We have so far argued from Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage is a 1) creation ordinance (that is, a divine provision for the life of mankind, a divinely ordered structure for human life); 2) a relationship of love (that is, not simply functional, but moral in its nature and to be delightful in its experience); and 3) a covenant (the main point of which is that it is secured by sacred obligations and sanctions, like any covenant, and so must be faithfully kept). We pointed out that in referring to marriage as a covenant the Bible seems to be chiefly interested in its permanence.
But that raises the obvious question: what if the marriage covenant is broken? What then? The fact that so much emphasis is placed upon the parties to a covenant remaining faithful is due, no doubt, to the fact that covenants are often broken. All kinds of covenants are broken, including our covenant with God himself. So if this covenant is broken, what are our obligations to the marriage covenant to which we have sworn fidelity, no matter that we have been betrayed by our partner or have betrayed the covenant ourselves? Are spouses always to remain faithful to their marriage covenant, no matter what? You are aware, of course, that these questions have been answered differently by Christians and Christian churches through the ages. The question for us is: what does the Bible say? It is the Bible that says marriage is a covenant, so the Bible will have to tell us what to do when that covenant is broken. And, actually, the Bible speaks to that question on several occasions and, I would think, quite clearly.
There are at least four biblical statements that taken together provide the Scripture’s perspective on divorce.
- Deuteronomy 24:1-4
Now the first thing to notice about this short text is that it is not really a statement about divorce so much as about remarriage after a divorce. The only specific legal deliverance is found in the first part of v. 4. Can a spouse remarry the original partner if, after a divorce, there has been an intervening marriage? The law forbids this. The point seems to be that divorce may have a use, but its use is not to permit what is effectively serial adultery. Its purpose is not to legalize a kind of adultery in which a spouse lives with and so sleeps with one partner, then with another, then back to the first. [Craigie, NICOT, 304]
We expect to find something more directly pertinent to divorce in the Law of Moses but surprisingly we do not. We can only guess why there is not more in the Law of Moses concerning divorce per se. Obviously the people of God knew for what reason a divorce might be granted and for what reasons it would not be granted. The law obviously did not forbid divorce under any and all circumstances. In this particular case it is assumed that a spouse has found some “indecency” in his or her partner. By the way, I say “his or her” because generally in the Law of Moses, though only some of the time spelled out specifically, what applies to the one spouse, applies as well to the other. This, in fact, is one of the revolutionary characteristics of the Law of Moses among the law codes of the ancient world. In those codes women had little to nothing in the way of legal rights. Not so in the Law of Moses. Indeed, even here she is granted a certificate of divorce that effectively immunizes her against any further action. She has been legally released from her former marriage. She is single and free to remarry. Indeed, her liberty to remarry is what creates the legal situation being addressed.
You may also be aware that there was a longstanding debate among the Jewish rabbis as to precisely what “indecent” referred to. There was a lax tradition, represented by Rabbi Hillel, that argued that the term, here translated “indecency,” meant virtually anything that the husband found objectionable in his wife. It could be something as trivial as her burning dinner. A later rabbi of this school was willing to say that it was enough to justify a divorce if only a husband found a woman he found more attractive than his wife. The more conservative school, represented by Rabbi Shammai, held that “indecency” meant sexual impurity or adultery. When we get to the Lord’s remark about this text in Matthew 19, you will not be surprised to see that he seems to have had more sympathy with Shammai.
The Hebrew term can mean “disgrace,” as seems to be the idea here, but it is also the ordinary term for “nakedness” or “nudity.” [cf. Lisowski] The standard dictionary of biblical Hebrew suggests “improper behavior” for its meaning here. [BDB, 789] Interestingly, it is used just up the page in 23:14 to refer to what would defile the camp of Israel. I think Shammai got much the better of the argument here. We are talking about some behavior that was morally impure and very likely related to sexual behavior. In other words, as we will see, Deut. 24 implies that divorce was granted by the Law of Moses only for one spouse’s misbehavior, not for any and all complaints about a husband or wife.
There is a problem with this interpretation, however. In the Law of Moses adultery was punishable by death. So how could a man simply divorce his sexually misbehaving wife and she go on her way to marry someone else? I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. In fact no one is entirely sure what to do with that. The “indecency” may be a reference to sexual misbehavior that fell short of actual adultery, perhaps only certain instances of adultery were punishable by death; it is hard to know, sparingly as the subject is dealt with in the Law. What is clear to me, however, is that to justify a divorce the husband or wife had to do something that amounted to a significant betrayal of the moral obligations of marriage.
