Divorce Ė The Unacceptable Alternative
By Pastor Dan Roten
"And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him."
ó Genesis 2:18
From the beginning God saw that companionship was necessary. He accordingly instituted marriage to be a source of blessing to man. And it has been just that for countless multitudes. But many others, whose number is rapidly growing, have seen their marriage turn disaster. Sadly for all, they have turned to divorce for relief. This trend is both heart-breaking and frightening.
Everyone realizes that divorce is common today, but perhaps few realize just how common. In 1890, one out of every 1,000 people participated in a divorce. But in 1978, a shocking one out of every 97 people in the U.S. participated in a divorce! In the 12 month period ending in June 1979, the ratio of marriages to divorces was not even 2 to 1.
Dare we ask why this could be? Certainly no thinking person would try to give a simple answer to that question, for the problem is obviously very complex. But I think we must confess that one of the reasons for the sky-rocketing rate of divorce is that the preachers of Godís Word are no longer preaching Godís hatred of this sin. Their silence has given tacit approval. And now many preachers, who have studied more psychology and counseling techniques than they have Bible, are "re-evaluating traditional prejudices" (old Bible convictions) and are seeking to "develop a spiritually healthy attitude toward divorce" (high sounding words to disguise their own compromise and situation ethics). Thus, they cover up their won participation in the tragedy and piously declare, "Letís not impose a rigid set of legalistic standards, but rather minister grace." All the while they are ministering Antinomianism (an ancient heresy of lawlessness), rather than Biblical grace, in absolute disobedience to Romans 6:1-2,15. Citing Romans 6:14 they cry, "Weíre under grace, not law!" Yet they ignore the first half of the same verse which declares, "For sin shall not have dominion over you." Grace does not destroy or annul the moral law and absolute divine standards of God. Rather, it gives a new motivation (love to Christ) and ability (by regeneration and the indwelling Holy Spirit) so that we might walk "being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ" 1st Corinthians 9:21.
Jesus preached grace and truth in contrast to the Mosaic law (John 1:17), but He never sought to set aside the moral law of God. To the contrary, He often expounded upon it. In doing so He was not preaching some new "kingdom law," but was clarifying the divine standard of Godís law against which men transgress when they sin (1st John 3:4). That standard is absolute and unchanging, regardless of the dispensation of time, since it is determined by the unchanging holiness of God.
My purpose in writing this article is to lead anyone who reads it to the conviction that divorce is not an acceptable alternative. To resolve any problem, a person must weigh the alternatives, then discard the unacceptable and pursue the acceptable. Likewise, couples with serious marital problems are finally faced with only two alternativesĖresolution of the problems, or else divorce. If Christians will come to unanimous agreement that divorce is not an acceptable alternative, then they can give themselves wholeheartedly to resolving the problems that they are faced with. My earnest prayer and desire is that broken homes might be rebuilt and strengthened, rather than divided and destroyed by divorce. That must begin with the firm conviction that divorce is not an acceptable alternative, especially for Christians.
To begin our Scripture study of this subject, let us go to the Sermon on the Mount which our Lord preached early in His ministry. In Matthew 5:17-20, the Lord begins speaking of the law. In verses 21-32, He takes two examples from the moral law of God, as found in the Ten Commandments, and comments upon them. In verses 21-26, He is speaking of the practical applications of the prohibition against murder, and in verses 27-32 He is giving practical applications of the seventh commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Our Lordís first words concerning divorce are found in that last division that I mentioned, where His subject is adultery. In verse 28, He shows that adultery is a sin of the heart. In verses 29-30 he gives a physical illustration to emphasize manís need of a changed heart. Then, still dealing with adultery, the Lord brings up divorce in verses 31-32. "It hath been said, whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." Here the Lord lays great guilt upon the shoulders of the man who divorces his wife. Such a man causes his wife to commit adultery. He bears a large part of the responsibility for her sin of adultery that she will be committing when she remarries, as she most likely will. Also, the man who marries her is committing adultery. Thus, two very important truths come out of this verse. (1) The man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery. (2) The man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. I am sure that you notice above that our Lord included an exception, "saving for the cause of fornication." That exception will be reviewed in detail later on in this study. For the moment, please notice that He did not make an exception for adultery. Fornication and adultery are two different things.
