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A Roadmap based upon Scriptural Examination
By Pastor John Fehlen
2 Divorce and remarriage are messy. Really messy. Likewise, so is the Bible in its coverage of these subjects. Very messy. It is no simple feat to reconcile all the components, nuances, variances, and exceptions in regards to divorce and remarriage found within the Word of God. Interestingly, the references are small in number and yet weighty in their implications and highly varied in their interpretations. These various views and understandings have been historically entrenched within the Christian community, which has led to endless debate. J. Vernon McGee asserts, “that divorce is one of the most controversial subjects that any Bible teacher has to deal with today because there is confusion as to what the Bible really says on that problem, and there is a great difference and wide diversity of interpretation.” 1 From a pastoral perspective there is an additional level of indistinctness because each and every situation brings with it a significant amount of personal history. There is always ‘more to the story’ because everyone knows it takes ‘two to tango’. How does one deal with such ambiguity? Did we not see this mess coming? Genesis 3 seems to allude to relational conflict as a result of the fall of humanity. From that point on nothing would be ‘cut and dry’. Life in general and marriage specifically would be convoluted. The sanity and order enjoyed in the Garden of Eden was replaced with chaos, hurt, and brokenness after that fateful day at the fruit tree. How does one minister with biblical integrity when relationships are in such flux? How does one avoid a mechanical application of a few Biblical rules to very complex marital situations? Unfortunately the Bible is not completely clear on issues of divorce and remarriage, making it difficult to create a firm, linear structure and airtight theology. Therefore, the goal of this research is to develop a flexible pathway for pastoral ministry to those that have been affected by divorce and/or remarriage. This, of course, is dangerous ground to be treading. Much is left to open interpretation, best
3 guesses, and resultantly poor theology. Rob Bell insists that “God has spoken and everything else is commentary.” 2 Indeed God has spoken in His Word, but admittedly His words leave us with much to comment upon…and disagree about. The intention of this document is to try to carefully navigate through the various big voices on the topic of divorce and remarriage and attempt to discover the ‘heart of the matter’. Scholarly documentation, both theological and historical, will be utilized and yet the purpose of this work will be to get the conversation back to the heart of the matter, much like Jesus attempted to do. The heart of the matter goes beyond the Law of Moses. The heart of the matter goes deeper than the Pharisaical challenges and tests. The heart of the matter reshapes the Corinthian line of questioning to Paul. This research seeks to humbly serve as a guiding document in the local church context where so many of the painful stories are heard and prayed through. Divorce touches hearts and this document, though theological at its depths, strives to be pastoral in its reach. Much like the ministry of the average local church, the principal focus of this research will be that of the believer: divorce, remarriage and the people of God. Two fundamental questions will serve as guiding points: First, is a Christian believer ever justified in seeking a divorce? Secondly, once divorced, can a Christian believer remarry? Consideration will be given to three main views regarding divorce and remarriage as well as a review of the primary scriptural passages in the Old and New Testaments. This research will strive to distill the points of agreement found in the historical views and scriptural passages as well as the pastoral implications. The conclusion of this research will address what is believed to be ‘the heart of the matter’ on this subject. God’s Bottom Line God hates divorce. Malachi 2:16 implores Israel to “guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” Indeed Scripture, history, and our current realities assure us, that despite God’s feelings on the
4 matter, His children definitely are “breaking faith” at an alarming rate. Pastorally, there are many things that are despised, but regrettably have to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis. One must maintain a strong moral compass while still assisting those that have experienced devastation personally. In an effort to construct a pastoral pathway for ministry, God’s strong feelings on the matter must not be dismissed however. Simply put: He hates divorce. But more clearly: God hates the breaking of marriage vows that results in divorce not the cultural and legal precedent of divorce nor the persons who carry it out. God was divorced. One need not read far into the pages of Jeremiah to discover a faithless Israel. Fellow prophet Ezekiel delves into the grounds for God’s divorce to Israel and the prophecies of the future restoration of relationship. David Instone-Brewer reasons that: “The Old Testament prophets describe God as a divorcee, and when you put together all the references, you find a clear and unanimous picture. God had married Israel at Mount Sinai in the wilderness, then brought his bride across the threshold of the Jordan into Palestine. There he gave her food (milk and honey) and wool for clothes, and of course he loved her and was faithful to her. In Palestine, however, Israel was introduced to many other gods and started to worship them, offering them sacrifices of food and ornaments. The prophets described this worship of other gods as spiritual adultery.” 3 This understanding illuminates God’s personal experience with divorce and the pain that results from it. He is acquainted with the level of hurt that comes with broken vows and abandonment. God (as well as Jesus and Paul) affirm marriage and discourage divorce. This assertion is important to state in order to debunk the cultural shift towards relativism. Situational ethics have brought about a casuistic approach to Scripture. Situationalists may justify divorce as “the loving thing to do” in a particular situation. When “the loving thing to do” becomes the highest or only regard, then the Bible becomes subject to gross misinterpretation and abuse. Even though there are seemingly incompatible
