American civilization is experiencing significant moral decay. “Traditional American values,” i.e., values that were drawn from the Bible, are being jettisoned by a sizable portion of the nation’s citizenry. This spiritual and social deterioration is nowhere more evident than in the breakdown and dissolution of the family. Divorce rates have consistently climbed to higher and higher levels. The marriage relationship no longer commands the respect it once did. This God-ordained institution, though originally intended to be held in honor and sanctity, has been significantly undermined and cheapened.
The religious response to this situation generally has been accommodative, as many within the church find their own families adversely affected by divorce. They have been intimidated by two factors: (1) the large numbers of divorced people; and (2) the emotional trauma associated with divorce. “Rethinking” their understanding of Bible teaching, they have decided to relax the high standards that God enjoined. The various viewpoints now available to those who wish to justify their marital decisions are legion.
The clear teaching of the Bible is that God wants one man for one woman for life (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). The only exception to this foundational premise was articulated by Jesus when He said a person is permitted to divorce the original mate only for the specific reason of that mate’s sexual infidelity. Then and only then may the innocent mate form a second marriage with an eligible partner (Matthew 19:9). Consequently, the primary thrust of Scripture as it pertains to marriage is “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). In fact, He permits it on only one ground.
This divine aversion to divorce refers specifically to divorce that occurs between two people who are scripturally married. Men and women who marry for the first time in their youth should so conduct themselves that they remain together. God does not want that first marriage to dissolve. He hates it when these couples unscripturally dissolve their scriptural marriage. Unscriptural divorce is the kind of divorcing that God hates.
However, not all divorce is contrary to God’s will. Jesus said an individual has permission to divorce the mate that commits fornication (Matthew 19:9). So divorce for that innocent marriage partner is not sinful. In Ezra’s day, exiled Jews had formed illicit marriages and were required to sever those marriages (Ezra 10:3,11). Divorce in that instance was likewise not sinful. John the baptizer informed Herod that when he married Herodias, he was sinning, and would have to dissolve the marriage (Mark 6:17-18). Divorce in that case was not sinful. When Paul identified several Corinthian Christians as having previously been adulterers (1 Corinthians 6:9), the putting away (i.e., divorce) that would have been necessary to end their adultery in order to be “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11) would not have been sinful. (The same principle would have applied equally to all other forms of fornication mentioned in the context—including homosexuality). These scriptural examples show that not all divorce is wrong in God’s sight.
On the other hand, much of the divorcing that is occurring today is contrary to the will of God. Any person who divorces their scriptural spouse for any reason, other than fornication, is sinning in so doing. They sin when they divorce! They sin on at least two counts. First, they sin because they have divorced for some reason other than fornication. Second, they sin because they violated the vows they took when they married (i.e., “until death do us part”).
In this divorced condition (i.e., having divorced for some reason other than fornication), the individual has placed himself in a predicament that comes under additional divine restrictions. Paul pinpointed those restrictions in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where he insisted that scripturally married couples ought not to divorce. However, should their marriage break up unscripturally, both are to remain unmarried. Some feel this verse does not refer to a technical divorce but merely to a separation. Either way, their breakup (whether by separation or divorce) is contrary to God’s will, and neither of the two is eligible to marry someone else.
People are permitted to participate in marriage only insofar as God says they are eligible to do so. The Hebrews writer insisted that marriage (and the sexual relationship that accompanies marriage) is to be undertaken honorably—i.e., in accordance with God’s regulations. To engage in marriage (and the sexual relations that accompany marriage) out of harmony with God’s regulations is to be guilty of fornication and adultery (Hebrews 13:4). Fornication, by definition, refers to illicit sexual intercourse. Adultery is one type of fornication, and refers to the sexual relations between a man and a woman, at least one of whom has prior marital responsibilities. Adultery, by definition, derives its meaning on the basis of a person’s prior marital connections.
A person does not have to be married in order to please God and go to heaven. All a person has to be is a Christian. He does not have to be an elder, a deacon, or a preacher. He or she does not have to be a father, or a mother, or a parent. These are relationships and roles that God designed to be helpful to the human condition. However, not everyone qualifies to fill these roles, and people can go to heaven without ever occupying these roles. So it is with marriage. All people must meet God’s designated prerequisites before marriage may be had in honor. God nowhere promises anyone unlimited access to the marriage relationship.
