An interesting and thoughtful answer to a tricky pastoral question from living out
A very well observed piece in the Week on what is going on in the gay marriage debate and why Christians won’t back down.
(HT: Yvonne Nickerson)
Although there are many differing views on marriage and divorce among bible-believing Christians the majority of evangelicals Christians continue to maintain that biblical divorce is permissible on 2 grounds; that of adultery (Matthew 19:9) and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. (1 Cor. 7:15).
The leading evangelical theologians of the 1640’s set forth this position in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24:6, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.
If divorce is not possible for anything but adultery or desertion then does that compel a spouse to stay in a relationship that is dangerous or abusive?
What about an abusive marriage relationship?
Having read numerous books on divorce I have yet to find an author who defends the idea that God calls on us to stay in the home when in an abusive relationship. Don Carson goes so far as to say that if a wife lives in fear of physical harm because she has been threatened or even actually suffered physical abuse the church is ‘pastorally mandated to secure her safety.’ Indeed in certain circumstances it may even be right to call the police and to seek to have charges pressed.
I’ve personally known spouses who have stayed in abusive relationships sometimes for the sake of the children. But I want to make it clear, if you or your children are in danger of physical harm then the Bible does not tell you to stay.
But does an abused spouse have the right to divorce?
Some would say that a spouse in such circumstances does not have a ground for divorce. Rather he or she, having moved out of immediate danger, is to work with the elders of the church to seek a true repentance on the part of the guilty spouse and a restoration of the marriage.
But that is not the view of the elders at City Church. Some appeal to the arguments presented by David Instone-Brewer from Exodus 21 (see this earlier post on his view and my concerns). For myself I am persuaded that in a situation where a spouse refuses to repent and reconciliation is humanly impossible that divorce is permitted as a logical and necessary deduction of the teaching we find in the New Testament.
How would I justify divorce on the grounds of abuse from the Bible?
I believe that an abusive relationship where there is no evidence of repentance is a form of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Theologians sometimes refer to it as constructive desertion.
In the church we are to take sin seriously and that includes sin within a marriage. Jesus instructed his disciples as to what should happen if someone refuses to repent of sin as a Christian. We read in Matthew 18v.15-17, If your brother sins against you,go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
What Jesus insists on is that sin, even sin between a married couple in their own home, is the responsibility of the church. The church’s role is to call to account those who are guilty of wilful, deliberate, and persistent sin. And those who refuse to repent are to be treated as unbelievers. Jesus says treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
We also read in 1 Timothy 5:8, If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
There will be times and circumstances where it is right and appropriate to say to someone who claims to be a Christian that by their actions they have denied the faith and they are to be treated as an unbeliever. And that would seem to apply to spouses who abuse their spouses.
Now the goal of such church discipline is their restoration to the faith and reconciliation to their spouse. However where no reconciliation is possible, for example where the guilty spouse wants nothing more to do with the church, it would seem appropriate that after a time of delay and when all prospect of reconciliation has gone then the innocent party in the marriage is free from their marriage because they have been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.
We considered the conclusion of English theologians of the Westminster Assembly earlier in this post and one of the greatest Puritan preachers of the previous of the previous generation was William Perkins. In his work on the Christian family he said:
Like unto desertion is malicious and spiteful dealing of married folks one with the other. Malicious dealing is, when dwelling together, they require of each other intolerable conditions …if the husband threateneth hurt, the believing wife may fife in this case; and it is all one, as if the unbelieving man should depart. For to depart from one, and drive one away by threat, are equipollent.
As elders at City we would argue that there are two grounds for divorce but the second ground of dissertion may extend to abusive reationships even where both parties profess a Christian faith. If, after investigation by the church, we conclude that, to use Perkins language, intolerable or abusive conditions are imposed on a spouse and the guilty party is unwilling to repent the innocent party may seek a divorce.
That would certainly seem to cover incidences of violence, threats of violence, it may also include extreme or prolonged psychological abuse or emotional trauma, intimidation, alcohol abuse, perhaps even chronic gambling addiction.
Extending this second ground is fraught with difficulty and there can be few if any hard and fast rules. But as elders in our position paper we will be setting forth three sets of circumstances where we believe that the church is able to recognise a divorce as biblically sanctioned.
1. Adultery within marriage permits the believer to instigate a divorce
2. Abandonment or desertion by unbelieving spouse permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).
3. Abuse which results in constructive desertion permits the believer to recognise the end of the marriage (even if they formalise that in a divorce).
David Instone-Brewer is a scholar based in Cambridge who in 2002 wrote a book entitled Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible offering a radical new interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19. A second, popular-level book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities was written in 2003. For a summary of his views and something of the controversy it has sparked you can read his Christianity Today article here, a Time Magazine feature here and John Piper’s response here.