The significance of this is that it appears that the Lord in Matthew 19 reiterated the Law of Moses on this point; he did not change it. So, our first text leaves us with this:
- Divorce is possible if a spouse has betrayed the marriage in some egregious way, at least usually in some sexual way.
- Therefore, divorce is possible only because someone has sinned and sinned greatly against the obligations of marriage.
- And remarriage after divorce is permitted but regulated. It is not permitted in any and all circumstances.
- Our next text is Matthew 19:1-9
Now there are several things to notice at the outset of our consideration of this passage.
- The problem of divorce, questions as to when it is permissible, have always bedeviled human life and life in the church. The difference between what marriage ought to be and what it sometimes becomes is a fact of life and, given the immense importance of marriage to human happiness and to the life of children, has always been a matter of great importance and concern to thoughtful people. Almost anyone will accept that divorce represents a great failure and so, all things considered, divorce is to be prevented if possible and regretted when it occurs.
- In this text, in vv. 7-8, the Lord refers to the text we just considered, Deut. 24:1-4. We are reminded in this way that the Bible does not consider in great detail the questions we are asking: viz. when may the marriage covenant be annulled and by whom? It is entirely typical of the Bible to address issues in this way. A few general statements are given and a little bit of case law to help us apply the principles to life situations. The rest is left to elders and, in certain cases, to private judgment. For example, neither in Deuteronomy nor in this text are we commanded to divorce. It is permitted in some specific and very limited situations, but it is not commanded. Therefore, as so often in the Bible, the individual believer is granted a large measure of freedom of action. Take an example. A wife has discovered that her husband has been unfaithful to her on a recent business trip. She is permitted to divorce him, but she is hardly required to do so. There may be any number of factors — her own continuing affection for him, her readiness to forgive him, the quality of his repentance, her concern for her children, and so on — that lead her to remain in the marriage. Indeed, the number of Christian marriages in which at one time or another divorce was a legal possibility — I’m speaking of God’s law, of course — but in which divorce was never pursued must be very large. And, surely, that is as it should be given God’s intention for marriage which is the Savior’s emphasis here.
- The situation that existed in Jesus’ day was one of laxness in regard to divorce, as is the situation today. The reaction of the disciples in the verses that follow those we read indicate that they were so used to easy divorce that they were taken aback by the Lord’s teaching that marriage was to be permanent and could only be left when very serious sins against the marital covenant were committed by one’s spouse.
- Again the question is put in terms of a husband divorcing his wife. It is true that by and large the man had more rights than the woman in first century Jewish marriage. But there is evidence that Jewish women did divorce their husbands in some cases. In any case, in the parallel text in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus is quoted as explicitly applying to the woman the same law he applied to the man.
- The Lord’s point is based on the divine intention for marriage as we learn of it in Genesis 2:24. That passion and permanence, that sticking to one another is what a marriage is supposed to be. In other words, the Lord returns to first principles. He cites Genesis 2:24 to establish that marriage is a divine institution, for which God made man both male and female and that it was God’s intention that marriage be exclusive and the marriage bond inviolable. Chrysostom makes the point that God did not make one man and many women, or one woman and many men, but one man and one woman. When a man leaves his parents and is united to his wife it is clear that he is forming a tie that is intimate and permanent and takes precedence over all other ties. “One flesh vividly expresses a view of marriage as something much deeper than…human convenience or social convention.” The Jews had lost sight of the essential truth that marriage was not a casual union but the closest of all possible unions. It created a family and the relationships of family are unbreakable and unchangeable. And the Lord makes that point emphatically and specifically by adding his interpretative comment: “…what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “To see divorce as man undoing the work of God puts the whole issue in a radically new perspective.” [France, 280]This is the point at which we should begin in all our thinking about marriage and divorce. God intends husbands and wives to be faithful to one another all their married lives. There was little conscience about the sanctity of marriage at that time. The Jews of the Lord’s day had widely misunderstood the law because their hearts were not committed to obedience to God for love’s sake. They were not trying to be what God called them to be. Their obedience was not related to and did not arise from a personal commitment of love to God and reverence for him.
