I grew up in a broken home, but before I was born, my father vowed to my mother certain things. He vowed that he would remain committed to her for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, that he would love and cherish her and that death would be the only thing that could separate them. My father did not keep his vows; he tore my mother apart with ugly and vulgar words while creating an environment with little peace in the home. My parents divorced; I moved in with my father and my brother moved in with our mother.
My father remarried another woman and brought into that marriage the same toxic behavior. About three years into their marriage, my father suffered a horrible accident where his hand was cut off after attempting to pick up a mirror to install in a home he was working on. He did not see that the mirror was broken horizontally from end to end, so when I attempted to pick up the large mirror, the top half came down upon his hand like a guillotine… severing his right hand nearly completely off. His hand was surgically reattached after spending about a week in the hospital. Shortly after coming home, someone told my father about Jesus and it was there that he decided he wanted to be a Christian and follow Jesus.
I wish I could say that my father’s newfound faith in Jesus forever changed the way he treated my stepmother, but the same vows that he broke with my mother, he broke regarding my stepmother. Only with this marriage, his ugly and harsh words directed at her evolved into him lashing out during one of their arguments physically. I was only 17 years old and had only been a Christian for about a year, and even though I was young in my faith, I had read enough of my Bible to know that my father’s treatment of the women in his life was an egregious sin. I had to physically remove my father from the house that evening; I am still haunted by the images of that night when I had to force myself between my father and stepmother to keep her safe.
On October 25, 1999, my father was found dead due to a heart attack; my wife and I had been married for just over a year. When Roimaw and I walked into the home where my father, stepmother, and siblings lived, the house was a mess, unkept, and uncared for. I immediately thought to myself that what I saw was symbolic of what was missing in their home. My father promised my stepmother that he would remain committed to her for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, that he would love and cherish her, that death would be the only thing that could separate them, but what he gave her instead was violence. Later that week I officiated my father’s funeral, and buried him.
In light of the way my father treated both my mother and then my stepmother, based on what Jesus said about divorce, were either of the women in my father’s life biblically mandated to remain married to a man who treated them the way my father treated them?
The danger we all face is to make the Bible say something that it does not say based on a positive or negative experience we had in the past. We can especially do this with past traumas. The question we must never begin with is, “What does my experience have to say about what God thinks?”, but “What does the Bible say about what God thinks.”
So, what I want to do with the time that we have is explore if God, through the Bible, allows for any other reason to get out of a marriage. We will first look into the Scriptures to see if divorce is permissible in cases other than adultery, and then I will attempt to address what one can or should do in a marriage gone bad.
Is Divorce in Cases Other Than Adultery Acceptable?
Jesus said that divorce is permissible only when one spouse sins against the other by having an adulterous relationship with another person (see Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9). In light of what Jesus said about marriage, is divorce biblically permissible for any case other than adultery? Also, when is remarriage allowed? Based on Jesus’ answer, it seems that the only person who is permitted to enter a second marriage is the one whose spouse either committed adultery or has died.
Now, I said early in this sermon series that all of scripture, from Genesis through the book of Revelation, is inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore without error. When you read the Bible, all of it bears the authority of God. There is no portion of Holy Scripture that has more authority than the other. Therefore, what Jesus said about marriage and divorce is 100 percent true and to try and make his words say something that he did not intend is dangerous.
However, there are two things I want to point out concerning what Jesus said about divorce. First, is that what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage was directed at religious leaders whose spouses were being victimized by their loose view of the sanctity of marriage, and that his statement about divorce and remarriage was a corrective for people who claimed to worship the same God who designed the institution of marriage. Second, what Jesus said about divorce and remarriage is not the only place in scripture that the subject is addressed. I want to turn your attention to 1 Corinthians 7:10-16,
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
So, let’s begin with the first thing you should notice in verse 10 in comparison to verse 12. Paul states in verse 10, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord)…” and then reiterates what Jesus said in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-9. The “Lord” Paul is referring to is Jesus. Then in verse 12, Paul, with the authority of an apostle under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, addresses something Jesus did not address, and that is the case of an unbelieving wife or husband who has no interest in remaining married to their spouse who was not a Christian when they were married, but now that they are a follower of Jesus Christ, they have no interest in spending the rest of their life with a person whose worship of Jesus has changed their spouse so profoundly.
