STUDY SIX: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS: MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
© Rosemary Bardsley 2004, 2006, 2016
If our perception of the Bible is that it is just a human book, or that it only becomes God’s word when it speaks to us, we will have no sure guidelines; we will just take from it the commands and principles that suit us, and leave aside those that don’t as relics of a past and different culture. Or, perhaps we will try to change the meaning of Biblical statements to suit our desires or to reflect the current cultural climate of our society.
On the other hand, if we approach the Bible confident that it is God’s once-given, authoritative and absolute word, relevant for all people, in all places at all times, then we will have confidence about what God says on this question.
A. THE FOUNDATIONAL, IRREVERSIBLE TRUTH [See also Appendix 3]
The bottom line is that from the beginning right up to the present, God’s will for marriage is one man and one woman together ‘for ever’ [‘till death do us part’] [That is: the biblical concept of marriage is heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong].
Write out and memorize these verses. Discuss the phrases prohibiting divorce.
Jesus, who is God incarnate, and who is ‘the truth’, grounded the permanence of marriage in the very fabric of the original creation and the original created order ordained by God. By the same statement he affirmed God’s prohibition of separation and divorce. Separation and divorce are simply not part of the life that God created us for, and are still not what God created us for. Note that Jesus did not say ‘in the beginning’, he said ‘from the beginning’, meaning that from creation right up to the present a permanent, monogamous union has always been God’s order for marriage. From the beginning, right up to the present, marriage is an indissoluble union between one man and one woman. It is a union that God counts even more important than the relationship between parents and child. It is a union sealed by the word and action of God.
Leon Morris comments:
‘Marriage is not to be understood as a casual union, subject to the whims and desires of the lordly male. It is a close and binding union, the closest of unions known on this earth. It must accordingly be treated with respect and even reverence. Jesus draws an inference from this. Because marriage is what it is, because God has created the union, let man not put apart those whom God has joined. Jesus … was calling on his hearers to take seriously the scripture that they professed to respect. If they did this they would realize that marriage was a much more binding relationship than they were making it. The typical attitude of the people of his day had reduced a God-given unity to a casual union, dissolvable at the whim of the male. This was not what Scripture meant when it spoke of what God did at the creation.’ Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St Matthew, p482. Eerdmans, 1992.
We could add: contemporary society has similarly reduced marriage to a casual union, dissolvable at the whim of either the male or the female. The comments of Jesus Christ are as applicable and relevant today as they were when he made them.
FOR REFLECTION: Why is it never God’s will for a marriage to end in separation or divorce?
B. THE ONE VALID REASON FOR DIVORCE
The Pharisees came to Jesus with the question ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ From this question we can infer that men were doing exactly that. This ease of termination of a marriage seems to be also in vogue when Moses gave the original divorce regulations. Deuteronomy 22:13-14 speaks of a man wanting to divorce his wife simply because he ‘dislikes her’, and trumping up a false accusation of immorality to make it legally acceptable. And Deuteronomy 24:1 reveals that men were divorcing their wives simply because they became ‘displeasing’ to them.
Current divorce law in Australia permits divorce after one year’s separation, irrespective of the reason for the separation. But according to the Bible there is only one valid reason for divorce:
Read these verses. Consider their meaning. Write out the phrases identifying the one reason for divorce.
It is clear that adultery [marital unfaithfulness] is the only Biblically valid reason for divorce. [The Greek word is porneia which refers to any illicit sexual intercourse, including, but not limited to ‘adultery’.] The legal divorce papers are not what breaks the marriage: the act of porneia has done that. The legal papers simply confirm that the marriage has been violated, and that this violation is the reason for the divorce. Note that these verses do not say that divorce must happen in the event of marital unfaithfulness.
QUESTION: How do forgiveness and grace [the Redemption, Regeneration, Reconciliation Factor] make it possible for a marriage to survive unfaithfulness? [Read Hosea Chs 1-3 for a description of the heart of God towards his unfaithful people.]
C. THE HARDNESS OF OUR HEARTS
Alienation in inter-personal relationships entered the world in Genesis 3, and with this alienation a whole range of expressions of sin that would make marriage a rocky road.
List below sinful attitudes and actions that make it difficult to stay married.
Because of the Sin Factor marriage relationships deteriorate and fragment for many reasons in addition to adultery. Divorce regulations were given by Moses to put a boundary around how husbands treated their wives when they divorced them [it was the husbands doing most of the divorcing then – it seems wives didn’t have much option], and to protect the reputation of wives divorced for non-valid reasons. This does not mean that God approved these divorces; rather in his compassion, he ‘permitted’ them, and legally regulated this break-up of marriages that had developed because of the Sin Factor, and in which women were getting a rotten deal [this is termed a ‘contingency law’]. Jesus put it this way:
‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But this is not the way it was from the beginning’ [Matthew 19:8].
Divorce is one of a number of divine ‘compromises’ with the Sin Factor – evidence of God’s sovereign and compassionate grace. [In the same way Biblical regulations stating what to do in the event of rape, do not endorse rape, rather spell out what must happen to protect the victim of rape.]