In essence, Instone-Brewer’s argument is that although on first reading it looks as if Jesus is setting out his total position on divorce, in telling us of one ground for divorce, porneia, Jesus is in fact not telling us everything he believes on divorce in this one text. Rather, he is, in fact, only giving his interpretation on one particular debate amongst the Pharisees over one aspect of divorce.
The key passage often debated by the Pharisees of Jesus day is Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
The key phrase is in verse 1: “something indecent” (erwath dabar). The exact meaning of the phrase is difficult to capture, and the Jews argued about it constantly. The phrase is actually used a chapter earlier in Deuteronomy 23:12-14.
You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you
Kevin De Young comments ‘it seems to mean something repulsive, something indecent. But it’s not a precise phrase. Because of this ambiguity, two different rabbinical schools emerged. On one side was the more conservative Shammai school, and on the other, the more liberal Hillel school, both well known around the time of Jesus.‘
And Jewish history records their dispute. For in the Mishnah we read: The School of .Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.
Essentially, in reference to this same verse the Shammai Pharisees emphasized “indecency” whereas the Hillel emphasized “anything.” For the more conservative school of Pharisees only the indecency of adultery justified divorce in Deut. 24v.1 where as for the liberal school of Hillel there was effectively no-fault divorce because this verse allowed a man to divorce his wife for pretty much ‘anything’.
Instone-Brewer argues that once we understand the debate that was raging between the two schools of Pharisees we see that what the Pharisees are doing in Matthew 19 is not asking him to give us his total view on divorce but simply to declare where he stood in relation to the debate over Deut. 24:1. So all we should conclude from Matthew 19 is that Jesus sided with the conservative Pharisees in his interpretation of this verse.
According to Instone-Brewer, when the church thought that Matthew 19v.9 set out Jesus’ thinking on divorce, the church was mistaken. We’ve misunderstood Jesus.
The second argument Instone-Brewer presents is that in the Old Testament law we find another key text for thinking about divorce. A place where Scripture gives further grounds for divorce can be found in Exodus 21:10-11.
If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Instone-Brewer argues that in the Bible we find four grounds for divorce. Adultery from Deut. 24v.1 but also forms of marital neglect as set out in Exodus 21, namely, a failure of a husband to provide food, clothing and marital rights (sexual intercourse).
We could represent, somewhat simplistically, the following views on divorce at the time of Jesus according to the thesis.
|Liberal Pharisees||Conservative Pharisees||Jesus (according to I-B)|
|Deut 24 ‘Any cause’||Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex)||Deut 24 – AdulteryExodus 21 – Failure to provide food, clothing or marital rights (sex)|
The picture Instone-Brewer presents therefore is one in which Jesus believed that which a conservative Jew of his day believed on four grounds for divorce (although he did disagree with them in other respects when it came to divorce and remarriage). Which results in a view of Jesus in which he permits multiple grounds for initiating a righteous divorce; adultery and a failure to fulfil marital obligations of food, clothing or sexual intimacy.
What should we conclude about Instone-Brewer’s thesis? I find it problematic and I will sketch in outline form six reasons as to why I cannot reconcile his view with a reading of the text.
1. An argument from silence. It is as John Piper and others have pointed out an argument from silence. Nowhere does Jesus say anything about further grounds for divorce other than porneia. Instone-Brewer himself says ‘all these arguments suggesting that Jesus allowed other Old Testament grounds for divorce are arguments from silence, and so they must be treated with caution.’
Instone-Brewer argues that was because in Matthew 19 Jesus is answering a specific question about his reading of Deut. 24:1. But in Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the mount Jesus is not debating with the Pharisees nor answering any of their questions put to him on divorce. He is setting forth his own agenda in putting forth his teaching on divorce and he says, Matthew 5:31-32. If he had thought there were other grounds why would he have not said so here?
In Divorce and Remarriage in the Church Instone-Brewer says that Jesus ‘probably’ believed that Exodus 21 permitted further grounds for divorce. I’m always a little concerned when someone tells me what Jesus was thinking but cannot show me that from Jesus’ own words.
2. Jesus contrasts his own righteousness with that of Pharisees. In the same sermon on the mount Jesus calls his disciples to a higher standard of living than that of the Pharisees. In Matthew 5v.20 he says ‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ He doesn’t say unless your righteousness surpasses that of some of the Pharisees.
3. Jesus confronts the Pharisees. On a more general point from the gospels, whenever we see Jesus interacting with the views of the Pharisees in the gospel he always, without exception, opposes them. Nowhere do we find him siding with a sub-set of them.
4. The shock of the disciples to Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 19 Jesus’ teaching prompts a shocked response from his disciples (v.10). After they hear Jesus’ words limiting the grounds of divorce they say to one another ‘if this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’
Is it really likely that Jesus’ siding with one group of conservative Pharisees over a more liberal group sufficient reason to explain their shock and surprise? Would it be enough for them to have really concluded that it is better not to marry? Surely it is the more natural reading of the text that their surprise is best explained as a response to his prohibition on divorce for any ground other than adultery.
