Deeper Discussions on Divorce

Our church has recently been discussing the biblical teachings on sexuality, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. This is, of course, an astoundingly difficult subject both practically and morally, as well as exegetically and hermeneutically. The deeper into the issue you go, the more levels of complexity and confusion you find, and more differences of opinion between loved and respected pastors and teachers.

In that vein, you might be interested in this online conversation happening between two theologians from whom I’ve benefited greatly over the past few years—Doug Wilson, and Dominic Tenant. It concerns some of the finer/stickier points of when a wife may be allowed, biblically, to leave her husband.

It started with Pastor Wilson’s fictional letter to a wife considering leaving her husband over abuse and mistreatment.

Wilson has a fairly loose interpretation of Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7, so Dominic Tennant offered a few critiques of Wilson’s exegesis here.

Wilson responds and seeks to clarify here.

And Tenant replies once more.

I’ll let you know if anything more comes of it; I look forward to any further discussion.

Some Thoughts on Divorce and Remarriage

When it comes to the questions surrounding divorce and remarriage, it is crucial for believers to approach the discussion with love and grace, as well as a firm commitment to the authority of Scripture. The foundational truth regarding marriage is that God created man and woman to be joined together in a life-long covenant of marriage, with no exceptions. Jesus affirms this understanding in Mark 10:6-9 when he cites the Creation account and emphasizes that “what God has joined together, man must not separate.” Since divorce is a tearing asunder of the one-flesh union God designed for marriage, divorce is a violation of the creation mandate of the marriage covenant being for one man and one woman to be united exclusively to one another for life. As Jesus says in Mark 10:11-12, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. Also, if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Divorce is such a heinous violation of the creation design for marriage that in fact Malachi 2:15-16 says that God hates divorce, calling it “treachery.”

However, the reality of this fallen world is that people, both saved and unsaved, do divorce, and churches will inevitably have members who will divorce, or who have been divorced in the past. Scripture acknowledges this reality, and gives several narrow guidelines for dealing biblically with questions of divorce and remarriage. The model for marital faithfulness is God himself, with a prime example given in the book of Hosea, where we see Yahweh remaining faithful to His covenant with His people despite Israel’s sinful unfaithfulness and countless failures. However, Moses, Jesus, and Paul all recognized that this ideal would not always be met, and thus restrictions and safeguards were given both in the Old and New Testaments “to correct the failure or to limit the damage where uncorrectable” (Intro to Biblical Ethics).

The primary relevant texts on the topic are Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:8-9, Luke 16:18, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. In Luke 16:18, Jesus states that anyone who divorces their spouse commits adultery, and anyone who marries a (wrongly) divorced person commits adultery. In the Matthew passages, however, there is an exception given. Anyone who divorces their spouse, except for a case of sexual immorality, commits adultery, and causes their spouse to commit adultery. There is much discussion and disagreement over what is included in this “sexual immorality” that allows for divorce. It seems reasonable to include any act of unfaithfulness (sexual acts with someone other than one’s spouse), but beyond that, it is unclear.

In both the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, a certificate of divorce was a dissolution of the marriage. Thus, remarriage to another was assumed in the case of a divorce. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret Jesus’ instruction on when divorce is allowed as also speaking directly to when remarriage is allowed. In other words, when a divorce is justified (which is limited to a case of sexual immorality on the part of at least one spouse), the divorced spouse is free to remarry.

Paul gives one more circumstance in which divorce (and thus remarriage) is permissible. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul explains that if a believer and unbeliever are married (presumably because one of them has been saved since marriage while the other remains unsaved), the believing spouse should not seek a divorce, but stay in the marriage (vv. 12-14). However, if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believing spouse, then the believer is free to let them leave, and to agree to the divorce, since, as Paul says, the believer “is not bound in such cases.”

It must be noted, in each of these situations, that reconciliation is to be preferred, since the breaking of the marriage covenant is a grievous violation of God’s intended design. Thus, wisdom would indicate that these exceptions only truly apply if the faithful, believing spouse approaches the issue with love, humility, peace, and a desire for Christ’s glory. God’s perfect design is that a man “leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Genesis 2:24), and that the two never be separated (Matthew 19:6). Because of our fallen nature, people will constantly fail to conform to God’s good design. Thus, we must approach each individual case of divorce and remarriage with care, compassion, discernment, and commitment to the authoritative instruction of Scripture.