Friday, September 05, 2008

Paul and Divorce

(We continue to wander through the biblical evidence concerning divorce, to eventually answer the question whether divorced men can serve as deacons, elders, pastors, or in other church leadership positions.)

The New Testament epistles have a lot to say about marriage and family relationships, but there is very little focus on divorce. There are several passages, all from Paul’s letters, that we must deal with. Paul uses divorce as an illustration in Romans 7:1-6. He then discusses divorce at length in 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, his most significant teaching. The other significant passages are those in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that discuss the qualifications of elder and deacon. Paul said that these church leaders should be “the husband of one wife.” That is the heart of the question here. Does that prohibition mean that anyone who has been divorced is disqualified from these levels of service within the church?

Is Paul’s Teaching Scripture or Opinion?

There is a significant issue that must be dealt with before we look at what Paul taught. Much has been made of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12 about some of his statements coming from the Lord and others coming from him and not the Lord. “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.”

Paul gives a charge to the married to stay in their marriages and make them work. He states that this command comes not from him, but from the Lord. Then, in verse 12, he states that the rest of the teaching comes from him, and not from the Lord. Some have indicated that this was Paul’s way of saying that his advice on this issue was just personal opinion and not a direct command from God. The teachings in this passage, then, would be Paul’s suggestion and would not have the force of inspired Scripture.

That view must be rejected by anyone who believes that “all Scriptures are breathed by God and used for teaching…” There is a very simple way to understand this statement. Paul is not saying that some of this is inspired and some of it is not, but that some of it was addressed directly by Jesus in his earthly ministry and some of what Paul teaches goes beyond what Jesus taught. He is not saying that this is just his opinion, but that he is adding these teachings to what Jesus said in addressing the subject.

Here is a fact that many people fail to realize. The inspired words of Paul are just as true, just as authoritative and just as inerrant as the words of Jesus himself. The Spirit that worked in Jesus was the same Spirit who guided Paul’s thoughts and words. It would be a mistake to assume that the words in red letters in your Bible are somehow more important than the other words. All Scripture is inspired. Old Testament. Jesus’ words. Paul’s words. Every verse is as much God’s Word as every other verse.

So, Paul’s teachings here are founded on what Jesus said, but they go beyond and add new teachings to what Jesus taught when he was on earth. Paul’s teachings are inerrant and authoritative, and what he says in this passage is binding on all believers.

Paul’s Teachings

Paul made it clear in the passage mentioned above that his teachings were based on Jesus’ and in line with them. He is going to add some new teachings to what Jesus said, but they were meant to augment what Jesus said, not contradict it. He affirms the permanence of marriage. Christians should make their marriages work and not seek an easy out when problems arise.

We will now examine Paul’s teachings on divorce in Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7. We will then summarize the biblical teaching on divorce. After that, we will address whether a divorced man can serve as a deacon and deal with what Paul said in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus requiring elders to be “the husband of one wife.”

Romans 7:1-6

This passage is not about divorce, but uses it as an illustration. The passage is actually about how those who have come to Christ have died with Him and have been released from their slavery to the law. He affirms that a marriage only ends when one of the partners dies and that when one partner dies, the other is free from the marriage vow and can remarry.

He uses this to illustrate to us that once Christians have died with Christ to the law they are no longer under obligation to it. Having died to the law, we are free to join with Christ and live in His freedom and joy.

It is interesting that some have seen this as Paul’s definitive statement on divorce and used it to nullify what he said in 1 Corinthians 7. This is a statement of the ideal of a permanent marriage broken only by death, used as an illustration. It deals with marriage and does not address whether there is ever a biblically acceptable cause for divorce. It is easy to make too much of this passage in the discussion of divorce.

I Corinthians 7:10-24

This is the most complete teaching in Scripture on the subject of divorce and remarriage, even more complete than Jesus’ statement. It is authoritative, inspired and true.

The spread of the gospel brought a new phenomenon not dealt with in Jesus’ teachings. When the gospel spread into the pagan world, marriages were often strained. An idol-worshiping husband might suddenly find his wife wanting to burn the idols and serve only a new God named Jesus. A wife, happy in her pagan beliefs, suddenly has a husband evangelizing her and asking her to change her beliefs. Also, passionate Christians began to wonder if it was offensive to God for them to share their lives and beds with people who served other gods. They may have heard passages like the one we discussed from Ezra which tells God’s people to divorce their foreign, idolatrous wives and assumed that the way to honor God was to divorce unbelieving husbands or wives. So, Paul needed to address the concept of Christian marriage and how new Christians should deal with unbelieving spouses.

