The Voice 4.35: August 31, 2014

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The Voice

Divorce and Conversion

It was said also, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Few social ills have proven as pervasive and heart-wrenching as the growth in popularity of no-fault divorce and its tragic emotional and spiritual consequences. Both the sanctity and the significance of the marriage vow and covenant have been undermined; many people enter into marriage without any expectation that it will last for a lifetime. Many in America are on their third or fourth spouse. Oftentimes a person finally settled down and started a family with their second or third spouse. What should be taught and expected if and when a person in such a situation recognizes their need to find salvation in Christ and wishes to convert? Many, moved by understandable yet misguided compassion, have begun to digress from the Lord’s stated standard in Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:3-9 regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and in various ways justify second, third, etc. marriages which would otherwise be defined as adulterous by our Lord in Matthew 5:32, 19:9. What do the Scriptures teach about one who is divorced and yet wishes to convert and become a Christian?

Some claim, unjustly, that some Christians believe that divorce is the “unforgivable sin.” Divorce, as the separation by man of what God has joined, always involves some sin, either because the divorce itself was for reasons other than sexually deviant behavior, or the commission of the sexually deviant behavior which precipitated the divorce (Matthew 19:3-9, Galatians 5:19). Yet, in Christ, any and all sin can be forgiven; as Paul was forgiven of murder, so people can be forgiven for sinfully divorcing their spouse (1 Timothy 1:12-16). Therefore, a person who sinfully divorced their spouse, came to faith in Christ, and was baptized into Christ would be forgiven of that sinful divorce (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21). Yet that forgiveness does not mean the divorce never happened or that all the consequences of that divorce are alleviated; no Scripture suggests anything of the sort! In Christ a divorced person is given two options: remain unmarried or reconcile to the spouse to whom God joined them (1 Corinthians 7:11). If such a person converted and then married someone else, they would be guilty of adultery according to Matthew 5:32. If such a person was already re-married when they converted and persisted in that relationship after conversion, they persist in committing adultery according to Matthew 19:9. Jesus does not limit or restrict His instruction regarding marriage, divorce, and re-marriage to believers; He speaks in universal terms: “whosoever…everyone” (Matthew 5:32). It is well and good when people come to faith in Christ and convert, yet that conversion does not eliminate the consequences of past behavior nor does it sanctify what was previously condemned.

Some attempt to suggest that unbelievers are not amenable to the standard set in the Gospel of Christ. But Jesus Himself says that His word will be the standard of judgment for everyone on the last day (John 12:48); Peter declared that Jesus is Lord of all, and thus all are subject to Him and the standard by which He will judge the world (Acts 10:36). If this were the case, then the worst thing we could ever do to anyone is to preach them the Gospel and thus render them amenable to what Christ has said! May it never be; the apostolic witness is certain that all are subject to Christ whether they seek to obey Him or resist His will (Acts 17:30-31).

Some may wonder whether God truly joins two people in marriage who do not honor Him as God (Matthew 19:6). We may have all confidence that God does not join in marriage two who have no right to be married to one another, whether on account of one or both having already been joined to another in marriage, are of the same gender, etc. Yet we see no Scripture that suggests that God only joins believers in marriage; marriage goes back to the creation and has been a normative institution throughout time in almost every culture (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:3-6). Furthermore, when people converted to Christ in the first century, we see no indication or suggestion that they needed to be truly and properly married now that they were in Christ; their existing marriage was reckoned as valid. Paul affirms that marriages between believers and unbelievers are valid and ought to be respected (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). All evidence shows that God does join a man and a woman in marriage if they so wish and have the right to be married whether they are believers or not.

Jesus’ instruction regarding marriage and divorce is difficult; such is why His disciples declared that under such conditions it was better not to be married (Matthew 19:10). Jesus did not entirely dissuade them, recognizing that many would have to be eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake (Matthew 19:11-12). God designed the marriage covenant to be exclusive and life-long in duration, in many ways the type or shadow of the spiritual fullness of the relationship between God and man (Ephesians 5:23-33); who are we to commend or justify relationships which Jesus has deemed adulterous? We ought to have compassion on those who are in difficult situations on account of past divorces, but our compassion should never lead us to commend or justify what Jesus has declared to be sinful. Let us affirm God’s intentions for marriage despite cultural trends!

Ethan R. Longhenry

3 Responses

  1. Larry Devore

    Excellent article, Ethan.

  2. Thank you for the article, Ethan. I appreciate your heart for preventing divorce. If I may respectfully disagree with the theology behind the article, I believe it put scripture in conflict with itself, which cannot be a correct interpretation. Some of the conclusions expressed are poised to break up legitimate families, harming the body of Christ.

    Please consider: This article assumes that when Jesus referred to “putting away” a wife, He was referring to the full, legal divorce procedure allowed by God in Deut. 24:1-4 to free a woman to “go be another man’s wife.” The article assumes Jesus was NOT referring to simply sending a woman away WITHOUT divorcing her, which was an act of disobedience to Deut. 24.

    That interpretation cannot be correct.