The next recorded words of Christ dealing with divorce appear in Luke 16:18. This is more toward the end of Christís earthly ministry, and He is continually forced to confront the hypocritical Pharisees and Saducees. In the entire chapter 16 of Luke, the Lord is showing them that they themselves are sinners. Divorce and remarriage were common and acceptable among the majority of them. So after stating, "and it is easier for heaven and earth to pass than one tittle of the law to fail," He shows how that man who thought they were righteous were breaking the law. They were committing or condoning adultery. "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery." In these words, the Lord has brought out a third point to add to our list. (3) The man who divorces his wife and remarries is committing adultery.
The next words of Christ on our subject appear to have been spoken just a few days later, but in a different location. Our verses are found in the parallel passages of Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12. Here, the Pharisee bring up the issue, although their purpose is to tempt our Lord. they ask, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (Matthew 19:3). They appeal to the civil temporal law that the Lord permitted through Moses. But Christ appeals to the higher, moral law that was established on eternal principles back in the Garden of Eden. The Lord points out that the divine order, from creation until today is that one man should take one woman to be his wife, and cleave to her, for they are one flesh. Then He states very clearly, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Observe that this is the first time that the Lord is not speaking of remarriage or adultery. He is speaking only of divorce, and He expressly forbids it.
In public discussions and studies such as this, I am generally reluctant to discuss technicalities from the Greek text. But in this passage I find an extremely important note which should be pointed out. When the Lord spoke the words, "let not man put asunder," He used a present imperative prohibition. But there are two types of prohibitions found in the Greek language. The aorist subjunctive prohibition would be used to forbid a thing beforehand. The present imperative prohibition forbids the continuance of an act already in progress. Since it is this second class of prohibition found in our verse, we can see that the Lord was not merely stating beforehand to some individual, "Donít you ever get a divorce." He was saying that man, the human race, should stop getting divorces! Let the progress cease from this time on! Our Lord at that point was terminating a temporal, civil precept that had existed under the Old Testament dispensation (Deuteronomy 24:1), but was not to continue in the New . Here is our fourth main point. (4) Man must discontinue putting asunder by divorce that which God has joined by marriage.
As we compare Mark 10, in verse 12 our Lord adds our fifth main point. "And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." This is stated from the womanís standpoint, and shows that all of these truths apply to both the man and the woman. (5) The woman who divorces her husband and remarries is committing adultery.
Next, we come to Paulís first epistle to the church at Corinth. They wrote to him asking specific questions concerning our subject, which he answers in chapter 7. In verses 10-11, Paul says "Let not the wife depart from her husband" and "let not the husband put away his wife." These words just reinforce the sense of our fourth point listed above, and add nothing new. But he also states, "But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband." Here we find the first and only guidelines expressed in the Bible for someone who has been married and then divorced. (6) If divorce should occur, the divorcees should remain unmarried or be reconciled to one another. These steps are essential to prevent adding sin to sin.
We should here insert that verses 8-9 in no way imply that divorcees may remarry. The "unmarried" of verse 8 is contrasted to "widows" and is simply referring to widowers. In the same sense, verse 28 does not imply that divorcees may remarry, for he is speaking of virgins, both men and women, in verses 25-28. Also, according to verse 15, if an unbeliever divorces a believer, the believer would have no way to stop the divorce, and should not feel guilty in such a case. But this does not imply permission for remarriage, since the guidelines of verse 11 would immediately come into effect. But if possible, the believer should remain with the unbelieving spouse, with the hopes of winning such a one to Christ, verse 16.
One last verse in this chapter stands out as being very important to our subject. Verse 39 reads, "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord." The same truths are taught in Romans 7:1-3. (7) Husband and wife are joined together for life, and only when God puts them asunder by the death of one, is the other at liberty to remarry. This is the only Biblical condition wherein remarriage is permitted, and even then it should be "only in the Lord."
Now let us deal with that perplexing exception that our Lord mentioned twice in the book of Matthew, "except for the cause of fornication." Many say that "fornication" is a synonym for "adultery" and that the two are used interchangeably. Hence, they say Christ meant to say in Matthew 19:9, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for adultery, and shall marry another, does not commit adultery." or restated, "Whosoever shall put away his wife for adultery, and shall marry another, does not commit adultery." Therefore based on this interpretation, they permit divorce and remarriage in those cases where oneís spouse has committed adultery. Permit me to show three reasons why that interpretation is erroneous.