Now to the main point of the text. The question the disciples ask, in their historical situation, was this: who is right about the grounds for divorce, those who say that divorce can be obtained if a spouse is only for some reason dissatisfied with his or her mate, or those who say that only the most serious crimes against the marriage covenant suffice to justify divorce? The Lord’s reply in vv. 8-9 is straightforward and, one would think, perfectly clear. He replied that Deuteronomy does not command divorce, it allows it, and does so only as an accommodation to human sinfulness, not because God intended marriage to be an impermanent arrangement. The mistake that had been made was to elevate a necessary concession into a divine principle. [France, 281] The divine ideal for marriage was permanence and faithfulness. Divorce was a sometimes regrettable but necessary provision for cases in which human sinfulness had made impossible the maintaining of that ideal. It is too easy for us to build our expectations on the Lord’s concession to sin and not, as we should, on the divine ideal as it is enshrined in the law of God. That is what the Jews had done. They noticed that the Law allowed for divorce but paid scant attention to the divine intention for marriage. And then they pushed the envelope on divorce to find ever more reasons why one might divorce his or her spouse. In other words, they cared more for their freedom to divorce than they cared for God’s will for marriage.
However, the Lord adds an exception: “except for porneia,” that is, except for sexual infidelity. In such cases the marriage has been broken and divorce by the innocent spouse is not the breaking of the marital bond but a recognition of its having been broken by the other. In any case, in God’s universe, it requires a vicious sin to end a marriage. But the salient point for us this evening is that only adultery is a sin sufficient to justify the breaking of the marriage bond.
To be sure, in the tradition of biblical ethics it has long been argued, even by our own Reformed authorities, that there are perhaps other sins of a similar gravity that would likewise justify divorce. One thinks of attempted murder, for example. But the Lord chose adultery here — rather than giving us a list of such sins (which would certainly be a short list) — because it is the perfect example of a fundamental betrayal of the marital covenant, the very sin that nullifies the exclusive sexual union that is marriage as God created it.
So, let us summarize the contribution of Matthew 19:1-9.
- Marriage is to be a bond of personal faithfulness between husband and wife, exclusive and permanent. It creates a family. God creates a marriage and men and women cannot leave it without serious sin.
- The sin that justifies the innocent spouse leaving a marriage must be a sin so grave, a sin that strikes with such lethal effect at the marital bond, that the marriage covenant may be said to be broken by it. That sin is adultery and perhaps a few equivalent betrayals.
- Divorce, therefore, is allowed only when one partner to the covenant has betrayed it in an egregious way.
- Once it has been betrayed in that way and a divorce has occurred, remarriage is possible since the spouse is no longer married, and is free from the obligations of marriage.
- Our next text is Romans 7:1-3
Apropos an entirely different subject Paul takes an illustration from what everyone knows about the obligations of husbands and wives. The natural way for a marriage to end is by the death of one of the spouses. If a husband dies, the wife, everyone understands, is free to remarry. Why? Because, as Paul puts it here, the widow “is released from the law of marriage.” That law ordinarily confines her or him to that marriage. A simple and uncontroversial point. But its implications are worth spelling out.
- The only proper way for a marriage to end is by death.
- Living with another man while her husband is alive is adultery, morally considered, even if she should be married to the second man. That is the point Jesus made in Matthew 19. A man or woman who leaves his or her spouse without grounds and marries another commits adultery.
- Husbands and wives are bound by law to their spouses. That language is important, not only because of its use elsewhere, as we will see, but because of the obvious implication of the term. There is a very real sense in which men and women may be stuck in a marriage. We may bristle at that, but nothing could be clearer in the Word of God. The law of marriage binds spouses to that marital covenant.
- Our final text is 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 (vv. 39-40 repeat the point of Romans 7:1-3)
This text is interesting and important for many reasons, but I must limit myself to its bearing on the question of divorce. Paul begins, in vv. 10-11, by addressing the possibility of divorce between two Christians. In the verses that follow he considers the same question in respect to a spiritually mixed marriage. There are several things to notice about this text before attending to its main points.
- Once again the main burden falls on the permanence of marriage. In v. 10 Paul refers to the Lord’s teaching on marriage and divorce and his stress on the permanence of marriage. That is the main thing. That’s the first thing all biblical writers want you to hear. Paul doesn’t bother to mention the fact that adultery can nullify the marriage bond. He is emphasizing the permanence of marriage not the very few situations in which a divorce might be permissible.
- Once again, as in Malachi 2, the spiritual destiny of the children of the marriage is a key consideration.
- And, in this case, the spiritual destiny of the other spouse is also a consideration. The number of Christians who have been brought to Christ by the example and witness of a believing spouse must be very large.
- Once again it is made clear that the sinfulness of human life sometimes makes it impossible to preserve the marriage as it ought to be preserved. In fact, in this particular case, the Apostle admits that even Christian marriages broken by an illegal divorce, that is by a divorce that is not permitted by the law of God, cannot always be repaired. “Remain unmarried or be reconciled to your spouse,” he says to Christians who have divorced without proper grounds.
