Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Divorce & Remarriage Part 3 - Towards a Radically Christian Counterculture - Steve Gregg

Steve Gregg of explains what marriage & divorce are in God's eyes, the only biblical grounds for divorce, remarriage, adultery, abandonment, whether the spouse is unbeliever or not, whether a divorced Christian should return to their spouse, etc. his series, "Towards a Radically Christian Counterculture"

Also, read 3 articles by Steve Gregg on Divorce & Remarriage. I've copied the 3rd one here:

Divorce & Remarriage

Part Three

 Objections and Scenarios

There are several objections that may be raised to the view of divorce and remarriage presented here. Some will object to the strictness of the teaching here advocated, while others will think it to be not restrictive enough.

Those that would desire to extend a greater degree of leniency toward those who wish to divorce without grounds, or who have already done so, face an enormous burden of proof, which I do not believe they can even begin to bear, apart from their outright rejection of the Scriptural injunctions, favoring arguments based upon a carnal sentimentality and a sympathy for covenant breakers (who probably happen to be their friends or relatives). The predictable objection is that this view of things does not grant enough room for compassion and grace. Of course, they are only thinking about compassion for the perpetrator of an ungrounded divorce, not its many victims, and they are thinking of "grace" as some vague, amorphous benevolence, rather than that distinctively divine trait that teaches us that, "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12). Their position can scarcely be distinguished from that of the false teachers in Jude, who "turn the grace of God into license to sin" and who thereby "deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 4). There are few words sufficiently strong to warn these people off of their pernicious practices. They have contributed much to the destruction of the Christian family and to the degradation of the testimony of Christ's church. Little else needs be said in answer to their rebellion against the Lord Jesus who bought them.

On the other hand, there are those who believe the position presented here to be far too lenient. They take the Scriptures to teach that remarriage is never acceptable after divorce, unless the former spouse is no longer living. From reading their books, I anticipate from this camp the following six objections...

Objection 1. Doesn’t Jesus teach that marriage cannot be dissolved when He says, “What God has joined, let not man separate”?

Though many have taken Jesus’ words to teach the indissolubility of marriage, His statement actually affirms the danger, and thus the possibility, of people dissolving what God has joined. If a mother says to her children, “I spent the whole morning cleaning the living room. Don’t anybody mess it up!”, would the children be justified in taking her words to mean that it is impossible to mess up a room that their mother had cleaned? Jesus’ statement is very misleading if it is not teaching that dissolution of marriage is possible, but not permissible.

Marriage is a covenant. Covenants should never be broken—but they sometimes are. A covenant broken by one party ceases to be binding upon the other party. Thus God Himself is released from His covenantal obligations to Israel because of her violation of her covenant. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the marriage covenant is a unique exception to this rule, and Jesus’ teaching on the topic in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 explicitly confirms that there are extreme conditions under which the general permanence of marriage may legitimately be regarded as optional, i.e., when one spouse commits “fornication,” the other may choose to continue the marriage, or else to end it. In the latter case, the divorcing party is not “putting asunder” what God has joined. The adulterous partner has already done that. The party seeking the divorce is simply formalizing what the other has made a reality.

Objection 2. If divorce and remarriage are permitted, where does that leave the duty to forgive seventy-times-seven times? Is adultery the unforgivable sin?

Adultery is not the unforgivable sin. Neither is drunk driving. But the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian, even if forgiven by the victim’s survivors, is not able to bring back to life the deceased party, and may have to live with legal consequences or unrelenting remorse for the rest of his life. We should not minimize sin by suggesting, “Well, everything can be forgiven”—as if sin has no long-term consequences.

This is especially true of such a heinous crime against marriage as adultery. The breach of a covenant raises serious and legitimate questions about the possibility of trusting the violator in future situations—even if there has been apparent repentance. Once trust has been broken, it is hard to recover, even if “all is forgiven.”

Sin has both private and public consequences. Forgiveness, therefore, also has personal and public dimensions. The former is merely the release of any personal rancor or bitterness toward the perpetrator. The latter involves complete public reconciliation. The first must be automatic and unconditional. The second is conditioned upon repentance, and sometimes restitution. Thus Jesus teaches that we should routinely, personally forgive all offenses against ourselves, whether or not the perpetrator repents (Mark 11:24; also the examples of Jesus, Stephen and Paul confirm this). But Jesus also teaches that the unrepentant perpetrator must be confronted with the demand of repentance, and brought under public discipline if repentance does not occur (Luke 17:3-4/Matt.18:15-17). Reconciliation with full restoration of privileges is the public aspect of forgiveness, and does not occur automatically.

Many offenses occur between married parties in the course of a lifetime, though most do not “rise to the level” of covenant-breaking so as to justify divorce. To suggest that adultery is not sufficiently damaging to a marriage covenant as to justify divorce is to minimize the magnitude of this sin. Such a minimizing occurs in the minds of ethicists who fail to take the record of Scripture on this point with sufficient seriousness, and who, in most cases, have little or no personal experience with adultery in their own marriages.

