I have two goals that seem to be incompatible and irreconcilable. It is going to be difficult for me to achieve them both. It seems as if to emphasize one is to minimize the other. Let me explain.
On the one hand, I want to emphasize the value and dignity of marriage. Jesus himself in the passage from Matthew 19 is emphatic about the divine design for marriage: “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” Therefore, sundering or severing what God has forged or united is a serious matter. The problem is that marriage is not held in high regard in our society. Even worse, it isn’t held in high regard in some of our churches across the land. When it comes to marriage, our standards have gradually eroded until we’ve come to view it as merely a temporary arrangement between two people rather than a permanent covenant. Whether or not people stay married has become an issue of what brings immediate happiness or instant gratification, rather than an issue of obedience to the Word of God.
Whereas statistics can often be twisted to prove just about anything, when it comes to the problem of divorce in American society the message is loud and clear. In 1910 only 1 in every 10 marriages ended in divorce. By 1920 it had risen to 1 in 7. By 1940 it was 1 in 6. By 1960 1 in every 4 marriages ended in divorce and by 1970 it had escalated to 1 in 3. Today, for every marriage that lasts a lifetime there is yet another that does not. In other words, 1 of every 2 marriages today will end in divorce.
On the other hand, however, and here is my dilemma, I want to eliminate the stigma and shame that divorced people live with, especially those in the church. Divorced people are held in contempt and viewed with suspicion. They are regarded as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God and are treated as if they have committed the unpardonable sin. You may think you don’t think about them that way, and I hope you don’t. But because of both the public nature of divorce and its incredibly painful impact, divorced people feel extraordinarily vulnerable to these things.
So here’s the problem: How do I honor and esteem marriage without dishonoring and defaming those who have experienced divorce? And how do I encourage and affirm divorced people without appearing to minimize the importance of honoring one’s marital commitment and vows? If I magnify the value of marriage and stress the importance of faithfulness to one’s marital vows, divorced people will feel judged and rejected and unfit for ministry and service in the church. But if I express compassion and love for divorced people and remind them how much God really does love them, others will think I’m glossing over their failures and that I’m contributing to the very devaluation of marriage that I earlier denounced. How do I stress the permanence of marriage without condemning the divorced? And how do I love and affirm the divorced person without condoning sin and failure?
Our challenge is to mingle the call to obedience with the tears of compassion . . . to be both tender to those who have failed without compromising the high standards of Scripture.
Appeal: (1) To the divorced – My emphasis on the importance of marriage and honoring one’s vows and fighting to stay together does not mean I don’t love you and care about you or that you aren’t wanted here or can’t fit in or can never be active in ministry. (2) To the married – My emphasis on the dignity of the divorced person and their value to God and the forgiveness and restoration that is available to them through the cross does not mean that we can take a flippant, casual attitude toward marriage or that marriage isn’t worth preserving or that we are adopting a loose view toward sin.
Why this special concern over divorce and remarriage? Four reasons:
(1) Divorce invariably involves sin that is more destructive than many others. The devastation caused by the breakup of a marriage is so widespread and deeply painful that it needs to be addressed in a clear and forthright way. Divorce is indescribably painful. It is emotionally wrenching, more so than the death of a spouse. It is often the culmination of years of anguish and pain and bitter words and hurt feelings. The sense of guilt and shame and failure and rejection is more deeply felt in divorce than in perhaps any other human experience. There are the accompanying feelings of loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, and hopelessness. Court proceedings, financial settlements, custody battles, and the inescapable wounds that are inflicted on the children, all combine to make this issue one of extreme importance for the church to address.
(2) Marriage, divorce, and remarriage involve the taking of sacred oaths and vows and entering into a sacred physical relationship, together with the breaking of those vows and the severing of that relationship.
(3) Marriage is unique among all human relationships in that it is ordained by God to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church. Not parent/child, not friend/friend, not brother/sister, but husband/wife. Therefore the preservation of this bond, or conversely, its breaking, is crucial to the message we send to each other and to the world.
(4) The stability and growth of the church, as well as its witness to the world, is in large part dependent on both its commitment to the pre-eminence of marriage as well as how it responds to the divorced in its midst.
