After last week’s post on gluttony, a host of similar comments bubbled up about divorce. Isn’t it hypocritical of Christians to protest so loudly about homosexuality when the real marital problem in our churches is divorce? Over many years debating these issues in my own denomination, I’ve often encountered the divorce retort: “It’s easy for you to pick on homosexuality because that’s the issue in your church. But you don’t follow the letter of your own law. If you did, you would be talking about divorce, since that’s the bigger problem in conservative churches.”

A Smokescreen
When it comes to debating homosexuality among Christians, the issue of divorce is both a smokescreen and a fire. It is a smokescreen because the two issues-divorce and homosexuality-are far from identical.

For starters, there are no groups in our denominations whose raison d’etre is the celebration of divorce. People are not advocating new policies in our churches that affirm the intrinsic goodness of divorce. Conservatives, in the culture and in the church, keep talking about homosexuality because that is the fault line right now. We’d love to talk (and do) about how to have a healthy marriage. We’d love for that matter to spend all our time talking about the glory of the Trinity, but the battle right now (at least one of them) is over homosexuality. So we cannot be silent on this issue.

Just as importantly, the biblical prohibition against divorce explicitly allows for exceptions; the prohibition against homosexuality does not. The traditional Protestant position, as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith for example, maintains that divorce is permissible on grounds of marital infidelity or desertion by an unbelieving spouse (WCF 24.5-6). Granted, the application of these principles is difficult and the question of remarriage after divorce gets even trickier, but almost all Protestants have always held that divorce is sometimes acceptable. Simply put, homosexuality and divorce are different issues because according to the Bible and Christian tradition the former is always wrong, while the latter is not.

Finally, the “what about divorce?” argument is not as good as it sounds because many of our churches do take divorce seriously. I realize that many churches don’t (more on that in a minute). But a lot of the same churches that speak out against homosexuality also speak out against illegitimate divorce. I’ve preached on divorce a number of times, including a sermon a few years ago entitled, “What Did Jesus Think of Divorce and Remarriage?” I’ve said more about homosexuality in the blogosphere because there’s a controversy around the issue in the culture in the wider church. But I’ve never shied away from talking about divorce. I take seriously everything the Westminster Confession of Faith says about marriage. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman (WCF 24.1). It is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord (WCF 24.3). Only adultery and willful desertion are grounds for divorce (WCF 24.6).

As a board of elders, we treat these matters with the seriousness they deserve. We ask new members who have been divorced to explain the nature of their divorce and (if applicable) their remarriage. This has resulted on occasion in potential new members leaving our church. Most of the discipline cases we’ve encountered as elders have been about divorce. The majority of pastoral care crises we have been involved in have dealt with failed or failing marriages. Our church, like many others, takes seriously all kinds of sins, including illegitimate divorce. We don’t always know how to handle every situation, but I can say with a completely clear conscience that we never turn a blind eye to divorce.

And Undoubtedly Some Fire
Having said all that, it’s undoubtedly the case that many evangelicals have been negligent in dealing with illegitimate divorce and remarriage. Pastors have not preached on the issue for fear of offending scores of their members. Elder boards have not practiced church discipline on those who sin in this area because, well, they don’t practice discipline for much of anything. Counselors, friends, and small groups have not gotten involved early enough to make a difference in pre-divorce situations. Christian attorneys have not thought enough about their responsibility in encouraging marital reconciliation. Church leaders have not helped their people understand God’s teaching about the sanctity of marriage, and we have not helped those already wrongly remarried to experience forgiveness for their past mistakes.

So yes, there are plank-eyed Christians among us. The evangelical church, in many places, gave up and caved in on divorce and remarriage. But the remedy to this negligence is not more negligence. The slow, painful cure is more biblical exposition, more active pastoral care, more faithful use of discipline, more word-saturated counseling, and more prayer–for illegitimate divorce, for same-sex behavior, and for all the other sins that are more easily condoned than confronted.

