This sermon is number 3 in a series of 5
101 Christian Questions - Part 3
"Divorce and Remarriage"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2009 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Well, thank you and good evening to you all again. It's good to be with you once more. We have traversed now two evenings past, looking at questions related to 'The Problem of Evil', and last night - I can hardly even remember what it was - yes, questions to do with learning the Bible and personal assurance. As I said, I received many questions from yourselves that really fell into four categories. Tomorrow evening's are all related to the afterlife: heaven, hell, and the big one that often many believers are asking, 'Will we know one another in heaven?'. But tonight's was really only one question with several questions in it related to the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Because it's such a big one, I think we needed the whole night to look at it.
So let us consider - now, before, let me make a few remarks, caveats and 'health warnings'. This is a very controversial subject, as I'm sure you're aware. Not least because it affects all our lives in one way or another - if not directly because we have been divorced or remarried ourselves, but indirectly some of our friends and family, I'm sure, will have. It is not my intention, far from it, to unnecessarily cause further pain or annoyance; because I am aware, having dealt with some people, the great anguish and tragedy that this whole issue involves. However, questions have been asked, and questions must be answered. I have to also say that there must not be any 'no-go areas' in our lives where we prohibit the word of God applying. That is important, because there is a danger in the day and age in which we live that we protect little areas and say, 'Well, that's too painful to allow God's Word to shine upon'.
There are other reasons why we must answer these questions that are being asked regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage - also for the young people's sake we must encounter it. Our young people - whether or not you are aware, and I'm sure you are - are growing up in, not an immoral society, but an amoral society, which means there are no morals. It is vital that our young people get instruction, in particular regarding family issues and marriage in particular. But not just for the benefit of our young people, but for couples who are struggling in the midst of the church - they need counsel and they need help. Where else are Christians going to get that but from God's Word? Also churches need direction, because churches not only are finding themselves in the midst of this amoral society, but they're facing changing laws on a regular basis, and of course the challenge of evangelism. The evangelistic field that we are called upon by our Lord to go into and reap is rampant with immorality and amorality, and so the church needs direction in these issues.
Let me also say that, among Bible believing Christians, there is a difference of opinion regarding the issue of divorce and remarriage. Take it from me, good and godly men and women disagree on this issue. So your view on divorce and remarriage does not reflect upon your spirituality. Neither does it reflect upon your knowledge or aptitude in the word of God. This issue is a very important issue, but we must keep all things in perspective. It is not an all important issue, and it is certainly not a fundamental issue. A good dose of humility all round would be welcome in many debates in evangelicalism, not least this one. I'm reminded of Harry Ironside, a great Bible teacher from years ago, and he was doing a lecture or something on a particular controversial subject. A man in the gathering vehemently disagreed with him, and came up to him afterwards and went at him. Ironside's response was very very gracious, he said: 'Brother, when we get to heaven we may find out the answer, and perhaps I will discover that I was wrong'. I thought that was lovely. He held his opinion with conviction, but humbly acknowledged that none of us have a monopoly of the truth. I think Augustine's adage is relevant in this regard, and indeed in many regards that are debated in evangelicalism: 'In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity'. Amen?
Now, let me add to that the fact that I believe there are too many spoon-fed Christians in the church. By that I mean, they want to be told what they should believe. If you've come here tonight to be told what you should believe about marriage, divorce and remarriage - well, you're going to be disappointed. Because I want you - and this is not a copout...it might be slightly, but I'm trying to convince myself it's not! I want you to engage in the exercise of the Bereans. The Bereans were commended in Acts 17 verse 11, because it says they were 'more fairminded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so'. Often that is supposed to be that they're very commendable because they critiqued and analysed everything that the apostle Paul said, and that is not the sense, I think, of that statement. The sense is: they were more fair-minded - they didn't just react to what Paul was saying with their prejudices and their tastes and their traditions that they had grown up with as Jews. Rather they tested it according to the scriptures, and they searched out the thing themselves.
Now, I want you, with me tonight, to survey the biblical material regarding divorce and remarriage - but you, along with me, you must come to a conclusion. I say with Paul in Romans 14: 'Let each be fully convinced in his own mind'. That's important, because I fear in these days in which we live that believers don't search and study the scriptures as they should. They don't come to conclusions, they usually just swallow whatever they have been taught from their youth, and whatever denomination or particular Christian sect they have grown up in - and that's not good enough.
