Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©2011
Nomology: Lesson 9 – Divorce
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2002, 2011
Divorce: The Dissolving of the Marriage Bond
Sexual Immorality as a Ground for Divorce
Willful Desertion as a Grounds for Divorce
Westminster Confession of Faith 24
V. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
VI. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.
Divorce: The Dissolving of the Marriage Bond
The question of divorce is not merely a civil or social issue. There are moral principles which relate to the nature of marriage itself as ordained by God. Marriage is presented in Genesis 2:24 as the joining of two persons into one. This is a bond for life. The purposes of marriage are those stated in our last section of studies (WCF 24:1-4). If marriage is the binding of two into one, then divorce is a recognition that the bond has been destroyed in some fundamental sense.
Since God alone established the binding nature of marriage, only he can establish the situations that constitute a breaking of that bond. Since the marriage bond morally obligates both parties to life-long fidelity, there can be no grounds for divorce that recognizes both parties as innocent. Sin must have entered in, a sin so serious that it disfigures what marriage is and what it represents to the degree that the bond may be considered as broken if those specific conditions are met.
Two Grounds for Divorce
The only biblically revealed grounds able to dissolve the marriage bond while both partners are still living are sexual infidelity and willful desertion by an unbelieving spouse. If guilt regarding these sins is established by the court of the church, the innocent party, the victim of these specific offenses, may secure a legal decree of divorcement recognizing the obliteration of the marriage union.
Sexual Immorality as a Ground for Divorce
The first issue covered in the Confession is sexual immorality. First it deals with the discovery of sexual infidelity after a marriage contract had been agreed upon by the parties involved, and before the actual marriage takes place.
This presumes some type of direct contract of intent to marry made by the offending party. This would correspond with a betrothal or engagement. In such a case the innocent party of the contract may consider the agreement to be ended with no obligations remaining to marry the person who sinned in this manner.
Sexual immorality committed after the marriage is formally constituted provides legal grounds for the harmed partner to sue out a divorcement which formally ends the marriage obligations as if the offending party had died. Since marriage is only binding as long as both parties are living, this divorcement frees the innocent partner as if death had ended their marriage.
The Basic Biblical Principle
There are specific portions of Scripture which deal directly with the issue of divorce. One of the most important texts comes from Deuteronomy 24 where God clarifies the principle involved by a specific provision in the law as delivered by Moses. This portion is often misunderstood and misapplied. The confusion comes from the complex grammatical structure in the first four verses of that chapter.
1. When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,
2. and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife,
3. and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife,
4. then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.
Notice that this entire section is one long sentence. First it sets up the conditions. Then it shows what God requires under those conditions, and the consequences of not doing what God requires. The conditions are laid out in the first three verses without any approval of any of the elements of the situation.
First the condition is explained. The circumstance is that a man marries a woman, and he finds she has some indecency in her, and as a result he divorces her and she marries another man, and her second marriage also fails by way of divorce, or it ends innocently by the death of her second husband.
Second the requirement is explained. The first husband may not take the woman again to be his wife. That is the only command made in this entire section.
Third the consequences are explained. The woman is to be considered as having been defiled. To marry her a second time after an intervening marriage is an abomination before the Lord. This practice would bring sin on the land given to Israel as her inheritance.
The Hebrew word translated as “defiled” in this translation is sometimes rendered “abomination”. It is a word that represents what John Murray calls “some kind of gross abnormality.” It is the same word used to describe homosexuality, sex with animals, the burning of children as sacrifices to idols, and other similarly offensive crimes. The purpose here is to describe the act of remarriage under these circumstances as something so horribly perverted that it should not be tolerated.
A few important observations must be made. First, there is no approval made of the divorces mentioned in this complex case. The second marriage may even have ended by the death of the husband which is without dispute a proper and moral end to a marriage contract.
All that we are warned against here is the remarriage of a person to an original spouse after the ending of an intervening marriage. This passage only regulates an extreme situation after a divorce. It does not establish grounds for divorce.
When Jesus commented on this passage, his words confirm this interpretation. In Matthew 19:7-9 some Pharisees presented a question to him,
7. They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
The reply Jesus made shows how the passage they cited in Deuteronomy 24 ought to be understood.
8. He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.
9. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Jesus reworded their question. They had assumed that Moses commanded divorce. The root verb they used for commanded is entellomai (εντελλομαι) which means to command or to give an order. Jesus changed that to the verb permitted. He used the verb, epitrepo (επιτρεπω) which means to allow or to permit.
Jesus added that from the beginning it has not been this way. God’s creation ordinance (Genesis 2:24) established the union of marriage. By reference to this statement of Scripture, he clarified the biblical context of Deuteronomy 24. The divorce idea did not come from God. It is never set forth as a provision of the law. It could only have come from corrupted hearts bringing about conditions which diverge from those commanded by God.