    Please consider:

    1. Jesus affirmed every last partial letter of the Law in Matthew 5:17-19. The Law allowed a divorced woman to “go be another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:1-2), and the context of this allowance was while her former husband was still alive. We know the former husband was still alive because he was forbidden from taking her back if her second marriage ended due to death or divorce (Deut. 24:3-4). – To say that Jesus affirmed the Law in Matthew 5:17-19 and then contradicted it just a few verses later (v32) is not sound exegesis.

    It’s worth noting that the religious leaders were very eager to catch Jesus teaching against the Law. If they had understood Jesus to be changing morality from ALLOWANCE of marriage after divorce to PROHIBITION of marriage after divorce, they would have been overjoyed. Finally, they would’ve had grounds to charge Jesus. But as we know, they never had legitimate grounds to charge Him. Jesus’ enemies could not prove Jesus taught against the Law, so we as Jesus’ friends certainly cannot interpret Jesus statements that way.

    2. Paul stated that “all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) The NT did not exist yet, so the only scripture available for teaching and training (etc.) was the OT. God’s only OT commands regarding divorce and marriage for the divorced were that they are both ALLOWED. What a strange verse 2 Tim. 3:16 would be if the only divorce scriptures available at the time were actually in conflict with God’s standards.

    3. Scripture itself spends several CHAPTERS confirming that Deut. 24 is from God and not simply a sinful allowance of Moses (as some interpret Matt. 19:8 and Mark 10:5 to mean). If we read Deut. chapters 4-8, 10, 11, and 28-32, we see God’s people are told over and over (and over) to be careful to obey ALL the commands given that day AND to avoid adding to or subtracting from those commands.

    The article states, “In Christ a divorced person is given two options: remain unmarried or reconcile to the spouse to whom God joined them (1 Corinthians 7:11). If such a person converted and then married someone else, they would be guilty of adultery according to Matthew 5:32.” — Paul gives another option in the same chapter you cite. Paul says, “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned” (1 Cor 7:27-28a).

    Paul’s advice to those who were once bound to a wife but are now released is to not marry. BUT he says that if they do marry, they have NOT sinned. They have not committed adultery or any other sin.

    So if we take both Matthew 5:32 and 1 Cor. 7:27-28a to be correct, we see that “putting away” a wife is different from being “released” from a wife. Putting away results in adultery, but release does not. This makes complete sense: If a man simply sent his wife away (NOT divorcing her), then anyone who married her would be stealing another man’s wife – textbook adultery, according to the scriptures available to Jesus and Paul. But if a man legally divorced his wife, another man could marry her without committing marital theft – again, according to the scriptures available to Jesus and Paul. (We cannot rightly interpret Jesus or Paul to be teaching morality that is contrary to the only scriptures available in their time.)

    Please also consider: In stating that “a divorced person is given two options: remain unmarried…,” the article forgets that scripture allows men to have more than one wife. A man who divorced one wife might still be married to another. He could not be “unmarried” without going through another divorce. Such is the case with God Himself in a metaphor He gives in Jeremiah 3:8. When He divorced his wife Israel, He lamented that His other wife Judah was also unfaithful. God was divorced from Israel yet still married to Judah. (See Hosea chapters 1-2 for additional confirmation that God was divorced from Israel.)

    Please understand: I do NOT condone all divorce. It is entirely possible to unjustly divorce a loving spouse for selfish reasons. I make no defense for that behavior. What I defend is the legitimacy of marriage for those who have unfortunately experienced divorce. They are not in adulterous marriages. As believers in Jesus, they do not need to divorce or split up their families.

    There are many scriptures and translation considerations on this topic. For detailed discussions of them, please see this video: http://youtu.be/fOJmTy33FS8

    (Click “Show More” in the description area between the video and the comments.)

    Thank you for considering my thoughts on this!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Jamie.

      I fundamentally disagree with the premise that Matthew 5:17-19 demands that Jesus affirms for everything in the Law to remain true in the new covenant. Mark 7 is sufficient to show the impossibility of that interpretation; Mark interprets Jesus’ declaration as making all foods clean, affirmed later in Romans 14 among other places. Jesus observes the Law, embodies the fulfillment of the Law, and expects adherence to the Law while it remains in force, absolutely; nevertheless, His death and resurrection change the situation entirely as seen most clearly from Hebrews 7:1-9:28.

      Matthew 19:8 provides Jesus’ commentary on Deuteronomy 24:1-44. He doesn’t deny it is part of the Law or that it means anything other than what the school of Hillel says it means. And then He swiftly declares that it has not been God’s intention from the creation. God’s purposes from the creation are seen in Matthew 19:4-6 and its implications in Matthew 19:9, as well as seen in condensed form in Matthew 5:32.

      As to 2 Tim. 3:16, in 1 Tim. 5 Paul declares part of Luke’s Gospel to be Scripture, so the suggestion that the only written Scriptures around were OT is not tenable.

      If Jesus means what He says, and it all is in harmony and makes sense, then your understanding of Matthew 5:17-19 cannot be reconciled with Matthew 19:8. The problem is not with Jesus’ words but what you insist He must mean in Matthew 5. Once that is understood your other objections cannot stand.

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