Now the question that I have been given tonight is, and I'll quote it verbatim: 'Is divorce and remarriage ever acceptable to God? e.g. in the case of the wronged party, a victim of desertion or adultery, irretrievable breakdown, or someone who had not been a Christian when married the first time and subsequently becomes a Christian, and then perhaps marries a Christian. What about if such a person goes on, perhaps, to serve the Lord in a full-time capacity? Is that acceptable?'. Now, we're going to give the whole night to attempt to answer these in course. I'm not going to answer them each specifically, the ground we will cover hopefully obviously will answer them. But I want to do it under four general headings: first of all, I want us to lay down the biblical ideal - what the Bible teaches about marriage, divorce and remarriage. We're going to take a bit of time to do that. Then we will look at an apparent exception to that Biblical ideal - some of you may already be aware of what that is. Then on a more practical note, I want us to consider a pastoral dilemma and an evangelical challenge - and those will be self-explanatory when we come to them.
So let's deal first of all with the biblical ideal. So we're turning in our Bibles to Matthew's gospel chapter 19 to the words of our Lord, verse 1 of Matthew 19: "Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?' And He answered and said to them, 'Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them 'male and female', and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate'. They said to Him, 'Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?' He said to them, 'Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery'. His disciples said to Him, 'If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry'".
Now, what the Lord Jesus is doing here in answer to this question of the Pharisees is, He is laying down the biblical ideal - and that's what we need to discern first and foremost. The biblical ideal, as the Lord cites, is that from the beginning divorce was never God's will for mankind. Speaking to these Pharisees, the Lord makes it clear - and He is appealing now, if you look at it carefully, to the divine order of creation - that in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and His intention was that for life they would cleave to one another and no man would separate. Now the Pharisees were asking this question of the Lord, testing Him, because there were two schools of thought among the Jews at this particular time regarding divorce and remarriage. They all hung upon the interpretation of a phrase in Deuteronomy chapter 24, and so it would be good for us to turn to that just now for a moment.
Deuteronomy 24, and of course you know that this is where the Jews - particularly the Pharisees, these lawyers - taught the people from, God's law. Here is a law concerning divorce, verse 1 of Deuteronomy 24: 'When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because' - and here's the phrase - 'he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance'.
Now that instruction is simply that if a man divorces his wife, and that wife goes on to marry another man, and say that other man then subsequently divorces her again, or he dies - she is not permitted, according to God's law, to return to her first husband. But in the course of this whole teaching, the initial reason for divorce is indicated: 'she finds no favour', verse 1, 'in his eyes because he has', and here's the phrase, 'found some uncleanness in her'. So the Pharisees debated: what was this, this uncleanness in her? The two different schools interpreted that phrase, 'some uncleanness', two different ways. Now let me say this, this is significant: this is the only passage in the Old Testament stating the grounds and procedures regarding divorce. Jesus goes on to explain in Matthew 19, where we read from, that Moses gave this divorce law because of the sinfulness of the human heart, the hardness of the people's heart. As you study this, you find out that this law was probably more likely given to protect the wife from being discarded by the husband like a piece of furniture at the husband's whim. Because if she was just thrown out of the home, no other man would marry her, and she would be left defenceless - and in that society of those days she probably would have become a social outcast and be treated like a harlot. So because of the wicked sinfulness of the Jew's heart at this particular time, Moses, it seems, gave this certificate of divorcement in order that the woman would not have to go to such extremes, and would then be allowed to legally remarry and be saved from all these predicaments. But the point is: this was a legal injunction, and the Lord Jesus said it was admitted by Moses because of the hardness of people's hearts - but this was not God's highest thought regarding marriage from the beginning.
Now the two schools of thought among the Jews were the school of Rabbi Hillel, and the school of Rabbi Shammai. Now Rabbi Hillel had a lenient interpretation of this 'some uncleanness'. In fact, the Lord indicates it in verse 3 of chapter 19 of Matthew, or it's indicated by the Pharisee's question: 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?' - and that's basically summing up the school of Rabbi Hillel. He believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason - even burning of food, walking about with her hair down, speaking to men on the street publicly, or speaking disrespectfully of her husband's parents in his presence - that would get a lot of you women into trouble, wouldn't it?! In fact, Rabbi Akiba, who was of the School of Hillel, went further to say that the phrase in Deuteronomy 24, 'find no favour in his eyes', meant a man could divorce his wife if he found another woman who was more beautiful! That's what he taught. Now before some of you men join the school of Rabbi Hillel, just wait till I finish the message tonight!
