Western society, which once used bemoan divorce as shameful, now wants to celebrate the moment when two people break their vows asunder. A quick Google search reveals that Americans can now buy divorce cake toppers featuring a groom being drag off to the trash can, divorce party banners celebrating singleness, and divorce party buttons courtesy of Pinterest and Etsy. As a woman told the Daily Mail back in February, “My divorce party was a form of closure that made me feel in charge of my destiny…If you’ve been unhappy in marriage, why not celebrate the fact that you are free and single again?” Why not celebrate divorce?
Many in our churches are asking the same question. I have repeatedly heard church members state how their divorce is a good thing. Because a divorce will free them from their toxic relationship, they can and must get divorced. If they do not dissolve their marriage vows, they risk losing their chance at true happiness and fulfillment. As the English author and activists, Julia Stephenson said about her first marriage, “I became fixated with the idea that I’d made a dreadful mistake in settling for someone whom I had mistakenly assumed was the best I could hope for.” Many Christians agree. If they can do better than their first spouse, they should have the freedom to get divorced and remarried.
More and more people both inside and outside the church are concluding that divorce is an inescapable reality. As relationship therapist Marisa Peer said, “we’re living longer, which means those who marry in their 20s can expect to spend 70 years with the same person, which is often unrealistic.” Thus, divorce appears to be both needed and inevitable if we are to have fulfilling lives.
Although our western culture is clearly embracing divorce as a natural and needed phenomenon worthy of celebration, should we as Christians normalize and embrace the growing divorce culture? How should react to the news that our best friends are hiring attorneys? What should we tell our loved ones when they come to us detailing their marriage problems? How do we deal with divorce?
Admittedly, divorce is a tricky and difficult subject for the church to engage. In Mark 10:1-12, we read that the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce because they hoped to stump him. They hoped that discussing the topic would hurt and harm Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees knew that when Jesus addressed the topic of divorce he would be saying hard things to hurting people. Yet, Jesus tackled the question head-on. The text says, “He answered them.” And, we must do the same. We must bring the Scriptures, God’s words, to bear on every subject regardless of its complexity.
And now, we are back to the question that Jesus faced and that we face, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” How should we think about, approach, and react to divorce?
We must value marriage above all else. God never intended for us to get divorced. The guidelines for the divorce arise after the fall of Adam and Eve because of sin. Jesus says in Mark 10:5, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Divorce is always and in every way caused by sin. But in supporting marriage we must neither go beyond the limits of Scripture nor take away from God’s Word.
Back in Jesus’ day, many of the Jews interpreted the Old Testament law found in Deuteronomy 24:1 to imply that a man could divorce his wife for any indecency. They thought a man could divorce his wife because she messed up his clothes or overcooked his dinner. The Jews had essentially created no-fault divorce culture and were often quick to get divorced.
Jesus wanted them to understand that this view of marriage was antagonistic to God’s design. As Jesus says, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” God created Adam and then created Eve. He created one man and one women and designed them to live together forever, a life span that far exceeds 70 years.
Instead of being the outliers, the exception to the rule, Adam and Eve are the rule for marriage. Notice what Jesus says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast two his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:7-9)
God designed us to live with our spouse for “as long as we both shall live.” We should embrace marriage as good and right. Marriage is not the creation of man. God created marriage. He created Eve to be with Adam. He created the female to be the perfect helpmate and complement to the male (Gen. 1&2). God did not create multiple Eves and multiple Adams. No. He created one of each. He made one man from the dust and one woman from Adam’s rib. The union of marriage is between two people. It is not a three pronged or four pronged human relationship. God is not open to open marriages and to polyamorous relationships. No. God designed all of us who get married to be with one woman or one man for life.
As we reflect upon the church, we see this truth again. God has one bride, his church. He is committed to her irrespective of her many faults (and she has many). Jesus died for her. As Paul writes in Ephesians 5:31-32,
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
God’s design is for one man to be married to one woman for their lifetime.
When a couple speaks their vows, it is not a man or a woman or a pastor or parent who is the main actor- main doer. God is. God joins a husband and a wife into a one-flesh union. God does that. – John Piper
When a husband and wife come together, they become one. They become one physically in the marriage bed. As they become one, they should seek to make much of the other. The husband seeks to fulfill his wife. The wife seeks to fulfill her husband. As each make more of the other, they both experience completeness and oneness.
But sex is not the sole definition of our oneness. As Paul David Tripp says, “Sex is not the fuel of a good relationship; it is the expression or fruit of one.”
The oneness in marriage is ultimately a covenant bond. It is a covenant of love. It is an oneness created when two people come together promising to overlook faults, promising to point their spouse to Christ, and promising always to forgive. It is an agreement based upon the work of Christ. Because Christ has loved us in our weakness and imperfections, we can and must love our spouse regardless of their imperfections. We must be vulnerable and allow them to be vulnerable with us. As we share our thoughts, receive the thoughts of our spouse, and proclaim Christ to both of our souls, we experience the oneness of marriage. Instead of running to our mom or dad with our hearts, we share them with our spouse. Instead of yelling at our wives, we lovingly confess our sins to them and point them to truth. When this level of spiritual and emotionally oneness exists, we can expect the physical to oneness to follow.
