Part of our Ephesians series has dealt with Marriage (namely when looking at the latter half of chapter 5). As an offshoot of the marriage discussion, we briefly began chatting about divorce and due to time constraints, I opted to expound upon this subject more fully on the blog. I’m putting this as its own standalone post and not part of the Ephesians series.
Unfortunately, our society seems to have a very casual and nonchalant view of marriage and when things just don’t work out, then we quit the marriage like we would a job or a sports team. This isn’t to say that the predominance of our culture treats marriage this way, but if you go research the divorce rate in the United States, it is about 50% for first-time marriages (and, the propensity for divorce increases with 2-time marriages and 3-time marriages). It would be dishonest to assume that all of these marriages are a result of relationship flippancy, for indeed some marriages end in divorce due to adultery and abuse. But, the divorces that often get waved in our faces through the social lens advertised as “creative differences” and the couple just split ways. However, as believers, are their principles we can glean from the scriptures, as it relates to divorce, and, more importantly, what we can do to avoid it? Let’s explore this.
Relationships are a tricky thing because they take work. As we’ve learned in our marriage series in Ephesians, the husband bears the brunt of the responsibility to the relationship, as Christ bears it for the church. The way Christ loves the church is the template for the husband to love his wife. It would seem that many issues in marriage may lay at the husband’s feet should he not love like Christ. This isn’t to say that the wife doesn’t create issues in the relationship, but where the husband is concerned, to whom much is given, much is required. Regardless of the reason, exiting a marriage relationship is spoken of in scripture. This isn’t going to be an exhaustive study on divorce, but I’d like to look at some common areas that deal with the subject and see if we can’t figure out God’s ultimate desires, as it relates to marriage (or the unfortunate end of it).
When Israel came out of Egypt, much of the society of Egypt was branded in their minds. God had a hefty task ahead of Him (not that anything is actually “hefty” for God to exert His power over, but the dimensions of what God would do is hefty from human perspective). God had to establish a completely new nation, new economy, new laws and civics, new worship – a completely new mindset. Yet, God doesn’t manifest everything from nothing, for there is evidence that God utilized things that they were familiar with in Egypt, but re-purposed it for His glory. The ark of the covenant, for example, is very similar to the palanquins that were in Egypt. This doesn’t mean that God gave credence to the Egyptian pagan world, but that He simply utilized something of familiarity to re-establish true deity. In other words, the ark of the covenant is “tangible polemic”. A polemic is “a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something.” The ark of the covenant isn’t just a traveling box of relics for Israel, but was a consistent statement to the unseen realm and the powers of darkness.
Likewise, divorce seems to have been quite common in Egypt (1). When it comes time for Moses to discuss how divorce was to be treated in Israel, we find some interesting words. Note Deuteronomy 24:1: When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. Yes, you read that correctly – a wife could fall out of favor in her husband’s eyes based on something about her that her husband determined to be unclean and the husband could simply divorce her and send her away. Is this really the Bible’s position on divorce? Does the Bible jive with our society’s flippant view of marriage? This is where we need to be sure that we aren’t barging into the Bible’s house and expecting the Host to cater to the guest. As we get to the time of Christ, we find that there is a REASON Moses gave this ruling even though this wasn’t the ultimate WILL OF GOD. Think about that, by the way. There was precedent set in the Law of Moses that was permissible, even though it wasn’t desirable. Some would say this is God’s permissive will vs His perfect will. I think this idea makes a good attempt at understanding this, but I’m not convinced that these terms are as accurate as they could be. Would we say that God’s perfect will isn’t permissible? And, when God allows things that aren’t perfect, then God’s will is now not perfect? See the problem?
The WILL OF GOD is simply the realm of His desire. We often view the Will of God as a playing field in which He is calling the plays for success and if we hear that play and run it (perfect will), then we are good. But, we may run our own play and as long as it advances us down the field (permissive will) then at the end of the day, it was still successful. But, God’s Will is nothing more than the expression of His heart’s desire. There isn’t “perfect” desires and “permissible” desires – it is simply just, His Desires. The realm of His desire is huge and is multi-faceted. He allowed the divorce practice of Deuteronomy 24 to take place for a reason even though it absolutely did not align with His actual desire. Look at Matthew 19.
Matthew 19:1 And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan; 19:2 And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. 19:3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
The Pharisees are alluding to Deuteronomy 24. They are attempting to trap Jesus. How foolish – their Law Giver is in their presence and they believe they have the upper hand. Nonetheless, the Pharisees put forward the opportunity for Jesus to address Deuteronomy 24:1.
Matthew 19:4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 19:5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 19:6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
Note how Jesus doesn’t seem to answer their question. In fact, in verse 7, the Pharisees are going to ask Jesus why Moses made such a law if the purpose of marriage was a union by God that man was not to put asunder.
Matthew 19:7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
Now, notice Jesus’ response to this:
Matthew 19:8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
Jesus says that Moses made this provision in the law as a matter of TOLERATING their hard hearts. And, notice that Jesus is speaking of the hardhearted Israelites of Moses’ day, yet, throws it back on the Pharisees as if they were the culprits. This is because the line of thinking and the hardened hearts were no different than those of the past. Jesus says that Moses suffered this (presumably as a means of preventing even greater evils), but FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS NOT SO. In other words, even though Moses allowed it doesn’t mean that it was God’s eternal intention for marriage. This goes back to what we were discussing earlier that something can be allowed by God yet it not align with His true desires. In fact, in Malachi 2:16, God declares His hatred for divorce as the men of Israel/Judah were divorcing ad-infinitum. God likens this to a man covering his garments with violence. The idea of “covering his garments” is idiomatic and refers to the wife. God hates divorce because as the Jewish men were carrying it out, it was as if they were clothing their wives with violence. A wife is to be clothed in the LOVE of her husband.
