by Arlie D. Rauch, pastor at Community Bible Church, Glendive, MT
Sheldon Vanauken, in his book Under the Mercy, writes of the worship of the god Eros in our generation. The god Eros, that romantic sensation, is more important to our society than the revelation of the Creator God. The god Eros is more important to our society than fidelity in marriage. Many will stay true to Eros though affairs abound and marriages crash. "Little children, guard yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).
A casual glance reveals that marriage in general is today languishing. Unfortunately the evangelical world, which claims an attachment to the Bible, wears an Achilles heel and is part of the problem. The Achilles heel is an inability to apply 1 Corinthians 7:11 to our issue in any meaningful way because of having undercut it with questionable interpretations and with interpretations based upon no statement of Scripture. We will consider this verse later.
In the mid 1980's I was preaching a series of messages through the book of 1 Corinthians and realized at the outset that I was not sure what to do with chapter 7, the chapter which deals with our subject. I had a position, but it was the result of my own logic balanced with what I thought was compassionate, and it did not give me the confidence required to teach the subject.
So I committed to reading all the books and positions I could find during a six-month period. I would read a book with one view and conclude that it made excellent sense. I would read another book from an opposing view and conclude that it made just as good sense. But that could not be. There had to be one message only coming from the pages of Scripture. I believe I was as neutral as it is possible to be. I just wanted to know what the Bible's message was--I would turn either direction.
Then I re-examined these books from a hermeneutical (laws of normal language usage) standpoint. At that time what was solid Biblical truth became clear as opposed to what one might want to be Biblical truth. Unfortunately, much teaching on the subject is what we call eisegesis, or reading into the text. Much teaching ignores statements of Scripture in effort to read in what one supposes the original readers must have understood.
The conclusion to which I came is basically that discussed in the book, Jesus and Divorce, by Heth and Wenham. It is the position held by the early church fathers, as far as we can tell. That does not in itself recommend it, but that does encourage our consideration. The view, which is elaborated below, is basically this: Marriage is a lifetime commitment and relationship; where divorce occurs, the two individuals involved should reconcile or remain single.
For the sake of order, we will list relevant verses in the sequence in which they appear in the Bible and make some comments. The comments will fit a wholesome, unified approach.
Genesis 2:24: For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
This verse sets the stage for all subsequent teaching regarding marriage and divorce. And well it should. It comes after the creation narrative when God has just instituted marriage by bringing to Adam the woman, Eve.
Though the verse does not delineate all we might wish, it definitely hints at the elaborations of it which come later. Its three clauses make three obvious points.
First, the relationship of the husband to the wife is to be primary. Before, the primary relationship was to father and mother. Second, "cleave" carries the idea of being glued together. It suggests a strong togetherness. Third, the "one flesh" speaks of a unity in the various aspects of life. To ever divide or break apart "one flesh" is not intended. To ever divide or break apart "one flesh" necessarily results at least in pain and suffering.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4: When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that 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 from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against 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 husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.
This passage does not in any way encourage divorce. It is case law and indicates what should be done in ancient Israel when divorce occurred. It presupposes that divorce would occur in some instances, for whatever reason, and on that basis gives the particular instruction that after a second marriage to a different partner, return to the first is prohibited.
The implication that does appear here is that the first marriage establishes something which is never later annihilated. For a reason not here stated, after the second marriage to someone else, the first marriage partner is not treated as other supposedly marriageable individuals are. In fact, the first marriage partner is now treated like a relative (see Leviticus 18) to which marriage is forbidden. That 'relative' status resulted from being married, and a divorce cannot undo it. This denies that a marriage can be dissolved in the sight of God as though it never occurred. Individuals who have been divorced often agree that in fact they are not rid of the previous relationship though legally it has been abolished.
Mal. 2:13-16: And this is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then, to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. "For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.
