The plot thickens since I have for years held to the no divorce position. Writing the critique of the “pro-divorce” side revealed a number of hidden crags in the rocks of Scripture I hadn’t seen before. But now I have the privilege of really getting into the other side, which is by far the more popular position. That position is: Divorce and remarriage are permissible (but not required) in the cases of adultery and desertion. I’m not playing games; my prayer is that God would reveal truth to His people whether that requires changing sides, relaxing a level of confidence, or holding more firmly than before.
1. Christ does not divorce his bride (Eph. 5:31-32).
Proposition 1: Jesus will never divorce His bride.
Proposition 2: I must be like Jesus.
Conclusion: I must never divorce my bride.
According to this argument, divorce testifies against the gospel in a similar, but converse way to marriage’s support of the gospel.
This syllogism is as valid as:
Proposition1: Jesus prohibits judging.
Proposition 2: Clarence Thomas judges.
Conclusion: Clarence Thomas is prohibited from judging by Jesus.
Just like the word “judge,” the word “bride” has two meanings. In the first proposition, it means a supernaturally created group of believers who cannot fall away because of divine omnipotence. In the conclusion, it means a normal woman. The Church is not, in all respects, equal with my wife, so the analogy breaks down. The correct syllogism would say:
Proposition 1: Jesus will never divorce His bride.
Proposition 2: I must be like Jesus.
Conclusion: I must never divorce (leave or forsake) the church.
This syllogism looks persuasive, but there is—like in most logical errors—a simple solution going right back to the basic definitions of terms.
2. Romans 7:2-3 builds its illustration on the premise that only death can break the marriage bond.
The point of the illustration loses its power if other reasons could validly release the woman from her covenant. Paul wants to say that only one thing can release us from the guilt of the law. The absolute ending of that guilt which happened through Christ on the cross. There are no other options for how to remove the law’s just condemnation.
As an illustration of the singular solution to this problem, Paul chooses marriage. Only the spouse’s death can give freedom to leave the marriage. And once freed, the wife may remarry. The theological reality that was supposed to be clearly communicated by this picture is that the believer has only one hope of release from the law’s grip. Since that is the theological point Paul is making, then we know that the illustration must support that. Marriage has no other valid outlets except death.
Paul’s illustration should not be pressed past the point of comparison. Illustrations are valid only when the two ideas being compared are evaluated in light of that one element of similarity or difference. All ideas are similar in some ways and different in some ways, so illustrations can be rather tricky. In Romans 7, Paul does not offer a comprehensive explanation of marriage, he chooses one undeniable aspect of marriage and then compares that with a man’s bondage to the law. No Biblical advocate of divorce would say that divorce is normal. It is rather the exception which is why Paul does not treat it here. This illustration should not be made to say more than it says as if Paul was forbidding valid exceptions that Scripture does offer in other places.
Secondly, to use Romans 7 against a conservative view of divorce has all the force of a great assumption. Since the passage does not treat the exceptions, we are supposed to assume that it opposes them. Arguments from silence may be interesting as corroborating evidence, but they have no logical force.
3. No man should separate a married couple (Matt. 19:6).
When a similar construction is found in John 10:28 (“No one will snatch them out of my hand”), it is clear that the “no one” includes the person himself. No one should try to take them out of God’s hand, and were someone to try, it would not be successful. The grammar in Matt. 19:6 communicates an ethical duty: it is wrong to attempt to separate a husband and wife (that which God has joined).
Commenting on this passage MacArthur says, “[N]o man—whoever he is or wherever he is or for whatever reason he may have—has the right to separate what God has joined together. … In the ultimate sense, every marriage is ordained of God and every divorce is not.” He goes on to argue for divorce in Matt. 19:9, but in his comments on 19:6 he explains the text as it stands on the surface.
Who would disagree with this? Divorce should be exceedingly rare, and marriage should be protected in society. As His first response, Jesus stated the rule for the overwhelming majority of marriages. However, as with Romans 7, God is allowed to introduce exceptions to His general laws (See Ezra 10 and Deborah’s leadership in Judges 4-5) as it pleases His kingly will.
As an illustration of this principle, God grants to the civil magistrate the right to separate “what God has joined together” if the husband has committed a crime worthy of death. Capital punishment would definitely break the marriage covenant since it even allows the widow to remarry after the death of her spouse. If she can be separated from her husband by the state, then why couldn’t she be separated from her husband for some other reason?
4. God hates divorce which implies that He would not endorse exceptions for it (Mal. 2:16).
Something that God hates should surely be something we stay far away from. Is there any doubt? Is there any level of uncertainty? Then why get near to something God hates? The reasons must be overwhelming for a lover of God to choose to do something that the Master has expressly condemned as abhorrent to His holiness.