In the first century, Christianity was considered to be a cult by both Jews and Gentiles. Most Jews believed that Jesus was just another false messiah who died prematurely and Gentiles thought the whole resurrection thing was a bunch of nonsense (see Paul’s interaction with the Greek philosophers in Acts 17:16-34). Christians did not fit with the Greek and Roman religious cultures where multiple gods were worshiped, sex outside of marriage was culturally acceptable and even expected, especially of males, single or married. Because Christians were known for rejecting all other gods except the one they worshiped, they were called “atheists.” In every sense of the word, Christianity was countercultural. Jesus understood this; think about some of the things that he said concerning the way allegiance to him would affect every other relationship in your life:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39)
The stress following Jesus could place upon a husband or wife whose religious devotion was dedicated to anything else other than Jesus was significant. Following Jesus not only changes the culture of a person’s heart, but the culture of his/her home and environment. If one spouse chose to follow Jesus over the other, it was inevitable that the husband and wife would find the other moving on a different route, just as Jesus warned in his Sermon on the Mount: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13–14).
If the unbelieving spouse wanted out of the marriage, Paul said that the Christian should let that person leave the marriage, but if the unbelieving spouse wanted to stay in the marriage, then the Christian should honor their marriage with that person. Notice that the Christian is not encouraged to leave the unbelieving spouse, but remain an ambassador of Jesus in their home and relationship together. Why? Paul tells us why in verse 14, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” If your unbelieving spouse desires to remain married to you while you live your life for Jesus, then you will be the closest representation of Jesus that person will ever see and experience. However, if the unbelieving spouse decides to leave the marriage, Paul also states: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” The Greek word for “enslaved” also means “bound.” The Christian whose unbelieving spouse deserts them is not bound to that person anymore, and I believe is free to marry.
So, it is my understanding that a second reason divorce and remarriage is permissible is if an unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage. What does it mean to be deserted then? Here is where we must tread very lightly and by doing so, is where I would now like to address the second question: “What can or should a Christian do in a marriage gone bad?” To be clear, what I mean by the word “bad” is a marriage where the spouse creates a toxic and harmful environment in the home because he/she is present.
Is Divorce and Remarriage Biblically Permissible in a Marriage Gone Bad?
Let me begin by stating that there are four main views among Christians regarding divorce and remarriage. There are those who believe that divorce and remarriage in any case is never permitted. There are those who believe divorce is permitted under certain circumstances, but remarriage is not at all permitted. There are those who believe that both divorce and remarriage are permitted only in the case of adultery and the desertion of an unbeliever. Then there are those who believe that divorce and remarriage are acceptable for a wide range of reasons. Perhaps a better view to hold is the one that cares less about what others think and more about what God has to say about it.
Let’s begin by answering the question before us by stating again what God designed the institution of marriage for. Well let’s turn our attention back to Genesis 1:27-28 and see: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” So, a man and a woman come together within the covenant of marriage to have children together for the purpose of filling the earth with people like them as well as serve together in the care and management of what God created. Is that it?
Of course, that is not the only reason for the institution of marriage, for we are given a bit more regarding the institution of marriage in the next chapter of Genesis:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:18–25)
Not only does marriage between a man and a woman serve to fill the earth with humans and to manage creation, but it serves for the purpose of forming a community between two human beings of the opposite sex who come together physically, emotionally, and spiritually to form a bond like no other that brings life into their home, their community, and their world. The intimacy and bond that is formed when a man is joined to his wife in marriage is the only place where Genesis 2:25 can and should be experienced: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” As I said in my last sermon, nowhere do we see any mention of divorce and remarriage because it was never supposed to be a part of the human experience. Listen to me carefully: Marriage is the place God designed for the thriving of life, love, joy, and pleasure to be experienced. Divorce only brings a type of death into a marriage that was not supposed to be a part of Eden.
