RPM, Volume 14, Number 39, September 23 to September 29, 2012

What Does the Bible Say About Divorce?

Matthew 19:1-12

By Mike Osborne

I have performed a lot of weddings. And in every wedding, somewhere in the ceremony the man looks at the woman and says, "I, Joe, take you, Mary, to be my wedded wife; and I do promise and covenant, before God and these witnesses; to be your loving and faithful husband; in plenty and in want; in joy and in sorrow; in sickness and in health; as long as we both shall live."

Unfortunately, if statistics are anything close to accurate, Joe & Mary may very well, after 5, 7, or 8 or more years, call it quits. They will tell their friends they got married too young. They will tell the judge they have irreconcilable differences. They will explain to their little boy that it's not his fault, but mommy and daddy can't get along, and it'll be better if daddy moves out. And so another family falls & breaks on the rocks of divorce.

45-50% of all marriages end in divorce. But as many of you know, divorce doesn't really end anything. Most of the time it only creates additional problems: financial, emotional, social, spiritual, even physical.

Some of you think it could never happen to you. But I want you to know, not one marriage in this room is divorce-proof. If you're married, but for God's grace you'd be a divorced person today.

If you've been divorced, don't run away from it; don't let guilt or shame overcome you. It's important that we talk about this topic without fear. And even if your sin contributed to the divorce, let me remind you of what we sang earlier today: "Jesus has hushed the law's loud thunder, he has quenched Mt. Sinai's flame, he has washed up with his blood, he has brought us nigh to God." Grace is greater than your divorce.

So let's see what the Bible say about divorce.

  • I. God's design for marriage
  • II. God's concession of divorce
  • III.Some words of application

This passage is one of the foundational places where you find the Lord's teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

Setting (vs. 3) — Some Pharisees came "to test Jesus."

They wanted to trap him, to make him look foolish in front of the crowd, to back him into a corner. So they asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" There were two schools of thought on that question at the time. There was a conservative view and a liberal view. Just like today you have conservatives and liberals lining up at these town hall meetings to trap Romney and Obama.

The question revolved around an OT passage — Deut. 24:1-4, where Moses talked about a man who finds "something indecent" in his wife and divorces her. The key phrase is "something indecent." Lit., it means "thing of nakedness" or "thing of uncleanness." It's hard to ascertain exactly what Moses meant by "thing of nakedness." The conservatives, who followed rabbi Shammai's teaching, said that "something indecent" had to be some sexual sin, marital infidelity, or adultery. The libs, who followed rabbi Hillel, said that "something indecent" could be just about anything the husband didn't like. If she burned the bacon one morning, he could divorce her. If she was overweight, he could divorce her.

"So Jesus, is Hillel correct?" the Pharisees asked. "Can a man divorce his wife for any and every reason?" And Jesus, instead of choosing sides, takes the Pharisees back to Genesis 1-2. "Haven't you read" (vs. 4) "that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

What's Jesus saying? He's saying that marriage is a one-flesh, permanent union of one man and one woman. It is meant to be an indissoluble, life-long covenant between a man and a woman, separable only by death.

Notice some important words…

  • • Vs. 6 — marriage is a "joining" of two people by God.
  • • Vs. 5 - Marriage is a leaving and a cleaving. The husband and wife leave their parents, they leave their separate homes, and in the presence of God and witnesses they make promises to each other and enter into a new relationship that binds or "cleaves" them together, that seals them together like glue, so that where they were two individuals they are now one.

It's somewhat mystical, I know. It's a little bit like the Trinity, where you have three divine Persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — yet these three are not disconnected, independent beings but one God. (Illus.: Velcro) In the same way, God cements the husband and wife together in such a way that, without losing their individual, unique personalities, they yet are from the moment of the wedding on, one flesh, one person. Romans 7.2 says, "a married woman is bound to her husband." That means they are intimate in every way. They share everything and talk about everything. They have no secrets. They make decisions together, they suffer together, they fail together, they succeed together. They are bare and unclothed with each other: physically, emotionally, spiritually. They are, in a word, each other's closest companion. That's why God instituted marriage in the first place, for companionship. It wasn't good for the man to be alone.