Our concern is not to determine why the divorce rate is so high, but to evaluate what the Bible says about the grounds, if any, for divorce, and the grounds, if any, for remarriage.
There are, broadly speaking, two categories or positions, within which there are number of variations and options:
1. Divorce is never permissible
According to this view, divorce is never permissible under any circumstances. Neither adultery nor desertion nor any other sin can warrant the dissolution of the marital bond. Indeed, the marital bond is inherently indissoluble. Although a husband and wife may obtain a certificate of divorce from the state and subsequently pursue other relationships, perhaps even remarriage, this view insists that they are committing adultery insofar as their original marital covenant is, in the eyes of God, still in force.
Advocates of this strict view (e.g., J. Carl Laney in his book, The Divorce Myth [Bethany House, 1981]) argue that if a person is divorced by his/her spouse, he/she must remain single or be reconciled with their partner. Even should the partner who initiated the divorce marry another (who, by the way, therein commits adultery), the victim of the divorce is not free to remarry.
Very few evangelical scholars embrace this view of divorce and remarriage.
Marital union is brought about by: 1) the commitment of two people, one to another, for life, signified by their leaving (the Hebrew word ‘azab is a very forceful one)father and mother and cleaving (Heb. dabaq = to cling to, remain, close, adhere, be glued firmly) to each other; and 2) the act of God whereby he unites them as one ("those whom God has joined together" in Mt. 19:6). The key question is this: Is this marital bond inherently and irrevocably indissoluble or only ideally indissoluble? Those who argue against divorce on any grounds insist the marital covenant cannot be broken. Those who allow divorce insist that the bond should not be broken but acknowledge that in reality it can be. Both sides agree that physical death severs or breaks the marital bond (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39), thereby freeing the partner to remarry. Does this argue against the notion of absolute and inherent indissolubility? As the Feinbergs have noted, “if the bond cannot be broken, one would expect a married couple to be married throughout eternity. Scripture teaches otherwise. Scripture allows widows and widowers to remarry (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39” (Ethics for a Brave New World, 304).
2. Divorce is sometimes permissible
Under this general heading are two sub-categories. There are those views which recognize that whereas divorce is on occasion permissible, remarriage is not. Others insist that if divorce is ever permissible, so too is remarriage. These two positions, along with variations within them, are as follows:
a. Divorce but no remarriage
1) Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity only but remarriage is not permitted.
This view was the majority position of the early church fathers. The most articulate modern defenders of this view are William Heth and Gordon Wenham, who have written extensively on the subject (see esp. their book, Jesus and Divorce [Hodder & Stoughton, 1984]).
2) Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity and desertion but remarriage is not
b. Divorce and remarriage
1) Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity only. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. [However, it should be noted that sexual infidelity never necessitates divorce. It makes divorce permissible, but never mandatory.
The reason why the innocent party is free to remarry is that infidelity has severed the marital covenant. If the covenant is sufficiently terminated to free the innocent party to remarry, would not the guilty party also be free to remarry? It must be noted that the NT never addresses the "rights" or "freedom" of the guilty party. Why?
2) Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity and desertion. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. This is commonly referred to as the Erasmian view, named after the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.
A variation within this view is the position that whereas both sexual infidelity and desertion are legitimate grounds for divorce, only in the case of sexual infidelity is remarriage permitted. If a person's spouse deserts him/her, he/she is free to initiate a divorce but is not free to remarry. In practical effect, however, this option ultimately does not differ from the other simply because desertion virtually always leads to adultery, which would then grant the innocent party the right to remarry.
The practical problem one faces here is the definition of desertion. The Bible provides no explicit guidance on this point. Question: does physical abuse, sexual abuse (of spouse or children), drunkenness, financial recklessness and irresponsibility that endangers the family, etc. = desertion and thus a severing of the marital covenant?
3) Divorce is permitted for any act (such as, but not limited to, adultery and desertion) that breaks the marital covenant. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. This raises the issue of what specific acts have the potential to break a marital covenant. Again, can any conclusions be drawn on the right of the guilty party to remarry?
