It is now often said that 50% of marriages are likely to end in divorce. While recent research (like the ones referenced by Christianity Today) shows that, the numbers are not as bad among christian marriages; it is useful to ask what the Lord taught about this, and, to seek grace to be able to live out his teaching.
Once a group of Pharisees came to Jesus and asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” We have to admit that the attitude towards marriage today isn’t too different from the one the Pharisees displayed in this encounter. Too many people are so flippant about marriage today, that they get divorced for the most flimsy reasons; men and women go their separate ways for just about any reason under the umbrella reason of “irreconcilable differences”.
Well, Jesus instead identified unwillingness to be reconciled as the root cause of divorce. Here’s how he put it;
“Don’t you read the Scriptures?” he replied. “In them it is written that at the beginning God created man and woman, and that a man should leave his father and mother, and be forever united to his wife. The two shall become one—no longer two, but one! And no man may divorce what God has joined together.”
“Then, why,” they asked, “did Moses say a man may divorce his wife by merely writing her a letter of dismissal?”
Jesus replied, “Moses did that in recognition of your hard and evil hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. (Matthew 19:4-8, emphasis mine)
So the fundamental cause of divorce is not irreconcilable differences. There is no such thing; there is just an unwillingness to reconcile.
What if there is infidelity?
Oh, infidelity is forgivable. God shows us the example of forgiving infidelity by giving us the life of Hosea who He instructed to marry a whore, and repeatedly forgive her serial adultery.
“But” you might say, “didn’t Jesus say that if one’s spouse was unfaithful, then one is justified in getting a divorce?”
I do not think Jesus said that at all. here’s what he said. “And I tell you this, that anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9)
Some have explained, and I completely concur with their explanation that, the use of fornication and adultery in the verse is deliberate because the Lord was communicating two different things.
Under Jewish custom at the time, a woman was expected to be chaste at marriage. If she was found to not be a virgin on her wedding night, her husband was to bring proof (an unstained bedsheet) of this to the elders, and the brides family. He was then allowed to divorce her, and she was punished by death. (Yes, I know, those laws were grievous, which is why God’s plan was always to repeal them).
When Jesus was talking about fornication, this was what he was referring to: a woman who had lost her chastity before marriage. This was the scenario with Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus.
Note that, in the traditions of the time, engagement was a much more stronger status than currently is. It was considered essentially same as marriage, as the NKJV rendering shows. So when Jesus was talking about fornication as basis for divorce, he was talking in the sense of the Jewish tradition which viewed what Joseph was trying to do as just.
So what about remarriage?
Jesus said, “a man should leave his father and mother, and be forever united to his wife. The two shall become one—no longer two, but one”. God did not ordain for a person to be married to more than one person except their first spouse dies. Jesus says that when that happens, the person is living in adultery. Whatever ambiguity that Matthew 19 may leave in anyone’s mind about this, Luke 16:18 clears it up.
“So anyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Paul the Apostle wrote about this in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7. More as an illustration in the former as against the latter where he does an elaborate, and sometimes misunderstood teaching.
As God consistently uses the marriage relationship to illustrate our relationship with him, he does same in Romans 7:2-3.
Let me illustrate: when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, she is no longer bound to him; the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. Then she can marry someone else if she wants to. That would be wrong while he was alive, but it is perfectly all right after he dies.
Clearing up the Confusion
In reading Paul’s fuller teaching on the subject of remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7, some confusion does arise as to what is actually being taught regarding people who are married to unbelievers who elect to leave the marriage. The portion is often used to justify remarriage, but I do not think it does so at all. Here it is, set in context.
Now, for those who are married I have a command, not just a suggestion. And it is not a command from me, for this is what the Lord himself has said: A wife must not leave her husband. But if she is separated from him, let her remain single or else go back to him. And the husband must not divorce his wife.
Here I want to add some suggestions of my own. These are not direct commands from the Lord, but they seem right to me: If a Christian has a wife who is not a Christian, but she wants to stay with him anyway, he must not leave her or divorce her. And if a Christian woman has a husband who isn’t a Christian, and he wants her to stay with him, she must not leave him. For perhaps the husband who isn’t a Christian may become a Christian with the help of his Christian wife. And the wife who isn’t a Christian may become a Christian with the help of her Christian husband. Otherwise, if the family separates, the children might never come to know the Lord; whereas a united family may, in God’s plan, result in the children’s salvation.
But if the husband or wife who isn’t a Christian is eager to leave, it is permitted. In such cases the Christian husband or wife should not insist that the other stay, for God wants his children to live in peace and harmony. (1 Corinthians 7:10-15 TLB)
As we see here, Paul correctly quotes what the Lord has said in the first portion i.e. stay in your marriage. He then goes on to offer a suggestion for situations where the individual trying to leave the marriage is the unbeliever. He recommends that the Christian avoids getting into a tussle of trying to keep them in the marriage by force as we are called to peace and harmony. Nothing in this can be construed to be saying that the person can then go on to remarry while the other spouse is alive. To say so will be implying that Paul the apostle is contradicting what he himself has taught earlier, and more critically, what he clearly says the Lord has taught in just the preceding verse.
Perhaps for emphasis, and clarity, he then closes the teaching on marriage by saying:
The wife is part of her husband as long as he lives; if her husband dies, then she may marry again, but only if she marries a Christian. (1 Corinthians 7:39 TLB)
What about separation?
Yes, sadly, there are many people living in completely intolerable marriages, sometimes with physical, life threatening abuse. It is in such situations that I think Paul the apostle was allowing for a separation, to keep the peace. That’s what I think he meant by:
“But if the husband or wife who isn’t a Christian is eager to leave, it is permitted. In such cases the Christian husband or wife should not insist that the other stay, for God wants his children to live in peace and harmony.” I Cor 7:15.
Hate is a strong word!
Hate is a strong word, and God never uses it lightly. But he did say, “I hate Divorce”. God views a married couple as one flesh, and when they get a divorce, that’s literally like violently sawing them into two.
If for some reason that ever happens, the instruction is “But if she is separated from him, let her remain single or else go back to him.” (1 Cor 7:10)