5 theories regarding the exceptions for divorce and remarriage in Scripture, one must be convinced that God, Jesus, and Paul all equally affirm marriage and discourage the act of divorce. Various Views The Scripture places a high value upon marriage and does indeed have strong words to say about flippant, thoughtless divorce and remarriage. Yet there remain divergent views on the subject. Divorce and remarriage discussions can be summarized into, but certainly not limited to, three distinct and classic views: 1. Remarriage is never acceptable after divorce; 2. Remarriage is acceptable after divorce if the injured party had legitimate grounds for divorce (i.e., adultery or desertion); and 3. Remarriage is potentially acceptable for a variety of reasons, which may go beyond such stated grounds. 4 These views are based upon scriptural interpretation involving what has come to be referred to as ‘exception clauses’. These clauses were spoken by Jesus in the Gospels and by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth. Each view has its own merits. The case is not closed on any one interpretation. One must look closer at the biblical text to understand the context of each of these views and, as will be shown, one must not be reduced to semantics and miss the ‘heart of the matter.” The starting point is in the Book of Deuteronomy – where the Law of Moses established a precedent that would be hotly debated until now. Deuteronomy 24. This section of the Pentateuch covers a number of issues which could arise within the Israelite community, including broken marriages and the arrangements that protected women in the social structure of the ancient world. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Raymond Brown claims,
6 “In most of the surrounding nations, a woman could be divorced on almost any pretext. If a husband tired of his wife, it was not difficult to have her banished from the home, and there was little by way of redress…this particular law states that a man who divorced his wife may not remarry her if she had married again after leaving the home. Such teaching controlled divorce, protected women and guarded marriage.” 5 First, the Law of Moses controlled divorce. Note that it did not establish it. It was a very common practice of the day. Secondly, it protected women, which was not the norm of the day. Women counted for very little in the surrounding Near East and were at an extreme disadvantage in cases of marital breakdown. Outside of Israel the man could terminate his marriage for nearly anything, whereas the Law of Moses imposed strict limits and required a certificate of divorce. Thirdly, the Law of Moses placed a high value upon marriage by preserving any subsequent marriage(s) following a divorce. Marriage was intended “for life” and this law made it detestable in the eyes of the Lord to change ones marital allegiance back and forth at will. In deference to the certificate of divorce in Deuteronomy 24, Instone-Brewers contends that it “had to be given to any woman who was abandoned or thrown out by her husband. It confirmed that her husband had divorced her and meant that it was safe for another man to marry her; he didn’t have to worry that her first husband would return one day to demand his wife back.” 6 One word in the New International Version translation of Deuteronomy 24 is the focus of much debate: indecent. How does one accurately define what is ‘indecent’? The matter of interpretation is the source of much consternation over the years. Instone-Brewer, in his book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, believes that the Old Testament law gives specific guidelines about the practice of divorce. “Indecency (whatever that meant) is named in Deuteronomy 24:1 and the neglect of basic provisions is implied in Exodus 21:10-11. Later interpretations of the Pentateuch regarded “indecency” as adultery, and they translated
7 the basic rights in Exodus 21:10-11 as food, clothing, and love.” 7 Matthew 5:32. This New Testament reference alludes to the certificate of divorce that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus is making a summary of the moral intention of the law in his famed Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus is depicted as going beyond Moses, making even more strict demands. The issue for interpretation is whether Jesus is giving a ‘new law’ for Christians or stating the extent of God’s perfect will for mankind. The primary question is whether or not this is law or hyperbole. Instone-Brewer believes, “that Jesus did not reject the Old Testament, but he did reject new interpretations that had diluted the Old Testament’s moral principles. Jesus does not mean that we should keep all the details of the Old Testament law in exactly the way it was prescribed for the nation of Israel in the ancient Near Eastern world. We can see from the way he discusses these various commandments in Matthew 5 that he was concerned with the principles behind the laws rather than the details.” 