5. His argument has received no support. When we last looked at Instone-Brewer’s thesis as a church back in 2005 it was pointed out that because it was so new it was hard to gauge what response it would receive. A further 9 years on that is not the case. Many have looked carefully at his argument and I haven’t found a single conservative evangelical scholars who has embraced his position. Theologians, with bigger brains than me (!), such as Don Carson, John Piper and Andreas Kostenberger have carefully considered it and rejected it.
6. Our doctrine of Scripture. No-one in the church has ever advocated Instone-Brewer’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in 2000 years of church history and the reason is, according to Instone-Brewer, that we have not understood Jesus’ words in their Jewish context. He argues ‘in some cases we will completely misunderstand the text if we do not know the background’ and he sees Matthew 19 as a clear example of that principle. However, if 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is to be taken seriously then surely we must have reason to believe that Scripture is both sufficient and perspicuous. Extra-biblical material may fill in some detail when it comes to our understanding of Scripture but can it, as Instone-Brewer maintains, change our understanding fundamentally? I suggest that is a step too far.
Having considered in a previous post what God thinks about divorce the next question we face is in which situations does God permit divorce? It’s important that we recognise that Bible-believing Christians have always held a variety of views. Andreas Kostenberger’s God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation provides an excellent summary of arguments for and against various views. Recognising that godlier people than me have arrived at different conclusions suggests that a certain humility and generosity of spirit is required in presenting our own personal conclusions. In fact what gives us the freedom to disagree as evangelicals on secondary issues is constantly remembering and holding dear just how much we do agree on in relation to Christ and the gospel.
The first thing that we can say is that if we take the Bible seriously then we will accept that
1) Christians cannot divorce unless a spouse is at serious fault
In Matthew 19v.3 we read Some of the Pharisees came to Jesus to test him ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? Jesus’ reply is a categorical ‘no’. In v.8 he answers Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.
What Jesus insists upon here is that God does not recognise the category of ‘no fault’ divorce. His words also rule out divorce for what we might call ‘irreconcilable difference.’ Indeed, if ever there might be permission granted to separate from a spouse on grounds of irreconcilable difference we might think it would be found in the situation where someone comes to faith in Christ and their spouse does not. In addressing this question Paul insists that the Bible calls us to faithfulness to our marriage vows, even if we made them before coming to faith in Christ. Paul says to Christians – stay married to your unbelieving spouse.
1 Corinthians 7:12-14 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Every marriage will go through difficult times but if a marriage can be honouring to God even after one spouse comes to faith in Christ then the gospel calls on us to work through circumstantial changes and remain faithful.
Having seen that we are not free to divorce simply because marriage is hard or circumstances change, what Jesus does affirm is that
2) Christians can initiate a righteous divorce if their spouse is sexually immoral in marriage
In Matthew 19v.9 Jesus says ‘Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ The word ‘marital unfaithfulness’ is the Greek word porneia and it is the word often translated elsewhere in the Bible as sexual immorality.
Why does Jesus use the word porneia? It is a catch all term for any kind of sex outside of marriage – heterosexual sex, homosexual or bestiality. So Jesus rules out any form of sex outside of sex with our spouse.
Why does Jesus single out sexual immorality as the one ground for divorce? The most likely reason I suggest is that sex with someone who is not my spouse is a unique violation of the ‘one-flesh’ union. Kevin De Young has said ‘Sexual sin breaks the marriage covenant because sex is the oath signing of the covenant. Having sexual experiences with someone other than your spouse is like trying to sign on someone else’s dotted line. That breaks the covenant and is a ground for divorce.’
So, what should we conclude from Jesus words in this passage? Two important conclusions flow from Jesus’ teaching here.
Firstly, it is vital to healthy church life that we remember that whilst every divorce is the product of sin, not every divorce therefore sinful because Jesus permits divorce under this one exceptional circumstance.
Second, Jesus words also mean that marriage is not indissoluble. Never God’s design but A marriage really can end. When Jesus says “What God has joined together, let no man separate” he implies that the couple can be separated. This will become important when we consider in a future post whether or not God permits remarriage.
Is this all that the Bible teaches on divorce? Most evangelicals believe that this is the only ground under which Christians might initiate a righteous divorce. But in that second passage read to us this morning we find Paul giving a second ground in which a marriage may come to an end in God’s eyes. Not one in which the Christian has initiated divorce but one where the Christian has in effect been divorced by an unbelieving spouse.
3) Christians may accept an unrighteous divorce by an unbelieving spouse
Having called on Christians to stay in their marriages with unbelieving spouses Paul goes on to say 1 Cor 7v.15 ‘but if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.’
