I realize that the subject I am addressing is an extremely weighty and relevant one, and I have been blessed to have received wise counsel on my addressing it. I could not tell you the exact reasons for my dealing with the subject now apart from it being placed upon my heart the other day and the change of opinion that I have had on it over the years. My former position was a common one among conservative theologians, and it was in short that there is no biblical foundation for divorce, and that if anyone seeks for divorce for any reason at all, they are dishonoring God and his Word. And since my opinion has since changed from that, I will essentially be rebutting myself and my own former arguments. If you wish to read my former written arguments, they can be found here.
Covenants: Unconditional or Conditional?
One matter that greatly shaped my former opinion on the practice of divorce was that of marriage being a covenant and a former professor’s teaching on the nature of covenants. And while I still highly esteem this teacher, I must say that I absolutely disagree with his view of the covenant, namely that a covenant is an unconditional agreement between two parties. His opinion on all covenants being unconditional is founded upon the New Covenant where the promises of God are not able to be thwarted by human design or transgression. We Christians often call this the “unconditional” love of God, whereby he saves sinners and continues to love them in spite of their constant failings.
While it is indeed true that God has covenanted with his people to such an extent that he loves them and is faithful to them though they fail, it is a misnomer to call God’s love and covenant “unconditional.” God’s love demonstrated in the New Covenant is very much conditional, however, whereas most covenants require that two parties fulfill particular conditions to prevent nullification, in the New Covenant, God fulfills all of the conditions. And since God does not fail and since the New Covenant is fulfilled entirely by him, his Covenant does not fail. And it is for this very reason that Jesus Christ became flesh and fulfilled the righteous requirement of the law on our behalf and died for our transgressions so that God might fulfill his Covenant with us and demonstrate his righteousness doing so (cf. Rm. 3:25, 26). God’s love for his saints is very much conditional, and it rests entirely on Jesus Christ’s work and his pleading for us (cf. Rm. 8:34).
This fact of the New Covenant not being unconditional but rested fully in God fulfilling its requirements is seen clearly at its inception to Abraham. In Genesis 15, God covenants with Abraham that he will give to his offspring the Promised Land as their inheritance, and he demonstrates his commitment to this covenant in the picture of him passing through the divided animal carcasses. Where in a typical covenant agreement both parties would pass between the animal carcasses, stating essentially, “May what has happened to these animals happen to me if I do not fulfill the stipulations of our covenant,” God alone passes through the animal carcasses as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, demonstrating that he alone will fulfill all the requirements of the covenant. And God did indeed fulfill all of the requirements of the covenant, wounding and bruising his own Son so that he might secure the Inheritance he promised to the offspring of Abraham (cf. Is. 53; Rm. 9:5-13).
Therefore, when we speak of marriage being a covenant, it is not an agreement that is unconditional and thus can never be voided, but it is as all covenants are–an agreement with stipulations. It is for this reason that when we are married we say certain vows, for in those vows we declare to our spouses that we will fulfill those conditions lest we nullify our marriage. Therefore if marriage is indeed a covenant and if one party transgresses that covenant and is thus “unfaithful,” the covenant is broken and can therefore be rightly nullified. Whether the covenant is nullified or not is dependent upon the transgressed party, but as far as the covenant is concerned, it is broken and must either be canceled or reformed.
What God has Joined Together, Let not Man Separate
In what is a notorious dialogue between Christ and the Pharisees, the Pharisees bring forth the question to Christ, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Mt. 19:3). The root of such a question is the reality behind its asking, for there were in Jesus’ day Jews who considered it lawful to divorce their wives for any reason that they saw fit to relieve themselves of their marriage. Christ responds to this ridiculous question from the institution of marriage from the creation, saying:
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 (vv. 19:4-6).”
Thinking that they trapped Christ in his response, the Pharisees then ask, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (v. 19:7). Christ responds:
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 (v. 19:8,9).
In this, Christ addresses the heart of their question. First, he says that it is because of their hard hearts that God allowed divorce, and, second, he rebukes their licentious practice with the declaration that if anyone divorces his spouse for any other reason apart from sexual immorality, he is an adulterer. In other words, if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than covenant unfaithfulness, he is a transgressor of the law of marriage.
