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On Divorce

Luke 16:16 -- 18

Lesson audio

It is a rather short passage, stuck between two important discourses. It is rarely given any great thought – especially today, when such teaching seems so irrelevant. But we need to examine it; it is just possible that the church fathers from the first century up until now were right; maybe it’s the modern church that’s wrong.

"The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.

(Luk 16:16-18 NASB)

The teaching is so plain, so clear and given so often that only the modern church dares say that it is no longer valid. Here, in a powerful passage, Christ not only teaches against it – he connects that teaching to the completeness of God’s law, making it something timeless. It is also something that was well received in his time (when women were slightly better treated than cattle). Let us first examine the rationale used by the modern church to wipe this eternal command from its books:

  • “It’s cultural.” The idea here is that the church was trying to present an acceptable image to a society which held women to be inferior to men. The church does, in fact, teach to the contrary of that. But so that the men of that time might more readily listen to the call of Christ, the early church told women to be silent and submissive. We’re no longer in that culture; our society proclaims equality; therefore this is no longer a requirement.
  • “We have modern technology.” The theory here is that the invention of the birth control pill (and other forms of contraception) have taken away the need to protect women from becoming pregnant, falling out of favor with their husbands and being rejected. They can now file for divorce, and what a good thing that is.
  • “You just don’t understand.” How can a guy who is married to your wife, has all that success in marriage, understand the problem that caused me to divorce Attila the Hun?

As against these weighty arguments, I have no defense – except the plain sense of the Scripture itself. I submit to you that the Bible teaches these three things:

  • Marriage is intended by God to last “as long as we both shall live.” There is no sense that trading partners is good. Even when polygamy flourished, divorce was still looked on as being bad.
  • Anyone who married someone who had divorced (for any reason other than adultery) commits adultery. Separation is permitted for many reasons; divorce only has one justification.
  • In that marriage, the wife is in submission to her husband. Therefore, the husband is charged with grave responsibility.

How we know and distinguish this comes from the Scriptures themselves.

The Model of Marriage

To understand why this must be so, we must first see how God views marriage. He has given us a model for that marriage; Christ’s relationship with the church. But let’s take this step by step.

Why we need a model

Why do we need a model? Wouldn’t a list of do’s and don’ts be much easier? Not really. Marriage is a complicated thing; human minds, when faced with such complications, tend to develop a mental model to guide them.

It also helps in repentance. To think, “Would Christ treat the church the way I just treated my wife?” is much more powerful than violating rule 32.

There is one other advantage. If our marriage is a solid, happy one, then it becomes much easier to see the love that Christ has for the church.

What is the model?
  • In the Old Testament, it is the relationship between God and Israel. Throughout the Old Testament we see Israel portrayed as the unfaithful wife of the loving husband, God. The book of Hosea shows us that God actually had one of his prophets marry a prostitute – so that Hosea and his wife would be the living picture of God’s design.
  • In the New Testament, it is the relationship between Christ and the church. Interestingly, this relationship cuts both ways again.
Why would God create things this way?

The very idea that God has a purpose for us in marriage is no longer taught; it’s just something that happens when you fall in love. But He does:

  • His desire is for the faith to be passed on through Godly children.[1]
  • It is also given so that the man’s sexual desires will have fulfillment – to prevent him from sinning.[2]
  • It is also to be the living model, teaching us the love that Christ has for his church.[3]
What went wrong?

How is it that we, as a church, no longer believe that divorce is wrong?[4]

  • We now preach and teach that the husband and wife are equal partners in marriage. A partnership must have a senior partner – if it is to survive very long. Otherwise, when two equals argue, the partnership starts to dissolve. When there is a senior partner, there decisions can be made.
  • We no longer preach against divorce, in any form. Only occasionally will you hear preaching against adultery. (Think this is your preacher’s fault? Ask yourself what your congregations reaction would be. Preachers have to aim for where your heart is, not where it ought to be.)
  • We no longer teach a wife’s submission to her husband – which means we no longer teach the husband’s duty to his wife. We have plenty of pop psychology to teach – but no real doctrine is left. Doctrine is imperative; psychology is merely indicative. We not only don’t teach it; we teach that it is wrong.

The Sparking Point

The core of the issue today is the concept of a woman’s submission to her husband. Divorce is much less frequent in societies where women are in submission to their husbands. It’s virtually unknown in Christian marriages where the man takes his authority (which is to say, his responsibilities) seriously. We may note the points of the debate:

  • The Scripture commands it.[5] The world at large – and often the church too – considers such a situation to be irreconcilable differences, and thus grounds for divorce.
  • The Scripture also portrays it.[6] The portrayal of the ideal wife today is superwoman, crushing men underneath her five inch heels. The ideal wife today is a very angry, bitter woman.
  • We have rejected it – largely through pride. When was the last time you heard a bride promise to “love, honor and obey?” Women wanted to be just like men – so Satan introduced them to the besetting sin of men, which is pride. It is no wonder that pride is now considered a virtue.

The results in the home have been devastating. We now have a higher divorce rate in the evangelical churches than we do in the secular world. The effects on children of divorce are seen in our juvenile crime rate. All this goes unmentioned from the pulpit. We simply don’t want to hear it.

Submission and Authority/Responsibility

So just what should the marriage relationship look like? Let us indeed consider the relationship of Christ and the church:

  • First, the relationship is one of love and forgiveness. In no sense does Christ “lord it over” the church in arrogance; rather we know “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.”
  • The relationship is one of self-sacrifice – on both sides, of course, but Christ loved us first.
  • Christ’s guidance to the church starts with loving correction – the kind of encouragement you give out when you coach a Little League team.

Let’s take a few examples from Christ and ask, “Just exactly how should a man love his wife?”

  • Christ on the cross heard the jeers of the crowd. Some of those people would soon become Christians. Even before they were Christians, he asked for their forgiveness.
  • Christ atoned for the sin of the world; he took the punishment we should have for it.
  • Try as you like, you will find no trace of harshness in Christ, except for the hypocrites.

How do these instruct the husband today?

  • When your wife is screaming at you, do you scream back, in self defense? Or do you give the soft answer that turns away wrath? If you are truly the authority in your marriage, you can do that. If she’s an equal, you have to yell back, calling name for name.
  • It is always your fault. It happened on your watch. Take responsibility for it and get it fixed.
  • Whatever else you do, be gentle with your wife. A woman can easily love a gentle man.

You will note that this section has largely been addressed to the husband. He’s in charge, or should be. But there is an interesting point here. Suppose your wife doesn’t want to be in submission. You can cause her to be just that; if you do it by gentleness, kindness and love. What woman, having such a husband, would find him to be a burden? We call it “women’s liberation;” it seems to be accompanied by men’s casting off their responsibilities.

Things to go home with you

  • Your marriage should be a portrayal – to you, your spouse and your children – of Christ’s great love for the church. This is the model you are to live up to.
  • The love of Christ for the church is the model for the way a man brings his wife into submission to him, particularly in forgiveness and gentleness. There is no element of force or bribery to it.
  • God hates divorce; the way we deal with it is first to prevent it. We then as a church must stand against it.

[1] Malachi 2:14-16

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

[3] See Ephesians 5

[4] As ever, kindly note that the preacher is not the church – we are. I’m speaking of what most Christians believe and practice.

[5] Ephesians 5:21 ff

[6] Genesis 3:16 for instance.

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