And when it comes to parenting and to God’s design for the family it is also extremely evident that both a man and a woman are needed. The family, the very core of society is rooted in this oneness. Sociologist David Popenoe writes,
“The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary – culturally and biologically – for the optimal development of a human being… While mothers provide an important flexibility and sympathy in their discipline, fathers provide ultimate predictability and consistency. Both dimensions are critical for an efficient, balanced, and humane child rearing regime.”
Consequently, the greatest indicator of whether or not a child will succeed is not their IQ or their social standing. The best measure of whether or not a child will succeed in life is their parents. Children from broken homes are much less likely to succeed than children from families with a mother and a father. Both parents are needed because together they are one.
As John Piper rightfully notes, “Marriage is God’s doing because spoke the earliest design of it into existence, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”
God created marriage. We must value marriage. We must not and cannot celebrate divorce with parties, cakes, and vacations. Divorce is not a good thing. It is the shattering of God’s institutions. We cannot simply opt out of a marriage because we realized that we settled or did not marry up as much as we initially hoped No, marriage is God’s design. To shatter that design is to bring harm and injure upon all involved. Malachi 2:16 says,
For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.
And even many of the people involved in these divorce parties admitted as much. One woman said, “’I was too shocked to eat, was prescribed antidepressants and didn’t have the confidence to leave the house,” Another said, “’I felt like my heart had been ripped out,’
Divorce is violent. It brings pain, doubt, depression, debt, despair, and all kinds of sinful consequences. It is as God said, “violence.” And those who pursue divorce, cover their family with violence. Divorce is never a good thing. Hence, Christ tells us to cling to our spouses. We should value marriage and hate divorce.
But in our desire to defend marriage we cannot exceed the bounds of God’s Word. We cannot prohibit all divorce. At times divorce is necessary and needed because we live in a fallen world. Writing about Jesus’ use of the phrase “the hardness of your hearts,” Pastor Tim Keller notes,
Sometimes human hearts become so hard because of sin that it leads a spouse into a severe violation of the covenant, without prospects of repentance and healing and in such cases divorce is permitted.
God hates divorce and is against divorce. But when an unbelieving spouse leaves his wife and when a husband commits adultery, the spouse that has been sinned against is free from judgement and may remarry. Paul restates this truth clearly in I Corinthians 7:12-13. The believing spouse, the spouse seeking to honor God should always seek to have their marriage restored, because Christ sought us out while we were still sinners. But if your wife still wishes to run off with her high school boyfriend, you can let her go and you are free to remarry. If your spouse has committed sexual immorality, if they have had an affair, you can get divorced and remarried.
But, we should never long for or want a divorce. The covenant of marriage is a covenant built on forgiveness. Yet, there are times when divorce is our only option.
I knew a man who had to have his foot amputated to save his life. The surgery was a necessary thing. Without it he would die. He knew it was better for him to live with one foot than to die with two. But he still mourned the loss of his foot. Amputation is never a great practice, even when necessary.
In much the same way, there are times with divorce is the best option. Divorce is needed because nothing else will save the innocent parties. But, divorce is never a good thing. Someone has sinned and someone has been sinned against.
As John MacArthur and the elders of his church wrote,
Since divorce is a concession to man’s sin and is not part of God’s original plan for marriage, all believers should hate divorce as God does and pursue it only when there is no other recourse.
We are to love and cherish marriage and yet, recognize as Jesus did, that sin sometimes leaves us with no other option but divorce. Divorce is permissible because of the hardness of people’s hearts. We must be sure not to go beyond the bounds of Scripture when talking about divorce.
But, we also must not take away from Scripture to justify our actions or the actions of our friends. We cannot justify those who sinned by pursuing an unbiblical divorce.
To make this reality very clear, Jesus tells his disciples “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” – Mark 10:10-11.
If a church member decides to divorce his wife for anything other than sexual immorality, he commits adultery. If a woman decides to forsake her husband for anything other than immorality, she commits adultery. There is no gray space with God. What Julia Stephenson did was wrong. She committed adultery when she got divorced in an effort to find a better mate. In God’s eyes, she is not free to remarry. She needs to repent of her sin and go and be reconciled with her husband if possible.
We must give the same advice to the man in our church who is convinced that he can leave his wife for Susie next door because she is his soulmate. We must preach this same truth to Sally when she longs to leave her husband for the kinder coworker who can empathize with her pain. Divorcing your husband or wife so that you can be with other people is just a bad as having an affair with them. Divorce for selfish reasons is sin. Do not miss this.
It is not pleasing to God. It is sin. It is for this very sin that Christ died on the Christ. He did not die so that you could live out your sinful fantasies. He did not die so that you could call evil good. He died so that you could escape these evil desires by clinging to Christ. The solution to our marriage and life problems is not divorce. It is repentance.
When we encounter men and women considering divorce, we must speak truth. We value you marriage because God created the institution. Yet, we must never go beyond the bounds of Scripture. We must realize that divorce is permissible in cases of unfaithfulness and desertion. And, we must never take away from Scripture blessing those who sinfully seek out divorce.
Admittedly, our society is increasingly at peace with divorce. Couples will be spending more and more time together. They will need more grace from above to survive their marriages. But, the best remedy for a troubled marriage is not more divorce. Rather, we need to value marriage, showing how Christ’s reconciliation on the cross provides us with the power to survive and thrive in the covenant of marriage.
Are you ready to do this?