8 He goes on to make a radical statement that is certainly not without great debate: “Therefore we can also legitimately ignore the details of Old Testament law, but we may not neglect any of the principles.”9 This is a clear call to remember and hold firmly the ‘heart of the matter’. In Matthew 5:32 we read the first of two references to ‘except for marital unfaithfulness’. This exception clause is repeated in Matthew 19. Matthew included this phrase in his Gospel, and interestingly it is found in no other parallel passages such as Mark and Luke. Some understand that this is a clear statement of one of the exception clauses in Scripture: unfaithfulness. Craig Keener affirms, “that Jesus' divorce saying was meant to be qualified is clear from the fact that four of the six New Testament texts addressing the issue explicitly qualify it. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 both allow divorce for the cause of infidelity. Other current interpretations of these passages provide novel proposals, but most interpret "infidelity" much more narrowly than ancient readers would have
8 done. Some writers see the clause as a redundant overstatement of the obvious ("in the case of infidelity, infidelity has already been committed"). But in ancient divorce law, "infidelity" was a legal charge covering any kind of sexual unfaithfulness to the marriage, and this is precisely how Matthew's readers would have understood it. The very meaning of "divorce" in ancient law was freedom to remarry.” 10 The other viewpoint on the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is that the permissive interpretation is wrong. The phrase “marital unfaithfulness” in the Greek is porneia which is translated as “sexual immorality” not only and explicitly that of ‘adultery’, but rather the premarital sexual fornication which a man or woman discovers in the betrothed partner. 11 In Matthew 1:18-20 we read of Joseph’s resolve to ‘quietly divorce’ Mary, presumably on account of her fornication (porneia). Therefore, proponents of this view of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 believe that the Gospel writer includes the exception clause in order to bring clarity to his comments regarding Joseph and Mary. The advantage of this interpretation is that Matthew does not contradict the meaning of Mark and Luke. Secondly, there is justification for his use of porneia (fornication) instead of the more commonly used moicheia (adultery). In John Piper’s rebuttal to the writings of David Instone-Brewer he paraphrases Matthew 19:9 [and in essence Matthew 5:32] as, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery—and I am excluding here the matter of fornication during engagement, as in the case of what Joseph thought Mary had done, and was thus about to divorce her.” 12 There is significance in noting that only Matthew has the exception clause (“except for marital unfaithfulness,” 5:32; 19:9) and only Matthew records Joseph’s intention to “divorce” Mary justly during their betrothal. Luke 16:18, Matthew 19:1-9, and Mark 10:1-12. The remaining three Gospel references will all be addressed together in that all of them are parallel passages and each are addressed to the Pharisees. Luke’s account is amidst a train of thought that many find to be one of the most difficult in the whole
9 Gospel. It is a series of episodes and parables that challenges the hearers, particularly the Pharisees. In the middle of what is a seemingly piece-meal miscellany of items proceeds this comment: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This verse is a part of what Luke calls ‘an orderly account’ (1:3), so the likelihood of this being haphazard and scarcely connected is not probable. The wording of Luke 16:18 is exactly the same as that of Mark. Subsequently, the context of Mark’s account parallels that of what we find in Matthew 19. Thus is the case for connecting each of these three passages together and dealing with them with a sense of unity. Therefore any such discrepancies we find between the parallel passages could possibly be due to the individuals’ perspective, the decision towards brevity, and/or the target audience. Matthew 19:1-9 therefore becomes the passage of direct focus in that it is the most comprehensive of the Gospels and because it contains the famed exception clause that was discussed earlier. Jesus responds to two questions asked in a linear fashion by the Pharisees that had gathered to test him. Both Matthew and Mark observe this spirit of testing. They were trying to trap Jesus in a debate that has been going on for many generations under the schools of thought of Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel. A.T. Robertson supports this notion in his book, Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. His research confirms that the Pharisees “could not ask a question of Jesus without sinister motives”. He goes on to address the phrase ‘for every cause’ [kata pasan aitian] as an allusion to the dispute between the two theological schools over the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. The school of Shammai took the strict and unpopular view of divorce for unchastity alone while the school of Hillel took the liberal and popular view of easy divorce for any passing whim, for example, if the husband saw a prettier woman (modern enough surely) or his wife burnt his biscuits for breakfast.13 Decades before Jesus, Hillel lived and created a new type of divorce called ‘Any Cause’ divorce.