Christians must do a better job of loving what God loves and hating what He hates. Yet this verse does not have the length or context to cover all scenarios. At other times and to other people, God has revealed His will more fully. So Matthew and Paul recorded the exceptions to the general rules that these other passages copiously establish.
God also hates the violent man (Psalm 5:5), yet His Son will be stained with the blood of His enemies as He returns to execute His just and violent fury on all His enemies (Rev. 19:13-15). Does the Father hate the Son? If not, then there may be times when He does not hate divorce.
5. The exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is doubtful.
A. When asked by the Pharisees if a man may divorce his wife for every cause, Jesus’ first answer is phrased in such a way that the reader does not expect any exceptions (Matt. 19:1-6). The exception clause did not come immediately to his lips, but rather a firm denial of divorce.
Since he had just begun the discussion, we are not surprised to see an opening summary of the main position. As things progress, riders will be attached to the original bill until the full scope of the legislator is revealed.
B. After his first answer denying divorce, and after the exception clause answer, when clarifying with his surprised disciples in the house, he confirms no divorce and no remarriage without an exception (Mark 10:10-12).
The gospel writers confirm the general rule like any good writer would. He repeats the main point which constitutes the vast majority of the cases.
C. The disciples were surprised by Jesus’ answer which means that he did not take either the liberal (divorce for any reason) or conservative (divorce for adultery) school.
Yes, the disciples apparently were assuming the liberal position.
D. Matthew 1:19 gives an example of divorce within the betrothal period. Matthew could have recorded the exception clause that Mark and Luke left out because he had already illustrated it for his readers in the first chapter. Joseph was righteous, but he was going to divorce a woman with whom he had never been intimate.
This example may is circumstantial evidence and proves nothing. It only fits if the conclusion is true.
E. Deut. 22:23-29 shows that adultery during betrothal and before physical relations was a far more serious crime than fornication after. Adultery during betrothal could have deserved death. Whereas pre-marital relations could have deserved marriage. In the NT, a number of the death penalty offenses were changed, but the point here is that adultery during betrothal was a potential that had to be dealt with in the law. Jesus knew the law as well as human nature, so it would make sense that he deal with betrothal adultery here.
Again, this is a good observation, if the conclusion is true that Jesus’ exception refers to the betrothal period. If that is not true, then this observation is misapplied here.
F. Mark and Luke were written to larger and Gentile audiences who would not have understood betrothal so it makes sense that they did not include the exception clause.
We can’t know why they did not include the exception clause so we can’t argue from their silence.
G. 1 Cor. 7 explains divorce using Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce (7:10) yet does not reference the exception clause which would be an obvious fit here.
Same as above.
H. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Mark, and Luke were written to groups of Christians before Matthew was written. They all treat divorce, and yet none of them allow for divorce on the grounds of fornication. It is difficult to understand why these other sources would not mention this major difference for the many believers that would never have access to Matthew’s gospel.
Revelation is revealed over time the early Christians did not have the entire mind of God on divorce just like they did not have the entire mind of God on the Millennium or many other NT matters.
These observations cannot disprove the position that Jesus’ words are a clear exception from the normal covenant of marriage. We start with the clearest flags in a text and then move to the less obscure. The meaning of “except for fornication” is clearer than any and all of these observations however interesting any of them might be.
6. The alternative position seems to open a wide gate to divorce and remarriage for many reasons.
If divorce is possible for adultery and desertion, then what about pornography, flirtation, lust, fornication before marriage, adultery within marriage years before the divorce is requested, or adultery after an “unjust” divorce? Desertion could be expanded to include financial desertion if the man does not provide and emotional desertion if he is abusive. The frequency of divorce in evangelical churches testifies that this is not hyper-sensitivity. This is not wild-eyed “slippery slope” fear-mongering.
The WCF allows for divorce for these “two” reasons reminding believers that they must not take advantage of these provisions, but it would seem that is exactly what has happened.
This is a genuine concern. The current divorce rates among professing believers is a sad statement about the godliness of those who claim to be Christians. The tendency is exactly that warned about in the WCF because the sin nature so strongly pulls us away from the law of God. However concerning this trend may be, it is not an exegetical concern about the two key passages: Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15. If these passages allow for divorce, then we must allow for it as well regardless of the difficulties that this position presents to us. And it must be remembered that all positions will have difficulties as long as they are held by sinners. A “no-divorce” position can easily produce a lack of compassion just like the divorce position can produce frivolous divorces.