What man has separated…
A conversation on divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:1-12)
by John Buchanan, Chapel Hill, Hamilton
Divorce is an important and difficult topic. It is where something is “wrong” – something that contradicts God’s good design. It deals with the most precious of human relationships and in particular its failings. I do not have all the answers. Be wary of anyone who does.
We all intersect with divorce. You may have thought about getting divorced yourself, you may have been divorced, and you will almost certainly have been close to friends or family who have divorced. Whatever, you will have experienced first or secondhand the pain of an intimate relationship breaking down.
There’s a story in the Gospels of a woman who is caught in adultery and brought to Jesus1. When her accusers have left, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” His response is pastoral and theological – there is his gracious, forgiving response to the woman and his sober treatment of sexual sin. Sin is not treated lightly, but the woman is offered the chance to start again3.
God’s design is clear. Marriage is to be a permanent relationship. The Bible teaches that marriage should be for life. But remember, marriage is a temporal relationship that does not continue into eternity, for there is no marriage in heaven2. It’s for this life, not the next one.
That’s the design – the ideal for marriage. What about the reality? It’s at this point that there can be dissonance between the ideal and the reality. It’s got a lot to do with acknowledging the difference between two small words. Those words are: “can” and “should”.
Can Christians divorce? Of course they can. They do.
Should Christians divorce? No. Should any couple divorce, Christian or not? No. That’s not the design.
Wendy and I were driving home one Sunday when Wendy saw a young man hitting golf balls in the High School grounds. She said to me, “He shouldn’t be doing that, should he?” And I replied, “No, he shouldn’t. But he is.” In our world, people hit golf balls where they shouldn’t.
In the movie The Matrix, there’s a part where Neo has a choice of two pills. They tell him: “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
Take the blue pill and stay in the ideal world. Keep telling people how things should be.
Take the red pill and enter the real world. Deal with things as they are, not as they should be. Jesus did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “You shouldn’t have done that.” But he did say, “Don’t do it again.” He spoke to her from where she was, not where she should have been.
The real world of divorce and marriage in New Zealand shows a decreasing marriage rate and an increasing divorce rate.
Back in Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” Was God soft from the start? No, God is realistic.
He knew there would be divorce and that sinful abuse of a marriage partner was a reality. This regulation that Moses instituted was designed to do three things:
- Protect marriage from something indecent defiling it.
- Protect the woman from a husband who might send her away without cause.
- Document her status as a legitimately divorced woman, not as a prostitute or a runaway adulteress.
This does not mean God is in favour of divorce, but rather that he cares for the offended party – who in those days were almost always women. This is a compassionate regulation that dignifies women and protects them from abuse and rejection. But God’s intention has always been that two should become one and stay as one.
So what happens when it doesn’t work?
Scripture gives three circumstances where a marriage can end. In each instance the covenant relationship is broken – either the betrothal bond or the sexual bond, or both.
- Death. This is obvious. If one spouse dies, the relationship is over. They are no longer two. The remaining spouse is free to remarry.
- Marital Unfaithfulness. Jesus explains this4: “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery – unless his wife has been unfaithful.”
Unless his wife has been unfaithful. (It applies to the husband as well.) The word used here for marital unfaithfulness is porneia, which is not the same word as is used for adultery. Porneia includes adultery, but also includes anything that breaks the sexual bond of marriage. So it includes sexual sins such as incest, homosexuality, prostitution, molestation or indecent exposure.
So if a spouse has been maritally unfaithful, Jesus permits divorce. There is no obligation to divorce, but permission is given because what God has joined, one party has by their action separated. The offended party is free to divorce and remarry.
- Desertion. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses desertion of an unbelieving spouse. If an unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage, then the believing spouse is free. Free to remarry; he or she is not bound.
So, are there other circumstances where God permits divorce? Scripture does not speak directly about any other reasons for divorce. However…
In 2001, 5700 American pastors were surveyed5. They were asked how they would counsel a woman who was the target of spousal abuse.
- 25% said the wife’s failure to submit was the cause of the abuse in the first place
- 50% said women should tolerate some level of violence in the home because to do so is better than divorce
- 71% said they would never counsel a battered wife to leave her husband
- 92% said they would never suggest divorce
Which pill did most of these guys choose? It sure wasn’t the red pill! They chose the blue pill, for they are not living in the real world. I cringe at these statistics. They attempt to be faithful to Scripture, but they’re stuck in the ideal world, the world of “what should be”. There’s not a lot of compassion.
Abuse is a no-brainer. Where the safety of a spouse is in question, separation must occur immediately. And they must stay separate until it can be discerned whether the offended spouse will ever be safe. If not, then divorce is a real option. If safety can be ascertained, then reconciliation can happen. In the case of abuse, the betrothal commitment has been broken.
