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We Have Left Everything

The idea that half of all marriages will end in divorce is a clever bit of statistical fiction, based on numbers that indicate, for instance, that in a certain year, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces; while that sounds like a fifty percent divorce rate, it ignores the fact that the two figures are almost entirely independent of each other. In other words, of the 1.2 million couples divorcing that year, very few were also among the 2.4 million that got married the same year. The 1.2 million divorcing couples were drawn from many different years of marriages. A statistical judgment on the likelihood of marital failure is difficult to ascertain, but an anecdotal observation of the number of divorces among our relatives, neighbors, friends, and even brethren is alarming enough to compel us to take the subject seriously.

I. Married For Life

A. God’s Will

1. while many animals mate instinctively, temporarily and promiscuously, God’s will for beings of higher thought and moral capacity included something more stable, mating, essentially, for life with few exceptions

2. the human species did not evolve from lower order animals, but was specially created by God, beginning with the male, followed by the female (Genesis 2:18-22)

3. the union of Adam and Eve was not as formal as weddings today, but still it formed the basis of marriage (Genesis 2:23-25)

a. the creation of a lasting bond and a new family

b. independence, although not isolation, from the family of one’s upbringing

c. commitment to, and dependence upon, the marriage partner

d. sexual intimacy, expressing extreme companionship, and allowing for procreation


B. Man’s Will

1. Adam was instantly enthusiastic about this arrangement, as would be many of his descendants, but a certain impatience or boredom with it would develop over time, leading to many marital betrayals – fornication, prostitution, adultery, abandonment, bestiality, incest, concubinage, polygamy, divorce

2. man’s will violated the ideal that Adam and Eve enjoyed, sometimes in the pursuit of greater sexual satisfaction, at other times to sire an heir in a fruitless marriage, and occasionally in the simple quest for novel forms of companionship

3. man’s selfish will required a divine response to reign throughout the period during which the Law of Moses was in effect, and the renewed idealism of the gospel waited to arrive

a. God chose to permit Moses to issue an allowance for divorcing the wife of one’s youth, provided she was likewise free to seek a new husband to care for her (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

b. this, however, did not validate all the sexual sin that prevailed throughout the Old Testament; sex outside of the marriage covenant remained sinful and punishable, even if it rarely followed

c. God was not giving up on his ideal human marital arrangement, but was preserving it for his son’s kingdom, the church, as he chose to overlook the sin until grace should come (Malachi 2:13-16)


C. Restoration of an Ideal

1. divorce was just as prominent an issue during the ministry of Christ as it is now; as every preacher must take a position on it today, so the rabbis were known for their stances when Jesus preached

2. two extremes had developed – some held that one could divorce for any cause, which is the legal case in America today, while others contended that one could only divorce for serious transgressions


3. Jesus was thrust into this controversy, as preachers are today when people either legitimately need guidance or are simply trying to compel everyone to line up on the issue

a. he confronted the subject intentionally in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:31-32)

1. clearly, he was a conservative on the issue, limiting divorce to a single, severe transgression, marital infidelity itself

2. moreover, he was taking direct issue with the Mosaic allowance, canceling it, and reasoning that subsequent remarriages would be without divine sanction, regardless of legal favor

b. later, he was approached about the same matter and invited to line up with one of the two major rabbinical schools of thought – liberal or conservative (Matthew 19:1-12)

1. once again, he looked past the desensitized customs of the Jews, and even exceeded the conservative stance of the day, to enjoin the idealism of making marriages for life that had greeted Adam and Eve at the altar: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6 ESV).

2. the hardness of heart that had made no-fault divorce so popular could never be harmonized with the nature of Christ’s kingdom, nor can it be today when divorce is so acceptable

3. notably, his disciples perceived the strictness of the Lord’s position, arguing, perhaps sarcastically, that it would be better not to marry if it meant being stuck with the same person for life, except that very few men can reasonably be expected to remain chaste outside marriage


D. Consistent Apostolic Teaching

1. the New Testament writers were remarkably consistent in repeating and applying the teaching of Christ on divorce and remarriage, refusing to liberalize the sole ground that he identified, even as the gospel message found its way into pagan lands and interrupted mixed-faith marriages

2. Paul was one of those figurative eunuchs who chose to forgo marriage, at least partially to make his apostolic work less complicated; Peter, on the other hand, was married, and even brought his wife along at times (see First Corinthians 9:5)

3. where Jesus was concerned with limiting divorce to cases of adultery, Paul confronted situations where there was no adultery, or where an unbeliever abandoned a Christian mate (First Corinthians 7:10-16)

a. ideally, married people should stay married and work out any problems that arise

b. if they choose to disrupt the union by divorcing or even living separately, they have already violated the ideal and should therefore be careful not to multiply and perpetuate the sundering of something God assembled by seeking or marrying a new mate

c. although now unmarried, they are not free to marry someone else, but should hope for reconciliation

d. in cases where an unbeliever abandons a believer, the Christian is not required to sacrifice conviction to preserve the union, but is likewise not permitted to marry a new mate; note as well that it is the non-Christian who does the abandoning, not the believer

e. the strictness and single ground that Jesus taught is respected in Paul’s writings


II. Divorce for the Kingdom’s Sake

A. Idealism

1. of course, the world is seldom ideal and even the marriages of two believers can be imperiled by selfishness, boredom, or infidelity

2. today, few jurisdictions are interested in establishing grounds for divorce and permit people to dissolve such contracts for any cause at all, similar to the liberal position in Christ’s day

3. churches have broadened their interpretation of these texts, finding all sorts of ways of accepting members regardless of past or current circumstances, because the doctrine of Christ is so different from what prevails in modern society

4. even the notion of escaping from a troubled marriage has become an emotional basis for expanding the teaching of Christ to permit many more divorces


B. Case Study: Peter

1. because Peter was present at the teaching of Christ and still active during the ministry of Paul, he makes for an interesting test case

2. Peter was not a figurative eunuch for the sake of the kingdom, being married even when Christ used him as an apostle: “And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him” (Matthew 8:14-15 ESV).

