The legal grounds for divorce have been made easier in recent years. You may not need to prove adultery, or cruelty, although these can often speed up the case. In some countries a divorce can be obtained automatically after a few years of separation. And afterwards, both parties are free to marry someone else. An increasing number of marriages end in this way.
It is evident from the gospels that divorce was common in the first century. The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to put away his wife “for just any reason”(Matthew 19 v3). Some of them would claim the right to a divorce simply because their wife had failed to look after the house properly. It was easy to make up a suitable excuse if you wanted to marry someone else you fancied more. When Jesus insisted that this sort of divorce was sinful, even his disciples were taken aback with the strictness of his view.” If such is the case of a man with his wife”, they murmured, “it is better not to marry!” (V10)You can understand why Jesus kept calling the people of his day an “evil and adulterous generation”. In his judgement, to divorce and re-marry for trivial reasons was to commit adultery, and many of his contemporaries were in just that position. Of course, they had Scripture “proof” for their interpretation of the Law. Moses, they pointed out, had laid down an official procedure for a man who wanted to divorce his wife “because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24 v1-4). Was not God here sanctioning divorce, they said?But Jesus took them back to the rule in Genesis, which establishes the principle behind marriage. “From the beginning it was not so”, he said(Matthew 19 v8). If two people have been made one flesh, he said, you cannot divide them up and make them one flesh with somebody else. Moses, under God, suffered divorce. But Malachi insisted, “the Lord God of Israel says that he hates divorce” (Malachi 2 v16).
In Jesus’ book, divorce and remarriage are not an option for his disciples. The only grounds he would allow for divorce (in what has become known as ‘the exceptive clause’) are “fornication” (v9). To judge what Jesus meant by ‘fornication’, we need to look at some scriptural uses of the word. In modern English, the word ‘fornication’ is used only in the context of premarital sex. In this respect it has changed its meaning since the days of the Authorised Version translation. In Greek, the word Jesus used was ‘porneia’, from which we derive the all too familiar English word ‘pornography’. You can see from within the Bible itself, that porneia is used for sexual sins of any sort, including adultery, and all kinds of unnatural sex. The man who took his father’s wife was guilty of porneia (1 Corinthians 5v1). So were the inhabitants of Sodom (Jude v7). So, in the Greek Old Testament, was adulterous Israel (Jeremiah 3 v1, 2,6,8). It is a general-purpose word.
Why should Jesus allow divorce in the exceptional case of a sexual sin? The answer is probably that the Old Testament had already made the same distinction. In the case of a married woman deliberately committing sexual sins, even God himself allowed divorce. He uses this language to describe the relationship between himself and Israel - “... for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery” he says, “I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce”(Jeremiah 3 v8). In Israel’s case, when she repents and turns to God again, he remarries her. A new marriage covenant is made, and she becomes his wife once more (v13, 14).
So in Jesus’ view a breaking of the marriage vow, a flagrant violation of the oath, is the sole grounds for a divinely approved divorce. The Law of Moses permitted divorce for lesser reasons, but only for the hardness of men’s hearts, just as it tolerated polygamy. It made sure that the woman involved (a Jewish woman had few rights against her husband) was given legal protection. But it was not the ideal.
Here we enter the territory of individual circumstances, where “it all depends”. As we have seen from God’s dealings with Israel, when a partner goes astray, a long period of appealing and waiting for repentance is essential. Hosea’s wife left him more than once, but he still had to persevere, and keep himself for her. There had to be no fault on his side, for he represented God, who always continues to keep his promises, even when we let him down.
Usually in these cases the situation resolves itself with time. The one who has “gone off” with another partner either returns, or else after the legally permitted interval he or she divorces the one who has been left, and remarries or forms a permanent relationship with another person. In this situation the original marriage covenant is manifestly broken for ever.
Is the ‘abandoned’ partner free to re-marry in these circumstances? Generally, the Bible recommendation is no, he or she should stay single. “A wife is not to depart from her husband”, says Paul, “but even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband”. But what if the abandoned believer is young and lonely, or left with young children, and has found a friend whom they love. Can they re-marry after a divorce on the grounds of ‘fornication’ by their former partner?Religious groups vary in their attitude to these cases. Some would, after examining the facts of the case carefully, allow re-marriage. But those believers who have determined to stay single when their partner has gone away deserve all our support and encouragement.