Despite Christ’s appeal to the covenantal nature of marriage, many, including myself formerly, have turned this passage around legalistically, and they do this thusly: First, they look upon Christ’s reference to the prelapsarian institution of marriage and how God had ordained that in a world apart from sin, marriage was to be a life-long bond between a man and woman to such an extent that they are considered “one flesh.” Secondly, they look upon the perfect will of God that what he has joined together, man would not separate. Thirdly, they look upon the statement that it was because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites that God gave them the law of divorce, and thus they conclude that all divorce is a result from hard-heartedness. From these things they conclude that since Christians should not have hard hearts and since hard-heartedness is the reason behind the Mosaic institution of divorce, there is then no cause whatsoever for divorce by Christians.
The problem with such a conclusion is that Christ clearly gives the stipulation, “Except for sexual immorality,” after he has given the divine ideal. By doing thus, Christ declares that marriage is indeed a covenant, and as a covenant requires the faithfulness of two parties, and if one party is unfaithful, the covenant is nullified. It is for this reason that he says that if a man divorces his wife apart from sexual immorality and marries another he is an adulterer, and, to put it positively, if a man divorces his wife because of her sexual immorality and marries another he is not an adulterer. The heart of the matter is not as many have made it out to be–that divorce is always an unacceptable practice by hard-hearted people–but that divorce practiced out of callous licentiousness for the sake of selfish desire and without just cause is against the design of God. To claim, as many do, that even sexual immorality (i.e. covenant unfaithfulness) is not just cause for divorce, is tantamount to calling Christ a liar.
Husbands, Love your Wives as Christ Loved the Church
When considering a case in Christian marriage where the wife has committed sexual immorality and has thus broken the covenant of marriage, the most quoted passage concerning the offended husband is that from Ephesians 5. There the apostle Paul writes:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (vv. 5:25-30).
Many who claim no cause for divorce often quote this passage without qualification, simply quoting the part, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” implying that in all ways that Christ loved the church, husbands are to love their wives. Therefore, they conclude that since Christ has fully reconciled the church to himself who transgressed against him that husbands therefore are commanded to reconcile with their wives no matter the transgression (This is to say nothing of forgiveness, for we are all commanded to forgive all transgressions that are committed against us, but it is a matter of covenant reconciliation). Are husbands from this passage therefore commanded, against the allowance of Christ in Matthew 19, not to divorce their wives even in the case of sexual immorality?
The problem with such a conclusion is that the apostle is not saying that husbands should love their wives in every way that Christ loved the church, but he qualifies it. To say that husbands must love their wives in this way would be to say also that husbands must live righteously for the sake of their wives, they must intercede to God for the sake of the wives, they must die for the sake of their wives’ sins, etc.–all of which are obviously absurd conclusions. In what way then are husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church? The apostle clarifies this, writing, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … husbands should love their wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.” In other words, husbands are to love their wives as they love themselves. No husband is to seek his own selfish desires at the expense of his wife, but he, like Christ, is to love his wife as he loves himself and is to seek after her good as he would seek after his own good. She is by covenant one flesh with him, and not to seek her good would be despising his own flesh.
How then does covenant unfaithfulness play into this passage? It plays a vital role, for it severs the one flesh union between husband and wife. When, in this instance, a wife commits adultery and thus becomes one flesh with another man, the very foundation for this command is rendered moot. For the husband is commanded to love his wife as his own flesh for he is by covenant one flesh with his wife (v. 5:31), however when his wife joins herself to another man, that union is sundered and the covenant is broken. Therefore, the passage, in its strictest sense, applies to a union between husband and wife that has not been marred by a breech in covenant by sexual immorality.
All of this is not to say, however, that men by the grace of God are wrong to mend a marriage covenant broken by sexual unfaithfulness, but it is to say that men should not be judged and condemned for not mending it. There is no biblical warrant for condemning men (or women) for seeking the release of divorce when their spouses–they who vowed to be faithful to their spouses till death–renege on those vows a join themselves to another. Much too often, we in our legalism have created laws that God has not created and then judge men by those laws. In the case of a man or woman who has had to undergo the severe pain, heartache, and emotional turmoil and devastation cause by a spouse’s unfaithfulness, we in the church many times, rather than turning with grace and compassion to them in their time of deep need, spit on them and kick them with our man-made laws. And to worsen and to prolong that heartache as long as we can, we look upon them as outcasts and as unfit to serve in the church of God. They, because of something they would never had chosen and detest to their very core, are marred by us for life because of the wicked decision of another. We expect them to give grace where we in the church are willing to give none, and we expect them to offer reconciliation while we in the church refuse it to them. My prayer is that we will not add laws where God has given none, and that we will be gracious and loving to those who have been torn and emotionally destroyed by marital unfaithfulness and divorce from it.