There are only two justifiable reasons for divorce that are specifically stated in the Scripture. The first is found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus permits divorce on the grounds of “fornication.” The Greek word for “fornication” is “porneia,” which means “sexual immorality.” Although adultery is sexual immorality, sexual immorality is not necessarily adultery. For instance, sexual immorality may also be homosexuality or incest. According to Jesus, any form of sexual immorality on behalf of one’s spouse constitutes a justifiable reason for divorce.
Some have erroneously suggested that the use of the Greek word “porneia” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 suggests a limited application to the Jewish betrothal period. In other words, sexual immorality was only a justifiable reason for breaking off one’s betrothal to a potential spouse, but not for one’s divorcing of an actual spouse. This strained interpretation of our Savior’s words is necessitated by all who approach the Scripture with the preconceived idea that there are no justifiable reasons for divorce.
As we have already shown, the use of the Greek word “porneia” was necessary in order to include all forms of sexual immorality, not just adultery, as justifiable reasons for divorce. Also, the Greek word “porneia,” which refers to the actual practice of sexual immorality, was in particularly called for in Matthew 5:32 by our Lord’s teaching in the preceding verses.
Just prior to Matthew 5:32, Jesus had said, “Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). In light of this, what would have happened if Christ had failed to specifically stipulate that it was the actual practice and not the mere thought of sexual immorality that constituted a justifiable reason for divorce? Would He not have opened the door for divorce to every wife suspecting her husband of lustful thoughts; that is, of having already “committed adultery in his heart”?
The second justifiable reason given for divorce in the Scripture is found in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Here, the Apostle Paul teaches that desertion by an unbelieving spouse is justifiable grounds for divorce. Since believers are forbidden from being “unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14), no Christian should ever marry an unbeliever. However, if two unbelievers are married and one deserts the other over their spouse’s conversion to Christ, then Paul says the deserted Christian is “not under bondage in such cases,” because “God has called us to peace.” In other words, Christians who find themselves in such a situation should always choose the forfeiture of their marriage and loyalty to their Savior over the forfeiture of their newfound faith and loyalty to their Christ-rejecting spouse.
Even though sexual immorality and desertion by a non-believing spouse constitute scripturally justifiable reasons for divorce, divorce is not biblically mandated in either situation. Reconciliation is always preferable, since God hates divorce, especially for the children’s sake (Malachi 2:15-16). Still, in this imperfect world things don’t always work out perfectly; thus, God has provided scriptural provisions for His children in imperfect situations, lest their Christian lives be unduly impeded.
In biblical times, women had only two chief means of support. They were either supported by their families, in particularly by their husbands, or they made a living in prostitution. For the sake of her own survival, a divorced woman was forced to either remarry or become a prostitute. Either way, divorce “caused” her, as Jesus said, “to commit adultery.”
According to Jesus, any man who married a divorced woman, even if he did so to keep her from starving, was guilty of “committing adultery.” Obviously, this oft-repeated and lamentable situation in biblical times was not God’s intention. God intended from the very beginning for marriage to be between one man and one woman for a lifetime (Matthew 19:3-9). Still, because of “the hardness of men’s hearts,” these lamentable situations were made necessary for the survival of women in ancient cultures.
Unfortunately, these words of our Savior have been taken out of context and stretched to unbearable proportions by the ardent legalists of our day. As a result, battered women are told that they are biblically bound to their abusive spouses; divorced and remarried Christians are told, regardless of the circumstances of their divorce, that they are disqualified for Christian service; and divorce itself has been made into some kind of unpardonable sin.
Obviously, none of the above are biblically true. The Bible doesn’t sentence anyone to a lifetime of spousal abuse. Neither is divorce an unpardonable sin. In fact, when our Lord specified the sole unpardonable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—He went on to say that all other sins, including divorce, are forgivable (Matthew 12:31). Now, none of this is intended to make light of the grievous sin of divorce. There is no greater plague plaguing contemporary culture than the breakdown of traditional marriage and the home. Still, in our zeal to defend the sanctity of marriage, we must not take liberties with God’s Word and condemn to a lifetime of self-incrimination all who have been through the tragedy of a divorce.
Permit me to illustrate how the Bible’s teaching on the subject of marriage and divorce is often misinterpreted and misapplied in our day. One of the biblical qualifications for pastors and deacons is that they must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). This qualification was extremely important in biblical times, since polygamy was commonly practiced. Today, however, it is often interpreted as disqualifying divorced and remarried men from serving as pastors or deacons, since they are alleged to have more than one wife. Yet, nowhere does the Scripture teach that divorced and remarried men have more than one wife. To be precise, Christ taught the exact opposite. He said that anyone divorcing his wife and marrying another woman was guilty of adultery, not polygamy. You can’t commit adultery with someone who is your wife, but only with someone who isn’t.
I’ve known both philandering preachers whose forgiving wives never divorced them and preachers who were faithful to unfaithful wives who eventually deserted them. Am I to glean from the Scripture that never-divorced philanderers are qualified for the pastorate, while faithful husbands who’ve been deserted by unfaithful wives are not? Clearly, such an understanding of the Scripture’s teaching on the subject of divorce and remarriage is wrongheaded.
I don’t mean to imply that all divorced and remarried men are qualified to be pastors or deacons. Many may be disqualified because of the circumstances surrounding their divorce. Take for example a man who leaves his wife to run off with his secretary. He is henceforth, in my opinion, unqualified to serve as a pastor or a deacon. Not because he has more than one wife, but because he fails to meet several of the other qualifications set-forth in Scripture for pastors and deacons; such as, being “blameless” and having “a good reputation” (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:6-9).
The Bible has much more to say about marriage and divorce, so much more that one could easily write an entire book on the subject. I have neither the time nor the space to pen such a volume here in this short and simple treatise on divorce and remarriage. I would be amiss, however, if I failed to point out to you that many a modern-day presumption on the subject has no scriptural foundation and that much of what the Bible says on this important subject is little known. For instance, did you know that it was once God’s will for His people to divorce their wives and that remarrying an ex-wife after she had been married to another man resulted in the pollution of the land (see: Ezra 9-10 & Jeremiah 3:1)?
In light of all that we have learned in this brief booklet, we should be careful not to mishandle the Scripture in sentencing others to a lifetime of spousal abuse or reducing divorced and remarried Christians to second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. While we should always defend the sanctity of marriage without apology, we should never do it by turning divorce into an unpardonable sin. Those who have suffered the tragedy of divorce need more than our condemnation; they need our compassion. Although we cannot justify divorce apart from its two scriptural justifications, we can and should love all divorced people.
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