Most Bible believers would adopt the view that sins committed before we are baptised, are all washed away in baptism. The Corinthians, as Paul reminds them, were guilty of many sexual and other sins which would exclude from the presence of God, “... but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus...” ( 1 Corinthians 6 v9-11).
This is a more difficult question. Divorce (for reasons other than fornication) and remarriage, is adultery, and the Bible says this excludes from the Kingdom of God. For a believer deliberately to break the marriage vow is a grievous sin. If the person has been warned that divorce is wrong, and they still go ahead, the normal consequence should be that they are asked to leave the church. Does that mean they are without hope? Well, God is a merciful God, and sinners can repent and ask for forgiveness. David was eventually forgiven when he confessed his sin, even though he had first taken the wife of Uriah and then engineered his death. David’s repentance was abject, public (in the Psalms he wrote), and complete. But he had given “great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12 v14). That is the problem with marital misdemeanours - we let God down before unbelievers.
Any restoration of a person who has sinned in this way can only take place after careful consideration of the circumstances of the divorce, and the subsequent behaviour of the individual. Probably much time needs to go by before any judgement can be made. The question is sometimes asked, “Is the divorcee still ‘married’ to his or her original partner?” We have already seen one answer in Deuteronomy 24, the passage the Pharisees quoted to Jesus. When the woman in verse 2 had been given a divorce, even though it was for insubstantial reasons,"she goes and becomes another man’s wife”. She was therefore in God’s view no longer married to her first husband.Again, when God says he has dismissed Israel, his symbolic wife, for reasons of adultery, he says another covenant is going to be needed before she will become his wife again. So once the marriage vow has been irrevocably broken, the first marriage comes to an end. Even so, there will be those in the church (perhaps even the original partner) who will remember the first marriage, and feel sore and upset at the prospect of receiving the sinner back. Much heart-searching is called for. With the same measure we use, it will be measured unto us. One day, we will be begging for the pardon of our own sins. There is no easy way out of these moral problems, and we each have to make up our own minds what God wants us to do.
But now let us turn to a more cheerful subject!
As we saw in the beginning, the primary purpose of marriage was companionship. But the secondary reason – providing a stable background for the bringing up of children – is a very important aspect that needs our attention.
When a marriage is blessed with children, the parents can share a new joy. Their love for each other expands into a wider circle of love, both for and from their little ones. The love of a child is entirely voluntary, unforced and freely given. It mirrors the love God receives and enjoys when we decide to become his children, and share our lives with him. Indeed, parenthood is an education. As we try to bring up our children to be obedient and kind and truthful, we are constantly reminded of our own education in the nursery school of God. When we are saddened by the disobedience of our youngster, or cringe over the insolence of the teenager, we suddenly see ourselves as God sees us, with the same displays of rebellion and self-will. We can learn then from his patience and persistence, his forgiveness and his determination to press on.
The most critical period in bringing up a child is the first five years. It is then that its future behaviour will be determined, for good or ill. If he or she learns to obey Mum and Dad in simple household rules in this period, there is a good chance years later that the aggravations and rows of adolescence can be prevented. More important, there is a better chance that he or she will choose to obey the will of our Father in heaven.
There is much argument today about discipline. Some experts say ‘the child must have freedom of expression’, and others ‘it needs rules to give it security’. The Bible’s advice is plain – “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22 v6). God expects parents to actively train their children, not just sit them in front of a television set and let them find out about life for themselves.
So, from the start, the little child must be taught that some things are right, and others wrong. For example, it is dangerous to interfere with electric plugs. As soon as it starts to poke things into the wall socket, our little one should be rebuked sharply with the key word “No!” and if it persists, given a gentle slap. The tears will flow, but it has learned that “No!” means “I must not do this”. We must not be put off disciplining our children because they start to cry. Solomon is definite about this – “Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his crying” (Proverbs 19 v18, margin). The tears will not flow for long. Very quickly your son or daughter will learn you mean what you say, and the reaction to “No!” will be immediate. Later, for example when they start to cross the road in front of an approaching car, their automatic reaction to “No!” may save their life.
