Marriage and Divorce


Marriage is under attack in the Christian church. What should Christians and churches do?

Every pastor knows how serious is the threat to marriage in the church today. That marriage is in trouble in the world hardly needs to be pointed out: many live together without marrying, or fornicate promiscuously like beasts—holding marriage in contempt; many others divorce and remarry.

But marriage is under attack also in the church. No denomination or congregation is exempt. The attack on marriage in the church is made through divorce: two who have become one in marriage split up again into two. Either the wife leaves the husband, or the husband puts away his wife, or they file for a full, legal divorce. More and more, all the members of the congregation notice the threat to marriage in the church, because their fellow members are getting divorces, where such a thing was unheard of, even unthinkable, before. The pastor knows how much more danger there is behind the scenes, where trouble in the marriage is not suspected by the membership of the church.

Every pastor also knows how snarled and horrible some marriages become, through the sins of the husband and the wife—marriages in the church. Although they live together, under one roof at least, some husbands and wives so sin against each other, over a long period of time, that their marriage is a mockery of the close, delightful bond described in the Scriptures. Either the husband is a cold, unfeeling brute who rules tyrannically, or the wife is a contentious shrew, always contradicting her husband. Or the marriage is constant criticizing and bickering. Or they pretty much go their own ways.

Every pastor has had the feeling in his difficult labour with the married that the only way out is divorce, that it would, in fact, be an act of mercy to counsel them to divorce. Woe to him if he follows his feeling instead of the Word of God, but this is his feeling. What is said in this pamphlet about divorce cannot be ascribed to the writer's ignorance of how complicated marriage situations can become in the church or of how fearfully sin can strain and tear the marriage bond.

Although our sin complicates matters, the Word of God gives clear instruction concerning marriage and divorce. In fact, the truth is so simple that a child can understand it. The Word has much to say about marriage, because marriage is important. What it says is clear. The Word speaks clearly on every aspect of marriage: the origin and institution; its nature; its purpose; and how we are to live together in it. No married person will ever be able to plead ignorance for violating marriage. No church will ever be able to appeal to Scripture's obscurity to excuse its wrong views on marriage and divorce.

We must let the Scriptures govern here; we must bow to them in the matter of marriage. As Protestants, our confession is: Scripture alone. Not our feelings, not our circumstances, not even our 'tender mercies' may be determinative here, but the Word only. The issue for the church as regards her significant role in defending marriage is this: Will she speak the Word of God and do discipline according to the Word, or not?

What do the Scriptures teach?


The Biblical Prohibition of Divorce

Marriage is an institution of God. God established marriage on the sixth day of creation when He made the woman from the man and gave her to the man as his wife (Gen. 2:18-25; cf. Eph. 5:31). Because it has been instituted by God, marriage is subject to God's will. Marriage is not merely a human arrangement, to be made, broken, and adjusted at our convenience. The will of God governing marriage was revealed in the very institution itself in the beginning. Repeatedly, Christ and the apostles derive their teaching on marriage from that original institution of marriage. When the Pharisees ask Jesus, in Matthew19, whether it is right to divorce for every reason, He answers, 'Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female ...?' When, a little later, they mention a deviation from the law of marriage in the Old Testament—Moses' permission of divorce—Jesus' response is: 'but from the beginning it was not so.' Christ's concern for the original institution of marriage is zeal for God. He does not answer questions on marriage problems in order to suit men, but with the determination to please God.

In the beginning, God made marriage as a bond of the most intimate fellowship of love between one man and one woman. The two become one flesh. Such is God's declaration in Genesis 2:24, quoted by Paul in Ephesians 5:31. There is a bodily oneness in the sexual relationship, but also a oneness of soul. Married persons share one life. The Lord Jesus stressed this in Matthew19:6: 'Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh.' We must not think of married persons as two, but as one. This union of the two, the male and the female, is God's act in the case of every marriage. In marriage, God joins two persons together (Matt. 19:6). Although there is a uniquely rich aspect of the God-worked intimacy of marriage in the case of two believers, God joins two together as one flesh also in the world. Marriage is an institution of God in creation, like government. Whenever two people use this institution, they are joined by God. Hence, according to I Corinthians 7:12-17, the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever is a valid marriage, which must be maintained. A husband and wife experience and express the intimacy of marriage as unique love and communion.