Under the Roman law of the first century it was not necessary to consult a lawyer and go to court to get divorced. It was enough to simply abandon the marriage. Walking out with no intention of returning was to divorce your spouse. In our culture we differentiate between separation and divorce but neither the Bible nor Roman law made such a distinction.
Paul teaches that if a spouse is abandoned by their unbelieving partner, and if it is clear to all that the deserting spouse does not intend to return, the church should recognise that a marriage has come to an end even if the innocent spouse is the one who has to legally begin the divorce proceedings.
Some have tried to find an irreconcilable contradiction between Jesus and Paul at this point. But a closer examination of the two passages reveals that far from contradicting each other they complement each other because they address two distinct questions.
Jesus is answered the question ‘when can I as a Christian, under God, initiate a righteous divorce?’ Paul is answering the question ‘what should I do as a Christian, if I have been wrongly divorced by my unbelieving spouse? ’
Evangelical Christians agree that these are the only New Testament texts that address the issue of divorce but in our next post we will consider the work of David Instone-Brewer and his contention that Jesus held to certain other grounds for divorce found in the Old Testament.
Having considered what it means that God hates divorce in an earlier post we now need to recognise that
The holiness of God means that he permits divorce ¬
Although God hates divorce we also find in the Bible that in a world marked by sin God does in certain, exceptional circumstances, permit divorce. There can be times when it might be right to end a marriage and in a future post I’ll say more on which situations God permits divorce.
In Matthew 19 we see Jesus at odds with the religious leaders of his day. As we read v.4-8 the difference in attitude is obvious.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
Did you notice that crucial difference in the thinking and attitude of Jesus over against the Pharisees? The Pharisees said that in the law of Moses there were certain circumstances which required a man to divorce his wife. The Pharisees said ‘Moses commanded that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away.’
Now Jesus only agreed with them in part. For Jesus knew that the law of Moses did not command divorce. As John McArthur says ‘God never commands it, endorses it, or blesses it.’ But Jesus says (v.8) ‘because of the hardness of human hearts God does permit it.’ In this statement Jesus affirms that divorce is possible and it is possible to divorce without being sinful.
I guess that means it is really important to realise that if a divorce takes place between a couple who are members of the church, although we can be sure that it is as a result of sin, we are not saying that both parties are to blame. In fact it is quite possible in situations of divorce that one party is innocent of sin. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel ,1:19, we read ‘because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.’
The church has far too often been quick to condemn all who divorce and we can be quick to judge others with no knowledge of the facts. In the face of wilful, persistent, unrepentant sin it can be the most godly thing you can do to divorce and the single strongest indicator that this must be the case is the fact that God himself initiates divorce against unrepentant adulterous Israel. In Jeremiah 3:6-10 we read;
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.
We saw in the previous post that God’s amazing patience, revealed in his dealing with Israel in the book of Hosea, is a model for our marriages but so also is his radical holiness.
Real love is not a pitiful acceptance of others — sin and all. Lines have to be drawn and they are drawn as an expression of love. Tough love means telling the person you love that there are limits to what conduct is acceptable in your relationship. If someone seeks to mock God by deliberately breaking their marriage vows divorce is a righteous act and one the church should be willing to, with a heavy-heart, support.
The mercy of God means that he permits divorce
Divorcing a spouse does not sound like a mercy but in many instances it has proved to be the only action that has brought about a true repentance. As someone has written ‘helping others to face up to responsibility without protecting them from the consequences of their own decisions is what tough love is all about. Setting limits as to how far we can reasonably go in helping our spouses allows God to work His loving discipline in their lives.’
And that is exactly the principle we find at work in God’s own covenant commitment to Israel. When God divorces Israel he sends her away – for a long period of separation – even as he is at work to see that relationship restored. Back in Jeremiah 3, In the very same chapter where God says he has divorced Israel, the Lord also proclaims, 3v.12 and again v.14 ‘return faithless people for I am your husband….I will choose you and bring you to Zion.. .at that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah will join the house of Israel.’
And God’s mercy is seen in relation to the innocent victim of divorce as well. God permits divorce out of loving concern for an innocent party in a marriage. We will return to the issue of re-marriage in a future post when we turn to the questions of what are the biblical grounds for divorce and when, if ever, is it right to remarry. But God’s concern for the innocent party means, at the very least, she is not bound to stay in the home with an abusive spouse, nor is she bound to her marriage if deserted by an unbelieving spouse, nor forced to stay in a marriage in which her husband is sleeping with other people.
God permits divorce out of loving concern for spouses who are victims of abuse and adultery.
