I confess that the matter of the Biblical understanding of divorce was somewhat thrust upon me by an incident early in my ministry. A couple of thirtysomethings came to me asking if I would perform their marriage. They were not church members, and quickly admitted that they belonged to a nearby fundamentalist church, but since both were divorced, having separated from spouses who were unfaithful to them, their pastor would not perform their marriage. The pastor based his view on Jesus’ words as recorded in Mark 10, verses 11 and 12, where Jesus says, “ Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery, and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” I should add that Jesus’ comments on divorce in Mark 10 were part of an extended conversation. He had just finished a confrontation with Pharisees who had asked his interpretation of Deuteronomy 4: 1-4, which says, “If a man marries a woman and finds indecency in her, then he can write her a bill of divorcement.” Some Pharisees interpreted the word “indecency” to refer only to adultery. Other Pharisees maintained that this verse meant that a husband could divorce his wife for any fault he found irritating. Jesus says to both groups, “You’ve missed the point of God’s intention for marriage. You’re attempting to find ways out of the marriage bond, when God intends for two people to come together and live as one flesh throughout their lives. Forget this search for legal and moral ways to justify your getting out of marriages. God’s ideal is for two people to blend their lives together until death parts them.”
I should note that not just this particular fundamentalist pastor, but many Southern Baptist pastors thirty years ago would not marry divorced people based on this Mark 10 passage. That is true even for some pastors today. And even today, many churches treat divorced people as second-class citizens. There are churches near us who will not allow divorced people to serve as deacons, as if the act of getting divorced forever disqualifies someone from future service to God in a congregational setting. But I want to make two suggestions to you this morning. First, the full Biblical picture of divorce is far more complex than the perspective provided in Mark 10. Second, taken as a whole, the Bible does NOT understand divorce as an unpardonable sin that disqualifies one from a lifetime of meaningful Christian service to God’s people in positions of leadership.
Compare Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10 with our Lord’s words on the subject in Matthew 19. Jesus’ words about the divorce in Matthew 19 are virtually identical with the quote in Mark 10, save for one glaring difference. In Matthew 19, Jesus opines, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” Here our Lord acknowledges that sometimes divorce is a necessary option. The ideal is that a marriage bond remains inviolable. But in a fallen world, the ideal of marriage is not always attainable. Jesus acknowledges that divorce is a legitimate option in situations of adultery. Jesus acknowledges the practical fact that a marriage is a union of two people, and if one partner betrays the other’s affections through an illicit attachment, divorce is a legitimate option. Implicit in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is the common sense understanding that marriage is not merely a legal contract. Marriage is a relationship of love. Where there is no love, there is no marriage. When love dies, a marriage dies, too, regardless of what a piece of paper might say. That doesn’t mean that when one spouse has betrayed the trust of another, that that spouse must seek a divorce, but in such a case divorce is certainly allowable.
The Apostle Paul goes further in acknowledging that sometimes divorce is the most advisable course. In I Corinthians 7, Paul notes that divorce is a legitimate option in cases where marriage partners are incompatible and oriented in different directions. In the early church, several unChristian spouses wanted to divorce their Christian partners. They no longer wanted to be married to Christians. What should Christians do? With great insight Paul maintains that Christians should accept the divorces: “In such a case, a brother or sister is not bound.” Why is divorce legitimate in such instances? Because, says Paul, “God has called us to peace.” God has called us to peace! God has not called us to be miserable. God did not create us to be miserable! And in a union where two people are incompatible, oriented in different directions, a relationship where there is no peace, divorce is an option open to Christians in the interests of their overall well-being.
Those who argue on allegedly Biblical grounds that divorce should never be an option ignore the Bible’s explicit acknowledgement that sometimes divorce is the best option available to a righteous person. The best example is the well-known story of Joseph, the espoused husband of Mary. When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, how does the Bible describe his action? “He resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph, a good and kindly man, not only opted for divorce, but, according to Scripture, did so as a way of reflecting his goodness: “Being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, he resolved to divorce her quietly.” That doesn’t mean that divorce is good, but sometimes divorce is the most compassionate action good people can take.
Two stories always inform my thinking on this matter, one I read about, the other I lived. Years ago, there came to my attention the tragic story of a woman whose husband had physically and emotionally abused her and her children for years. The children grew up and moved out of the house, and begged their mom to do the same, but the woman refused, citing religious scruples, even when repeated counseling did not improve the situation. Finally, after a particularly brutal round of abuse, she sought shelter in a spousal abuse center, only to be gunned down by her estranged husband outside the shelter. Would not this woman have done better to have divorced her husband years before when she saw that she could not alter his violent behavior? Would she not have been wise to appropriate Paul’s teaching that we were made for peace and not misery? Wouldn’t she have been closer to the will of God to have ended that marriage before it ended her life? Absolutely! I think of a close friend and fellow seminarian whose marriage irrevocably soured after two years. His very young wife decided that marriage was not for her. She entered into an adulterous affair; she refused to put the slightest effort into counseling; she made it clear from the outset that she had but one aim: to get out of her marriage commitment. My friend cried, begged, prayed, very nearly sweated blood trying to save his marriage — all to no avail. Finally, he agreed to a divorce. Did he do the right thing? Yes! And three years later when he met a wonderful young woman and announced his intention to remarry, if I could have made the trip, I would have gladly performed the ceremony, delighted that he had found happiness after enduring such heartache. I marry divorced people because it is obvious to me that Scripture teaches that divorce neither disqualifies us from God’s grace, nor sidelines us from future service in God’s Kingdom.