Marriage is a relationship for life. This is built into the institution: one man and one woman become one flesh. Since marriage is a union effected by God, man neither may nor can 'put asunder.' Only God may, and only God can, divide what He has joined. God does this in death. 'For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man' (Rom. 7:2-3). I Corinthians 7:39 teaches the same thing: 'The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.' For good reason, the marriage forms—until recently—had the couple vow to take each other as wife or husband 'till death us do part.'

In harmony with the truth of marriage, the Scriptures forbid divorce. Divorce is sin: a man or woman's faithlessness, i.e., hatred, towards his or her mate and revolt against the God who joined them in marriage. This is Christ's radical doctrine in Matthew19. When the Pharisees asked whether a man might put away his wife for every cause, His answer was: No divorce! 'Let not man put asunder!' The toleration of divorce by Moses was due to the Israelites' hard hearts, and divorce is not to be suffered any longer. The sin that a man commits, when he divorces his wife, is that he makes his wife commit adultery (Matt. 5:32). He exposes her to an adulterous relationship with a third party.

Even separation is forbidden. A wife may not leave her husband (I Cor. 7:10), or the husband, his wife—not even if the mate is an unbeliever (I Cor. 7:12ff.). Marriage is communion: the two must live together. Not only must they live together under one roof, but they must live together sexually: 'Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence (literally, 'the debt'): and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other ...' (I Cor. 7:3-5).

There is one exception in Scripture to the prohibition of divorce, namely, 'fornication.' According to Matthew 5:31-32, a man does not sin if he puts his wife away because she lives in adultery with another man. This indicates the gravity of adultery. It is taken lightly today. It is joked about. It is toyed with when men enjoy the movies, magazines, and novels that present adultery as an accepted, attractive way of life. One thing is so destructive of the union of marriage, striking as it does at the heart of that institution, that it tears the two apart to the extent that the ability and calling to live together are gone: adultery. Besides this, there is no ground for divorce, not mental cruelty, not incompatibility, not a bad wife or a miserable husband—nothing. In marriage we take each other—as the old forms also stated—'for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.'

In keeping with its doctrine of marriage, as well as its prohibition of divorce, the Word also prohibits remarriage, while one's (original) mate still lives. This is the implication of the institution of marriage: one man and one woman joined as one flesh by God for life. Only God dissolves the union, and He does so by death. As long as the two are living, their union leaves no place for a third party. When churches today bring up examples of the permission of remarriage in the history of the church, we ask, in all seriousness, 'What was the rule in the beginning?'

The New Testament makes explicit the teaching that is implicit in the institution of marriage. This is done in the passages already quoted from Romans 7 and I Corinthians 7: married persons are bound to each other for life; only death looses the bond, so that one may marry another; marriage to another before the death of one's mate makes one an adulterer or adulteress.

Three other passages speak directly of remarriage: Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18 and I Corinthians 7:10-11. The two former passages are absolute, unqualified condemnations of remarriage as adultery. 'Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery' (Luke16:18). In I Corinthians 7:10-11, after Paul tells the wife not to leave her husband, he conceives of the possibility that she may have to leave nevertheless; in such a case 'let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.'

