It was obvious even in the days of Moses that God’s ideal for marriage was not always being realized because of human sin. Some allowance had to be made to retain social order and to the protect against injustices toward people, but it needed to be made on God’s terms, not man’s.
Here is an important distinction that many people don’t grasp. Look at the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees in verses 7–8 of Matthew 19. Remember, the question on the floor is whether a man can divorce his wife for any cause at all:
They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.”
Notice the very different words that the Pharisees and Jesus use to describe divorce. They called it a command, implying that it was something they had to do, something Moses was making them do. But Jesus set them straight right away by saying that it was a permission, a concession because of sin, not a command. It was a concession of a legal document intended to protect societal order should a woman be given a bill of divorce in that her previous husband could not go back and marry her again if she married another. It was also meant to protect people from misuse or abuse in unjust situations (Deuteronomy 24:1–4).
God never commands divorce. But because of sin, God sometimes permits it. That’s a fundamental distinction. God never tells you that you have to get a divorce. But there are certain situations in which God will permit people the option of getting a divorce because of their sinfulness and hard hearts that refuse to yield to His authority.
There were several reasons for the certificate of divorce mentioned here. It was a document showing that the divorce had been granted legally. These are still issued today—although much too easily. But the idea is that if you got married legally, you had to get divorced legally.
The divorce certificate also provided a way to protect the innocent from the effects of sin. Protection became an important factor here. Even in the garden, when God divorced himself from Adam and Eve and removed them, it was to protect His holiness and prevent them from getting to the tree of life in their sinful condition.
The certificate of divorce was the only way women in biblical times could be protected. Women could easily be abused without this certificate, because it made certain provisions for them. Otherwise, if a man could just throw his wife out of the house because he wanted to, she and perhaps even the children might be put out on the streets. If divorce was legally established, then it had to be obtained legally.
The Pharisees tried to trick Jesus with a little word switch here, but of course it didn’t work. He reminded them that God only permitted divorce. He did not command it under Moses, and He does not command it today.
So the question becomes, Under what circumstances does God permit divorce? Jesus addresses that in verse 9: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another [woman] commits adultery.” Therefore, a permissible basis for divorce is immorality by one of the parties in a marriage.
Notice though that Jesus says if you get divorced for an illegitimate reason, then go out and marry someone else, you commit adultery. Why? Because in God’s economy, you are still married to the person you thought you divorced.
How do you know if a possible divorce is biblically permissible? As we’ll see later, God has given the church authority to rule in cases like this. No believer should head downtown to divorce court until he or she has brought his or her case to the church for a determination of the facts and a ruling. Now, if the church finds no grounds for divorce, the person might still choose to go ahead and get a divorce downtown. But they do so at their own spiritual peril.
“Divorce is never the option of choice. It should always be the last case scenario.”
That’s because, as far as God is concerned, a person who divorces with no legitimate grounds is still married to his or her first partner. So, if that person remarries on the word of the judge downtown and not on the Word of the Judge uptown, he or she now has two living mates. And the more illegitimate divorces and remarriages, the greater the number of living mates in existence.
Keep in mind that sexual immorality in its many forms was a capital crime in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:1– 23). This was still considered to be true in Jesus’ day, as we know from the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). Immorality was a very serious offense.
But why did Jesus mention immorality as permissible grounds for divorce? Because according to 1 Corinthians 6:15–16, when you have sexual intercourse with another person you create an illegitimate covenant:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.”
Notice that Paul uses the language of marriage in verse 16 to describe what happens when a man and a woman engage in sex. Now, if the couple having sexual relations are already married to someone else, their immorality has created a rival covenant to their marriage covenant. If the person who does this is unrepentant, that gives the offended party in their marriage grounds for divorce. Let me say again, though, that even in extreme cases like this, divorce is not required. It is not in God’s original design for marriage. It is only a concession because of sin.
So the issue of sex is really theological, not biological. It has to do with establishing a covenant. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:31–32:
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.
Here we have what is called a hot mess. A man divorces his wife (although the same truth applies the other way around) for some reason we’ll call “irreconcilable differences.” This man then marries someone else—but according to Matthew 19 he has just committed adultery because in God’s eyes he is still married to his first wife.
“The issue of sex is really theological, not biological.”
But now it gets really messy. The wife who is divorced marries another man, so she commits adultery. But in Matthew 5, she is not blamed. The husband is blamed for putting her in that situation. So he causes his ex-wife to commit adultery. But the other man and woman who marry these two former marriage partners are committing adultery, because they are marrying people who are still married to someone else in God’s sight.
You may need a minute to sort that one out. The bottom line is that all four parties in this scenario are involved in adultery. As I said, it’s a hot mess.
