Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
Marriage is one of the first institutions God put in place after creation. He said that it was not good for man to be alone, and thus created a “helper” for him to be united with for life. Later through the Mosaic Law God would give specific instructions for marriage, and along with it instructions for divorce.
Up until the latter half of the 20th century divorce has been frowned upon by mainstream society, and for many centuries it was near impossible to get a divorce, and in some places illegal. However, in modern day Western society divorce has become extremely common, and is generally looked at as a reasonable option for struggling couples. This is highlighted by the fact that many divorces are granted on the basis of the ambiguous term “irreconcilable differences.” For the Christian however, one must look at three things when considering marriage, and when faced with the desire to seek divorce as an option. He or she must consider the biblical stance on marriage, the biblical stance on divorce, and how these two are to be applied in the life of a Christian.
For the Christian marriage should be viewed as more than an agreement to be with someone or a legal obligation, it must be viewed through the lens of scripture. Scripture uses marriage as a metaphor for God and his people, and this sets the picture for how one should view marriage. God spoke to Israel through Hosea saying:
“And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”
While this passage must be understood in the context of God restoring Israel to Himself, it also serves to show five virtues on which a marriage should be built: righteousness, justice, love, mercy, and faithfulness.
Righteousness and justice go hand in hand, righteousness is simply doing what is right, and justice is to defend what is right. Calvin clarifies that “by righteousness and judgment is meant rectitude, in which nothing is wanting” (his emphasis). So in a marriage both parties must commit to living righteous, that is moral integrity, and defending that righteousness, not on their own account, but on behalf of each other. This means holding each other accountable to living righteous, and guarding that righteousness from people, situations, and sin that seeks to corrupt. This is seen in the fact that God spoke these words to Israel, and thus was saying that he would defend Israel, German theologian John Peter Lange puts it this way:
“We are evidently to understand here the righteousness which is displayed in Jehovah’s appearing to favor his people and defending their cause against their enemies, from whose power he delivers them.”
God made Israel righteous by imputing his own righteousness to them and the world through Christ, and it is Christ who guards, defends, and sustains that righteousness through the Holy Spirit. Still, the principle remains that spouses must conduct themselves with moral integrity, and also be willing to guard the moral integrity of each other. A married couple can only accomplish this by having their hearts and minds set on Christ who will enable them to live righteous.
Love and mercy also go hand in hand, and some translations render it loving-kindness and compassion. The idea being conveyed is that of unconditional love, that is a love built not on the actions of another, but rather on a commitment to love despite what the other person may do; “Its meaning may be summed up as ‘steadfast [enduring] love on the basis of a covenant’.” Spouses may initially, prior to getting married, enter into a relationship based on physical attraction and romantic love, but those things fade. When the decision to get married is made there must be a willingness to exercise a deeper love that can carry on through the joys and struggles of life that a married couple will inevitably face. Again, the model for this love and mercy is seen in how God has dealt with those whom he has saved through the blood of Christ.
Faithfulness is more than promising to refrain from infidelity, instead it reaffirms the first statement God makes in the Hosea passage: “And I will betroth you to me forever.” This faithfulness speaks to the stability of God’s promise to Israel, and the eternal duration of that promise. In the same way spouses must remain faithful to the promises stated in their vows to each other, promises to care for each other, to provide stability for each other, and in the end a promise to remain committed to each other until death. Faithfulness then is the devotion to righteousness, justice, love, and mercy, which provides one’s spouse with the surety of a loving and committed marriage.
In light of this view of marriage one could arrive at the conclusion that divorce is not an option. While divorce should be the last resort after the last resort, scripture does not forbid it. Jesus himself allowed for divorce under one circumstance, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Jesus makes this comment to the Pharisees when they come to challenge him on the issue of divorce in order to try and trap him in a conundrum. Jesus does three things, he points to the natural created order of things as the grounds for why divorce is wrong, he points to sin as the reason why divorce was allowed under Moses, and he provides the only grounds for divorce as well as the consequences for any divorce outside of that stipulation. The full passage reads like this:
“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’”
First is the fact that when a man and woman are united in and consummate a marriage they become one flesh. To divorce is to tear apart the one, and beyond that it is to tear apart what God has united. So divorce not only destroys a sacred bond, but it also violates and dismantles what God has ordered and built. Second Jesus points out that the provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law was a result of man’s hardened heart, one commentary says it was due to “[man’s] low moral state, and [his] inability to endure the strictness of the original law.” Finally he says that infidelity is the only justified reason for divorce, and that outside of this the one who divorces his spouse and remarries is guilty of adultery. In Matthew 5 Jesus says that the one who divorces his spouse also causes her, if she remarries, and her new spouse to commit adultery. Jesus leaves no wiggle room on this issue, and it is a difficult truth to handle. Even the disciples in the verses that immediately follow that exchange say that it is better not to marry as a result of the difficulty in keeping with this truth.
We live in a society where divorce is very commonplace, and it is not uncommon to meet people who are in their second and third marriages. Peoples’ families now consist of stepbrothers and sisters, step-moms and dads, step-grandparents, half-brothers and sisters, and various other relations from step-uncles to step-cousins. The traditional family, that is a mother, father, and children, is becoming less normal and being replaced with blended families. The destruction of the family is one of the biggest factors contributing to the unraveling of the moral fabric in our society. Kids have no fathers or mothers, or they have numerous fathers and mothers, and this results in lack of identity, stability, and direction.
When you do not have a stable family as a result of multiple marriages and remarriages it is difficult to have that sense of family and belonging. This in turn makes it more difficult to grasp many of the metaphors and analogies the Bible uses to describe God and the Church. God is called our father, Christ our brother (and Lord), and other Christians are to be considered our family. These analogies are hard to grasp, and lack relevance in a society where it seems family has lost its value. Love is cheap and capricious, relationships are temporary means of pleasure, loyalty and faithfulness are disregarded, and family is an ever-changing cast of characters.
Divorce is a terrible plague in our society; however, there are certain cases where it may be necessary such as infidelity, physical abuse, and abandonment. The thing is these are seldom the reasons stated in divorce hearings. Divorce is a symptom of a disease called sin, and the cure is Jesus Christ, Ephesians 5 says:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish… ‘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.”
Christ’s love for his bride the Church gives us the biblical model for marriage, and Christ will never divorce his bride.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Genesis 2:18.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Hosea 2:19–20.
 John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 113.
 John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Hosea (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 39.
 John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Hosea (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 39.
 G. W. Grogan, “Loving-Kindness,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 702.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Hosea 2:19.
 John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 113–114.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 19:9.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Matthew 19:3–9.
 Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 51.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Matthew 19:10.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ephesians 5:22–27; 31–33.
Calvin, John, and John Owen. Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Calvin, John, and William Pringle. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
Grogan, G. W. “Loving-Kindness.” Edited by D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, and D. J. Wiseman. New Bible Dictionary. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
Lange, John Peter, and Philip Schaff. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008.
Lange, John Peter, Philip Schaff, Otto Schmoller, and J. Frederick McCurdy. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Hosea. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.
Thomas, Robert L. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998.