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68 thoughts on “And What About Divorce?”

  1. Pingback: Divorce Rate 2014
  2. Terry Galloway says:

    Sadly, I had to thoroughly dig into the Scriptures about divorce and remarriage because my husband was divorcing me for “criticizing his driving and pushing the kids into good grades” while he was a member of Andy Stanley’s church. I met with Andy asking him to do discipline by at least removing his membership. Andy would not do it and would not let me take my case to the elders. My children knew the Bible better than I and have followed 1 Corinthians 5 with their Dad because he continues to say that he is a Christian.

    John Piper’s position which I agree with is called the “permanence of marriage” position. I want to note two other reasons why I believe that it is correct. John the Baptist was beheaded for telling Herod that his “wife” was still married to her first husband. Jesus had every opportunity to correct John if John had been wrong. Secondly, Hosea was actually commanded by God to marry a cheating wife and to demonstrate forgiveness and love to her.

    Unfortunately, Andy went on to preach on divorce and remarriage saying that this is what God says, but I tell my pastors that if the couple has waited two years from the divorce that they can get remarried and the pastor can perform the marriage. Then in April 2012, he preached a message called When Gracie Met Truthie that said that the new normal family, mircrocosm of the church is the two openly gay men sitting in church with their ex-wives and children. This is not grace. This is Jude 4 using the grace of Jesus Christ as a license to sin.

    God does not care about this life’s happiness. He cares about our holiness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. There will be many, many in the churches who will hear Matthew 7:21-23 because only those who obey the will of God will enter heaven and Jesus will say “go away I never knew you, you who continued in lawlessness”. Jesus also said Matthew 5:20 that a person must be more righteous than the Pharisees in order to enter heaven.

    Voddie Baucham, a member of the Gospel Coaliton, author of Family Driven Faith and an apologist, also believes in the permanence view of marriage. I am not dating or remarrying because in Matthew 5:32 Jesus says that the man who would marry me commits adultery. 1 John 3 says that a child of God (as opposed to a child of the devil) does not deliberately keep on sinning just as Romans 6 states too. Genuine repentance includes fruits of repentance, and Jesus said that we are to judge the fruit.

  3. wina Pitts says:

    I have to tell you that for the most part, I see a whole lot of law quoters, finger pointers, and boasters, but very little grace, and this makes me very sad! We ALL have fallen short, every one of us, and there are sins that cannot be undone. Does that mean that they can never be forgiven?? I strongly believe that to break up one marriage to try to fix the sin of divorce from the previous one is just adding sin upon sin. where does it stop? If we are forgiven, we are forgiven, period. Go and sin no more.

  4. Stephen says:

    Terry
    A few observations from your post:
    1) Piper’s position isn’t that of the Westminster Confession. His position largely arises from his meaning of the Greek word “porneia” which he restricts to the period of betrothal. Most commentators and translations instead use the phrase “sexual immorality” which I explained in an earlier post could mean a whole host of things including adultery.
    2) John the Baptist objects to Herod having his brother’s wife. I don’t believe that divorce was the problem: it was the brother relationship (see Lev 20:21)
    3) I’m not sure how the Hosea backs up the claim of permanence of marriage.
    4) Jesus’ statements in the sermon on the mount on having righteousness surpassing the Pharisees etc and having to be perfect like our father in heaven is are there precisely to show us that actually what is required of us is impossible for us to attain by our own deeds. Only relying on Jesus’ own perfection and faith will do.
    5) following on from this, it is natural for us all to fall into a state of self righteous idolatry, call it pride if you like, where we somehow think that our godly lives are superior to others who haven’t maintained such purity and that this also counts for something wrt God. (See Jesus’ warning in Luke 18:11-). Whereas in fact we are all mere sinners saved by grace alone.

