This is Part 1 of 2 in a series on Marriage and Divorce from a Biblical perspective.
What Does the Bible Say about Marriage
As a Christian Counselor, I get many questions regarding what God’s intends in marriage and when is divorce an option. Before, looking at divorce allowances in Scripture, let’s examine God’s plan for a marriage.
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. – Genesis 1:27
These few verses say a lot about God and us. The Lord created us in His image. We bear many of characteristics of the Lord which include love, mercy, justice, self-awareness, others-centeredness, grace, honor, and faithfulness just to name a few.
Only the Lord is perfect in all of the above. Our capacity to reflect God’s perfect character traits of love, justice, and compassion is tainted by sin.
Adam’s sin caused the image of God to be broken beyond our ability to repair. Sin, in the Christian sense, is not just doing something wrong, it is an attack against the Lord God who is the sustainer of life in the cosmos. It is only through a miracle of God that we can repair the damage brought on by sin entering the world in Genesis 3.
That miracle occurred when the God sent His only Son to repair the damage by bearing the penalty upon Himself. Therefore, God demonstrated mercy and justice to us at the same time on the cross. Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 conveys the truth that being covered by the blood of the Jesus and putting on the new self-enables us to pursue true righteousness and holiness.
What I love about the ‘image of God in Genesis 1:27 is that it immediately proceeds with God’s picture of the relationship between a man and woman. Our God is a relational God and part of being image bearers is living out the intimate relationship between a man and woman.
I also love how humanity has gender diversity just as God has diversity within Himself being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is important to note that there are features of God that humanity does not share with God. Humans are not self-existent, all-powerful, and all-knowing as God is. Let us look at one of the most important passages regarding the marital union from Scripture.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. “For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. – Ephesians 5:22-33
This key passage on marriage and the relationship between husbands and wives here, as well, reflects the image of God. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal and in God, there is a rank order that does not, astonishingly, connote superiority. Just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, and Jesus is begotten of the Father there is an order of function in the Triune God.
In the marital relationship, the husband is not a power-hungry dictator, but a person that is in a relationship with his wife for purpose of leadership and responsibility. He is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and even die for her if required just as Christ died for us. This relationship is akin to Christ and the Church as in a Lover and Beloved.
If a wife has a disagreement with her husband about a core matter it is wise to seek spiritual wisdom from an objective third party like a Christian Counselor. A wife is called to follow God’s laws even when it contradicts a man’s wishes. A man has a great responsibility before God to treat his wife with love, kindness, and dignity. Husbands are given quite the high standard of Christ himself in the way the Bible commands husbands to treat their wives.
Another distinctive I love about this passage is that husbands are called to love their wives and wives are called to respect their husbands. What a picture of unity in diversity! As part of God’s design, husbands have an inherent need to be respected and wives have a need to be loved. Both are equally important.
Also, in some sense, a wife respecting the husband involves loving the husband and a husband loving a wife involves respecting the wife. In many ways, love and respect are two sides of the same coin. The martial union needs to understand and complement the unique ways a husband’s and a wife’s needs are met. Ephesians 5:21 eloquently summarizing it all well: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Key Passages and Exceptions Where is Divorce is Allowed
There are two clear biblical reasons where divorce is allowed. The first one being adultery/sexual immorality.
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32
The teachers of the Jewish law, who were the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, had applied Moses’ teaching on divorce in extremely general terms and avoided understanding God’s heart on the matter of divorce.
Malachi 2:16 states that “’the man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.” Moses’ teaching on divorce was this:
If 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, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4
The teachers of Jewish law, during Jesus’ time, had made it so that divorce was permissible for pretty much any reason. Examples include not being pleased with how a wife dressed, whether she was too old, her ability to have children, etc.
The teachers of the law focused not so much on the reasons for the divorce but more so on whether a certificate had been filled out properly. I bet they were also concerned with whether all the prerequisite fees/favors were given to them in advance.
The spirit of the law here in the Deuteronomy passage is clearly to protect marriage and not to make divorce and remarriage a frivolous and casual affair. The Deuteronomy passage also clearly indicates the sinfulness of just focusing on the ability to divorce without thinking about the wicked consequences it has on the divorced wife in particular but ultimately on families and Jewish society altogether.
Jesus brings back the true focus and context of this passage to bear upon his listeners that were there for His Sermon on the Mount. So there we have it: adultery causes so many consequences that Jesus does say that it an exception to honoring the marriage covenant. Adultery is such a deep breach of the marriage covenant that an untold pain and rift are caused in the relationship.
The principle of forgiveness and trust is also present and as long as couples are willing to work through a deep breach of the marriage covenant there is very real possibility of repair and healing in the marriage.
The second clearly biblical reason where divorce is permitted is for desertion (1 Corinthians 7) from the marriage where the spirit of return, repentance, and forgiveness is not present either from one partner or both partners. The Bible recognizes here the harsh reality of our capacity for depravity and sinfulness. This sinfulness leads to a break in the marital covenant that one or both partners refuse to repair.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
To the rest, I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.
For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? – 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
The first paragraph of this passage clearly indicates that God’s desire is that married couples stay together even through disagreements and difficulties in the marriage.
This is God’s ideal, so much so, that God does not want unbelievers married to believers to separate from the marriage either. Paul makes the argument that the unbelieving wife or husband is sanctified (made holy) through the believing husband or wife.
I get a sense in the passage that Paul’s thoughts are that the unbelieving spouse would be more likely to leave the relationship than the believing spouse and hence, I believe, the focus on the unbelieving spouse deserting the marital union.
The vast majority of Bible scholars agree that it is possible that a believing spouse may choose to desert the relationship as well and therefore this desertion allowance for divorce is not only limited to a relationship between an unbeliever and a believer. That is this passage applies equally to a marriage between two believers.
The last paragraph of the cited passage on desertion explains that it is okay to let a spouse leave a marriage if they wish to do so. Paul says that the believer is not bound in such circumstances and that we are to live at peace with our fellow citizens on this earth.
Paul’s argumentative crux here follows that God is not a lover that forces his love on us and neither should we as believers force our love on another human being. The Lord absolves the believer of responsibility to maintain the marriage when there is desertion by a marriage partner.
Paul points out that the believer is no longer bound or a slave of the marriage covenant in these circumstances. Willful desertion renders the marriage covenant null and there is a release from the bond of Holy Matrimony.
In Part 2, I will write more about a biblical stance on marriage/divorce and further issues that cause a lot of damage to a marriage.
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