10 Deuteronomy 24:1 inspired this phrase where it states that a man could divorce his wife for ‘a cause of sexual immorality’. Hillel asked the question, “Why did Moses use the word ‘cause’ instead of just saying ‘sexual immorality?’’ He concluded that Moses was not referring exclusively to one cause but to any cause. This type of divorce became very popular because a man did not need to have proof or present his case in court. Some believe that this new type of divorce had become available and predominant around the time of Jesus’ birth and that at the beginning of his earthly ministry ‘Any Cause’ divorces would be the excessive norm. Instone-Brewer suggests, “the ‘any cause’ divorce had almost completely replaced the traditional Old Testament types of divorce. We can see how respectable it had become by the time of Jesus’ birth because Joseph considered using this means to break off his betrothal to Mary. Joseph did not want to put Mary through the disgrace of a public trial, so he decided to use the quiet ‘Any Cause’ divorce that did not require any proof of wrongdoing.” 14 Rabbi Shammai on the other hand disagreed with Hillel’s claims and interpreted the phrase to mean nothing more than ‘sexual immorality’. Shammai’s disciples wanted people to restrict themselves to divorces based upon the Old Testament grounds of unfaithfulness in Deuteronomy 24:1 and the neglect of food, clothing and conjugal love in Exodus 21:10-11. The debate between Shammai and Hillel was the one that the Pharisees were drawing Jesus into with their line of questioning. The phrasing ‘any and every reason’ (or ‘for any cause’ in the English Standard Version) has a direct correlation to that of the Hillel ‘Any Cause’ divorce craze. What is most remarkable and noteworthy of this interaction is the way in which Jesus attempts to steer the conversation to a new topic altogether. Rather than answering the question outright, He takes the conversation in another, more profitable direction (of which Jesus does often, and masterfully, in the Gospels). The subject becomes that of marriage and the union of one man and one woman by God. Jesus draws them back further than the Law of Moses. He takes them to the Garden of Eden and ultimately to
11 the heart of the matter. The Pharisees continued to test him by asking, “Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away” (19:7). This is a reference to Deuteronomy 24, the context of which both the Pharisees and Jesus would have known well. Jesus corrects their understanding in that Moses only ‘permitted’ divorce due to hardness of heart. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter without giving credence to either Hillel or Shammai and their respective schools of thought. Samuele Bacchiocchi points out, “Jesus made no attempt to apply the ‘no divorce’ principle to concrete marital situations. His concern was to counteract the prevailing trend of easy dissolving marriages simply because Moses seemed to have allowed it.”15 Likewise, Jesus gives no validity to ‘Any Cause’ divorce by placing such a high priority upon the sanctity of marriage. His blatant diversion from the questions about ‘Any Cause’ divorce is a direct affront to that line of thinking and its proponents. The Gospel accounts can be properly summed up with the words of Bacchiocchi, “The purpose of Christ’s ministry was to reveal, on the one hand, God’s absolute creative will and, on the other hand, God’s absolute redemptive love. He revealed God’s absolute will in terms of general principles rather than in terms of specific applications of such principles. He taught, for example, that nursing anger is the equivalent of murder (Matt 5:22), that lusting is the equivalent of adultery (Matt 5:28), and that divorcing and remarrying is the equivalent of adultery (Matt 19:9). In none of these instances, however, did Christ explain how to deal with those who had committed such sins. Instead, He chose to reveal God’s absolute acceptance of sinners.” 16 This absolute acceptance of sinners is at the heart of the matter. It is the situation that was addressed by the Apostle Paul in his writings to the church in Corinth – which provides the final text to briefly evaluate in regards to divorce and remarriage. Before launching into 1 Corinthians a brief comment must
12 be made regarding Romans 7:1-3. One can point to Romans 7:1-3 as another New Testament passage on divorce and remarriage. However, this is believed to be purely an illustration used by the Apostle Paul. He says, “For example…” and delves into an illustration regarding the law. Instone-Brewer agrees, “this is a wonderful picture of Christ’s love, whose death frees us from the law. The passage tells us a great deal about our salvation, but we should not expect it to teach us about divorce and remarriage. Just as the parable of the sower is not a good manual for teaching us about farming, so we should not expect to learn much about marriage from an illustration about a believer’s marriage to the law and to Christ.” 