What Does the Bible Say About Divorce? (1)
What is the position of Jesus and His apostles and prophets on divorce?
Many things are happening in our time which calls to question and even dispute what the Bible teaches, what the Lord Jesus taught, and what Christianity stands for. As such issues arise, Christians are faced with how to respond to them. Many of these issues have to do with how Christians live and should live. One of such issues is divorce.
What is divorce?
When two individuals—a man and a woman—who are married, reach a point in their marriage where they can no longer live together as man and wife, and choose to go their separate ways, a divorce is a way out. When a couple decides to be divorced, they are saying that they want to be permanently separated from each other. A divorce occurs when the man, his wife, or both decide to terminate their marriage through legal or customary channels, depending on how they got married—in the marriage registry or traditionally.
Christianity and the world’s view on divorce
In the world system, divorce is not an issue. For instance, when people get married in the registry, the Courts can grant that the couple is permanently separated on the grounds of abandonment of the marriage, adultery, physical abuse, irreconcilable differences, etc. Under customary law, which includes the traditional marriage rites, particularly in Africa, the elders in the community can annul a marriage so contrived on any grounds.
In the social media community, there is a raging debate in which the majority seem to agree that divorce is something that should be appropriated by those who desire it. The suggestion of divorce as a way out of a marriage in the social media community should not be frowned upon, as everyone can freely air opinions. However, a disturbing pattern is emerging in the social media community, where some Christians join in the fray and advocate for divorce when there are issues in marriage.
And why is this an issue? It is an issue because Christians are guided by a different set of values contrary to the world's values, customs and traditions, including the value system of the social media community. Sadly, some Christians, including some pastors, bishops, and other church leaders, have divorced their spouses, remarried, and continue to minister and even head churches. This questions what makes the church different from the world regarding its values and approach to marriage and divorce.
Jesus emphatically stated that though we are in the world, we are not of the world (John 17:14-16). This implies that the Christian's value system is not derived from the world but from God's word. So, when some of those claiming to be Christians, including some pastors, believe that divorce is permissible, as per the Bible, it becomes a cause for concern and requires that we probe the Scriptures.
What did Jesus teach about divorce?
In Matthew 19, some religious scholars in Jesus' time asked about the grounds for divorce. For them, divorce was permissible. The argument among these religious scholars was the basis for divorce.
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." (Matthew 19:3-9, NKJV)
In Jesus' day, while some rabbinic schools taught that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, others taught that divorce was only permissible on certain grounds. Jesus' response, however, gives us some things to consider on the subject of divorce, as follows:
1. Jesus did not permit divorce. Indeed, He stressed that God's original plan was for a permanent union in marriage. God never intended that there would be divorce in marriage. While teaching on the subject of the new man and the old man, Paul, writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, alluded to the permanence of marriage, when he stated:
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. (Romans 7:2-3, NKJV)
In the mind of God, there is nothing like divorce. Once you are married, you stay married until death causes a separation between the couple.
2. Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of people's hearts—their unyieldedness to the teachings of God's word. When people refuse to heed God's word on any matter, it is said that their hearts are hardened. So, 'hardness of heart' is aptly termed refusal to accept God's teaching:
Jesus answered, "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because you refused to accept God's teaching. But divorce was not allowed in the beginning. (Matthew 19:8, ERV)
So, we see that divorce comes about because people refuse God's teaching on marriage. And when people jettison God's instructions, they are left with no other option but to do what they like.
3. Jesus, however, noted that the only grounds for divorce, if at all, is sexual immorality. The word translated as 'sexual immorality' in the NKJV, is the Greek word 'porneia', from which we get the English word, 'pornography'. This phrase, 'sexual immorality', refers to illicit sexual intercourse, including adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, sexual intercourse with close relatives—incest (Leviticus 18)—and sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman (Mark 10:11-12).
So, biblically speaking, the grounds for divorce are infidelity, abominable sexual practices, and other sexual sins involving either party in the marriage. It is, however, expected that the offended party would be forgiving should the offender be penitent. However, if the offender is a serial offender, we advise the offended party to seek God's face before a final decision is made on the matter.
4. When a person divorces another, Jesus did not teach that they can remarry. In Mark's gospel, the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees provided the opportunity for Jesus' disciples to receive further illumination when they asked him about the matter:
In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:10-12, NKJV)
The Lord did not teach that a divorcee could remarry! The essence of marriage, which is a permanent union between a man and his wife until death does separate them, is, therefore, sacrosanct from a Christian viewpoint!
To whom do Jesus' precepts on divorce apply?
Many Christians have a common misconception that Christian values apply across the board and include non-Christians. The precepts of God guide Christians through His word. Any other precepts do not guide them, and neither do God's precepts apply to non-Christians. Hence, a person who does not claim to be a Christian, who chooses to divorce their spouse, is not bound by God's word. On the other hand, a person claiming to be a Christian cannot divorce their spouse, except on the all-encompassing 'sexual immorality' grounds. And even at that, they cannot remarry!
This point is well documented in 1 Corinthians 7:
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, NKJV)
Please note that although Paul wrote the above passage of scripture by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was emphatic about the injunction being the Lord's command, not his! The above scripture verses accord with God's position on divorce. Indeed, He said through Malachi to the Jews that,
He hates divorce and cruel men. Therefore, control your passions—let there be no divorcing of your wives." (Malachi 2:16, TLB)
What God said to the Jews then is also applicable to Christians now! But should two Christians choose to be divorced, they are to remain separated and not remarry. The only time they can remarry while they are alive, is if they come together again.
What of Christians who are married to non-Christians?
Let me clear the air that the gospel does not envisage a situation in which a Christian would marry a non-Christian. Thus, the Holy Spirit warns:
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. (2 Corinthians 6:14-16, NKJV)
However, if two unbelievers get married, and one becomes a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ afterwards, the Bible lets us into what should happen in such a situation. It is this situation of a believer married to an unbeliever that we are addressing here! Should the believing spouse seek to divorce the unbelieving spouse in such a circumstance, since the Bible says believers should not be unequally yoked? What does the Bible teach?
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. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 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. 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? But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:12-17, NKJV)
In the above scripture passage, Paul emphatically states that he is giving his suggestion, not a command from the Lord, in a situation where one spouse had become a Christian while the other remained in unbelief. His advice is that should an unbelieving spouse choose to stay in a marriage with a Christian spouse, the Christian should remain in the union. Paul postulates the high possibility of the Christian spouse being the agent of salvation in the home!
Paul did not advise that a Christian in a mixed marriage of the sort we are discussing should consider divorcing their spouse. The onus is placed on the unbelieving spouse. Should the unbelieving spouse not want to continue in the marriage, the believing spouse should not strive but allow the unbelieving spouse to depart in peace. What should happen in such a case? What does the following mean?
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.
This portion of the scripture passage under review is very difficult to state whether remarriage is permitted under such a circumstance definitively. We can only hold on to the general principle of remaining in the state you find yourself in after such a separation as long as the unbelieving spouse remains alive.
We must count the cost of being a Christian and be ready to forsake all for Christ (Luke 14:25-33)! May the Lord help us to have understanding.
In the concluding part, we shall look at abusive marriages vis-à-vis divorce and how to prevent divorce.