By Warren R. King
Few subjects stir the emotions like the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. It cuts to the core of our most intimate relationships and touches virtually every family to some degree.
For these reasons, many refuse to discuss the issue at all. Others search for easy and painless solutions to complicated and often sinful situations. Neither approach serves the cause of truth.
The Ideal vs. Modernism
Most Christians are aware of God’s ideal plan for marriage. From the early chapters of Genesis we learn: (1) that we are created in God’s image, on a higher moral plane than the animals, (2) that God ordained the marriage relationship, (3) that marriage is between a man and a woman, (4) that to marry is to “cleave,” implying a life-long commitment, and (5) that in marriage we can enjoy the richest blessings of companionship and sexual fulfillment.
This biblical ideal stands in sharp contrast to the modern view of marriage. Basing their ideas on humanist philosophies (atheism, evolution, moral relativism, etc.), many view marriage as a relic of antiquity a product of societal evolution. Others are attempting to redefine the very concept of marriage, in an effort to justify homosexual and lesbian relationships. Still others view marriage as a curse an unwelcome hindrance to a carefree and self-gratifying lifestyle.
In view of these perceptions, we are not surprised to find that divorce, to many, is a readily accepted alternative to a “bad marriage.” Having long since abandoned biblical authority, they feel free to divorce and remarry at will.
The real heartbreak, however, comes in knowing that many Christians are following the same path. Few do so by an outright rejection of biblical authority. Most seek to justify divorce and remarriage on more sophisticated grounds, arguing a variety of different views from a variety of different passages, but all having the same result: the loosening of God’s plain law on divorce and remarriage.
A pivotal New Testament text on the subject is Matthew 19:9. “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” In this passage Jesus considers two possible scenarios. The outcome of either one is an adulterous relationship.
The first scenario is simple. Whoever (Christian or non-Christian) shall put away (send away, boot her out) his wife and marry another, commits adultery. The only exception to this rule is the putting away of an unfaithful spouse. In such a case, the one who puts away the unfaithful spouse is free to remarry without being in adultery.
The second scenario is equally simple. Whoso (Christian or non-Christian) shall marry a person who has been put away (sent away, booted out), commits adultery no exception.
One would seem hard-pressed to find any loopholes in such plain language, but multitudes attempt it. Their efforts range from the absurd to the plausible, yet all seek to do an “end-run” around God’s simple law. This is not to say that all such are dishonest. It is simply to say there are two types of seekers in the world: those who are seeking truth, and those who are seeking an excuse. At all costs, we must be numbered among the truth-seekers. Searching for an excuse to justify an unlawful relationship is a sure sign of a hardened heart.
When preaching the simple truth on Matthew 19:9, one may be accused of being factious or contentious. Some, indeed, are guilty of preaching truth with a bad disposition. The answer, however, is not to stop preaching truth, but to preach in meekness (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Similarly, one may be accused of not showing enough love, but again the solution is not to cease preaching the truth. In fact, love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6); thus, we should speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Others admonish us to preach only the positive, inspirational aspects of marriage but faithful preaching of the gospel demands warning and rebuke as well as exhortation (2 Tim. 4:2). Considering the current trends, warning on this subject is needed everywhere, and rebuke is needed in many places.
We are also told not to judge, and objectors quote Matthew 7:1. The same objectors fail to consider the next four verses (which clarify the subject as hypocritical judging), or the plain command of Jesus in John 7:24 to “judge righteous judgment.”
Objections Based on Matthew 19
Some claim that nothing is said in Matthew 19:9 about the guilty party remarrying.
On the contrary, a guilty party who puts away his innocent wife is forbidden to remarry per the first scenario. A guilty party who is put away is for-bidden to remarry per the second scenario. So much for the guilty party.
Others claim that Jesus is simply clarifying the Mosaic code on divorce and remarriage, implying that it is not a part of the gospel; however, the context strongly suggests otherwise. The Mosaic law gave permission for divorce under certain circumstances because of the hardness of their hearts (vv. 7-8). The code which Jesus offered in verse 9 is clearly on a higher plane and more restrictive than the Mosaic code (note the disciples’ surprise in verse 10).
Still others find solace in verse 11: “All men cannot receive this saying.” They interpret this phrase to mean that not everyone is able to abide by the teaching of verse 9, thus Jesus nullified his own law. Such absurdities are characteristic of those searching for an excuse. Again, the context suggests that in verse 11 Jesus is commenting on the subject of celibacy, not the Law of verse 9.