There is also a radical new teaching here. Paul not only talks about husbands divorcing their wives, but also the concept of wives initiating divorce. This is a marked departure from the Old Testament teaching which only dealt with a husband divorcing a wife.

The orientation of this passage is in line with what Jesus taught. The New Testament is full of passages that extol marriage and explain how marriage can honor God. From that, we can make a couple of generalizations. First, God’s desire is that every marriage last a lifetime. That is why He gave us so much good advice on home and family in Scripture. Secondly, it is clear that through dependence on Christ and his Word, any marriage can be saved. It is only blatant sin, rebelliously held on to that sometimes necessitates divorce. ‘‘Incompatibility’’ is not a marriage problem, it is a spiritual problem. Its cure is repentance and persistent love, not divorce.

The General Rule-v.10-11.

Paul first gives a general rule that is simply an interpretation of Jesus’ earthly teaching. Christians should not initiate divorce because they are unbelievers. This prohibition is absolute for the man; under no circumstances may he separate from his wife. The wife is allowed to separate from her husband if she finds it unbearable to live with him, but her only options are to either reconcile with him, or to remain unmarried. He is assuring Christians that God is not displeased with a believer who is married to an unbeliever. To the opposite, a spouse has a unique opportunity to be a force for the evangelism of the spouse.

There is a clear distinction made here between what a husband is allowed to do and what a wife can do. The husband must always stay with his wife and never initiate divorce. The wife may not divorce her husband, but if he abuses his authority over her, she can separate from him. This recognizes that the husband has authority in the home and has the ability to set the moral and spiritual tone of a home. The wife is under her husband’s authority and he might use that cruelly or abusively. If she cannot live to honor God while living under her husband’s authority, she has the right to separate from him. If she does that, she has two options; be reconciled to him or live single. If she leaves him without clear biblical grounds, she is not freed from her marriage covenant and must not remarry. In reality, what we are dealing with in this passage is not divorce, but separation. The marriage is not over, but suspended while the wife tries to reconcile or while she waits for God to change her husband’s heart.

One note must be made here. Many pastors have told women in cruel and abusive relationships that they must submit to their husband’s cruelty and remain in the marriage. That is a teaching in direct conflict with what Paul says here. If a man abuses his authority, a wife may separate for the sake of herself or her children.

It is interesting here that Paul specifically says that in this case of a wife leaving her husband without biblical grounds, remarriage is prohibited. The implication is that the right of remarriage is assumed when the divorce is on biblical grounds. Remarriage here and in Jesus’ words is only prohibited when the divorce takes place without biblical grounds.

Difficult Situations

Paul then turns his attentions to several difficult situations that a believer might face in applying these truths. He makes it clear with his statement in verse 12 that this is new ground, not covered by Jesus in the gospels. The situations did not exist when Jesus was speaking to his disciples. There are three situations which Paul addresses that we need to look at here. The first two address problems that arise when a person becomes a believer and is married to an unbeliever. The last situation deals with divorce that takes place before a person is saved.

Situation #1: The Unbeliever Stays-v.12-14

As mentioned above, some of the believers may have been wondering if it was necessary for them to divorce their unsaved spouses as an act of faithfulness to God. It is possible they had Ezra 9-10 in mind. Paul says that if the lost spouse wants to stay, let him (or her). In a very special way, the presence of one Christian in a family sets the whole family apart for God. One saved person in a family becomes a beachhead through which God can invade the entire family.

My dad was saved out of a very religious but largely unsaved family. Over the years, many others in his family came to Christ. He was the agent of God who “sanctified” his family. The use of that word here is a little strange. The word usually refers to making someone holy, but is also used to refer to something being set apart for God. That is probably the main meaning here. When one member of a family, or one partner in a marriage is saved, it sets apart the whole family for the activity of God.

The teaching here is clear. The believer should not initiate the divorce. As we discussed above, the wife may separate for the purpose of reconciliation, but is not free from her marriage vows. God does not vitiate the marriage vow.

Situation #2: The Unbeliever Goes-v.15-16

The believer might not initiate divorce, but if the unbeliever leaves, the believer is freed from the marriage vow and may marry another. Some unbelievers will simply not accept the spiritual changes that have gone on their believing spouse’s life and insist on leaving.

God has called us to live in peace, Paul says, if the unbeliever walks out of the marriage, the believer is free. A saved wife does not guarantee that the husband will come to Christ. As Christ unites believers, he separates believers from unbelievers. There is no guarantee that an unsaved spouse will come to Christ.