As they become toddlers, it will become more efficient to encourage good behaviour by little rewards and generous praise, and to punish disobedience by sanctions such as withdrawal of treats. Physical punishment will rarely be necessary. But there are some important points here. Firstly, every child needs to know clearly what the rules are – for example, your bedtime is 20.00, you tidy your toys when you have finished playing, you put sweet papers in the kitchen bin, etc. Secondly, you must be absolutely consistent in doing what you say you will do. If the child does what it is asked, the promised reward must be given, and bad behaviour must always receive the threatened punishment. Any inconsistency here will lead to huge problems later on. Thirdly, it is important to give plenty of warning of what is going to happen – “tomorrow we are going to the Breaking of Bread and you will need to take a book to read”, “Dad is going to look after you tonight while I go out to the meeting”, and so on. And lastly, the two parents must support each other.If one makes a decision, the other must go along with it, even if privately they do not think it was a good idea in the first place. Otherwise the children will soon exploit the gap, and go whining to the other parent to have the decision reversed.
There will come a time as adolescence draws near when the youngster will seem always to rebel. Every request will be challenged. “The other children in my class go to bed at 22.00 – why should I have to go an hour earlier?” “Can’t I have another hour on my computer game – my friend’s Mum lets her play as long a she likes?” Teenagers push at the boundaries, to see if you will give way. Be firm. They actually feel happier and more secure with a clear ruling about what is expected of them. Sleep, homework and good food are important, and though they may grumble, underneath they know you are right to secure these key aspects of their school day. Of course, you can be flexible sometimes, with the same degree of bargaining or compromise you adopt with your spouse – “O.K., you can stay up late tonight, but you must come with me to visit Grandma on Saturday” – this kind of thing.
There is another aspect of bringing up children, which is vital in a godly home – teaching our children about God. The law of Moses laid a solemn responsibility upon Israel’s fathers – “these words which I command you this day shall be in your heart”, said Moses. “You shall teach them diligently to your children”,(Deuteronomy 6 v 6,7). And Paul says the same thing- “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6 v4).
The “admonition of the Lord” is that we should be truthful, and thankful to him, and keep our promises, and be kind to others. It covers all aspects of our attitude to ‘our neighbour’ and to God himself. So from the earliest age we should sit our children down with us when we do the daily readings and encourage them to take their turn in reading aloud and asking questions. When they are small, we must read to them or tell them a Bible story about the great heroes or the life of Jesus before they go to sleep. We teach them to sit quiet with closed eyes while we give thanks for our food at mealtimes. We take the children with us when we go to meet with our brothers and sisters, so that they become part of the family life of our ecclesia. If possible, we will take them to Sunday School to learn alongside other believers’ children. Then they will grow up as a group that will later support each other through the teenage years when everyone at school despises them because they are ‘different’. Above all, we need to remember that what really counts, if we want to bring our children to the Truth, is our own example. If we swear, or tell lies, or criticise the other members of the meeting, our children will. If we are generous, and kind and forgiving, our children will copy this too. Hard as it is, we have to sacrifice our own interests. We, both husband and wife, have to do what is best for the family.
In this last chapter we look at the wonderful example of the perfect marriage, a marriage ‘made in heaven’. In the Bible, Jesus describes himself as a bridegroom, longing to be married to his bride, the church. For example, in Matthew 25 v1 he is the bridegroom who comes to the wedding. He has a ‘best man’ in John 3 v29 – John the Baptist who introduced the bride-to-be to her Lord, through his teaching. There is a wedding supper in Matthew 22 v2, 3, where God is the King and Jesus is the son who is to be married, and there are guests from all points of the compass. And in Revelation19 the bride wears a beautiful dress v7, 8. She has made herself ready to meet her lord. Let’s look at some of the lessons behind this symbolic relationship, which will help us in our own marriages here on earth.
In 2 Corinthians 11 v2 Paul says he betrothed the Corinthians to Christ. He was the matchmaker, who had introduced them to Jesus. Now he was jealous because others were trying to seduce them away from their fiancé. They were not yet married, but publicly set apart, and by the rules of betrothal, they should remain virgins until the wedding. We understand the symbols here – we too fell in love with the Lord, with his spiritual beauty, his kind heart and steadfast love. We were betrothed to him, at our baptism, and people of the world should now be able to recognize that we are set apart for him. Paul’s fears that the church would be tempted away were justified – in Revelation chapter 12, John saw the bride-to-be no longer a virgin, but pregnant from her intercourse with the world. These points support our earlier findings about the importance of virginity before marriage. Just as we keep our hearts separate from the world, holy to our Lord, so we should keep our bodies holy and undefiled for our future husband-to-be.
