24 January 2011

On Divorce

by Phil Johnson

ne of the most commonly-asked questions I get about Spurgeon is from readers who want to know his position on divorce. In deference to Victorian sensibilities, Spurgeon had little to say on the subject, and when he brought it up, it was usually only to decry the evil effects of divorce in families, in society, and across the generations. He rightly deplored divorce and never encouraged it.

That fact has led some to think he believed divorce was never justifiable and that divorced persons were never permitted to remarry. But that was not his position.

Spurgeon held to the same view on divorce as the Westminster Confession. It's the classic view held by most Reformed theologians. In other words, Spurgeon believed remarriage after divorce is permitted in rare cases. When a divorce occurs because one partner is guilty of egregious marital infidelity, for example, the innocent partner may be permitted to remarry.

Again, Spurgeon abhorred divorce and always pointed out that it is a fruit of sin, but he had compassion on the innocent party in a marriage where one partner was faithful and the other an adulterer. In the exposition accompanying his sermon "The First Beatitude" (vol. 55), Spurgeon said:

31, 32. It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto to you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

This time our King quotes and condemns a permissive enactment of the Jewish State. Men were wont to bid their wives "begone," and a hasty word was thought sufficient as an act of divorce. Moses insisted upon "a writing of divorcement," that angry passions might have time to cool and that the separation, if it must come, might be performed with deliberation and legal formality. The requirement of a writing was to a certain degree a check upon an evil habit, which was so engrained in the people that to refuse it altogether would have been useless, and would only have created another crime. The law of Moses went as far as it could practically be enforced; it was because of the hardness of their hearts that divorce was tolerated; it was never approved.

But our Lord is more heroic in his legislation. He forbids divorce except for the one crime of infidelity to the marriage-vow. She who commits adultery does by that act and deed in effect sunder the marriage-bond, and it ought then to be formally recognised by the State as being sundered; but for nothing else should a man be divorced from his wife. Marriage is for life, and cannot be loosed, except by the one great crime which severs its bond, whichever of the two is guilty of it. Our Lord would never have tolerated the wicked laws of certain of the American States, which allow married men and women to separate on the merest pretext. A woman divorced for any cause but adultery, and marrying again, is committing adultery before God, whatever the laws of man may call it. This is very plain and positive; and thus a sanctity is given to marriage which human legislation ought not to violate. Let us not be among those who take up novel ideas of wedlock, and seek to deform the marriage laws under the pretense of reforming them. Our Lord knows better than our modern social reformers. We had better let the laws of God alone, for we shall never discover any better.

Those last three sentences are of course very relevant to the current controversy regarding legal unions between homosexual partners. Spurgeon might never imagined that society would condone such a thing, but he clearly would have been horrified by it.

Phil's signature


Thomas Louw said...

I wonder what would happen if we would bring this little phrase into play “Love your enemy”

Andrea said...

I'm not a Spurgeon expert. Do I read him to say that divorce would be required if one partner committed adultery, because the marriage bond was broken? What if they repent? That cannot be what he means, right?

Sarah said...

How should this issue be dealt within a church setting, within a local congregation? Especially with the commonplace occurance of adultery and remarriage. Everyone has friends, family, loved ones, and members within their congregation that this affects. What should be done afterwards? How should this affect their role in the body, or should it?

Ron (aka RealityCheck) said...


I don’t see where Spurgeon (or the bible) is saying divorce is a requirement because of adultery but that it is permissible because of adultery.

This is an area where Christians reap what they sow. We (Christians) treat marriage as casually as the secular world and then we cry foul when they argue for gay marriage. They notice this hypocrisy and rightly call us on it. Now, obviously, two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because Christians commit adultery in many (most?) of their cases of divorce it doesn’t suddenly make gay marriage o.k. That said, while we argue justly (as in biblically) that homosexuality and gay marriage are forbidden, we would do well to get our own house in order.

Aaron said...

@ Realitycheck: Amen. (And I would say that if we took divorce more seriously, we'd take spouse selection more seriously.). ;)

Rob said...

