It is inarguable that our society's concept of marriage is enormously flawed. But society's idea of marriage is but the individual's concept of marriage writ large. This is one of the primary reasons such things need to be discussed in print and in person. Far too many people get their concept of marriage from a faulty source – their parent's marriage, their friend's marriage, how the media portrays marriage, their own experience, etc. Our philosophy of marriage ought to instead be driven by the Word of God. And as the Scripture informs our marriage, it will also, in turn, transform our marriage.
Last week, we saw God's original intent for marriage, which was to have three purposes: a sweet intimacy, to banish loneliness, and for the wife to help her husband. Today, we will see that God views marriage as a commitment. We find this in I Corinthians 7.10-11. And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
Discussing divorce is like driving through a minefield blindfolded. There are bound to be explosions. But we cannot discuss marriage and avoid the topic. The balance of Scripture shows us that while divorce is allowed in certain circumstances, God's desire is for us to remain married. Words mean things, and the words with which we wed are no exception. Marriage is a commitment.
“Yes, but God does allow divorce.”
Matthew 19.3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
David Smith gives us some helpful context here in his 1911 work, The Days of His Flesh:
The Mosaic Law permitted divorce when a wife proved faithless; but the Rabbinical interpreters after their wont disputed over this enactment. The school of Shammai, adhering to the letter of the Law, held that a wife should not be divorced except for unfaithfulness; whereas the school of Hillel, with a laxity very agreeable to the general inclination, allowed a husband to put away his wife "for every cause" - if he disliked her, if he fancied another woman more, if her cookery were not to his taste. The doctrine of Hillel was the common practice in our Lord's day, and it operated disastrously. It violated the sanctity of domestic life; and there is a hideous passage in the Talmud which shows what havoc it make of the obligations of morality. It was customary for a Rabbi of the school of Hillel, when he visited a strange town, to make public advertisement for a woman who would serve as his wife during his sojourn there. It was an inhuman system and inflicted cruel wrong upon womankind. It put the wife at her husband's mercy. She could not divorce him, but for any whim he might divorce her and cast her upon the world.
To this, the 1930s era Southern Baptist John Shepard agrees, writing in his work, Christ of the Gospels:
The school of Hillel said it was lawful "for every cause," even for the most trivial offenses. The Jewish woman could not divorce her husband, as could the Roman and Greek women; but the man could put his wife away for almost any senseless excuse. They took the words: "the matter of shame" in Deuteronomy, in the widest possible sense: if "she found no favour in his eyes," or "he found another woman more attractive" - which sounds modern enough - he could put her away. Many specific offenses were enumerated, such as going public with uncovered head, entering into conversation with other men, speaking disrespectfully of the husband's parents in his presence, burning the bread, being quarrelsome or troublesome, getting a bad reputation or being childless (for ten years). The school of Hillel had prevailed, and there was great general moral laxity now. The Mosaic law really permitted divorce only for the cause of unfaithfulness, but the popular conception among the Jews at the time of Jesus was that of the Rabbinical interpreters of the school of Hillel. Women had become mere chattel of man, subject to his inhuman and cruel treatment. The Pharisees well understood that if Jesus took the side of Shammai or the stricter view of divorce, He would alienate a greater part of the multitude.
The Pharisees in this passage were attempting to chip away at Jesus' popularity by forcing Him to take a strict stand on divorce publicly. Jesus, of course, could have easily outwitted their conversational trap if He so desired. We know this, for He often did in other contexts. Yet in this one, our Lord chose to answer plainly, knowing his answer would be unpopular. In other words, He felt strongly enough about this to lose a verbal skirmish with the Pharisees and take a hit in the people's minds.
Does God allow divorce? Yes, but only for sexual infidelity.
Does God allow divorce? Yes, but He does not desire you to divorce, no matter the reason; He only allows such because of the hardness of your heart. In other words, it is plain and clear to me that God views marriage as an irrevocable commitment rather than a temporary election. In the first mention of marriage, we looked at the last time we saw this in the use of the word "cleave" in Genesis 2. It does not mean separate, i.e., a cleaver. It means to be joined fast together, i.e. welded. You weld two metals together if you are looking for a permanent union, one that will endure under the most harrowing circumstances.
Put another way round, marriage is more covenant than contract. A contract can be broken with no more fuss than a financial penalty, perhaps. A covenant in the biblical context was almost always irrevocable. In God's view, marriage is a covenant decision whose permanence is essential to producing godly children.
Malachi 2.13 And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.
14 Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.
15 And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
16 For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
In my experience, there are two different responses from Christians at this point. I should say rather that this teaching exposes two different kinds of Christians. The first kind is Christians who search the Bible to see precisely what God allows so that they may live right up to the edge of that which is permissible. Their approach can be summed up with the immortal question, "But what's wrong with…?" Anything not ruled out is thus fair game.
The second type of Christian responds to the exact same scenarios with an entirely different question: "But what is right with…?" Such Christians do not want to know what God will let them get away with; instead, their heartbeat is to discover what God wants and give it to Him. After all, when you love someone, you do not seek to establish how much you can get away with. No, your goal is to ascertain their slightest wish so that you can grant it to them as an expression of your love.
As of this writing, I have pastored for twenty-seven years. In that time, I have never advised any couple to get divorced. Why? Because I understand that divorce is not what God wants, even if it is what He allows in limited circumstances. Why? I think there are several answers here. Pragmatically speaking, contemplating divorce undermines the total commitment essential to being a good partner. Pictorially, divorce ruins the frame God seeks to place around marriage, that of Christ's relationship to the local church. Additionally, divorce produces a severe negative impact on the ability of the father and mother to raise a godly seed.
Regardless of whether I am correct in my analysis of God's position on divorce, it cannot be argued that a sense of commitment is the very ground on which a stable marriage is built. We are fallible, changeable, malleable, temporary creatures. We must hem in the emotional roller coaster of our whims with the iron rails of the marital vow.
What is marriage? It is many things, but first, it is this: commitment.
When I quote the vows for young people as they are getting married, there is not a single statement that is based on bargaining, agreement, or contract; it is a commitment.
- Jack Hyles, Marriage Is A Commitment