I felt condemned for being divorced. Well-meaning comments from acquaintances like, “Divorce is a sin, but God forgives,” and “When there is a divorce, both parties are at fault.” trivialized the endless agony that goes into the divorce of a Christian.
Instruction from the pulpit on the topic of divorce is either nonexistent or inconsistent.
Despite being shunned by Christian friends at the time, I look back on my divorce and see the Holy Spirit directing events. Driving away from the attorney’s office after filing for divorce, I was clearly reminded by the Holy Spirit of the verse, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Why did He commend me when I felt so torn up inside?
During the ensuing years, however, I have come to see that my internal conflict about Christian divorce was based on misunderstanding of scripture. Four points clarify Christian marriage, divorce, and remarriage. All are based on the covenant model as portrayed throughout both the Old and New Testaments:
Marriage is a covenant between two people
Divorce dissolves the marriage covenant that has already been killed by one party
Transition period gives time to heal
Remarriage is the formation of a new covenant
WHAT IS A COVENANT?
A covenant is defined as a “formal, solemn, and binding agreement.” It is entered into by mutual agreement of two parties. Second Chance — Biblical Principles of Divorce and Remarriage by Ray R. Sutton describes marriage as a covenant entered into by a man and woman. Sutton explains that the Old Testament takes this view illustrated by Malachi 2:14, “…because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.”
In the early centuries of the church, divorce was granted for such crimes a adultery, witchcraft, and wife-beating. Remarriage often followed. During the Reformation as well, Martin Bucer among other influential teachers saw marriage and divorce based on the covenantal model and determined that divorce was permissible for any type of fornication, witchcraft, insanity, and contagious incurable disease, like leprosy.
HOW CAN A COVENANT BE BROKEN?
While it takes two parties to enter a covenant, it only takes one party to kill it, just as it only takes one to destroy the terms of a legal contract.
The most obvious way the marriage contract is broken is through the physical death of one spouse. In the Old Testament, “divorce” was carried out by a literal physical execution of the guilty party for capital offenses, which were the same as what most people would consider divorceable offenses today, such as adultery, rape, incest, homosexuality, bestiality, murder, child-sacrifice, witchcraft, and blasphemy. “Divorce by death made remarriage possible, and freed the innocent partner from bondage to a guilty and unclean person,” writes Rousas John Rushdoony in The Institutes of Biblical Law.
Today, people are not executed for the above practices, but such behaviors kill the marriage covenant, causing covenantal death.
WHAT IS COVENANTAL DEATH?
Adam and Eve were instructed by God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or they would surely die. They did eat. Did they physically die? Not right away. However, they died covenantally with God.
Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of is death…” If this were physical death, we all would be dead, because we have earned death, but believers have been forgiven for their sin. What about all the sinners in the world? Are they dead physically? No, but they are dead covenantally.
A few verses later Paul writes in Romans 7:2 “…by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.” Sutton raises the question that within the context, isn’t Paul talking about covenantal death either by physical death or by a deliberate breaking of the marriage covenant by ethical violation?
The Westminster Confession of Faith, the historic seventeenth century creed of the Presbyterian Church, states that it is lawful for the innocent person in a adultery-caused divorce case to marry another, as if the offending party were physically dead.
Sutton writes, “Death is covenantal in the Bible, not mere cessation of existence. It is the loss of a relationship with God through an ethical violation of the original bond. It is the severance of the fundamental God/man union, due to disobedience to the covenant-terms, and unlike the pagan view of death, it does not mean a ‘loss of being.’ Once created, people never lose their being, not even in hell, which is why hell is such a terror. No, death occurs when a person’s relationship to God is broken through covenant-breaking.” Therefore, covenantal death can occur while both parties are still physically alive, and divorce is application of the death penalty.
Wherein had my marriage covenant been broken? I asked myself when I understood the concept of covenantal death. It became clear that my Christian husband had broken the marriage covenant in several ways, causing me to be rejected and alone with three children without financial support long before I filed for divorce.
WHAT ABOUT DIVORCE?
The Old Testament speaks of a bill of divorce. Mosaic law gave Deuteronomy 24:1 “… a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.”
Referring to Jeremiah 3:8, which tells of God’s divorcing His chosen people due to their following after foreign gods, Rushdoony says, “divorce is here certainly not seen as a barely tolerated evil, as some would have it. The bill of divorce, or writing of excision or repudiation was not the evil but dealt with the evil.”
He goes on to remind us that our society is part of a sinful order since the fall of man, and divorce is a way of dealing with that sinful order so that people may get on with their lives.
This is why Jesus says in Matthew 19:8, …”Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” He is saying that in the original created order before the fall of man, divorce was not a part of the plan. It was not needed because life on earth was perfect, heavenly. After the fall, divorce was needed, therefore, because sin entered the picture.
The Pharisees, trying to stir up contention and controversy with Jesus about the reasons for divorce, asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason (Matthew 19:3 NIV)?”
Referring to Mosaic law about divorce, Jesus answered the Pharisees that writing a certificate of divorce should not be taken as a legislative privilege, as some men at that time were taking it, simply because the wife no longer found favor in the husband’s eyes, for example, if his wife served the food too hot or the husband had found someone else.