I heard a sermon not long ago by Voddie Baucham on the Permanence View of marriage that really changed a lot of my thinking on this issue, and how we casually accept that there's an "exception clause" that can get someone out of a marriage. If the marriage bond was broken by one partner, isn't the marriage bond still the obligation of the one who stayed faithful? Aren't there examples from Scripture of folks like Jephthah who stayed true to their vow, regardless of how difficult it might have been?

Ron (aka RealityCheck) said...

Lol Sir Aaron, I knew you were going to say that, I just knew it!

Touche ;-)

Strong Tower said...

While it is lawful in cases of adultery for the innocent party to divorce doesn't mean it is not sinful to do so, in that, it is an act of unforgiveness. Jesus, we are reminded, indicted the pro-divorce camp with the reason that Moses gave the right of divorce on the cause of sexual impurity (which Christ reiterates). It was was given because of skerocardia, hardness of heart. The import is clear if viewed by means the reason the rest of the Law was given. The purpose of the Law was show us how impossible it was for us to remain faithful to God and to show the means of reconcilliation by free means of propitiation, the sacrifice of the righteous, for the restoration of the unrighteous. (No greater love has any man than he who would lay down his life for his friend, so take up the cross, follow, it was the friends of Christ who crucified him.) Because of the hardness of heart, the offended person was permitted to divorce. That was not so much for the protection of the "I am glad I am not like this sinner" innocent one, but for the protection of the offender who would be forced to live with an unforgiving, hardhearted, person.

No doubt adultery justifies divorce, but the reason that divorce exists is not justified, it is the result of sin. For it was not this way in the beginning. It is the creation order that sets the standard, not the lapsarian order.

Another way to look at divorce is from the perspective of the Lord and his adulterous bride. We are continually unclean and except for the intercession of our Husband we would be condemned. Scripture declares our hearts to always be in wanton whoredom. And the only way that we are reconciled and remain reconciled is for the Husband to purchase his bride and keep her without spot or blemish, not on her account, but despite who she is.

Mark B. Hanson said...

Rob -

I held to the permanence view for quite awhile, until I had seen a couple of cases of guys taking advantage of it to torment the women who had been unfortunate enough to marry them. They abused them emotionally, refused support, slept with whoever they pleased (one was in a gay relationship) - all in a way that was not openly visible to the church leadership. These guys then strenuously called upon the church to discipline her if she initiated divorce.

This type of situation calls for recognition of the signs by the elders, and thorough investigation - especially since it is so often on the surface a matter of one witness ("he said, she said").

Once adultery or abandonment (and many classify physical abuse as abandonment) is established, we (in the PCA) believe that Jesus' words and Paul's allow a divorce, and that the other person is free to remarry. Discipline is carried out against the guilty party (if possible, although they usually abandon the church rather than submit).

Rob said...

Hey Mark,

I understand what you are saying, and how there could be extreme situations like what you describe, but (and this is just my lay-speculation here) in the scenario you described, wouldn't the correct action for the elders to have been to separate the wife and the wayward husband until the two could agree to pastoral council? I see the responsibility of the church in this situation to tirelessly work to reconcile and repair the relationship, instead of resorting to permanent separation that, invariably, makes one of the two partners necessitate breaking their vow, prior to "til death did them part".

The other thing is this: my daughters are young now, but one day they will be ready to marry and my wife and I will need to talk to them about marriage and what it means. Do I teach them (and my future son-in-laws) that this is a permanent, binding, concrete relationship, or do I teach them that, "It's MOSTLY permanent, but there are a couple exceptions so that, you know, if they happen, you can get out of it if you need(want) to"?

Anonymous said...

What I've often seen in the church is people not recognizing that since Jesus clearly permits divorce for reasons of immoral behaviour, we ought not treat the spouse who divorces in that situation as somehow different or less godly than the one who stays.

Too often we elevate the one who stays over the one who leaves, even though Scripture is clear that neither is more or less right than the other.