Several issues have not been addressed:
First, what is the status of those who were married and divorced before coming to saving faith in Christ? Do conversion, forgiveness, and the fact that they are now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) have an effect on their freedom to remarry?
Second, no attempt has been made to address the practical complexities that arise when someone has been married and divorced several times (for illegitimate reasons).
Third, nothing has been said about issues related to the status of the “guilty” party in a divorce.
Note: Reasons people give for divorce that are not permitted by Scripture:
· “We don’t have anything in common: goals, values, hobbies, joys, etc.”
· “I don’t love him/her anymore”
· “Staying married will do more harm to the children than getting divorced”
· “We never have sexual relations”
· “He/she isn’t a believer”
· “I’m exhausted. He/she will never change. Its useless and hopeless”
· Incompatibility . . .
A Survey of the Biblical Evidence
It’s important for us to be aware of the extremely complex and therefore controversial nature of this issue. The passages we will examine are not as clear as we might wish. Christian scholars of both the Old and New Testaments, all of whom embrace the inspiration and authority of Scripture, continue to disagree on what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage. We need to be cautious about how we state our positions and remember that we are dealing with an issue that, unlike other doctrinal disputes, touches the heart and soul of people who are often already deeply wounded and filled with shame. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t hold firmly to our convictions. It is only to say that pastoral sensitivity and tenderness are especially crucial as we try to help people embrace a biblical perspective.
A. The Old Testament on Divorce and Remarriage
1. Deut. 24:1-4
Several observations are in order:
a. This passage reveals that in the law of Moses divorce was permitted but not prescribed. In other words, there was sufferance but not sanction. Thus "there is no evidence to show that divorce was approved or morally legitimated. Permission, sufferance, toleration was granted. But underlying this very notion is the idea of wrong. We do not properly speak of toleration or sufferance as granted or conceded in connection with what is intrinsically right or desirable" (John Murray, 8).
b. The purpose for the bill of divorcement was first, to serve as a deterrent to hasty, frivolous, thoughtless action by the husband; second, to testify to the woman's freedom from marital obligation to the husband who divorced her; and third, to protect her reputation, i.e., from slander that she was an adulteress; it declared that the end to her marriage was caused by something less than violation of her marriage vow.
c. On what grounds was divorce allowed? What is the meaning of the word indecency, literally, nakedness of a thing? During the period of the OT there were two schools of thought:
1) The rabbinic school of Shammai embraced a narrow, conservative view. They interpreted indecency as some grave matrimonial offense; a violation of marital propriety.
2) The rabbinic school of Hillel embraced a broad, liberal view. They interpreted indecency to mean virtually any trivial offense, from being physically unattractive to being a poor cook.
There are several theories for the meaning of indecency that are not likely: (1) adultery (in which case death was required for both parties; Dt. 22:22-27); (2) adultery suspected but not proven (in which case the rite of bitter water was applied; see Num. 5:11-31); (3) a betrothed woman charged on her wedding night of not being a virgin (Dt. 22:13-21); (4) a betrothed woman who was raped (Dt. 22:25-27); (5) an unbetrothed/unengaged woman who commits fornication (Dt. 22:28-29; the two must get married and can never divorce); (6) other sexual offenses such as homosexuality, bestiality, or incest, the penalty for which wasn’t divorce but death (Lev. 18, esp. vv. 26-29).
The only place this word is used elsewhere in the OT is in Dt. 23:14 where it refers to human excrement.
Most agree that it means some sort of shameful behavior short of sexual infidelity. Others have suggested it may refer to barrenness or some form of birth defect. We simply do not know.