Some would say that “whosoever” is not really referring to the whole world, but only to Christians. The implication is that non-Christians are free to divorce and remarry at will. Some of this persuasion believe that non-Christians are not under any law; others believe that non-Christians are under a general moral law. Both teach that non Christians are not subject to the law of Christ. In response, consider: (1) Jesus has all authority (Matt. 28:18), (2) the gospel is addressed to all (Mk. 16:15), (3) the words of Christ will be the standard of judgment (Jn. 12:48), (4) disobedience to the gospel will be the basis of punishment (2 Thess. 1:7-9), and (5) God at one time tolerated ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30).
Objections Based on 1 Corinthians 7
Quoting from verses 17, 20, and 24, some argue that individuals who are in an adulterous marriage upon be-coming Christians, are justified in staying in that relationship. The immediate context, however, is clearly focused on non-sinful options: single vs. married, married to an unbeliever vs. married to a believer, circumcised vs. uncircumcised, slave vs. free. By no stretch of the imagination can these verses be used to justify a sinful relationship (shades of Romans 14!).
Others focus on verse 15, stating that “not under bond-age” means that an abandoned spouse has a right to remarry. Besides contradicting the simple law of Christ in Matthew 19:9, this view forces a definition on the word “bondage” (Greek, douloo) which is nowhere else found in Scripture, de-spite its very common usage. In the context, Paul is not referring to the marriage bond (Greek, deo vv. 27, 39; Rom. 7:2), but to a virtual slavery, by which a committed Christian woman might feel compelled to chase after the husband who has deserted her.
Objections Based On Definitions
On the concept of forgiveness, some argue that God is able to forgive all sin, even adultery. Certainly, no one disagrees with this. But the implication is that individuals who have violated God’s law on divorce and remarriage simply need to ask forgiveness. Nothing more, they say, is required. Notice, however, that forgiveness is always conditioned on repentance. Whether a non-Christian (Acts 2:38), or a Christian (Acts 8:22), repentance is required and while the technical definition of repentance involves a change of mind, the practical definition involves a change of behavior (Matt. 3:8), including any restitution (Lk. 19:8) or altering of current life-style (Ezra 10:1-4). Some of the Corinthians had been adulterers. They became Christians and were justified (implying forgiveness), but they were also sanctified (implying right-living 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Some today want the justification without the sanctification.
The term “adultery” is often misused. Some view it as a one-time act, rather than an on-going condition. Of course, one act of unfaithfulness would certainly qualify as adultery, but an individual who is in an adulterous marriage is in a perpetually adulterous condition as long as their rightful spouse lives (Rom. 7:2-3). Furthermore, Paul argues that it is possible to “live in” adultery, implying a perpetual condition (Col. 3:5-7).
Another abuse of the concept of adultery confuses the metaphorical use of the term with the literal use. Quoting from Jeremiah 3 and James 4:4, we are told that adultery may include virtually any sin, from abuse to drunkenness. Such sloppy exegesis is a violent twisting of the Scripture. Jesus is not speaking metaphorically in Matthew 19. We have no right to so interpret it.
A simplistic concept of the marriage “bond” has led to some sinful relationships. These view marriage as no more than a covenant between two people. If it is broken for one, they argue, it is broken for both; thus, the guilty fornicator can remarry. But the marriage bond is not so simple. God has done the joining, and God makes the rules for loosing. A guilty fornicator who has put away his innocent spouse, or a guilty fornicator who has been put away, cannot remarry. To remarry is to commit adultery (see earlier arguments). Regardless of our understanding of “bond,” he is in adultery simply because God said he is. To reject such a plain statement is to reject Christ’s authority.
Others argue that because some people commit adultery in their hearts (Matt. 5:28) and are allowed to continue in fellowship with the saints, therefore those who commit the physical act of adultery should be allowed to continue in fellowship. Besides ignoring the plain thrust of 1 Corinthians 5, this position overlooks the fact that we are only able to judge others by their fruits (Matt. 7:16-20).
Emotions are often appealed to in such discussions, especially if children are involved. Children are, indeed, the most pitiful victims of divorce. This is one reason we should preach so boldly on the sanctity of marriage. Yet, many who did not hesitate to break up their families to please themselves, refuse to do so to please God. Such individuals need to read Ezra 10. Humane arrangements can be made to provide for children but we cannot simply ignore God’s word with an appeal to emotion.
Finally, some say that making things right is simply too difficult. Jesus responds, “There is no man that hath left … wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Lk. 18:29-30). Many of your brothers and sisters have made difficult decisions including the decision to die for the Lord. After all, where the kingdom is involved, is any decision really too difficult?
Indeed, divorce and remarriage is an emotional and difficult issue. But death is also emotional. The second coming of Jesus is emotional. The judgment is emotional. Eternity is emotional. Heaven and hell are emotional. We must make a choice but we will endure the very real consequences of that choice forever.
Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 15, p. 18-20
August 4, 1994