There was an alternative, of course, Rabbi Shammai - and he was more strict in his interpretation of 'some uncleanness'. He believed this referred to some premarital sin, or something indecent in sexual conduct that was found in the wife. So there's the two basic views - the view that basically said you could divorce your wife for any reason, and then the view that said, no, it has to be some sexual immorality. But please note, and this is very interesting, and I don't want to build too much on this just now, but neither of these schools believed that Moses gave this certificate of divorcement for the cause of adultery. The reason being, the law is clear that the penalty for adultery is not divorce, it is stoning. So these Jews were not debating over what the penalty for adultery was, it was for 'some uncleanness' - whatever that may have meant - but what we are sure of is that, in Jesus' day, the Jews were not allowed to use capital punishment because in their own land they were governed by the Romans, and they forbade it in their legal system for the Jews to exercise that. So it seems that in Jesus' day what was the penalty for adultery was death, according to the law, but they couldn't put anybody to death so they substituted the death penalty with divorce. Are you with me?
Now, that is the context wherein Jesus says: 'It was not this way from the beginning...and I say to you...', and then the Lord Jesus gives His instruction. Now, let's move to the present day for a moment before we draw any conclusions. Modern views concerning divorce and remarriage mostly revolve around this question: 'When is it OK to divorce and remarry?'. I personally fear that when we get taken up with this issue of when is it OK to divorce and remarry, that we are in danger of missing the whole point of Jesus' teaching. Indeed, we may even fall into the trap and the pit that the Pharisees found themselves in. Now what do I mean by that? Well, let me quote to you a writer by the name of Tom Hovestol, commenting on the Lord's warning in the Sermon on the Mount about oath-taking. He says this: 'We live in a culture today in which promises and commitments, even solemnly made ones, are routinely broken. Our wedding ceremonies, baptism rituals, infant dedications, and church membership covenants, to varying degrees, include pious oaths which we cavalierly break. Every divorce is a major violation of the promise 'Till death us do part'. However, we spend most of our theological energy debating when it is OK to break our promises. We are like the Pharisees, seeking loopholes. We are masters at the art of evasion'.
You see, really what Hovestol, I think, is getting at is that marriage is more than a contract, it is a covenant - biblically that is how it is set forth. Princess Diana cited, I think, in her divorce papers that there were three in her marriage. Well, there ought to be three in every marriage, and the third ought to be God. When we make our vows, we make them not just with each other, but before God. He enters into covenant with us as married couples. So, really the point I'm getting at is that we need to be very careful in this whole regard - whilst we want answers to the question - that we don't fall into this trap of asking: 'How far can I go and be OK with God?'. Rather we should be asking: 'How near to God can I get, and how obedient can I get?' - and there's a world of difference.
Now we need to consider this because of the impact, the obvious impact that divorce has had on society. Whenever I perform a marriage ceremony, one of the preambles to the vows is: 'It was ordained for the welfare of human society, which can be strong and happy only where the marriage bond is held in honour'. To put it very bluntly, because God's order has been rejected by our society, our society is beginning to crumble - perhaps no longer around the edges, but at its very core. So we must be clear on this issue because of the impact, obviously, that it's having on society. Equally so, more personally, there's an obvious impact it is having on the family. Often in this whole debate, the children - if there are children involved - are ignored, and yet they are often the ones who suffer the most when there is divorce. Pat Conroy, in her book 'Death by Marriage', recites her personal experience regarding her family. She says, I quote, 'There are not metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce. To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them that you're mutilating their family, and changing all their tomorrows', she says, 'it felt as though I had doused my entire family with gasoline and struck a match'.
If you know anything about this, you will know how painful this can be - especially for children. Not only is there a great impact of this issue upon society and the family, but also upon the witness of the church. This may surprise some of you, but statistics from every source tell us that Christians are more or less clones of our secular culture, and in some cases even worse when it comes to divorce and remarriage. According to George Barna's research quite recently, born-again Christians are now slightly more likely to divorce than the general population. There is more divorce among the church than there is, in fact, among those who would call themselves atheists.
Now that is troubling, because it would indicate to us that our society has grown more comfortable with divorce, so have many Christians. But in the context of what I'm sharing with you tonight from Matthew 19, this at least, at the very least, betrays a serious misunderstanding regarding the biblical ideal for a marriage that God has given us. Whilst there are many aspects of this whole subject that may be unclear as we will see, one thing is clear: God's ideal, the biblical ideal for marriage, is one man and one woman who remain married until the union is broken at death. Now let me just reinforce that for you: Paul agrees, of course, with our Lord Jesus in Romans chapter 7, if you will turn with me to that. Romans chapter 7 and verses 2 and 3: 'For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man' - that is the biblical ideal.