It is not the position of Scripture that forgiveness should be withheld from adulterers (in fact, Jesus specifically demonstrated such forgiveness), and it is not a mandate of Scripture that the victim of an adulterous spouse must seek a divorce (which is why this author personally would not seek a divorce when in that very circumstance with a former adulterous wife). Personal forgiveness should be automatic. Formal reconciliation, however, can come only with the repentance of the offending party. Restoration of the marriage is left to the discretion of the wronged party. The requirement of forgiveness does not extend to this final stage (i.e., restoration of the marriage), but all Christians would certainly urge the wronged party not to seek a divorce and to actively seek restoration of marriage to a spouse whose adultery had not been perpetual and especially if the offender seemed genuinely to repent. Such restoration is what our most gracious God sought to accomplish with adulterous Israel, though He eventually divorced her for her perennial unfaithfulness.

Objection 3. Doesn’t this view of the subject place a low priority upon the Christian’s obligation to keep his promises and to not break his vows?

No. This view alone acknowledges the magnitude of the sin of breaking one’s covenantal promises. A view that does not view adultery as serious enough to destroy a marriage and to forfeit the perpetrator’s right to claim the continuing benefits of the marriage does not do justice to the biblical mandate of faithfulness to marriage vows. When such a destructive act of unfaithfulness occurs, it is sufficiently devastating to release even God from His covenantal obligations (Isa.50:1). It is incumbent upon Christians to keep their promises in all realms of life, but certain actions on the part of other parties may free the Christian from previously-made commitments. For example, if I agree to pay my neighbor’s son $40 per month to mow my lawn each week, I should not default on this commitment. However, if the boy never shows up to do the work agreed upon, I am under no obligation to give him his money. We may have entered into an agreement, but his failure to keep the agreement frees me from my obligation to fulfill mine.

Likewise, when two people are married, they promise each other that they will forsake all others and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their natural lives—but this is upon the agreement that they are both making this commitment. When one party commits adultery, that party defaults upon the agreement, and forfeits any right to expect that the cheated spouse will continue in the marriage. Some Christians may commit themselves unconditionally to remain in the marriage, despite the unfaithfulness of their spouse, but the Bible nowhere places this demand upon them, nor are those who opt for divorce under such circumstances the less “faithful” for having exercised this option. Nevertheless, a Christian may sense that the Lord’s personal leading in their situation would be to stay in the marriage and to waive the right of divorce (this was this author's choice).

Objection 4. Though Matt.5:32 and 19:9 may seem to allow an exception to the otherwise universal rule of “no divorce, no remarriage,” yet the majority of passages on the subject of divorce (e.g. Mal.2, Mark, Luke, Rom., 1 Cor.7) do not mention or allow any exception.

The majority of passages about salvation do not mention repentance as a requirement, but it would be folly to conclude from this silence that the passages calling for repentance do not contain a vital element to the whole counsel of God on the subject of salvation.

Likewise, the majority of passages about the fate of the lost do not mention eternal torment, but the few that do are regarded as telling us something valid and vital to the subject.

We do not determine the whole counsel of God by counting up the number of times He mentions something and placing them in tension with the number of times that He says nothing on the subject. “In the mouth of two or more witnesses shall every word be established.” Even if we did not have the whole counsel of the rest of Scripture confirming that adultery is a valid ground for divorce (which I believe we do), yet the exception is mentioned twice by none less than Jesus Himself. This is sufficient testimony. (For more on this, see chapters one and two).

Objection 5. Even if we allow for divorce in the case of sexual infidelity, this does not necessarily prove that remarriage is permissible.

Nor does it prove that remarriage is forbidden. If divorce means anything, it means the end of a marriage (a “separation” is something less than this). If a marriage no longer exists, it would be most natural to assume that the parties to the former marriage are single, and, therefore, free to remarry, unless otherwise explicitly forbidden to do so or advised against it in Scripture (as in certain cases like 1 Cor.7:11). Some may disagree with this last observation. They would suggest that there is no a priori assumption of freedom to remarry after a divorce. To such as think this way, let me encourage you to think more clearly. An inappropriate second marriage, according to Jesus, is “adultery.” However, such remarriage is inappropriate for the simple reason that the antecedent divorce was invalid (i.e., it was not “for the cause of fornication”). Since the divorce was not valid before God, the first marriage remains intact, rendering the second marriage an act of adultery against an existing, intact marriage covenant.

But suppose the divorce is legitimate in the sight of God, because it was “for the cause of fornication.” The first marriage is therefore no longer in existence in God’s sight. A second marriage cannot be “adultery” if neither party is married to anyone else. If a given second marriage is not adultery, then what can be said against it? The only second marriages that the New Testament condemns are those that are adulterous and those in which a believer marries an unbeliever. Apart from these scenarios, no stigma attaches to second marriages in Scripture. “What God has cleansed, call not thou unclean.” When the heart of God is misapprehended by religious persons, they inevitably fall into the same error as the Pharisees, namely, they “condemn the guiltless” (Matt.12:7).

Objection 6. Even though the Bible might allow men to divorce adulterous wives and to remarry, under the law, only the man could initiate a divorce. A woman could not divorce her husband. Therefore, we can only approve of this liberty for men, but not for women.