Look at Jesus’ treatment in John 4 of the Samaritan woman at the well. Here is a woman who is a five-time divorcee, and is currently living in an adulterous relationship. Does Jesus shun her? No! The disciples are thinking, ‘Why is he giving the time of day to such a notorious woman?’ but Jesus invites the woman to drink the living waters of eternal life. Having opened her heart to receive God’s Good News, he transforms her into an instrument of redemption for her entire town! The Gospel meets us where we are, single or coupled, married or divorced, seemingly righteous or seemingly sinful. None of us are accepted by God on the basis of our righteousness! None of us win God’s affirmation through our perfection. Divorce is just one failure among a host of failures, and we submit all of our sins unto the grace of God, believing that the resurrection impulse of God will allow the divine to make something good even out of something painful.
I think of David and Bathsheba. Clearly their relationship begins in adulterous circumstances. David not only forsakes his obligation to his spouse to pursue Bathsheba, he arranges Bathsheba’s husband’s death in battle so she will be free to marry him. Their union is condemned by God and spawned chaotic consequences. The prophet Nathan publicly condemns David as an adulterer. However, ultimately God even used David’s marriage to Bathsheba for good, blessing them with the birth of Solomon, who would build the Lord’s temple. Ultimately, Nathan, the very prophet who had condemned David and Bathsheba’s union, was commanded by God to proclaim Solomon as the Lord’s anointed. Even in marriages that originate in dubious circumstances, God can exercise the divine resurrection impulse to give people a fresh start. This doesn’t always happen: there are people who replicate the same relational dysfunctions in relationship after relationship. But God can work among those who have failed in past relationships to equip them with new wisdom and insights, allowing them to delight in love again.
Go back to Mark 10. Is it really true, from a Biblical perspective, that all remarriages involving divorced people are adulterous? No! To believe such a thing would be to punish one spouse for the sins of another. To forbid my seminary friend, who strove with all of his being to save his marriage, even in the face of his wife’s unfaithfulness, to find joy in another marriage relationship would be to penalize him for his partner’s sin – a sin he opposed with every fiber of his being. God has created us for peace. God does not intend for us to be miserable. So, my friend was free to embrace God’s great blessing of bringing someone into his life who would cherish him and whom he would cherish, allowing him to embrace the joy of a new relationship. Even when adultery is not evidenced, to forbid someone who fought and failed to maintain a marriage from remarrying later would ignore God’s basic truth that we are made for peace, happiness, and joy.
Nobody needs to tell divorced people that divorce is not a good thing. Divorced people know how painful divorce is, how difficult it is on children, how it complicates and scars one’s life forever. But the Christian church need not give the impression to divorced people that having failed God’s ideal for marriage once, the church will not marry them if they fall in love again, or maybe will marry them, but will treat them as a second-class citizen. Another seminary friend of mine married very young, only to have his young wife leave him early in their marriage. He reluctantly granted her demand for a divorce. Then he became a Christian and eventually married a good and Godly woman. His great desire was to be an overseas missionary for Christ. But because he had been divorced, the Southern Baptist Convention wouldn’t let him serve. He protested that his divorce happened before he came to faith. No matter: his early marriage failure had disqualified for that role of service. The Convention regarded him as spoiled goods, a second-class Christian.
Sometimes I think there are Christian individuals, Christian churches and Christian organizations who strive to drive people from the throne of God’s grace when they most need it. Sometimes, the message such people emanate, particularly to divorced people is, ‘Your sin puts you outside the circle of grace.’ But we need to remember that Christ is not only the Judge of all sinners, Christ is also the Friend of all sinners. And Christ’s mercy is fresh every morning. Our Lord, even when confronting a woman caught in the act of adultery, says to her, “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more.” Our Lord rubbed shoulders with tax collectors and harlots and kept company with people who had failed in every way, yet he always revealed himself not only as the Judge of sinners, but the Friend of sinners who can remove our iniquity as far as east is from west.
Not long before I entered the seminary, my pastor, Dr. J. R. White, a revered and stately man, took me aside to say, “Richard, I’m from the old school: for many years I refused to marry divorced couples, believing it would be adultery. I adhered to the strict letter of the law as I saw it. As I got older, I got wiser: I realized that I did not need to fulfill the role of judge. That job was already taken by our Lord. So I reversed my position. Now I look with regret on those twenty-five years of ministry when I wouldn’t marry divorced people. I only hope I didn’t turn anyone away from Christ’s Kingdom in the process. Don’t make the same mistake.” I have not. From the beginning of my ministry, when divorced people have come to me and asked me to marry them, I have said, “Go and enjoy God’s great blessing of a new love. Take what you have learned in a failed relationship and use that wisdom to help forge a more functional and profound relationship in the future. Go and love again.”