Yesterday I wrote about forgiveness, and how important it is to always have a forgiving heart, ready to forgive even when those who have offended us are unrepentant and don't want our forgiveness. To have a forgiving heart is to have a loving heart, always desiring for relationships to be repaired. The same can be said for a repentant heart. But forgiveness isn't always easy, and sometimes it seems just plain impossible. And I suppose that the stronger the relationship, the more damage is done when sin enters into it, and so the harder it is to forgive. And what stronger relationship is there than marriage, which is why repairing a marriage, or finding forgiveness in marriage, is probably one of the hardest things. But should we never seek for a divorce, conceding that we've given up all hope of restoring the relationship?
In the book of Matthew, Jesus handles this very question:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)
This term “one flesh” is something we could discuss at great length. But we get the general idea here; that there is a unity between a husband and wife so that they can be considered, in some sense, to be “one”. And there is also some sense in which it is God who has joined them together. And so Jesus' final comment seems to answer our question; “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” We get the sense here that to get divorced is to defy God Himself. Well, in those days, I am led to believe that divorce was even more common than it is today. It's often remarked, in order to illustrate just how flippant people were towards marriage, that it was written into Jewish Law that a woman could be divorced for burning the meal she'd prepared for her husband's dinner. So those Pharisees opposed Jesus, citing that even Moses permitted divorce. But Jesus points out something important about the Law in general... that it was written to fallen people to curtail their sin. After all, it may be better for a couple to be divorced if the man, sinful as he is, is going to just cheat on her continually. So Jesus says, “from the beginning it was not so.” That is, it was never God's intention for married couples to divorce. He continues, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” So we do seem to have an exception to the rule; sexual immorality (ie infidelity.) But in such a case; if your wife has been sinful enough to cheat on you, then she’s really divorced you already in that very act.
Paul also writes about divorce in 1 Corinthians, and he isn't the least bit contradictory with Jesus' words here. He writes...
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Again we see this idea that marriage should not end in divorce. However, just as the Mosaic Law recognized that we are sinful people, there is a provision made; (“but if she does...”). And if she does, the two should not remarry. After all, though we may find that we need to separate because the corruption of sin leads us to that place; as Christians we ought still to be working towards reconciliation and forgiveness. If we marry another, then we're essentially committing adultery (as Christ said) because we ought to see our former marriage not really as “former” at all, but a relationship that still needs to be repaired.
The whole point of marriage, Biblically, is to illustrate to us what God's love is like. This idea of an inseparable unity in which the bond consists of unconditional love and commitment is supposed to show us what Christ's love and commitment are for the Church. He will never leave us nor forsake us. It also shows us what our love and commitment for Christ ought to be as well. But Paul goes on to speak about somewhat different rules when it comes to a Christian married to a non-Christian. Here, he says:
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. … But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. (1 Corinthians 7:12-13,15)
Again, this is illustrative of how Christ relates to unbelievers. He will not cast them away, but they are still free, if they choose, to leave Him. This is like a person who comes to Church and sort of “investigates” or “entertains” Christianity for a while but doesn't make any commitment of the heart, and later leaves. A Christian, on the other hand, cannot leave. They may go through times when their sin causes them to break fellowship with God, but if they are in fact truly Christians, they will repent and return.
So this teaching, or doctrine, will possibly be sad news for some – those who are considering divorce but who are also Bible-believing Christians are now torn between what they want to do and what they ought to do as Christians. What they ought to do as Christians is not to simply stay together “because God says so”. What they ought to do is to exercise the love and forgiveness that Christ has given to us. In doing that, they may find the need for divorce will disappear as the relationship is restored. It's not easy, and I'm sure I don't know the half of it! We’re not Christ, we’re fallen people. But without Christ, reconciliation may be absolutely impossible.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)