Biblical Compassion on the Matter of Divorce and Remarriage
11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:11-12 (NIV)
In America, for every two marriages, there is one divorce.1 In the U.K., the annual number of divorces has more than quintupled since 1961.2 Divorce is epidemic in the West, and it is likely that a given church will have more than a few divorcees in its ranks. These men and women will have suffered a high degree of bereavement and embarrassment, and some are now content to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. Others, though, will seek a new spouse and will hope the Church might encourage them in this quest. How tempting it can be for the pastor to accommodate them, but how troublesome Christ’s teaching may prove to be in this connection.
In Mark, chapter 10, Pharisees confronted Jesus with the tough issue of divorce, a matter which divided the Jewish leaders themselves. Followers of Rabbi Shammai tolerated divorce in cases of gross indecency. Rabbi Hillel’s followers, on the other hand, allowed a husband to divorce his wife for being a bad cook. Jesus asked them what Moses said on the issue (v. 3), and they cited a secondary ruling from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There, Moses ruled that a divorced, remarried, and divorced woman might not return to her original husband. Some had turned this niche ruling into general license for divorce, so Jesus cited God’s original design for marriage (vv. 6-7). He reminded the Pharisees that marriage meant “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), not merely intimate acquaintance (v. 8), so separation was sinful (vv. 8-9).
This was a stern pronouncement which caused the disciples to observe, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). They understood that the bond was non-negotiable and the gravity of its violation substantial. Indeed, the person involved in serial marriage was nothing less than an adulterer (vv. 11-12), an offender fit for stoning under Levitical law (Lev. 20:10).
Of course, two New Testament passages suggest exceptions to this rule. Matthew 5:31-32 names sexual uncleanness (porneia) as a marriage breaker, though some claim this exception applies only to the betrothal period. First Corinthians 7:15 says that the bonds are broken when an unbeliever abandons the Christian spouse. By extension, some today count physical abuse as a form of abandonment. And others argue that divorce before conversion does not count when questions of remarriage arise. Be that as it may, the biblical standard is still demanding, clearly out of step with the culture.
This puts the pastor in a difficult position. If, out of compassion, he accommodates the marriage preferences of those who wish to try again (and again), he contributes to the devaluation of marriage in society and faces the questions, “How could you officiate at the blessing of something Jesus calls ‘adultery?’” and “How could you presume to be ‘nicer’ than Jesus on this matter?” If he balks at participation in such weddings, then he wounds the parties involved and all their supporters. The congregation may subsequently shun his ministry, counting him unloving.
It would be pleasant if the pastor could avoid this dilemma, but it is one of the most pressing and difficult issues he will face—early and repeatedly. The choices he makes here will do much to define his ministry. As difficult as it may be, he must strive to be biblical from start to finish, for if he will not, who will? Of course, his application of Scripture must be compassionate, but compassion is never a substitute for faithful exegesis. And if the divorced and their constituency question the faithful pastor’s love, he can simply explain that he was preaching primarily to the children and youth of the congregation, presenting God’s high view of marriage and doing his best to spare them the pain of ill-chosen and ill-tended wedlock that some of their elders have suffered. That is the heart of biblical compassion on this matter.
“Marriage and Divorce: Data for 2003,” National Center for Health Statistics Website, August 3, 2005, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/divorce.htm (October 27, 2005).
“Divorces: 4th Successive Annual Increase in the U.K.” National Statistics Website, August 31, 2005, http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=170 (October 27, 2005).