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