Someone recently forwarded me an article called ‘When Divorce is Good and Holy‘ and asked for my thoughts. I don’t typically respond to other people’s posts publicly but when I read this one, I felt a strong sense of urgency within my own heart to reply. When it comes to issues like marriage, which are so close to the heart of God, we need to think very carefully.
The premise of the article is simple: If Jesus upholds divorce as a legitimate option then we ought to view it as good and holy, when carried out according to his teaching. Therefore, we ought to stop criticizing those who want a divorce (for legitimate reasons like pornography use, etc.), and we must stop compelling them to stay in the marriage as if it is the only thing that would please God. In fact, the author goes one step further: He even asserts that when divorce is upheld as the good and holy option that it is, divorce rates and pornography use will decline.
I take several issues with that line of thinking. A few of them are outlined below.
1. The Law Never, Never, Never Empowers Righteousness
Hard temporal consequences for our sin can slow and stop our pursuits of sin. Perhaps evangelical divorce rates would actually decline.
This teaching is essentially functioning according to a law & sanction system. If you break the law, you will suffer the consequences. The thought is that potential enforcement of the law will bring change.
Now, the law teaches righteousness inasmuch as it shows us God’s hatred for sin and love for what is just. But the law is powerless to bring about holiness. In fact, the power of sin is the law (1 Cor 15.56) and it brings death.
Does the law have an effect in slowing the progress of sin? Yes, it certainly can (though it can have the opposite effect too, cf. Rom 7.7-11). But are we only looking for changed behaviour or changed hearts? If we are seeking changed hearts, is law sufficient?
What good did the threat of law-enforcement do Israel? Certainly, she didn’t immediately become like the nations around her. But eventually, she did. The progress of sin was slowed, but the hearts of the people were unchanged. And that’s simply not good enough.
It is only through free grace, welcome, reconciliation, and forgiveness, that hearts are won and changed. Grace gives life; the law kills. If the end goal is the changed heart of the sinning spouse, rather than simply behaviour change, shouldn’t we aim for grace?
If bad spouses are going to become good spouses we don’t need the law hung over our heads so much grace held in front of our eyes.
2. ‘Freedom to Choose’ Apart from Elders’ Counsel Is Not Our Goal
Certainly it will comfort and deliver women from a bondage to men when they know that they are protected by their pastors and elders in their God-given freedom of choice.
Here’s the trouble with this: Making the offended party feel loved by giving them the ‘freedom of choice’ is not our ultimate goal as pastors. More than making them feel loved, our goal is to actually love. Yes, that means listening with compassion, counselling with patience, feeling genuine hatred for sin, standing up for the oppressed, and more. But it also means speaking truth.
Which brings us to the next point…
3. This Is a Bad Understanding of Jesus’ Words
In the well-known passage on marriage and divorce found in Matthew 19:1-9, with its corollary in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus clearly retains the abiding legitimacy of divorce for marital unfaithfulness–as he had already done in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:32 [sic: should be Matt. 5:32]).
The disciples’ response in Matthew 19 was that the standard was too tough. Jesus’ upholding of the scriptural limitation on escape from marriage to occasions where the marriage covenant of fidelity was broken seemed too restrictive for them.
There are several problems here. For one, in Mark 10 Jesus does not make any exception clause like the one the author is referring to. He does not retain the abiding legitimacy of divorce that the author asserts in Mark (nor in Luke 16.18 for that matter).
With regard to the passages in Matthew, I’ve written at length about this on another page, so I won’t belabor the point here. But I just don’t see this as being consistent with the heart (or even the words) of Jesus’ teaching on divorce.
The aim of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew is to insist that ‘from the beginning,’ this [allowance for divorce] was not so.’ God made the two one flesh and this was not to be undone by man. Rather, Moses permitted divorce (not upheld it as good and holy) because of their ‘hardness of hearts’ (not ‘freedom of choice between godly options’).
I’m happy to debate all day long about the syntax, vocabulary, and logic of the nuances of the argument on divorce and remarriage, but what grieves me is to see people so clearly missing that one option grieves God and is permissible only because of hardness of heart, while the other option so clearly reflects his heart in the very gospel itself. Which is where we turn next…
4. We’ve Transitioned to a Covenant Defined by Indefatigable Forgiveness in an Indissoluble Marriage
Moses made allowances for hardness of heart which led to divorce in the older covenant. That covenant was also marked by it’s representatives’ bad marriages (Adam, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.). And that’s to say nothing of the marriage laws for the people of Israel which, in many cases, still make us wince to read.
What’s clear is that God’s desires for his people in marriage, though revealed from the beginning of creation, were lessened in that covenant on account of hardness of heart. With the clarity of the gospel and the coming of the new covenant, we now understand the mystery: ‘One flesh’ ultimately speaks of Christ and his bride.
The basis of our reconciliation with God is that in the face of our spiritual adultery, our groom refused (and refuses still!) to leave us. Our groom chose death rather than divorce, and that’s the only reason we belong to God. Apart from that forgiveness, and apart from Christ’s willing marital union to a whore of a bride, we are lost. 1
Throughout the Scriptures, aren’t steadfast love and covenant faithfulness the hallmarks of our God? And doesn’t the gospel show us that more clearly than ever?
So What Are We Left with?
Do we need to take more time to understand the wounded party when marital unfaithfulness has occurred? Yes. Do we need to make sure that people are not stigmatized for divorce within the church (especially when we don’t know the story!)? Absolutely.
If that was all this article was attempting to say, then I would be in agreement. Since it began, however, with the premise that both pornography use and divorce rates would decline if divorce was upheld as good and godly, I cannot agree.
The fear that free grace will be abused is found in the New Testament only in the mouths of the opponents of Jesus & Paul, never in their preaching or teaching. Yet it is just that kind of fear that permeates this article. The thundering of the law does not melt the heart; only grace and forgiveness do. And only steadfast love and mercy in the face of full assault, offence, and even covenantal infidelity truly displays the genuinely covenantal love of our Saviour for his bride.
Upholding divorce as good and godly won’t sanctify Christians; it will confuse us.
Upholding divorce as godly will never result in more sanctified marriages. That can only be accomplished by upholding and displaying the gospel of grace, which is the power of God unto righteousness.
- Please note that I am in no way advocating that women or men should remain in situations where there is a real threat of physical harm. The wise, prudent, and best option in cases of physical threat (and many other cases as well) is for immediate and indefinite separation. Please, please seek counsel from your pastor who knows you and loves you. ↩