This morning we will be studying Jesus on Marriage from Matthew 19. The main issue that He addresses is divorce. There are lots of questions that come up with this topic. Since I can’t deal with them all in the sermon, I want to tackle a few here. (To be clear, this is NOT an official position from the elders, but represents my personal views.)
Is it true that 50% (or more) of Christian marriages end in divorce?
The answer is yes and no. But mostly, no. Everyone has heard this statistic. Preachers love to quote it, as do skeptics. Maybe they think it shows that Christians aren’t taking their faith seriously or it shows how accepted divorce has become. But this stat is only true if you define the word “Christian” in the most generic way possible. These surveys often only ask, “Are you a Christian?” In that case, yes, the divorce rate of this group is 50- 60%.
But if you add one additional component, like regular church attendance, then the number drops significantly to around 30%. (Let’s be honest, church attendance is a better indicator of true faith than a verbal response.) If you add another basic fruit of the faith, like Bible reading or prayer, the percentage drops to less than 15%. While divorce among committed Christians is more than we would hope for, it’s less than what most people think.
Is divorce a good idea?
The short answer is no. From the beginning, God intended marriage to be a lifelong, permanent union. In fact, Malachi 2:16 (NASB) says, “I hate divorce,’ says the Lord.” God is 100% against what we casually call no-fault divorce, where two people mutually decide to end things. However, sin has messed up all our relationships, and God recognizes that. So, while the Lord never commands divorce, He has regulated it.
Most Bible scholars note that there are two exception clauses in Scripture: for adultery or abandonment. The adultery clause is taught by Jesus in Matt 19 and Mark 10, which we will unpack in the sermon. The abandonment clause (i.e., an unbelieving spouse deserting a believing spouse) is taught in 1 Cor 7:12-16. This assumes an irreconcilable spiritual disparity, what Paul elsewhere calls being “unequally yoked.” In this case, God says, “if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage…” (7:15) This text seems to envision the unbeliever initiating the departure, not the believer.
God’s ideal is for marriage to be permanent. While no text commands a divorce, these two do permit it in these cases. As a pastor, I never counsel or encourage a person towards divorce. Instead, I shepherd them towards reconciliation in grace. (2 Cor 5:18)
What about remarriage after a biblically permissible divorce?
There is no single passage that answers this question. So, when we don’t have a verse, we fall back on theology. There are two main views. The minority position teaches that remarriage is never permissible. This view, I think, misreads 1 Cor 7:10-11 and is unnecessarily harsh to the innocent party. (John Piper holds this view). The majority position, however, teaches that if the Bible allows for the divorce (i.e., adultery or abandonment) it also allows for remarriage because covenants can be broken in some clear instances. (Proponents include D.A. Caron, John MacArthur, John Stott, and yours truly.)
What about abuse (i.e., physical, sexual, etc.)?
This is an incredibly difficult question that requires tremendous pastoral sensitivity. I even hesitate to address it here. But I will do my best. Please know this answer is not exhaustive. Let’s consider a case with two professing Christians.
First, any person who has experienced physical or sexual abuse should call the police! Abuse is not just a sin; it is a crime. And the government is “God’s minister (and) avenger who brings wrath on the person who practices evil.” (Rom 13:4). Second, separation for a period seems safest and wisest and is something Scripture does allow for (such as 1 Cor 7:5). The authorities may do this forcibly or it may be done voluntarily. During the time apart, the abuser should be dealt with judicially. Furthermore, both people should be in biblical counseling or therapy. Third, the abused person should involve elders and the church as soon as possible. The abuser should be placed under church discipline. If the person refuses to repent, he should be excommunicated – having acted like an unbeliever. This would then conceivably place the relationship in the same category of spiritual disparity described in 1 Cor 7 which can be grounds for divorce.
What if a person’s spouse dies, are they free to remarry?
Yes. See Romans 7:2-3. Paul clearly states the principle of remarriage for widows and widowers. In fact, the Bible not only permits remarriage in this case, but it strongly encourages it. See 1 Cor 7:8-9 and 1 Tim 5:14 also.
If a person is divorced or remarried but realizes it was a sin, what should they do?
As I tell my kids, two wrongs don’t make a right. Confess any sins. Repent. Apologize. This may even include contacting your ex-spouse or children. Receive the grace and forgiveness of Christ as you do. If both people are believers and still single, reconciling their marriage is ideal and would be a tremendous testimony to the gospel. Outside of that unique situation, I recommend remaining as you are, either married or unmarried, and honoring the Lordship of Christ moving forward.
What does 1 Tim 3:2 mean: an elder should be the “husband of one wife”?
While this certainly rules out polygamy, the phrase means a “one-woman man.” Elders are to teach the church by their words and their reputation. They should be a clear and present example of fidelity. For starters, it is important to differentiate a man who was divorced or remarried before he became a Christian from a man who did so afterwards. An otherwise qualified man should not be barred from leadership because of his pre-Christian past. (Clearly, God was okay with Paul the murderer becoming Paul the missionary.) Furthermore, it is also possible for an elder to be an innocent party in a divorce even as a Christian. While 1 Tim 3:2 does not exclude a divorced/remarried man from being an elder, there may be other issues (e.g., blamelessness, reputation, etc.) to consider.
Do you, as a pastor, marry divorced people?
I consider it on a case-by-case basis. If a divorce happened many years ago in another state before I knew the people, those situations sometimes turn into “he-said-she-said.” And I do not have the time or resources to serve as a private investigator to verify if the divorce was biblical. I don’t say this will-nilly. Before God, I refuse to sanction or be part of an adultery if I can help it. If, however, I have walked with someone through the situation, knowing the parties and circumstances, and have confidence that it falls within the parameters of what’s permissible– then, yes, I will consider it.