Divorce (Part 3): When can a Christian divorce their spouse?
Written by Neil Powell
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
Having considered in the previous two parts what God thinks about divorce the next question we face is in which situations does God permit divorce? It’s important that we recognise that Bible-believing Christians have always held a variety of views. Andreas Kostenberger’s God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation provides an excellent summary of arguments for and against various views. Recognising that godlier people than me have arrived at different conclusions suggests that a certain humility and generosity of spirit is required in presenting our own personal conclusions. In fact what gives us the freedom to disagree as evangelicals on secondary issues is constantly remembering and holding dear just how much we do agree on in relation to Christ and the gospel.
The first thing that we can say is that if we take the Bible seriously then we will accept that
1) Christians cannot divorce unless a spouse is at serious fault
In Matthew 19v.3 we read Some of the Pharisees came to Jesus to test him ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? Jesus’ reply is a categorical ‘no’. In v.8 he answers Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.
What Jesus insists upon here is that God does not recognise the category of ‘no fault’ divorce. His words also rule out divorce for what we might call ‘irreconcilable difference.’ Indeed, if ever there might be permission granted to separate from a spouse on grounds of irreconcilable difference we might think it would be found in the situation where someone comes to faith in Christ and their spouse does not. In addressing this question Paul insists that the Bible calls us to faithfulness to our marriage vows, even if we made them before coming to faith in Christ. Paul says to Christians – stay married to your unbelieving spouse.
1 Corinthians 7:12-14 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Every marriage will go through difficult times but if a marriage can be honouring to God even after one spouse comes to faith in Christ then the gospel calls on us to work through circumstantial changes and remain faithful.
Having seen that we are not free to divorce simply because marriage is hard or circumstances change, what Jesus does affirm is that
2) Christians can initiate a righteous divorce if their spouse is sexually immoral in marriage
In Matthew 19v.9 Jesus says ‘Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ The word ‘marital unfaithfulness’ is the Greek word porneia and it is the word often translated elsewhere in the Bible as sexual immorality.
Why does Jesus use the word porneia? It is a catch all term for any kind of sex outside of marriage – heterosexual sex, homosexual or bestiality. So Jesus rules out any form of sex outside of sex with our spouse.
Why does Jesus single out sexual immorality as the one ground for divorce? The most likely reason I suggest is that sex with someone who is not my spouse is a unique violation of the ‘one-flesh’ union. Kevin De Young has said ‘Sexual sin breaks the marriage covenant because sex is the oath signing of the covenant. Having sexual experiences with someone other than your spouse is like trying to sign on someone else’s dotted line. That breaks the covenant and is a ground for divorce.’
So, what should we conclude from Jesus words in this passage? Two important conclusions flow from Jesus’ teaching here.
Firstly, it is vital to healthy church life that we remember that whilst every divorce is the product of sin, not every divorce therefore sinful because Jesus permits divorce under this one exceptional circumstance.
Second, Jesus words also mean that marriage is not indissoluble. Never God’s design but A marriage really can end. When Jesus says “What God has joined together, let no man separate” he implies that the couple can be separated. This will become important when we consider in a future post whether or not God permits remarriage.
Is this all that the Bible teaches on divorce? Most evangelicals believe that this is the only ground under which Christians might initiate a righteous divorce. But in that second passage read to us this morning we find Paul giving a second ground in which a marriage may come to an end in God’s eyes. Not one in which the Christian has initiated divorce but one where the Christian has in effect been divorced by an unbelieving spouse.
3) Christians may accept an unrighteous divorce by an unbelieving spouse
Having called on Christians to stay in their marriages with unbelieving spouses Paul goes on to say 1 Cor 7v.15 ‘but if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.’
Under the Roman law of the first century it was not necessary to consult a lawyer and go to court to get divorced. It was enough to simply abandon the marriage. Walking out with no intention of returning was to divorce your spouse. In our culture we differentiate between separation and divorce but neither the Bible nor Roman law made such a distinction.
Paul teaches that if a spouse is abandoned by their unbelieving partner, and if it is clear to all that the deserting spouse does not intend to return, the church should recognise that a marriage has come to an end even if the innocent spouse is the one who has to legally begin the divorce proceedings.
Some have tried to find an irreconcilable contradiction between Jesus and Paul at this point. But a closer examination of the two passages reveals that far from contradicting each other they complement each other because they address two distinct questions.
Jesus is answered the question ‘when can I as a Christian, under God, initiate a righteous divorce?’ Paul is answering the question ‘what should I do as a Christian, if I have been wrongly divorced by my unbelieving spouse?’
Evangelical Christians agree that these are the only New Testament texts that address the issue of divorce but in our next post we will consider the work of David Instone-Brewer and his contention that Jesus held to certain other grounds for divorce found in the Old Testament.
© Neil Powell.