    I must reiterate my position that the Greek word “apoluo” has been mistranslated “divorce” in most modern translations instead of simply “send away” which has no legal connotation. For example this word is used to refer to the crowds before the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples ask Jesus “shall we send them away”?
    The King James Version seems to get closer to the original meaning on these passages.
    See Deut 24 where divorce involved a “certificate of divorce” and “sending away”. In Jer 3:8 God, referring to faithless israel says, “I had sent her away with a decree of divorce”. Notice the same two parts and that God too does a “divorce”. He instituted marriage, and he instituted divorce – albeit because of our hardness of heart.

    As an aside a classic case of where a translation is over-helpful and ends up ridiculous is the older version of the NIV 1 Cor 7:1 “… It is good for a man not to marry…” But because of sexual immorality basically get married (my paraphrase).

    The new NIV now reads “…is it a good thing to have sexual relations…”.
    KJV “… good for a man not to touch a woman”.

    The point being that in the original NIV the translators assumed that the only place for sexual relations, or where one could “touch a woman” was in marriage. So in went the “marry” word, which in the context does not make sense at all. The translation is trying to be over-helpful.
    I believe the same is happening with “apoluo” being translated as “divorce” instead of “send away”. Ie. in Modern English we don’t use the phase “I sent my wife away”, instead we say ” I divorced my wife”.
    But this “helpful” rendition isn’t actually helpful at all when divorce actually involved a certificate (the legal bit) and a sending away. Sending away (except in the case of “porneia”) without the certificate makes one potentially adulterous as you are actually still technically married. I believe Jesus is simply stating the obvious.

  5. Terry Galloway says:

    Hi Stephen. The Holy Spirit led me to forgive my husband and seek reconciliation throughout the time that he was divorcing me. Romans 7 says “so while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.” 1 Corinthians 7 gives the command from the Lord “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

    I don’t use the NIV, just never have.

    Jesus said what would happen: Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

  6. Stephen says:

    Hi Terry
    You clearly are an honourable woman. You sought not to separate and be reconciled. Like me you also don’t use the NIV. ;-) I was just using it here as an illustration of a poor translation.

    Your reading of Romans 7 assumes that divorce does not annul marriage and he is still your husband after divorce. I take it that divorce does annul it, leaving the couple as “unmarried” (as in 1 Cor 7)

    In that Corinthians. passage I believe Paul is addressing the problem that the church at that time was facing where one could initiate divorce for just about any reason. Notice they are just separating and leaving (translated divorce for the man) at this stage. The law allowed for this separation to happen in the case of foreign wives (as in Ezra) so one might assume that this was permissible in the case that one of partners in marriage becomes a believer. Paul addresses this in the following verses where he say that this is now his command that they stay as they are if the other partner is ok about it. Ie you don’t have to do the actions like in Ezra to stay pure because they are sanctified by the believing partner.

    I share your concerns about false prophets. But I believe they are false insomuch as they exchange the grace of God through faith in Jesus for some other idol. I’m with Tim Keller on the dangers of making oneself an idol. This seems to be the big one – eg. Eve’s actions in Gen and the first few commandments. We love to think we can save ourselves when we can’t.
    I believe marriage, like the sabbath, is God-given for our benefit. It helps us realise loving, submitting, intimate relations that mirror that in the godhead and with Christ and the church.
    I don’t believe, like the sabbath laws, it was ever intended to condemn us when things go wrong, or make us smug when we observe it correctly.

  7. Terry Galloway says:

    Hi Stephen. I think that we have found some agreement that I was to stay in the position of marriage that I was in when I was born again. My testimony is that the Holy Spirit led me not to divorce my husband. I had thought I was a Christian, but when Jesus started speaking to me, He brought me to my own repentance of adultery (lust), idolatry and told me that He knew I had stolen a tube of lipstick from Sears Roebuck when I was seven! Like the Samaritan woman I knew that Jesus knew everything about me. I became aware through His opening my ears to hear, that I was not saved and needed to confess and forsake my sins in order to have Him as Savior and LORD.