Wrong things happen in our fallen world. When they do, God requires certain responses. When a person ends a marriage in an immoral way, the covenant community needs instruction about how to deal with such matters when they occur among them. There are limits even in God’s patience with sin among his people. While the sin of divorce had become a factor in their corrupted culture, they were not to let it progress to the point where they allowed remarriage after an intervening marriage.
Malachi 2:16 makes God’s attitude toward the concept of divorce very clear.
“For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
Though the law of Moses deals with many sins that effect a marriage, it never suggests or supports divorce as a way of dealing with the problems.
During the time of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God gave a special directive to certain people to end their marriages. Some had married pagans which God had told them they were not permitted to marry. The leaders of Israel were concerned about the effects this was having on the people. We don’t know if these were polygamous marriages, or if other circumstances were involved. God’s directive to put away their wives and children was not established as a regular practice for God’s people. It was never referred to as a foundation for divorce by the prophets, by the Pharisees when they challenged Jesus on his principles, nor was it mentioned by Jesus when he explained how God’s word should be understood regarding divorce. It would be a serious misuse of these passages to use them to imply that God established grounds for divorce. This was a special circumstance settled not by God’s codified law, but by special revelation relating to just that one situation about which we have little information.
In the New Testament several passages address divorce directly. Jesus explained that the same moral principle which had been in place since the institution of marriage in Eden was still in place and binding. He often used the divorce principle as an illustration of how the law continues in his time.
In Luke 16:17-18 Jesus said,
“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”
In Mark 10:11-12 he said nearly the same thing.
“And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”
In Matthew 19:3-6 Jesus showed that the principle of marriage established in Genesis continued to apply. Divorce had never been established by God.
And some Pharisees came to Him, testing Him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh’? Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
This passage forms the context of the comments Jesus made about the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:7-9 which we just reviewed. Mark 10 is very similar to the passage recorded in Matthew 19.
The basic doctrine of marriage as a union that continues until death is taught as God’s moral law all through Scripture. Any breaking of the marriage union other than by death could only be an act of sin.
According to the law of God, those sins that violate the marriage union were judged by various penalties. But none of them in the Old Testament provided for divorce as a solution.
In the case of adultery, which would have to be established before the elders by proper evidence, both offending parties were to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22-27). This would free an innocent partner from the union with the offending spouse by death, a provision consistent with the idea that marriage was binding only as long as both partners lived. Obviously a divorce judgment would not have been needed in the case of proven adultery since the marriage ended with the death of the executed party.
In a situation where adultery was suspected but not able to be proven by the laws of evidence, certain ceremonial rituals and cleansing laws were prescribed (Numbers 5:11-31), but the marriage was not terminated.
Other sexual offenses and their penalties are explained in Deuteronomy 22:13-29. Not one of them introduces the idea of a divorce.
In Matthew 19:9 Jesus states an exception which implies that, while marriage continues to be a life-long union, there are circumstances which sinfully destroy that bond. These situations must be recognized for what they are and dealt with carefully. He said that to divorce and then to marry another person was adultery except in the instance of immorality.
Matthew 19:9, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
In Matthew 5:32 Jesus similarly said,
“but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
The Greek word which in Matthew 19:9 is translated as immorality and as unchastity in Matthew 5:32 is porneia (πορνεια). This is a very broad term used for the various sexual misconducts forbidden in Scripture. In a marriage situation, it implies sexual intimacy with a person other than the spouse. This constitutes adultery. To engage in such behavior was, under the Mosaic Law, grounds for execution.
After the warnings of the ancient prophets had long been ignored, God judged Israel by removing her ability to sovereignly rule over her own territories. With the demise of the theocratic state and the imposition of pagan civil law, Israel was no longer able to carry out these civil penalties.
Under Roman rule, which dominated the region during the entire time of Jesus and the writing of the books of the New Testament, the Elders were no longer permitted to carry out any form of capital punishment. This is why, for example, the permission of Pilate was sought in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Since this change providentially eliminated death by execution as a means of freeing the victim partner from marriage to an adulterous spouse, an exception was in order. This exception was provided to ensure the continuing application of God’s immutable moral principles, and to preserve the image of the church seen in the relationship of marriage. Adultery effectively obliterates the marriage bond. Divorce recognizes and certifies for the innocent spouse that there remains no continuing obligations to the guilty party as if he had been put to death.
Death is recognized as an act that frees the living spouse to marry again as if the original bond no longer existed.
Romans 7:2-3, “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man.”