Fortunately for women, the New Testament extends greater liberties to them than does the Old Testament. Does the New Testament allow only men to initiate the divorce from an adulterous partner, but not allow wives the same permission? While I do believe that the Bible differentiates between the roles of men and of women in many respects, I do not see any evidence of distinctions in the present concern. No distinction is made between the rights of men and those of women in the relevant passages. Jesus raises the issue of a woman divorcing her husband in Mark 10:12, suggesting that the idea of this happening may not have been as foreign to the Jews as we have been told. The teaching of Jesus about divorce and remarriage is applied equally to men and to women (i.e. neither are permitted to divorce and remarry without the grounds of fornication) in Mark 10:11-12 and 1 Cor.7:10-11 (where Paul cites Jesus’ position). Paul additionally extends full liberty from a first marriage to both “a brother or a sister” in the case of abandonment by a pagan spouse (1 Cor.7:15). Whenever the subject is raised, the same teaching is applied to both genders.

The attitude of the Old Testament Jews was that men had exclusive rights to their wives bodies, though wives did not have exclusive rights to the bodies of their husbands—reflected in the fact that polygamy was only permitted to men, and not to women. Thus, a man could have multiple women without being charged with adultery, so long as those women were his wives or concubines. Women had no corresponding options. If a woman slept with a man other than her husband, she was an adulteress and subject to divorce or death. Not so with the Jewish man.

Paul abolishes this double standard in 1 Cor.7:4. When he writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does,” Paul was stating only what every Jewish male (and female) knew to be true. However, Paul went scandalously beyond the Jewish ideas by extending exactly the same privileges to the wife: “And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This would seem to rule out polygamy for the male as well as for the female, so that extramarital sex on the part of either spouse is thus rendered equally adulterous—a violation of the other’s rights.

Thus whatever the New Testament may teach about divorce and remarriage, it apparently makes no distinction between the rights of the male and those of the female.

(if your favorite objection has been omitted, please send it in for our consideration and response)

Five Typical Scenarios:

I have selected several typical scenarios that occur only too often in the church, where the leadership and other believers must make some response and often must give counsel of a godly sort. I have given the counsel in each scenario that I believe to be biblical. Many, of course, will disagree with my recommendations. Some will think them too severe, and others will think them too lenient. My goal in each case has not been to be either “sufficiently severe” (so as to adequately punish wrongdoers) nor “sufficiently lenient” (so as to keep people happy who ought to repent and make restitution). My only desire has been to be thoroughly biblical, since God’s word, though sometimes difficult to obey, always provides the best and most beneficial course that an ever-gracious and all-holy God can offer to mankind. Whether I have achieved this objective I leave to the reader to judge, since no one should be expected to make hard decisions on the advice of one man. We will answer to God not only for the decisions we make in our own lives, but also for the counsel we give to others (Matt.12:36). Since we will either enjoy eternal rewards or else suffer eternal regret for our choices in these matters, it is incumbent upon each of us to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to form our own convictions.

I wish first to identify the basis for my understanding of the ethical obligations accruing to the respective parties in a divorce. My judgment, in each case, proceeds from my conviction that God’s principal concern in the issue of marriage and divorce does not arise from mere sentimentality or arbitrary fiat. His requirements for married (and divorced) Christians are of one piece with His universally expressed insistence upon justice and faithfulness in every area of life (Mic.6:8/Matt.23:23). It is the injustice and the unfaithfulness involved in every divorce that causes God to express His hatred for it. But not every party in a divorce is necessarily guilty either of injustice or unfaithfulness in the matter. Thus, the requirements of justice and faithfulness, though universal, call for different forms of redress, depending upon the respective guilt or innocence of particular parties in particular situations.

In the following cases, some may feel that I am advocating a meticulous legalism, and that an appreciation for the grace of God would eliminate the need to consider these matters so exactly. However, it is not with a mind to be legalistic that I have gone to the pains of laying out the following biblical counsel for each scenario. I do this for the sake of those who, though saved by grace, are mindful of their obligation to do what is right in the sight of God. In a situation as devastating as a divorce, there are great injustices done and many injuries inflicted. To cause such damage, then to claim justification by grace, and continue living in such a way as to perpetuate the injustice and the continuing injury of the other parties, can hardly be an acceptable option for the Christian. In the counsel given below, I have attempted to discern the “justice issues” that inform God’s actual, specific commands, so as to apply them faithfully even in such cases where no specific instruction is recorded. The reader is encouraged to follow the Scriptures to different conclusions than mine, if faithfulness to the text so dictates.

Scenario 1

Unjustified divorce and the remarriage of the guilty party:

“Spouse A” (a professing Christian) divorces “Spouse B” without justification and remarries. What should “Spouse A” do, if repentant? Can “Spouse B” remarry?


My understanding of Scripture would be that “Spouse B” can remarry. “Spouse A” has wrongfully remarried, which is adultery. Thus “Spouse B” has biblical grounds for freedom from that marriage and for remarriage.

“Spouse A’s” situation is more complex. “Spouse A’s” second marriage is not recognized as valid by God, since Jesus referred to such a union as “adultery.” No legal document from a civil magistrate can transform what God calls “adultery” into a legitimate marriage (notwithstanding the frequent complicity of certain churches in this crime). If “Spouse A” comes to realize this, and repents, what must he/she do then?


