Some FAQs Regarding Divorce
Divorce is a hard subject. As I mentioned in a recent message, there's hardly anyone these days who has not been touched in some way by the shadow of divorce. Even when it feels like liberation or relief to a weary spouse, it remains a painful loss for both the individuals involved and those around them.
In light of this, and in light of how the prevalence of divorce has shaped our thinking, Scripture's teaching on the subject can sound very foreign to modern ears. So having just taught on Matthew 5:31, 32, I thought it would be good to answer a few of the questions that usually come up when tackling this topic. Obviously, there is much more that could be said about any one of these questions. I hope you will think through these carefully, as you regularly go back to the word of God, and to the heart of God. And if you haven't, I hope you will listen to my recent message (link above). It provides the groundwork for the answers below (for a concise, but biblical overview of the topic, also consider our resource pamphlet, “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage”).
[To be clear, these answers assume the authority of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; that is, that they are God's revelation to mankind. As such, they should guide us on every subject to which they speak, even when that revelation 'rubs up against' our experiences and cultural norms.]
In light of what Jesus said in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9, what should I do if I've gotten a divorce?
I think the first healthy step is to acknowledge that, if there were no biblical grounds (see third question below), your divorce represents a serious departure from God's good design (recognizing, of course, that not every divorced person chooses to be divorced). If you recognize this, and that there are lingering and sinful heart issues that contributed to that decision to divorce, confess it now to God, in light of his grace in Jesus. Beyond that, the question of 'what to do now' depends on several other factors. In I Corinthians 7:10, 11, Paul seems to be commenting on what “the Lord” Jesus declared in passages like Matthew 5:31, 32 and 19:3-9. In light of what Christ taught, Paul teaches that, in almost every case, divorce is wrong. But for those who do get divorced, Paul gives further guidance (addressed here to the divorcing wife), “but if she does [separate], she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”. In cases where reconciliation is desired but not possible (because one's former spouse has remarried), a believer must prayerfully go to God's word and develop a biblical conviction about their own path forward (i.e., singleness or remarriage). If you're already remarried, then, in light of your past, seek to honor God in your current marriage by aligning your heart and mind with his good design for marriage.
What if I went through a divorce before I knew Jesus or anything about God's word?
One day, all of us will have to give an account to God (cf. Romans 14:10-12). Though most people have grown up in a culture in which divorce is common, most people still exchange marriage vows in which promises are made, promises to be devoted to one another, “for better, for worse... till death do us part”. Therefore, not knowing the biblical teaching on divorce does not fully absolve those who choose to break their vows. Yes, God will certainly take into account what we understand, and consequently, what we've done with what we understand. I believe that will be a factor in how God judges those who have less 'light' in regard to divorce (cf. Luke 12:47, 48). But we also know that, oftentimes, many me-centered, sinful attitudes contribute to the unhealthiness of a marriage and the decision to divorce. In such cases, when things get really hard, many people compromise their own ideals (ideals like forgiveness, perseverance, understanding, etc.). God will undoubtedly understand all the specifics of those “really hard” times. He will understand our hurts. But we will still have to give an account for such compromises. The truth about our sinfulness and God's justice is not easy to hear. But ultimately, my hope is that these hard truths remind us how much all of us need Jesus, and the forgiveness he makes possible.
In those passages from Matthew, Jesus only talked about “porneia” as a legitimate reason for divorce. What about situations in which there is verbal, emotional, and/or physical abuse?
Most teachers have recognized that, in addition to porneia, there is another biblical ground for divorce. Paul addresses it in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If a follower of Jesus has an unbelieving spouse, and that spouse leaves the marriage, Paul teaches that the believer is not “enslaved” or “bound” (7:15) in such cases. But what about abuse by a spouse who has not left? In I Corinthians 7:10, 11, Paul seems to draw two 'boundary lines' when it comes to divorce. The first 'line' is “the wife should not separate from her husband... and the husband should not divorce his wife.” But surprisingly, there's an outer 'line' as well: “but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”. It appears Paul understood that there would be situations in which the separation of a married couple was unavoidable, and in fact, advisable in the short-term. Thus if the safety of a spouse is in question, separation is always the right step. Obviously, beyond that initial separation, there would be a whole host of relational, financial, legal, etc., issues to address. The hope would be to work carefully and thoughtfully with both spouses toward a healthy, safe, and God-honoring restoration (which in the end may or may not be possible). Whatever legal road is taken (separation or divorce), Paul's outer 'line' should still guide our thinking.
What should be our main takeaway from Bible passages that speak about divorce?
Most biblical passages regarding divorce are squarely addressed to those who are married. Such verses were given first and foremost to warn, to sober, to guide those who are being tempted to walk away from their vows. Therefore, if you are married, then (no matter your past) your main takeaway should be to strengthen your marriage and persevere in that relationship. For the unmarried who are seeking to be married, these passages should encourage you to see those vows and that commitment as more serious than maybe you first believed. Finally, for all of us, regardless of our marital history or status, these passages should inform our counsel to those struggling. Instead of conforming to the all-too-common thinking of our culture, may we as God's people remain committed to the example of Jesus' amazing grace and sacrificial love. In light of his saving work, may we always point others to the reconciling, forgiving, enduring heart of God, and to how that heart should guide couples, in both the best of times and the worst of times. With God, our God, all things are truly possible.