Now the primary point of Paul’s remarks in vv. 12-16 is to tell Christian spouses who find themselves married to non-Christians — that happened a great deal, of course, as a husband or wife became a Christian while the other spouse did not, alas it also sometimes happens when a spouse gives up the faith and the other spouse does not — that, if the other spouse were willing, they should remain married. “To the married I give this charge…the wife should not separate from her husband…and the husband should not divorce his wife. [By the way, there is no difference between the terms “separate” and “divorce.” They are synonyms. The modern western notion of a “legal separation” was foreign to the ancient world.]
There is perhaps no statement elsewhere in the Word of God that more dramatically emphasizes the indefectibility of the marital bond than this. Think of it. Christians are forbidden to marry unbelievers. It is a case of being unequally yoked. Malachi reminds us that spiritually mixed marriages threaten the spiritual life of the children of the home. In such a spiritually mixed marriage in every important respect the spouses must be worlds apart in their point of view, their motivations, and their understanding of their duty. All of that is said emphatically elsewhere. So we would not have been surprised had Paul urged such Christian spouses to get out of their marriages as quickly as possible. But he takes the opposite view. They are to remain. That is how permanent God intends marriage to be. Even marriages that are spiritually divided are to be preserved to the end.
Now, put this in terms of the actual life of, say, a woman who has recently become a Christian. It was the Greco-Roman world. Imagine yourself a new Christian. Your eyes have been opened to a wonderful new reality. Your heart has been changed. God has drawn near to you. You have a completely new set of friends and wonderful fellowship with them. You have become acquainted with an entirely new way of marriage. You see in the church husbands and wives who love one another in a distinctly Christian way and serve the Lord together. But, your husband isn’t interested in any of this. Perhaps you never had an affectionate marriage; perhaps your new-found faith has already put a strain on your relationship with your husband. He mocks your religious zeal, your new friends, and your new practices. Perhaps it is worse than that. He discourages you from attending Christian worship. He wants you to attend his religious activities and to continue to participate in social and cultural events that you now find utterly uninteresting at best and, at worst, incompatible with your new loyalty to Jesus Christ. This is the practical effect of what Paul teaches here in 7:12-16. Christian folk stuck in deeply unhappy, unfulfilling, difficult, and frustrating marriages that are preventing them from enjoying to the full their new life in Christ. That is the intensely practical and real-life effect of what he commands us here: Christian husbands and wives living for years in very unfulfilling marriages. That is how loyal to their marriages Christian husbands and wives must be! Even marriages that are spiritually divided are to be preserved to the end if possible.
So, let’s sum up.
- There are circumstances when divorce is permitted by God’s law. It is a concession to human sin. But it is not what God intends for a marriage. Fundamentally, the Bible is chiefly interested in asserting the indefectibility of the marriage bond.
- When divorce is allowed it is either because one of the spouses has committed a very serious sin or because a spouse (usually an unbeliever) deserts the marriage and the other spouse can do nothing to prevent the desertion. The current culture of no-fault and easy divorce with which we are now familiar with in the United States is utterly alien to the ethics of the Bible.
- Even when great sins have been committed against the marriage, divorce is only permitted, it is not required. There is an unspoken expectation that many marriages, so sinned against, will nevertheless endure and, that being God’s intention for marriage, that is ordinarily a good thing.
- So, while the Bible cannot be said to be friendly to divorce, it does allow it under some circumstances. It usually forbids, it sometimes allows, but only when someone has committed a very serious sin.
- What that means is that many Christians who would like to leave their marriages are not permitted to do so because they haven’t the grounds, the biblically authorized reasons for a divorce. This is the fact that must be faced in our day. God does indeed require difficult things of his children and one of them may be, has often been, remaining faithful to an unhappy marriage.
On the other hand, surely one of the reasons there are as many happy marriages as there are is because people understand that marriage is to be permanent. When tempted to leave their marriages they remain instead and fix what needs to be fixed. I know a number of couples and I suspect you do as well who would happily say that what helped them to a happy marriage was the fact that they couldn’t leave; it was either put things right or be miserable for the rest of their lives!