But whether we are single, married, divorced or widowed – whatever our situation – the extraordinary truth that we rest upon today is that God is a God of complete faithfulness to us. Despite Israel’s repeated spiritual adultery – God’s plan to raise up a saviour for us from the Jews – is gloriously fulfilled in Jesus. God could have given up on us – but his covenant love and covenant promises remain secure.
In future posts we will consider in what situations Christians are permitted to end a marriage and if and when the Bible permits remarriage. In this post I simply want to address the question, ‘what does God think of divorce?’
1. The faithfulness of God means that he hates divorce – Malachi 2:10-16
God is a God of faithfulness who keeps his covenant promise with us his people. Would you turn back to that first reading Malachi 2:10-16. The Lord God hates unfaithfulness in all of its forms and here in v. 11 he accuses Judah of having broken faith.
v.14. You ask why? It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her. She is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his.
God is against us when we divorce wrongly. He is against us because we are breaking faith with him when we break faith with our spouse. That is why we read v.16 I hate divorce, says the Lord. The Lord is a witness against us when we wrongly divorce.
If God hates divorce then we must do all we can to remain faithful and protect our marriages.
When Jane and I were dating, as a birthday present, she spent far too much money on me when she bought me a bonsai tree. I was thrilled, really genuinely delighted. I admired it showed it off to others, talked about it at work, but I didn’t have a clue how to look after it. And rather than feed it and water it, prune it and tend to it – as a result of neglect – I killed it. A lack of thought, care and attention and within months it was dead.
Now marriage is a living thing and if you don’t give it the time and attention it needs and deserves you might just kill it. No-one sets out to get divorced. I haven’t met a Christian who’s got married thinking it might not survive. But we ought to fear the death of a marriage.
Look what Malachi says, not once but twice,
v.15 ‘guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.’
How do you know that out of love you fear the break-up of your marriage? It seems to me you will do 3 things
i) Prioritise your marriage.
Perhaps the biggest threat to a marriage is simply putting other things before it. In 20 years of marriage I can tell you there have been times when that has been true of my marriage. So, block out time for each other, take regular holidays, keep date nights and please pray together. For Jane and I that was not always top of our agenda but for the past 4 years we have prayed together practically every day, . Make time for sex in the marriage, speak tenderly to each other – remind each other of what you really like and appreciate about each other.
Feed your marriage or you’ll kill it. And watch out for the very subtle and hidden danger of mistaking working in your marriage for working on your marriage. Many marriages give the appearance of strength because husband and wife are busy sacrificing and serving but not for the sake of the marriage but for a purpose that ought to be subordinate to the marriage. That could be building a home, raising a family, pursuing a career. It’s not enough to have a shared goal that keeps you busy if you are not directly working on your marriage, building intimacy, enjoying each other. Being busy together is just not enough.
ii) Protect your marriage.
Protect it from other good things e.g. church-activity, work-overload, the competing demands of the children. Can I say that it is one of the most important things you can do for your children to demonstrate to them in ways they understand that your marriage comes before their demands. That could be in simple and small ways such as not letting them interrupt a conversation.
Protect it from bad things – by taking sin in a marriage seriously. Have accountability software – men in particular watch out for pornography. Think of Joseph & Potiphar’s wife. Joseph didn’t go looking for trouble, but trouble in the form of sexual temptation found him and he knew to flee. Be on your guard against office affairs.
iii) Find support for your marriage
Most importantly find support from God. As well as praying together it a habit to pray together, make it a godly desire to pray for your spouse. Giving thanks, praying for spiritual growth. And find support from the church. As a church we want to offer pastoral support at the earliest possible opportunity for any marriage in difficulty.
How many people die of diseases who simply present too late to the doctor. A friend of mine had a growth on his neck. He was a bright student, physically strong, he thought he was immortal and he was naive. But he and I were also doing a summer camp together and a doctor was part of the team. Over the 10 days he kept saying to him, ‘get that checked out,’ because he kept saying it, the message stuck.He got back, got it diagnosed, it was cancer, but because it was caught in time the operation was successful and he made a full recovery.
If something in your marriage is not quite right – get it checked. Don’t be embarrassed. The most dangerous thing you can do in a marriage is think that divorce could never happen to you. In the Bible we also find a second reason why God hates divorce. Not just because he is faithful but also because he is forgiving
2. The grace of God means he hates divorce – Hosea 1 & 3
Nowhere does the Bible demonstrate that lesson more than in the book of Hosea. John McArthur in his book The Divorce Dilemma writes ‘the entire book of Hosea is a picture of God’s forgiving and patient love for his people. A love that is dramatized by the prophet Hosea’s forgiving and patient love for his wife Gomer.’
Hosea the prophet is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel and as part of his witness to Israel God calls on Hosea to deliberately choose for his wife someone who will be unfaithful to him.