Divorce, then, is contrary to God's ideal. It separates people that are supposed to stay together for life. The Bible uses words like "cut off," "put away," "dismiss," "release," "loose from," and "expel" to describe divorce. Divorce is an amputation, a severing of one person from another, a painful ripping apart. Illus.: I had an ACDF (anterior cervical discectomy & fusion) at C6/C7. The herniated disc is removed and replaced with a piece of cadaver bone, and the vertebrae above and below the disc are fused together with a metal plate… Divorce is like that. It's a termination of something that's meant to go on and on until someone dies.

Now… you might think, because of Jesus' strong language, that that's the end of discussion. Once you're married, there's no way out. Divorce is out of the question. Right? Wrong.

II. Jesus goes on to say that there are times when divorce is permitted.

What I want to do is show you that Jesus does not command divorce, but neither does he absolutely condemn it. He does not commend divorce; instead, he concedes it.

Vss. 7-9

Notice that the Pharisees get it wrong. They say Moses commanded divorce. He did no such thing. Moses was not instituting divorce; he was regulating it. He was saying, "If a man writes a bill of divorcement, here's what you do." And Jesus corrects the Pharisees by saying, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives."

There are examples of divorce in the Bible that God clearly sanctions.

  • • Ezra 9-10 — God commanded the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives.
  • • Matt 1 — Joseph is called a "just man," yet he was planning to divorce his fiancée Mary when she became pregnant.
  • • In the OT, we read that God divorced his wife Israel for her repeated idolatry — Hos 2, Jer 3, etc.

Illus.: So, (like a china dish) to say that marriage should be permanent does not mean it cannot or must not ever be broken. Other than the death of a spouse (and I wouldn't recommend that you try that one), the marriage covenant can be broken in two ways:

A. "Marital unfaithfulness"

Vs. 9 — "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

This verse has been debated for centuries, so let me see what I can do to boil it down. There are two Greek words in vs. 9 you need to understand. "Marital unfaithfulness" is the Greek word "porneia" (pornography). It's the most general word in the Greek vocabulary for sexual sin. It is used for a host of different sexual aberrations in the Bible: prostitution, adultery, fornication, incest, homosexuality, polygamy, bestiality… any expression of sexuality outside the relationship of marriage between a man and a woman.

In the Bible, "porneia" or its Hebraic equivalent is also used in a figurative sense. The prophets, for example, spoke about Israel's idolatry and unfaithfulness to the Lord using the language of porneia. That's why the NIV translators use the phrase "marital unfaithfulness." The ESV translators went with a more literal translation. They translate porneia as "sexual immorality." So let's just say that porneia is any kind of immoral activity that breaks the covenantal, one-flesh union of husband and wife. The other Greek word at the end of vs. 9 is "moichea." It's more narrow. It means adultery — intimacy between a married person and someone other than his/her spouse.

So Jesus is saying is saying that when a husband or wife engages in certain kinds of activity, esp. sexual activity, activity that violates or ruptures the one-flesh relationship, the offended spouse may file for divorce. That would not be a sinful divorce, even though sin caused the divorce.

He or she doesn't have to get a divorce, mind you. Divorce is not commanded; it is permitted. And if divorce happens because of the sexual sin of one of the partners, the innocent partner may remarry. Because the marriage has been terminated. It is over. If the exception clause of vs. 9 has been met, the offended spouse is free to remarry.

Now, all sorts of questions might be asked at this point. For example, can a person divorce a spouse who has an addiction, such as pornography or gambling? Or what if your spouse gets into an emotional affair with another person? If in fact porneia is a general word that applies to all sorts of "unfaithful" activities, might it apply to things like that? Maybe. Maybe not.

Let's admit that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Sometimes if we want out of a marriage we will find a reason that sounds halfway biblical. Our sinful nature leans in the direction of expanding the list of things we might use to justify divorce. We must not do that.

But… PCA position paper: "If a person becomes so obsessed with [such activities] that they become a substitute for fulfilling the conjugal rights of the spouse, then they could be understood to break the one-flesh union…judgment will have to rest with the Session in their application of biblical principles. The guiding principle should be whether the…sin does indeed break the one-flesh relationship."

I said that the marriage covenant can be broken in two ways. One way is porneia (Matt 19:9, 5:32). The other is in 1 Cor 7. In this chapter, the apostle Paul answers some questions that the Corinthians had about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Vss. 1-9: he echoes what Gen 1-2 say about the gift of marriage and the intimacy of the one-flesh union. Then in vss. 10-16, Paul speaks to two different groups of people. In Vss. 10-11, he addresses husbands & wives who are both Christians.