The Scripture teaches the duty of restitution. This simply means that the repentant party, if possible, must make good to the injured party whatever damage was inflicted by the crime. Thus a thief, if caught, must return the stolen goods, with interest (Ex.22:1, 3-4/Luke 19:8-9). If “Spouse A” has committed the crime of violating wedding vows, then “Spouse B” has suffered damage by this act, and remains injured so long as the situation continues unchanged.

“Spouse A” must discover whether there is any restitution that can be made. If “Spouse B”, since the time of the break-up, has remained faithful to “Spouse A”, and desires the restoration of the marriage, then the only restitution that could possibly be made would be for “Spouse A” to abandon the second “spouse” (“partner in adultery” would be a more biblical term), and return to “Spouse B” to live out the terms of the original vows.

If the original separation of “Spouse A” from “Spouse B” was occasioned by some circumstance of “Spouse B’s” behavior (like severe physical abuse) that would justify a separation (but not divorce), then the restitution would require only abandonment of the second partner, and possibly the continuing separation from “Spouse B” until the original issues occasioning separation have been resolved, allowing for reconciliation.

Has “Spouse B” subsequently abandoned the marriage vows?

If “Spouse B” has died, legitimately remarried, or sought other partners, or refuses to forgive and take “Spouse A” back, then there would appear to be no possibility (and therefore no responsibility) of “Spouse A” making the full restitution of coming back into the original marriage. In such a case, in my judgment, if “Spouse A” and his/her second “spouse” are both repentant of their adultery, and are both Christians, they can seek God’s forgiveness and enter into a valid marriage with each other.

These principles are illustrated in David’s life. His wife Michal was legally taken from him and given to another man (1 Sam.25:44). Later, David required her to return to him, since her second marriage was not legitimate before God, and restitution would require David, the cheated partner, to have his stolen wife restored to him (2 Sam.3:14-16). Was this emotionally difficult for Michal’s second husband? It sure was! But it was his own fault for having committed adultery in marrying another man’s wife. Sin has consequences. Those who truly repent must be willing to accept the emotional (and other) consequences of their misdeeds.

However, David’s later marriage to Bathsheba was also displeasing to God, having its foundation in adultery (2 Sam.11:26-27). When David repented, he was not required to forsake the marriage, and Solomon (and eventually Jesus) later were produced by that (apparently blessed) union. Why was this different? Simply because Bathsheba’s husband was now dead, rendering restitution impossible. Had Uriah been still living when David repented, he would certainly have had to return Bathsheba to her rightful husband, as David had required Michal to be restored to himself.

I am sure that the requirement of restitution will be found to be “a hard saying” to some who have sinned against their husbands or wives in divorcing them, because such an action usually occurs after all love for and desire to be with that person has vanished. In such cases, the repentant spouse must learn what God instructs, namely, that the wives learn to love their husbands (Tit.2:4) and that husbands learn to love their wives (Eph.5:25). In a society like ours, in which people have been conditioned to believe that love and loss of love for one another are simply phenomena that “happen,” partners need to be discipled to know how to choose what is right in the sight of God and to cultivate love where none exists.

Scenario 2

Unjustified divorce, followed by singleness of guilty party:

“Spouse A” divorces “Spouse B” without justification. “Spouse A” remains unmarried. Can “Spouse B” remarry?

Not automatically. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus has provided an option which “Spouse B” should have followed before the divorce was initiated, but may yet follow belatedly after the divorce has occurred. According to Jesus, when “Spouse A” began to move in the direction of seeking an unjustified divorce, “Spouse B” should have protested to “Spouse A” that this was a sin against God, against spouse, against children (if applicable), against the church and against society. If “Spouse A” refused to repent upon being thus confronted, then “Spouse B” should have taken one or two other faithful witnesses to repeat the confrontation. This failing, the matter should have been taken before the church. If “Spouse A” had repented at any point during this procedure, “Spouse B” should have forgiven and the marriage should have been restored. If these three steps, however, failed to elicit repentance from “Spouse A”, then he/she should have been regarded thereafter (as Jesus put it) as “a pagan or a tax collector.”

The reclassification of “Spouse A” as a pagan (formerly a professing Christian) shifts the ethical options into a different sphere, since Paul taught that a Christian (“Spouse B” in this case) who is abandoned by a nonchristian spouse (“Spouse A” at this point) is “not under bondage” (1 Cor.7:15) which implies, in my judgment, freedom to remarry.

Scenario 3

Unjustified divorce and the remarriage of the innocent party:

“Spouse A” (a professing Christian) divorces “Spouse B” without justification. “Spouse A” remains unmarried and sexually pure. Eventually “Spouse B” remarries. What should “Spouse A” do, if repentant? What should “Spouse B” do?


“Spouse A” has sinned in divorcing “Spouse B,” but has not yet sinned in any way that would automatically free “Spouse B” to remarry, thus “Spouse B” has also sinned in remarrying (this seems to be the scenario depicted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—Matt.5:32). Though “Spouse A” has not committed adultery, his/her actions have caused “Spouse B” to commit adultery (in remarrying). What should be done?

If Both “Spouse A” and “Spouse B” repent:

First, “Spouse A” should repent of sinning against the original marriage, and offer to return to “Spouse B,” who should leave his/her illegitimate marriage to reconcile with “Spouse A.” Is this likely to be painful? Very! I would never wish to give this counsel, if faithfulness to the Word of God did not require it. Getting involved in an ongoing adulterous relationship (like the illegitimate second marriage) can hurt many people, including children born to the adulterous couple. Would to God that people would follow God’s commands in the first place! The way of the transgressor is hard!