Jesus brought to their attention that the law states that a man writes a certificate of divorce after “a woman becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her.” The Mosaic guidelines were clear. A certificate of divorce had to have just cause; something indecent had to be found about her.
Note that Jesus uses the word “fornication” (porneia), not “adultery” (moicheia), as we have often been told in error in our churches, when He answers them about the acceptable cause for divorce. Had Jesus meant to use the more limited word adultery, he would have.
Both the root words for indecent behavior (Deuteronomy 24:1) and fornication (Matthew 19:9) “denote generic, ethically abhorrent misbehavior with the focus on sexual immorality.” Jesus was taking a stand to uphold the law as it was originally intended, a law which was more protective of women than the current practices of His day.
The word fornication refers to a broader group of sins or uncleanness than does the word adultery. Fornication is frequently used metaphorically in the Bible referring to forsaking God or following after idols. Indeed, Sutton contends that fornication includes not only all manner of sexual sins but also all the capital offenses of the Bible and are parallel to the offenses listed in the Thou-shalt-nots of the Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, sins against a spouse are basically the same as sins against God “…because of the relationship of the offenses between God and man, and husband and wife, the capital offenses of the Biblical covenant are the divorceable offenses of the marital covenant.”
What are the divorceable offenses? Sutton lists two broad categories. The first group includes sins against God including idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft, divination, and spiritism.
The second group consists of sins against the spouse. This group is then divided into two subgroups: the first subgroup includes all sexual sins, and second is a subgroup he calls “murder.” Murder includes physical abuse and desertion (physical and sexual), infant sacrifice, and failure to provide economically. As you can see, the list of divorceable offenses includes far more than adultery.
Concerning physical abuse, too often, churches will counsel an abused wife to return to a dangerous, even life-threatening, situation, using Ephesians 5:22 as their proof-text whip, “Wives, submit to your husbands….” They fail to quote the rest of the passage about how husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. After all, the elders point out, if the scoundrel hasn’t committed adultery, the wife has no grounds to leave him. What?
Speaking on Romans 13:1, Steve Wilkins, pastor of Auburn Ave. Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Louisiana, USA, says that because all authority comes from God, authority within the family government must be exercised under God’s true authority. He goes on to say
If any [authority]seeks to cast off the authority of God, at that point, it is claiming to be God itself and it falls under the condemnation of God at that point and forfeits the right it had to subjection and submission and honor to those who were under its authority. So, if there is a man who seeks to tyrannize his family, who beats his wife, who abuses his children, who seeks to injure them day by day, that man has forfeited his right to submission from his wife and children because he is not exercising his authoritative position under the authority of God. He is a tyrant in his family and he is not to be obeyed at those points.
What about other areas of marital discord not specified in any Biblical chapter and verse? What about a spouse who is an unrepentant substance abuser? An alcoholic? Involved in criminal activity? What if love has died? What about the young wife who told me, “It’s pretty hard to respect him when he’s just a bum.”?
In addressing some of these unspecified areas, I recall that the Puritans, striving to build a society based on the Bible, took the general equity of the case laws of the Bible and applied them to real life concerns and issues of their day and culture for the general good of the population. That is, they studied the Bible and asked, How can we identify the intent of Biblical law and apply it today to help people live godly, peaceable lives?
Just as Jesus instructed His followers to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4-5), so suddenly single people should go through a period of covenantal transition. During transition, what are they to do? Prayerfully wait. The passage of time allows for inner healing and washing away of the effects of the death that the divorced person has experienced. For about two years I felt a deep grief about the death of my marriage.
WHAT ABOUT REMARRIAGE?
The wife of a tall, dark, handsome Christian man in his forties died. The widower began attending socials for singles, obviously enjoying the potluck dinners. He made it clear, however, that he was looking only for a woman who was a widow or who had never been married. He seemed to consider himself superior and purer than divorced people because his spouse had died. Now over ten years later, he remains tall, dark, handsome, and still single. Is Bob correct when he sentences innocent divorced women to lifetimes alone?
According to Jesus’ statement in Matthew, for people who divorce for reasons other than the broad cause of fornication, remarriage is adultery. The converse is then implied: for a person who divorces for an acceptable reason, remarriage is lawful and valid.
To sum up,
Covenant is established by mutual agreement —> Sins are committed against the spouse = sins against God —> death of covenant —> divorce —> transition period —> opportunity for new covenant
Greater knowledge of the covenant model has put to rest for me the dark spots of confusion I felt when Christians condemned me for filing for divorce. My mind as well as my heart are settled.
I sat on the wooden bench outside the old, quaint courtroom awaiting my final divorce hearing. I was alone because my only remaining friend had recently moved to another town.
A woman with her husband was also waiting in the corridor for some other kind of legal procedure. She paced apprehensively in front of me.
Suddenly, she stopped and said to me, “You’re waiting all alone.”
I answered, “Yes, but it’s all right. I don’t feel alone.”
She didn’t know that from early morning, the Holy Spirit had been singing continuously in my heart. Over and over He sang the old song, “Somebody’s praying for you…I can feel it.” To this day I don’t know who was praying for me, but that sweet song carried me through.
“Therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1 NIV).”