Emily said...

I listened to MacArthur's (lengthy) sermon series called The Divorce Dilemma. I believe he also has a book by the same name. It's a complex issue and I believe MacArthur did a good job expositing the Scriptures on this topic. Even the ones that show a "no exceptions" view. I personally had to deal with this having married a man who was abandoned by his wife. Our union was ok'd by our church due to the circumstances. Rob - yes I would teach my daughters that marriage is for life - a binding covenant. You don't need to get into anything else at that point because it's irrelevant. If their mate selection is careful it shouldn't be an issue. But I do need to know how to explain to our children one day what the bible says about mommy marrying daddy who was married before. Again, MacArthur's careful handling of the texts on divorce & remarriage were extremely helpful and comforting.

Ronda Ray said...

Great insight and perspectives regarding a difficult topic. I'm doing research for a book I'm going to write to prepare girls for marriage. There are just a lot of immature Christians, let alone people in the world. If married people really knew how difficult going through a divorce is they would think differently about their present circumstances.

Ronda Ray
Author of Prayer Revolution, How God Refined My Connection With Heaven. http://www.onereformationinternational.com

Internet said...

Researcher and author, Dr. Eric Kaufmann, a liberal secular scholar of politics at the University of London, has written the following, soon-to-be-released book: "Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?"

What does the research conclude?:

"Yes, they will."

Who, did his research find, shall "inherit the Earth"?:

(1.) Old Order Amish
(2.) Quiverfull Evangelical Movement
(3.) Traditional Latin Mass Catholics
(4.) American Mormons
(5.) Hasidic Jews
(6.) Muslims

If these groups inherit the Earth, will those families engaging in divorce, regardless of the number of children, be able to effectively pass on their faith to the next generation?

The Christian Theologist said...

Can we really discuss divorce before defining marriage? For instance, Jesus added "What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder", which, to me, sounds like a definition that excludes pagan marriages. So, a secular "marriage" (city hall, etc), or one performed under another religion, wouldn't be a real marriage before Christ, and there'd be no need to worry about meeting the spiritual divorce requirements to break it.

Just a thought...

Neal Doster said...

The permanence view redefines the exception clause in Matt. 5:32, 19:9. John Piper argues that "except for immorality (or "fornication" KJV) did not refer to adultery but to premarital sexual fornication which a man or a woman discovers in the betrothed partner.” This supposition is sometime referred to as the “betrothal or espousal theory” and the vast majority of the permanence view advocates teach it. They use Joseph’s dilemma with Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18-20) as an example of the exception clause. Having rejected the belief that infidelity after marriage is biblical grounds for divorce these teachers set forth the supposition that fornication is premarital and adultery is marital. By defining these words thus they precede to build a case that divorce was allowed before marriage but not afterwards.
The premise that “porneia” (fornication) is premarital and adultery is marital is more a sleight of words than uniformly true. That’s why it’s important to define these words from a comprehensive perspective of scripture. What they fail to see or acknowledge is, that in Jewish biblical culture, premarital fornication while betrothed itself would be an act of adultery. What’s important to see here is that the Bible doesn’t differentiate between these two categories of infidelity in the same manner as these men are doing. Both these acts of infidelity resulted in the same retribution, same recourse in the Old Testament (Deut. 22:22-24). If this is true then what they teach is not!

James Scott Bell said...

"Paul says that one who has become a Christian and then been deserted by an unbelieving partner is not bound (1 Cor. 7:15). This evidently means that he or she may regard the relationship as finished. Whether this should be held to confer right of remarriage has been disputed, and Reformed opinion has long been divided on the matter. The Westminster Confession (XXIV.5-6) states with cautious wisdom what most Reformed Christians, reflecting on the Scriptures quoted above, have down the centuries found themselves agreed on regarding divorce: In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out [secure] a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead." - J. I. Packer. Concise Theology

Rob said...