17 1 Corinthians 7. Paul begins to deal with specific matters raised in a letter from Corinth. Presumably he has the letter open in front of him as he dictates his reply as denoted by his common phrase ‘Now concerning…', which lends itself as a transition between various topics; firstly that of marriage and divorce. One must understand that the bulk of this chapter deals with sexual issues and not exclusively with divorce and remarriage. Paul addresses such topics as polygamy, conjugal rights between husband and wife, sexual abstinence, singleness, virgins, engaged couples and widows; not withstanding the topic of divorce and remarriage. The section devoted to divorce and remarriage can be plainly broken down as follows: 1 Corinthians 7:10,11 – The wife must not divorce from her husband and a husband must not divorce his wife. 1 Corinthians 7:11 – If the wife does divorce then she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Paul is clear but also realistic. He knows it will happen and when it does he gives direction to the church. 1 Corinthians 7:12 – A believer with an unbelieving spouse must not divorce if the spouse is willing to stay in the marriage.
13 1 Corinthians 7:13 – If a woman has an unbeliever husband who is willing to stay in the marriage then the woman must not divorce him. Though there are a variety of interpretations, it seems as if the unbelieving spouse derives benefit from the believing spouse spiritually. The believer has the opportunity to bless the spouse in a profound manner. 1 Corinthians 7:15 – If the unbeliever leaves then the spouse is not bound to the marriage in the same way as if the spouse dies (see 1 Cor. 7:39). There is then a freedom to remarry. Paul insists that ‘God has called us to live in peace’ (7:15), and not have to live unmarried if the spouse leaves or dies. This verse provides what is commonly known as the second exception clause, being that of abandonment or desertion. Adultery and abandonment are the only two exceptions that many believe are provided in Scripture. Melanchthon, Martin Luther's colleague, limited the grounds to infidelity and desertion, on the basis of the ‘Matthean exception’ and ‘Pauline privilege’. 18 Others contend that there are more than two valid reasons for divorce and remarriage. “[Luther] came to see divorce, however, as a permissible last resort in cases of infidelity, impotency, refusal of marital relations, and desertion. He strongly supported remarriage for the offended party. Similarly, Reformers John Calvin and Theodore Beza allowed divorce only for adultery and, more hesitantly, for desertion on grounds of irreconcilable religious differences. In 1561, the Calvinist city of Geneva enacted a law permitting divorce, as a last resort, for these two reasons. The Radical Reformers, such as the Anabaptists, recognized adultery as legitimate grounds for divorce on the basis of Matthew 5, but they were divided on the Pauline privilege. Unlike the Lutherans and Calvinists, the Radical Reformers generally forbade remarriage following divorce.” 19 Obviously this topic brings up a number of conflicting views and interpretations. The church at large has been divided on the issue since the writing of the law. The conversation ebbs and flows as new research is done and documents are uncovered that support one view over another, lending credence to a
14 particular viewpoint. What then can be agreed upon? What are the common points of understanding that each viewpoint would hold to, and then how does one proceed pastorally to minister to the needs at hand? Points of Agreement A number of non-negotiables emerge from the research on the topic of divorce and remarriage. There will always be debate over the exception clauses, one-flesh union under God, and the meaning of indecency to name a few. The following, however, are points of agreement within the larger Christian community. 1. God never created or ordained the institution of divorce. Man did. Divorce and remarriage existed in the surrounding cultures during the time of Moses. He understood the realities and gave direction and established control by developing ‘certificates of divorce’. One could argue that because the Law of Moses is inspired of God (as is the entire Word of God), that God himself therefore instituted the certificates of divorce. This would be an amazing overstatement – one with powerful implications throughout the whole of Scripture. In similar fashion, one cannot attribute blessing to polygamy just because it is spoken of in Scripture. God never created or ordained divorce. That was a creation of man as a result of the Fall. 2. Divorce is contrary to God’s perfect will and Jesus has strong words to say about it. Andreas J. Köstenberger says this regarding God’s will, “We have seen that marriage was divinely instituted by the Creator. Subsequent to the Fall, sin led to distortions of this divine institution. Marriage turned into a struggle for control in which husbands frequently dominated their wives while wives sought to manipulate their husbands. Divorce broke up marriages even for the most trivial of reasons. Polygamy was practiced, and extramarital affairs violated the sacred trust of marital fidelity. Hence, while the divine ideal was set forth clearly and permanently in the creation account, there was a great need for
