I find that there are a few theological issues in which I see many people either perplexed on or completely on the wrong side of the fence. They are undoubtedly sensitive issues and, in some cases, heated debates. Because of my personal life choices, I find it necessary to expound upon these things and thus I’m going to create a new website category for theological matters. While there are several issues I will address in the coming posts, the first of these is the subject of divorce. So, without further ado, I’ll commence.
There are, like most matters, two extremes of opinion on the subject of divorce. One extreme is a nonchalant attitude that accepts it under any circumstance by believing that some people simply don’t belong together and the other extreme [which I have seen and encountered here in the Philippines] is to believe in the sanctity of marriage so much that what the bible says about divorce is completely rejected. Such extremes are not only theologically incorrect, they do an injustice to the Word of God and harm many an individual who would wish to remarry after a divorce. It is imperative that the correct middle ground of those two extremes be found.
The first time divorce is addressed in the bible it is done so in regards to the priests of Israel. The priests were forbidden to marry a divorced woman. They were also forbidden to marry a whore or a profane woman. This reference, given in Leviticus twenty-one, is given without regard to the cause of divorce. In other words, whether the woman was put away for adultery or whether she was put away because her husband didn’t like her was a moot point. The priesthood, under no circumstance, was to marry a divorced woman.
Shortly after the mention of divorcees in Leviticus, we find a reference in Numbers chapter 30. Here we find that divorced women were considered independent and any vows that they had taken were considered valid. They did not need the permission, as other women, of a husband or father to be committed to an oath. We see continually in scripture that divorce, for spiritual application, is a matter which pertains more to the woman than to the man but that is a different topic for a different time.
Moses, in Deuteronomy twenty-four, gave Israelites the liberty of putting away their wives for whatever cause. In short, if a wife displeased her husband, he could for whatever reason, write her a bill of divorcement and put her away. The caveat of this system was that the husband could, under no circumstance, take her back if she ever became the wife of another man [even if she was widowed from that man]. Once she was departed from her former husbands house, she could become the wife of another man but, after she had become another mans wife, she could never return to her former husband. Again, this has some deep spiritual interpretations (such as listed in Hebrews six) but I’m only going to address the literal subject matter.
Moving far ahead to the new testament we find the words of Christ addressing the Old Testament laws of Divorce in Matthew chapter five. It is oft the most quoted chapter on divorce and most often misinterpreted at that. It states the following:
In a nutshell, Christ invalidates the Old Testament methodology of divorce by allowing only one justification, and that was fornication. Most Baptists seem to stop reading the subject at that passage and they fail to continue on to Matthew chapter nineteen before they butcher up First Corinthians where Paul also addresses the subject at hand. Let us take a look at Matthew 19:
There is a notable thing in the latter part of this passage. Chiefly speaking, individuals who divorced on the grounds of fornication are allowed to remarry and it is not considered adultery. This portion of scripture, which is not expounded in Matthew five, is quite often neglected by those touting the sanctity of marriage regardless of adultery or fornication. However, the scriptural situations regarding divorce go way beyond physical fornication as we’ll see next in Corinthians. Paul justifies divorce in the situation where an unbelieving wife or husband would depart though he recommends against it where possible. What Paul does not specify, and thus a serious gray area exists, is what state of unbelief he is referring to. Is he discussing where one individual is saved and the other is not or does it pertain to where both are saved and the partner falls away (First John for example)?
I have personally experienced Baptists here in the Philippines completely neglecting the facts of verse 15 (not under bondage in such cases) while quoting (or should I say misinterpreting) verse thirty-nine:
Yes, I would agree, the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth. However, if the divorce is justified, then the wife is no longer bound as it is clearly stated in verse fifteen. Let’s not even mention the fact that by the time Paul gets to verse thirty-nine, he has completely changed the topic! He is no longer dealing with the divorce/departure of believers who are married with unbelievers but he is addressing the marriage of those not yet married.
With the addition of Paul’s writings here in Corinthians, we then find that not only is divorce justified in the case of fornication, it is also justified in those situations where an unbeliever departs. Spiritually speaking, this makes perfect sense. Should a righteous man or woman be forced into a life of temptation via celibacy because their unbelieving spouse departed? These individuals are no longer bound by the law and they are free to marry whom they wish (in the Lord). While Paul somewhat discourages marriage in verse thirty-five, this admonition should be seriously balanced with Paul’s earlier warning: it is better to marry than to burn.
It is also noteworthy to pay attention to whom each of the above passages is addressed to. Christ, in the listed Matthew verses, was addressing Jews that were still under Jewish law. Paul was addressing the Christian church. Equally important is to note who neither of these passages is addressing; neither Paul nor Christ has addressed the marriages of unbelievers to unbelievers! While the marriages of unbelievers to unbelievers should be considered honorable (Heb 13:4), it is hardly a ‘sanctified’ marriage as the couple is both yet in their sins. This is why neither Paul nor Christ does anything to address marriage or divorce among unbelievers. If they are yet in their sins, their divorces, regardless of the number, are irrelevant. To hold those divorces/remarriages against them on the basis of Matthew 5 or First Corinthians seven is not only theologically incorrect, it is morally wrong in the face of forgiveness that Christ has given everyone.
Christians would do well to consider all the verses of the bible on the matter and not pick and choose those verses which support their presuppositions on the subject. It somewhat makes me laugh to hear pastors here touting the sanctity of their marriages by stating that divorce in the Philippines is illegal. No, divorce in the Philippines is not illegal. It merely goes by the name of annulment and it is prohibitively expensive for the average person. Regardless of the legality though, divorce under certain circumstances is justified by the bible and that justification needs to be both recognized and taught. Were it not so, both Christ and Paul would have stated things differently.