Monday, December 08, 2003

Growth of divorce among Christians: a biblical perspective


By Julio Severo

The number of divorces is growing dramatically in the society, showing that today many couples consider it a viable option when a marriage is not going well. In the United States, divorce hits about 50% of marriages. Yet, the most impressing is that studies show that Christians are as vulnerable to divorce as anyone else.

Every year, thousands of Christians decide, for several reasons, to end their marriages. A study by the Barna Research Group reveals the divorce rates among American Christians is really a slightly higher than among non-Christians. Among non-Christian adults, 24 percent are now or have previously been divorced. In comparison, 27 percent of the Christians who think they were born again are in the same situation. That tendency harms the Christian testimony in society. Atheists are delighted to use the same study to announce that people who do not have faith in God have the lowest divorce rates.

Although it seems an acceptable option in the case of an unhappy and troubled marriage, divorce always leaves scars in a family. Children of divorced parents often develop deep-seated anxieties about themselves, their families, and their relationships with parents and peers. Divorce typically makes young children quiet and depressed, while it makes older children angry and aggressive and even vulnerable to delinquency and drugs. Researches also show that separated and divorced people suffer more feelings of unhappiness, solitude and chronic and acute illnesses than do their married or single counterparts.

There is not doubt that divorce is a problem which has been growing in the churches. There is no Christian who doesn’t know couple inside of the church separating or already separated. The examples include even leaders.

It is not easy to address everything related with divorce and remarriage. Even Bible scholars have a lot of difficulty to debate those issues in a theological level. Therefore, it is not without reason there are so many varied opinions and interpretations. Everything we know about the feelings of God is that he declared: “I hate divorce”. (Malachi 2:16) So we are left with an intriguing question: Why is increasing among Christians something God hates? It seems there is a need for us to approach the subject in the most Biblical way possible, so that more marriages may be preserved. The leadership especially has the responsibility to acquire an appropriate Biblical knowledge and apply it to protect their flocks from the tendencies which are destroying the marriages in the world.

With that in mind, this study was prepared to enrich our knowledge on the subject with a brief look at in the New Testament. The objective is not to address the complex problems after an Evangelical couple has already followed the divorce or remarriage trend. All it intends to do is teach a perspective of God’s Word that may be useful for Evangelical couples, before they think about following that trend.

What does the Bible say?
What does the New Testament teach about divorce? It is commonly understood today that in Matthew 19:9 Jesus allows divorce in situations of marital unfaithfulness. But why didn’t he also include cases of violence and desertion?

That passage actually deals with a considerably common problem among the Jews in that time: divorce and remarriage. Usually, a Jew wanted a divorce in order to marry again. The Old Testament allowed that possibility for broader reasons than marital unfaithfulness. That is why the apostles were disappointed with Jesus’ “restrictive” position.

However, Jesus knew how to treat complicated situations in special ways. When the religious Jewish leaders brought before Jesus a woman caught committing adultery, he was extremely intelligent. Instead of showing he was for or against what they intended, he gave them an answer which led them to a deep reflection of the state of each of their lives: “The person who is sinless should be the first to throw a stone at her”. (John 8:7b GW)

In the passage on divorce, Jesus acted in the same way, in an equally complicated situation. He answered the Jewish religious leaders in a way which would lead them to consider better what marriage before God is. He said: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery”. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

The other Gospels also mention the same passage, but they don’t make any reference to the section where Jesus says except for marital unfaithfulness:

In Mark, Jesus says: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her”. (Mark 10:11 NIV)

In Luke, Jesus says: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”. (Luke 16:18 NIV)

Why does there seem to be such contradiction in Jesus’ declarations in the Gospels? Why did Matthew decide to treat the issue in a different way? While in Mark and Luke Jesus seems to be categorically against remarriage, in Matthew he shows that there is a specific situation where a man or woman may get divorced and marry again. In other words, only marital unfaithfulness allows that possibility. How is possible to explain that difference?

Understanding the objective of each book of the Bible
Although we have the Bible today as a complete collection of books, originally each book (in this case, each Gospel) was written as a letter directed to specific people. The books of Mark, Luke and John were written in general for Christians who were not Jewish. In the first century of the Christian era, no church had all the books of the New Testament. Only centuries later the churches were able to enjoy the blessings of possessing the complete collection of the apostles’ letters.

So considering the Gospels at the time when they were written 2,000 years ago, a church in certain place received the Gospel of John, another received the Gospel of Mark and an important man called Theophilus received the Gospel of Luke. Those letters were prepared for Christians without a lot of knowledge in the Jewish customs. But who was the letter of Matthew written and directed to?