When the unbeliever leaves the marriage, the believer is not “bound” according to verse 16. Literally, the word means ‘‘not enslaved’’. Romans 7 talks about how a woman is ‘‘bound’’ by the law of marriage. It compares this to being bound by the law, enslaved to sin. When we die to the law, we are free from that which bound us, free to serve the new way of the Spirit. Just so, a believer is not bound to a marriage that the unbeliever leaves. The believer is freed from the marriage just as if the spouse had died. Though every attempt ought to be made toward reconciliation, it is clear that the believer may not be able to save the marriage.

Several points must be made here. First of all, Paul adds a second exception to the biblical law of permanent marriage. Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery. Paul, inspired of God, established a second exception. If a believer is abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, the believer is freed from the marriage vow.

Secondly, and perhaps fundamentally, a biblically permissible divorce is a release from the marriage vow. The believer is no longer bound by those vows. This will be a significant point when we examine the phrase “husband of one wife.” If a man is divorced on biblical grounds and remarries, he is the husband of one wife, and one wife only. He is not bound to the first marriage covenant, because it was broken by the other. Therefore, while he may have been married twice, in God’s eyes he is only the husband of one wife.

It is clear in this passage that remarriage is the right of those who are divorced on biblical grounds. They may only marry believers, but the teaching is clear. Biblical grounds for divorce nullify the marriage covenant and free the innocent party to remarry.

One more thing is implied here. The church tries to make blanket divorce policies, but that is a biblical mistake. A biblical view of divorce requires a situation by situation review of the circumstances of each divorce. If I left my wife for another woman, I am still bound in God’s eyes to my first wife and my new marriage would be adulterous in God’s eyes. If my wife left me for another man, or if she was an unbeliever who refused to stay married to me, I am free from my marriage covenant and also free to remarry. You cannot fashion a “one size fits all” divorce policy and remain biblical.

There is one more possibility I would mention. The situation dealt with here involves a believer being abandoned by an unbeliever. Is it possible that the principle used here might be transferable to other life situations? For instance, if a believer were abandoned by someone who was a professing believer, would the principles applied here carry over? I cannot speak with biblical certainty, since I am extrapolating from a clear teaching to a situation not dealt with by Paul. Still, I think it is possible that the principle would apply in such a situation. Was this passage directed only at a very narrow situation, or do the principles that are at work here have a broader application. I would suggest that they do, while realizing that many will argue just as strongly that they do not.

Marriage is a covenant between two people and God in heaven. It is meant to be permanent and anyone who wishes to honor God will seek to make it so. But, Scripture recognizes that man is sinful and hard-hearted. Because of this, God provides exceptions to the rule of permanent marriage. Jesus spelled one out – adultery. Paul spells another out – abandonment. In both of these situations, one partner has broken the marriage covenant. A marriage is a joining of two people into one. When one of the two people sins and breaks the covenant, God in His grace releases the other person from the broken covenant. We know that this is true in the event of adultery or abandonment by an unbeliever. I am holding out the possibility that the principle might have a more general application. When one party breaks the marriage covenant and refuses to be reconciled or to work to preserve the marriage, God will grant release to the other party.

In every situation, a Christian who honors and wants to please God will do everything he or she can to preserve the marriage. A godly person never looks for an excuse or justification for divorce, but looks for ways to show love and seek the transforming power of God. Such a person would only take the divorce exceptions as a last resort, never as an easy way out.

Situation #3: Divorce before Salvation-v.17-24

These verses establish an important principle. A person should remain in the marital position he or she was in at the point of salvation. In other words, salvation is a washing away of the past and implies a new, fresh start. All past sin is forgiven and the person is given a second (or third, or fourth) chance by God.

Paul tells believers that “In whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” Were you married? Seek to make the marriage work? Divorced and remarried? Accept God’s forgiveness and the fresh start of grace. This principle probably also applies to polygamy, though that is not a significant issue in America.

The key point that Paul seems to be making here is that what happens prior to salvation should not be held against that person after salvation. How can someone who is enslaved to sin he held liable for sinning? Divorce that occurs pre-conversion should not be held against a person once they have been redeemed.


1. Divorce is restricted heavily by Paul. He affirms Jesus’ teaching which only permits divorce on the basis of adultery. To that exception, he adds another. If an unbeliever abandons a believer, the believer is not bound by the marriage and is free to remarry.

As always, if a divorce is granted on these biblical grounds, the right to remarry after is clearly affirmed.

2. Husbands, given authority in their homes, are never allowed to initiate divorce or separation. They are to mimic the unconditional love of God and seek to rebuild the marriage.

