Thoughts on Divorce

This past Sunday, our study in the gospel of Mark led us into chapter 10 and Christ’s very poignant discussion on divorce. I won’t recap it, but you can listen to it here. In addition, the PCA has an official position paper on the topic, and if you want to take the time to read through it you can do so here.

Suffice it to say, Sunday’s sermon has led to a lot of important questions and dialogue. I anticipated this because divorce has become so normative that it is difficult to find anyone not touched by it, and so to have Jesus speak so emphatically against it should cause a stir.

I want to pastorally follow up with some thoughts on the issue of divorce. I said on Sunday that divorce was viewed more as an “in case of emergency” situation, but that we have done what first century Jewish culture was doing and found ways to normalize an emergency clause.

However, it is true that the Bible allows for divorce in certain situations. Our Westminster Confessions of Faith states:

In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead. (24.5)

Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage, yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage. (24.6)

In short, Westminster sums up the Biblical teaching with “nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied…”

The first of these is pretty straightforward. In Matthew’s version of the same passage I preached in Mark, Jesus echoes the Mosaic clause by including “except for sexual immorality,” and this exception is granted throughout Scripture. Simply put, the offended party of an adulterous affair is free to divorce and remarry. That is not to say that adultery automatically necessitates divorce. To the contrary, before divorce is an option, the more difficult path of grace and reconciliation should be pursued. But in the situation of unrepentant adultery with no desire to reconcile, divorce is appropriate.

The confession also uses the language of “willful desertion.” This comes from the wisdom of Paul as he tries to lead the early church through a culture that was as confused and broken about marriage as we are today. What we find in Paul’s epistles (specifically in 1 Corinthians 7) is the clear prioritization of marriage yet the allowance of divorce if the situation is deemed irreconcilable.

In other words, if a spouse has willfully deserted the covenant and obstinately refuses to be reconciled, then the offended party is free to divorce and remarry. Now, of course, there is a lot room for interpretation in that language, so who’s to say if the line of willful desertion has been breached?

This is going to sound awful to say within a culture that despises authority, particularly institutional authority, but the answer is the Church. Marriage is a covenant ordained by God and administered by His Church, and divorce is likewise to be administered by His Church. I said in my sermon that just because the state grants divorce for frivolous reasons doesn’t mean that Heaven has sanctioned it; thus Jesus’ statement, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against [his former wife].” The duty (indeed, the burden) has been handed to the Church to invoke the emergency clause of divorce.

I can’t speak for other churches, but I can tell you how this works practically at TCPC. You bring your marriage discord to the pastors and elders. Our first response is always to seek reconciliation. We will work with you, counsel with you, cry with you, pray with you; we will do anything and everything to restore your marriage. But we (I mean WE, the plurality of leadership, not me or another individual pastor but the collective council of ordained elders) are also willing to grant divorce if it is clear that a party has willfully disserted the covenant and is unwilling to repent and be reconciled. From there the process of Church discipline is pursued against the unrepentant party.

This is just another reason why it is SO important to join a church that actually practices wise, bold, caring, and gracious Church discipline. Never place your marriage under the oversight of leadership that doesn’t care if you get divorced or is harmfully unwilling to entertain divorce as an option.

All of this now begs the question that many were struggling with after Sunday’s sermon: What if I divorced and remarried without Biblical grounds? This is really where it gets messy. Perhaps you divorced before you were a Christian, perhaps you were a Christian and didn’t think divorce was a big deal, or perhaps you are confused and don’t know if it was Biblical or not; what are you to do?

First it must be said that divorce is not unpardonable. Indeed, it is no small sin to tear asunder what God has joined together, but it is not an unforgiveable sin. Christ’s blood is more than capable of atoning for your divorce, and we dare not offend the Savior by bearing the burden of guilt that He has already borne.

Going forward, if you are divorced and remarried, then do not take these teachings to unnecessary extremes. Don’t divorce your current spouse, or coexist with them as roommates, or any other strange misapplication. Again and again, Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 7 is to “stay as you are.” We are called to righteousness wherever we find ourselves. If that happens to be in a second marriage after messing up a first, then labor to make your second what your first should have been.

We have to always remember that Christianity is a dedication to wisdom more than rules. Because we are followers of a Person and not a system, then ethical discussions become a bit messier and improvisational in nature. That is not to deny the existence of a Moral Law, but instead it is to affirm Jesus as the perfect embodiment and application of the Moral Law. We love Jesus. We follow Jesus. We trust His grace. We know He is with us and for us. We deny the false comfort of oversimplified religion, and we seek to honor Him in the circumstances before us.

But just because His grace can handle the sin of your divorce, and just because He is calling you to honor Him wherever you may be, doesn’t mean that there isn’t some appropriate repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation that needs to take place. If Sunday’s sermon was deeply convicting for you, then consider some healthy applications.

Perhaps it is getting help with your failing marriage? Perhaps you are divorced, but it’s not too late to reconcile and remarry? Perhaps it is writing your former spouse a letter confessing your sins and asking their forgiveness? Perhaps it is apologizing to your children for the pain you have caused? Perhaps it is courageously forgiving without your former spouse even asking for your forgiveness?

In a culture where divorce is epidemic and devastating, may God’s people rise up as witnesses to His original and beautiful design, a design that reflects the intentions of our Christ Himself, who hates divorce and will not practice it, indeed our Bridegroom who will never leave us nor forsake us.