In Hosea 1:2-3 we read these words ‘when the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, ‘Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.’ So he married Gomer.’ Israel, committed spiritual adultery against God and God is rightly angry with their unfaithfulness. He is angry, like a wife who comes home to find another woman in bed with her husband.
But God’s response to Israel’s sin is not to terminate the relationship. Rather, as one commentator puts it, his tactic is ‘the artful strategy of an ardent lover. He intends to allure her, rekindling the romance they enjoyed in their early years together…He will entice her. He will draw her back.’ The marriage will be saved because of the gracious and forgiving nature of God’s love.
And once again we see Hosea called upon to live this love out in his own marriage. So, Hosea 3:1-4
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. 3 Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” 4 For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. 5Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.
God is determined to renew his marriage with Israel.
Martyn Lloyd- Jones said ‘God has never anywhere commanded anybody to divorce’. Even after serious sin, even after repeated covenantal unfaithfulness divorce is not inevitable. Not for the Christian. You see in the gospel God has given you resources to stay in a marriage even when others who are non-Christians might leave. Now this is not to say that Christians should passively accept unfaithfulness on the part of their spouse. This is not to say that we should be indifferent to sin in a marriage. Wherever there is sin we should call on each other to recognise it, confess it and repent of it. But where there is true repentance then restoration is possible and should be worked for –to the glory of God.
Some of you know that at first hand. You’ve witnessed parents working through issues of serious sin. Maybe even in your own marriage. And you’ve found that where there is true repentance – grace triumphs over sin! Just think what a powerful testimony it is when by God’s grace we are able to forgive and forget and re-build marriages on a foundation of grace. It brings glory to God that with the grace of God we are able to overcome sin.
As elders we believe that divorce ought to be avoided if at all possible. And that means that we will always discourage divorce and work wherever possible towards reconciliation because that is our experience of God’s love for us in the gospel. You see the Bible calls on us not just to honour our vows but to exhibit the character of Christ in our lives.
In the next post we will see that although God hates divorce he also permits it.
As I mentioned in the last post the Bible has a lot to say about marriage not least because the principles behind how we ought to behave towards one another as Christians in general can be applied to the marriage relationship in particular. So if the Bible says love one another, be patient with one another, they are lessons for Christian marriage.
But it is in Ephesians 5v.22-32 that we find Paul identifying that it is in husbands and wives living out their God-given gender roles that we find a key to healthy and happy marriage. Our marriages are modelled on the relationship witnessed between Christ and the church.
Today, we start where Paul starts and a word to wives.
Wives submit to your husband v.22-24
Now I recognise how counter-cultural and for some downright offensive Paul’s words appear here. Many are tempted to simply ignore these words or to relativise their meaning for our own time and culture. But let me highlight five reasons to see wisdom for today in this command.
1. Paul’s words are to wives not to the husbands. What that means is that submitting to the leadership of the husband in a marriage is active and voluntary. It’s an instruction to the wife not an invitation to a husband. Paul has a lot to say to husbands but compeling your wife to respect and submit to your leadership is not one of them.2. All Christians are called on to submit. We shouldn’t think that submitting is something only married women are asked to do. The reality is that ALL Christians face multiple situations and circumstances in which God calls on them to willingly and voluntarily submit to the leadership of others. Men and women must submit to Christ in becoming his disciple (Matt. 7:21-23), also to submit to local church leadership and discipline (Hebs. 13:17), to the civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) and of course to their employers (Eph. 6:5-8).
One writer comments: We live in an ordered universe, in which there is authority and submission to authority everywhere (cf. Rom. 13:1). Authority and submission relationships are therefore natural and necessary.
3. Not all types of submission function in the same way. They differ, often radically, from one another. Time doesn’t permit me to build a case here. But in the context of the Bible as a whole we see, for example, that a wife is not called on to submit in the way for a child submits to its parents.
4.There are limits to our submission. We should only ever obey the word of a husband IF his leadership is consistent with what the Lord Jesus calls on us to do c.f. Acts 4:18-20.
5. This is an invitation to be like Jesus. Jesus always and only did the will of his father in heaven.
So Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.3 says: Now I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. In Ephesians Christ is the model for servant-leadership in headship. But in 1 Cor. (and elsewhere) He is the model for submission. If we think that submission is simply just wrong then we are taking issue with Jesus. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he died showed what an extraordinary thing this submission is. He said to his Father (this is Luke 22.42):
‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’
6. It functions differently in different situations. It is self-evident that this aspect of a marriage relationship will look different i) from couple to couple, ii) generation to generation, and iii) one culture to another. There are plenty of women in the Bible taking initiative, exercising leadership, managing others and in every way using their God-given gifts and abilities. This is not a call for women to be passive and subservient!
7. No-where does God give us a list of what men and women are to do. This is not about who manages the money, or does the washing up, or has the highest paid job.