The Feinbergs offer an interpretation that needs to be noted. They argue that the indecency mentioned in Dt. 24:1 is not legitimate grounds for divorce. Moses is merely describing a divorce under such circumstances. He is in no way prescribing that such be done. The only actual commandment Moses issues regards the bill of divorcement (which was necessary to protect the woman; see above). Thus, if a man divorces his wife on grounds of indecency, in God’s eyes they are still married. “Consequently, if either mate remarries (and men and women in that society were quite likely to do so), sexual relations with the new spouse are adultery, since the marital bond with the first mate is not severed” (313). This is where the “defilement” of v. 4 comes from. She has been “defiled”, and thus cannot remarry her first husband, because her second marriage was adulterous. It was adulterous because she was divorced by her first husband on frivolous and illegitimate grounds. But if she becomes an adulteress by getting married a second time, why isn’t she stoned to death as prescribed by the Mosaic Law? The Feinbergs contend that her second marriage is more the fault of her first husband than her own. He, in effect, forces her to get remarried by divorcing her (living as a single woman in that society was difficult; many eventually turned to prostitution just to support themselves). Her adultery, so they suggest, would have been unintentional and involuntary. Thus they conclude that “the reason the remarriage mentioned in Deut 24:4 is abominable is that it is abominable to marry an adulteress! Deuteronomy 24 does not say that if her first husband divorces her for ‘erwat dabar [“some indecency”] and she remains unmarried, then it is abominable for her to return to her first husband. Presumably, she could return to him under those circumstances, if he would have her back. . . . Only the woman made an adulteress by a second marriage could not return to her first husband after a divorce from the second” (314-15).
2. Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:23-27,30a; Malachi 2:10-16
Each of these texts speaks of a situation in Israel's history in which the people of God intermarried with pagan Gentiles. Each is explained in the light of Deuteronomy 7:1-5.
Could these texts be used today by a Christian to justify divorcing an unbelieving spouse, even when neither sexual immorality nor desertion has occurred? No. We must remember that in neither testament is a believer permitted to marry an unbeliever. More important still is the fact that in the OT national survival was at stake. The demand that such spiritually mixed marriages be dissolved was motivated by the concern for national, theocratic preservation. Finally, Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:12-16 that a believer is not to divorce an unbeliever simply because of the latter's lack of faith.
B. Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage
1. Mark 10:2-12
The relevant passage is in vv. 11-12 where we read: “And He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.’”
Somewhat of a surprise here “is the reference to the wife’s action of divorcing her husband in verse 12. Since this option was not normally granted to women under Jewish Law, this part of the saying is usually regarded as a Markan adaptation of the tradition to the legal situation of the Greco-Roman world, where wives could initiate divorce” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament [Harper Collins, 1996], 352).
2. Luke 16:18
Luke’s version is shorter but similar to Mark’s. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”
[Note well that in both the Markan and Lukan statements, “the prohibitions of remarriage . . . are applied specifically only to the partner – male or female – who initiates the divorce; a reasonable case can be made that the silence of these texts concerning any restrictions on the spouse who is wrongly divorced implies the freedom for this ‘innocent’ party to remarry” (Hays, 373).]
3. Matthew 5:31-32
Again, several things call for comment:
a. This text deals with divorce initiated by the man; the rights of the woman are not discussed. Matthew's gospel is addressed to a Jewish audience among whom the divorce of a man by his wife was so rare that ancient law made no provision for it (see Josephus, Antiquities, XV:259). We will operate on the assumption, however, that the woman has the same rights as the man.
b. Jesus says that unchastity (NASB) or marital unfaithfulness (NIV), literally, porneia (from which we get the word pornography), is the only legitimate ground for divorce. [Other texts where it is found include Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20,29; 21:25; Rom. 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3,9.] Meaning? Suggestions include:
(1) Unfaithfulness during the betrothal period (a 12 month engagement during which the two were legally bound; cf. Deut. 22:13-21; Mt. 1:18-19). If this is what the term means, then clearly the exception has little if any relevance for us today.
(2) Unlawful marriage to an unbeliever; but see 1 Cor. 7:12-16 where Paul says the believer is not free to divorce an unbelieving spouse merely for unbelief.
(3) Marriage within the unlawful degrees of Lev. 18:6-18, i.e., marriage to a near relative. It does appear that porneia means incest in 1 Cor. 5:1 (and it may mean that in Acts 15:29). However, “Leviticus 18 prohibits not only incest (vv. 6-18) but also intercourse during menstruation, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality (vv. 19-23). Thus, even if it is correct that porneia in the apostolic decree alludes to Leviticus 18, there is no reason to restrict the meaning of the term to incestuous marriage; it is a summary term for all the sexual offenses proscribed in the holiness code of Leviticus 18-20” (Hays, 355).
