19:7,8, emphasis mine).

Because of your hardness of heart. I cannot think of better evidence of a hard heart than in someone whose slate of sins has been washed clean by the cross of Christ, and yet he will not forgive another. Remember the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18? The servant owed his master a sum that was so great that he could never pay it off in several lifetimes. The master could have sold the servant and his family into slavery, but he was gracious to the servant and forgave him his debt. But immediately after the servant had been forgiven his debt, he went to a fellow servant and demanded that he pay him the petty amount of money that he owed him. The fellow servant pleaded with the forgiven servant, but the forgiven servant had no mercy on his fellow servant and had him thrown into jail. When the master caught wind of what had happened, he summoned the servant and said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” In his wrath, the master gave the servant over to the jailers until he would completely paid off his debt, which would never happen. Christ summarizes, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Anyone who has been bought by Christ should forgive much for he has been forgiven much; not to forgive is tantamount to being wicked and having a hard heart, which is tantamount to not really being bought by Christ.

Distorting the Gospel
When Christians divorce, they, intentionally or not, distort the great Gospel of our Lord. As Christian married couples, our primary aim should be to declare the Gospel to our families and to a fallen world through our marriages. When a Christian couple with children divorces, it permanently calls the faithfulness of God into question in their childrens’ minds. The parents are ordained by God to be the primary agents of portraying the character of God to their children, and when they divorce, their children are permanently imbued with a negative image of God. They ask, “Why would Christ love me unconditionally when my father did not love my mother unconditionally? Why would Christ be faithful to his promise to me when my mother was not faithful to her promise to my father? By even considering to do such things to one’s children even amid terrible circumstances shows a selfishness that is so deep that it is willing to become a stumbling block to a child’s salvation.

Reversing the Trend
The divorce rate among evangelical Christians has been shown to be equal or even greater than the divorce rate of unbelievers. It is astonishing to think that the world is portraying the reality of Christ and the Church better than the Church is! We Christians must cultivate an abhorrence to the notion of divorce and must stop making excuses for divorce. Divorce should never be sanctioned by any church, and those who divorce in our congregations must be disciplined thoroughly. Now is the time to change unfaithful state of the Church so that the Church might go into the world proclaiming the faithfulness of God.

¹ Lewis’s title, The Great Divorce, is purposely antithetical to the title of William Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and has nothing to do with the topic of divorce.

When is Divorce Justified?

The subject at hand is a weighty one, for it is by no means theoretical but all too practical. Divorce has almost become the norm in our culture, a problem which is particular to our age alone and untouched by former divines simply for the reason that it was not an issue until a few decades ago. As a man who feels that it is his calling to become a pastor one day, I know that if the Lord so wills and if he tarries that I will be confronted by this issue several times from divers situations in my future ministry. I also know that in dealing with real people that the issue must be addressed in a loving manner without jeopardizing the clear teaching of Scripture. That is my aim in this post–to address the appropriate grounds for divorce, if they exist, in a biblical and loving fashion.

What then are grounds on which divorce is justified before the eyes of God and the Church? I will firstly begin with grounds for divorce that are not justified by God and should not be justified by the Church:

Inappropriate Grounds for Divorce
1. Singular and Gross Unfaithfulness

While I cited in my last post Matthew 5:32 where Jesus says that a man who divorces his wife for any reason but sexual promiscuity is causing her to commit adultery, I contended that Christ was not calling his followers to divorce their spouses if such conjugal unfaithfulness occurs, but rather that Christ was affirming that which Moses had written in the Law. I later justified this claim by citing Matthew 19:8 where Jesus explains that the Law of Divorce was given to Moses because of the hard hearts of the people, not because it was the perfect will of God. If we are truly Christians saved by the work of the Holy Spirit, the hard heart to which Christ refers does not apply to us, because the Holy Spirit has placed in us a new heart of flesh and has removed from us our former heart of stone. It is amazing to me how many Christians seek to hide behind the Law when Christ has freed us from the Law by the imputation of his righteous life. Unlike what many heretics claim, freedom from the Law does not give us freedom to live as we please, but it in fact gives us a higher call–to imitate Christ. With regard to divorce, this is obviously clear for while the Law granted divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness, the Law of Christ calls us to love our spouses as Christ loved the Church (cf. Ephesians 5:25).