An important fact is that the New Testament was written in Greek, the language used by most of the world at the time of the apostles. However, Bible scholars believe that the only book in the New Testament that originally was not written in Greek is Matthew, which is supposed to have been written firstly in Aramaic, the language used by the Jews at that time. Later, the Gospel of Matthew was translated into Greek.

Then, we know that three Gospels were written to people who were not Jewish, and just one addresses the specific needs of the Jews.

Therefore, in Jesus’ passage on divorce, Mark and Luke didn’t mention the phrase except for marital unfaithfulness for a noble reason: they wanted to protect the mind of the non-Jewish Christians from the special issues of the Jews. In the same way, Paul, who was a Jew and had a ministry to reach people who were not Jewish, never mentioned the subject of Jesus’ exception, in order to not confuse the non-Jews. Mark, Luke and Paul knew what Jesus had said, but they also knew that the complete declaration was relevant only for the Jews. So what was a Jew led to think when he heard: “Anyone who divorces his wife and gets married to another woman commits adultery, except in the case of adultery”?

Adultery as a social crime
Jews lived according to the Old Testament laws. For them, there was a law for the sin of adultery. “If a man commits adultery with the wife of an Israelite, both he and the woman shall be put to death”. (Leviticus 20:10 GNB) The capital punishment, applied to the guilty spouse, would release the innocent spouse to get married with another person. There are other Biblical evidences showing that only a spouse’s death releases the other, if he or she wishes so, for a new marriage. In Romans Paul says: “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man”. (Romans 7:2-3 NIV, italic is mine.)

However, if someone who was not from the nation of Israel were to read Matthew 19:9, he would understand that divorce is possible only in the case of adultery. He would understand it exactly this way because his mind would not be able to see the text as a Jew, who knew the Old Testament. So he would not know that capital punishment was applied to the sin of adultery.

Although the Old Testament gives freedom for the Jews to divorce for several reasons so that they may get married again, Jesus limited that freedom to one reason alone, but with an answer that had as its objective to lead the Jews to consider deeply the meaning and purpose of God for the marital union. Besides, he showed that the law of divorce of the Old Testament had been established because the heart of God’s people was hard.

As all good Jews did, Jesus’ disciples appreciated the law of divorce of the Old Testament. That is why they expressed dissatisfaction and disappointment with Jesus’ stand allowing for divorce and remarriage only in the case of marital unfaithfulness. They said: “If that is the relationship of a man with his wife, it’s not worth getting married!” (Matthew 19:10 ISV)

What discouraged them like this, and what would also make any other Jew in the world equally dissatisfied, is that by accepting Jesus’ stand, a Jew who intended to get divorced and marry again would have to accept the divine law which addresses the punishment for the sin of adultery.

Room for the grace of restoration
However, where is there the room for God’s grace in this entire situation in which the possibility for remarriage is open only with the guilty spouse’s death? A Jew reading the Gospel of Matthew would have, inevitably, to read the passage right before Jesus’ declaration on divorce (Mt 18:23-35). When Matthew wrote to the Jews, his letter had no chapters and verses. So the passage on forgiveness (Matthew 18:23-35) was united to the passage on divorce (Matthew 19:1-12). Then, before thinking about divorce a Jew would already have to think about forgiveness. With the Holy Spirit’s direction, the Jew obedient to Jesus could release forgiveness and let God’s grace win and prevail where sin wanted to destroy.

Therefore, it is possible to understand that the grace of forgiveness is available to heal and restore marriages. Jesus’ grace came to restore, not to destroy.

However, a non-Jewish Christian would interpret the passage of Matthew as if the New Testament allowed divorce just in the case of adultery. Such interpretation would leave some important issues with no answer: How, for example, would the situation fit in the case of women married to drunk, violent or even criminal men?