    So I really can’t take the compliment that I am an honorable woman. I am a Spirit-filled believer who considers herself a stupid sheep who just listens to His voice and does what He says to do. The biggest surprise was that I had grounds for divorce with my husband’s repeated adultery, but when I filed for divorce, the Spirit dramatically called me by name, said “my sheep know my voice” and “perservere”. I trust the Lord with the outcome of all this, and lean not on my own understanding.

    Last night, He had me read Revelation’s first chapters which are written to the churches. Each time the Bible says ““Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. Whoever is victorious….” I cannot take any credit for Him giving me ears to hear, but He did. I want to face Jesus and have Him say that I was a good servant who listened to the Spirit and was victorious because of His work inside of me.

    I want to love and even pray for my enemies because I was an enemy to God myself until He gave me repentance and faith. I am not my own, I was bought with a price.

    I agree with you that marriage is to reflect Christ’s love of the church. Keeping my vows that I made to God when I married till death do us part is just loving God and His commands which are not burdensome. 1 John 5: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ[a] has become a child of God. And everyone who loves the Father loves his children, too. 2 We know we love God’s children if we love God and obey his commandments. 3 Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. 5 And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

  8. Joe says:

    Terry gets it. The unlawfully divorced/remarried person who repents is forgiven. The sexually active gay person who repents is forgiven. Both are called to sin no more. Some churches want to tell the gay person to remain celibate but not counsel the divorcee to make such a painful sacrifice.

  9. Michael Snow says:

    “The evangelical church, in many places, gave up and caved in on divorce and remarriage.” That is basically what is happening regarding homosexuality. Even the world recognizes it. Some years ago, Virginia Overholser wrote that just as Christians accepted divorce they would do so with homosexual unions. (quoted by CT and in Ch. 4, http://zmcarter.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/book-review-love-prayer-and-forgiveness-when-basics-become-heresies/ )
    And, of course, the cure is not a continued path of negligence on the part of churches but confession and repentance.

  10. myth buster says:

    Cedric and Stephan, we ought to tell such a woman, “Go and sin no more.” Yes, that means either return to her first husband or live alone or as brother and sister with another. Christian marriage cannot be dissolved except by death; as such, there is not and never was another marriage, but rather a shameful concubinage. It is obvious that bigamy is not a lawful marriage, but rather a sin and even a civil crime.

  11. Stephen says:

    Myth buster

    The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 who had had five husbands was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. Jesus doesn’t tell her “go sin no more”. He says this to the woman caught in adultery in John 8.
    But note this latter passage isn’t in the most reliable manuscripts so one wouldn’t want to place too much weight on it.

  12. myth buster says:

    Without repentance, there is no forgiveness of sin. Remember that Jesus said to a man he had cured of paralysis, “Stop sinning or something worse will happen.” God is supremely merciful, but those who abuse His mercy, using it as an excuse for sin, provoke Him to wrath.

  13. chuck says:

