Previous article in this series: February 15, 2005, p. 220.
Last issue we considered the factors contributing so heavily to the increased number of divorces plaguing society in general, and, sad to say, the Christian church to the same degree. We stated that there were three main factors: first, the adoption of lenient (no-fault) divorce laws by our society; second, the number of women, and in particular mothers and wives, out in the workforce rather than being ‘keepers at home’ (Tit. 2:5); and third (but not least), television, with its pernicious and pervasive influence in the home.
We turn now to the central reason why the state of marriage of professing Christians is essentially no different today than that of unbelieving society. It is not difficult to discover. It is the twenty-first century church’s willful ignoring of Christ’s clear words concerning divorce and remarriage.
One would think that, whatever the law (the legal allowance) of the land, be it no-fault divorce, making divorce easy to obtain, it ought have little effect on Christian marriage. After all, Christians are governed by a higher law, the law of Christ Jesus, the great bridegroom, and His Word. This should be the great restraint for Christians against the temptation of imitating the world and seeking to ‘solve their marital problems’ by filing for divorce.
So one would think!
But this is not the case. The one great dyke needed to stop the present-day flood of divorce from drowning the church’s life and witness, needed to separate and protect marriages of professing Christians from the violent storms wreaking havoc on worldlings’ marriages, has been leveled and ignored.
The present situation in Christendom is this: her church pews are filled not only with those who are divorced, but also with many divorcees who are remarried. Those who have abandoned their families and spouses and proceeded to marry the new love of their life remain as members.
All admit that this is not ideal. So, what to do? Today, churches content themselves with a ‘confession.’ “Yes, looking back I can see that I was guilty of sin in my dealings with my other spouse(s). I now humbly admit that. As a sinner I am sorry. (But let him who is without sin cast the first stone!)”
That having been said, absolution is granted, and life within the church goes on. (Everybody is called to be ‘so forgiving’ you know. Even that young mother with three young school-age children sitting three rows behind her ‘ex’ with the new ‘love of his life.’)
The reality is this, churches do not believe and teach that marriage is for life. “Till death us do part” is, they acknowledge, the biblical ideal. But it is only an ideal! In real life it is different. Believers cannot be held to the ideal, not if one judges that he or she needs to start all over again. So, common practice has become this: one has freedom of conscience within the church to determine his own need for a divorce (Judge not!), and whatever remarried person desires yet to have communion within the church, perhaps having confessed “I am a sinful man, O Lord!” is received into fellowship again.
The problem with such a ‘confession’ is that it is not a repentance. If the new relationship is the result of sin and is itself, according to God’s Word, an adulterous one, one does not put things right by continuing in that forbidden relationship. One is called to leave it. That is repentance. Not saying, “I admit what I have done was sin, so now I can continue this way.” But such is ‘repentance’ these days.
What it comes down to today is this: whatever is allowed by the state, the church recognizes as valid and as having the approval of God. The argument is that the church is compelled to recognize all these divorces and remarriages. After all, we live in a divorce-prone society. Allowances must be made.
Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is markedly different. He did not, for expediency, adopt the prevailing practice and ‘legal allowances’ of His day. He went directly against its current.
Christ’s view of marriage and divorce is quite simple. #1—Marriage is for life, a permanent bond as long as both still live. #2—There are not many grounds and God-approved reasons for divorce, but one and one only, namely, adultery (the unfaithfulness of one’s spouse). And #3—Divorce does not dissolve the marriage bond, not even if granted for the biblical reason of adultery. One’s God-given spouse remains one’s spouse, though living as divorced, that is, in separated fashion. The divorced Christian must continue to live singly, or be reconciled to that spouse. God alone has the power to terminate one’s marriage, namely, through death. Men’s laws and pronouncements cannot undo and unravel what God has put together.
To put it as succinctly as possible—Did you make a lawful vow to another in marriage? God will hold you to it until one of you has died.
This, we are convinced, is Scripture’s teaching for the New Testament believer. To be sure, it is high, it is demanding, but it is what the Lord of the church plainly requires, and what the apostles taught as well.
It is also completely out of step with almost everything that is taking place in the arena of divorce and remarriage in Christendom today. Or, more accurately, everything taught and allowed today is out of step with the Lord’s teaching on this matter. As out of step as the Jewish nation was (including Christ’s own disciples at first) when Christ first uttered these words back then. “It hath been said…, but I say unto you….”
There are four main passages in the gospel accounts that record Christ’s own teaching on the matter of divorce and remarriage. The first is found in Matthew 5:31, 32 (in the well-known Sermon on the Mount). Matthew 5 is where you have Christ’s list of “You have heard that it hath been said in old times…, But I say unto you….” In Matthew 5 Christ sets down the ‘new’ laws that are to bind His New Testament church and kingdom.
The second is found in Matthew 19:3-12. There are found the significant words, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (v. 6). It is not the law of the state that is to govern New Testament believers in the matter of the bond of marriage, nor yet Moses’ law (Old Testament allowances), but God’s Word through His Son. This goes back to the original marriage ordinance at the beginning.
The third significant passage is recorded inMark 10:2-12, which passage, significantly, comes immediately prior to the incident of the Lord Jesus taking the little children into His arms and blessing them. Anyone who does not see the purpose of the gospel writer in putting these two things in closest proximity, namely, Christ’s forbidding of divorce with an eye to the right to remarry, and putting His arms around little children in His compassion, is willingly blind.
