According to some religious people, you can have the sexual ethic of an out-of-control frat boy and still never sleep with anyone other your spouse. In first century Judaism, religious leaders happened upon this arrangement through the practice of no fault divorce. If the leader’s wife gained weight, nagged too much, or simply became a bore, the men of that era would march down to the local town council, file a complaint listing one of the afore mentioned criticisms, and then return home with a divorce certificate. That night, they would push their wife to the curb. The following morning, they would go out and marry their secretary, enjoying ‘marital’ intimacy with their new and improve spouse. The whole thing was legal and condoned by the religious community. These men never officially cheated on anyone and yet, were free to engage new sexual partners as often as they had the inclination. Selfishness masquerading as personal happiness had been both sanctified and institutionalized.
Is Divorce Good?
Jesus, however, was not impressed with this arrangement. Jesus opposed divorce because it stands in violated the ethic of the Kingdom of God. Marriage exists to picture Christ’s love for the church. Though the Church stumbles into error, becomes selfish, Jesus never abandon his bride. He pursues her, cares for her, sanctifies her, and sacrifices for her. When a man and a woman marry, they commit to pursuing, caring, sanctifying, and sacrificing for their spouse even when life is unpleasant. They commit to building a relationship that resembles Jesus’s love for his people.
When a man divorces his wife because he has grown distant from her, he defies the notions of meekness, mercy, and peacemaking that Jesus prioritized. When a woman divorces her husband because he was a bore and then marries her neighbor because he promises more relational excitement and better sexual intimacy, she too defies the commands of God. Instead of pursuing their spouses, sacrificing for them, and humbly overlooking their faults, the people in the above scenarios boast in their abilities, extend merciless condemnation, and lay downs ultimatums that if not fulfilled will free them to pursue a new sexual partner. In short, people divorce because they refuse to love their spouse. Jesus always loves.
The results of divorce evidence that divorce results from an absence of love. A recent Huffington Post article noted that the divorce process produces the following emotions: shock, pain, anger, angst, sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame. Instead of liberating or enriching the soul, divorce destroys the hearts of all involved. The prophet Malachi sums up the brutal nature of divorce writing,
“Let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts.” So guard yourselves in your spirit and do not be faithless.
Divorce produces results at odds with the revealed will of God. With this in mind, we can understand why Jesus says,
“everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt 5:32b).”
While sex remains an intimate part of marriage it is not the totality of marriage covenant. According to Genesis 2:24, marriage exists to foster spiritual, physical, and emotional connection between one man and one women as long as they both shall live. In Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus affirmed the Genesis creation mandate, stating,
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 no man separate.
Is Divorce Every Ok?
Though Jesus stands against divorce, he does allow his followers to initiate divorce if their spouse has engaged in sexual intimacy with someone else. When a husband walks in on his wife in bed with another man or woman, his marriage covenant has been shattered by his spouse’s unfaithfulness. The apostle Paul notes, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” In other words, sexual immorality reorients the marriage pact from the husband to the person having the affair with the wife. The marriage is over the moment she cheats. Jesus understands that the brokenness of the world can profoundly touch our lives through no fault of our own and provides the hurting with a means of gracious deliverance from sin.
At this juncture, the husband may either pursue his wife or he may divorce her. As a pastor, my heart aligns with John Stott who said,
“I have made it a rule never to speak with anyone about divorce, until I have first spoken with them about two other subjects, namely marriage and reconciliation.”
Reconciliation should always be explored. But if the husband says, “no” and wants to move forward with a divorce, he has the freedom in Christ to divorce his unfaithful wife and to marry a new bride. But even in this case, sin still necessitates the divorce. Had the wife been faithful, the husband would never have filed divorce papers.
Moreover, the believing spouse bears no guilt if her spouse chooses to leave the marriage. If a wife finds herself staring at divorce papers even though she has never cheated and has fought to foster a healthy marriage, she is free to allow her unbelieving husband to go. Paul writes, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace (1 Cor 7:15).” If a husband leaves his marriage because he finds his wife dull, the wife left behind has not sinned and is free to remarry.
How the Church Helps
Church discipline proves helpful in assessing such abandonment. If a husband threatens to leave his wife for reasons not tied to sexual sin, the local church should intervene, working through the steps of church discipline found in Matthew 18. If the man refuses to listen to the pleas of his wife and then to the pleas of his wife and the leaders of the church, the leaders of the church should take the case to the whole church. If the husband still refuses to reconcile with his wife, the church should excommunicate him. Jesus says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Once the church labels the man and unbeliever and the divorce is complete, the woman attains the freedom to remarry. The congregation can openly affirm her faith and love for others. They church can provide her with counseling and help her cover the cost of restarting her life. Conversely, they can call the husband to repentance and faith. When properly exercised, church polity proves to be a powerful tool for believers walking through the complexities of divorce.
Because of sin, Jesus allows the believer to divorce his or her spouse after the spouse commits a sexual sin that annuls their marriage vows. Jesus also allows believers to let their unbelieving spouses divorce them.
Because the human heart struggles to live out the kingdom ethic of Jesus, a host of other divorce scenarios exist. Wives who hold down great jobs and manage the family find themselves married to deadbeat husbands who live and sleep in the garage playing video games. Husbands wake up next to wives who ruthlessly insult and malign them week after week. Other women find their marriage to be a constant source of misery for their husband does nothing but rave angerly at their kids. Others lament their marriage because their wife’s atheistic views prevent them from being in ministry. In all these cases and more, divorce seems preferable to a lifetime of marital pain. Many in such marriages assume that Jesus would sanction their divorce.
But according to Jesus, those who divorce because their marriage has become a profound source of misery commit adultery. Instead of divorcing, the believing spouse should remain in the marriage, extending grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, and peace to the offending spouse. As Paul notes, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife (1 Cor 7:16)?” If the unbelieving spouse is willing to stay in the marriage and has not committed sexual sin, the believing spouse must not divorce. By staying he or she brings the hope and blessing of God to bear on the marriage.
If abuse is involved, the legal authorities should be involved and the church should do anything and everything to keep the wife and kids save. Safety is a prerequisite for reconciliation.
Singleness is Pretty Good
Jesus’s understanding of divorce and its implication for less than happy marriages proves hard to stomach for many. Even his disciples thought as much, telling Jesus, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Indeed, singleness is to be preferred to a bad marriage. Singleness is not a blight on the soul. Rather it is a gift through which spiritual ministry can flow. As noted above, marriage is a profound blessing when entered into by two souls committed to the kingdom ethic through faith. But the glory of Christian marriage does not negate the glory of singleness. Paul notes, “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better (1 Cor 7:38).”
If men and women exchange marriage partners like a sex-crazed college student, they have not discovered morality. They have simply rebranded and institutionalized adultery, employing divorce as a social mechanism of dignified violence. May God give us the grace needed to value singleness and to uphold the kingdom ethic of love and marriage.