How did Christ love the Church? We are given the most vivid picture in Scripture in the book of the prophet Hosea in the marriage of Hosea and Gomer. While it may be questioned whether an actual marriage occurred between Hosea and Gomer (cf. Calvin’s Commentary on Hosea, Lect. I, I.2), the meaning of the story is clear: God loved his People so much that he was willing to purchase her out of life of prostitution at a great cost to himself. Just think about what a single offense of a wife’s adultery does to a man: It, one, brings about a deep and piercing sadness, for the one to whom he had divested his life chose another over him. It, two, brings about great shame and humiliation even when the matter is private and is intensified a thousand-fold if the matter is made public. And it, three, causes a rift in the trust that the man had in his wife prior to the promiscuous act. And that all happens in a singular act of adultery. In God’s case, Gomer (Israel), had left her husband and became a prostitute, giving her body to whomever would take it to receive a wage that was far less than what God had already given to her. Her acts were obviously public, for one cannot be a prostitute without being public. Yet God did not simply take her back, which was his right, but he paid a great price for her–the death of his only Son. How then can we say that we love our spouses as Christ loved the Church if we divorce them after a singular act or multiple acts of adultery? Christ loved the Church much more than that, and we are called to imitate Christ, whether you are man or a woman (cf. Ephesians 5:1,2).

2. The Marriage Came About “Illegitimately”
So often I hear of people saying that they married the wrong person or that they had found their soul mate in someone else other than their spouse. Other times I hear just as often of Christians who justify divorce because their spouse it an unbeliever. That is wrong, one, because God does not make mistakes, and if you are married, God gave to your spouse no matter the circumstances, and, two, Paul clearly forbids such grounds for divorce:

[I]f 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 (1 Corinthians 7:12,13).

God is the author of all marriages, be it among believers or unbelievers, and to divorce a spouse because one believes that the marriage came about against the will of God is unbiblical and selfish. So often Christians have self-fulfillment as their chief virtue rather than honoring God or loving their spouse. Unselfish people are the least likely to pursue a divorce, because even amid dire circumstances they see their marriage as an opportunity to minister by showing the love of God more clearly. Perfect marriages have less potential for showing God’s glory and love than those that are laden with hardship.

The most obvious example of a marriage that seemed as though it could have been legitimately annulled is the marriage of David and Bathsheba. David, while being a irresponsible king, was home lusting after Bathsheba while her husband, Uriah, was off fighting the battles of David and the Lord. David, with his kingly powers, had Bathsheba brought to him, and he took her, and she conceived a child. To further condemn himself, David had Uriah killed when David could not find a way to make his child with Bathsheba appear to be Uriah’s. Yet amid this and amid Samuel’s rebuke of David, God never called upon David to divorce Bathsheba. In fact, God shows his sovereign ordination of the marriage of David and Bathsheba in that Christ was born of their offspring! (cf. Matthew 1:6) The biblical truth is that there are no illegitimate marriages and to claim that there are is to call God a liar.

3. Great Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Abuse
Now I must admit that as the stronger vessel, men have a difficult time understanding what it means to be physically abused by a spouse. The physical abuse of wives has existed since the Fall and has tainted the esteemed role given to men by God. Men who abuse there wives, be it physically, emotionally, or spiritually, for any reason should be regarded as the most despicable of men. There is never any just cause for a man to harm his wife, for God has given to him the role as protector, comforter, and lover of his wife, and to harm his wife is to abandon that role which God has given to him. Any man who abuses his wife or his family should be held accountable, be it by the Church if he claims to be a Christian, or by the state if he does not. With that said, I do not believe that any type of abuse, whether it comes from the husband or from the wife, is legitimate grounds for divorce if the abuse is confined to the spouse (on which I will elaborate later). I know that many will disagree with me on this point, but I cannot stand consciously on the Bible and say otherwise. We as Christians are called to suffer (cf. Romans 8:17), and indeed our sufferings, no matter their source, are graciously granted to us by Christ (cf. Philippians 1:29). The woman who suffers under the heavy hand of a wicked husband is not out of God’s will for her life though the man is obviously entrenched in heinous sin. I do not believe, however, that the wife should be silent when she incurs such abuse, but she should report, in fact it is her duty to report, such abuses to the aforementioned appropriate authorities so that she might be delivered and that her husband might be saved. Loving our spouse as Christ loved the church means enduring the greatest of hardships, even to the point of death.

