“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Martin Luther

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Scriptural Consideration of Divorce Based on Abandonment

In the recent past I heard a pastor declare that there are instances in a marriage where divorce is Biblically the preferable option. It has bothered me immensely since I heard it and the more I contemplate it the more I have been convicted that such thought is not only a gross error but in being so it is a remarkably dangerous statement to make to the people of God. In an era where approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, and according to a study done by George Barna of the Barna Research Group, 27% of all Christian marriages end in divorce, it seems inconceivable that such a statement would be made. It would seem to me that making such statements will encourage the flesh to rationalize those circumstances where a divorce would be a justifiable preference. Yes, it is no secret that the Church has long recognized two legitimate causes for divorce; one is adultery and the other is abandonment. It is the latter that will be the focus of our consideration here today. As part of our consideration, and in relation to the same aforementioned declaration, we will see if emotional abandonment is cause for divorce or if something more is being spoken of when the Bible presents this to us.

It is not enough for me to presuppose such a statement is wrong; it, as with all things, requires study and seeking out an answer from the word of God which is to be our rule for faith and life. So let us proceed to see what God’s view of divorce is and whether it is ever presented in terms of being preferable in any given situation.

We will start with Mal. 2:14-16. Here we are told that specifically "[…] the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce…” Hate is a very strong word; yet, that is exactly what God states here. He doesn’t say that at times divorce pleases Him or based on situational morality He will be pleased with divorce. No, He just states openly that He hates divorce. Why is that? One author explains that for us and says,
“[…] within Evangelical circles… one answer comes from those who have undergone the process. They say God hates divorce because it is so hurtful and traumatic. While this is certainly true, the answer seems to suggest that Scripture, covenants, and children all take a back seat to the hurts of those adults involved. A second, and more relevant answer relates to the fact that those involved in a divorce are covenant breakers… The second reason that God hates divorce… [is because] He… teaches that the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the Church within the context of marriage. Therefore, when a husband and wife get a divorce, they are destroying the picture that God has given to the world as the relationship that He has with His Church. To put it bluntly, many evangelicals are covenant breakers. Dr. Louis Hill, “Seven Foolish Questions”, pp 79-89
Another theologian deals more specifically with the warning given to all men in this passage of take heed to your spirit or as it is understood to mean, beware of losing your spirit. He says,
This warning is accounted for in ver. 16, first of all in the statement that God hates putting away… A second reason for condemning the divorce is given in the words… “he (who puts away his wife) covers his garment with sin…” The meaning is… that wickedness will adhere irremoveably to such a man. The figurative expression may be explained from the idea that the dress reflects the inward part of a man, and therefore a soiled garment is a symbol of uncleanness of heart. CF Keil, Keil and Delitzsch Commentaries, vol. 10, “The Twelve Minor Prophets,” pp 451-454
So we see that God hates divorce as a definitive rule because it breaks a covenant we have made before Him which also defiles the picture that God has given the world of His church as represented by our marriages. He hates divorce so much that He here includes a warning that we must be careful lest we lose our lives which is the meaning of losing our spirit. When we have committed the act of divorce our sin is evident to all; our wickedness is expressed in terms of being so deeply a part of who we are that it adheres to our clothes that all may see it; we are unable to hide our shame. There are a number of indictments made against Israel in the book of Malachi; this is one of them, and it is explained as one of the reasons God will no longer hear them when they cry to Him for help. Divorce presented in this manner doesn’t appear to be a preferable option.