15 restoration and renewal in the days of Jesus and the early church.” 20 3. Divorce and remarriage, although contrary to God’s original intent, are not unforgivable. In the modern church, this is a healthy reminder. Often, those that have been divorced and/or remarried have come to sense from the church that they have committed the ‘unpardonable sin’. This is simply not true. God can and will forgive when there is repentance and brokenness of heart. Instone-Brewer confirms, “We have seen that the sin of marriage breakup is very serious, but God forgives a repentant divorcee just as he forgives all other sinners. That does not mean that there will not be consequences to suffer as a result of this sin – all divorces cause suffering, and the suffering from a marriage breakup can last a lifetime – but it does mean that the consequences of the sin can stop getting worse.” 21 4. Most couples seeking a divorce today do so for unbiblical reasons. Practically speaking, this has become the normative route – to dissolve a marriage union for poor reasons. For example: communication, incompatibility, finances, lack of commitment, changes in priorities, and ‘falling out of love’. In short, when a marriage is not working properly, the common solution is to get out of it rather than seeking assistance and strength from the Lord. 5. Remarriage is wrong while the possibility exists of maintaining a current relationship or working toward reconciliation. Another point of acceptance among theologians and practitioners alike is that reconciliation should be sought after at all costs. A remarriage is ‘invalid’ when due diligence has not been given to a struggling marriage or to a divorced situation. One must deal with dysfunctions, insecurities and wounds before allowing remarriage. This is perhaps why Paul instructed believers to either remain single or return to their spouses because he knows that “reconciliation remains possible if neither partner has remarried. The focus, in other words, is still on preserving (or, in this case, restoring) marriage rather than on treating a remarriage as adultery.” 22
16 Pastoral Implications This section will build upon the theological and scriptural foundation and seek to develop a pathway of pastoral ministry to those are seeking wisdom regarding a potential divorce and/or remarriage, or for those that are already in a situation and are wanting to know if they line up with Scripture and the heart of God. The format is intentionally structured differently than the preceding documentation in order to provide a simple, easy to navigate pathway of pastoral implications.
Marriage should only be sanctioned between two believers or two unbelievers but never between a believer and an unbeliever. This is what Scripture indicates as begin ‘unequally yoked’. Marriage is a lifetime contract/covenant between two partners. Both partners vow to provide material support and physical affection and to be sexually faithful to each other. If one partner breaks a marriage vow, the other has the right to decide either to end the marriage with a divorce or to carry on through forgiveness. Divorce should take place only if marriage vows have been broken (for example: adultery, neglect and abuse), and it is always sinful to break these vows. Jesus adds that there should be forgiveness extended to an erring partner. If a divorce takes place without citing broken vows, remarriage to another is allowed only if reconciliation is impossible. No one should initiate a divorce unless their partner is guilty of repeatedly or unrepentantly breaking their marriage vows. No one should separate from his or her marriage partner unless there is sufficient reason for divorce, and then there ought to be separation without intent of divorce. Too often separation is seen as the first step to divorce instead of an infrequently used tool to create space for eventual reconciliation. If someone has divorced or separated without biblical grounds, they should attempt reconciliation with their former partner. While working with a couple seeking remarriage after one or both have been divorced, an effort must be
given pastorally to seeking out the previous spouse to discover if restoration is indeed an available option. If it is not possible then the couple may proceed. Even an innocent party is wise to not remarry immediately; remarriages right after a divorce closes the door for restoration. The guilty party (such as an adulterer or abuser) should be placed under some form of church discipline until there are clear signs of repentance and restitution. If a believer in the church gets divorced then the church must strive to be a point of ministry to both parties regardless of fault. The church encourages people to maintain their marriage vow: (1) when there has been unfaithfulness; (2) when spouses are unbelievers; (3) when their spouses are unkind. In very rare cases should the church support someone in initiating a divorce, unless a person is continually unfaithful, consistently abusive or a permanently deserting spouse. This is never the desired outcome and is rarely suggested. Divorce is allowed only for the victim of broken marriage vows (for example: adultery, neglect and abuse) and the right to remarry is implicit in any divorce.
