I am taking a break temporarily from our series on the Christian Soul in order to address an issue which was very relevant to my Christian journey several years ago. It pertains to an issue that in many parts of the church is a settled matter, and this issue is the question of divorce.
By the question of divorce, I mean not so much whether divorce is allowable but whether remarriage after divorce is. And to set the proper stage for this discussion, I would like to begin with a story.
I do apologize for its length! I did not have the heart to break it into a series 🙂
A few years ago, two individuals that were part of the leadership team of a church we attended — a large church with global influence — had an affair. They both had families of their own — nice families. But instead of repenting of their indiscretion, the two of them left their families and got remarried. I watched from a distance as photos of their special day were posted on Facebook. It was, I will be honest, tragic to observe.
I mention this to underscore the fact that the question of divorce, though allowed by most churches, is not necessarily a simple issue. Even the strongest proponents of remarriage after divorce recognize, or at least should recognize, there are times when remarriage after divorce should not be allowed, when doing so is nothing less than legitimized adultery.
But what we are here to discuss today is the other side of the debate. There are many in the church who believe remarriage after divorce is, with very few exceptions, always legitimized adultery. I wish to examine this position, and in the process tell my own story.
Taking God at His Word
Let me hit the issue head on and state directly that what side of the debate you fall on with regard to this issue all depends on your belief in how Scripture is to be interpreted.
If you believe that our job is to “take God at His Word” — that Scripture is merely a collection of commandments to be followed, no more and no less, and our job in knowing God’s will on any matter is to find all the verses pertaining to it and obey them — then quite honestly, there is not much to be discussed here.
For example, if Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,” then the matter for you is pretty much settled. Unless your spouse has committed adultery, you cannot leave the marriage. And if you have divorced, no matter how far in the distant past, you are committing adultery by remarrying. No exceptions.
But the question at hand is whether Scripture should, in fact, be interpreted in this manner. The question is not what Jesus said; it is how we are to interpret what Jesus said and apply it to the life of the believer who, because of the Cross, no longer lives under God’s Law, but under God’s grace.
We are asking, in other words, how the rules in the new Kingdom work. It is the same question we ask when Jesus says to us, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” We do not discount the truthfulness of such passages; however, we do ask a critical question of them: How are we to apply this in light of the Cross?
Now some of you may have trouble with me raising such a distinction. “What do you mean, ‘it depends on how we interpret Scripture’? We interpret Scripture by taking God at His Word.” You are convinced this is the only intellectually honest way to approach it. And so you smell a rat, a ploy to circumvent the plain teaching of Scripture.
But the truth is, it is rare for any of us to interpret Scripture in this manner. More often than not, we are exercising a nuanced approach to how we interpret any given verse or passage in the Bible, whether we are aware of it or not.
For example, no one in his right mind (at least in the evangelical world) would suggest that in the passage I just quoted, Jesus is saying we must establish our own righteousness. And yet, taking God “at His Word,” this is exactly what He said.
But we know we must interpret this verse in light of the full revelation of the New Testament. We must say, “It is true that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. But praise God, what we could not achieve, Jesus has done for us.”
We know, in other words, that the whole body of Scripture, both the Law and the Prophets, must be interpreted through the lens of the grace extended to us at the Cross. This does not nullify what we are reading, but it does put what we are reading into proper perspective. And we know doing so is not an attempt to circumvent the “plain teaching of Scripture.” On the contrary, it is absolutely critical. It is the only way to understand Scripture properly.
But for some reason, we often fail to make this connection when it comes to the question of divorce. We insist on taking God Word “at His Word” and say, “Look right here. What does it say?” The Word suddenly becomes a law book of black and white: Either we must take it at face value, or we are up to no good.
Enter God’s Objection
And I must admit, I do get it. When the question of divorce first presented itself in my own life several years ago, I was confident that a “face value” approach to Scripture was the safest and only approach. That is, until God disagreed with me.
I was attending a church where I had become good friends with a woman whose daughter attended the youth group I was a volunteer for. We had met through two mutual friends who were youth group volunteers with me. All four of us hung out regularly. I had also gotten in the habit of taking care of the woman’s daughter and younger son while she was away on business trips.
The two of us were strictly friends. But one Friday afternoon, having just completed my task of taking care of her children for the week, as I sat fiddling around with a guitar before leaving her apartment, and she and her children equally occupied, God interrupted my thoughts and said, “Behold: This is your family.”
I do not wish to be the most unromantic person on the planet here, but I cannot tell you how much this took me by surprise. I know it was not my own thoughts because I definitely was not thinking this way about my friend. My response, therefore, was, understandably, “What?!”