First, this interpretation means that the real marriage was put asunder, even in Godís eyes, by the act of adultery. Therefore, God accepts the divorce as a visible declaration of the non-visible reality, and so the remarriage is not adultery. But does our Lord imply such a thing to be true? To the contrary, He specifically states that he who remarries after a divorce "committeth adultery" (present indicative, linear action). Such a person is continuously committing adultery. That remarriage is a state of adultery. The first marriage continues on unbroken in Godís eyes, in spite of perpetual adultery. Clearly then we see that adultery does not put asunder a marriage.
To further establish this truth we might point out that the initiation of a marriage, or the joining by God comes before the one flesh relationship. Joseph "took unto him his wife" (Matthew 1:24-25) long before he "knew her." Husband and wife are neither "joined together" in the bed of marriage, nor "put asunder" in the bed of adultery.
Second, such and interpretation contradicts the clear teaching of Romans 7:1-3 and 1s Corinthians 7:39, that a husband and wife are bound by the law until death.
Third, such an interpretation misses the fact that the Lord forbids putting asunder, but permits putting away for fornication. Does that sound illogical? Just as all roses are flowers, but not all flowers are roses, even so all putting asunder is putting away, but not all putting away is putting asunder. This brings us to the correct teaching of these verses.
Under what circumstances could a man put away a wife, without putting asunder a marriage that was consummated before God? This was only possible in the Jewish custom of betrothal. When it was arranged for a Jewish couple to become husband and wife, partial vows were said. They were only betrothed or espoused, but they were officially referred to as husband and wife. This was the relationship between Joseph and Mary when she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. They were only espoused (Matthew 1:18), but Joseph is specifically called, "her husband" (Matthew 1:19) and Mary is called, "thy wife," (verse 20). Joseph thought he had discovered fornication on Maryís part, and was minded to put her away privily. That would have required literally a putting away, or a type of divorce, because partial vows had already been said. But it would not have been a putting asunder, for they had not spoken the marriage covenant. We are grateful that the Lord intervened to show Joseph his misunderstanding. But the situation that Joseph thought existed is the type of situation that the Lord described when He said, "except it be for the cause of fornication." Such a putting away could only take place during betrothal. Those who participated in such a putting away would be free to marry another, without fear of causing or committing adultery, for they were as yet unmarried.
Fornication should not be confused with adultery in this passage. Adultery is a sin of married people. Fornication is a sin of unmarried people. Such a marked distinction between fornication and adultery is not foreign to Scripture. The only other time that the Lord used those words is found in Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21, and there He is obviously thinking of them as two distinctly different sins. The same holds true in 1st Corinthians 6:9, Galatians 5:19, and Hebrews 13:4 where the sins, fornication and adultery, are shown to be different from one another. And perhaps clearest of all is 1st Corinthians 7:2 where Paul declares that a man should marry to avoid fornication. Try substituting the word "adultery" in the place of "fornication" in that verse, and youíll see that it makes no sense.
Why is the exception of fornication found only in Matthew? Matthew wrote his gospel account primarily for Jews who practiced the betrothal custom, and so the Holy Spirit led him to include those words. But it is generally accepted that Mark wrote for the Romans and Luke for the Greeks. If that be the case, then one can easily see why the Holy Spirit did not see fit to include that exception in those books, since those Gentiles did not commonly practice the betrothal custom. Therefore those words would not pertain to them at all. Just as in the United States, they could simply cancel the wedding plans, and "putting away" would never be involved at all.
It is also notable that Paul failed to mention the fornication exception to the Corinthians. Corinth was a city of the lowest moral standards imaginable. It was a large port city, the Mediterranean center of trade and vice. The slum areas were full of professional prostitutes. Also Gnosticism was prominent there. The adherents to this doctrine were given to rash libertinism, knowing no bounds in this world, since truth and reality were found only in the spirit world. And even worse was the traditional religion of Corinth which was temple prostitution. There were over 1,000 temple prostitutes who served in the temple to Venus. Demosthenes said, "The professional prostitutes we have for our pleasure, the concubines for the daily care of our bodies, and our wives so that we can have legitimate children and a true guardian of the house."
You can see that all forms of sexual immorality, both fornication and adultery would be commonly accepted in Corinthian life. This was a battle for Paul in the Corinthian church. This word group (fornication, porneo and derivatives) is used only 55 times in the entire New Testament, yet 14 of those are in 1st Corinthians alone. At the end of 2nd Corinthians, you can see that it was still a problem (2nd Corinthians 12:21).