Cranfield comments on Mark 10:5:
‘In this and the following verses Jesus is not setting the commandment of God against that of Moses, nor is he brushing aside the scripture. Rather, he is bringing out the real meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. A distinction has to be made between that which sets forth the absolute will of God, and those provisions which take account of men’s actual sinfulness and are designed to limit and control its consequences. .. Deut. 24:1 is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia (hard-heartedness) and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. …Human conduct which falls short of the absolute command of God is sin and stands under the divine judgement. The provisions which God’s mercy has designed for the limitation of the consequences of man’s sin must not be interpreted as divine approval for sinning. When our sinfulness traps us in a position in which all the choices still open to us are evil, we are to choose that which is least evil, asking for God’s forgiveness and comforted by it, but not pretending that the evil is good.’ Pp 320f The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel according to St Mark. Cambridge, 1966.
QUESTION: Even though God hates divorce and it is his will that the marriage relationship is permanent, does he demand a person to remain in a marriage relationship in which there is intolerable abuse and rejection? Validate your answers.
QUESTION: In a fragmenting marriage between two Christians, how does the Redemption Factor make it possible to avoid divorce and save the marriage?
D. THE BIBLICAL IMPACT OF DIVORCE FOR REASONS OTHER THAN UNFAITHFULNESS
Although Deuteronomy thus permits divorce for reasons other than adultery, this concession is not without its serious implications and regulations.
Check out these verses. Write out and discuss what happens as a result of divorce for non-valid reasons.
‘For a husband to divorce his wife and marry another woman means that he commits adultery; his second marriage violates the creation ordinance and thus is no marriage. Jesus leaves his hearers in no doubt but that marriage is meant to be for life and that contemporary Jewish discussions about when a divorce is properly carried out and when it is invalid are wide off the mark. Such discussions proceed from a view that marriage is a human device that may easily be set aside. But when we realize that it is God’s will for people, marriage must be seen in another light. … Jesus … is laying down in strong terms the permanent nature of the marriage tie in the face of a society where a marriage could be dissolved at any time a husband chose to write out a few lines containing the necessary formula, sign it before witnesses, and hand it to his wife. Jesus is saying that this is no way to treat a divine ordinance.’ Leon Morris: The Gospel According to Matthew, p483,484.
As far as God is concerned, divorce for reasons other than unfaithfulness does not free the divorced partners to remarry. Any remarriage after divorce for other reasons is viewed as adultery. Why is this? Because no prior adultery/porneia has occurred which effectively ruptured the original union; even though legally divorced the two original partners are still ‘one flesh’ in God’s sight. Any remarriage will be a violation of the original marriage union, and Jesus clearly defines it as ‘adultery’.
Because of this ‘defilement’ by remarriage, the Bible also forbids a remarried person returning to their former partner after a second divorce or the death of the second partner [Deuteronomy 24:4; Jeremiah 3:1]. [We can possibly conclude that, as long as there has been no sexual relationship with another person following a divorce, it is okay to remarry the original partner.]
All of this underlines the high view of marriage defined in the Bible: that the order of creation is that one man and one woman become one flesh and that this one union is permanent in God’s sight.
Note: In the Old Testament economy adulterers faced the death penalty, so there was not much chance of a person divorced because of marital unfaithfulness remarrying! [See Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22.] This ‘death penalty’ aspect is an indication of how abhorrent marital unfaithfulness is in God’s eyes.
E. IS SEPARATION AN OPTION?
Separation, like divorce, is not part of God’s will for marriage. ‘A wife must not separate from her husband’ [1 Corinthians 7:10]. If this standard is disobeyed, also as with divorce, a further command prohibits remarrying:
‘But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband’ [7:11].
This provision for separation, allows a way out of an unbearable relationship. It is another of God’s compassionate, gracious compromises. However the sacredness of the marriage union is not compromised because remarriage is forbidden, and the door is left open for reconciliation and restoration.
E.1 A specific situation
Referring specifically to a marriage in which one partner has become a Christian and the non-believing partner leaves because of that, Paul says:
‘…let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances’ [1Corinthians 7:15].
Some Bible teachers [for example, Clarke, Calvin, Henry, Stott, Schaeffer, Adams] understand the ‘is not bound’ to mean that the believing partner is free to remarry; but other Bible teachers point out that this understanding is contrary to the whole attitude of the Scriptures to the marriage union. They suggest that the ‘is not bound’ means either of the following:
1. The believing partner is not so enslaved to the marriage law that he/she has to renounce his/her faith in order to save the marriage [Jamieson, Fawcett, Brown].
2. The believing partner is not so enslaved by the marriage law that he/she has to strive so hard to save the marriage that he/she prejudices the unbelieving partner against Christianity [Barnes].
3. That the ‘is not bound’ means that this separation does not put the believing partner in a state of condemnation for having a failed marriage [Chafin].
It would, however, be extremely unlikely that the departing unbeliever would remain celibate; certainly, in the event that he or she enters another relationship he/she commits adultery (in Biblical terms); if he/she divorces the original believing partner, this sequence of events would permit that deserted partner to remarry in accordance with the one valid reason for divorce in B. above. For the deserted believer to initiate divorce proceedings prior to such adultery is contrary to the Scripture.