The institution of marriage is sacred and everything about it is to be treated as something holy, not common, because it points to something much more profound than just two humans who love each other. Here is what the apostle Paul said of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:31–33). Think about what the apostle states here considering what the Church is to be known for as individual Christians in the way we treat one another. Permit me to just list 12 of the “one another” passages in the New Testament commanded of Christians:
- Love one another (John 13:34): A command repeated at least 16 times.
- Be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10)
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Be patient with one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)
- Forgive one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13)
- Submit to one another (1 Pet. 5:5)
- Look to the interests of one another (Phil. 2:4)
- Comfort one another (1 Thess. 4:18)
- Pray for one another (Jas. 5:16)
- Confess your sins to one another (Jas. 5:16)
- Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another (1 Pet. 5:5)
If marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the Church, then the place where these “one another” commands should be experienced is within the relationship between a husband and a wife.
What is the catalyst for the way a Christian husband and wife ought to treat one another? It is love, but a love defined by holy Scripture: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
So… Answer the Question?
Let me ask you a question before I say anything else: “What do you think will come of a marriage where both the husband and wife truly treasure Jesus and desire to follow him, and the Sermon on the Mount is not just words on a page, but the aim and goal for both of their lives?” What do you think will develop in the marriage of two people who are poor in spirit, mourn over their own sins, and who have surrendered their will to the will of God? What will come of the person who would like to be married or is married who genuinely, “hungers and thirsts for righteousness”? I can tell you what I think, I think it will be very difficult for the word, “divorce” to be even mentioned in that home between those types of people. I think in that home, when one spouse sins against the other, the experience desired will not be separation but the way to be reconciled to one another.
What of the spouse who is not a believer who understands little of what true love is? What about the man or woman who claims to be a Christian but his/her life looks nothing like the gospel-centered life Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount? Can a person who claims to have had a life-saving encounter with Jesus remain unchanged from his or her life of sin where he/she treated others as object to be used, or abused others, or harmed others? Can such a person continue to treat a spouse or child in those ways with absolute confidence that he or she is a Christian?
In a nation where domestic violence is experienced by 10 million adults annually and 1 in 7 children experience some form of physical abuse or neglect, domestic violence is something that is no doubt experienced in homes involving Christians. If you are a person, Christian or not, and are guilty of domestic violence on your wife or children, you are not only guilty of sinning against member of your family, but you cannot claim to love them while you continue to harm them. To you, I want you to hear three of the many warnings directed at you from the word of God:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26–27)
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:9–10)
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Timothy 3:1–5)
If you are a person who is victimized by your spouse or a parent, I want you to know that there are two institutions God has established to protect you. Those institutions are the Church and the government. When it comes to the person who claims to be a Christian who sins against another, Jesus said the following:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15–20)
If you are being victimized, and you attend Meadowbrooke, and your spouse (or parent) will not change his/her behavior. You need to talk to myself, any one of our elders, or call the office to speak to any of the staff and we will find a safe place for you. The goal will and must be your safety first and then the repentance and restoration of your spouse. If the abusing spouse refuses to repent, then he/she will be not be welcome to attend Meadowbrooke.
At the same time, if you are victimized and abused by a spouse, the bible says that government is another institution established by God as, “a servant of God, and avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (see Romans 13:1-7). If you are guilty of harming your spouse or child, we as a church will also report you to the police for the protection of the one you are victimizing with zero tolerance. For you who are the victim, the moment you spouse strikes you to harm you, you report him/her to the police and then call the church so that we can come along side of you, to help you in whatever way we are able.
Regarding your marriage to an abusive person, I say this with great care for your soul and fear before the God I will one day have to give an account for every word I have said and taught: Divorce should not be the first action you take against your abuser. Here is a pathway that I think is appropriate: First report the incident, then get a restraining order to protect yourself or/and your child, seek out help from your church family’s leadership. If your spouse is unwilling to repent (change), then I believe a legal separation is appropriate. It is my opinion that if your husband or wife is physically abusive, and does not repent by changing, then your spouse is really not interested in a lasting marriage with you. I believe under such rare circumstances that the unrepentant and abusive spouse should be treated as an unbeliever who has already deserted your marriage.