Unless you live under a rock, you have heard about the uproar over the state of Indiana filing a religious liberty act recently. People are in a tizzy defending their personal beliefs and crying discrimination and persecution, and I saw someone publicly state that remarriage after divorce is a sin, equatable to same-sex marriage. But what if someone made the statement that divorce is not, in and of itself, a sin? I am sure that everything you were taught as a child is swelling up inside of you to either vehemently disagree or to strongly affirm our culture which degrades marriage as a casual commitment. But stop to consider what exactly divorce is: It is the legal breaking of a marriage.
When God gave His Law in great detail in the Old Testament, He spoke of divorce as as assumed part of culture. Marriage was a very serious covenant by which people were bound together. Adultery (having sexual relations with a married person) was a sin that was punishable by death (Lev 20.10). Fornication (having sexual relations with an unmarried person) was a sin and the man was forced to marry the woman, with no option of divorce (Deut 22.19). The guilty man also had to pay a large fine to the girl’s father for the public disgrace of his sin. All other marriages were breakable, under the Law, if the man “found any inadequacy in [his wife]”, though it was regulated that he could not remarry her if she had married another man and then divorced him too (Deut 24). Sins on the spectrum of disobeying your parents to murder were all punishable by death. But divorce was not. It was not even a grounds for judgment. It just was.
When the Kingdom of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms, and they were falling into exile, God used divorce as an analogy for how He was responding to His people:
“And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also.”
– Jer 3.8
Israel fell into captivity first for having no godly king and no remnant of believers who were honoring God. Judah remained a nation longer, as they had a few godly kings, though they ultimately met the same fate. God, in describing His actions of sending them into exile, painted the analogy of having divorced Israel (for adultery), and his second wife, Judah, did not heed Israel’s example and was divorced too.
God hates divorce. Do not misunderstand me, I am not saying that divorce is pleasing in God’s eyes. Marriage is a picture that represents the way God loves Christians. God loves His bride, and that in a special way! He does not love everyone the same; He chooses, cherishes, washes, purifies and prepares for His bride. The Church is His bride, and He will not divorce us the way that He “divorced” Israel.
Because of this, He gives us instruction for how husbands and wives are supposed to love and serve one another:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND SHALL BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.
– Eph 5.22-33
God takes marriage seriously. He gave us marriage for a purpose: our sanctification. It paints the picture of our future marriage to the perfect bridegroom; Jesus Christ.
But God also gave us divorce and takes it seriously. Because of the way that the Old Testament Law was written, divorce was being abused. People were divorcing for “any reason”, which is understandable, if you read only the letter of the Law and do not understand the heart of the Law. It was in response to this abuse that Jesus gave His shocking (to both their culture and ours) commandment:
“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
– Matt 5.31-32
Jesus raised the standard. In this passage He gave clear teaching that divorce should only be practiced in the case of adultery. Divorce is a God-given protection for the spouse who has been cheated on. The offended spouse has a way out. The offended spouse may not be able to move past the hurt. The offended spouse may not want to risk the ramifications of being with an adulterer: physical – STD’s, emotional – such as abandonment and self worth issues, spiritual – inability to remember that Christ is the perfect spouse. God gives divorce to a spouse as His protection from a broken covenant. Jesus also states that marrying someone who has been divorced, apart from His instruction, is committing adultery. It is sinful and it is wrong. The assumption here, obviously, is remarriage. A person is not committing adultery if he divorces and never remarries and/or has sexual relations again. A person commits adultery if he divorces apart from God’s instruction and remarries. But Jesus clearly states that adultery is grounds for divorce.
Paul gave more instructions on the matter:
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.
– 1 Cor 7.10-15
This is where the very difficult topic of abandonment and unrepentant sin come into the conversation. Jesus gave us strict and clear instructions for Church discipline in Matthew 18. If a professing Christian spouse is abusing or harming his wife or family, it is the responsibility of the church to intercede for the offended spouse. In short, one person from the church is instructed to confront this person. If the abuser does not repent, then the confronter is supposed to go back a second time with another person or two. If he still does not repent, then the confronter is supposed to take it to the church as a whole and the whole church then confronts the abuser. This typically happens in a member’s meeting at a church. If the person will still not repent and make amends, then the church is supposed to kick the abuser out of the church and consider him a non-believer. Why? Because we are submitting to the church for our spiritual leadership and the sign of being a Christian is to obey God. If a person will not obey God, He has no grounds to call himself a believer and he should be treated as such.
