3. A Biblical Understanding of Divorce

  1. God’s people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: “Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, For the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness (loyalty, covenant love) or knowledge of God in the land…  My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”  (Hos 4:1,6).
  2. Divorce is a dividing asunder of the marriage covenant that made the husband and wife one.  Although divorce is often sought as a supposed blessing of release from a troubled marriage, it is important to understand divorce as the ultimate violation of the marriage covenant that as in all covenants can only result in a curse; Hos 10:4.  In fact, divorce may also be understood as a part of the curse that results not only from the many other violations of the marriage covenant that lead to divorce, but also from men’s violation of their covenant responsibilities to God; Deut 28:30-34.
  3. God hates divorce; Mal 2:13-16.  Although the Mosaic law of the old covenant acknowledged the reality of divorce and had laws to regulate it (Deut 24:1-4), Jesus is clear that divorce was permitted not because it was sometimes necessary or prudent but because of the hardness of men’s hearts, for from the beginning it was not this way; Mat 19:7-8.  Christians will do well to consider that seeking a divorce is an acknowledgment of an even greater hardness of heart because they are sinning against the greater light of revelation given by their Lord and Savior.
  4. An Unbelieving Spouse: If a Christian is married to an unbelieving spouse who seeks a divorce, the Christian is not under bondage to maintain the marriage at all costs, for God has called us to peace; 1Co 7:12-15.  However, this does not mean that the brother or sister is then free to remarry following a divorce.  Because Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage are so clear, people often turn to these words of Paul to justify such, as if Paul were a higher authority than Jesus on the subject.  However, it is clear from the same context that Paul’s teachings do not support this; see 1Co 7:10-11.  In fact, Paul’s teaching on marriage is completely consistent with Jesus’ teaching that…
  5. Marriage is a Covenant for Life that Only Death Can Break: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1Co 7:39). “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.  So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man.” (Rom 7:2-3).
  6. Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce: Jesus taught that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery” (Mar 10:11-12).  “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery” (Luk 16:18).
  7. The Exception Clause: Matthew alone of the New Testament writers identifies one exception to divorce and remarriage not constituting adultery:  “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity (lit. fornication), makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mat 5:32).  “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality (lit. fornication), and marries another woman commits adultery” (Mat 19:9).  This “exception clause” is specific to the Jewish custom of marriage which is why it is found only in Matthew, who was writing primarily to Jews, and not in the other gospels or Paul’s writings because they were writing primarily to Gentiles.  We should note carefully that the exception is not for adultery, which is the word we would expect for a consummated marriage, but fornication, the word used for sexual immorality outside of marriage.  In Jewish marriage customs the man and woman were considered husband and wife at their betrothal or engagement, which period might last for an extended time before the marriage was consummated at a wedding feast; Gen 29:18-21.  During this time sexual misconduct might take place, which the Mosaic law addressed; Deut 22:23-27.  Sexual misconduct during this period is more properly termed fornication than adultery because the marriage relationship has not yet been consummated by the sexual union that melds the spirits of the husband and wife into one; cf. 1Co 6:15-17.  Joseph, was a righteous man, and it was for this reason that he would not have been sinning against God in desiring to divorce Mary and marry another woman when he assumed she must have committed fornication during the time of their betrothal, at which time they were lawfully considered to be married although the marriage had not yet been consummated; Mat 1:18-19.  Matthew’s use of the exception clause was necessary to his purpose of rebutting the Jews’ defamation of Jesus as the son of a harlot and defending the righteousness of His earthly mother and father.
  8. The Hardness of Jesus’ Teaching: Both the Pharisees and His disciples understood the hardness of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage; Mat 19:7,10.
  9. Adultery No Exception: Even for adultery, those who suppose the “exception clause” of immorality justifies divorce and remarriage must consider the following: Why, if adultery in a consummated marriage lawfully justifies divorce and remarriage, did Matthew not use the word for adultery, and why is this exception found only in Matthew’s gospel to the Jews but specifically omitted from the other New Testament writings to Gentiles addressing the same topic, especially considering that the Gentiles were given even more to immorality than the Jews?  Cf. 2Co 12:21, Eph 4:19, 1Pe 4:3.  Furthermore, women historically had no other means to provide for themselves because they needed a man to provide for them; thus, when a man divorced his wife he caused her to commit adultery (Mat 5:32) for she was forced either to remarry or into prostitution.  Thus if adultery justifies remarriage following a divorce, then by sending his wife away and causing her to commit adultery, a man would then be justified to remarry; but this would render of no account the whole thrust of Jesus’ one-flesh argument for the permanence of marriage and that whoever divorces his wife and marries another is committing adultery.  This is no different from the Pharisees who likewise nullified the word of God for the sake of their traditions that were more pleasing to their flesh; Mat 15:6.