Notice that Paul doesn't repeat the exception clause. He doesn't have to. It is assumed. But, if divorce occurs for something other than porneia, the husband and wife must remain single. That's the penalty for a sinful divorce. Remaining single makes it possible for the husband and wife to be reconciled with each other, which is certainly the ideal. Vss. 12-16: Paul addresses a mixed marriage. One spouse is a Christian and the other is not. Vss. 12-14: if you're married to a non-Christian, you must not initiate a divorce just because they don't share your faith. In fact, you should actually be thankful that God can use you to bring grace into that person's life. Vs. 15: if your non-Christian spouse leaves you, then you are not bound to stay in that marriage. You may divorce in that case. And by implication, you are also free to remarry, because the marriage covenant has been broken and the marriage itself no longer exists.

B. "Desertion"

So, the desertion of a believing spouse by an unbeliever is a second circumstance that makes divorce permissible. The divorce would not be sinful even though sin caused it. And again, just because divorce is permitted doesn't mean it is the right or the only thing that should be done. God can heal the worst of relationships. And sometimes it is your forgiving attitude and selfless spirit and commitment to that other person that will bring him or her to repentance.

Now, just as with porneia, you might have questions about desertion. Might desertion encompass more than physically leaving the house? And the answer of most evangelical thinkers is yes. Again turning to our PCA position paper: "Desertion can occur as well by the imposition of intolerable conditions as by departure itself." Now obviously, not just anything you don't happen to like should be included. "The list of sins tantamount to desertion cannot be very long." Sometimes God calls us to stay in situations that are painful and difficult. Peter reminds us that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:21-23) But things like physical abuse, treachery, alcohol or drug abuse, cruelty, criminal activity, absenteeism, or any kind of habitual behavior or attitude that endangers the welfare of you or your children are certainly a kind of desertion. And even if that spouse claims to be a Christian, at some point he or she is acting like a non-Christian and should be treated as such.

The key here is for the elders of the church to be involved these cases. If you are in a marital situation that is intolerable, tell me or one of the other pastors. The elders of the church are here to shepherd you through such things. The Bible doesn't speak to every possibility. Instead, it gives us general principles which we apply with a spirit of prayer.

III. Some words of application

So what have we learned? Divorce is something the Lord did not institute. Instead, he tolerates and regulates it. Divorce always stems from sin; but divorce itself is not always sinful. Divorce terminates the covenant of marriage. In cases when one partner repudiates the marriage covenant by sexual immorality (porneia) or desertion, divorce is lawful. Where divorce is permitted, remarriage by the innocent party is permitted

I'm sure you have further questions, but let me end with a few words of application. First, earlier I said there's no such thing as a divorce-proof marriage. None of us is immune from the problems that lead to divorce. However, if you want to build a marriage that is as divorce-proof as possible, the best thing you can do is make sure you are a follower of Jesus, committed to and involved in a strong, Bible-believing church. Contrary to some reports you may have heard, divorce is much less common among people who are serious about the Christian faith and who attend and support a healthy local church. Second, if you are married, your next priority under Jesus is your spouse. You must invest time in your marriage relationship. If you want to avoid becoming a statistic, take advantage of every book, every conference, every resource out there to make your marriage stronger. Third, always, always give God the chance to do a miracle.

I've seen marriages that appeared hopeless turn around by the grace of God. Divorce should be your last resort. Before you give up, go back and identify those things that brought you to the place you are at. Repent deeply of your own sin. Pray together and ask God for healing grace and humility before each other. Forgive, as the Lord forgave you. Get your friends to pray and fast for you. Go to a professional counselor (e.g., Redeemer Counseling). Go to a marriage intensive like Retrouvaille — a free, weekend experience that just might save your marriage. Let the elders of the church get involved. Church discipline has rescued many a marriage. And if divorce becomes necessary, rest in the love of Christ and begin to rebuild your life in him. Realize that we live in a fallen world where sometimes things don't get better.

Remember earlier that I said God divorced Israel? Hear what he says in Hosea 2:

"Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me 'my husband' you will no longer call me 'my master.' I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one.' I will say to those called 'Not my people,' 'You are my people' and they will say, 'You are my God.'"

Jesus died for sinners. Because of him, divorce is not the final word.

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