(4) Adultery (however, the Greek word for adultery, moicheia, is not used here, and in Mt. 15:19 Matthew distinguishes porneia from moicheia.
(5) Any and all kinds of sexual infidelity that includes, but is not limited to, adultery (e.g., incest, bestiality, homosexuality, etc.). The latter view is most likely correct.
How do we explain the fact that Mark makes no reference to any exception, not even for porneia, whereas Matthew does? Hays says that “Matthew’s exception clause stands as a clear sign of a process of moral deliberation, in which Mark’s radical vision of marriage as indissoluble one-flesh union is accommodated in the interest of creating a workable rule for the community’s life” (356). How would that affect our view of biblical inerrancy? Others argue that Mark's sole concern was to point out that the concessions for divorce drawn from Deut. 24 were abrogated. There is no longer to be divorce for any of those reasons. He does not discuss adultery because adultery was not grounds for divorce in the OT. Mark would have contradicted Matthew only had he said, "There are no grounds for divorce (as permitted in Deut. 24), not even adultery." Still others suggest that the difference between Mark and Luke on the one hand and Matthew on the other is in some way (?) traceable to the fact that the former were addressing a Gentile, Greco-Roman audience, whereas the latter was addressing a Jewish audience. I must admit that at this stage I have not come across an entirely satisfactory explanation.
c. Jesus does not say that porneia necessitates divorce; no one is required to put away his or her spouse should it occur. Nothing, not even adultery, necessarily puts a marriage beyond repair.
d. To divorce a spouse on any other grounds is to make him/her commit adultery (v. 32b). Note well: the wife does not become an adulteress simply by being divorced. Jesus envisions her getting remarried, in which case both she and her second husband commit adultery. Why? Because God still regards her first marriage as binding. Only adultery severs the marital bond. PT: a man or woman who has no biblical right to divorce has no biblical right to remarry.
4. Matthew 19:3-12
a. The Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus by compelling him to take sides with either the narrow, conservative perspective of the school of Shammai (only the most heinous of marital offenses) or the broad, liberal viewpoint of the school of Hillel (any indiscretion, from not being physically attractive to being a poor cook!).
b. Jesus eludes their trap and appeals rather to the original divine ordinance given in Genesis (vv. 4-6). Marriage is a divine ordinance that is ideally indissoluble. It is not a contract of temporary convenience. “Divorce is contrary to the divine institution, contrary to the nature of marriage, contrary to the divine action by which the union is effected. . . . Divorce is the breaking of a seal which has been engraven by the hand of God” (JM, 33). When you choose divorce for unbiblical grounds you are saying No to God . . . not to your spouse, not to the minister who officiated your wedding, not to your kids, but to God.
c. "How can that be," ask the Pharisees, "if Moses commands divorce?" (v. 7). "You are wrong," responds Jesus. "Moses did not command divorce. He permitted it. Furthermore, it was because of the hardness of heart, as a result of sin, that he permitted it." Thus divorce, both then and now, is a departure from the original design for marriage. It is a concession, not a command. If there is divorce, it is not because God intended it that way. It is, rather, because you are sinful.
d. And what about remarriage? Some allow for divorce in the case of adultery (and perhaps desertion) but disallow remarriage. But if a man or woman is permitted to divorce his/her partner for sexual immorality, it must be due to the fact that the marital bond is dissolved. And if the marriage is dissolved, what reason can there be for forbidding remarriage?
e. Jesus has done three things: (1) He has abolished the OT death penalty for adultery. (2) He has made divorce permissible (though not mandatory) on the grounds of sexual immorality. And (3) He has abolished all grounds for divorce that were thought to have been permitted by Deut. 24. Whatever reasons for divorce were recognized under the the phrase some undecency in Deut. 24, Jesus says: "No more!" His disciples understandably respond: "If marriage is permanent and life-long, except in the case of adultery, maybe it would be better not to marry in the first place." Jesus responds in vv. 11-12.
