July 24, 2017

Jesus’ Teaching on Marriage and Divorce (3): Divorce for Another Reason?

by Jim Oesterwind

The LORD would not accept the well-intended offerings of the children of Israel in the day of the prophet Malachi. They tearfully offer, but God rejects them. They wonder why. God answers by pointing out their unfaithfulness to their wives and callous neglect of His institution of marriage. A primary purpose for marriage is the propagation of godly children. God desired a people in Israel devoted to Him. What is true of Israel is true for the Christian home as well. God hated divorce in Malachi’s day (Mal 2.16); God hates divorce in our day. Divorce and broken homes destroy individuals and societies.

This principle must be constantly reviewed because it prepares us for the teaching of Jesus in The Gospels. We should hate divorce because of its destructive nature; more so, we should hate divorce because God hates it. Even so there are two additional texts in the Old Testament that seem to pave the way for God permitting divorce.

Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives. (Ezra 10:11)

The will of God according to Ezra the priest is that the men of Israel separate themselves from their pagan wives. If we say that God never permits divorce for any reason, then what do we do with this text? Ezra 10 contains a list of those who obeyed this command (vv. 18-44). Verse 44 states that those listed had taken pagan wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children. Divorce is hated by God, but at times it is His will. Jeremiah provides the second text.

And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also. (Jeremiah 3:8)

This text makes it clear that God had divorced adulterous Israel, but Judah failed to learn from it and continued to play the harlot. Certainly God is not wrong for divorcing Israel. Of course, this text is an analogy to spiritual infidelity, not a literal example of divorce between humans. Nevertheless, the Ezra example obviously affects families and individuals within the nation.

I believe that God permits divorce in cases of sexual immorality but does not mandate that it should be so. Forgiveness, healing, and restoration are the will of God today. Some find one other exception in the New Testament that would allow for a divorce. It is found in 1 Corinthians 7.

Paul writes that a husband must have his own wife and a wife her own husband. This is a discreet way of saying that they must have physical intimacy together. The husband renders to his wife affection due her and likewise the wife her husband (vv. 2-3). An intimate, loving marriage is the best way to stave off sexual immorality. That is why the husband has authority over the wife’s body and the wife over the husband’s body (v. 4). Verse 5 teaches that the only time that a couple may stop this physical intimacy is with consent and for a fixed period of time mutually agreed upon. The purpose for this would be fasting and prayer. Then, they must quickly come together again or Satan will tempt them due to a lack of self-control.

There are some that are gifted and are able to remain single and unmarried (v. 7). But if self-control is an issue, one should marry. Paul states that it is better to marry than to burn with unrestrained passion (v. 9). Now he turns to marriage once again (v. 10) and offers this command from God: “Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10–11). These verses refer to separation for a time and eventual reconciliation. Paul now turns to the subject of marriages which combine a believing and unbelieving spouse:

But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12–16)

If an unbelieving spouse is willing to stay in a marriage, the believing spouse must not divorce. The reason given for staying is the sanctification of the unbeliever in his or her spouse. This is difficult, but it seems to be teaching that the unbeliever is sanctified in the sense of being set apart with the believing spouse in a special relationship with the truth of God. It has nothing to do with the salvation of the unbeliever’s soul. If the unsaved spouse leaves, the saved spouse is not under the marriage bond. I believe remarriage would be possible at that point. Verse 16 makes clear that you never know what an unsaved spouse will do if you live a Christlike life before them. One must trust that God will save them. So it seems that Paul is offering a second exception for divorce: a brother or sister in Christ is abandoned by their unsaved spouse.

There seem to be five commonly held views regarding divorce and remarriage:

  1. “There are no biblical reasons for divorce. One should never divorce.”
  2. “Divorce is permissible for the cause of sexual immorality, but if the divorce takes place, the two people involved cannot remarry.”
  3. “Divorce that is a result of sexual immorality would allow the ‘innocent’ party the right to remarry but not the offending party.” Of course, the struggle and tension here is that what does being innocent mean? A wife may cheat on her husband after years of neglect and abuse. While he never commits adultery, he has certainly broadened the avenue of temptation for her. A husband may cheat on his wife after she withholds physical intimacy from him for years. He is responsible for his sin, but I’d have a hard time proclaiming the innocence of the wife.
  4. “Divorce is permitted for two reasons: sexual immorality and abandonment.”
  5. “Divorce is only permitted for sexual immorality. Since the divorce is permitted, then the implication is that God permits remarriage.” This is what I believe to be correct when harmonizing the passages we’ve gone over. I don’t believe abandonment is a qualified exception because Jesus mentions only one. I believe the abandonment of an unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 7 will almost always lead to sexual immorality making abandonment a moot point.
  6. So, my understanding of the Scriptures permits but does not demand divorce only for sexual immorality. Hypothetical situations abound that might confuse matters. I try to pray and ask God for wisdom from His Spirit and the Word. I keep in mind that God hates divorce and it is only used as a last resort, the lesser of two evils. I also encourage a person to meditate upon Hosea if his or her spouse has committed adultery.

A husband or wife needs time when they find out his or her spouse has committed adultery. Trust needs to be rebuilt. Prayer and Bible meditation are keys to successfully rebuilding. Even serial adultery can be forgiven, but God’s grace must overcome and overwhelm the deep hurt caused.

Be careful about putting a burden upon a person that God does not intend. What do the Scriptures clearly teach? Pray and behave wisely in this area. Divorce has hurt countless people. Compassion and a Christlike concern is the need of the hour.


Jim Oesterwind is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, CA. He blogs at http://www.pastoralpondering.blogspot.ca/.


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