If only “Spouse A” repents:

What if “Spouse A” repents, but “Spouse B” does not? In such a case, “Spouse A” has sought to make restitution, but “Spouse B” has refused to comply. “Spouse B” is in adultery, freeing “Spouse A” to remarry.

If only “Spouse B” repents:

What if “Spouse B” repents, but “Spouse A” does not? Must “Spouse B” permanently abandon the illegitimate second marriage and wait indefinitely for “Spouse A” to repent? Not necessarily.

After “Spouse B” has separated from his/her illegitimate second partner, he/she should express to “Spouse A” repentance for having entered a second relationship without justification. Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 should then be followed (see above, under Scenario 2), seeking reconciliation (i.e., “Spouse B” should confront “Spouse A” about the latter’s sin in the original divorce).

If the Matthew 18 procedure is followed without bringing “Spouse A” to repentance, then “Spouse B” is a believer who has been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, and is “not under bondage.” He/she and the second spouse should acknowledge the wrongness of their having married when they did, and, if both are Christians, they may enter into legitimate marriage to each other.

Scenario 4

Justifiable divorce and remarriage.

Subsequent repentance of the adulterous party:

“Spouse A” commits adultery. “Spouse B” divorces “Spouse A” and remarries. “Spouse A” later repents. What must “Spouse A” do? Can “Spouse A” remarry?

“Spouse B” has divorced and remarried with biblical justification, and no one should disturb the second marriage.

Upon repentance, it is important that “Spouse A” make known the fact that he/she has repented, and should humbly seek forgiveness. “Spouse B” must forgive “Spouse A”, though restoration of their marriage is impossible, since a valid second marriage exists. “Spouse A” should leave “Spouse B” alone and seek a new life in Christ. As in the case of David and Bathsheba, since reconciliation is not an option, I can see no possible restitution that “Spouse A” can make, and I can find no biblical reason to forbid him/her to remarry after genuine repentance.

Scenario 5

Hasty remarriage of innocent party after justifiable divorce:

“Spouse A” commits adultery against “Spouse B”. “Spouse B” divorces “Spouse A” and, one month later, “Spouse B” announces engagement to “Spouse C”. Within the year, “Spouse B” marries “Spouse C”.

The rapid remarriage of “Spouse B” to “Spouse C” may be technically allowable, but it is not advisable, in my judgment. There are several reasons that immediately come to mind:

—Adultery can be forgiven, and “Spouse B” ought not rush to divorce on a first offense. Repentance should be sought from “Spouse A”. If “Spouse A” does not repent, and especially if he/she establishes a pattern of ongoing adultery, then the propriety of “Spouse B’s” remarriage seems more evident. This resembles God’s dealing with adulterous Israel. He endured a long time and continually sought to elicit Israel’s repentance. When the pattern of adultery was unmistakenly established, God divorced national Israel, and sought another people.

—Even if a divorce is justified, hasty remarriage seems very unwise. Immediate plans to remarry after a divorce may be objected to for the following reasons: 1) It may raise questions among observers as to whether the second relationship may have been “brewing” even before the first marriage ended in divorce; 2) immediately after a broken marriage, the jilted party is not likely to possess great objectivity concerning the advisability of entering a particular second relationship. Loneliness, sexual frustration, or the embarrassment of rejection and the need to prove to oneself that he/she is still attractive to the opposite sex may lead a divorced person to establish an unwise and hasty “rebound” relationship.

—If there are children from the first marriage, the selection of a step-parent for those children requires discernment arising from considerations besides the single parent’s desire to find another mate. Such a choice of a step-parent should never be made in haste.

However, the marriage between “Spouse B” and “Spouse C”, even if entered into hastily, is binding and valid before God, and, just like first marriages, cannot be ditched later on the grounds that it was entered into unwisely. It does not take very long to enter a marriage, but the regrets over a bad decision can last a lifetime. As the saying goes: “Marry in haste; repent at leisure.”

Additional Pertinent Questions:

1. Does the passage of time affect moral responsibility?

If a wrong has been done, requiring redress, then there is nothing about the passage of time alone that alters one’s moral obligations in a matter. Reuben slept one time with his father’s concubine, and, without further infraction, found that the matter still carried lifelong consequences for him decades later (Gen. 35:22/49:4). Moses disobeyed God by not circumcizing his son in Midian. Time passed and he may have begun to feel that the matter had become a non-issue. However, when God called him to go back to Egypt, the unfinished business of obedience to God was brought up as a prerequisite to being used of God in ministry (Ex.4:24-26). The passage of time may tend to relieve the conscience of felt guilt or responsibility, but this change in sensitivity does not alter the objective moral facts. If a man borrows a car and never returns it to its owner as agreed upon, he may feel more guilty about it in the first few weeks than he does after the passage of years—yet so long as he wrongfully retains possession of the “borrowed” vehicle, his moral obligation to return it remains unchanged.

In the case of one’s obligations to right the wrongs committed in connection with a divorce, these duties do not go away by ignoring them, and may indeed become more complicated and painful by them delay (e.g. by the birth of children to an illegitimate second marriage!).

Of course, with the passage of time may also come changes in circumstances that would alter one’s obligation (e.g. the death of a former spouse to whom one should have become reconciled), but to put off the doing of what one knows to be right in hopes of such a change occurring would be flagrant disobedience and rejection of the will of God, and cannot be thought to carry no adverse consequences. “Be not deceived. God is not mocked.”

2. If there are children from a second, illegitimate marriage, does that affect the moral responsibility of the guilty parents?

We live in an age of great sympathy for the plight of unhappy children, and none is more moved by such sentiments than am I. However, while this is an improvement over an attitude of careless indifference to their well-being, it needs to be tempered by the sentiments expressed by Jesus in passages like Matthew 10:37 and Mark 10:29-30.

As important as it is to guard our children from unnecessary trauma, it should be noted that one’s obligation to one’s spouse takes priority over obligation to children (marriage is a lifelong, covenanted relationship, whereas children are only lent to the couple by the Lord for a short time, after which they leave and form their own covenantal associations [Gen.2:24]). If one must choose between jilting a spouse or offending children, it would seem that the former is the greater infraction (both are bad, though the offense to the children is morally unavoidable. The greatest wrong done to the children was bringing them into the world into an adulterous relationship. Once having done that, there’s no smooth way out of sin without hurting many parties). It is possible for the children to recover from their trauma, but it is not possible for the original marriage to be healed without the abandoning of the second marriage (or, more properly, “adulterous relationship”).

It may not be necessary for the repenting adulterer to utterly abandon the children of adultery. His/her spouse, if magnanimous, may permit them to be brought into the family, or may at least allow some contact or visitation. After all, if both parties to the second marriage have first marriages to return to, as may easily be the case, then someone will have to take care of the children of the adulterous marriage. Working out the details of custody or adoption would have to be worked out according to the specifics of the case.

This situation only arises in scenarios where one is obligated to return to a first marriage from a second marriage that was never valid before God (e.g., scenarios #1 and #3, above). Clearly, it does not apply to situations where no such obligation exists (see scenarios #2, #4, and #5, above). An invalid second marriage is not simply an unideal situation, it is adultery (Matt.19:9). If there were no legal documents defining it as a marriage, would anyone argue that a divorced person should stay away from his/her faithful spouse, in an adulterous relationship, for the sake of the children? If so, then sentimentality has clearly numbed the moral sensibilities of that person.

What I find amazing is the ease with which we permit departing spouses to abandon the spouse and legitimate children of a valid marriage, without consequences, but we are reluctant to require them to traumatize the children of their adultery. The sentimental reason for this inconsistency is no doubt our assessment that the latter are the product of an intact relationship between partners who “love” each other, whereas one cannot expect to preserve the interests of children whose parents no longer “love” each other (i.e. the children of the first marriage). Our culture’s deification of romantic “love” has thus adversely affected our moral judgment. By such a standard, the happiness and well-being of legitimate children must be sacrificed to the goddess Venus, but the feelings of illegitimate children can not be sacrificed to Jehovah.

3. If a person has been converted since the offenses took place, does that affect the moral responsibility?

If an unbeliever has cheated his/her spouse, and brought about a circumstance in which restitution and restoration of the marriage would ordinarily be required, does the fact that this person has now become a Christian have any impact upon his/her obligations to restore the former marriage?

Valid moral obligations do not cease to exist when one becomes a believer. If a person comes to Christ, all past sin is forgiven by God (Eph.1:7), old things are passed away and all things are become new (2 Cor.5:17). However, this does not mean that there remain no residual obligations or “unfinished business” to attend to. For example, monthly payments on a mortgage incurred prior to conversion must still be made after one has become a Christian. A marriage contracted prior to conversion must still be honored by a spouse who afterward becomes a Christian (1 Cor.7:12-13). Robbery commited prior to conversion still requires that restitution be made, even if the robber has since become a believer (Luke 19:8). An unsaved slave that ran away from his master was obligated, once converted, to return to the master he had thus wronged (Philemon 10-14). Thus, wrongs done to a spouse prior to conversion, which would ordinarily require redress, continue to be wrongs requiring redress after one has been converted.

A Christian is commanded to make right any offense he/she has given another as a prerequisite for approaching and worshiping God (Matt.5:23-24)—how much more so if the injured party is one to whom covenantal vows had been made and violated!

4. Since Jesus said that for a man to look upon a woman to lust after her is “adultery” in the heart, would this sin constitute grounds for divorce?

Though Jesus did say that looking at a woman in order to lust is indeed “adultery in the heart,” he never suggested that sins of the heart are punishable by man (just as anger and hatred are equated with “murder” in the heart, but no one will suggest that angry haters should be executed as murderers). Sins of the heart are grievous in the sight of God, but they are His province alone, and He alone punishes them. Though Jesus did identify this mental sin as a form of “adultery,” He never named “adultery” as grounds for divorce. The word He used was “fornication” (Gr. porneia ), a word that, throughout all Greek literature, speaks exclusively of physical acts of sexual misconduct—never what goes on in the mind merely.

5. What if there is no adultery in the marriage, but there is physical or emotional abuse of spouse or children...would this constitute legitimate grounds for divorce?

If the abusive partner does not claim to be a Christian and the abused partner does, the matter may fall into the category discussed by Paul in 1 Cor.7:12-15. The believer is to be regarded as “not under bondage” to this marriage if a) the unbeliever is not content to dwell with the believer, or b) the unbeliever abandons the marriage. There are those who feel that these two conditions are in fact one, and that the only instance of the unbeliever being not “content to dwell” that can qualify the believer for this freedom is in the case of the unbeliever’s actual physical departure from the home. This may be correct, but not all would judge of the matter the same way.

For an unbeliever to be “content to dwell” in a marriage might be thought to imply more than simply a willingness to share the same roof and bed. It may refer to a willingness to dwell in a marriage according to the covenantal agreement made by both partners on the occasion of the marriage being first contracted. It is not likely that physical or sexual abuse was an agreed upon part of any couple’s wedding vows. The fact that a partner resorts to such behavior is thought by some to constitute a rejection of the marriage relationship, thus exhibiting a frame of mind that is not “content to dwell” in the sense that Paul had in mind. Deciding this question must be done under the judicious counsel of cautious, spiritual persons determined to honor God’s standards and capable of resisting the tyranny of their own sentiments.

What if the abuser is a professing Christian? One might justly question whether a genuinely abusive spouse can really be a Christian, even if he/she claims to be, since the evidence would seem to be against it (1 John 2:4/Tit.1:16). If the abuser professes to be a Christian, then Matthew 18:15-17 should be followed. If repentance occurs and the abuse thereby is ended, all is well (unless the abused party is harboring resentment and not desiring to forgive, in which case, discipleship and possible discipline is needed for the unforgiving party). If the abuser is not repentant, then the process will ultimately brand him/her a pagan, and will then move the matter to the category of 1 Cor.7:12-15 (a believer married to an unbeliever). Thereafter, an assessment must be made as to whether the abusive behavior rises to the level of the abuser’s being not “content to dwell” with the believing spouse (those involved in this decision-making process must make a genuine effort to find the mind of God on this matter). If so, then “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.”

It should be pointed out that persons unhappily married are capable of interpreting many unpleasant behaviors on the part of their spouses as “abusive.” “Verbal abuse” and “emotional abuse” are sometimes appealed to as grounds for separation and/or divorce in cases known to this writer. The question arises as to just what degree of unpleasantness in a marriage God may expect a Christian graciously to endure for the sake of keeping sacred vows. The Christian wife is urged to exhibit the same submissiveness to an unbelieving husband as she would were he a believer (1 Pet.3:1-2). Every Christian must be prepared to endure some degree of “abuse” from the world (John 15:18-21/16:33/1 Thess.3:4). Even some degree of domestic violence (Gen.16:6-9/1 Pet.2:18-21) or tormenting temptation from one in authority in the home (Gen.39:7-9) is sometimes to be endured for the sake of godly duty.

Marriage is not for cowards, and neither is Christianity. Both require covenantal faithfulness on the part of all participants, even when such faithfulness proves to be painful, costly or disappointing. Though divorce is permissible in certain cases defined in Scripture, the church and the individual Christian spouse must be careful not to let it become a “coward’s way out” of a situation in which God is testing covenantal loyalty and is desirous to bring maturity through difficulty and affliction—a concept almost entirely lost to the modern western church.

6. Even if a person has divorced his or her spouse without biblical grounds, shouldn’t we show compassion to them, since they often have been driven to do what they did because of great pain and suffering?

There is no person whose compassion is purer or more perfect than God’s. When God gives commands to his people, these commands spring from his heart of infinite mercy and justice. We sometimes attempt to be “wise above what is written.” We are often inclined to show “compassion” to those whose actions God condemns. Though doing so may sometimes seem like the loving approach to take, it suggests that God is himself not as loving as we are, since he commands us not to tolerate such sin (Eph.5:11), to confront sinners with their obligation to repent (Gal.6:1/Luke 17:3), and to shun those who refuse to do what he commands (Matt.18:15-17; 2 Thes.3:14). Whenever we circumvent obedience to the Scriptures in an attempt to be compassionate, we do violence to the true compassion that God has for the sinner—which is his desire for the sinner to repent and get back onto the path that leads to life.

Again, all Christians are called upon to pass various tests of their faith. Some are tested by imprisonment and torture, others by painful illness, or by the loss of property or loved ones. Certainly the endurance of hardship in an “intolerable” marriage, from which God has provided no legitimate release, should be seen as a test that God has imposed upon many of his children. Many have passed such tests with flying colors. If someone is on the verge of failing the test by bailing out of their marriage, we show them no true compassion by helping them to fail.

God certainly knows the pain and temptation that leads some people to wrongfully abandon their marriages, but he also knows the pain and temptation that their doing the wrong thing imposes upon others. “God is merciful toward all,” and even as he understands the pressures that led to the sinner’s wrong choices, he cares about the innocent victims of the sinner’s sin, as well. To water-down God’s commands in favor of sentimental sympathies toward the perpetrator of a wrongful divorce is to rebel against the living God, and is, at best, a “selective kindness,” that favors the transgressor at the expense of the transgressed-against (i.e., the innocent members of the household victimized by the sinner’s ungrounded desertion). How we deceive ourselves when we allow our feelings to trump the authority of God’s word! “There is a way that seems right to a man (and to a woman), the end thereof are the ways of death.”

7. Isn’t “separation” a biblical option for some who may not have grounds for actual divorce?

Many Christians have concluded, from 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, that Paul recognizes a third option to “marriage” and “divorce.” Some go so far as to describe this condition as “unmarried, but unavailable.” The verses actually read: “Let not the wife depart from the husband. But and if she departs, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.”

Some see Paul, in these verses, as giving unhappy wives two options: 1) do not depart from your husband; or, if you prefer, 2) go ahead and depart from your husband, but remain “unmarried.” This, they present as a third category, where the wife is “unmarried” (apparently free from her husband’s authority for all practical purposes), but not allowed to remarry (not so entirely free from the marriage bond as she would be if divorced).

This is a strange reading of Paul’s intentions. There are not two commands to the unhappy wife in the home, but only one: “Let not the wife depart from her husband.” Paul does not follow-up by giving permission to break this command. He does not say, “Or else, let her depart and stay single.” He says, “But if she does depart....” In other words, if she violates this command (thereby sinning, as some Christians do)—or if she, prior to receiving this letter, had already made this error—she is obligated to return to her husband, if he will have her back. If it is not in her power immediately to return (e.g., if her husband, understandably, will not trust her or be reconciled to her right away), then she must remain “unmarried” [1] until either reconciliation is possible or her husband gives her grounds for divorce.

Thus, with Paul, this so-called “third category” (separation without proper grounds for full divorce) is treated as a state of disobedience to be remedied as soon as reconciliation is possible! If she remarries, she thereby commits adultery (Mark 10:12). The wishful thinking of a million discontented wives will not change Paul’s words into permission to depart from one’s husband without biblical grounds. In fact, is it not significant, that, if Paul really had intended to identify a third legitimate category (free from marital responsibilities, but lacking grounds for complete divorce), he never mentions what the grounds might be for choosing such an option? What a significant omission this would be! When Christians take this unbiblical position, they are left to make-up their own arbitrary standards of whether a wife has adequate “grounds for separation” even if she has no “grounds for divorce.” God has not left us in such a fog of subjectivity, since He never acknowledged a legitimate category of “separated, but not divorced.”

8. If a spouse has committed adultery, but has professed to have repented, does his or her partner still have grounds for divorce?

When Jesus said that “fornication” constitutes grounds for divorce, he did not indicate whether he meant a single act of sexual misconduct or a perennial habit. Knowing God’s hatred for divorce and his own patient endurance of Israel’s adulteries against himself, one is inclined to think that the heart of God favors forgiveness and restoration of the repentant adulterer by the injured party. This does not mean that I am unaware of the intense, enduring pain that comes upon the cheated spouse, nor the enormous difficulties in restoring trust toward the adulterer (the author has also, in the past, had to forgive a previous, adulterous spouse), but we must remember that we are not called as Christians to take the path that affords the least pain, but that which most exhibits the character of Christ, who endured on our behalf far more than we are likely ever to suffer on His behalf.

Many who are unhappy in their marriages are looking for any “legal” excuse to seek a divorce. As with many who profess to be Christians, they are merely seeking a biblical sanction for them to do what they selfishly want to do, rather than seeking to know the will of God and to do it. If they learn that their spouse has once committed adultery, such people may at times be almost jubilant because they now have an excuse to escape from their unfulfilling marriages.

But one must not be too hasty. A spouse who is otherwise very committed to being faithful might fall in a very weak moment to an overwhelming temptation. This is no attempt to excuse their moral failure, since God can deliver his children from every temptation (1 Cor.10:13), but it may mean that the fall does not in any sense reflect a deliberate renunciation of his or her commitment to being faithful to the marriage. If there is genuine and immediate repentance, I believe that a strong case can be made for the cheated spouse to being required by God to forgive and seek the grace to continue in the marriage.

There are cases, however, where adultery is perennial or frequently repeated. In such cases, there is no evidence of true repentance, and it would be difficult to make a biblical case for requiring the cheated spouse to stay in such a marriage.

9. If the case be such between a man and his wife, is it better not to marry—or, for the unhappily married unbeliever, is it better to avoid becoming a Christian, so as not to put oneself under the restrictive standards of marital faithfulness?

There are easier paths than the Christian path...but those who take the long view of things would rather take the narrow path, which leads through the narrow gate, and to life, than to take any other, since all others lead to ruin and death. If one has the power to remain celibate while unmarried, then Paul suggests that this may indeed be the preferable choice (1 Cor.7:32-35). If God does not give such grace as to remain celibate perpetually without great distraction, then He is most likely leading to the other option, which is marriage. For some, marriage is the easier lifestyle, and for others, singleness and celibacy are easier. But ease is a poor criterion for judging the rightness or wrongness of life choices.

Character and discipleship require that we take not the easiest, but the most fruitful path in seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We are in a warfare and a race, not a kindergarten playground. We must choose that which pleases God over all our preferences. A million years from now (or even a mere fifty or sixty), we will have no regrets for having inconvenienced ourselves for righteousness’ sake.

[1] That is, unmarried to anyone else—she is clearly still married to her estranged husband, else she would be free to remarry, which Paul clearly says she is not.