In fact, in Malachi 2 and verse 16, God very explicitly says that He hates divorce. The reason why divorce has had to exist is because the devil hates marriage. Now, we could spend a whole night on that - but the reason why the devil hates marriage is found in Ephesians chapter 5, that the whole marriage bond between a husband and a wife is typifying, picturing the union between Christ and His church. That is something that was envisaged before the foundation of the world, as we thought about on Tuesday evening. We often think that God sort of adopts human terminology in order that we might understand - and I might touch on this tomorrow night - but it's the opposite that is the truth. Actually many of the experiences of our life that God has ordained are in order to reflect spiritual truths in heaven on earth, and here's one of them. That's why the devil wants to wreck marriage as an institution, because it signifies Christ and His love for the church.
So let's recap a little here. In Matthew 19 Jesus says: 'Look, Moses may have allowed divorce because of the hardness of the human heart' - that is, if I can put it another way, Moses allowed the certificate of divorcement because of the failure of God's people to understand God's purpose in marriage. But Jesus made it very clear that it was not this way from the beginning and, more than that, He indicates very plainly that the kingdom of God demands a lifelong faithfulness to one partner, because that was God's original plan from creation. That is the reason for verse 10, His disciples listening to this - and remember they have the context of these two groups of rabbis and religious lawyers debating one another - they want to know which side He's going to take. He just cuts above all that, and He doesn't side with the group that say for any cause, and He doesn't side with the group that say necessarily for immorality, but He seems to come to the higher principle. He says: 'This is not the way it was from the beginning: one man, one woman, for life' - and the disciples are aghast in verse 10, and say to Him, 'If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry'! So that reaction gives us a clue to how the Lord Jesus was setting down the biblical ideal.
Of course, that being said, there is an apparent exception to that biblical ideal. We have it here in verse 9 of chapter 19, 'I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality', or 'fornication' literally is the term used there, 'and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery'. In fact, you have a very similar statement with this, what has come to be known as 'an exception clause', in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 and verse 32. Now, though the Lord Jesus has established the ideal, it appears now He cites an exception to that ideal - literally sexual immorality, verse 9, or fornication. But of course, as you could already have guessed, there's a great debate over what this term actually means. I'll give you the different views.
One view believes that this term 'fornication' is indicating unfaithfulness during the betrothal period between a Jewish young man and Jewish young woman. Now, the Jewish betrothal period was a bit like our engagement but was much more legal and binding. The only way you could get out of it was if there was unfaithfulness found in the wife, particularly, because it doesn't seem that the woman had the rights that she might have in this day and age. To give you an illustration of this, if you turn to Matthew chapter 1 - and it's interesting that Matthew should be the one to give us this example - Matthew chapter 1 verses 18 and 19, related to Mary and Joseph, you have this illustrated. 'Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together', there it is. They were betrothed, so there was an established bind between them, but they had not come together, they had not consummated the relationship and they had not been officially married - but this was something stronger than engagement. Before they had come together in a fully fledged marriage, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Now, look at the reaction of Joseph in verse 19: 'Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly'. He was minded to divorce her on the quiet.
So to break up this espousal was technically a divorce, because it was so legally binding. Now those who believe that this is referring, this fornication in verse 9 of chapter 19, is referring to unfaithfulness during the betrothal period believe that this little exception clause, 'except for sexual immorality', 'except for fornication', it really only applies to Jews - because Jews were the ones who had this particular custom. They explain this further by saying that we only find this exception clause in Matthew's gospel, although it is there twice it's only in Matthew's - and most accept that Matthew's gospel is the gospel that was written specifically to the Jews. When we go to Mark's dealing with divorce and remarriage he doesn't mention it, neither does Luke, and neither do any of the epistles. So the assumption is made that this is specifically for Jews, it doesn't refer to Gentiles, and therefore there are no exceptions for Gentiles because we don't have this espousal practice.
So that's one view, and it's a view, I have to say, that I have had. But the second explanation of this so-called 'exception clause' allows divorce and remarriage on the grounds of sexual immorality, and they interpret 'sexual immorality' as any sexual misdemeanour and impropriety after marriage. But even among those who believe that, and I think that's probably the majority view among evangelicals, there is not agreement as to what this actually is. Some think one instance of unfaithfulness is grounds enough, and other scholars believe that it is more a persistent lifestyle of unfaithfulness - and it's very hard to pin down. I have to admit to you that I find these matters very difficult to come to conclusions on myself.