Some have restricted the exception Jesus made merely to the granting of the divorce itself, but not extending to the permission to re-marry. The Roman Catholic church holds to this view as do some Protestant groups. They may grant a divorce in such cases, but the innocent party may not re-marry as if something of the original union still remained in the eyes of God. The grammatical grounds often cited for interpreting these verses in this way are invalid. It also leaves the concept of divorce without a clear definition. This restricted view of divorce becomes a mere permission to disregard the obligations to the original spouse but does not recognize the severing of the bond.
Reformed scholars recognize that divorce does not obliterate the union of marriage, it merely recognizes officially, by a court of the church, that such a severing of the bond has taken place. Therefore the innocent party is free to re-marry within the scope of what God would honor for any marriage, as if the partner was no longer alive.
Willful Desertion as a Grounds for Divorce
As the gospel brought God’s covenant beyond the boundaries of those who were physical descendants of Jacob, marriage was no longer restricted within those genetic lines. In the older dispensation of the Covenant, marriage was forbidden unless the spouse came under the civil and religious oversight of Israel. When new believers were brought into the Christian Church from among the Gentiles it was entirely possible that one spouse in a marriage would become a believer while the other did not.
This situation sometimes incited the unbelieving spouse to physically abandon the believing partner. Since the unbeliever was not a member of the covenant community, the courts of the congregation had no authority to deal with him or her. This willful desertion, if it could not be remedied by loving counsel and admonition, constituted a breaking of the bond of marriage. This is also grounds for issuing a divorcement which recognizes and certifies that the marriage union has been destroyed. Paul clearly explained this in his first letter to the Corinthian church. Though he was not directly quoting the Lord’s words spoken here on earth, the Apostle is expressing what the Holy Spirit instructed him to say for this newly developing situation.
1 Corinthians 7:12-16
12. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away.
13. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away.
14. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.
15. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.
16. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
This portion of the Bible explains that believers are forbidden to abandon a spouse and must always seek to obey their marriage obligations regardless of the spiritual condition of the partner. There is a covenantal benefit to the spouse of a believer. This benefit does not mean they are regenerated or redeemed, but that they come under the blessings of God due to their partner belonging to the covenant community by faith in Christ. They are, in that sense, sanctified (set apart as special in some way) by union with a believing spouse.
Sometimes the believer’s faithful and loving testimony will be used by God, along with the message of the word of the gospel, to bring the unbeliever to Christ.
However, if the unbeliever abandons the believing spouse, the innocent partner is set free from the bond of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:15). This freedom can only be understood as being set free from their marital obligations and therefore the abandoned believer may marry another. In such cases a divorcement is in order to certify by proper authority that such is the case and that the bond of marriage had been severed through no fault of the innocent party.
There are many details of these exceptions which are helpful to study, but they go beyond the scope of these notes. The student is directed to the more complete handling of it in the book called Divorce written by John Murray.
Today, due to the influences of the values of a society which does not accept God’s word as its moral standard, some have suggested broadening the definition of abandonment to permit divorces among believers who separate, or who abandon one another mentally, or who believe they no longer love one another. This is covered by the confession when it concludes this section by saying that, “the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case.”
The only permission given by God’s word relates to the abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. If both had professed faith in Christ and joined the covenant community by membership in the church through baptism and profession of faith, then abandonment is a chargeable offense against God’s law. The offending partner would be summoned before the church court to be admonished to repair the abandonment and resume his marriage obligations. If that person refuses to submit to the officers duly ordained and given charge over him or her according to God’s word, then the disobedient party may be removed from communicant membership and declared to give no evidence of being a believer. This is based upon Matthew 18:17-20 and is called “excommunication”. At this point the innocent party may consider the abandoning spouse to be an unbeliever and proceed under the directives of 1 Corinthians 7 to obtain a divorcement.
Mental abandonment goes beyond the statement of 1 Corinthians 7:15. The declaration that love has gone out of a marriage is no where permitted as a reason to end a marriage. We are commanded to love our spouses. To refuse to repair such a situation is open rebellion against the word of God and should be dealt with pastorally by the church.
The exceptions explained in these New Testament passages indicate that if a divorcement is issued for any other reason than adultery or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse, the divorce is invalid. Such people are not free to remarry. To do so would be adultery.
There is another issue that in practical situations often takes place. An unbelieving couple might get a divorce for unbiblical reasons, then a remarriage takes place. If one of those persons improperly remarries then becomes a believer and joins a church, where is his or her obligation?
Once a remarriage takes place, it is a valid bond with all the obligations of any marriage. Though adulterous in its origin and sinful, it is not invalid. Return to the original spouse (as some wrongly recommend) is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 24. This author recommends that such a person should sincerely repent of his past sins and seek forgiveness in Christ who alone can remove the offense by his work of atonement. The current marriage should then be faithfully honored.
Note: The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.