C. Paul on Divorce and Remarriage
Paul's teaching on the subject is found in 1 Cor. 7:1-16. The background for Paul's words here is important. A summation of the sort of belief system prevalent at Corinth is as follows:
"As priests before God we (Corinthian Christians) must remain ceremonially clean and pure; therefore, we will abstain from all sexual relations, making ourselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom (Mt. 19). Wives and husbands must cease sexual contact, those who are not married must remain single, and those already married may wish to divorce their spouses lest they succumb to the temptation of sexual passion. This would especially be true of those who are married to unbelievers who are already unclean because of their unbelief. In a word, we find it morally necessary to abstain from sex. It is sinful to have sexual intercourse. It is good not to touch a woman."
Paul's initial response (v. 1) is to say that celibacy (a life in which one does not touch a woman) is a good thing, but not because sexual intercourse is evil. Celibacy is good if and only if one has been gifted by God for such a life (v. 7). However, for those not called to be celibate, for those who cannot suppress their sexual desires, marriage is recommended (vv. 2,9), and within marriage sexual relations are not only good, they are essential (vv. 3-5)
Paul then addresses two cases: one on which the Lord Jesus did speak (v. 10) and one on which Jesus did not speak (v. 12).
1. When husband and wife are both Christians (vv. 10-11)
The false belief among the Corinthians was that since sex, even in marriage, is defiling, it would be better to divorce than to expose oneself to the temptation. Evidently the Corinthians were actually divorcing one another to avoid sexual relations.
N.B. This, by the way, is why Paul says nothing about adultery being grounds for divorce (as Jesus did). Paul is dealing with people who, far from engaging in illicit sex, were opposed to sexual relations with anyone in any context. In other words, the Corinthians were divorcing each other in order not to have sex. Thus a discussion of divorce on grounds of adultery would make no sense to them.
If, however, they do divorce (v. 11a) in violation of what both Jesus and Paul have taught, they must not remarry. Why? Because the marital bond is still intact and remarriage would constitute adultery.
Therefore, in vv. 10-11 Paul is addressing a problem traceable to a false asceticism in Corinth, according to which abstinence from sexual relations with one's spouse was necessary for holiness. This ascetic view of the Christian life had led some in Corinth to divorce their spouses for fear of succumbing to the temptation of sex. It is divorce for that reason which Paul prohibits. The question of adultery is foreign to his point and thus his teaching is not in conflict with that of Jesus. If, in spite of his instruction, a divorce occurs, remarriage is forbidden. There are only two options: remain single or be reconciled.
Some have suggested that in vv. 10-15 Paul is only speaking about separation and not genuine divorce. They base this on a distinction between the Greek words he uses. They argue that the word aphiemi, found in vv. 11,12, and 13, means “divorce,” but the word chorizomai, found in vv. 10,11, and 15 means “separate.” But as the Feinbergs note, “in verse 10 Paul says that his teaching is from the Lord and that wives should not divorce husbands. Thus must refer to the teaching we have seen in the Gospels. However, in Matt 19:6 and Mark 10:9 when Jesus prohibits divorce (‘whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder’), the word for ‘put asunder’ (divorce) is again chorizo, not aphiemi. All of this suggests that Paul is thinking of divorce, not separation, when he uses chorizo in 1 Corinthians 7” (341). Also, “both chorizo and aphiemi appear in verse 11. Even though chorizo is used of the woman, the verse tells her in the circumstances envisioned to remain unmarried or to reconcile. How could remaining unmarried be an option if she had not divorced (chorizo)? Considerations such as these cause us to conclude that Paul speaks of divorce, not mere separation” (341).
2. When one spouse is a Christian, the other an unbeliever (vv. 12-16)
Paul now addresses the case in which two non-Christians get married and one is subsequently saved (cf. v. 39). Some in Corinth believed marriage to an unbeliever was spiritually defiling, in some sense, both for themselves and their children. Paul says emphatically "No!"