But as if to confirm what He had just said to me, from that day forward my feelings toward her changed. (And also toward the children, but — full disclosure — I already thought they were pretty amazing.) It was as if God had suddenly removed blinders and I saw her for the beautiful creature she was.
As you might have already guessed, though, I had a bit of a problem: She was divorced.
God Contradicting God
Now if you are tracking with me so far, then you will realize the problem I faced was far bigger than my desire to marry a divorced woman. More importantly, the problem was that I had just heard God tell me He was orchestrating something in my life that was not permitted by God Himself.
In fact, if you are on the other side of this debate, you are probably thinking right now, “So much for this guy’s ability to hear from God! He obviously was deceived. God clearly does not contradict His own Word.” And to be honest, I was thinking the exact same thing.
The problem, however, is that, though I wasn’t in the habit of hearing God’s voice all the time, I knew what I heard was definitely Him.
And so I was in a bit of a pickle. Either I had lost my mind, and my relationship with God had little or no credibility, or there was the possibility, however remote, that this woman, though previously married, was nonetheless in God’s eyes as if she never had been. And because of this, in God’s eyes, she was worthy of being pursued.
I make this distinction because there is a big difference between being forgiven by God for a failed marriage and being so forgiven that God sees you as having never been married in the first place. One forgives but does not forget; the other wipes the slate completely clean.
But for any of this to be true, God would — at the intersection of my life — have to be in the very act of contradicting Himself. He would have to be declaring to me as lawful something that He clearly had stated was not lawful. As if God were ever in the habit of doing that!
Or was He? The moment I allowed God the smallest possibility to convince me otherwise, I began to see Scripture in a different light. I saw, for example, that in the past God had done with others what He was now doing with me.
Take Peter, for example. In Acts chapter ten, Peter falls into a trance as he waits for lunch to be prepared. According to Scripture, he sees a large sheet being lowered to Earth containing “all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.” A voice then tells Him to get up, kill and eat. Peter protests, because it was forbidden by Mosaic law for him to eat this food. But God then says to him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
If there ever were an example of God contradicting Himself, here it was. It was God Himself who had established the Mosaic Law. And in case we wish to distance ourselves from the Old Testament, it was Jesus Himself who said,
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5)
So “what does the Bible say?” Taking “God at His Word,” we have no choice but to conclude Peter was out of his mind. That he, driven perhaps by hunger and by God knows what else, had succumbed to a spirit of deception. Allowing no nuances, we cannot conclude otherwise.
Lord of the Sabbath
And it does not stop there. Most of us perhaps are familiar with the spats Jesus regularly had with the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath. He was always managing to do something on the Sabbath that they objected to. And his rebuke of them in response was inevitable, for the Pharisees were always basing their accusations on their own rigid, man-made interpretation of Scripture.
But on one particular occasion, what Jesus says to them is quite unthinkable. He and his disciples are passing through a grain field, and as they do, some of the disciples break off the stalks, rub it in their hands, and eat the grain. When the Pharisees cry foul (the disciples were “working” in their minds), Jesus says to them in response:
Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. . . . I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12)
Allow these words to sink in for a moment. If Jesus had wished to simply shut the Pharisees up, He could have just said, “You are following your own foolish man-made laws concerning the Sabbath,” as He had done on other occasions. Instead, however, He takes the opportunity to essentially declare He has the authority to set aside His own Law.
Not only this, but in doing so, He accuses the Pharisees — arguably the guardians of God’s word — of condemning the innocent. Keep in mind, the innocent He is referring to are those who are actually guilty of breaking God’s Law! But God does not see it that way. He is so far from holding them accountable that those who insist on doing so are guilty of a greater sin.
So this changes things — or at least it should. Here, we not only see a Scriptural precedent for God setting aside His own Law, but we also see a Scriptural precedent that those dedicated to upholding God’s Word out of holy fear can actually find themselves in God’s cross-hairs. By being zealous protectors of God’s Word, we can ironically find ourselves falling into the very condemnation we hope to avoid.
Guardians of God’s Word
It is important therefore for us to take into account God’s mercy when interpreting His Word. Put simply, there are times God sets aside His own Word for the sake of mercy. At least, from our perspective. But in doing so, God is not really setting aside His Word. Rather, He is setting aside His Law. There is a big difference between the two. It is God’s Word, after all, that tells us that God desires mercy and that He is willing to set aside His own Law for the sake of it. By setting aside His own Law, God is not setting aside His Word but upholding it.
To uphold God’s word, then, we must be willing to allow God the right to set aside His own Law and extend mercy. We must be willing to say, “Yes, such-and-such is not lawful. But God is greater than His Law, and we believe it is God’s heart to show mercy in this situation.”
