Questions & Answers

Does God Ever Allow Divorce?

There are few areas of believer's lives where more harm has been inflicted upon hurting souls by ministers themselves than in the turbulent and delicate area of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. We have seen hearts broken, and homes divided, by the foolish counsel of religious men, well-meaning certainly, but without that healing touch of God's truth, which binds up the broken-hearted, and sets the captives free. "The wisdom that is from above", wrote James, "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy" (James 3:17).

Before giving counsel to anyone, any pastor worth hearing will first determine to which group the person whom he is counselling belongs, because the counsel of God is different for each group. Having made that determination, the understanding counsellor will search for other distinctions within each group. For example, if the believer he is counselling is separated or divorced, is the bliever he is counselling separated or divorced from another believer, or from an unbeliever? And if he or she is separated from another believer, was that other believer guilty of infidelity? Or, for another example, if the believer being counselled is married to an unbeliever, is the unbeliever a good spouse, faithful and loving, or is that spouse abusive and unfaithful? Such considerations make a tremendous difference in the counsel which should be given.

Many now who, upon reading some of Jesus' words concerning marriage, have unwisely assumed that those words apply to all marriages. The heartache and confusion which this has caused is immeasurable.

With that, we first must define "a believer" and an "unbeliever". Without that understanding, counsel in this matter will be thrown askew. A "believer" is one who has received the baptism of the holy Ghost and been put into the congregation by Jesus Christ (1Cor.12:13). An "unbeliever" is anyone who has not been "born of the Spirit" or "baptized with the holy Ghost" (which are two ways of saying the same thing).

Our hope is that you will gain from these instructions concerning divorce a deeper appreciation of God's love and compassion for men and women who find themselves in unsavory and difficult situations.

We should also note that in no verse of the holy Scripture can one find instructions from God to the unconverted world at large concerning marital issues. The commandments of God which we find in the Scriptures are, without exception, written, or in the case of Jesus' words, spoken, to those who were in covenant with God. The standing commandment for sinners is, "repent." Once a sinner obeys that essential commandment and is converted to Christ, then the instructions concerning marriage will apply.

THE UNMARRIED

For those who have never married, the instructions are, to control the lusts of the flesh, to be morally pure before the Lord, and to marry if they desire to do so. For those who "have power over their own will" and have determined to remain single, permission, even encouragement, is given to remain unmarried (1Cor.7:7-9). But this is a choice which must be made "in his heart" (1Cor.7:37). Celibacy cannot be imposed upon anyone. No one but God has that authority, and he has not done it.

The penalties which God ordained for immorality were severe. Accordingly, the warnings against immorality were stern. The death penalty was to be imposed for fornication (Dt.22:20-21; 1Cor.6:9-10), adultery (Lev.20:10; Dt.22:22-24), whoredom (Lev. 21:9; Eph.5:5), rape (Dt.22:25-27), incest (Lev.18:6-18,29; 20:11-12, etc.; Dt.27:20,22,23), homosexuality (Lev.18:22; 20:13; Dt.23:17-18), bestiality (Ex.22:19; Lev.20:15-16; 18:23; Dt.27:21). "Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."

The never-married believer's liberty to marry or not to marry is an unalienable privilege in Christ. Paul spoke of evil men who would come, forbidding some to marry (1Tim.4:1-3). These false teachers were, and are, believers in Christ, who "depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils." The never-married believer is absolutely free to choose whatever he or she will, concerning marriage. The only restriction is that, if the believer decides to marry, he or she must marry another believer! Would to God that this warning were sounded from every pulpit: MARRIAGE TO AN UNBELIEVER IS SIN!

An examination of the commandments concerning believers who divorce follows:

If divorce involves two believers (two people married and both with the holy Ghost), remarriage (to others) is simply forbidden (with exceptions noted below).. Reconciliation is possible. The two believers do not have to remain separated. But remarriage to others is not permitted to two believers who divorce. They must remain single until Jesus comes, or be reconciled to one another. Even in the Law of Moses, God forbade a man to marry his wife's sister while his wife was still living (Lev.18:18). If a believing man were to divorce a believing woman and then marry another believing woman, he would be doing precisely that. He would be marrying his wife's sister (in Christ), thus causing unnecessary division in the family of God. Moreover, if a believer leaves his believing spouse and marries another believer, not only has he committed spiritual incest with his living wife's sister, he has committed adultery against his wife, thus giving his wife grounds upon which she may divorce him and remarry - but again, only in the Lord. The simple rule to remember concerning separated believers is that separated believers may not marry. They may be reconciled to one another, but never another believer while the first spouse is still living and has not been immoral.

According to the Bible, however, reconciliation is permitted only if neither of the two marry and divorce someone else during the separation (Dt.24:1-4). God in no way endorses rotating marriage partners. I do not believe that it is the will of God under this New Covenant, for believers to partake of the carnival atmosphere which now surrounds the world's idea of marriage. It is a holy institution, and should be entered into with all sincerity and commitment. Anything less than that is ungodly and unworthy of the blessing of Christ. In the world to come, marriage and reproduction will be forgotten experiences, "for in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage" (Mt.22:30), but so far as this life is concerned, marriage between two believers is to be permanent.

