Divorce, The What If's
In the previous post of this series I discussed the need for the church to be uncompromising in its proclamation against divorce, but caring toward those who have experienced divorce. Our message needs to be direct, yet personal. The personal, caring side of our proclamation comes in the “what if’s?” Married couples shouldn’t divorce. But what if there is abuse? What if there is adultery? What if there is addiction that could lead a family into financial ruin? What if both parties agree that they are not happy together and they agree to an amicable divorce? What if a person doesn’t want to divorce but their spouse leaves them anyway? Are the people of the “what if’s” forever condemned? Does the Bible have anything to say to the “what if’s?”
The Bible does have some “what if” clauses: Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. In Matthew 5:31-22 and 19:9 Jesus adds an “except” to what is recorded in Mark 10. The exception here is sexual immorality. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says that if a person is married to an unbeliever and the unbelieving party separates, “let it be so.” Without trying to be lengthy or overly academic, what do we do with the “what if’s?”
1. Even in the “what if” passages the overriding principle is that couples should not divorce. If we rightly interpreted these “what if’s” and did with them what God said, divorce would be rare. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul is admonishing a couple to stay married for the sake of the gospel. The believing wife or husband becomes a valuable witness of God’s grace and forgiveness to the unbelieving spouse. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul offers his own “what if.” “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife (1 Corinthians 7:16)?” What if?
2. The “what if” passages are not intended to give us reasons why we SHOULD divorce. These passages are not the paperwork you need to help you decide to divorce. These passages are the paperwork you need if divorce happens. These passages do not give one permission to divorce. These passages give permission for one who is divorced to move on.
In Mark 10, which is the occasion of this series of posts, the Pharisees point to Deuteronomy 24 as an exception clause for divorce. Jesus corrects their faulty interpretation and points out that this Mosaic rule existed only because of their hardness of heart. In other words, God, Moses, and Jesus know that in a far from ideal world divorce happens. Deuteronomy 24, Matthew 5, 19, and 1 Corinthians 7 do not exist so that people “can” divorce, these passages exist because people “do” divorce. Because divorce happens God gave us simple directives for life post marriage. In the cultural context of Moses and Jesus, post divorce life was chaotic, confusing, and often not conducive to recovery. Husbands would reclaim their wives, challenge their wife’s next marriage, or in twisted, filthy ways, try to guilt them into accepting their sexually deviant lifestyle. Our culture is very similar. The most difficult part of divorce is not the paper work, but the succeeding dance of mental and emotional manipulation by one or both parties. Because God has a heart for people; single, married, and divorced, He gave us measures of grace that would help those devastated by divorce- close the book and move on. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” The language fits the context. The gospel is the emancipation of the soul. When applied it leads the soul suffering from divorce into freedom and righteousness.
3. We should be careful not to make the mistake of believing that God allows, condones, or blesses divorce. Many make a grave error of assuming that because these “what if” passages exist, that at times, it is God’s will for a marriage to end in divorce. The truth is that it is never God’s will for a marriage to end in divorce. This is the plain teaching of Scripture and the “what if” passages. It is God’s will for marriages to demonstrate the gospel. God’s will is for man and wife to become one. It is God’s will for the unbelieving spouse to be saved, the addicted one to be sober, the abusive one to repent of sin and begin to demonstrate sacrificial love. It is God’s will for marriages to be saved. It is also God’s will for those who have suffered divorce to find healing in the gospel. This is why the “what if” passages exist. They do not bless divorce. The “what if” passages give the divorced a place to find peace and healing.
4. Unhappiness is not grounds for divorce. I mention this only because the Pharisees did in Matthew 19:3 and people still do. The common line is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” I often hear couples manipulate Scripture (namely the “what if” passages) and God’s will to justify divorce. “Any reason at all” is usually something like, “I don’t believe it is God’s will for us to be this unhappy together.” Right on! It is not God’s will for you to have a horrible marriage, but this does not then make it God’s will for you to divorce. God’s will is for an unhappy couple to surrender to God’s will, love one another, and demonstrate the gospel in their marriage. Matthew 19:4-6 is God’s will!
As long as there are people there will be a need for “what if’s.” Life is not neatly packaged, nor is it ideal. Our God is uncompromising, but He is not heartless. He has demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners (addicted, untruthful, divorced, unfaithful, heartless, greedy, uncaring, etc.) Christ died for us. Life is full of “what if.” The gospel has it covered.