Practical Christian Theology
“Divorce: The past tense of marriage.” ~Anonymous
There isn’t as much in the Bible about divorce as you might think since yesteryear was not an age of easy divorce, and, historically, only profligates, like the Herods and Henry VIII, commonly practiced it. In Western civilization, divorce has been so stigmatized that, until recently, nice people didn’t do it.
“There are times when two people need to step apart from one another, but there is no rule that says they have to turn and fire.” ~Robert Brault
Couples, like Benjamin Franklin and wife, or even John Wesley and wife, might endure long separations; but they would never humiliate each other or their good name with a public divorce, much less remarriage.
That notwithstanding, few small-minded, legalistic persons can give you chapter and verse in the New Testament where divorce is forbidden—except for a single verse in Malachi I have never heard them reference the Old Testament. They are aware of the social stigma—that is what they know: cultural milieu or social convention. The Bible is to them a closed Book or mere proof texts. If they knew what Scripture said, they might not have such a callous attitude to those suffering from the evils of divorce—or the need of divorce—or be so pigheaded about other things as well, for that matter.
Yes, divorce appears in the Mosaic Code, but don’t be fooled by that terminology. Moses rehearsed the Law from God’s mouth to Joshua’s pen—it was actually God who gave the Law to Moses. Therefore, it was the Law of God not the Law of Moses. Even the part about divorce: a priest could not marry a widow, a harlot, or a divorced woman (Leviticus 21:7, 14); yes, a childless widow or divorced woman, returned to the house of her priest-father, could still eat at his table (22:13); a widow or divorced woman still had to fulfill her obligations (Numbers 30:9); if a man divorced a wife, for any reason, and remarried, he was never to return to the former spouse (Deuteronomy 24:1-3). Four brief mentions in the Mosaic Code. Out of which so much is made. And the last, in Deuteronomy, is not mentioned at all, as if no one had ever heard of it.
Why did God put divorce in the Mosaic Code if He didn’t approve of it?
Because He knew that He Himself one day would have to get a divorce, and how would anyone know what He was talking about, if they had never heard of divorce?
God got a divorce (Isaiah 50:1). And, yes, the Bible says that. When God said, “I hate putting away” (Malachi 2:16), He was talking about His own divorce—not your divorce or my divorce, but His divorce. No one hates divorce more than someone who has personally experienced divorce.
Who did God divorce? Israel and Judah, sister-wives. He was married to them in a covenant relationship, and they broke their marriage vows by being unfaithful to Him. Who did He remarry? The Church.
God’s marriage and divorce is told time and again in the Prophets. The Lord said to Jeremiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel has done? She is gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there has played the harlot. After she had done all these things, I said, Turn to Me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw. Backsliding Israel committed adultery, and I put her away—with cause [which is perhaps where Jews and Christians get that expression]—and gave her a bill of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also …. Backsliding Israel has justified herself more than treacherous Judah” (Jeremiah 3:6-11).
You didn’t know God’s divorce was in the Bible, did you? No, of course not. You don’t read the Bible. Then, how could you have known that divorce was all about Him and not about you?
“Divorce was never commanded, even for adultery. Otherwise God would have given His notice of divorce to Israel and Judah long before He did. A legitimate bill of divorce was allowable for adultery, but it was never commanded or required. It was a last resort—to be used only when unrepentant immorality had exhausted the patience of the innocent spouse, and the guilty one would not be restored.” ~John MacArthur
God told Hosea to marry a harlot (Hosea 1:2). Commentators don’t like the sound of that, so they say Hosea married a woman who was later unfaithful to him. I don’t know. Maybe God, who knows all things, merely foreknew and prophesied her character. That is possible. But since God does things that we don’t necessarily understand—like telling Isaiah to walk around barefoot and naked for three years (Isaiah 20:1-6) and Ezekiel to use human dung for firewood (Ezekiel 4:9-17) and not to grieve for his dead wife (24:15-18)—it is possible that He did tell Hosea to marry a harlot. Why? To show how much a man loves a woman: that he would go to the ends of the earth to get her back, even after she has been unfaithful to him.
