When I began teaching a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount, I knew that someday we’d get to Jesus’ statement on divorce (Matthew 5:31, 32): “And it was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce,’ but I say to you, ‘Everyone who divorces his wife except because of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorce woman commits adultery.’” Knowing that well over half of the class members had been divorced and remarried, I was tempted to just gloss over that part. After all, it’s only two verses.
But it’s there, so I knew I couldn’t do that. Besides I know that many who have gone through divorce have had a hard time dealing with it. And my experience has shown me that many, if not most of us have not been taught much about it. It seems that churches either look the other way or are judgmental toward those who’ve been divorced.
For some, one verse in the Old Testament settled the matter: “For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16). However, as a member of the class pointed out, the LORD Himself was divorced! He divorced Israel! See Jeremiah 3:1-10, especially verse 9; Isaiah 50:1; Hosea 2.
Jesus had much to say on this issue. So did the Apostle Paul. We need to interpret the biblical material carefully, taking care not to apply it either legalistically or permissively. Before I get into interpretation, I’d like to say some things about my own experience.
When I first entered the pastorate, divorce among my parishioners was rare. I was fresh out of seminary and equipped with a well researched position paper, covering nearly every biblical aspect of the questions (I thought). This paper served me reasonably well at first, and the material is still valid today.
However, the times they were a-changing. In the first two years, two couples in my small church went through divorces, one of which was a man in the ministry who had been having multiple affairs. Another divorce hit my close family. Then I found out that the church leadership held rigid views on divorce which seemed to totally ignore God’s grace, and somehow I was being held responsible for these matters.
In subsequent ministries I have encountered all sorts of variations on the theme of divorce and remarriage. I found myself called on to perform weddings that seemed questionable, in light of the Scripture. I found myself counseling couples who had entered marriage for all the wrong reasons. I have had to minister to those who were, in a sense, innocent victims of divorce. And I have needed to explain God’s grace and forgiveness to those who may have been the guilty parties in divorce, or at least felt that they were.
So how do I deal with it? How does one minister to the divorced without condemning them or condoning sin? Well, here are a few thoughts.
First of all, it seems clear that since the Bible, Jesus and Paul all allow for divorce in certain cases, no more needs to be said in these cases, other than that if divorce is permitted, then remarriage is as well. The person who divorces his or her partner because of sexual infidelity (Matthew 5:31, 32), or the believer who is divorced by an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:12-16), is completely free to remarry and his or her status is no different from that of any other single or widowed person.
I believe that this could be expanded to include those who are physically or sexually abused or threatened in any number of ways.
Also, even if the divorce was not for biblically appropriate reasons, once one partner has remarried, the bond has been broken and reconciliation is not possible. It would seem that remarriage by the second partner would not, in these cases, be seen as adultery.
It should also be noted that even in those cases where the act of marriage is considered adultery, the state of marriage is not. Once a couple is united in marriage, they are married and they are to maintain that relationship. Perhaps we could draw a parallel here with the issue of the marriage of a Christian to an unbeliever. While the act is forbidden (2 Corinthians 6:14ff), the state is accepted (1 Corinthians 7:12-16; also 1 Peter 3:1).
Our God is a God of grace, even though He hates sin. He sent His Son to take the penalty for all of our sins. When we come to Christ by faith, He makes us new creatures. All of our sins are forgiven – past, present and future.
Paul warns the Corinthian believers that “the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God,” and then gives a list of various persons who fit that description (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10). All of us can find ourselves somewhere on that list. But then he tells them (and us), “And such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God!” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
All of us were on that list, but we’re not on it any longer! There is no unpardonable sin. That includes a non-biblical divorce.