The last prophet before Jesus Christ's earthly visit lamented the fact that the worship of his people was not accepted by the Lord. Why? He cites divorce as the reason and refers to the ex-wife as "your companion," reminding us of the original institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24, and "your wife by covenant" (Similar terminology appears in Proverbs 2:17, indicating that this covenant is made before God).
Unfortunately the issue of breaking a covenant is hardly ever considered today. What about the vows made during the wedding? The Bible has something to say about breaking vows: it is sin to break a vow (Deuteronomy 23:21), and a vow breaker is called a fool (Ecclesiastes 5:4). That is surely not an encouragement to divorce. And it is possible for one spouse to keep vows even if the other spouse does not. This possibility is consistent with 1 Corinthians 7:11.
God's attitude toward divorce is clearly stated as being one of hatred. It is marvelous how some can acknowledge that and then proceed to show how in the plan of God He has approved of divorce in some cases! Is that not inconsistent?
Matt. 5:31-32 "And it was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Over the years a great deal of attention has been given to the exception clause, "except for the cause of unchastity." We will wait to treat it until the next passage. Some of the words used there are different, but the meaning is materially the same.
Jesus was referring here to the Jewish religious leaders' use of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They saw it as permission to divorce, and some saw it as permission to divorce for any reason. Jesus states here, as He gives a true understanding of the Law, that divorcing a person foists adultery upon the one divorced, especially so if that person remarries and perhaps in perception even if that person does not remarry. He also states that marrying a divorced person is the commission of adultery. Adultery is, in effect, the violation of a marriage or marriages.
Many in our society might simply respond, "So what?" Jesus is saying this to people who knew the Mosaic law's penalty for adultery. It was a capital crime (Leviticus 20:10). This is not a suggestion that we take matters into our own hands and begin eliminating adulterers. Our nation is not a theocracy founded by the LORD, and so its laws have originated differently. But the point is that we know God's attitude toward divorce and should act accordingly.
Matt. 19:3-12 And some Pharisees came to Him, testing Him, and saying, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?" And He answered and said, "Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh? Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."
Again, the Pharisees' question is based upon Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Notice that Jesus' answer refers back to Genesis 2:24, the institution of marriage at the end of the week of creation. He also put His hearers on notice that marriage is a divinely arranged union and to divide that union puts one in trouble with God.
That people appeal to this passage to find support for their divorces has always fascinated me. When those asking treat Moses' permission as a command, Jesus responds by explaining that the provision was due to the hardness of their hearts. Now, that is surely not a compliment but rather points out the sinfulness of human beings in this case expressed in divorce.
Also fascinating to me is the fact that extremely few people appeal to the parallel passage in Mark 10. The reason is that this passage in Matthew appears to give an exception, a loophole, an excuse which might be useful for someone looking for a rationale to divorce (and to remarry), while Mark does not record the exception. So we have to ask, Why does this Gospel have the exception, and no other?
Some word studies have been done in recent years showing the possibility that the word here translated "immorality" ("unchastity" in Matthew 5:32; the Greek word brought over into English in our word "fornication") had a technical meaning in Jewish society as opposed to the very broad, general meaning we usually assign to it. In that case, the exception would have no relevance to us today whatsoever.
Heth and Wenham in their book, Jesus and Divorce, are not so concerned about the precise meaning of "immorality." The exception phrase seems to qualify the right to divorce, rather than the right to remarry. The conclusion then is that to divorce without "immorality" is to commit adultery. To divorce with "immorality" is permissible. To marry a different spouse after a divorce likewise is to commit adultery, whether or not "immorality" was the reason for the divorce. This is grammatically possible and harmonizes very well with the rest of Scripture, especially with the parallel passage in Mark 10. So the passage then teaches that divorce is sometimes permissible, while marriage to another spouse after divorce is never permissible.
The surprise of the disciples supports this view. Jesus did not side with either of the popular teachers of the day. Hillel taught that remarriage after divorce was permissible for any reason. Shammai taught that remarriage after divorce was permissible for adultery.