And that’s exactly what we have today—a mess—because people are breaking their marriage covenant with God apart from His permission. This is serious business. Jesus says you can’t just divorce for any reason.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul adds to what Jesus Christ says about marriage and divorce. Paul writes:
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. (vv. 10–11)
If there are irreconcilable differences in a marriage and a separation occurs, the partners must not marry an other. Why? Because they are still married to each other. Notice, however, that the goal is to reconcile with each other, not to turn the separation into a permanent one through a divorce designed to free up the person to marry someone else. Note also that in Paul’s example, the mate of the woman who leaves is still called her husband. But if a partner goes ahead and divorces for irreconcilable differences, the only way God does not call that person an adulteress or an adulterer is if he or she stays unmarried until or unless the person that they divorced enters into another physical relationship. God still recognizes the original covenant. Irreconcilable differences may lead to a separation, but, in that case, the only options given by God are to remain unmarried or be reconciled.
But in cases of abandonment (vv. 12–15), Paul does give another option. Once again, Paul begins with the best-case scenario, when one partner is an unbeliever. If the unbeliever is willing to stay in the marriage, let him or her stay because then the Christian partner becomes an evangelist.
If this is your situation, your goal is to win your mate to the Savior. There are plenty of examples of godly men and women who have led their spouses to Christ over time.
But if the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is “not under bondage in such cases” (v. 15). The believer is free to leave. Keep in mind that abandonment can take a number of forms. It may include physically leaving the home, or it may be one of the partners forsaking his or her divinely ordained role in the relationship. In those situations, Scripture says the believer does not have to go to extreme measures to keep the marriage together. So, we have two legitimate grounds for divorce: immorality and abandonment by a non-Christian partner.
Now, this solves some of our problems, but not all of them. What about a believer who abandons his responsibility to his family, even if he doesn’t pack up and leave?
Perhaps he is on drugs, or he has a gambling habit and he has run the family finances into so much debt that the wife is unable to even buy food for herself or the children. Or what if he refuses to work and support his family? Or if he’s physically, emotionally, or spiritually abusing his wife and children? What then?
Well, let me start by going back to Romans 7 where we read that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives, but if he dies, she is free to marry another. When a mate dies, a new marriage can be formed.
This is important, because I believe that Scripture shows us that this provision includes more than physical death. We’ve already talked about the fact that in the Bible spiritual death is as real as physical death. Remember, the Bible says that Adam and Eve did die the day they ate the forbidden fruit, because they were put out of the garden and cut off from fellowship with God. They were dead spiritually.
“Spiritual death is as real as physical death”
Let me show you how this sanction applies to marriage.
The Bible teaches that death breaks the covenant of marriage. Look at Romans 7:1–3:
Do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 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.
This principle helps us to understand the issue of divorce, because, biblically speaking, divorce always revolves around one question: Is the person you are thinking about divorcing alive or dead? It all comes down to that. If your mate is alive, then of course you are still married. If your mate is dead, then you are free to marry another person.
Now, at this point you are probably thinking I have just stated something that is blatantly obvious. If a spouse dies, it’s clear that the marriage is over and the surviving spouse is free to remarry. But I’m going to show you that this principle also holds true in the spiritual as well as in the physical realm.
We know from Scripture that spiritual death is as real as physical death. Therefore, just as when a husband or wife dies physically his or her mate can be released from the marriage, so can the mate of a person who dies spiritually be released from the marriage.
As I said above, then, death is a legitimate grounds for divorce. We will talk shortly about what constitutes spiritual death and what can kill a marriage. There is more than one meaning for death in the Bible. In the case of physical death, it is obvious that the marriage has ended and the surviving partner is then free to remarry. Everyone agrees with that.
But spiritual death can also destroy a marriage. So the questions are: What constitutes spiritual death, and how does spiritual death kill a marriage?
This principle operates in Paul’s discussion in Romans 7 for three reasons. First, at the end of Romans chapter 6 we find the statement that “the wages of sin is death.” Sin brings spiritual as well as physical death. Second, Paul’s reference to the law in Romans 7 refers to the old covenant, so when a man dies he dies to a covenant relationship. Third, Paul specifically says in verse 4 that spiritual death to one covenant allows for remarriage to another covenant. Paul’s reference to death is clearly both physical and spiritual.
So when a person breaks covenant with God and is removed from fellowship with Him, the Bible calls that person dead. Now look at 1 Corinthians 5, the case of the man who was having an affair with his stepmother.
These two were living in open sin, and the church did nothing about it. In verse 5 Paul says he delivered this man over to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This man was excommunicated from the church and transferred to the realm of death, the realm of Satan. As far as God was concerned, he was dead until he repented.
