(This is part two of our sermon “Divorce: It’s Going to be OK” from this past Sunday at Central.)
Divorce is sin. And the Church has tried to legislate this sin through law.
Generally speaking — I’m using very broad and very general language in today’s post — the Church has historically taken a phrase or two from Jesus and a sentence or two from Paul and come up with complicated rules and strict laws and serious consequences for legislating divorce and remarriage.
We have said any divorce not based on fornication is an “unscriptural” divorce. In other words, divorce is only allowed by Scripture if one of the parties has had sex with somebody else. We’ve taken the words of Jesus in Matthew, his specific answer to a particular question about a detail in Deuteronomy 24, and we’ve built entire legal structures around it. You can’t divorce your wife except for marital unfaithfulness. We’ve called it the exception clause. Now, I’ll suggest that the reason Jesus’ words about divorce in Mark and Luke don’t contain this exception is because Mark and Luke are written to Gentile Christians who don’t know and don’t care much about the Law of Moses. Matthew is written to Jewish Christians who care a great deal about how Jesus might interpret that murky phrase in Deuteronomy 24. So Matthew puts it in.
Regardless of that, now we’ve got “scriptural” and “unscriptural” divorces based on who did and who didn’t have sex with somebody else and when they did it. So if a couple gets a divorce and there’s no fornication involved, we’ve said there’s no divorce. They’re still married in the eyes of God. It doesn’t matter how many trips they’ve made to the courthouse and how many divorce documents they’ve signed, we’ve said God is still recognizing the marriage. It can’t be undone without sexual infidelity. So if either one of them gets remarried, we’ve said they’ll be living in adultery. They will always be living in sin.
OK. What about a couple who marries and then divorces after three years? No kids. No fornication. No sexual sin. It’s just a bad match — irreconcilable differences — and they divorce. Both of these people wind up marrying again and these two second marriages are doing well. The guy has two kids with his second wife, the woman has three children with her second husband, and both families have re-committed themselves to Christ. And then fifteen years later these two run into each other at the mall. They haven’t seen each other or spoken in fifteen years. So they talk and they show each other pictures of their children and they sit down for coffee together as they’re getting caught up. Next thing you know, the coffee leads to dinner, and the dinner leads to these two having sex together that night in a hotel room. And the angels in heaven rejoice! Praise God! These two are finally obeying the will of the Lord!
We’ve also determined that if there are “scriptural” and “unscriptural” divorces based on fornication, then there must be guilty parties and innocent parties. The guilty party in a divorce can never remarry, but the innocent party can. Which means — follow me on this — we’re saying in God’s eyes the guilty person is still married to the innocent person but the innocent person is no longer married to the guilty person. I think that’s impossible. I don’t know if it’s physics or just math, but that’s impossible.
In a “scriptural” divorce in which somebody had sex outside the marriage, the innocent party can remarry because he or she has been released from the first marriage. But the guilty person is still bound? Is this about marriage or is it about punishment? We’ve made it so that in church you’re better off killing your husband than divorcing him. We’ll forgive you for murder. And then you can remarry.
We’ve made it so that in an “unscriptural” divorce, where nobody’s been unfaithful sexually, both parties are guilty. The man divorces his wife, he doesn’t get remarried, he’s not having sex with anybody else, and we say the wife cannot remarry. She’s waiting on the guy to have sex with somebody else first. She’s waiting on it! And the church is hoping for it! Somehow we’ve said this couple is still married in God’s eyes. On what grounds, I have no idea.
What about the couple that’s “unscripturally” divorced and remarried prior to baptism? Does their Christian conversion allow them to remain married? Some have said, “No, they’re living in adultery. They have to be divorced in order to be saved.” Wait. Do we tell married people to divorce in order to please God? Do we tell them they can live together but they can’t have sex? Is that the biblical model for marriage?
If a husband abandons his wife and leaves no forwarding address, can the wife remarry? Well, is the guy having sex with another woman? And what kind of proof do we need?
Does fornication after an “unscriptural” divorce retroactively make the divorce “scriptural?” In other words, the husband divorces his wife, there’s no fornication, so the divorce is “unscriptural.” If the husband remarries, now he’s committing adultery and the first wife can remarry. So in an “unscriptural” divorce, the first to remarry is a sinner and going to hell while the second to remarry is good and going to heaven.
What if a husband is beating his wife? She’s in danger of injury or maybe even death. Can she divorce? Can she remarry? Well, she can’t divorce him if he’s not cheating on her. So maybe the Church recommends a restraining order or a legal separation. Wait. The Church recommends she be relieved of her marital duties, but not her marriage? She’s not going to submit to her husband, she’s not going to serve her husband, she’s not going to give her body to her husband, she’s not going to live with her husband, but they’re still married? This is not God’s model for marriage. Is she really still his wife? Should she be? We’re setting up false and fictitious marriages for the sake of preserving a doctrine!
Jesus says, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
Paul says the Gospel is about love, not law.
At best, we’ve developed rules and laws that are unmerciful.
At worst, we’ve punished people and monitored their salvation and sought our own salvation through legalistic works. Through law.