“Never give up on someone you can’t go a day without thinking about.” ~Anonymous
Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer, were living examples. The real husband in the Hosea story was God; the real adulterous wife, Israel (sometimes referred to as Ephraim, the largest tribe). God says, “How shall I give you up? My heart is turned within Me” (Hosea 11:8). “O Israel, you have destroyed yourself!” (13:9) making out with other gods. “I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness and speak comfortably to her” (2:14). “At that day you will call me Ishi [my Husband] and will call Me no more Baali [my lord]. For I will take the name of Baalim out of her mouth” (2:16, 17).
God longs for intimacy with His own: in the Old Testament, Israel and Judah; in the New, the Church. Marriage—one man, one woman (Genesis 1:27; 2:24)—is its natural expression.
Like the references in the Mosaic Code, the references in the Gospels and Epistles are brief on the subject of divorce. In the Sermon on the Mount, and later when He talked with the Pharisees, Jesus gave more than an exception clause: He gave the reason for divorce (Matthew 5:31, 32; 19:4-9; Mark 10:2-12).
“The condition ‘except for unchastity’ is not a way out that God provides, but is the grounds for divorce that He will recognize.” ~John MacArthur
A person divorces a spouse for infidelity, as God divorced Israel and Judah. And when Moses came into the conversation, it was not to say that Moses had one set of ethics and Jesus had a higher set—Moses’ ethics were God’s ethics. Jesus was merely explaining why God, through the mouth of Moses, instituted divorce in what we call the Mosaic Code.
To this point, I have given you every scripture in the KJV Bible that has any form of the word divorce, and you see how few there are. But, of course, some scriptures (eg, Malachi 2:16) talk about divorce without using that word. When Paul specified that a bishop, deacon, or elder should be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6), he was merely echoing the Old Testament admonition having to do with the priesthood (cf Leviticus 21:7, 14). A priest or minister, especially, was to be above reproach. He was to marry a virgin, a chaste woman, and stay married till “death do us part.”
Paul also, it is said, gave another exception clause. “If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Corinthians 7:15). So, historically, in Western civilization, desertion has been seen as “cause” for divorce. This is not to say that a man who abandons a wife is assumed to be unfaithful, only that by abandoning her, and neglecting her, he has broken his vows to “keep” her.
But remarriage? If one is divorced, he does not have to remarry, though divorced persons commonly do.
“If God permitted divorce rather than death as a merciful concession to man’s sinfulness, why would He not also permit remarriage, since remarriage would be perfectly allowable under the original law of death for the adulterer? After all, the purpose of divorce was to show mercy to the guilty party, not to sentence the innocent party to a life of loneliness and misery.” ~John MacArthur
If anyone is looking for “cause,” rational men and women are good at coming up with “reasons” for their actions. God is looking for obedience. He takes vows seriously (Ecclesiastes 5:2, 5, 6). And when you promise to “love, honor, and obey” till “death do us part,” God expects you to do just that. As far as He is concerned, there is no wrangling out of it except for infidelity or desertion. Like it or not, saying your vows makes marriage a done deal.
Divorce was not meant to be easy nor marriage meant to be cheap. Obviously, we as a society have failed God in our relationships, not just with our neighbor or the poor, but with our family. For years, the grievance was adults imitating Hollywood and having multiple partners and serial marriages—old men trading in their worn-out wives for new models—but now it’s even worse: heterosexuals living together in serial relationships, without marriage, and homosexuals feigning marriage. If God doesn’t approve of simple divorce and remarriage, do you actually think He’s going to look the other way when persons altogether pervert the marriage relationship?
