Friday, August 1, 2008

Marriage and Divorce

By Bruce Mills
I realize that addressing the subject of marriage and divorce in the limited space of a blog posting is fraught with danger. Volumes have been written on this subject, with countless arguments back and forth regarding whether or not marriage is still a necessary institution, the legitimacy of divorce, and so forth. But still, I think that we as evangelicals need to weigh in on what the Bible has to say about these subjects.

Marriage is being viciously attacked in our society. It is being redefined in ways that no one could ever have imagined 25 years ago. But God’s intention for marriage hasn’t changed since the Garden of Eden.

God created Adam and Eve—not Adam and Edward. He created a couple composed of one man and one woman. In fact, he gives us the Magna Carta of marriage in Gen. 2:24—"For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh."

The Bible does not approve of any other form of marriage—neither polygamy nor homosexual marriage. In fact, God clearly condemned such in Romans 1.

Nor does he approve of couples living together without being married. Over and over in Scripture, God forbids fornication and adultery, but He also gave us an entire book (Song of Solomon) centered on the wonderful blessings of love and sex within marriage.

So Scripture clearly teaches that marriage is sacred beyond what most people imagine, because it is a unique creation of God that serves as a dramatic portrayal of God’s relation to His people, and a display of His glory.

The Bible says that marriage is to be permanent—just as God is continually faithful to us and does not leave us for someone else, He expects us to be faithful to our spouse. In Malachi 2:16, God tells us, “I hate divorce.” And Jesus was explicit about marriage being of divine origin and permanent in nature because in Matt. 19:6, He said, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” He expects that we will honor our commitment and the covenant we make at the time we marry.

At the church in which I serve as an elder, we take marriage and what the Bible has to say about it very seriously. In fact, our church constitution includes this statement:
We believe and teach that the family was the first institution God provided for man (Genesis 2:18-24); that marriage is both a sacred and honorable relationship (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 7:2) that is used as a symbol of the union of Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:21-23), and that marriage was designed by God to be a permanent relationship of one man and one woman (Genesis 2:18-24), and that any other form of sexual relationship is a sinful perversion of God’s ordained plan for mankind (Genesis 19:5, 13; 26:8-9; Leviticus 18:1-30; Romans 1:26-29; 1 Corinthians 5:1, 6:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; Hebrews 13:4).
So we want everyone to know, right up front, what our position is on marriage. In addition, every couple who is going to be married in our church is required to go through several weeks (usually 8-10 weeks) of pre-marital counseling.

And we do our best to help preserve marriage in our church. The counselors in our biblical counseling ministry spend many hours providing marriage counseling to couples who are struggling with difficulties in their marriages. I’ve been told that about 70% of all their counseling deals with problems in marriages.

As to the issue of divorce, let me briefly state my position. I believe that it is clear from the Bible that God does, in very limited circumstances, allow for divorce and remarriage. First, Jesus allowed for such in cases in which one of the marriage partners have been unfaithful and committed adultery with someone else (Matt. 5:32). Second, Paul taught that when an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer because he/she doesn’t want to be around the believer any longer, the believer is no longer obligated to remain married to that person and is free to remarry (1 Cor. 7:15).

But let me also say that even though divorce is a legitimate option in those limited circumstances, it is not always the best option. God gave us the book of Hosea in the Old Testament in which He specifically directed the prophet to marry a prostitute who bore children to him, then left him and went back to the practice of prostitution. And God told him to remain married to her and faithful to her and win her back. And the purpose was to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to Israel despite her unfaithfulness to Him. We are called to follow our Lord’s example, and to do so includes following His example of faithfulness even when others have been unfaithful to us. So God does not command divorce, even in circumstances of unfaithfulness, but He does permit it.

So, because divorce under any circumstances other than those that God permits is a sin, it affects membership in the church. If a believer divorces his/her spouse without legitimate biblical grounds, the church he/she attends should exercise church discipline in that situation. Unfortunately, my own church has had to publicly discipline individuals who were divorcing their spouse without biblical grounds for doing such.

If an individual has been divorced since becoming a believer, wise church leaders will require that person to meet with one of the pastors to discuss the reasons for that divorce and his or her spiritual walk in regard to that divorce before allowing them to join the church. If an individual was divorced prior to salvation, such should not be held against that person, but if he/she has remarried, they should be expected to remain faithful to their spouse as commanded by Scripture.

Divorce also affects the potential of a man serving in the leadership of the church. However, contrary to what many teach, I do not believe that Paul’s instruction regarding elders and deacons is an absolute prohibition that all men who have ever been divorced are prevented from serving in those capacities.

In 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, where our English Bibles say “the husband of one wife,” the Greek text literally reads “a one-woman man.” It does not specifically say anything about divorce; rather it speaks to the faithfulness of those men to their wives. Paul is teaching that elders and deacons must be men who are faithful to their wife. Just as all the other attributes of an elder and deacon that are listed in those passages are character qualities rather than specific situations, so too, faithfulness to his wife is to be the character of the man.

Now, I should point out that those character qualities are also expected of a man who is a believer. I believe it is incorrect to expect an unbeliever to meet the standards for godly character that God establishes for believers in the church. They are only applied to the man after he is a believer. You can’t go backward and say, “Well, he was divorced ten years before he became a Christian, and we are going to hold that against him even though he has been a believer for several years now.”

I don’t think you can do that anymore than you can say, “Well, he wasn’t very hospitable or he wasn’t very gentle ten years before he became a Christian, so we’re going to hold that against him now when we consider him for elder or deacon.”

The church at which I serve has occasionally, in the past, had some men in leadership who were divorced prior to becoming a Christian, but at the time they entered into a leadership position, they had been believers for many years and demonstrated their faithfulness to their current wife throughout that time, as well as meeting the other qualifications listed in Scripture.

If a church is going to consider such an man for leadership, both his personal and spiritual lives should be examined very carefully, and if he has been divorced, the leaders should particularly examine the details of that situation. That man’s life as a Christian must be above reproach, so the leaders must make sure there is nothing at all involved with the circumstances of his divorce that will bring reproach on the name of Christ or His church.
There is much more that I could write to expand upon almost every point in this post, but most people would become tired of reading and get lost in all the details. For now, this will have to suffice as an overall summary.


Unknown said...

Hey Bruce,

It was great to see you and Marsha the other night. Thanks to both of you for being there. Thanks for your work here on the topic of marriage and divorce. I am one who believes that "the church" needs to do a much better job of counseling pre-marrieds so as to help prevent ill-advised marriages from happening in the first place. On another subject, I would really like to see a response from you on George Barna and Frank Viola's most recent book "Pagan Christianity". I found it to be quite disturbing.

Chris said...

Matthew 5:32 is not permission to divorce. It simply acknowledges that in that culture a divorced woman will likely be forced to enter a relationship where sex will be a component, (otherwise their quality of life is simply horrible), and that any sex that takes place after a divorce that God has not acknowledged is of course, adultery against the spouse that God views you as still married to. The "exception" is that you cannot force someone to become an adulterer/ess if they already have committed adultery. It's simply Jesus making an observation. Nowhere does Jesus give a justification for Divorce. He makes another observation elsewhere that Moses permitted it for hardness of heart.

" But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery."

There is no permission here. Not clearly or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Leslie McFall has an interesting way to deal with the so-called exception clause in Matthew 19:9 that appears to allow for divorce and remarriage for marriage unfaithfulness.
He has written a 43 page paper that reviews the changes in the Greek made by Erasmus that effect the way Matthew 19:9 has been translated. I reviewed McFall's paper at Except For Fornication Clause of Matthew 19:9. I would love to hear some feedback on this position.