8. It is a blessing. Submitting to the leadership of a man who is seeking to love you as Christ loved the church should bring us great blessing. A husbands job is to be deeply ambitious for the spiritual growth of his wife (and children). Ambitious enough to make you his personal priority and spiritual focus.
A word to single people thinking of marriage
If you are a woman hoping one day to marry. You need to look for a man who, v.32, you can respect. This has nothing to do with his dress sense, or ability with money, etc., but everything to do with whether you would be willing to let him lead spiritually in the marriage relationship.
I’m sure that means it is not a good idea if you are a woman to marry a new Christian who would need to constantly look to you for a lead in spiritual matters. This instruction of Jesus also shows why it is positively dangerous to marry a non-Christian who cannot lead you into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
What exactly is God’s purpose for marriage?
In Ephesians 5.31-32 we read ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.
For many people marriage is a total mystery. Maybe it’s a mystery to you that anyone would want to make the kind of commitment that marriage requires. Some of us might question why anyone would ever want to give up their freedom it that way. Maybe it’s a mystery for you that people still think marriage works – you’ve experienced marriages that have been painful or come undone.
When Paul uses the word mystery he doesn’t so much mean something that is beyond our understanding. By mystery he means something that is hidden and must be revealed. The word mystery could equally be translated ‘secret’. In other words Paul wants us to know the secret of marriage. What could be more important to us not only to know what marriage is but what it is for.
So what is the secret of marriage?
Paul says the secret, v.32, is that marriage is ‘about Christ and the church.’ We can’t understand God’s purpose for our marriages, as believers, unless we look deeply at the relationship between Christ and the church. What on earth does Paul mean?
I’ve used this illustration at a few weddings recently but I think it captures something of the idea. A 2000 piece jigsaw is hardly a wedding present many people would put on their list. But imagine I gave a couple a 2000 piece puzzle but without the box. You know that if you can only put them all together they would make a beautiful picture. But what is a puzzle becomes more of a mystery when there is no picture on the box to look at – you just don’t know where to begin.
In our culture marriage has become like a jigsaw without the box. We just don’t know what we’re meant to be making of it. Now think what pressure that puts relationships under, when you are competing to make different things of the puzzle. Inevitably it leads to stress and conflict.
But the Bible insists that the key to marriage is to understand that the picture on the box is here in the Bible. We know that there is a day still to come when God will have a relationship with his people so perfect, so intimate, so loving that the nearest we come to it on earth, the only way we know how to describe it is a marriage. Christ and the church are made for each other, they will share eternity together in a perfect relationship.
Marriage now is about re-creating in our lives a picture of the marriage that is still to come. The pieces become the picture on the box. Marriage and the gospel inform each other. And we see that idea all of the way through the passage. Five times our passage Paul says to husbands look and learn from Jesus (vv. 23, 24, 25, 29 and 32). He tells us that Christ is the head of the church, that Christ loved the church by giving up his life for her. We learn that he cares for the church by feeding it and sustaining it and that the living Christ is united to his church for all time. And then Paul says six times look at the church and learn, (vv. 23, 24, 25, 27, 29 and 32). Christ is the head of the church; Christ loved the church, he feeds it and sustains it and the living Christ is united to his church.
In our society so many solutions are offered to the challenges of marriage. The state might try to offer tax incentives – appealing to our pockets. Self-help books and agony aunts insist marriage works when we stand up for our rights in a relationship. Paul’s radical message is that husband and wife, by looking to that gospel, learn to give up their rights. The power for Christian marriage comes when wives give up a right to autonomy and independence and husbands give up their right to self-interest by dedicating their lives to the good of their wives.
As we grapple with this passage we find Paul’s key to healthy and happy marriage lies in God, the gospel and his purpose for Christian marriage in the world. Paul will tell us let the gospel inform your marriage and let your marriage glorify the God of the gospel.
Next time ‘why should wives submit to their husbands and what does that look like?’
This is the third post in a look at the question ‘What is marriage?’ We began by recongising that there are at least 5 reasons why we need to look at this issue afresh. In the last post we considered the consequences that have flowed from the radical redefinition of marriage from covenant to contract that has taken place in our society since the 1960’s.
Now I want us to reflect on just how what the Bible teaches us about marriage as a covenant relationship changes the way we might think about marriage. The five headings I’m using come from Andreas Kostenberger’s book God, marriage and family. As we go through each one I’m going to touch briefly on how a marriage covenant points us to a better understanding of God who has made a covenant with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
If marriage were merely a contract between two parties then it could be temporary but because it is covenant established by God it is permanent. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6 and in particular his conclusion ‘what God has joined together let not man separate’ makes that clear.When Christians marry we must never marry thinking to ourselves well if things don’t work out for me in this relationship, if I am unhappy, unfulfilled, or if our lives are pulling in different directions then I can always leave.