Next we will look at Mk. 10:6-10. Here it is presented in terms just as clear as the ones we just read in Malachi. Christ tells us, “[…] what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Once again He doesn’t present this in terms that in certain times or in certain situations God encourages that marriages dissolve or even prefers it. No, He just states in a very blunt declaration that the expectation from God is that once a man and woman have joined together in a marriage covenant they are not to break that covenant throughout the rest of their lives.
“That Jesus did so regard marriage, namely, as an indissoluble union, changing what used to be “two” into what has now become “one” – note: It follows that they are no longer two but one flesh –, a union until death parts the two, a definitely divine institution that must not be tampered with, is clear from the following: a) Otherwise His argument would lose its force… c) this is in line with the words immediately following, namely, What therefore God has joined together, let man not separate. […] from every angle, it was God who established marriage as a divine institution (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5, 6). Marriage is therefore indeed “an honorable estate.” Therefore, let not man separate what God has joined together! The indissolubility of marriage is stated by Jesus in a very forceful manner. The word “Therefore” or “For this reason” shows that He is summarizing the divine revelation concerning the marriage bond… According to Christ’s teaching, then, husband and wife form a team. They work, plan, play, pray, pull, etc. together. For a man to separate what God has yoked together means arrogantly to defy an act of God! William Hendriksen, “New Testament Commentary,” vol. 2, pp378-379
It is abundantly clear in this passage as it was in Malachi that God views marriage as a covenant that cannot be broken. There is not one single occurrence that I am aware of in the entire word of God that would present divorce in such favorable terms as to give preferable conditions for it in the eyes of God. It is always presented as being apart from the will of God and so repugnant to Him that he “hates” it and makes de facto declarations that we are not to divorce. I am firmly convinced that if no other passages existed to bolster the point, though they do, that these two alone would be sufficient to show that in the eyes of God divorce is never a preferable option. Hendriksen sums up the inadequacy of our view as compared to God’s well when he says,
In a world where one divorce follows another in rapid succession, so that it is difficult at times to count the number of times a person has been divorced, the teaching of Jesus deserves to be repeated and emphasized.
But if there be a charge that perhaps the passage in Mark leaves room for an ambiguous view of marriage then perhaps in Matt. 19:1-10 the ambiguity is cleared up. For here Matthew tells us that Jesus doesn’t just make it clear that divorce is wrong but He takes the challenge from the Pharisees, and their pitiful attempts to trip Him up and find loopholes, and slams the door shut on any possibility that divorce is acceptable in the eyes of God. They thought that they had cause for divorce through the Law of Moses, but as the following makes clear that was not the case,
Jesus prefaces His [answer] with the question, ‘Have you not read that He who created them…?’ There was not much flattery in the question… The force of the citation, however, goes beyond this not-so-subtle rebuke and forces the Pharisees to consider the issue in the total Biblical context. They had been isolating the Mosaic Law out of the broader framework of God’s original intent with the institution of marriage. In effect, Jesus is saying, ‘If there is ambiguity in the Law of Moses, let the implications you draw be governed by what God spoke clearly in creation…’ [The Pharisees then ask] if God never intended divorce, why did He authorize Moses to command divorce? Jesus’ answer is direct. ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.’ Notice the change in words. The Pharisees talk about Moses commanding divorce; Jesus talks about Moses permitting divorce. A command leaves no option – it must be carried out. Permission is less forceful, giving the party and option. Jesus interprets the Mosaic Law as permission for divorce granted because of the hardness of the heart. This reflects an act of condescension to accommodate the influence of sin upon the marriage estate. But He repeats His point that in creation there was no provision for divorce. RC Sproul, “The Intimate Marriage,” pp 95-96
See, from the very beginning it has never ever been preferable in the eyes of God that mankind be divorced. Divorce is the product of sin and based on that God has permitted divorce in very few situations. But permitted and preferred is not the same thing as we well know. Then, even in those situations, it is presented as an option rather than a command; it is not a divine imperative. Based on all the evidence we may gather in the word of God it seems clear that even in those situations the preference of God is that if possible we remain married. If we look at the book of Hosea we see an example played out in his marriage which represents what God has to endure based on our infidelity to Him; yet He remains faithful and never leaves us nor forsakes us in spite of our lack of fidelity, we too should be so faithful. Even so, due to the existence of sin and the often times insurmountable damage that has been done in those unique cases He permits us to dissolve the union. Clearly there can never be any reasonable declaration from any man on earth that would make divorce preferable in the eyes of God.