Through this process the marriage is either restored, or we are left with a believing spouse, under the protection of the church, with Biblical grounds for divorce: abandonment. If an unbelieving spouse abandons a believing spouse, according to Paul, the believing spouse is free to divorce and remarry. You cannot force a non-believe to function by the mandates and commands of Scripture. On occasion you will have a married couple where one claims Christianity and the other does not. The difference of faith is not grounds for the believing spouse to leave or divorce the non believing. But should the non believing spouse leave, then the believing spouse is not bound. We have the instructions of Church discipline for the sake of those who would claim to follow Christ but do not obey Him. Otherwise people would be left in impossible situations where their very lives could be in danger. That is not the purpose of marriage.
Divorce is a provision of God for the protection of spouses against the sin of adultery or unrepentant sin and abandonment. Divorce is not always a sin. How can that be? Consider sex. Sex is a gift from God that is a good and beautiful thing within the bond of marriage. Sex outside of marriage, however, is a sin that was originally punishable by death! Divorce for the wrong reasons was never punishable by death and was never defined as a sin. Thus divorce, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful – however, it must be overseen and governed by the authority of the Church. It must be worked out in it’s Biblical place; like sex. This is for the protection of the believing spouse.
Why do I write this? We, as a church, have fallen into two, polar opposite categories of error when considering the topic. One side lives like the world, considering the marriage covenant to be flippant and divorce casual. God hates divorce and He wants it to be entered into very cautiously and under the leadership of the Church. The other side thinks divorce itself is wicked and there is never grounds for it, and would consider anyone who has been divorced for any reason to be disqualified from service to God. You can have murdered someone and become a missionary or pastor in their congregations, but not a deacon or elder if your spouse had an affair and left you.
There was once a couple who applied to one of the largest missionary organizations in our country. They had grown up in the secular world, met each other, fallen in love and got married. They had a few kids, and grew apart and divorced. While they were divorced both the man and woman came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. They came back together, reconciled and got remarried after becoming Christians. He became a pastor of a church and a leader in the community. After retiring, the couple wanted to spend their golden years serving the Lord as international missionaries and they applied to the mission board that their church supported through their denomination. The mission board told them that they could not be missionaries because they had been divorced.
This is wrong, people. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. Divorce is not even sin for the offended spouse in the case of those who have handled it Biblicaly. Divorce is always the result of sin, but for the innocent party in such circumstances, it is not a sin. Even as such, there is no sin that God defines as the scarlet letter that forever disqualifies one from service.
You might object by observing the qualifications for deacons and pastors found in 1 Timothy. I challenge you, however, to consider the entirety of the requirement and the culture receiving instruction:
Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach. Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
– 1 Tim 3.8-13
Every qualification here is character-oriented. Men who seek to serve the church must be beyond reproach. Husbands of one wife simply means what it says, “one wife”. Men, even in the Old Testament, had multiple wives. Men in this society could have and sometimes did have multiple wives, so Paul gave instruction to Timothy that deacons and elders must have only one. He does not say “was never divorced”, and he focuses on character: of dignity, speaking truth, managing his household well.
We are promised in Scripture that any confessed sin that has been addressed and for which amends have been made is forgiven. Consequences may follow a gross sin, like jail time for murder or guilt after an abortion, but no sin forever makes one guilty before God. None. And no sin forever marks one of poor character. God is in the business of changing character. Even the man who abused, cheated on or abandoned his wife can come to salvation, repent of his sins and be saved. He can even serve God when he reaches a level of maturity in his faith and is known as a man above reproach and of good character.
Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. Divorce is a provision from God for spouses who have been cheated on or abandoned by a non-believer. Paul tells us that such a one is free from the covenant, and therefore free to remarry. If two Christians separate for a time, they are not free to remarry, they are charged to reconcile their differences, provided the stimulus for the problem is not adultery.
Think carefully before you point fingers. And if you find yourself needing the protection and leadership of your church, go to your pastor! If he will not follow the steps of Church discipline with you, then find another Church who will. God has given us the body to hold us accountable, to take care of one another, and to step in when we need someone to step in.
If you have divorced apart from the Biblical guidelines and remarried, do not fret. Forgiveness is still available to you. You must confess your sin, and you must repent of it, but you can be forgiven. Apologize to your previous spouse, confessing your sin, and make amends where needed. This will allow healing on both sides, but honor your new marriage. God is bigger than divorce. It is not the unpardonable sin. You can be forgiven, even if you did sin in your divorce.