But what, one may wonder, if one of the married believers turns away from Christ and abandons his believing spouse?

There is no one who is more practical than God. In a sense, no one is more "down to earth" than Jesus. Jesus knows that, sadly, there will be some cases in which a believer "backslides" into wickedness and renounces the faith. When a believer is married to such a person, Jesus made provision for the believer to divorce that fallen one and remarry (Mt.19:9; 1Cor.7:15). In no case does the Lord require a believer to endure endless abuse and degradation at the hands of a man or a woman who has cast off their faith and returned to the vomit of sin. If a believing husband sets his heart on the pleasures and possessions of this world, and refuses to turn from his infidelity, his believing wife is free to pursue eternal life alone or, if she desires, with another mate in Christ. Such a man is a reprobate, a reject of the kingdom of God (Tit.3:10), and a faithful woman in Christ is not required to spend her life in loneliness because of her unfaithful husband's apostasy.

This is not to suggest that if one errs from the faith, his believing companion is given license to forsake him quickly. The privilege, in certain extreme conditions, of a believing man or woman to remarry even if he or she is divorced from another believer should not be used as a "loophole" for a believer to abandon his or her unbelieving spouse out of a lack of patience and faith that God can heal a troubled marriage. Divorce is not a gimmick to be used as an escape from responsibility The love of God forbids that. In all cases, as Paul noted, "God has called us to peace." If a believing husband becomes slack in the faith, methods are given in the Scriptures for the believing wife to win the man again to the right way. Peter wrote to women who find themselves in such a case, "Ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands, that if any obey not the word, they may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives, while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear." Divorce is not the answer for a believing couple. Reconciliation, through patience and forgiveness, is. To both husbands and wives, Peter continues by saying, "Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing. But contrariwise, blessing, knowing that ye are thereto called, that ye should inherit a blessing" (1Pet.3:8-9).

So, the believing spouse of a backslidden saint is required by the love and holiness of God to give the backslider every opportunity to see the error of his or her way. The only exception to this rule is in cases of adultery. If a believer commits adultery, the believing spouse is at liberty to leave immediately. There is no commandment of God which would require a believer to submit himself or herself to the possibility of contracting a disease from an unfaithful spouse.

So, the truth concerning believers married to believers is that they are permitted to divorce, but if they divorce for any reasons other than infidelity to the marriage vows, they may never marry again (however, they may be reconciled to one another). The only exception to this very rigid rule is, if one of the believers in a marriage becomes unfaithful to Christ and stubbornly refuses, over a period of time, to turn from his wickedness. His suffering spouse will, at some point, be set free to continue in the faith as he or she will, either alone or with another mate in Christ. There is no prescribed "time limit" for patience on the part of the suffering spouse. Only by knowing the Spirit of God can the believer know when his or her wayward spouse has rejected God's last call. In cases of moral impurity or abuse, an abused believer is free, if he or she will, to divorce immediately, with liberty to remarry, but only to another believer. He or she is also free to decide to forgive the repentant spouse and to stay with them. It is altogether the choice of the offended spouse.

These are the commandments regarding divorce for believers married to unbelievers:

As we have seen, the will of God concerning the conduct of His children is unquestionably clear. We need not belabor the point. The cloudiness comes when ignorant men lay burdens upon the saints which are not of the Lord, "thinking to do Him a service." Many believers today are married to unbelievers, and are not being told the truth as to either their responsibilities or their options. As a result, they are afraid to feel what they feel, to think what they think, and to do what, in many instances, the Spirit of the Lord is leading them to do. The truth about marital responsibilities of a believer married to an unbeliever, and the options for divorce will set the child of God free to live according to the true will of a very good God.

If divorce involves a believer and an unbeliever, the circumstances must be considered. It must first be said, however, that this situation, believer married to unbeliever, should never exist, except when one of two sinners comes to Christ after they are married. A believer who marries an unbeliever, and puts himself or herself in that terrible position, has already sinned. And it may be that the only way for the believer to repent is simply to get out of the ungodly marriage, as the Israelites were forced to do, after they had rebelled against God's commandment to abstain from marrying the ungodly (Ezra 9,10; Neh.13:23-31).

Jesus, during his earthly ministry, never spoke to this situation. This is an extremely important point. What Jesus said about divorce and remarriage applies only to believers who are married to another believer. When Paul gave his instructions for believers married to unbelievers, he said, "I speak, not the Lord" (1Cor.7:12).

There are, according to Paul, two kinds of unbelieving spouses, the one who is "pleased to dwell" with the believer and the one who is not "pleased to dwell" with the believer. If the unbeliever is pleased to dwell with the believer, the believer may not leave him (1Cor.7:12-13). If the unbeliever is not "pleased to dwell" with the believer, the believer is at liberty to make a choice concerning the marriage (1Cor.7:15-17). What is the difference between a pleased-to-dwell-with unbeliever and a not-pleased-to-dwell-with unbeliever? The Bible gives us but one difference by which we can make such a judgment. Paul says it this way: The [pleased-to-dwell-with] unbelieving husband is sanctified by the [believing] wife, and the [pleased-to-dwell-with] unbelieving wife is sanctified by the [believing] husband. Else were your children unclean. But now they are holy."