But what about the remarriage of the one divorced on the biblical ground of adultery? One passage in all Scripture seems, at first glance, to permit the remarriage of one divorced on the ground of fornication, namely, Matthew 19:9: '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.' If this were the correct interpretation of the text, there would be one, and only one, ground for remarriage: the adultery of one's mate. The 'innocent party' would be free to marry another. However, there is powerful biblical evidence to the contrary. There is the testimony of the Scriptures that only death dissolves the bond of marriage. There is the unqualified prohibition of remarriage elsewhere in the Bible. And there is the last part of Matthew 19:9 itself. The last part of the text calls the new union of the woman divorced un-biblically, whose husband has since remarried, an adulterous union. The Lord expressly states that the 'innocent party' may not remarry. The exceptive clause in Matthew 19:9 ('except it be for fornication') is intended to qualify only the prohibition of divorce, in perfect harmony with the fact that the Lord is answering the Pharisee's question concerning the legitimacy of divorce (cf. v. 3).

The Scriptures draw the lines plainly. Marriage is a lifelong bond; divorce is forbidden, except on the ground of the sexual unfaithfulness of one's mate; remarriage is forbidden until death separates the two. These lines make a narrow way into the Kingdom for men and women, as regards marriage; and it is not surprising that there are only few who find it. But this is the way into the Kingdom; no adulterer shall enter. This is what the church is called to preach, publicly and privately, and when we do, we are defending marriage in the face of the all-out assault on marriage today.


The Church's Calling to Defend Marriage

The church must condemn divorce sharply and in no uncertain terms and, with it, the remarriage that usually follows. It is high time that the church call divorce what it is: sin. Today, many people, even many churches, have nice things to say in defence of divorce. They excuse it. It is due to love, really: so-and-so fell out of love with her husband and fell into love with another man. But the church, in her preaching, must adopt God's attitude and judgment with regard to divorce: 'For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away' (Mal. 2:16).

Divorce is disobedience to God's law and an act of rebellious violence against His institution of marriage. It is hatred for God.

It is also hatred for one's mate and children. Rather than leave her husband for another man, a man's wife could better shoot him—and the children. Divorce causes cruel suffering; it is the destruction of mate and family. God calls it treachery in Malachi 2: 'Let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth' (v. 15). A man lives with his wife for years. She has his children, cares for him, and suffers with him through the hardships of life. Then, when they are both older, he leaves her for a younger, prettier woman. This is treachery. The sin against one's mate committed by the man or woman who divorces, or leaves, is that of exposing the mate to the temptation of adultery. Such is Christ's condemnation of divorce in Matthew 5:32: 'Whosoever shall put away his wife ... causeth her to commit adultery ...' We are made with needs, need for companionship, and sexual needs; the man who divorces his wife is responsible for placing her in circumstances in which she is likely to sin, thus coming under the threat of damnation. This is not the behaviour of love.

The wave of divorce rolling over the world and over the churches today is not, for the most part, due to complicated psychological factors—'my wife does not understand me.' On the contrary, the cause is lust: '... when I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots' houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour's wife' (Jer. 5:7-8).

If the church hates divorce and condemns it, she will discipline the guilty. She will excommunicate the man who divorces his wife; she will excommunicate the woman who leaves her husband for her neighbour's. In the Old Testament, Israel had to kill both the adulterer and the adulteress; today, the church is required to set them outside the Kingdom of heaven, and what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven. There is always room for repentance; indeed, repentance is the goal of discipline, but repentance must include breaking with the sin, i.e., breaking the adulterous relationship and going back to one's mate. For the church to mouth condemnation of divorce, but to allow it to go on in her fellowship is hypocrisy. Nor will such loose dealings check the tide of divorce, teach others to fear, or defend marriage.

In our missions, we must preach the sinfulness of the marital folly and disobedience of the people and call them to repentance, which repentance includes doing works worthy of repentance (Acts 26:20).

In her opposition to divorce, the church is for marriage—she is defending and promoting marriage among the saints. She hates divorce, because she loves marriage. She says 'No' to divorce in the service of saying 'Yes' to marriage. Say what they will, those who tolerate unbiblical divorce and permit remarriage become party to the attack on marriage in our day.