And, of course, if you bring the Lord and his will into your life, as Christians must and will, it changes everything. I update you on these numbers from time to time. I’ve officiated at 119 weddings in my ministerial life. 9 of those weddings were unbelievers marrying unbelievers. So I am left with 110 Christian weddings; of those seven have ended in divorce. Some six per cent. But of those seven, in three of the cases the spouse who left the marriage left the Christian faith at the same time. So out of 110 Christian weddings, there have been four in which Christians have divorced, spouses who were Christians when they married and are still Christians today, a situation the Bible anticipates, and allows for, but, given its general teaching about marriage, a situation that ought to be exceedingly rare. In my case, those four represent 3.6% of all the marriages I have performed. In a culture like ours in America today, 3.6% of marriages is exceedingly rare!
A case was brought to the elders in Geneva in the time of the Reformation. A pious woman, who was being badly treated by her husband on account of her faith and godliness, had asked if she could leave her husband and come to Geneva and find rest for her conscience and liberty to practice her faith as she found it taught in the Word of God. (It is, by the way, always a very good sign of the spirit of true submission to God when a Christian submits to the judgment of the elders of the church. It is convincing proof that he or she really does want to do the right thing and is not simply seeking approval to do what he or she wants.)
The decision the elders gave was full of pastoral tact and the spirit of sympathy, but it breathed an unapologetic determination to follow Holy Scripture wherever it led. They commiserated with the unfortunate woman, they encouraged her in her faith, and then, in this gentle way, they began to give their answer to her specific question.
“Nevertheless, since she has asked for our counsel regarding what is permissible, our duty is to respond, purely and simply, on the basis of what God reveals to us in his Word, closing our eyes to all else. For this reason, we beg her not to take offense if our advice does not correspond with her hope. For it is necessary that she and we follow what the Master has ordained, without mingling our desires with it.” [Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, 131-132]
Then they take her to 1 Cor. 7, and remind her that the believing spouse is to remain in a spiritually mixed marriage. They make this interesting pastoral point:
“Without a doubt Paul emphasizes this, fully knowing the suffering each party may be experiencing. For at that time the pagans and the Jews were not less poisoned against the Christian religion than the papists are today. But St. Paul commands the believing partner, who continues to persevere in the truth of God, not to leave the partner who resists God.” 
But they do not stop there. They give this woman a reason, a justification for taking this hard road. “In brief, we ought so to prefer God and Jesus Christ to the whole world that fathers, children, husbands, and wives cease to constitute something we value.” They use the same extravagant language the Bible often does, as when Jesus spoke of it being necessary for his disciples to hate their father and mother, wives and children, and so on. And, then, there is the unbelieving husband to think of.
“…a believing wife ought not to relinquish her hope without striving and trying to direct her husband toward the road of salvation. No matter how great his obstinacy might be, she must not let herself be diverted from the faith; rather she must affirm it with constancy and steadfastness – whatever the dangers may be.”
Now, it is very interesting, and, I think, reveals the true art of biblical interpretation on display here, that the elders go on to say that if the woman comes to fear for her life, then she may take refuge in flight and they would not regard that as an unlawful divorce. But, how much would have to be endured before it ever came to that; if it ever came to that.
Now, put yourself in her situation and imagine that woman receiving that letter and opening it, perhaps her hands trembling with anticipation, wondering what it would say, and if she would be given liberty to leave her oaf of a husband. And then see her reading it paragraph after paragraph, until she came to the end.
“Therefore she needs to pray for God to strengthen her; then she needs to fight more valiantly than she has, drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit, to show her husband her faith, doing so in gentleness and humility, explaining to him that she must not offend God for the sake of pleasing him.” 
Did her heart sink while she read that letter, or did she feel a new resolve rising up within her? Either way, she got sound, Pauline, biblical advice. It was sound advice because it artfully applied Paul’s teaching to that woman’s situation. It got both Paul’s commandment right and the underlying motive and principle. And if her heart were right with God, if she loved God and was willing to suffer for Christ’s sake, she would have heard the clear, bell-like tone of the truth in what she had read from those Genevan elders. And, if, as we believe, she followed the advice that she was given, now, in heaven, that dear woman is so happy that she did!
Basically we are to stick to our spouses, through thick and thin and until the end of life. That is nature of biblical marriage: a permanent bond, a sacred covenant. There may be circumstances that allow for a divorce, but they require someone’s grievous sin and no Christian can hope that his or her spouse will sin in that terrible and soul-destroying way.
We hear ad nauseam about the 1% in America today and the 99%. I’d much rather we were talking about the 3.6%, how few there are among the Christians who divorce; only those who found it forced upon them and couldn’t prevent it. Seeking to understand that number would do America much more real good and bring much her much more spiritual, social, and physical prosperity than anything we might ever do with the tax code!