The problem of divorce and remarriage strikes at the roots of our social structure. With such root problems the temptation is always to teeter between the extremes of the ostrich and the jay: either we isolate our heads and hearts from the problem or we frantically announce our passing fancies as final solutions. Certainly the concerned Christian must bend every effort to understand the complexity of the problem as it works itself out in everyday living.

But for Christians who claim biblical authority for life and thought, such analyses must be accompanied by equally honest and rigorous application of scriptural principles bearing on the problem. Indirectly, the teaching of Holy Scripture must become our starting point. Each of us individually and within the fellowship of the body of Christ must perform the necessary tasks of first ascertaining and faithfully reaffirming exactly what the Bible in each part and as a whole teaches on this delicate issue and, second, of shaping an honest and caring application of that teaching within the home and church.

As we approach these tasks, we frequently confuse two closely related but quite distinct questions: (1) Are divorce and remarriage permitted? and (2) How are divorced persons who remarry to be treated in the church? The answer of the church to the first question is abundantly clear and consistent in its broad outline. It is also solidly in accordance with Holy Scripture.

No Christian ought ever to seek to break up a marriage—his own or anyone else’s. Marriages may be made on earth but they are sealed in heaven. They are designed for life. That means “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”

Christ, the Lord of the church, provided unequivocal instruction for his disciples. In response to a question from certain Pharisees, he appealed to the original purpose of God in creation. God’s intent, he implied, was a union of one man and one woman. And what God joins, no human dares separate.

In his instruction to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul first appealed to an authoritative word from the Lord and then applied it vigorously to a problem in the church. Even if married to an unbeliever, the Christian wife or husband is bound to remain faithful (1 Cor. 7:10–14). When a Christian couple takes wedding vows, therefore, their commitment is irrevocable. All the spiritual energies of believers are to be concentrated upon the preservation and support of marriage. Even the mixed marriage of believer with unbeliever must be preserved by the Christian at all cost.

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On biblical grounds and in the church, therefore, the irreversibility of marriage in principle is not seriously questioned: the only area of disagreement focuses on exceptions. In his dispute with the Pharisees our Lord responds, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9, NIV).

Although the exceptive clause is omitted in some Greek manuscripts, all the standard Greek texts rightly include it. The Greek word porneia (often translated “fornication”) stood broadly for “every kind of unlawful sexual activity (Arndt and Gingrich). Against the Pharisees who would permit many grounds for divorce, Jesus insists that to divorce and remarry another is to commit adultery—with the exception of divorce on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness (porneia).

The force of our Lord’s statement cannot be avoided by referring the warning to an engaged couple still unwed but bound by a “betrothal contract.” In context, the passages have under consideration a wife in a valid marriage. Moreover, the exceptive phrase cannot be limited merely to “putting away” and unrelated to remarriage. Neither the syntax of the sentence structure nor the good sense of the passage will permit this. It is the remarriage alone that raises the question of adultery, and unless the exception applies to this, the entire statement is nonsense. Separation does not carry with it the idea of adultery; but separation and remarriage does—unless the separation was on the ground of marital unfaithfulness. This is the clear meaning of the passage.

In the deepest sense, this is not really an exception at all. The meaning is not that a Christian can break up a marriage on grounds of adultery or fornication. Rather, a Christian must never break up a marriage. But if his spouse breaks the marriage by sexual unfaithfulness, then the Christian may recognize this fact. The point is that the Christian does not enter into a marriage with the option that he may or may not stick with it for life. As far as he is concerned, there is no alternative to lifelong marriage.

Although the thrust of our Lord’s discussion is slightly different in Matthew 5, sexual unfaithfulness (porneia) is again mentioned as the only legitimate ground on which a Christian may secure a divorce.

The Christian husband who breaks up a marriage and divorces his wife is forcing her into a situation where she will become an adulteress if she forms a new alliance. But this would not be the case if the divorce were on grounds of adultery. In the case of a wife who had made herself into an adulteress, by her adultery she would have broken the marriage relationship. The believing husband would neither have broken up the marriage nor be responsible for having pushed his wife into adultery.

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The christian, of course, is not told that he or she must divorce an unfaithful marriage partner. Like Hosea in the Old Testament and like God himself with all of us, the Christian can forgive. The more clearly he recognizes his own lack of perfection, the more will forgiveness seem to be appropriate. But if a spouse has been sexually unfaithful and has thus broken the first marriage relationship by joining another, the believer who divorces an unchaste partner and marries again does not commit adultery and is not guilty of pushing that partner into adultery.

First Corinthians takes up quite a different problem. Here the apostle reaffirms the inviolability of the wedding vow, even in marriages with an unbeliever. Paul then adds that a believing wife is not bound if her unbelieving husband willfully and permanently deserts her. In context, this must mean she is free to marry another because it is contrasted with the previous situation in which believers, though they ought never to do so, if they nonetheless actually do separate, are to remain single or be reconciled. By making a sharp contrast between two situations the apostle indicates that in the latter case, the believing wife is not bound to remain single but is free to remarry.

Pressure to lower the biblical standard is unbelievably strong in this antiauthoritarian, individualistic, and sensate culture of contemporary America. Some evangelicals argue that adultery and willful permanent desertion are merely two examples of exceptions to the permanency of marriage. Any breaking of the marriage relationship, even marital incompatibility or falling out of love, is sufficient ground for divorce, they say.

Such a lax interpretation destroys both the letter and the spirit of the biblical injunctions. The point of biblical teaching in the Gospels and in I Corinthians is precisely in the opposite direction.

In the final analysis, marriages are made in heaven and, therefore, to break asunder those whom God put together is always wrong under all circumstances. It is never permitted with divine approval. At most, a Christian may recognize that a marriage has been broken by the unchastity or willful permanent desertion of his or her spouse and is free to remarry.

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The second issue facing the contemporary evangelical church is: how to treat the divorced and formerly married—particularly when they remarry. All too often the church will not fully accept those who have been divorced even on biblical grounds. Equally disconcerting is the unforgiving and unredemptive attitude of most evangelicals towards those who have been divorced and remarried either in ignorance or in defiance of biblical teaching. Murder and theft the evangelical freely forgives, but not divorce. In part, this different attitude is based on the conviction that other sins are completed and have been repented of, but divorce and remarriage involve a continuous living in adultery. The conclusion is not warranted by the biblical data. The guilty partner in a divorce on the grounds of adultery has already broken the original marriage. The marriage is dissolved and that is why the “innocent” party is free to remarry. But the fact that the original marriage is dissolved means also that the guilty party who remarries is not living in adultery, for his original marriage was dissolved. His sin was in the adultery, that brought on the divorce. Since he is no longer married, his new alliance is not adulterous. Similarly in the case of divorces secured on trivial grounds, a move to marriage by either partner serves (as does adultery) to break the original marriage; and on biblical grounds the church is not justified in treating the remarried as though they were continuing to live in adultery.

The church, therefore, must clearly and unhesitatingly teach the biblical condemnation of easy divorce as the moral equivalent of adultery. But it must also learn to forgive and to minister to the fallen. It must not condemn those whom the Bible does not condemn. It must be prepared to bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted, to comfort the lonely and grieving, and to restore to spiritual wholeness those whose lives have fallen apart in the breakup of their marriages.

The evangelical church must not merely sharpen its theology of divorce and marriage, it must also practice the forgiving love of the gospel to bring a healing ministry to all who fall short of the biblical ideal.

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