Why is abuse a case for separation and potential divorce? Because it clearly breaks the betrothal bond, and because God cares for the oppressed. Moses’ certificate of divorce was for women oppressed and cast out by hard-hearted men, in a male-oriented society. It wasn’t so that men could find excuses for divorce. Even if spousal abuse is acceptable in a culture, it has no place in marriage according to God’s design.
Is this the thin end of the wedge? By including abuse will we then include some other excuses and some others and finally end up like the Rabbinical School of Hillel who held that a man could divorce his wife if she burnt his food? Will any excuse do?
Of course not! God’s design for marriage is a covenant, where each party commits to the other, unconditionally. But that covenant can still be broken. And it is broken not only by death, marital unfaithfulness, desertion or abuse, but also when one spouse simply leaves. But broken does not mean finished, because God is a God of restoration and reconciliation.
There’s a difference between a spouse who repents of one adulterous act and a spouse who refuses to acknowledge adultery and continues to lie about it. If there is repentance from one party and forgiveness from the other, there can be a rebuilding of trust and a genuine possibility of a relationship continuing. But there are consequences. Can I ever trust my spouse again? Can I get over the guilt of what I have done? Time will tell.
In a real-world marriage relationship there are little breaks and little restorations. But break after break after break accompanied by a hardening of heart leads to a time when the marriage is truly broken. Unless both parties want to fix it, it won’t get fixed.
What about remarriage?
Death ends a marriage. Marital unfaithfulness gives permission but no obligation to divorce and there is freedom to remarry. Desertion of an unbelieving spouse means the marriage is over and there is freedom to remarry. Abuse is immediate grounds for separation, and divorce if things don’t change. And then there is the situation when one spouse leaves. They may be a believer. Regardless of the reason, they have left and aren’t planning to come back; they apply for divorce and that’s it.
What about remarriage in these situations? This is a hard question.
Some people say if you are divorced then you are free to remarry only if your ex-partner has sexual relations with another person. I can see the logic here – that because of a sexual union with someone else, the marriage bond is broken. But then the betrothal commitment has already been broken with the leaving. Also, it’s not actually that easy to know for sure if your ex-partner has had sexual relations with someone else. It would seem unusual to ask them.
Others say that marriage is a gift and that a Christian who is divorced may not have the gift of singleness. So, they ask, should singleness be considered as a gift, or if you’ve been divorced, does it then become an obligation?
There is the desertion exception from 1 Corinthians 7. If your spouse leaves the marriage, then even if they are a Christian, they are certainly not living as one – their actions are those of one who is not a believer. Also, there is the practical comment from Paul that it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
So, having written all that, here is my opinion.
If your marriage is broken, if you have genuinely tried to reconcile (even if you caused the divorce in the first place), if you are repentant in respect of your own failings, if you have a sober appreciation of the implications of a new marriage and possibly a blended family, then I will not stand in your way of marrying again.
To all of you
Take the red pill. Live in the real world – the world of what is, not the world of what should be. The world where golf balls are sometimes hit in school grounds even though they shouldn’t be. And as you live in the real world – two things:
Hold fast to the ideal of marriage as a permanent relationship and hold fast to the Scripture. Be compassionate to other sinners who have failed, remembering that you are a sinner and have failed with things too.
To you who are married
With God’s help, keep your marriage vows. Read them together. To you who are deliberately breaking your marriage bond at the present moment – through unfaithfulness or abuse or whatever – stop! Do not excuse it. Repent now. Talk with someone you trust. Do it today.
To you who are contemplating divorce for wrong reasons – don’t do it. Lean on God’s grace and a trusted friend. Talk with your spouse. Get some help.
To you who have experienced divorce
Where there remains a need to repent and/or forgive, ask God to help you to do that. Where there is still opportunity for reconciliation, pursue it. Where the marriage is truly over, God says this to you: there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Consequences, yes; condemnation, no.
To you who are remarried
With God’s help, keep your marriage vows. There is no condemnation.
“Jesus’ message to everyone is plain enough: to those contemplating divorce, don’t; to those inclined to condemn without knowing the circumstances, don’t; to those near a prospective Christian divorce, offer yourselves as humble agents of reconciliation and healing; to those who have repented and made restitution (insofar as possible) for a sinful choice, trust his forgiveness; to those upon whom dissolution of marriage forced itself without invitation, be healed by God’s grace and dare to stand for your freedom in Christ, which no one has the authority to take away from you. And whether his call after the divorce proves to be singleness or marriage, make your life a life of prayer that will minister to all believers with whom you have relationships, harbouring no bitterness either against your former spouse or against a church whose fear of human pain often overshadows its willingness to heal it.”6
1. John 8:1-12
2. Matthew 22:30 – At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like angels in heaven.
3. Burge, Gary M. The NIV Application Commentary: John. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 243.
4. Mat 19:8-9
5. Discipleship Journal, 2001.
6. Keener, Craig. …And Marries Another (Peabody, Mass.:Hendrickson, 1991).