So once again immorality is dealt with head-on. But according to verse 11, a believer could also be removed from the fellowship of the church for a number of other reasons, including being a reviler or a swindler or covetous or a drunkard.
And this person was to be considered spiritually dead unless he repented. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 that, if a believer won’t listen to the church, he is to be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector”—as a sinner, in other words.
Sinners are spiritually dead. So even if this person is a Christian, you treat him as though he were a sinner with the sentence of death over him. What about his marriage if he is married? Well, if he is dead, then his marriage is dead, and his wife is free under the provisions of Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7:39.
Now don’t misunderstand me or run ahead of me here. Let me tell you what I am and am not saying. I am saying that spiritual death, or what I call covenantal death in relation to marriage, is a broader category than just sexual immorality or abandonment.
But I am not saying that this throws the doors wide open to divorce or gives someone a new way out he or she hadn’t thought of before. Why? First, because covenantal death still doesn’t alter God’s ideal for marriage. And second, even in a case where a spouse may seek permission for divorce based on the covenantal death of the other partner, the church still needs to investigate the situation thoroughly and see if the charge is valid. Granting permission for divorce is still the most extreme step to take.
For example, if a wife comes to the church and says her husband refuses to work and support the family, that charge has to be looked at carefully. We’re not talking about a case of his not working for a week, or his being laid off and laboring unsuccessfully to find new employment.
“The Bible never says you have to get a divorce.”
But if he says, “I have no intention of working and supporting my wife and family, and I never will, no matter what you say or the church says”—in that extreme case, the church has the authority to declare the husband covenantally dead and to give the wife permission for divorce.
This is the problem-solving approach to dealing with people who aren’t immoral but who are living in rebellion and have abandoned or are abusing their mates. Is the Bible saying to a wife, “He hasn’t slept with anybody else, so stay there and get beaten, abused, or neglected for the rest of your life”?
No. But again the Bible never says you have to get a divorce. God does not command divorce. He just permits it, and He recognizes that believers can get to the point that they are functioning at a lower level in their marriage relationships than even unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8).
Let me summarize the three realms where divorce is permissible, each involving some level of spiritual death:
There is a reality that is often overlooked that is addressed in Scripture that doesn’t fall within having grounds for divorce, but which Paul recognized in 1 Corinthians as something that occurs. His instruction makes it clear what God’s allowable paths are in this situation involving a marriage that has ended without grounds for divorce.
In this passage, God recognizes that for various reasons people may not be able to effectively live together and thus separate and get divorced without biblical grounds. Yet, in these situations, they are to either seek reconciliation, or remain unmarried until or unless either spouse enters into a physical relationship with another person. Those are the only two options. We read:
“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” (1 Corinthians 7:10, 11).
Divorce is never the option of choice. It should always be the last case scenario. Yet knowing the hardness of human hearts, God has given guidelines pertaining to different divorce situations to show how best to honor Him and keep one’s heart pure.
Sometimes people whom I counsel are not in any of these categories with biblical grounds. They got divorced without biblical grounds, have since gotten remarried, and are now unable to go back and correct the mess that has been created. The question is always asked of me in those situations what can be done when things are so threaded, wound up, and messed up that there doesn’t seem to be any way to unravel it to get back to where it should have been. In these times, all you can do is to repent for what you have done right where you are, and then from that point forward to live a life of faith and obedience.
Yet in divorce cases with biblical grounds, the job of the church is to serve as God’s court. Before going downtown to get a piece of paper, believers are to submit their cases to the church. If the case is extreme enough to make divorce permissible, the church can issue a certificate of divorce that is recognized by God based on recognition by the church. Then the person has the freedom to make the divorce legal in court.
When a person dies, you don’t need a lay opinion; you need a coroner’s opinion. You can’t just say a person looked like he was dead. There must be an official recognition of death. God’s spiritual coroner is the church. In the case of a marriage, where there is spiritual death there is freedom to divorce—even though this freedom does not have to be exercised, especially if there is sincere repentance.
Now, what does all this mean? Once you have a certificate of divorce, you have the right to remarry. Any legitimate grounds for divorce is automatically an allowance for remarriage. But God takes marriage seriously, and you can’t dissolve a relationship until a death occurs, whether a physical death or a covenantal death through adultery, abandonment, or unrepentant spiritual rebellion.
If you are reading this and you believe you are experiencing abuse of some kind, please either call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or your local law enforcement by dialing 911.
by Tony Evans
In the age where people can get a “no-fault” divorce (when is it ever nobody’s fault?), believers cannot dodge the...
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