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Divorce and Remarriage and a Holy Church


One of the troubles with being the church militant and not yet the church triumphant, is that you have to deal with real-world battles and real-world sins. In other words, ministry is done among sinners not angels. There are issues to deal with, things that get tracked in from the world and make a mess in the church foyer. And while we should freely admit that God's people are sinners, yet we hastily want to add that they are also God's saints. The redeemed are sinners and saints. And the saints are still on a trajectory of becoming saintly – that process is called sanctification.

One of the areas that we keenly feel the brokenness of our world is in that primary institution of the family. All around us we see broken marriages and broken homes. Husbands deserted by adulterous wives, wives betrayed by sexually immoral husbands, and children left floundering in a turbulent sea clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of what they thought was home. We see this in the world, and we grieve. We want to offer the gospel to these broken people – whether they are the guilty party or the victim or a mixture of both. We want them to meet the Lord Jesus who can forgive their sin and set them right again.

And yet we don't only see the results of sin and the presence of brokenness out there, we all experience it, and to varying degrees we carry that brokenness with us into the church. We must never forget that what sets us apart from the world is not our spotless records of our own obedience to God, rather it is the reality of God's powerful gospel that has set us free from sin and guilt and has given us new lives in Christ. We are forgiven and we are empowered by the Spirit to live new lives for Christ – that is what sets us apart. It is all of grace. As we sing from time to time that great song, Not in Me:

No list of sins I have not done,
No list of virtues I pursue,
No list of those I am not like
Can earn myself a place with You.
O God, be merciful to me–
I am a sinner through and through!
My only hope of righteousness
Is not in me, but only You.

It is with all of this as a backdrop that I would like to address the issue of divorce and remarriage and the church. Because we live in a sinful world and are not glorified yet in heaven, we will sin and be sinned against, even as believers. And sin will not merely affect us as individuals but as families and as churches. Sometimes sin is quickly dealt with, confessed, forgiven, and we move on. But other times the sin is not dealt with, there is no repentance, people are hurt in the process, and God's name is dishonoured. You see, above all we should be jealous for the glory of our God. As we consider how to deal with the fallout of these various situations, we should always have an eye to that great goal that we would glorify God in all things. "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The first thing we need to keep in mind is God's great design for marriage. When the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus, they began with this question: "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (Matthew 19:3). The Pharisees question betrayed a concern for legal precision and for figuring out the lines of what one could get away with. Jesus answers them with something completely different. He zooms out from the thorny situations of divorce and remarriage and gives them the creational design. He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.'" (19:5-6).

From Jesus' words we can see that the primary thing to remember is that marriage is God's institution. He is the one who marries people. Marriage is defined by God and ordered by God. This rules out all kinds of sexual immorality that mankind would pursue. Homosexual marriage is not actually a thing. Polygamy is not a thing. Divorcing and remarrying is not part of God's good design.

The Pharisees then come back to Jesus with a rebuttal. "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" (19:7). Jesus' answer again goes back to the beginning. "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (19:8-9).

Again, Jesus re-affirms the goodness of the original design and the emphasis on the two becoming one and staying one. Any discussion on the exception clause should always bear this in mind. The ideal is to stay together, period. Divorce and remarriage are not commanded. Even in the aftermath of adultery or desertion, there is not a requirement that a Christian get a divorce, and there is no encouragement to get remarried. The most we could say is that divorce and remarriage are permitted in certain situations – but that is as an exception not as an encouragement.

To remain faithful unto death, to keep covenant even when the other party breaks it, showcases the gospel in a powerful way. The Apostle Paul wrote this about the mystery of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33. There he compares the husband and wife to Christ and His bride, the church. The joyful submission and loving obedience of the wife to her husband is patterned after the church. The sacrificial leadership and loving care of the husband is patterned after Christ himself. This makes marriage more than a creational picture of God's good design; it is a redemptive picture of God's gospel. Every marriage has the potential to showcase this greatest of all truths. We often fall short, but we echo the story still. As Paul says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church" (Ephesians 5:31-32).

So there is a lot at stake in marriage. As we lead and submit, love and respect, we are showing the world the good design of creation and the gospel of our salvation. What a glorious thing marriage is!

With all of that said, where is the place for divorce and remarriage? In some ways it is easy to not even go there, and to just leave it here with the ideal. But the Scriptures give us two pictures of marriage going wrong, and some teaching about it.