Now, any sensible person knows that God is the only One who is able to sanctify anyone. No wife can sanctify her husband, and no husband can sanctify his wife. The point Paul is trying to make here is that if an unbelieving spouse is truly pleased to dwell with a believer, he or she will follow the believer into the way of life. That is the only way we are given in the Scriptures by which we may judge whether or not an unconverted person is pleased with a believing spouse. How can an unbelieving spouse be pleased, from the heart, to live with a believing spouse without following that spouse into eternal life? We are to judge whether or not we have a pleased-to-dwell-with spouse or a not-pleased-to-dwell-with spouse by their response to Christ, and that alone. If they follow the believer into sanctification, they are pleased to dwell with the believer. If they reject sanctification, they are not pleased to dwell with the believer. It never gets any more complicated than that.

"If the unbelieving depart," wrote Paul, "let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such a case" (1Cor. 7:15). The word "bondage" here, as in other places (i.e. 1Cor. 7:39; Rom.7:2-3), means bound in a legal sense, that is, not permitted by the law of God to marry another. If a believing woman finds that her unbelieving husband has deserted her, she is free from that unbeliever to pursue life as she will, under God, either alone or with a mate in Christ. If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. The sole reason God allows such a marriage to continue is to save the unbeliever, anyway. The believer is not bound. The never-remarry-under-any-circumstance activists labor incessantly to make Paul's phrase, "not in bondage", mean only that the spouse is no longer obligated to perform their duties of marriage. Still, they contend, the separated persons are commanded never to remarry. This is contrary to every scripture and all reason. "In bondage" (e.g. Rom.7:2) clearly means that one is required by God to remain married. "Not in bondage" clearly means that one is permitted to remarry. There is no need to attempt to squeeze any other meaning out of that easily understood phrase.

But I want to give to the word "depart" a wider definition than the reader may have in his mind. I believe that if an unbelieving spouse gambles away the family's food money, he has departed. I believe that if the unbelieving spouse physically abuses his partner, he has departed. I believe that if the unbelieving spouse sexually abuses the children, he has departed. And I believe that if the unbelieving spouse commits any other crimes of equal seriousness, or breaks the vows upon which any legitimate marriage is founded, he or she is not pleased to dwell with the believing spouse and has, in fact, departed. A brother or a sister is not in bondage in such cases.

Let me re-emphasize the fact that time must be given to an unbelieving spouse, even one who has a difficult time adjusting to his converted spouse's new, godly lifestyle. He married a sinner. Now converted, his spouse is, in a very real sense, not the person the unbelieving spouse married. Any truly just person is eager to give the unbeliever time to adjust and consider the difference. Sometimes, the unconverted spouse is not resisting the call of God. He is simply waiting to see if the change is genuine, or if it is just a "phase" through which the believer is passing. God may give the unbeliever years to come to Him. Especially if the believing spouse fails to be the faithful witness which the unbeliever needs. The called out ones must know the mind of the Spirit well enough to be able to tell if and when it is time for the believer to move on, leaving the displeased unbeliever behind. This assumes, however, that the believer treats the unbelieving spouse with dignity and all fidelity. The sincere desire of any right-spirited believer will be for his or her marriage to succeed, to the glory of God, and for the unbeliever to know the peace of Christ. There have always been some in the kingdom of God who would abuse the privileges given to them. They will receive their damnation in their time. The instructions given to saints concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage work for our benefit only as we follow them in charity and in good faith. Apart from the love, sincerity, and holiness of God, none of these commandments can be rightly understood or properly obeyed. God has called us to peace. "As much as lieth in you," Paul taught, "live peaceably with all men." This commandment applies most of all to the believer's relationship to those in his or her own home.

The believer is required to yield to the unbeliever in everything that does not compromise the standard of holiness which God demands of all his children. We are to be examples of "bending over backwards" to be at peace with others. The mercy of God, however, has provided the believer with a way out of the situation in which the believer has obeyed the will of God in his or her behavior toward the unbelieving spouse, and the unbeliever has steadfastly rejected the way of peace for the ways of the world. The believer is free in Christ to choose to be alone or to make the journey home with another believer, when the unbeliever resolutely turns his or her back on Christ.

Closing thoughts...

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his time for heaping burdensome doctrines on the backs of God's people (Lk.11:46) This happens now, every time a wrong message is delivered to a child of God, burdening his life with commandments grievous to obey, and making the will of God that much more difficult to discern. To those who are trying to serve God while bearing these burdens of the doctrines of men, Jesus pleads, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Jesus will give you rest from your confusion, loneliness and fear. He will lift from your weary back the heaviness of misunderstanding the will of God for your life. And the relief comes when one at last learns that God is, indeed, good. God is, and always has been, more compassionate, more forgiving, and more tolerant, than men are even able to be. I can think of no way in which the disparity between the mercy and reasonableness of God and the harshness and blindness of men is more clearly delineated than by comparing what the Scriptures teach concerning marriage and divorce to what some men teach.

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