What Paul means in v. 14 by the terms sanctified and holy with regard to the unbelieving spouse and their children is not our immediate concern. However, two comments are in order. First, that it does not mean the unbelieving family members are saved is clear from v. 16. Second, it does suggest that something along the lines of a sacred environment is created in such a home that increases the opportunity and potential for salvation to extend to the entire family unit.
His primary point is two-fold:
a. The Christian spouse is not free to divorce his/her unbelieving partner (vv. 12-13).
b. However, if the unbeliever chooses to leave, if the unbeliever initiates divorce, the Christian "is not under bondage" (v. 15). Not under bondage to what? I believe he means not under bondage to pursue the deserting spouse, not under bondage to discharge marital responsibilities, not under bondage to the obligations stated in vv. 2-5. "Paul is saying that it is not necessary for the believer to contest the divorce action or engage in legal maneuvers to prevent it. Since God has called us to peace, the bitterness and strife of contesting a divorce or separation must be avoided" (J. Carl Laney, 86).
I also believe Paul means "not under bondage" to the marital covenant and thus free to remarry. Keener writes: "An innocent party unable to preserve the marriage against the spouse's will is not to be held responsible for the divorce or forbidden to remarry. For our churches to hold the innocent party responsible and forbid remarriage is to deny Paul's teaching and to oppress the broken. But incompatibility, even spiritual incompatibility, is not grounds for divorce" (And Marries Another, 55).
Hays agrees: “It is difficult to come away from this chapter thinking that Paul would place a categorical prohibition on remarriage for the believers described in verses 12-16; rather, he would invite them to engage with him in a process of discernment about how they could best serve God in the ‘present necessity’ (v. 26), in the time that remains” (361).
Paul is explicitly dealing with those cases where the unbelieving spouse deserts the believer. What would be Paul's position in those cases where a believing spouse deserts another believer? In other words, Paul evidently believed that when a non-Christian deserts a Christian, the latter is free from the marital covenant and thus allowed to remarry. Would the same principle obtain if both parties were Christians? What do vv. 10-11 have to say to this?
My understanding, therefore, is that the teaching of the NT (Jesus and Paul) allows (but does not require) divorce on two grounds: sexual infidelity and/or desertion of a believer by an unbeliever. If divorce has been secured on either of these grounds, remarriage is permitted.
Question: "What about divorce and remarriage on other grounds not mentioned by Jesus or Paul?"
· Is divorce (and remarriage) permissible when the wife is being repeatedly sexually and/or physically abused by her husband?
· Is divorce (and remarriage) permissible when one spouse's financial irresponsibility reaches such proportions that it threatens the well-being of the wife/husband and their children?
· What should we say to those who were divorced prior to their conversion to Christ, especially when such divorce was obtained on non-biblical grounds?
· What of this reason: “It is better for the children that we divorce lest they suffer the pain of living in a home with so much discord and so lacking in love”? Response: a) Let’s ask the kids which one they prefer! b) Is it really better for the kids? Certainly parental discord is damaging to children. But it can’t begin to compare with the destructive effects of the loss of a father or mother from the home through divorce. c) To say it is better for the children if the parents divorce poses a false dilemma. It assumes there are only two options, either divorce or the status quo. Since the latter is considered intolerable and therefore unthinkable, divorce seems like the only way out. The third option of restoration of the relationship between husband and wife seems like a utopian dream that people with any degree of common sense would never consider. d) This argument is blatantly hypocritical. They try to justify their decision to divorce based on their love for their kids. But if people really cared all that much about their children they would move mountains to do whatever necessary to heal the relationship. They’re not getting divorced because they love their kids. They’re divorcing because they selfishly love themselves. This is little more than an act of selfishness disguised as a noble act of self-sacrifice for the good of the children.
· “This divorce is God’s will. I know it is because I prayed about it and God gave me a real peace in my heart.” Here we encounter the ultimate rationalization: divine sanction. Are we now to believe that God has spoken in His Word prohibiting divorce except for sexual immorality and desertion, only to reverse himself in your case by means of a private, subjective revelation. God does not speak out of both sides of his mouth! God does not speak with forked tongue!