Appropriate Grounds for Divorce
I labeled this section incorrectly for aesthetic purposes, for there is only one reason that I can see for divorce, and I must admit that it may be unbiblical. In the previous section, I had alluded to this point when I mentioned that abuse is not an appropriate ground for divorce when it is confined to the individual. What I meant by that is that wives and husbands are to endure abuse from their spouses to whatever end insofar as the abuse does not extend to their children. I say that because in some extreme cases, an husband or a wife is wicked or unstable to the degree that he may be willing to murder his spouse or children. I believe that I would encourage husbands and wives with children in such dire situations to remove themselves from that situation immediately, not for their own sake but for the sake of their children. The reason I would advise them to do such a thing is because eternity is potentially in the balance for their children. A child under the muderous hand of a wicked father or mother could potentially have his life taken from him before he had the opportunity to trust in Christ and, as a consequence, spend eternity in hell. Now I know that many believe in a theoretical “age of accountability,” and I know that most who read my posts believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in all things, but I allow this exception, because I know that I will have to stand before God one day and give an account of my deeds, and I do not want him to ask me why I did not do every in my power to prevent a parent from murdering his unbelieving child.

I know I did not give many grounds for divorce, which is because I believe that there are few, if any, biblical grounds for divorce. God declares in Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce,” and that declaration resounds through the whole of Scripture, and even more emphatically in the life and work of Christ. I am open for discussion on this topic in the comments section, and I encourage you to offer your biblical opinions on this matter.



Categories: Theology

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8 replies

  1. Matthew,

    You've chosen a difficult topic for sure. Allow me to give you a little advice. First Dr. Jay Adams has written, arguably, one of the best books on this subject entitled "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage" which you can look at and purchase here – http://timelesstexts.com/titles/D011.htm

    But let me go on to say that Dr. Adams is also considered the definitive Biblical (Nouthetic) counselor. I have had the privledge of taking over 150+ hours of Nouthetic counseling study through Adams' 'Institute of Nouthetic Counseling'. As a prospective pastor, I would highly recommend you enroll in their program.

    You can find out the details at http://www.nouthetic.org.

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  2. Thank you for the recommended resources. I will certainly take time to look at them. Grace and peace.

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  3. I wrote a rough draft rebuttal to Jay Adam's book (third printing), and see no grounds for divorce. Some divorces are adulterous, some divorces are not adulterous, but a non-adulterous divorce does not make the divorce itself the design of God.

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  4. @Todd Then I am interested to hear your response to my presently non-existent post.;)

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  5. Matthew,

    I like mentioned, this is a very sensitive subject for many – filled with emotion. I think it is important though to let Scripture, and only Scripture guide your position. For example, it is even said of God that He, because of Israel's wanton adultery divorced her (Jer. 3:8). God then is, in one respect, 'divorced'! Now we know the relationship between God and his people is a spiritual one, yet, at the same time, we also know our relationship to God is to be reflected in our personal relationships here and now. This is not to say divorce is always the answer, but again, Scripture should be used here to guide and inform our understanding of this matter.

    One of the many forms of legalism I've seen pervading our churches is the stigma attached to divorced people (often without any consideration for the reasons they're divorced). For some, divorce is the unspoken unpardonable sin. This is unfortunate because it really minimizes our understading and apprecation for the efficaious nature of God's sovereign grace in forgiving all sin (if in fact someone was unlawfully divorced). You can be a drunk, glutton, liar, sexual pervert (outside the context of marriage), hate-monger, etc. and get a free pass. But woe to the divorced person in our modern church culture. This is an uncharitiable, not to mention unbiblical view to take of divorce and should be abandoned.

    Also, Adams' is not without his detractors. But as the Scriptures say, let every man be convinced in his own mind. Blessings.

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  6. @David – I thank you for your warnings, and it certainly is not ground to be treaded upon heavily. I especially like the second paragraph of your last response, and my post will likely echo some of that. I feel that my present position has changed from a legalistic understanding on the matter to a biblical understanding. I aim to have grace and truth abound in it. Thanks again.

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  7. Matt, I hope your new post will talk about 1 Corinthians 7:15 (abandonment of a believer by an unbelieving spouse), which seems to be missing from this one! 😛 Looking forward to it. 😀

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