So that leads us to the famous and oft used passage of 1 Cor. 7:10-16. Here Paul addresses the issue of abandonment and it is here where we will be able to look more closely at the idea of whether or not emotional abandonment is cause for divorce. I think an appropriate starting point would be to look at the word “depart” which is used a number of times in this passage. I suppose that a cursory reading of the passage may indeed lead someone to rationalize that emotional abandonment is cause for divorce. But if we look into the actual meaning of the word it has specific application. The original Greek word used in almost every instance in this passage is the word chorizo which isn’t just the idea of not being what you are supposed to be within your marriage but is a physical departure. Applied correctly this means the person has gotten up and left the marriage altogether, they are no longer to be found within the home. This is important, for while it is reprehensible that one spouse or the other is not contributing as they should to the marriage it is not cause for divorce as this passage is clearly telling us. If we were to start encouraging men and women to divorce their spouse based on emotional abandonment I fear there would be very few marriages left indeed. I think any honest review of our own marriages will show us periods where we have been guilty, for whatever length of time, of such an act ourselves. Thankfully our spouse was faithful and the Lord showed us our error and our marriage still thrives as a result.
He now entreats of another condition of marriage – its being an indissoluble tie. Accordingly, he condemns all those divorces that were of daily occurrence among the heathens, and were not punished among the Jews by the Law of Moses… Husbands frequently divorced their wives, either because their manners were not congenial, or because their personal appearance did not please them, or because of some offense; and as wives, too, sometimes deserted their husbands on account of their cruelty, or excessively harsh and dishonorable treatment, he says that marriage is not dissolved by divorces or dissensions of that nature. For it is an agreement that is consecrated by the name of God, which does not stand or fall according to the inclination of men, so as to be made void whenever we may choose. The sum is this: other contracts, as they depend more on the inclination of men, are in like manner dissolved in that same inclination; but those who are connected by marriage are no longer free, so as to be at liberty, if they change their mind, to break in pieces the pledge…, and go each of them elsewhere in quest of a new connection. For if the rights of nature cannot be dissolved, much less can this, which, as we have said already, is preferred before the principal tie of nature (i.e. the natural tie we have with parents Gen. 2:24).
But as to his commanding the wife, who is separated from her husband, to remain unmarried, he does not mean by this that separation is allowable, nor does he give permission to the wife to live apart from her husband; but if she has been expelled from the house, or has been put away, she must not think that even in that case she is set free from his power; for it is not in the power of a husband to dissolve marriage. He does not therefore give permission here to wives to withdraw, of their own accord, from their husbands, or to live away from their husband’s establishment, as if they were in a state of widowhood; but declares, that even those who are not received by their husbands, continue to be bound, so that they cannot take other husbands.

To the rest I say… the believing party ought not to seek divorce, unless he is put away… [and] if an unbeliever puts away his wife on account of religion, a brother or sister is, by such rejection, freed from the bond of marriage.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 20, pp 238-241
There is a lot here but two things are clear that will drive the point home that emotional abandonment is never cause for divorce. 1) Calvin deals specifically with a husband or wife that fails in their duties within the marriage. Perhaps with wives it is a disagreeable nature that is a real nuisance to her husband or perhaps she doesn’t support her husband the way she should. Perhaps with husbands we can best sum up what Calvin says by saying they are tyrants and in general jerks. Certainly in both cases the charge of emotional abandonment would hold some merit. Yet the Bible says and Calvin explains that it is by no means cause for divorce. You are, in such cases, still bound to that marriage based not on the merits of your spouse but on your commitment to God when you made this marriage covenant in His name. 2) You are bound to your marriage even when you are unequally yoked to a lost person, whether that case existed prior to or after marriage makes no difference. I would think it reasonable to assume that a lost spouse will fail in almost every way to actually live up to the expectations that God has laid out in His word for husbands and wives. In fact, I would guess that it is true that in most cases there will not even be a reasonable attempt at living up to godly expectation within the marriage from the unbelieving spouse. Guess what? Even then, even when no more perfect of a case could be made for emotional abandonment and a lack of attentiveness to their spouse we are still not allowed to divorce. The exception is if they physically leave the home or banish us from the home. In that case we are no longer bound to the marriage; it is as if they died. If that principal holds true when dealing with a lost spouse, how much more so when both parties are saved? It is sure that your spouse will fail you in this life at some point and fail to be what you have expected or desired and even more so failed to be what God has expected them to be. But you are bound to that marriage and that is not contingent on the other person, that is contingent on the covenant you have made before the Lord and must be adhered to with a ferocious zeal. One last consideration here is that it is clear from all of the books I have read on this and from Paul himself that even if separated from your spouse it is not then cause for divorce, you may have a claim on the separation, depending on who you read here, but I couldn’t find anyone who justified a divorce in this situation. When they have filed for divorce from you, especially concerning an unbelieving spouse, then you are no longer bound to the marriage. Otherwise, you are not free to remarry, end of story.