And this is why a simplistic “taking God at His Word” approach to Scripture just does not cut it. By this, I do not mean the act of taking things at face value (sometimes that is warranted) but rather the tendency to read Scripture as a book of law. When we do, we make no allowance for mercy.
The Guiding Principle of Mercy
But where does that leave us on the question of divorce? I will tell you where it left me. It became clear that God had declared my friend eligible to remarry, and now there was Scriptural precedent for Him making such a bold move.
But what about the couple I mentioned at the beginning of our discussion? Should they, too, be allowed to remarry? Should they be allowed to leave their families and start a new life afresh, because of mercy? Should divorce be allowed under all circumstances?
And if so, what about other issues beyond divorce such as same-sex marriage? How far, in other words, are we willing to take this “Scriptural precedent”? Does everything now become permissible?
The short answer is no. But to help us answer why, I believe we must understand what God’s objective is in the Christian life.
What we are really saying up to this point is that the point of the Christian life is not God holding us to a standard but rather God restoring us to a standard. Restoration, in other words, is God’s guiding principle which both explains why He is willing to set aside His Law in the first place, and also determines under what circumstances He is willing to do so.
What we are saying is that the point of the Christian life is not God holding us to a standard, but God restoring us to a standard.
Take for example the situation with David and his men that Jesus mentions. It was not lawful for them to eat the consecrated bread. But David was a man after God’s heart, and he was presently in pursuit of God’s heart, even as he fled for his life from Saul. There were also extenuating circumstances involved: David was fleeing for his life and had access to no other source of food.
The point is that David was on a path toward God, and the setting aside of God’s law furthered his progress along that path. Now, had David been king with all resource at his disposal, and caring neither about God nor man, decided to march into the tabernacle and help himself to the consecrated bread, things would have been much different. In fact, we see him doing this very thing years later, not with bread but with Bathsheba, another man’s wife. And the consequences were dire.
So God’s mercy does not establish a precedent of simply doing as we please — or allowing others to do as they please. Allowances are made along the path to restoration. These are how the rules in the new Kingdom work, so to speak.
The Path to Restoration
And this is what makes the situation with the two church leaders I mentioned different from other potential situations involving divorce.* Both were married. Secondly, the only extenuating circumstance in their marriage we are aware of is themselves. The path to restoration, then, is healing of the marriages they are in, beginning with them. Restoration is the criteria that marks the difference between mercy and unchecked permissibility.
The principle of restoration also helps to inform issues such as same-sex marriage. It is common nowadays for some progressive evangelicals to argue for same-sex marriage on the basis of God’s love and mercy alone. And it is absolutely true God is both loving and merciful, to the homosexual just as much to anyone else. But whether we endorse same-sex marriage is really not a question of mercy and love. It has everything to do with what we believe God is restoring us to.
The guiding principle of restoration becomes especially relevant when we deal with situations involving abuse, also. In His statements concerning divorce, Jesus made no allowance for domestic violence. So according to the letter of the law, a wife must remain married, even if she is being beaten within an inch of her life on a daily basis.
But according to grace, where is the path to restoration? It is not, clearly, in a wife subjecting herself to being beaten daily. It is most certainly her being rescued from a life of abuse that she might be healed.
Which was the case with my friend. Her husband beat her and also abused their children. One day, God asked her, “Is this the kind of marriage you would want for your own daughter?” She answered, “Absolutely not!” To which God replied, “Well, you are My daughter, and I do not want this for you, either. If you go, I will go with you. But if you stay, what this man has threatened to do to you will certainly happen to you.”
And this is the real difference between a life lived under Law and and one lived under grace. Those who insist on interpreting Scripture as a book of Law are committed to following it to the letter, even to their own harm, which admittedly seems noble. But what is less noble is their commitment to treat God’s word as law and enforce it to the letter, even if it means others’ harm. This is far less noble. It is a failure to extend mercy and thus to be like God in the truest expression of the Cross.
Besides, there are other, better ways to do what is noble. When God made clear to me His intentions for my friend and His own daughter, I saw things in a much different light. The challenge before me now was not with God but with man. It was whether I was willing to be, in the eyes of some, no better than an adulterer. But that was a price worth paying. In the eyes of God and in my own eyes, she was definitely worth that much. In fact, she was worth much, much more.
P.S. Twenty-four years and going strong. Each day just gets better and better.
* I do not actually presume to know all the details of the situation of these two individuals. Rather, I am using it as an example for the purpose of illustration. The point is that God’s mercy is always extended for the purpose of restoration.