The church's unbending opposition to divorce has practical results in the congregation. Open the door of divorce just a crack, and married people will rush through it, for it is easier to divorce than to repent, confess, forgive, and reconcile. Keep that door shut—as tightly as the Lord did—and the saints in marital trouble will realize that the only way out is reconciliation, and they will work at reconciliation. The fruit, therefore, of opposition to divorce will be stable marriages and solid homes with the untold blessedness that this means for the church, the married people themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

The church has special reason for proclaiming and defending marriage. In doing so, she witnesses to the gospel itself. Not only is the truth of marriage an important part of the doctrine of Jesus which He has commissioned us to teach all nations to observe (Matt. 28:19-20), but marriage itself is the symbol of the relationship of intimate love between Christ and His church—the symbol of the covenant of grace.

Ephesians 5 teaches this. From verse 22 on, the Holy Spirit calls the wife to behave towards her husband as the church behaves towards Christ, and the man to behave towards his wife as Christ does towards the church, because marriage is the earthly picture of the spiritual relationship, or bond, between the heavenly Bridegroom and His wife. This is plainly stated in verse 32. Verse 31 has quoted God's words on marriage in Genesis 2:24, words that emphasize that marriage is intimate union: 'and they two shall be one flesh.' Then, Paul says: 'This is a great mystery.' What is a great mystery? Earthly, human marriage, we would answer. No, says Paul, 'but I speak concerning Christ and the church.' The reality of marriage is the intimate, covenant relation of Christ and the church, because marriage, my marriage, your marriage, the institution of marriage, is the God-appointed symbol of Christ and the church.

In this real marriage, the one Man, Christ, and His bride, the elect church, are so united, by the wonder of the grace of the Holy Spirit, that the two become one: Christ is the Head, and we are the body. There is inseparable, unbreakable union. Christ never divorces us, much less takes another. By the power of His efficacious love, the church never leaves Him, gives herself to Him alone, and desires Him alone. Her love-song is: solo Christo, 'Christ alone.' By the grace of God, the covenant is characterized by faithfulness, faithfulness born of love and serving the interests of love.

This constrains the church in her doctrine of marriage. As she hears the gospel of faithful love—and experiences it—so does she preach and defend faithfulness in marriage. Where the gospel of the gracious, faithful covenant is lost, there the picture is corrupted also. Always in Israel's history, two sordid things were found together: Israel went a-whoring from Jehovah after the idols, and Israelite husbands and wives committed adultery.

Do not think for a moment that this implies that the church has no eye for the happiness of the saints, or that she lacks compassion for the sinner. But compassion for the sinner never lets him go on in sin. It calls him back. Perhaps it calls the sinner to a painful action, e.g., the Lord's 'sell all that thou hast ... and follow me,' but love imperiously calls the sinner from sin. Nor is the church unfeeling and hard-nosed in condemning divorce. Rather, in the love of Christ she seeks the genuine bliss of the saints. Divorce means ruin and misery, now and eternally. Marriage, even a difficult one, means joy—above all, and in any case, knowledge of the approval of God.


The Calling of the Saint to Uphold Marriage

As the pillar and ground of the truth, the church is called to maintain marriage. But so is each believer. The man, or woman, for whom the truth of marriage means sacrifice, suffering, and loss, perhaps all his life, is called to uphold marriage. There are such saints. There are men wickedly deserted, who must live alone all their lives. There are women whose husbands cannot function as husbands in the home, on account of accident or disease. There are men and women with miserable mates. These are called to bear their burdens and suffer for Christ's sake. God's Word and God's institutions are not changed to fit our circumstances. Every believer must be ready to deny himself and to suffer the loss of wife and children for Christ's sake. If one is not ready to do this, he is no disciple of Jesus. Churches today are making every effort to make Christianity an easy religion. It is not. Christ expressly said that His doctrine of marriage means that some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake (Matt. 19:12). The people of God in such circumstances will have grace to do what God requires of them. In just this way, they uphold marriage; they witness to the faithfulness of the real marriage. Faithfulness is not easy in the covenant relationship between Christ and the church. For Christ, it meant death; for us, it means tribulation.