    I have been following this thread for awhile and maybe I can share something from what has happened to me. I have been back home for 3 months after being out of my home for approximately 1 year due to being verbal abusive to my wife and children. I have struggled with anger for many years due to pride (“I never thought it was “that bad>”) I was also placed on church discipline and told to stay away from my home which I agreed to. During that time my wife struggled with the idea of divorcing me and expressed it to me and my best friend. My pastor told me that my wife had grounds for divorcing me based on what the scriptures taught about desertion though he probably would have counseled her to try to make it work. My best friend who believes in the permenance of marriage said no to her. Things were very tough for her the first couple of months as she had to manage the house alone and I felt anger toward her for not allowing me to see my children (amazing how you can justify sin!) and had no desire to seek professional and spiritual help. The point I am getting at is that whatever position your pastor and elders hold on divorce could cost your marriage. Had my wife gone to my pastor and said “the situation isn’t improving and I want out, do I have grounds for divorce” and he said yes I could be living alone with a fractured family. Yes, ultimately it would have been her choice and my fault but we are encouraged to seek spiritual counsel from our leadership and a yes from them may have solidified her decision. I thank the Lord for my wife’s patience and mercy toward me and my best friend who had the courage to look my wife in the eye and say its tough but no you don’t have biblical grounds for divorce. I would encourage you to read John Pipers view on marriage and divorce. Things are headed in the right direction at home though there are still some struggles. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicine has helped me with controlling a lot of my thoughts. I have a much deeper walk with God than I did before and have learned turn things over to Him. I would like to think that living alone for a year has humbled me and made me appreciate my family. I think it has. I know how close I came to losing them. If you go to the website sermonaudio.com and type in Voddie Bauchams sermon “The Permenance of Marriage,” he makes an excellent case for it based on scripture. I would appreciate your prayers for me and my family as we have a lot of work to do.

  14. Mike Maxwell says:

    The real issue is that “we” Christians “in general” are hypocritical. We condemn the sin of the world while embracing their own sin under the guise of grace. Statistics show that 60% of men (50% of pastors) sitting in church are addicted to pornography and sexual sin. How many “Christians” are engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage? Just think of how many pastors sins are paraded across the media. That couldn’t happen if we it weren’t true. If we choose to condemn others while refusing to deal with our own it should come as no surprise that we are seen as a fake and unloving.

  15. myth buster says:

    Mike, not only are you right about what you said, but there is another sexual sin even more ubiquitous than pornography: contraception. Sermons against contraception are almost unheard of. but contraception remains sin, even if no one believes it to be sinful. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we shall not poison them for our pleasure or convenience. Contraceptives should be as anathema to us as heroin, but instead these sorcerers are admitted to the Lord’s Table and thereby multiply their sins.

  16. Terry Galloway says:

    Dear Chuck,
    I am praying for you and your family. I have great hopes for your full, genuine repentance and restoration with your family. You seem to be receiving repentance from Jesus which is a gift from the Spirit so that no man can boast. Pray prayers of gratitude for repentance and remember that repentance is a daily attitude that defeats pride. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. I would say that you are the one with the most work to do. Your wife can forgive you, but reconciliation is another matter. Look up articles about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation such as http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/03/29/how-to-move-from-forgiveness-to-reconciliation/. Examine yourself to see if you really are in the faith and work out your salvation with fear and trembling.

    If you have been taking the Lord’s Supper without consideration to your worthiness, repent about that too. So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against[a] the body and blood of the Lord. 28 That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. 29 For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ,[b] you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself.1 Corinthians 11

    The National Institute for Marriage http://www.nationalmarriage.com has a highly successful program to help and heal marriages. My husband signed us up, but would not give up his adulterous relationships which is one of their requirements, so sadly we were not able to attend. They believe that God wants to do the things in marriages that seem impossible. I agree since God receives the most glory when things seem hopeless, and He is still in the miracle business. If you daily submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, He will have you pray for repentance and for your wife’s heart to be able to forgive. He will renew your mind (Romans 12:1-2) and make you a new person whose gentleness will be evident to all (Philippians 4:4-9). God bless you and to Him be the glory, Terry

  17. chuck says:

    Thanks Terry for your encouragement, I agree most of the work is on me.
    we are still going to counseling and that appears to be helping as well as praying together. Your insight on the Lord’s Supper is wise. Part of my sharing was to encourage people in tough situations but also bring to light how pastors and elders can play a negative role in thought marital difficulties. Recently I got on sermon audio.com and listened to several different pastors sermons on divorce and remarriage and each pastor’s grounds for divorce especially for desertion varied widely.
    I think its a disaster for a lot of struggling couples. I am sure pastors have their struggles in this area that I am not aware of.
    Any thanks for us prayers Terry :)

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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