3. Wives, living under their husbands’ authority, are permitted to separate from unbelieving husbands who abused them or treat them cruelly. If the wife cannot live under her husband’s authority, she is allowed to separate from him. She is not released in this circumstance, from her marriage vows. She must either reconcile to her husband or live singly without remarriage. The husband is not given this option. Unless there is infidelity or abandonment, he must stay in the marriage and attempt to change it with God’s power.

4. Paul addressed new situations that arose in the life of the church that did not exist when Jesus was teaching. He applied the principles Jesus taught to this situation and came up with a new application. Marriage is a covenant between two people and both must participate to make the marriage work. Both the adultery and abandonment exceptions recognize that if one party leaves a marriage, the other cannot be bound to that marriage. When one partner breaks the marriage bond, the other is free from it as well.

We sometimes find ourselves counseling people whose life situations do not fit easily into the categories described above. Our job is to follow the principles here and apply God’s standards to every situation. There may be situations in which people disagree on the application of these principles. It would be a serious thing to remarry wrongly; the Bible calls it adultery. It would also be a serious sin to tell someone who has God’s blessings on their remarriage that they are sinning. Each person must be fully persuaded, after careful searching of God’s Word, prayer and Godly counsel, that what he or she does is in God’s will.

Summary of Biblical Teachings on Divorce

1. The Divine Ideal - From the beginning of time God’s standard has been a marriage between a man and woman that is lifelong and is a blessing to both. Moses held to that standard, though making several allowances because of the hardness of heart of sinful man. Jesus reasserted that standard clearly in his teachings, raising the bar considerably from the teachings of the law. Paul, while expanding on Jesus’ teachings, held to the same ideal standard.

The ideal of permanent marriage is still possible today, though the original ideal of perfect marriage is not. Permanent marriage can only be accomplished by a commitment to Christ and the principles of the Word.

2. The Human Reality - While God’s ideal remains a possibility, man’s sin has ruined many marriages, and is now gnawing at the very structure of the institution itself. Sin ruins marriages when it is not confessed; when there is no repentance. God, in His love and mercy has made allowances for the presence of human sin in marriage.

Divorce is not commanded by God today, but is permitted in certain circumstances when one partner has broken the marriage covenant.

3. The Grounds for Divorce - Divorce is granted in the New Testament on two specific grounds. Moses tightened the standards of his culture by requiring that men have some grounds for divorce and give their wives an official certificate. Jesus raised the bar when he declared that there is only one grounds for divorce. Paul added another exception; similar in nature to the one Jesus gave but based on a circumstance that did not exist among Jesus’ hearers.

First, Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of (a lifestyle of) sexual immorality. Unless the divorce took place on this ground, the divorce was not divinely approved and remarriage would be an act of immorality.

Then, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, established another exception – abandonment. He allowed divorce when an unbelieving spouse abandons the believer. In this case, the believer is not bound to the marriage covenant and is free to remarry a Christian.

4. The Grounds for Separation - Paul also adds the right for a believing wife to separate from an unbelieving husband if he makes living with him unbearable. She must either reconcile or live single, but she does not have to live under the abusive authority of a cruel man. This same right is not granted to a husband, who has the authority to demonstrate the love of God and lead his home in the right ways.

5. Divorce vs. Separation - There is a critical difference between divorce and separation. Divorce is the ending of the marriage bond, separation is its suspension. A divorce on biblical grounds ends a marriage contract just as death does. Separation does not. Therefore, a divorce brings the right to remarry, while separation does not. It is important to note that in the two biblical grounds for divorce, fornication and desertion, the offending party has essentially ended its participation in the marriage. The divorce is simply a recognition of what the spouse has already done. In the separation, the problem is compatibility. Paul recognizes that separation may be necessary for a time to restore the marriage, but the marriage is by no means over.

6. Forgiveness and Restoration – The Bible message is one of forgiveness and restoration, even to those who have sinned in terrible ways. Christians assume the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees when we make divorced persons feel unwelcome in our fellowship, or somehow imply to them that they are of a secondary status in the fellowship.

7. Biblical Standards – The Church must avoid the twin dangers described earlier. We must not lessen the biblical commands and forget that it is God’s desire that every marriage last a lifetime. Just as serious is the tendency of Christians to add to the Bible’s commands, making them harsher than God himself makes them. Once again, this was Satan’s tactic in the Garden of Eden, and this attitude, often thought heroically faithful and uncompromising, is still more pleasing to Satan than it is to God. We must neither compromise biblical principles nor enforce that which is not biblical.

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