Now here's the point at which I want to really try to bring all this together to be helpful - we want to be helpful tonight. Even if this phrase 'fornication', 'sexual immorality', does mean 'sexual unfaithfulness' after marriage, it is certainly not a command. It is a concession, it is not a pronouncement, it is permitted. Even upon this, even if this is what you believe about this exception clause, it cannot be argued that divorce is mandated in the New Testament - in other words, that you have to get a divorce if your spouse is unfaithful to you. That really brings me back to the biblical ideal that our Lord Jesus laid down in keeping with the whole spirit of the word of God, and that is that one man joined to one woman ought to do all in their power by the power of God in their life, if they are Christians, to stay together 'till death us do part'. So the Christian ideal for marriage is staying together, and the Christian ideal for infidelity in marriage is not divorce, but rather reconciliation.
You'll hear maybe a lot of sermons, maybe not a lot, but you'll find quite a few on the whole subject of divorce and remarriage - and that's legitimate, we're doing it tonight - but you'll perhaps find very few messages on the reconciliation between those who have been unfaithful, or one who has been unfaithful to another. Really what the Lord is saying in Matthew 19 and, I believe, in all the Gospels, is that the standard of the kingdom of God is even higher than the standard of Israel. It's even higher than any other standard in society, and it ought to be - though I wouldn't like to be in the position, and I don't know how I would react if I were - but it ought to be the case. I have, I have to say, I have dealt with people who have known unfaithfulness and their marriage has almost fallen apart - and yet, by the grace and the miraculous supernatural power of God, they have been enabled to allow God's grace to bring healing, reconciliation and forgiveness. Now it's very hard to ever bring that trust and fidelity back again, but nevertheless: we live in a broken world, we are all broken people, we have broken relationships - and this is what God's people have been called to. Even if it's permitted if such an occurrence happens, this is the ideal - and I don't think there's any argument with that. Even if you add to it 1 Corinthians chapter 6, where Paul rebuked the Corinthians for going to court with one another, well, that brings another bearing on the whole regard as well, doesn't it?
No matter what view you take, by the way, in my reading and study of this there are concerns right across the board that Christians are divorcing one another all too readily. R. Kent Hughes says: 'Too often men and women eagerly pounce on the infidelity of their mate as the opportunity to get out of a relationship they haven't liked anyway. It's so easy to look for a way out instead of working through the problems'.
So that's the exception clause in Matthew, and whatever conclusion you come to regarding it, we must always come back to the biblical ideal: God wants us to make marriage work for life. Some might say: 'Well, what about 1 Corinthians chapter 7?', and this is what I think our questioner was alluding to when he mentioned 'desertion'. Is it justified to permit divorce on the grounds of desertion? First Corinthians 7 and verses 12 to 16 - and by the way, let me say, that I didn't enquire of what the church's view here is on divorce and remarriage deliberately, because I wanted to try and be as balanced as possible in dealing with the biblical data. I also want to respect the teaching of your overseers, whatever that may or may not be - but I'm wanting to bring you the information as honestly as I can, and the conclusions that I have come to as far as a feel I can in that context, and allow you to make your mind up.
So 1 Corinthians 7, what does this mean? Verse 12: 'But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her'. So let's just make sure we understand this scenario here. A guy get saved, and his wife remains unsaved, and she wants to stay with him. Paul says, if that's the case, 'Brother, you stay with her, don't divorce her'. Then in verse 13, 'And a woman who has a husband', the same situation, 'who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her', same with the wife, 'let her not divorce him'. Verse 14: 'For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy'. We'll not go into that, that's a whole subject on its own. Verse 15: 'But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife'.
Now, it's this verse 15: 'But if the unbeliever departs, let him or her depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace'. Now some interpret that verse to say that, therefore, divorce is acceptable when a believer is deserted by an unbeliever. They interpret when it says 'not under bondage in such cases', that Paul was really saying he or she is free to obtain a divorce for desertion. That is one view, it's quite a common view these days. But some also believe that this case mentioned here is exactly the same as the exception clause in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, in this regard: that it's more than likely that the unbeliever, when they depart, will probably go and link up with someone else. They feel that adultery here is inferred - well, I'm not sure that you can infer that, but nevertheless it's one view. Then there are others who believe that this is a difficult passage of Scripture, and that 'not under bondage' is not the same as divorce. If Paul wanted to use the word 'divorce' - he had used it, perhaps, before - but there was nothing stopping him being unambiguous. They believe it is too shaky a foundation to establish a practice of divorce and remarriage on this term 'not bound'. They would say that 'not bound' may simply mean that, well, if you get saved and your spouse walks out on you, well, you're not expected to try and maintain a relationship that has clearly broken down and is over.