How Paul addressed the issue
Paul, who preached God’s grace and was harassed by legalistic Jews, approached the subject of separation. He taught: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife… Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce”. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 26-27a NIV, italic is mine.) In situations in which an unbelieving spouse decides to separate, Paul saw in the separation freedom for the believing spouse: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

Of course, in Paul’s opinion the ideal state for singles is not to marry, so that they may be free to serve the Lord. Then, in the case of a married Christian getting a separation, the idea is not different: his freedom is an opportunity to serve the Lord with no hindrance. Paul saw a man or woman out of the marriage state as a Christian entirely free to work for God, without the concerns and occupations that take one’s time when one is married and has to think about supplying his or her spouse’s needs. He says: “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you… unmarried? Do not look for a wife… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife — and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world — how she can please her husband”. (1 Corinthians 7: 26-27b, 32-34 NIV)

Although he has never directly addressed the problem of divorce, Paul understood that the only reason for remarriage is the death of one of the spouses. He says: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is”. (1 Corinthians 7:39-40a NIV)

The apostles eventually understood that truth well, but for some time they found it very difficult to accept the marriage perspective that Jesus had put before them. That is why they said when they were upset: “If the case of a man with his wife is like this, it is neither profitable nor advisable to marry”. (Matthew 19:10 AB) That is, if the only reason for remarriage is a spouse’s death, they thought the best was not to marry! After all, which Jew would get divorced if they knew that they could not marry again? For them, it was very difficult to accept the marriage as a covenant for life, “til death do us part”.

Then Jesus answered them and said: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but God has made some able to accept it. There are different reasons why some men cannot marry. Some men were born without the ability to become fathers. Others were made that way later in life by other people. And some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. But the person who can marry should accept this teaching about marriage”. (Matthew 19:11-12 NCV, italics are mine.) Not everyone, even among the people of God, is open to accept the divine purpose of marriage, but only the ones who are made able. It is obvious that a human being has the ability to separate where there are hardened hearts, but Jesus declared: “Therefore, don’t let anyone separate what God has joined together." (Matthew 19:6b GW) It is not that he was not unconscious of the problems that a marriage faces. On the contrary, he knew that God has the power to give ability for union, strengthening, forgiveness and restoration where there are open hearts. No couple is perfect, but when there is room for God to make able, the most difficult situations may become opportunities to experience great victories (see James 1:2-4,12).

Models are indispensable
We have examined a little of what the Word of God says. Now, what can be done so that fewer Evangelical couples follow the worldly divorce and remarriage trend? The answer lies in our Christian leaders. They have been given a special calling for being “examples for the flock to follow”. (1 Peter 5:3b GW) What then does qualify a man to lead and serve as model? Paul says: “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach”. (1 Timothy 3:2 NIV, italics are mine.) It is also possible to translate that passage like this: “Therefore, a church leader must have a character without fault, must have one wife only or must have been married once only…” Other church leaders must also have the same qualification (see verse 11).

Why does God establish that the leadership should have a high family standard of living? We live in a world full of wrong influences. Therefore, God wants that at least in the church families may have the opportunity to see different examples than the ones that exist in the world and to model themselves after those good examples. The Bible shows that ministers and other leaders, married only once, are the ideal example and model for the congregation. Why? Because the human being has a weakness: to imitate those who are in authority position or prominence. Although a lot of people don’t imitate those that they adore, reality shows that the ungodly life of many TV stars is now copied by a great number of their admirers.

Paul established how marriage in the leadership should be because certainly the non-Jewish congregations had several divorce and remarriage cases. It was necessary to establish good models, so that the worldly examples did not become part of the church life. Divorce is a problem that affects the whole society, but there should be a higher standard in the leadership so that what is common in the world will not be normal in the church. God hates divorce, but Christians today are being in such a way affected by images, examples and models of divorce and remarriage in society that they are beginning to behave as if God loved those problems! The ideal way of neutralizing the negative influence of the world in the marriages of the church is to do what Paul directs: to put in the leadership men possessing an excellent example. Those leaders will be a positive influence in the life of the families of the church. When a congregation sees their minister and other leaders loving their wives, being faithful to them and preserving the marriage union, many will follow their example.

Bible translations:
Amplified Bible
GNB: Good News Bible
GW: God’s Word
NCV: New Century Version
NIV: New International Version

Copyright 2003 Julio Severo. Julio Severo is a Brazilian writer and the author of pro-life articles in Brazilian magazines. He is also the author of the book O Movimento Homossexual (The Homosexual Movement), published by the Brazilian branch of the Bethany House Publishers.

Website in Portuguese:

Blog in English:

[2] From The Family in America Digital Archive · © Copyright, 1996. All rights reserved.

Other articles by Julio Severo

Targeted By Bias: Evangelicals Who Voted for Bush

The Great Gaffe of Lula Against Israel

The Mark of the Beast: The Tomorrow’s Education

Helping Take Care of the Social Health

Message to President Lula on Israel

Message to President Lula on homosexuality

Growth of divorce among Christians: a biblical perspective

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

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