3. Peter was still a married man after the ascension of Christ and even brought his wife along with him during his apostolic travels: Paul asked, “Don't we have the right to bring a Christian wife along with us as the other disciples and the Lord's brothers and Peter do” (First Corinthians 9:5 NLT)?

4. Peter did not abandon his wife, but was still married, in apparent keeping with the demands of his faith that require of all of us the willingness to sacrifice and put the kingdom ahead of other noble objectives (Luke 14:25-26)

a. while Jesus insists that we “love less” even the people closest to us when compared with him, our savior, he nowhere demanded that people just abandon their families and marriages

b. they must, however, be prepared for conflicts arising over faith and be committed to serving Christ even ahead of such earthly interests as getting along with loved ones (Matthew 10:34-39; see also Mark 8:34-38)


C. For Christ’s Sake

1. undoubtedly, Peter was faithful in this demand, setting aside his fishing trade and leaving his wife at home alone at times while he went off to preach the gospel; still, he remained married while loving his wife less than Christ and risking his business to preach

2. the subject of making sacrifices for the sake of the kingdom came up again when the rich, young ruler walked away from Jesus rather than give up the idol his wealth had become (Luke 18:24-30)

a. parallel passages emphasize the reasonableness of great sacrifice, here for the kingdom, but for the sake of Christ, his name, and his gospel as well (see Mark 10:29, Matthew 19:29)

b. the sacrifices can be categorized into three groups

1. houses and properties

2. dear relationships with siblings and parents

3. even closer relationships with one’s wife and children

3. it is vital that we understand the context to describe acts of sacrifice rather than selfish or circumstantial abandonment of a burden

a. some would gladly give up worthless property or houses facing foreclosure

b. conflict with our parents and siblings is not something we try to create, nor does the teaching of Christ liberate us from the command to provide for them if they are in need; otherwise, Jesus would be drafting his own version of the Corban loophole (see Matthew 15:1-9, First Timothy 5:1-16)

c. Jesus is not giving Christians the right to avoid supporting and feeding their children, “For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children” (Second Corinthians 12:14 ESV).

4. interpreting this very dramatic requirement of discipleship as anything other than a willingness to sacrifice something dear to protect one’s kingdom citizenship or for temporary separation due to ministering invites all manner of biblical disharmony, leaving the text open to abuse by those with ulterior motives


D. Divorce for the Kingdom’s Sake

1. most notably, Jesus is not introducing a second, wide-open, ground for divorce or remarriage, that would not only permit, but actually encourage believers to abandon their spouses

2. the Lord’s teaching is not an extension of an allowance or given as a last resort when all else has failed, but is a requirement that we arrange our priorities to favor him

a. it is not authority to walk away from mortgaged property, to write off aged parents as they become a financial burden at the nursing home, or to dissolve a marriage that has become unhappy

b. recognize that Jesus was not issuing permission, but declaring a requirement – a requirement to be willing to sacrifice, not an allowance to get out of obligations

3. opening up a new ground for divorce based upon anything that makes discipleship difficult is a repudiation of the teaching of Christ in the sermon on the mount and before the Pharisees who pressed him for a clear position

4. if this is permission for the believer to abandon the difficult marriage, it is contradicted by Paul, who insisted, “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (First Corinthians 7:13 ESV).

a. moreover, because it would be illogical and impossible for an unbeliever to do anything for the sake of maintaining kingdom citizenship, this doctrine would create a situation in which Christians would have access to multiple causes for divorce, while non-Christians (Muslims, Hindus, atheists, possibly even Protestants and Catholics, etc.) would be limited to the ground of adultery

b. someone will have to explain to the prospective convert why he sinned when he put away his abusive wife, while the current church member who did the same was justified and approved

4. if this is permission for the believer to abandon the difficult marriage, it is contradicted by Paul, who insisted, “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him” (First Corinthians 7:13 ESV).

a. nothing in the seventh chapter of the first Corinthian letter encourages or approves the Christian’s pursuit of a divorce for a cause less than sexual immorality

b. while verse eleven explains what to do if an unscriptural divorce has been accomplished by you or against you, it does not nullify the fact that the unapproved divorce is a violation of God’s will

c. the ensuing verses do not give authority to a Christian to abandon a spiritually-challenging marriage, but only to accept abandonment by an unbeliever rather than compromise one’s convictions to sustain the mixed-faith union

5. recall that Peter claimed to have left his home – and everything, including his wife and children – in a demonstration of sacrifice to follow after Christ, but there is no evidence that he divorced, abandoned, or escaped the wife whose mother Jesus healed; if so, then he surely sinned by marrying the second wife that he took with him on preaching trips!


While Jesus requires sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom, he does not offer us excuses to escape difficult situations that might be resolved with counseling, the intervention of the church, or the support of law enforcement (see Galatians 6:1-2, First Corinthians 6:5-6, Acts 25:11). We must have great empathy for those in difficult marriages and offer ourselves as resources for support, guidance, and intervention. We must, however, also understand that encouraging divorce is dangerous because it not only violates the ideals of God, but it is frequently followed by unauthorized remarriages that perpetuate the problem.


Questions for Review

  1. What were the marital elements established in Eden?
  2. Why was man eventually dissatisfied with them?
  3. How did God respond through Moses?
  4. How did God respond through Jesus?
  5. What special issue did Paul confront in First Corinthians 7?
  6. What lessons did Jesus teach about priorities? 
  7. What must we do for the sake of the kingdom?

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