Now, the passage may well be used to countenance the possibility of separation when things do get difficult in these circumstances, when someone, perhaps, is converted, and a wife or a husband isn't. But I think you'll agree with me: whatever view you establish yourself, it's difficult, isn't it? It's certainly not black-and-white, and I find myself - whilst I may have been very dogmatic on these issues in the past - I find less and less being able to be too dogmatic, whilst I have my own personal views. But the question begs - and the asker didn't ask this one, but he should have - why didn't the Bible make it more clear? Well, I think it did - now you say, 'You're talking out of both sides of your mouth now! You're contradicting yourself'. Well, I think if the Lord wanted us to get too bogged down with all these minutia, He would have made these secondary aspects clearer - this is only my opinion - but what He did make abundantly clear was: it was not this way from the beginning, and the biblical, Christian, kingdom of God ideal is one man, one woman, for life, until death. So whatever school you come down on regarding this exception clause - and you have liberty to do that - the Bible is clear. I don't think God ever desires for a man and a woman to break up. Please be careful not to misrepresent me, I'm not suggesting that a woman should stay in an abusive relationship, I'm not suggesting that for one minute - but as far as the biblical ideal is concerned, I think the Bible is clear on the main thing.
Now, we've looked at the biblical ideal, an apparent exception, but that brings me - and this is where it becomes very personal for me - to a pastoral dilemma and an evangelical challenge. What I mean by 'a pastoral dilemma' is simply this: how do we, in the 21st-century, uphold the biblical ideal, and yet at the same time remain pastorally sensitive to those who have been affected by divorce and remarriage? How do we do that? And how do we remain faithful to the biblical ideal, and also offer grace to people in our world and in our churches who have broken lives affected by this and broken marriages? Now, whatever your answer to that is - how we do it, how we keep this tension - here's my answer: however we do it, we must, we must do it! We must, on the one hand, uphold the biblical ideal for the sake of our children, for the sake of society, for the sake of the witness of the church, for the sake of the integrity of upholding the Bible as the word of God, which is what we believe - but we must be pastorally sensitive to those who have been affected, and we must minister the grace of God to the broken. The reason why we must is: Jesus did!
This is vital, and I feel this is an area that is neglected regarding this whole subject. The Lord was the One who re-established the biblical ideal, irrespective of what Moses consented to in the Old Testament, irrespective of what Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai were teaching, the Lord Jesus was the One who went back to the beginning and established the ideal. But as we look at Him moving and ministering in His life, in individual cases mercy, it seems, transcended the general rules and principles. Are you with me? So He's establishing general radical ideals, but when He meets broken people in broken marriages with broken lives, He ministers grace. Now I could give you a couple of examples - John chapter 4, He meets a woman at a well. In fact, the Bible says He goes out of His way to meet her. He already knew, as it is disclosed in the conversation, that she had been married five times and the chap she was cohabiting with was not her husband at that present time. He uncovered her sin, but He did not condemn her for it - and that is vital - and He offered her living water whereby she would never thirst again. I think the implication is that she had been seeking after satisfaction in human relationships, and she couldn't get it - but Jesus Christ satisfied her in her spirit, and she was born again.
Now the Lord Jesus administered grace to her, whatever the biblical ideal was: she was a broken sinner who needed forgiveness, who needed grace. He didn't condemn her. I remember a man saying to me on one occasion: 'You know there are people who are fit for heaven, but they're not fit for the local assembly' - well, that's poppycock! But apart from that, it's a pity the Lord Jesus wasn't informed of that before He went out of His way to seek out this woman. Now someone might say: 'Ah, but this was before the time the church came into being and so on and so forth' - well, are you really trying to tell me that this woman, after conversion, the Lord had saved her with the knowledge that she wouldn't be admitted into a church in a few years time? Of course, it's ridiculous to suggest such a thing! Everything in our Lord's ministry of grace testifies the opposite.
You come to my favourite story in the New Testament, which is John chapter 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery. Again, the very smell of adultery was on this woman - and, incidentally, she is dragged into the midst of a theological debate, and these Pharisees are talking over her head in theological terms, when there's a broken life in the midst and nobody is taking any attention to her...except the Lord, except the Lord. He convicted them of their sin, and they all disappear, and she is left with Him - now, isn't that interesting? He said: 'Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone', everybody went out from the eldest of the youngest - but she was left with Him. Now she had plenty of sin by the way, but why was she left? Because she understood His grace, she understood that this was a Man who was different than the religious Pharisees, here was a Man who was different than the men that she had known who had taken advantage of her. Here was a Man who was holy, who was truthful, and yet he did not condemn her - and again He says that to her! 'Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more'.