Conclusion:

As I think we have clearly seen in this study it is never safe or correct to say that divorce is ever a preferable option. In fact, it is faulty to its very core and it sets a dangerous precedent within the church that there are certain loopholes and when you have become dissatisfied within your marriage you may seek those loopholes and escape the promise you have made to God and to your spouse. RC Sproul addresses errors such as this when he says, “[…] in many cases the institutional church has sanctioned divorce on grounds that are in clear opposition to the teaching of Christ. It means that many clergymen and counselors throughout the land are recommending divorce where Christ has prohibited it. It means that not only is the sanctity of marriage corrupted by state and church, but also the authority of Christ is flagrantly disobeyed in both spheres over which He is King. The word for such disobedience is treason.” When you teach your people that divorce is an acceptable and even a preferred option you are committing an act of treason against God and working with the secular government that has sought to destroy the institution of marriage and is finding an ever increasing level of success through such filth being spoken of from the pulpit. It is an act of treason, it is an act of defiance against God, it is a violation of a covenant made before the Lord Himself. When you find that your congregation has a spike in divorces I pray that you will fear the day you stand before the Lord to explain why you told His people divorce was preferred by Him and that will convict you to change your ways immediately.

To add insult to injury people are being told that when a spouse has emotionally checked out of a marriage that you can abandon the marriage and go your merry way. This is just as dangerous as the previous declaration because not only is it wrong, it is leading people to rationalize and actively seek reasons for divorce and then to go on and commit adultery by remarrying. A better exhortation from our pastors would be to get over yourself and honor your marriage vows for the selfless love of God and your spouse even if it is causing you pain in the meantime to do so.

Earlier we saw Dr. Louis Hill speak about the marriage representing the relationship between Christ and His Church. I am reminded here that the Bible tells us if we are faithless, He remains faithful and I would exhort believers to take this same mentality into their marriages. Love your spouse in the face of all difficulties and never ever entertain divorce as a solution to your problems. If you carry with you that very Biblical view then it is sure that you will by default work on issues that cause others to fail and more than likely learn to ignore issues that should have never caused dissention in the first place. Divorce is Biblically given as an option in the case of adultery and when an unbelieving spouse divorces a believer; but, even then, it is only as an option and you can dedicate yourself to the marriage in spite of the great sin that has been committed against you which Biblically is the actual preferred choice of God.

Remember pastors, remember people of God, that God hates divorce and He never instituted marriage to be ended by anything other than death itself. If that is His expectation then so too must it be ours if we are to glorify Him in our marriages and in our lives. Any advice you give or receive to the contrary I am confident in saying is faulty advice and should be discarded immediately. May your marriages be fruitful, lengthy, healthy, beautiful pictures of Christ and His Church until the day the Lord sees fit to call you home. Amen.