The first being already quoted by the Lord Jesus. Both in Matthew 5 and in Matthew 19 we hear these words – "except for sexual immorality". Jesus gives a prohibition on all divorce and remarriage, but he adds this phrase, except for sexual immorality. Many have taken this reading on the surface and have taught that in the case of adultery within the marriage, the innocent spouse could lawfully seek a divorce and remarry, without committing adultery. This is the majority protestant position, spelled out in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, (Matt. 5:31-32): and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead, (Matt. 19:9; Rom. 7:2-3)…nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is case sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage (Matt. 19:8-9; 1 Cor. 7:15; Matt. 19:6). (WCF 24.4-5)

You will notice that the second exception is brought up here as well, that of wilful desertion by an unbeliever. Paul, addressing an audience where some would have become Christians while married to unbelievers, gives further teaching on that subject. If the unbeliever wants to break off the marriage, Paul says, "let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved" (1 Cor. 7:15).

The big debate on these verses has been about the nature of the exceptions. It is clear that marriage is the one-flesh union between man and wife, and ideally only death will bring that union to an end. However, we know that sin is a reality. And there are times when someone commits adultery, then divorces and leaves their partner in a lurch. And there are other times when an unbeliever can't handle the faith of their believing spouse, and they take off. What do you do then?

I have already laid out the majority position found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, but there are other views out there as well. Some have interpreted the exception clause in Matthew 19 as only referring to granting one permission to divorce, but not granting permission for remarriage. Others have interpreted the sexual immorality as referring to pre-marital immorality not adultery. And others also see the phrase "not enslaved" as meaning free to let the spouse go, but not free to also remarry.

There are good arguments on these things, and they are worth considering. I for one have flip-flopped between the majority view and the stricter position that only allows remarriage after the death of a spouse. The exception clause for sexual immorality really could be referring just to the right to divorce, and Paul could also just be saying, let them go, live at peace. In the end this is a very difficult topic. In seminary I wrote a paper defending the minority view, that is, of no remarriage after divorce. I worked hard on that thing; I read and referenced stacks of books. I put hours and hours into it. Yet, I have found that the longer I have studied and reflected on this the less certainty I have with that position. I even re-read my paper in preparation for this post, and I found myself poking numerous holes in my own argumentation from 5 years ago. So personally, I believe that the majority view could be correct, but I still hold the stricter view for myself.

And whether you hold those limited exceptions or none, we must recognize that both positions are radically counter-cultural. In both places we are drawing a hard line. We step into the world with a stance against divorce and for the guarding of the one-flesh union of man and wife. Unlike the world we do not endorse no-fault divorce, we do not wink at adultery, and multiple remarriages. We preach against divorce and remarriage with very limited exceptions or for some of us, with none at all. In this the church ought to shine brightly in the world as we model a family life patterned after creation and empowered by the redemption that is in Christ.

So where does that leave the church? What should we do about our potential disagreements on the exception clauses? First, we should all freely admit that this is not an area of primary or even secondary doctrinal concern. Good Christians will disagree on this, and no one should be questioning the other's salvation over the matter, or seeking to make this the issue of a church's identity. Those who hold the stricter view and those who hold the majority view should be able to work this out as brothers and sisters in the Lord. That should be clear enough.

Perhaps a good comparison would be with the weaker and stronger brothers in Romans 14. Here we have some believers who have no problem getting a hot-dog from the vender in downtown Athens, and others who believe that to be a compromise with idolatry and a clear sin. What does Paul tell them to do? He says, "Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgement on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him" (Romans 14:3). We each will stand before God and ultimately He will be our judge. We should give each other room to hold to one of the hotly debated options, and to live by faith standing on God's Word. This would mean for the person remaining single after being divorced, to not take it personally when other Christians fail to understand that resolve; and for those other Christians to respect and be sensitive to that brother or sister's faithful stand. And this would also mean for the person pursuing a lawful remarriage, as they understand it, to be sensitive and patient with those who would want to caution them. And those who hold the stricter view should take care to not pass judgement or pour cold water on their brother or sister who is seeking to prayerfully and biblically move on in remarriage.

In all of these things we seek to live holy lives for the glory of Christ our redeemer. As we read in Philippians, "Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:14-15). 

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Wednesday, 24 April 2024