And the fourth is Luke 16:18. A strange text in some ways. It reads: “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” This is as straight forward as it comes.
The strangeness is the context. What Christ has been talking about to this point seems to have nothing at all to do with marriage. One is mystified why Christ would insert a word against divorce and remarriage here. Why did He do that?
The explanation has to do with a Lord Christ bristling with anger. He has just charged the Pharisees with serving “mammon” (material wealth) rather than God. They have responded by deriding Him (v. 14). In anger, Christ charges them with justifying themselves before men, and He speaks of that which is an abomination in the sight of God. In this context He inserts these words against divorce and remarriage. He is indicating an area where they have most angered the God of the covenant. It had to do with the scandal of their marriage teachings and the treatment of their vows as a consequence, to say nothing of their spouses.
Let the church be warned. You want to make your Lord good and angry? Adopt the Jewish view of marriage and ignore Christ’s teachings on divorce and remarriage.
What is significant about the above four passages for our day and age is the historical context in which they were stated. They were stated in the context of a nation and a church where divorce and remarriage was common practice, as it is in the church of our own day.
We read in Matthew 19:3 that the Pharisees came to Jesus tempting Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” This was the practice of the church at that time. It amounted to ‘no-fault divorce’ as far as the husband was concerned. All that was needed was to go to the temple, state your unhappiness with the wife (irreconcilable differences), and secure a bill of divorcement. Once signed by the priest, it was all legal and recognized. One was free to marry again. Little different from today.
The Pharisees claimed that this was permitted by Moses, so why should Jesus condemn them?
Without getting into the reasons why God instructed Moses to permit divorce and remarriage in Old Testament times (having to do with the hard-hearted in that nation), this much is indisputable, that Christ Jesus, the new Lawgiver of the New Testament church, was not going to allow this practice to continue in the New Testament kingdom. It was to cease in the church with Christ’s coming.
First, what Christ is saying here is not merely that it is wrong to attempt to loose two from each other (really, trying to loose them from their vows), but that really it is impossible. What God has done, let not man think that he can undo. The word translated “hath put together” means literally “hath yoked together.” So, let not man think he has any right or power to undo that yoke. If he presumes to, he sins. The yoke remains until God removes it.
Second, what Christ is saying in these passages is that the church, in her new spiritual maturity, is going to return, now that the great Bridegroom has come, to what God intended from the very beginning. What came with Sinai in this area is abrogated and done. Let it be understood from now on that once you take a vow of marriage before the face of God, you are yoked together for life.
Does that give you pause before you yoke yourself to somebody for life? Good! That’s the point. It is not easy in, easy out. After all, we all make mistakes. No, you are committed for life. It is for better or for worse, remember?
What Jesus had to say about the permanency of the marriage bond was so new and sharp and foreign to the disciples’ ears that, as we read in Mark 10:10, the disciples asked Him again of the same matter. In other words, “Lord, did we hear you right? Do you really mean what you said?” You did! And I do. At this point He pointedly states, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.” How much plainer can Christ be!
The question is, are we, as twenty-first century Christians, to take Him seriously, at His word, so to speak? Well, the apostles did, that’s for sure.
Before ending this article, there are three points we want to make in connection with Christ’s doctrine of divorce.
First, it is plain from the passages referred to, that according to Christ there is but one lawful ground for divorce, namely, adultery. Matthew 5:32declares that “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.” Matthew 19:9makes the same allowance: “except it be for fornication” (sexual unfaithfulness). Christ explicitly, in direct contrast to the prevailing practice of His time—divorce permitted for every reason—refused to allow any other consideration as a God-approved ground.
This is not saying that one must divorce his spouse if he has been unfaithful. Adultery is not the unforgivable sin, not when it is confessed and turned from. But one may (has the right to) divorce in the instance of adultery. It is the only God-approved reason.
Nor does this leave a wife with no recourse if a husband is abusive, nor a husband with no recourse if the wife is abusive to the children. In such circumstances one may, for safety purposes, move for temporary separation, for instance, a restraining order. But this is not yet divorce, which allows for a permanent separation due to past misdeeds.
Second, this divine refusal to countenance divorce has everything to do with the character of God. As God stated already in the Old Testament to Malachi, when divorce was becoming common amongst the very priests themselves, “…and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away” (2:15). This, Christ makes plain, has not changed in New Testament times.
And third, as we said previously, divorce does not end the marriage in the sense of dissolving the marriage. If it did, why would Christ say inMatthew 5:32, “…and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery”? Evidently, though divorced, she still has a husband. If not, the new husband would not be guilty of adultery. (This matter of forbidding remarriage even when properly divorced we intend to address more at length next time.)
In this connection a question still needs to be answered. But what about those who are divorced, who did so for an unbiblical reason, but due to a certain ignorance and with the approval of one’s church? The deed is done. It cannot be undone. What now? Is there no remedy or hope with God?
Yes, there is. The remedy is to make confession of one’s sin to God, informing both one’s church and spouse that it is so, and then doing what one can to seek reconciliation with one’s spouse. It may be too late for any realistic hope for that to occur. Still, one has tried to put matters right. One may then have a good conscience that one did attempt to undo one’s wrong and honor God’s Word. Such a one may have peace with God and full acceptance by the church of Christ.
…to be continued.