The Heart of the Matter Throughout this research it has become very obvious that the topics of divorce and remarriage are indeed messy ones. There is very little agreement when it comes to how to handle these sensitive issues in light of doctrinal interpretation. Instone-Brewer understandably notes, “We might wish that the Holy Spirit would preserve us from such discord by making Scripture more plain or by inspiring the scholars on both sides to agree with each other, but God does not work in this way. He give us intelligence to think about difficult doctrines and then expects us to listen to each other in humility and in a desire to find the truth.” 23 In that effort, the preceding research has intentionally been left somewhat ambiguous.
18 Here is why: People that are in marital crisis need love, acceptance, and forgiveness because there is a great deal of shame and regret associated with broken marriages. Grace, then, becomes the enabling power of God when people are weak and discouraged. What is rarely helpful is a ‘laying down of the law’ to people that are already buried in guilt and possible condemnation. The Bible maintains a number of ambiguities and has survived for many centuries under heavy scrutiny. There is a warmth and flexibility to the Word of God (although it can be perceived as cold and rigid). The Pharisees excelled at inflexibility, which was the principle reason they were questioning Jesus in the first place. They wanted to know where he ‘came down’ in regards to the Law so that they could be justified in their legalistic approach. That legalism can take on two forms as William Heth details, “Minority-view proponents may, sadly, prohibit what God would permit, and majority-view proponents may permit what God would prohibit and open the door to divorce even wider.” 24 What is notable is how Jesus responded to the Pharisees. In Matthew 19, Jesus refused to engage in a discussion on the law but rather steer it to the heart. He, like his Father, grieves regarding the effect that divorce has upon the people he loves, and yet it happens. Moses, most certainly grieved also, and yet it happened during his day too. He permitted divorce. Why? Because of hardness of heart. In similar fashion, the Lord was grieved when the children of Israel asked for a King rather than relying upon God Jehovah. It was as if the Lord God was saying, ‘My people just do not get it. Their hearts are hard!’ Jesus reiterates this emotion clearly. He springboards off of the Pharisees question about certificates of divorce (letter of the law) and draws attention to the condition of the heart. That condition has not changed. The culture has changed, and the church must deal with new realities. The laws have changed, and the church must deal with those new realities. What has not changed, however, is the heart. It has always, and will continue to be hard. Jesus’ response in the Gospels and Paul’s remarks in his letter have
19 much more to do with the condition of the heart then they do with specifics of the law. Unfortunately, matters of the law are what get the most discussion. It becomes then a venture in “straining at knats while swallowing camels.” If the discussion was suppose to be about ‘exceptions for divorce’ then Jesus would not have followed up by talking about the marriage union. When the discussion continued on about Moses’ certificate of divorce then Jesus directed the conversation to the hardness of hearts. The context of the entire Sermon on the Mount is on the condition of the heart. Jesus uses example after example to make his point. Sue Bohlin affirms this: “[In] Matthew 5, what you see is that He is ‘pulling back the rug,’ so to speak, on outward sins to expose the underlying problem, which is sin in the heart. Murder doesn't start with murder; it starts with sinful anger in the heart (vv. 21-22). Don't be as concerned about the proper words in taking an oath; be people of such integrity that your simple word alone will suffice and no oath is necessary (vv. 33-37). Instead of carefully measuring the retaliatory consequences of an offense against you, give in and don't fight back (vv. 38-42). Instead of loving your neighbor and hating your enemy, love your enemies and pray for them (vv. 43-44). The main point to all of these illustrations in the Sermon on the Mount is that a sinful heart lurks behind every offensive action. By shining the light of His perfection on our dark hearts, the Lord very effectively makes us aware of how short we fall of God's standard of righteousness. That's why we need to receive Christ's righteousness, since we have none of our own.” 25 Regrettably, some people in the early church took every part of Jesus’ teaching literally. A secondcentury father, Origen, castrated himself in order to fulfill the command [from Matthew 5:29]. Paradoxically, later in life he interpreted this same text with a nonliteral rhetorical meaning. 26 Remember, Jesus did not propagate a discussion on the Old Testament law, but rather affirmed the principles of the laws and widened their application in order to get to the heart of the matter.