8 comments:

  1. It is great that you stand firm as it relates to the marriage covenant, however, how many spouses remain in mentally psychologically and physically abusive marriages because it's not considered grounds for divorce and remarriage. How many individuals in the church are praying to die, or attempt suicide because after crying and praying and agonizing and trying to change themselves, or make excuses for the abuse in order to survive, think that the only way out is death - theirs. I really don't believe that that is living in peace and it IS form of abandonment. Abuse of any kind is diabolical and the abuser, if they are not willing to seek help and change should be left (for the safety and well being of the rest of the family). And the victim should be FREE. I just don't understand why this so-called gray area is still not being dealt with, and what's really sad is that PASTORS and Christian educators are getting away with being the abusers. Let us get with the program and start living in the real world with real issues. Is God telling his beloved children that they should endure abuse because they are not selfless enough? Where is the line drawn? Do we have to show up to church, before the church board or to the conference with bruised faces and broken bones in order to be given freedom? What about the awful bruises that are within that is sustained for much longer by the mental and emotional cruelty? What do you have to say about that?

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  2. I don't believe I ever justified abuse of any kind in this post. I don't think I even justify emotionally abandoning your spouse, both are grievous sins. But that also doesn't mean that in and of themselves they are cause for divorce. I think it important that in such cases the church intervene as soon as they are aware of the issue.

    That said, I think your point highlights the need to marry godly spouses that are striving to glorify God and edify their spouses through their marriage. If we sin and marry lost men and women as Christians we will see quickly that the issues listed above are more abundantly on display than in godly marriages which are a picture of Christ's relationship with the Church and should approached likewise with serious effort to live up to our God given obligations within the marriage.

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  3. I am currently in a marriage that is facing abandonment by my wife. I found this by googling the subject and included "reformed" in the search. My wife is a "believer" and we have both vowed to our congregation and elders to accept their concern, admonishment, instruction, etc through the Book of Church Order (OPC). My pastor has tried contacting my wife to no avail. She refuses any counseling from anyone knowing me. We have a ten year old daughter.

    The reason that I am replying to this blog is for a reason or two. It is abundantly clear the position the Lord has taken in regards to divorce. The Greek word "PORNEIA" in Matthew 19, in my observation is not "adultery." The foundation of which I am referring to is that as Christ spoke to the Pharisees he was speaking to them in a Jewish frame of mind, not a Gentile frame of mind. They knew what adultery was, as Levitical states: a death penalty. Of course the marriage is dissolved if there is death. But that is why Christ didn't mean adultery, as is most often interpreted. What Christ meant was "fornication." Fornication takes on a whole other set of possibilities: pornography, incest, bigamy, bestiality, sodomy, etc. Yes, fornication does include the act of adultery.

    However, with that said, I do believe that physical abandonment is the only option for divorce, other than fornication. What is so devastating to me is that I married a woman who demonstrates active love to the Lord. She is active in church. She has an active prayer life. She has an active devotional life. She abhors particular moral issues. So, is she acting as an unbeliever by demonstrating her unwillingness to remain committed to the marriage. Does she demonstrate an unbelief by breaking her vows to the Session, Congregation, to me as her husband.

    Now, I will fully admit that I am not at all innocent. I was somewhat the one who emotionally abandoned her. She was not receptive to counseling from our pastor, so I began emotionally detach myself from her issues with me. I concentrated on her issues instead of listening to what she was saying about me. However, she didn't want to deal with her own sin. As Federal Head of our marriage I do take into heavy consideration that I have caused her to respond the way she has; however, I am not going to fall into a pit of condemnation. I will accept my responsibility. My faith is in the Lord. My hope is she will return and not divorce me.

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  6. In a letter Martin Luther wrote to his father as a dedication to his book entitled; "On Monastic Vows," he makes the point that vows taken either involuntarily or against parental authority (God's will) are wicked and worthless. If true, it stands to reason that God neither recognizes nor acknowledges marriage where one or the other party to it's vow falls outside of His will. Again, if true, it also stands to reason that much of the field of psychology's attempt at remedy serves no purpose other than to detract from the real problem. How can someone either desert or abandon something God does not either acknowledge or recognize as existing in the first place?

    It hardly seems possible to derive the benefits that follow repentance for the sin of adultery when it is not recognized as such. Presumption and despair serve as life's "bookends." Only through the Gospel message of Jesus Christ do we find remedies to these kind of problems. And that, only through the schooling of the Holy Spirit.

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  7. Ex 21:10(7-11) is not included in this discussion and neither is Ezra 10:3,11,17,19. Why?

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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