Every married person is called to maintain marriage, especially in these days of the undermining of marriage. He does this by actively, energetically living with his mate from day one of the marriage in the manner prescribed by the Word of God, Holy Scripture, i.e., according to the pattern of Christ and the church. It is a mistake to suppose that all that matters is that we not divorce. The husband must love his wife, day in and day out, after the starry-eyed romance has worn off, with a love that nourishes and cherishes (Eph. 5:25ff.). Live with her, the Word says (I Peter 3:7); live all your life through your wife (I Cor. 11:12); be understanding (I Peter 3:7). There may be no independency, no tyranny, and no bitterness (Col. 3:19). As Christ behaves towards the church ...

The wife must submit and obey, reverencing her husband (Eph. 5:22ff.). She lives her life as a 'help' to her husband—this is her life (Gen. 2:18). Her one question is: 'How can I please my husband?' (I Cor. 7:34). There is no rebellion, insubordination, disobedience, or nagging; neither is there any independency, i.e., that the woman lives a certain part of her life 'on her own,' 'doing her own thing,' finding 'fulfilment' apart from her husband. Does the church live any part of her life independently of Christ? The moment that we do, we find 'fulfilment' with some other god, and this is what happens to many wives today—they end up 'fulfilled' in the arms of another man. The woman's 'liberation' movement is antichristian deviltry, from beginning to end. No Christian can make peace with it.

Living so with each other, the husband loving and the wife submitting, the married couple simply rule out the very possibility of divorce. For the husband to love his wife means certainly that he does not divorce her; for her to submit means certainly that she does not run off and leave him. Besides, when he loves and she submits, they grow closer; the intimacy becomes deeper; and the unique bliss of marriage becomes richer. The thought of divorce never even comes into their heads.

We must work at our marriages. It is exceedingly strange that we often devote our energy to other things, far less important than our marriage, and allow our marriage to drag along as best it can.

In time of trouble—and no marriage is completely free of trouble, whether it be the husband's aloofness, the wife's nagging, or the sexual relationship—the married saints must remember that there is only one way out: reconciliation, through repentance; confession; forgiveness; removal of the sin that divides; and living in the right way. Divorce is not an option! They must also remember that God has joined them together. A couple may come to the point that they feel that they have made a mistake. No matter; God did not make a mistake: He brings each man his wife, as He did in the case of Adam. There is help for troubled marriages in Christ. Christ uses pastors to give this help. Although it is not easy for the couple to come to the pastor, nor pleasant for the pastor to work at this task, it is necessary that this be done.

Married persons also uphold marriage by teaching their children about marriage. They do this by their own example. They do this also by instruction. A goodly part of the book of Proverbs is the parents' plain, pointed instruction and admonition to their child concerning marriage, fornication, the strange woman, sex, and home-life. Parents are also responsible before God to oversee the dating and to direct the marriage-choice of their children.

The calling to maintain marriage extends finally to the unmarried youth of the church. To a large extent, the battle is won or lost on the day one marries. If he marries a fellow-believer, a 'sister,' according to I Corinthians 9:5, with whom he is one in the Lord, and if they marry, consciously, 'in the Lord,' all will be well. They will still be subject to many 'troubles and afflictions,' as our marriage form puts it, but they will be assisted and kept by the grace of God.

When the young people date and consider marrying, let them keep in mind what marriage is, not a sexual game to play, but a divine institution symbolizing the covenant of Jehovah and jealously defended by the holy God. Let them remember that marriage is for life. With a sense of such solemnity—which in no way rules out joy—let them marry.

This is the work of the saints. We do it by grace alone. We do it willingly and cheerfully, out of gratitude to God for His covenant faithfulness in Christ. We do it with the purpose that we obey and glorify our glorious Husband, Jesus. And we do it so that we may enjoy the blessing of marriage and family: 'Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table. Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord' (Ps. 128:3-4).

Last modified on 21 February 2013
Engelsma, David J.

Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)

Ordained: September 1963

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008


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