So there's a biblical ideal, but there is a pastoral sensitivity and an offering of grace to those who are affected in this regard. Luke 7 is another one - there's a woman mentioned there, and it's not Mary Magdalene, and it's not Mary of Bethany, she's just called 'a sinner'. We're all sinners of course, but the inference is that she was known as, perhaps, a woman of the night; and people knew her as 'the sinner'. She was forgiven - and I love this story, I love this story - the Lord Jesus knew the illicit kisses that her mouth had given, and yet He allowed her to kiss His feet with those lips. He knew how her hair was a honey trap for many a married man, and yet He allowed her to dry His feet with her hair. He knew the graphic scenes that those eyes had looked upon, and yet He allowed the tears from those eyes to watch His feet. He spoke to her and said: 'Your faith has saved you. Go in peace'.
Now, please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not advocating license here, grace never does. Paul was asked: 'Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?' - never should any non-Christian, or Christian for that matter, think 'Well, I can go and do as I like, and God's going to forgive me anyway'. That is a complete and utter misunderstanding of grace, but I'll tell you this much: Matthew 12:31 says, 'All manner of sin and blasphemy may be forgiven of men', all manner of sin and blasphemy may be forgiven of men. Whilst the biblical ideal is plain, and I believe it very strongly, in the New Testament and in the whole Bible, that God does not want divorce - and I am on the side that thinks God wants us to avoid divorce - but the church, particularly the conservative wing in some sections, have made divorce and divorce and remarriage the unpardonable sin. You could have cohabited with a dozen partners and never married one of them, but if you married one of them and lived in monogamy for 40 years, you're not fit. Now that just doesn't make sense. You could have been a mass murderer in the UVF, and get up in the pulpit and give your testimony - but if you were married a second time and live faithfully to your second husband or second wife, you're not fit. Now that just does not make sense - that makes this particular aspect of life greater and more consequential than anything else, and it just doesn't weigh up when we consider that in Christ, whatever is sin and not, grace, His grace, is greater than all our sin. So there is a pastoral dilemma, but it's a tension that we must strike. We must always preach and uphold and practice the biblical ideal, but in pastoral ministry we must always be sensitive. We must never condemn, because the bottom line is that all of us are adulterers in our heart. Maybe you're the exception, but I'm certainly not. So none of us can condemn.
The dilemma is that we must uphold the ideal, but minister Christ's grace as He did. We must bring these people to Christ! That is the evangelical challenge, because our prospective mission field is rife with this problem and similar domestic problems. It is disingenuous of us to proclaim that we want to reach the lost, but we're not prepared to grapple with their 'issues'. I remember hearing the story - I didn't plan to say this - but Colgate, you know the toothpaste guy, well, he was a Christian businessman many years ago in the States. He was involved heavily in his local church, and they had a real burden - they worshipped downtown, and they had a burden to reach the people around about in the streets who really needed the Lord. They were praying a lot for sinners to get saved - and this is sometimes what happens. The worst sinner in the whole city, a prostitute, got saved. Don't think I'm likening people affected by divorce and remarriage to a prostitute, don't think that at all - but what I'm saying is: the biggest sinner of them all got saved, and the church had a real problem! This woman was baptised and she wanted immediately, which was her right, to come into church fellowship. Of course, when she was brought to the church, everybody started: 'Well, we ought to give her a little bit of time, just make sure that there's a work of God', and all this blarney. Colgate got to his feet, and he said: 'Look, I think we should pray to God', and he said, 'Lord, I think we're going to have to apologise to You, because when we asked You to save sinners, we didn't stipulate to You the type of sinners that we wanted You to save'. It's true, isn't it?
It is disingenuous of us to proclaim that we want to reach the lost, but we're not prepared to grapple with their issues. If we are trying to reach the world, we must live in the real world. I confess to you that I have not for many years. There must always be this balance between grace and truth. Joseph Stowell, in his article 'The Divorce Dilemma', says - listen carefully, this is very good: 'We must keep our commitment to strong families, and still provide welcome and support to those who have been damaged by divorce. Grace that threatens truth is not grace at all', so you must not dilute the biblical ideal, we must not be looking for ways and loopholes and small print for how we can get out of covenants that we have made with a spouse and with the Lord, we must not do that. 'Grace that threatens truth is not grace at all', but equally, 'truth apart from grace requires an impossible goal of perfection'. We don't live in a perfect world - stuff happens! - but there is grace, not only sufficient for our sin, but sufficient for every need.
So biblical idealists, and I am one, must be practical realists. One example of this is that when God made His laws, He did not take our laws into consideration. Do you understand? He didn't put a caveat into each of His laws for the day when, here in our land, now, unlike 60 years ago, you can be divorced against your own will. That used to not be able to happen, but it does happen now. Through no fault of your own your spouse could foist divorce upon you, against your will. Now the church cannot realistically hold that against anyone. 'What about', you might say, and this was mentioned in the question, 'people divorced, and divorced and remarried, before their conversion?'. Well, I know a lot of people and places that have got a real problem with this one - but I don't understand what the problem is at all.