The Psalmist sees a picture of Jesus’ wedding in Psalm 45.The bride is arrayed in “gold of Ophir”, v4, and in “robes of many colours”, v14. In Revelation 19 v8 John sees the bride “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright”. All are symbols of the inner beauty that Jesus delights in – the faith and meekness and righteousness of the saints. Solomon advises us that when we choose our partner it should not be on the basis of glamorous looks. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain”, he says, “But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised!” (Proverbs 31 v30).
The queen in the Psalm has to “forget her own people also, and her father’s house”, v10.Many of us had to do just this when we were baptized, breaking with a family who disagreed with our decision. But it is a principle that applies to all marriages. When we marry, we start a new family, and although we have to respect and care for our parents, the claims of the new family have to take precedence over old loyalties. Too often the wife, faced with a decision where her mother has different views to her husband, will bow to her will. She must be firm, and support her husband, who is now her head. Indeed, Paul is telling her she must at all times treat her husband as she would treat Christ himself. We would never dream of criticising the Lord Jesus when we meet our brothers and sisters in the Truth. No more must we join with other wives in complaining about our husband. There is a powerful exhortation on this subject in 1 Peter 3 v1-6. Sarah, says the apostle, called Abraham “Lord”, even when she was only speaking to herself. It shows the attitude she had, which is an example to follow.
The king in David’s wedding psalm is described as “fairer than the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips”, v2. But Isaiah 53 says Jesus “has no form or comeliness, and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him”, v2.The point is, as men saw him, Jesus was a horny-handed carpenter from Nazareth, and they could not conceive of him as the king of Israel.But we saw under the surface. We chose to follow him for his beautiful character, his unfailing love and truth and grace. So it should be when a girl seeks a husband in the Truth – his likeness to God in character is more important than his appearance.
The most glorious description of Jesus as bridegroom comes in Ephesians chapter 5 – compulsory reading for every husband.Jesus, says the apostle, is head of the church, and the church is subject to him (v23, 24). In our culture wives reject the idea that their husband is their head. But the Bible teaches differently.Husband and wife are complementary to each other. They make the perfect team. But when the discussion is over and it comes to the final say as to what is best for the family, the husband has the responsibility of leading the way. Paul says we should take as our example the relationship between Christ and the church. As the bride of Christ we would not dream of criticising him or undermining what he asks us to do. We accept his authority. So it is in Christian marriage.
But lest husbands should think they are at liberty to rule harshly over their wives, Paul immediately sets before us the example of the tender love of Jesus for his disciples. He gave himself for the church, says v25. He set himself “to cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present to himself as a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (v26, 27). We can think of the humble way Jesus girded himself with a towel and went down on his knees to wash the apostles’ dirty feet. That, Paul is saying, is the way the husband should love his wife. He does not wait for her to run round to attend to his needs; he gets up and waits on her! But there is a spiritual dimension, too. Jesus enacted a symbolic washing, a preparation for the Kingdom, helping his bride to grow in grace before God as she is cleansed and purified by the word of God. That is the duty of every husband – to ensure his beloved has the opportunity to read and understand the Word of God – to explain the daily readings to her, and to stay in with the children so that she can go to the Bible study with the brothers and sisters. Every husband will be asked in the Day of Judgment how he prepared his wife for the Kingdom.
That reference to ‘spot and wrinkle’ in verse 27 is intriguing. No girl wants spots or wrinkles to spoil her complexion. But this is actually a quotation from the Song of Solomon (4 v7). In this great love poem describing the intoxicating desire the king has for his beloved, and she for him, we have an expression of the depth of Jesus’ love for each of us. He wants us to share his kingdom. And by his own death he has wiped away the stains and blotches of our sins, so that we can live for ever with him in the tranquil beauty of the Garden of God. That all-consuming, undying love they share is a pattern for every marriage in the Lord.
— David M Pearce
Bible quotations are from The New King James Version