Sad Endings: Divorce and the Church

I was privileged to preach at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs, IA, last Sunday where Dave Erickson is the preacher.  Dave wanted me to fit in to his series which was from the Sermon on the Mount, so I drew Matthew 5:31-32, the passage on divorce. This is a tough issue, especially to try and cover in 25 minutes. (If you want to listen to the sermon, you can find the link here.) I have been working on a book project for many years with the working title, Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Church Leadership. This sermon has spurred me to consider finishing this and see if I can find a publisher.

What should the church’s position on divorce be? In this sermon, I walk through four Bible texts. The first two, Deuteronomy 24:1 and Malachi 2:13-16, form the cultural background the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, and are therefore the Bible teachings on divorce that would be prominent in the minds of his hearers (or Matthew’s readers). The third text, Matthew 19:1-7, is unusual because it gives us some theological insights on divorce from the teachings of Jesus. My assigned text was Matthew 5:21-32:

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce. 32 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. (NIV2011)

It would be easy to see this as a hard and fast, black and white, absolute prohibition of divorce, but I don’t think it is intended to be read this way. After all, it is paralleled by such texts as Matthew 5:21-22:

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (NIV2011)

The punishment for a murderer was death, yet I have never heard of a church that executed a member because he had an outburst of anger. (Although, come to think of it, this might thin out the difficult people on church boards.) Matthew 5:27-28 is another parallel text. It reads:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Likewise, I have never heard of a church painting the red A for adultery on a man who looked at a woman lustfully.

This is not to endorse anger, murder, or divorce, but I find it hard to make a case for divorce as the unforgivable sin if we read 31-32 in context. Something else is going on here.

God hates divorce. Why? Broken marriages take a terrible toll. Divorce takes a terrible toll. Ask anyone who has gone through a divorce. Ask the children whose parents divorce. Ask the mother and father of the bride and groom. God does not want that pain for anyone! God loves us.

The approach to this that lays out rules for “biblical divorce” is fraught with danger. As a pastor, I have never advised anyone to get a divorce (and don’t think I ever will). I don’t think there is some type of grid of conditions, where you tell me your story and I will render a verdict. Often, folks want a divorce to be approved by their minister, thereby thinking it is approved by God. I won’t do that. I don’t think I should do that. That is not my role. You see, this isn’t so much about prohibition of divorce but about honoring and strengthening marriage.  Jesus was working against the practice of Jewish men in his day who had made divorce quick, easy, and painless for them, but destroyed the lives of their spurned wives.

So let me throw out a couple of opinions in this area:

  1. Broken marriages can be healed. Many times we give up too easily. But no matter how much we want to heal the marriage, it doesn’t always work that way.
  2. God does not choose sides in a divorce, especially between believers. He loves you both.
  3. God does not expect you to remain in a marriage that is dangerous to you or to your children. Any “pastor” who would advise a woman to go back to a husband who is brutalizing her and be more submissive is an idiot and should not be in the ministry.
  4. But, finally, may we never see divorce as an easy solution to a broken marriage.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College