I myself, perhaps because I am churched and hang out with churched people, have never personally witnessed an easy divorce—or easy remarriage—normally the Church sees to it that you pay a price for that kind of behavior. I have seen persons ecclesiastically wounded. Some preachers will not baptize, accept into membership, or conduct wedding ceremonies for divorced persons. This may or may not be a good thing. It makes the person see the seriousness of his marital status, if he didn’t know already; but it also may unnecessarily grieve him, the reason being that people cannot talk about the things that cause them pain. Perhaps a person had “cause” for divorce, and no one knew. The legal papers at the courthouse may have a less serious grounds for divorce because the parties did not want to go into the real reason.
In a day when 85 percent of men and 40 percent of women confess to “struggling” with porn—and many who “struggle” don’t confess and others who confess to “struggling” are actually addicted—marriages are endangered and spouses have already suffered infidelity. Not all “ministers,” who claim to reference Jesus on divorce, would agree that watching porn is adulterous, though Jesus said, “Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Such “ministers” reference Jesus when they want to and unreference Him when they don’t.
Further, though the Bible says, “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4), not all sexual activity within a marriage is holy; eg, Tamar and Onan (Genesis 38:8-10). Consenting adults can do some reprehensible things in the name of marriage.
Moreover, denominations differ in their interpretation of practical teachings. And they use a double standard: hard on the layman, easy on the preacher. When dealing with preachers, ministerial associates, typically male, have a bunker mentality.
One particular denomination will not hold anything against a ministerial candidate if divorce, remarriage, or even his own infidelity, was done before he was saved. He may have laid thousands of partners, but with that particular denomination, his current marriage is as undefiled as if he were chaste at its consummation and this were his first marriage. Totally ignoring his past, they will even license and ordain him to preach and promote him to leadership.
Some denominations will go to court and get a man’s previous marriages changed from divorce to annulment, so that he won’t have the stigma of divorce on his record. Then he can obtain ministerial credentials in their organization. It doesn’t change the past: it only alters the record. It’s a word game. What is the point of such shenanigans? The candidate is not genuinely called to preach; he only wants to land a church and obtain the perks associated with ministry: only ordained ministers can get a housing allowance, and he cannot get his ordination without “doctoring” his file.
I’ve seen divorced and remarried spouses get a subsequent divorce and return to the first spouse—a practice clearly forbidden in Deuteronomy 24—not only with the church’s blessing, but with the church’s advice and prodding. Clearly, the persons in the pulpit do not read their Bible anymore than the persons in the pew.
I’ve seen women seriously suffer because they would not divorce. Many men tend to side with the husband in domestic conflict; and vice versa, maybe. Perhaps the woman is married to a “motor mouth,” who won’t help her with finances or with chores. Her workplace is a burden, and her home is a war zone; but she says nothing, because, short of her leaving him, there is nothing anyone can do to alleviate her suffering. Or perhaps the woman is married to a ne’er-do-well, or a substance abuser, and she must be the breadwinner, which then leaves the children neglected. If she leaves him, without “cause” (cf Jeremiah 3:6-11), she is seen as abandoning him. I’ve also seen men, young men, who were left with the care of the children because the wife was wrapped up in herself, and neglected her family.
There are all kinds of situations in life—situations vary about as frequently as personality and character—and when you get inside today’s homes, you see how dysfunctional they are. These dysfunctional families, together, create our dysfunctional society. If we want to change things, we have to change ourselves, meaning we have to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15, 16).
There are many private, personal things about one another that we will never know in this life, and, therefore, we cannot judge righteously as God can—because we don’t have all the facts. If we are in a position to make a judgement concerning divorce and remarriage, as in the case of candidates for baptism, membership, remarriage, or leadership, let us use our utmost discretion to make a scriptural decision and deliver it with discipline or with meekness, as the case may be. If we are not in an official position, then let us err on the side of grace, “considering ourselves lest we also be taken” (Galatians 6:1) and remembering to “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 John 3:23; 1 Peter 1:22).
“So often the end of a love affair is death by a thousand cuts, so often its survival is life by a thousand stitches.” ~Robert Brault
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee