I fully believe that there is a great divorce going on in the Christian church in the West (Europe and the Anglosphere mostly), where we assume that our modern culture is Biblical, and twist and adapt any spots where scripture (always true because: Jesus) and our culture (often false because it’s the common consensus of evil people: us) clash, we look to our culture first and Jesus second.
So, since Jesus is the truth, let us go to the fundamental truth about divorce from the Sermon on the Mount, the fundamental teaching of right and wrong (which condemns us all, you will note) and the Gospel which saves us from the condemnation we all justly deserve. From the text: Matthew chapter 5:27-32. ESV
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:27-32 ESV)
It is important to note that, from the very beginning, I will apply this standard to both genders because of the effect of Jesus Christ, as revealed by St. Paul
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:23-29 ESV)
The fundamentals are all present here: The Law will show us that we are guilty. Faith in Christ will make us righteous when our works never could. Inside of that grace, there is no more important role of honor or power, even though the commands that St. Paul passed on to us from God about the duties of men, women, husbands, wives, slaves, and masters makes it clear from the context that we cannot use this passage to abolish right and wrong, as those advocating homosexual activity or female pastors abuse this verse.
Instead, I will use it to discuss the sexual ethics of divorce in modern times (in which both male and female partners are capable of making the decisions about divorce), the Bible references are going to talk about men divorcing women because at the time the message was given they were the only ones with the power to make that choice. Because there is not a contradictory scripture (as there is in the case of homosexual activity, female pastors, idolatry, slander, etc.) I feel this approach is in keeping with honoring God’s Word as The truth.
To continue listing the core and clear teachings in scripture, Jesus had more to say about divorce and marriage, (and celibacy, which is here described with the euphamism “eunuch” which it turns out was the polite way to describe both physical eunuchs and homosexual-oriented persons for whom heterosexual marriage was not an option). It’s vastly different than how our culture operates.
Teaching About Divorce Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 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 the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:1-12 ESV)
SO, here are some critical takeaways from the clear scripture so far:
- Sexual immorality is the only Biblical justification for divorce.
- Scriptures says that one CAN divorce over sexual immorality, not that one MUST/SHOULD divorce over sexual immorality. In fact, one of the most consistent images that God uses to describe his relationship with sinful Israel is this: God is the faithful husband of a cheating wife, who despite her public sexual abandon repeatedly waits for her and wants to take her back to him. Prooftext: most of the minor prophets and the ENTIRE book of Hosea.
- REMARRIAGE to a divorced woman (whose husband is not dead) is adultery. Remarriage in our vastly divorcing culture is not even remotely scandalous any more. I am the product of such an adulterous marriage, but what mankind intends for evil God can use for good.
- It’s also worth noting that in essentially the same breath Jesus says gazing at people with lust (literally: “for the sake of your strong desire”) IS sexual immorality/adultery.
- Jesus states that those who can be single (make themselves eunuchs, a euphemism) should be instead of marrying.
Let’s see how this squares with what St. Paul had to say directly to Christians. Remember that Jesus spoke to Jews who would either reject him or become Christians. Paul was an apostle to Jews and non-Jews who were already part of the Christian church, so we can look to Paul’s explanations to better understand how to apply Jesus’ teachings. Since, you know, that was pretty much the entire points of Paul’s writing the letters that make up most of the New Testament….
Principles for Marriage Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
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. 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. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:1-16 ESV)
My takeaways from this, and man does this kick American culture (and law) in the personal bits:
- Now that there is a Christian society, Paul clarifies that an unbelieving spouse is the 2nd and only other justifiable reason for divorce.
- AGAIN there is no command to leave or separate from a spouse, even one who does not believe.
- There is no permission for remarriage after divorce so long as the other spouse remains alive. Both Jesus and Paul use the death of the spouse as an example of a legal end of a binding obligation to the law. Clearly they mean that once widow/widower is free to remarry.
- Paul furthermore states that the spouse who remains with an unbelieving partner does much good, for themselves, their children, and their unbelieving partner!
- BUT Paul clearly states that if the unmarried partner leaves the believer, the believer is not to try to persuade them to stay, but to let them go.
- And let’s not forget that juicy bit in the middle where once again Paul clearly states that celibate singleness is more desirable than marriage IF one can handle it. But this passage must be interpreted through Christ’s words about lust and Paul’s warning in the same passage. If you’re burning up with unrequited desire for other people, then marriage is better than constant internal sins, whether or not you act out on them.
- Finally, Paul sets out the marital obligation to see that the partner is sexually satisfied so that they will not be tempted to sin. So, the stereotypical American woman in marriage, who cuts their husband off/mocks them for wanting sex, etc etc. Similarly the man’s duty is to sexually satisfy his wife (which, guys, to let you know, is going to involve a shiteload of romance, just saying…). This teaching isn’t new, or controversial before modern fascist feminism. One of the most heated arguments about the morals of the Crusades during the Crusades was how married men could go to war leaving their wives behind, both unprotected physically and set up to fall into sexual sin through deprivation.
So… wait… there are points on both sides! There is the example of Godly love which continues to cherish and yearn for the unfaithful other. There is the legal freedom to leave behind the sexually immoral or unbelieving partner, but no commandment to do so.
Why am I, the highly opinionated person, not coming down on one side or the other? Because I don’t know better than God, and God states a nuanced case based on clear blacks and whites, and a clear example. Even though Jesus, who was and is God, longs for the sinful and unfaithful partner’s presence, note his comment about Jerusalem:
Lament over Jerusalem “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:37-39 ESV)
This passage sums it up for me. Jesus’ cites Genesis as the basis of marriage as a permanent (but earthly) institution, as it isn’t going to come with us into heaven. The desire must always be to/for the other, but when sin approaches it, the ideal may not be possible.
I want to clearly delineate that the following is my best understanding of the ethics involved in divorce and separation, talking about the objections that come up most often in American society.
- Ladies, chick porn is justification to divorce you if visual porn is justification for you to divorce him.
- Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is for you to stop them. This is the same principle of God punishing Israel to convince them to turn back. So, even though divorce is clearly not mandated in the horrible cases of sexual abuse, molestation, violent crimes, and more, Hosea clearly sets the example that separating, or even reporting, the spouse isn’t just permitted, but may be the best way to love them in the short term.
- Remember that God showed his love for us by showing us mercy and grace BEFORE we could deserve it DESPITE that we could never deserve it. Yet God does not just ignore or pass by the harm done to us by others, or that we do to others. So, Paul’s example of the faithful believing spouse remaining with an unbelieving partner is a terrible but wonderful thing.
Do you notice that neither Jesus nor Paul offers the counterfeit promises that the American church tries to shove into their mouths? I’m not offering a Love Dare that will transform your marriage. I’m not going to pretend that there are 5 ways to Fix Your Spouse. You aren’t going to hear me spout off about the Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands (Dr. Laura). Sure, there are many great teachings about how to be a good husband or wife in the Bible. We have examples in Scripture of every sort of Godly love and every sort of imaginable perversion or corruption of romantic and sexual love.
There is no promise that God will fix you, your spouse, or your marriage before heaven, but we have the promise that God will be with you through your brokenness, the world’s sinful effects, and standing by your side and between you and our Enemy.
I’ve commented twice that these passages indicate celibacy is a good and blessed thing. Also, that faithfulness and mercy to an undeserving spouse (which we all sort of are, eh) is a godly and beautiful thing IF it can be done.
But hey, I can hear people say, that really sucks. That would be a lifetime of pain and suffering, maybe with little hope.
Yes. I advocate a rough path. Homosexual men are to be celibate if they do not feel the need to marry. Divorced persons are not to remarry. But isn’t that rough and terrible? Well, only if we ignore the repeated passages about singleness being preferable to marriage IF we can accept it. Both Jesus AND Paul add that qualifier. So the Roman Catholic Church post-950 AD is wrong, but so is the Focus on the Family crowd that puts marriage as the holy, divine center of Christianity, or those who make marriage a requirement.
Suffering? Self-denial? Difficult? Welcome to Christianity. The example that Jesus gives us is to take up our cross (instrument of torture and death) daily to follow him. Paul in Romans 8:18 says “I consider that our current sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.” Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart. I have overcome the world.”
And for those of us who must deny ourselves, we have the blessed assurance that in the trials of marriage and the trials of celibacy, or the pains of divorce, we are never parted from the loving kindness of our ever-present, loving, understanding, and compassionate Lord Jesus Christ.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV)
Peace with God Through Faith Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8 ESV)
God loves us, though we were undeserving. Let us strive to love God, and all the undeserving people around us (there’s no other kind.)