If you turn, and do turn with me, to 1 Corinthians chapter 6 please, and I hope I'm not causing problems for the oversight here - that's not my intention, but I think that the word of God is clear in this regard. First Corinthians 6: 'Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 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 and by the Spirit of our God'. So in that motley crew of transgressors, with the homosexuals and the idol worshippers, are adulterers - and they're accepted into Corinth because they're saved, because they're washed, because by the Spirit of God they have been sanctified and made holy. I think that's clear. If a person has been divorced, or divorced and then remarried, before conversion I don't see why - if they've confessed their sins, He is faithful and just to forgive them - why should we hold it against them?
But then someone will go a step further, as you probably would imagine: what about people divorced, or divorced and remarried, after conversion? Well, this is a more difficult one. Let me say that it's difficult to lay down hard and fast principles and rules, because you find each case often has its own idiosyncratic characteristics. I think each case needs to be dealt with individually. But if sin has been involved, if sin has been involved - for instance, say a professing believer has backslidden for a while, and during that time divorced and remarried - if sin has been involved, and that's a big 'if', because it all comes down to how you understand many aspects to this whole teaching, but I believe that if sin has been involved and it is acknowledged, and there is repentance, and perhaps discipline - perhaps discipline - all of that is with a view to restoration. I don't know anywhere, perhaps with the exception of the other night when we were thinking of the man who was delivered, Paul exhorted Corinth to deliver the man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh that his spirit might be saved - that seems to be him going beyond the pale, and how could any restoration come out of that? But the fact is, in 2 Corinthians, the guy is restored - and so we believe that all church discipline ought to be with the view of restoration. But there must be repentance, and there must, perhaps, be discipline - depending on the circumstances of course, and how you understand it - but I admit that there are problems here. I have not all the answers, but I do believe, I do believe that there is grace for every broken and contrite sinner - I believe that. If I didn't believe that, I would be in trouble!
It's inferred also in the question that, can a person be restored to go on to serve the Lord, even in one of either of these circumstances? Well, I think the answer is yes, that the grace of God can restore them to serve the Lord - because none of us were saved ever to be stuck and sitting about doing nothing. Yet the New Testament is clear that the position of an overseer is prohibited for a person who has been touched by this. Now we've got to bow to God's wisdom in this regard, and you can read about that in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
But that's really all I have to bring to you tonight: the Biblical ideal, an apparent exception, a pastoral dilemma and an evangelical challenge. Let us pray together. Now I'll be honest with you, while your heads bowed, that I had a bit of a dilemma as to whether I should answer that question or not, because there is such a divergence of opinion, and not knowing what was believed here - but I thought that was an advantage in a sense. But you know, it's always been controversial, it was controversial in Jesus' day - but He had to give an answer, and His answer was the ideal. It is controversial today, and we need to give an answer - we need to give an answer! We need to give an answer for the reasons I have cited, and I in no way have desired to hurt or cause pain for anyone affected by this - I hope that you know my heart regarding that. Yet the Holy Spirit may be bringing to some of us issues or inconsistencies, not least mentally. I mean this one fells me immediately: 'You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery': but I say unto you, if any of you look at the woman lustfully, you have committed adultery already in your heart'. That's a great leveller, isn't it? Do you know what God wants? Not people who tick the boxes of people who think they know, God wants a company of broken, contrite sinners who confess their sin and don't cover it - put their hands up and admit their misdemeanours, and take all the grace He has to offer. I believe God is most glorified when we do that, and God is closest to those of a broken heart.
Father, I pray that You will minister Your grace as only Jesus can by the power of the Spirit - Your grace and Your mercy to all our hearts, for we are all broken sinners, every single one of us. Let us never ever take the stance of that Pharisee, saying: 'I am glad, O God, that I am not like other men, sinners, and not like this publican'. Let us be like that tax collector who beat his breast, saying: 'Be merciful to me, a sinner!'. Lord, that's where the grace - that guy, he went home justified - and Lord, I pray that everyone here, whether they are affected directly or indirectly by this, may learn what it is to repent of what needs to be repented, but also learn to embrace the audacious grace of God. Lord, may we as the church not cave in to the pressure of the kingdom of darkness, and let us always uplift - even if our own lives are affected by this - always uplift the Biblical ideal for the good of society, for the good of our families, and for the good of the church and testimony of Jesus; in whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered in the Ards Evangelical Church, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the third recording in his '101 Christian Questions' series, entitled "Divorce and Remarriage" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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