20 The issues presented in this research are indeed important and need to be looked closely and reckoned with. On one hand people are taking divorce far too lightly, and on the other hand the church too often mistakenly stands ready to condemn those that have failed. In all this, however, one must remember the heart of the matter and the application of grace. One can spend countless hours in debate over the idiosyncrasies of the text (and it is right that some should do so), but miss the bigger picture: the heart. Does this mean that the church should become sloppy and condone any and all divorces and remarriages? No, it does not. But it does mean that the church should return to, or continue in, its posture of being agents of grace to a hurting world. As it stands, much of the modern church has become so divided over various interpretations of doctrine that, by and large, it has forgotten to be agents of grace. Sadly, the spirits of Rabbis Hillel and Shammai still exist in our churches (not to mention all the questioning Pharisees!). It is in the midst of those looming, conflicting voices that Jesus stands, speaks and ministers…with grace. It is this grace that was expressed in living color by Hosea to his wayward wife Gomer as a beautiful display of God’s heart towards the unfaithful Israel, and ultimately a picture of His unfailing love towards all His people. If God has shown this kind of radical love, acceptance, and forgiveness towards humanity, without exception, then one must learn how to facilitate that kind of grace to those that are desperately in need, even when it comes to the messiness of divorce and remarriage. That is the heart of the matter.
J. Vernon McGee, Marriage & Divorce (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1998), 109. Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2005)
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2003), 38. Paul E Engle and Mark L. Strauss, Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2006), 15. Raymond Brown, The Message of Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1993), 227.
6 5 4
Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 28.
David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing. 2002), 23.
Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 50. Ibid. 51.
Craig Keener, Remarriage: Two Views, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustwebonly/48.0c.html
John Piper, Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper.
John Piper, Tragically Widening the Grounds of Legitimate Divorce, http:// www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/TasteAndSee/ByDate/ 2007/2443_Tragically_Widening_the_Grounds_of_Legitimate_Divorce/ Robertson, Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (B&H Publishing Group, 1947), 509.
Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 57.
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Andrews University), chapter 6.
Ibid. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 89.
Michael Gorman, Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli. http:// www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html
J. Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 61.
Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 125. Engle and Strauss, Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church, 116. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 158. Engle and Strauss, Remarriage After Divorce in Today’s Church, 82.
Sue Bohlin, Is Lust a Justification for Divorce, Probe Ministries, http://www.probe.org/ content/view/167/47/
Bibliography Adams, Jay Edward. Marriage After Divorce in Today’s Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980. Bacchiocchi, Samuele. The Marriage Covenant: A Biblical Study on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. Andrews University. Bauer, Scott. When Divorce Comes to the People of the Kingdom. SoundWord Tape Ministry #05027. Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. Bohlin, Sue. Is Lust a Justification for Divorce. Probe Ministries, http://www.probe.org/content/view/ 167/47/ Brown, Raymond. The Message of Deuteronomy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Courson, Jon. Application Commentary on the New Testament. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003. Deal, Ron L. “Redeeming the Remarried”, Christianity Today, October 2007, 31-33. Ditchfield, Christin, Is My Remarriage a Sin? Posting at Today’s Christian website. www.christianitytoday.com/tc/2007/003/4.18.html http://
Engle, Paul E. and Mark L. Strauss. Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. General Council of the Assemblies of God. Divorce and Remarriage Position Paper. http://ag.org/top/ Beliefs/Position_Papers/pp_4189_divorce_remarriage.cfm Gorman, Michael. Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html Hayford, Jack. Divorce and the People of God. Living Way Tape Ministry #01983. Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002. Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
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