As Tim Keller says ‘to break faith with your spouse is to break faith with God at the same time.’
James Dobson wrote a letter to his finance shortly before their wedding day and he said ‘I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter. I have been taught at my mother’s knee and in conformity to the word of God that the marriage vows are inviolable and my entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life – the idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never be permitted to enter my thinking. I’m not naive on this on the contrary I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering. If such becomes the case I am resolved for my part to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear if necessary to the end of our lives together.’
How does this point us to God?
This costly sacrifice that comes from committing ourselves by way of covenant is what we see demonstrated by God in the gospel. He made a covenant to love us and he has kept that covenant even though it caused considerable pain to do so.
2. The sacredness of marriage
Because marriage is a relationship not just ordained by God but as John Stott says ‘sealed by God’ only God can end a marriage. It is not for us to decide that a marriage is finished but for God to say it may be finished. Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:1-12 address marriage, divorce and singleness and in this series we will spend quite a bit of time in this passage. In his comments on divorce we read very sobering words that tell us that if we end a marriage for reasons that God has not permitted then any subsequent remarriage is sinful and adulterous. Jesus says, Matt. 19v.9, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ What Jesus teaches in this declaration is that there might be divorces that, whatever we might like to think, are not divorces in God’s eyes. For him the first marriage is not over.
Sealed by God, our marriages are sacred. As his children so we must therefore work on my marriage, invest in it, nurture and feed it.
How does this point us to God? In the gospel we see God practicing what he preaches. However weak our love is and however many times we may fail God his covenant loyalty means that he will not break promise with us or himself. It is a sacred bond. Our relationship with God is not performance-based and he will not withhold his love or his affection because we struggle to honour our commitments. That said, Scripture’s warning is also clear that if we deny Christ and forsake him our covenant with God is broken. ‘If we disown him, he will also disown us’ (2 Tim. 2:12).
3. The intimacy of marriage
In the beginning God says everything in his perfect world is good. That is the constant refrain of chapter 1. But there is one thing that is not good and that is that the man is alone. Now, interestingly, God says it is not good before Adam appears to have noticed that it is not good. There is no evidence in the passage that Adam is lonely. As Christopher Ash points out in Married for God ‘marriage is not there to solve the problems of loneliness.’
Our culture tells us that we will be unfulfilled unless we one day marry. That is not so. In heaven we will not be married, the Lord Jesus never married and many Christians down the ages have testified to lives lived fully for Christ as single people. We will return to this theme later. Rather it is the job that God has given Adam to do that means it is not good for him to be alone.
Marriage is a gift of God to help us fulfil the work God has given us to do. In Genesis 1v27-28 we read ‘so God created man, in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’
Part of God’s purpose for marriage is godly offspring. Christopher Ash says ‘we ought to want children in marriage because we want to serve God. The Creator entrusts to married couples the awesome privilege and responsibility of pro-creating.’
There are many ways to serve God but the distinctive way in which couples in marriage are to serve God is bringing up godly children. Ash says ‘never despise the significance of parenthood in the service of God! For many, especially mothers what they do as parents will prove more significant in eternity than the most glittering careers in the eyes of the world.’
God’s purpose for marriage addresses two big questions of our day.
Why would God not approve of same-sex marriage?
If marriage is about companionship then it might be that a stable, loving, committed homosexual relationship would be considered equal in God’s eyes with a heterosexual one. But, whilst not the only argument against that conclusion, a key one is that God’s purposes in marriage are pro-creation. I want to point you to this little book called Is God anti-gay? It’s written by a friend of mine, who is a church leader and whilst preferring not to use the title ‘gay’ to describe himself he is someone who is attracted to other men. Drawing on those words of Genesis 1 he says ‘God’s purposes in marriage depend on hetero-sexual relations.’ Marriage is designed to bring children into the world.
Whilst in a perfect world God’s design for every marriage is children, living as we do this side of the fall, sadly, not every marriage enjoys the blessing of children. Jane and I know something of that pain personally having waited 12 years to have kids. If this a personal struggle for you or friends can I commend the book Just the two of us written by a friend.
Why is sex outside of marriage wrong?
God’s design for marriage is that Adam and Eve should express their perfect intimacy through the union of their bodies. In Genesis 2:24 we read ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.’ Sex is the body-language of perfect self-giving intimacy that befits marriage. Sex outside of marriage is to tell a lie with our bodies because when we give our bodies to another – when we are united to them – and yet are not commitment to them through the marriage bond we make one promise with our bodies that we are not ready to make with our whole lives.
The intimacy of marriage does point us to the greater intimacy that God offers to us in the gospel. At the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:4, we read ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ Our need for close, intimate relationship will be fully met in Christ. What many of us are looking for from a marriage is actually to be found in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the next post two further ways in which marriage as covenant changes our view of marriage.
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