Just as every person lives in a celibate state in certain periods of life, Jesus indicates that the grace of God is adequate to also enable a divorced person to live celibate. If this is not an acceptable condition, then one should be all the more committed to entering the state of marriage with due preparation and making that original marriage work.
Mark 10:2-12 And some Pharisees came up to Him, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" And they said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away." But 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. For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." And in the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. And He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery."
This passage is similar to Matthew's except for the lack of an exception clause. An addition is making the teaching apply to a wife as well as to a husband. In Jewish society at that time a wife was adulterous if she had extramarital relations, but the husband was treated leniently. Only the husband could actually divorce his spouse. Here what is applied to one side is also applied to the other side.
Luke 16:18 "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.
In concise form Luke's Gospel treats the subject in what seems a strange setting. But Jesus seems to address the issue because the Pharisees claimed to be keeping the law in the sight of people while in the sight of God they were actually breaking it. Divorce and remarriage was one example in which their interpretations gave them freedom which God never gave them.
The passage speaks clearly regarding marriage after divorce constituting adultery. It also makes marriage to a divorced person adulterous, a position hardly held anywhere today even in the face of clear statement.
1Cor. 7:8-16 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn. But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
The married are to be faithful to each other and not leave. If one does leave, he/she should remain single or be reconciled. Virtually every system which makes allowances for remarriage denies the teaching of this verse. But to observe its teaching allows one to be faithful to the marriage vows at least to the extent of not violating the original marriage with another marriage. And it allows the possibility of reconciling and fulfilling the original marriage. If one spouse marries someone else, the one spouse who does not remarry can still maintain the marriage vows in the sight of the God who takes them seriously even when no one else does.
Many believe that the statement that one is "not under bondage" when an unbelieving spouse leaves opens the door to remarriage. This views desertion as permission for remarriage. However, the context does not support that view. The issue being considered is whether a believing spouse must insist on an unbelieving spouse staying in the marriage when the unbelieving spouse wants to depart. Peace ensues when the believer lets the unbeliever depart. Remarriage is not being considered. To say that a marriage to a different spouse is allowed is to introduce something foreign to the context.
Permissions to remarry are based upon questionable interpretations of the exception clauses in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 and upon an intrusive interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15. Why would a person strain for such interpretations when clear statements regarding remarriage exist? Consider these two which are the only ones in the Bible:
1Cor. 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
These statements are crystal clear and harmonize with the other teaching regarding divorce and remarriage in all respects.
But some will say that this view is not compassionate, nor realistic. For being realistic, Jesus indicated in Matthew 19 that grace is available to live by the model God has instituted. As for being compassionate, which is more compassionate: truth, or error? Which is more compassionate: life situations which leave people disconnected and unsure of where they belong, or life situations which create security and identity?
The Church should be there to support the victims of divorce. But even before that, even before entering into marriage, there should be a counting of the cost. There must be a personal commitment to fidelity in marriage, there must be a commitment to the institution as taught in the Scriptures in all of its beauty, there must be an investment that seeks to weld the marriage together so that it cannot and will not come apart. There must be an abandonment of selfishness and a submission to the will of the God who made us, who sent His Son to redeem us from our sins, who also blesses with the Holy Spirit those who believe so that they can fulfill His created purpose.
There are those who have divorced and remarried under the teaching of pastors who taught that it was acceptable. We must exercise compassion to such. However, if they are ever to teach their own children and others the monogamous relationship God intended marriage to be, they will need to admit their own sin. Otherwise, they need not be surprised when others follow their example with yet more divorces and remarriages.
To move freely in and out of marriage is to cause society to disintegrate. Never has a healthy society been built upon such a foundation. The society which ignores God does so at its own peril. God instituted marriage. God has the right to say what is proper regarding marriage and divorce. God enables those who believe to fulfill the plan He has revealed in His Word.
To discuss further the issues raised in this article, you may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.