If anyone would need clear instructions in regard to these problems, it would be the Corinthian Christians. They wrote Paul specifically asking about marriage, divorce, and fornication. But nowhere does Paul mention that adultery would be grounds for divorce, even when he spoke about Christian women whose husbands were lost. And nowhere did he mention the exception of fornication, since betrothal would not be a common practice among the Corinthians. Apparently Paul and the Holy Spirit knew that Christís exception of fornication did not pertain to the Corinthian situation.
Study Malachi 2:10-16. There you will find several sins that Judah and Israel committed. Among them were the sins of divorce and remarriage. There the Word declares in verse 16, "For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away." If He hates putting away, then divorce will never be acceptable to God. In verse 14 the Lord even went so far as to say "Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." Even though men may divorce and remarry, God says that the first wife yet is their companion.
Some men have strangely sought to use Mat. 19:6 to prove that not all married couples are indeed joined by God. They say that a legal union is meaningless if there is no "true spiritual union." for such couples divorce is acceptable, even good. Paul definitely had in mind that sort of error when he wrote 1st Corinthians 7:12-14. There he assured some brethren in Christ that they were legitimately married before God, although no spiritual union existed in their marriage.
Who then is joined together by God? Observe again the last five words of Malachi 2:14. God Himself spoke saying that they were yet joined to "the wife of they covenant." It is through the marriage vows that God joins together a man and wife. It is with this in view that the preacher in a wedding ceremony, shortly after the repeating of the vows will state, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." We dare not belittle the marriage covenant, for God certainly does not do so. It is interesting to study Jeremiah 3 and Ezekiel 16 and see how that when Israel, the wife of Jehovah committed adultery, He did not leave her for another. He remembered His covenant with her, Ezekiel 16:8,60. Either Godís judgment or His chastening is bound to come upon those covenant breakers who rebelliously follow the route of divorce (Romans 1:31-32).
At this time let us summarize the main points that we established by Scripture.
1) The man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery.
2) The man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
3) The man who divorces his wife and remarries is committing adultery.
4) Man must discontinue putting asunder by divorce, that which God has joined by marriage.
5) The woman who divorces her husband and remarries is committing adultery.
6) If divorce should occur, the divorcees should remain unmarried or be reconciled to one another.
7) Husband and wife are joined together for life, and only when God puts them asunder by the death of one is the other at liberty to remarry.
These truths should lead us to the firm conviction that divorce is not an acceptable alternative. Especially is it not a Christian alternative.
You may be thinking, "Thatís too cold, hard, and narrow. Why, if thatís true, it would be better not to marry at all!" Thatís what the 12 disciples first said when they finally understood the Lordís teaching (Matthew 19:10). But the Lord had to tell them, "No, thatís not true. Few men could remain single." The words that our God spoke in the garden of Eden are still true today, "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).
Some who read this may in anger or despair now be thinking, "Then thereís no hope for me. Iím already divorced and remarried." Let me assure you that there is hope, for "where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Romans 5:20). Your sins of divorce and remarriage is like every other sin. Honestly confess it to God, and you will be forgiven, and the relationship will be cleansed of all unrighteousness. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1st John 1:9) Through Godís forgiving grace you may be restored to full fellowship with Him. Then that second marriage can no longer be considered adulterous, for it is forgiven and cleansed.
Although marriage is a blessed institution, problems are sure to come. To you that have not yet experienced the heartbreak and bitterness of divorce and remarriage let me say, every problem can be resolved. If divorce is resorted to, that is evidence of hardness of heart (Matthew 19:8). Such a condition need never be found in a child of God, for his stony heart has been changed to a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Godís grace is sufficient through the greatest trial or problem imaginable (2nd Corinthians 12:9; Luke 18:27).
Be not deceived by the humanistic psychologists that stand in many pulpits today. They may try many different tactics to deny the true Bible doctrine of divorce. But they do so in direct conflict with Jesus Christ, who dealt with divorce and remarriage on the basis of Godís moral law which is eternal, and applicable to believer and unbeliever alike. Woe to the unfaithful shepherds who would lead their flocks into sin.
The main purpose of this study has been to proclaim Bible truth so that the break-up of another home might be averted. Is your home facing failure and disaster? If so, look up unto God and you will find that recovery lies ahead. Begin with personal confession (1st John 1:9), prayer (John 16:23), and forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32), and determine absolutely that divorce is not an acceptable alternative.