Notice, then, that in view of God’s regulations, three categories of divorced persons are ineligible to remarry: (1) the person who committed fornication and was divorced for that act by his or her spouse (Matthew 19:9a); (2) the person who was unscripturally divorced (i.e., put away for some reason other than fornication) by a spouse (Matthew 19:9b); and (3) the person who was deserted by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). In these three instances, the divorced person is ineligible to remarry. Putting the entire matter positively, the only divorced person who is eligible in God’s sight to remarry (while the former mate is still living—Romans 7:3) is the person who divorced his/her original mate for that mate’s sexual unfaithfulness.
Many people feel that such strict limitations are out of harmony with the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. They believe that such high standards make divorce the “unpardonable sin.” But this conclusion does not follow. People can be forgiven of mistakes they make in the realm of divorce and remarriage. Forgiveness is not the issue. The issue is: can they remain in whatever marriage relationship they choose? Can they so sin that they forfeit their right to participate in a future marriage relationship? Jesus made the answers to these questions clear in His discussion in Matthew 19:1-12. All people who divorce their scriptural mates for any reason except fornication continue to commit adultery when they remarry.
However, do we have any indication elsewhere in Scripture that people can so sin that they forfeit their privilege to participate in a state, condition, or relationship that they previously enjoyed—even though they may be forgiven? As a matter of fact, the Bible is replete with such instances! Adam and Eve violated God’s word and were responsible for introducing sin into the Universe. One consequence of their sin was that they were expelled from Eden. Could they be forgiven? Yes! Could they ever return to the garden? No! Their expulsion was permanent. They had so sinned that they forfeited the privilege of enjoying that previous status.
Esau was guilty of profanity when he sold his birthright (Hebrews 12:16). Could he be forgiven for this mistake? Yes! Could he regain his birthright? No, “though he sought it diligently with tears” (Hebrews 12:17)!
Virtually the entire adult population of the nation of Israel sinned when they refused to obey God by proceeding with a military assault against the land of Canaan (Numbers 14:11-12). Could they be forgiven? Yes, and they were (Numbers 14:19-20). Were they then permitted to enter into the Promised Land? Absolutely not! They were doomed to wander in the desert for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34).
Moses allowed himself to be goaded into disobedience on one occasion by the incessant complaining of the nation committed to his keeping (Numbers 20:7-12). Could Moses be forgiven? Yes! In heaven, we will sing the song of Moses and the Lamb (Revelation 15:3)! But was Moses permitted to enter into the Promised Land? No. He was banned permanently from that privilege due to his own sinful choice (Deuteronomy 32:51-52).
Eli failed to manage his family properly, and so brought down upon himself lasting tragedies (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Though Saul acknowledged his own sin, his disobedience evoked God’s permanent rejection of him as king (1 Samuel 15:11,23,26,28). Samuel never visited Saul again. David’s sin, though forgiven, brought several negative consequences that could not be altered (2 Samuel 12:11-14). Solomon’s sin resulted in personal calamity and the division of the nation (1 Kings 11-12).
These biblical examples demonstrate that sin produces lasting consequences, despite the availability of God’s grace and forgiveness. If biblical history teaches us anything, it teaches that people cannot sin and then expect to have things the way they were before. More often than not, much suffering comes upon those who violate God’s will, making it impossible for them to enjoy past privileges—though they can be forgiven and have the hope of heaven.
Many people feel that God would be unkind, unfair, or overly harsh if He did not permit divorced and remarried couples to stay together, regardless of their previous marital choices. Undoubtedly, these same people would feel that God was unfair to Adam and Eve for ejecting them from the garden, making it impossible for them to enjoy the condition that they once sustained! That would mean that God was unfair and harsh toward the Israelites as well as Moses! Such thinking betrays an inaccurate and unscriptural grasp of the nature and person of God. It reflects a failure to possess a healthy fear of God (Exodus 20:5; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Luke 12:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Hebrews 10:31; 12:29; Revelation 6:16-17).
God elevated the marriage relationship to a high plane when, at the beginning of the human race, He laid down the strict standards that govern marriage (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). Many apparently feel that they have a right to be married regardless of their previous conduct. They feel that God’s high standards ought to be adjusted in order for them to exercise their “right.” Yet, the Bible teaches that the institution of marriage was founded by God to provide cohesion and orientation in life. Unlike one’s spiritual marriage (i.e., to Christ), which will proceed right on into eternity, human marriage is for this life alone (Matthew 22:30). Therefore, marriage is not a right; it is a privilege. People must conform to God’s marriage rules in order for marriage to serve its earthly purpose. Failure to comply neutralizes the ability of the marriage institution to do what it was divinely designed to do. Failure to comply with God’s “directions for use” causes us to forfeit our opportunity to participate in the institution. We must remember: Father knows best.
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