  10. Christians are a Royal Priesthood: Christians are called to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1Pe 2:9).  Priests even under the old covenant that acknowledged the reality of divorce were not permitted to marry a divorced woman; Lev 21:7,13-15, Eze 44:21-22; cf. again Hos 4:6.
  11. The Righteous Response to Evil: Because one marriage partner is not fulfilling the vows of their covenant is no justification for the other partner to not fulfill theirs.  The righteous response to evil against us, even in a marriage relationship, is clear in Scripture; see Rom 12:17-18, Eph 4:31-32, Col 3:12-13, 1Pe 2:18-3:2.  Even for a legitimate, actionable cause (which is the meaning of the word used by the Pharisees when they asked Jesus about divorce in Mat 19:3), it is clear from Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the New Testament that in accordance with our profession of faith and marriage vows a true Christian is to exercise mercy and forgiveness and to seek restoration and healing, just as God does in His covenant relationship with us.
  12. “Till Death Do Us Part”: In light of Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, if a Christian couple is having serious marital difficulties, their Scriptural options are found in 1Co 7:10-11.  The marriage vows are in force “until death do us part”, which is the only scriptural justification that allows a person to remarry without committing adultery.  However, as the righteous arbitrator of the two parties in a marriage covenant who sees every aspect of every situation, understands every intention of each person’s heart, and whose judgments are true and righteous altogether, God is able to bring this about; see 1Sa 25:37-39.  Thus there is a righteous way out of a bad marriage[1]:  God oversees the covenant, and when He sees a marriage marred by covenant unfaithfulness and the injustice suffered by an innocent party, “will He not bring about justice” for those “who cry to Him day and night, and will He long delay over them” (Luk 18:7)?  However, one must be very careful invoking God for such things, for our hearts are desperately wicked and quick to exaggerate the faults of others while minimizing our own.  As most wise counselors will testify, seldom is one party entirely innocent, and by calling upon God to arbitrate in a covenant relationship in regard to the faults of another, we are also invoking Him to examine ourselves; see Ecc 5:1-2 and cf. Mat 18:23-35.
  13. Divorce Hurts Women; Jesus’ Teaching Protects Them: The threat of divorce historically put the onus for maintaining a happy home upon the woman who stood to suffer a much greater economic loss than the man.  This hasn’t changed, as the liberalization of the divorce laws in the last 50 years has hurt women much more and had a much greater negative impact upon women than upon men; think: what images does the term “unwed mother” bring to mind?  Jesus’ strict teaching on divorce lifted the plight of women as nothing else could do because it equalized the responsibility for maintaining a blessed and happy home to also include the husband since it forbid him from remarrying if he divorced his wife.
  14. The Consequences of Divorce, Even Within the Church: The widespread unfaithfulness of our modern world in regard to marriage has certainly influenced the modern church so that the Biblical understanding of the permanence of marriage has been largely lost or ignored to the point that divorce and remarriage are justified even in conservative evangelical churches.  The result is that “judgment sprouts like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the fields” (Hos 10:4).  We see this manifested as broken homes, troubled youth, rebellious teenagers, economic deprivation, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and now the proliferation of homosexuality and every other perversion to the point that traditional marriage has been destroyed by cultural redefinition, and along with it the family structure that is the heart and strength of a nation.  This is the curse promised for covenant unfaithfulness: “I will make to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride; for the land will become a ruin” (Jer 7:34).  Because of the present spiritual darkness on this topic even in many churches, for additional study that addresses the many issues of divorce and remarriage in greater depth the reader is referred to the inductive series of studies  on Jesus’ teaching on divorce found in Mat 19:1-12.  (Click here to go there.)
  15. The Biblical Understanding of Divorce Should Motivate Husband and Wives to Fulfill Their Roles in Marriage: Because of the permanence of the marriage covenant “until death do us part” and in order for it to be the blessing it was intended to be, and not result in a curse, it is important that Christian husbands and wives for their own happiness and well-being understand and fulfill the roles God has ordained for each of them in the marriage, which is the topic of our next lessons.

 


1. This truth should cause men especially to fear God in regard to the prevalence of pornography in our culture and Jesus’ teaching that even looking with lust upon a woman constitutes adultery.

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