Matthew 19:9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 19:10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.
Jesus declares that if a wife is put away (divorced) except for fornication, and if the man remarries, then they have committed adultery. If a wife was not faithful to her husband, her husband had the right to divorce her, but it wasn’t to be so for just any old reason. Jesus revealed the true nature of how God views marriage by course-correcting what Moses wrote. This doesn’t mean that Moses was “wrong” or that the law was somehow wrong, but rather that Jesus’ eternal desire is that a union of husband and wife not be handled so casually. The disciples seem a little taken back by this and even ask if this is the case, then it is good for a man not to marry. Perhaps marriage becomes a snare for evil rather than a blessing for good? Jesus addresses this,
Matthew 19:11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 19:12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
While Jesus stands by His statements and even gives credence to the disciples’ protest, He clarifies that the notion of remaining unmarried isn’t a universal rule, but is for those to whom it makes sense. Then, Jesus gives an example of Eunuchs. Eunuch was a term that could mean a few different things. It could be someone who stands guard by the king’s bed, for example. The job requirements therefore would make it highly improbable that marriage could even happen. Eunuchs also were emasculated men and when having children was a primary purpose for marriage, if one could not biologically have children, then marriage wouldn’t be in order. Again, this is not a universal truth about marriage, but is true for those who have this disposition to marriage.
The apostle Paul has similar words to the Corinthians.
1Corinthians 7:6 But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7:7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. 7:8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 7:9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
There was apparently some kind of distress or even persecution that was happening with the Corinthians that gave Paul the wisdom to declare that some should remain as he was – single.
1Corinthians 7:26 I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.
Again, not a universal truth, but a specific truth within a certain context. Paul says that if remaining unmarried is too difficult, then it is better to go ahead and get married than to burn (be consumed with lust and led astray thereby).
So, what do we see about divorce? It seems that God’s intention for the husband is to permit the divorce (disunion) of his wife should she be unfaithful to him. God pictures this in the Old Testament when Israel is likened unto His wife and He divorces her for her unfaithfulness (Jeremiah 3:8; The book of Hosea). This is pretty much it. The idea here is not to look to the Bible to give permission for divorce (like it also doesn’t give permission for marriage), but is to recognize how the Bible records God’s desires for marriage and what He ultimately sees as a justifiable reason to separate the marriage. Even within 1Corinthians 7, there are other scenarios that Paul explores (like if the husband is a believer but the wife is not or vice versa – the marriage isn’t unholy or void in this case, but it means that the believing partner is to become the means by which the unbelieving partner can come to Christ). Even in the event where the wife leaves her husband, Paul says that the husband is not to put away his wife, but she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. In other words, the husband is not to enact the legal process of divorce should his wife leave him. (1Corinthians 7:10-11).
If we understand God’s grand desire for union (“…what God hath joined together…”), then it would naturally follow that the causes for a justifiable divorce would be few. But, why? Disregarding the physical and emotional strife that arises out of divorce, why would it be that God favors union over disunion? Certainly as He is a united being (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), His nature is not of disunion. But, beyond this, it seems that the dissolving of a marriage union is the spiritual antithesis to God Himself. For the sake of space, I’ll not post the scripture, but read through Deuteronomy 22:13-24. Admittedly, there is some weird stuff being spoken of here, but I want you to take notice of the phrase “put away.” This phrase is often used in scripture as a synonym for divorce. I’ll list the different examples:
- If a man takes a wife and he accuse her of not being a virgin (read the account to know more) and it be found that he is wrong, then he is not permitted to put away his wife.
- If a man takes a wife and he accuses her of not being a virgin and it is found to be true, the woman is to be taken to her father’s house and stoned to death so that the EVIL could be PUT AWAY from Israel. His is a woman who lived harlotous and as a shame to her father, that is where the death sentence was to be carried out. But, this served to DIVORCE Israel from EVIL.
- If a single man has an affair with a married woman, they are both to be put to death in order to PUT AWAY EVIL from Israel.
- If a virgin is engaged and sleeps with another man, they are both to be put to death in order to PUT AWAY EVIL from Israel. This, by the way, is why we read of Joseph’s thoughts about Mary in Matthew 1:18-19. Mary was engaged (betrothed) to Joseph and if she had a child in her, as far as Joseph knew, she had been unfaithful to her betrothal. But, Joseph determines to PUT HER AWAY privately so as to not draw attention to the matter. But, the angel shows up to Joseph and convinces him otherwise.
Did you notice all of the DEATH that was prescribed and that it served to PUT AWAY or to DIVORCE or to SEVER or to SEPARATE Israel from evil? This is why God’s desire for marriage is that it remain intact. Every time a marriage takes place, two lives become one life. And, it is in the newness of that one life that both husband and wife live and breath and grow. (Same idea between the believer and Christ). We have life in Christ because He resurrected to life. Our union with His life is what is our life (Colossians 3:2). For God to separate us from His life would result in a spiritual reality of death. There is no life apart from Christ. Marriage is the human picture of our spiritual reality as believers. But, should we divorce our spouses, it separates the spouses from the one (UNIFIED) life they had. Two become one in marriage, but you cannot divide one in half and get two again. Just as adultery represents a flippancy with a solemn union, so too Divorce represents a flippancy with the one life that the marriage created. Just as Christ has joined us to Himself in union, so too should believers keep that reality as the thread that weaves their marriages together.
What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.