Johnny - just a thought, but if the Westminster standards state that it is lawful for the innocent party to "sue out [secure] a divorce", when would a situation like this transgress what Paul wrote in I Cor. 6 about avoiding lawsuits amongst believers? (which a divorce basically is: a messy legal dispute.) If both parties were member of a church, would the responsibility then be to follow that of the Apostle's instruction to the Corinthians, rather than to pursue the lawsuit avenue? (Resolution via the elders of the church, rather than to seek "a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church"?)

I ask, because this is a topic that hits fairly close to home, and I've wrestled with how some of my church-going relations handled a messy separation not long ago, and how it should have actually been handled.

Tyrone said...

I am in the process of divorce as we speak, and I suppose when we cleave to God's word and heed His council whatever and wherever it is required, we will have less scars in life to deal with. I am now on the receiving end of the exact warning that I the bible warns against. Do not be unequally yoke with an unbeliever! God is not mocked, nor will His word ever be mocked. All I will humbly say is when you know that something is right and you do not do it, it will come back and haunt you. Although my wife showed interest and was even baptised, she now no longer attends church and will have anything to do with the gospel message. Maybe this warning rings true to your ear. I implore you do not kick against God’s council. A struggling pilgrim in Christ.

Michael said...

' "Moses insisted upon "a writing of divorcement," '

When Spurgeon says that, is he teaching that laws and rules in Deuteronomy were not decreed by God but by Moses. It seems like when a law, ordinance or decree is in the Old Testament it isn't quite the Inspired Word of God.
Matthew Henry says that it wasn't a precept at all!
The verse says if the man finds "some unseemly thing in her". Not exactly adultery.
Is it because Jesus specified the only justifiable basis of divorce that we go back and interpret the OT regs as Moses' reigning in of frivolous divorces?

Dean said...

I was on the phone with a divorced Reformed Christian female friend awhile ago and was doing some "research" for her online. It's funny... I found this article by J. Piper on Divorce and Remarriage on his website:

http://www.desiringgod.org/library/topics/divorce_remarriage/div_rem_paper.html .

She is struggling with the question of whether she can Biblically remarry or not and is seeking her pastor's advice and counsel. The irony of it is that HE, Piper, is the man to who's Seminar some friends went to hear in the Fall of 2004 especially when the Conference was entitled "Sex and the Sovereignty of God".

I ask/wonder... was it for those who could Biblically enter into a marriage relationship again and therefore once again have a sexual relationship? From what I have noticed from this article, it would seem that all of those Reformed and Biblically Divorced Singles who are going can't remarry even if the divorce was Biblical. IF the former spouse is alive... NIX on remarriage!

SO... what hope/benefit was the Conference?... Discouraging? Depressing?

I FEEL for her... she wants so much... and is so sincere.

I guess it looks like, according to Piper, I must HUNT DOWN MY EX WIVES AND KILL THEM if I want to remarry.

I am no professional Theologian (we are ALL practical Theologians for we are students of God), and therefore am not debating him here Scripturally. That has been done in abundance by consistently Reformed Theologians and he is in the vast minority opinion. I am simply disgusted by such NON-sense and the true damage it causes to Reformed Singles.

I wonder is Piper would be such a Pompass Arse if he were to wake up one day and suddenly be told by his wife that she didn't want to be married to him anymore.

Mr. Piper, I too was once as self-righteous as you are and the Hound of Heaven dealt a mortal blow to my to that self-righteousness when my beloved left one day quite unexpectedly.

I wonder what your attitude would be if that were to happen to you.


Truth IS Stranger Than Fiction!!!

Neal Doster said...

The injustice of no recourse and perpetual singleness.
Their is no doubt that God designed marriage to be for a lifetime. But there is a simultaneous truth in that He also designed sexual fidelity as a prerequisite for marriage. The rational for understanding the exception clause to allow for divorce originates from this fact. Deuteronomy 22:13-29 is an important predicate in helping us to see that infidelity was a grave breach of an inviolable covenant. The retribution for breaching this covenant in this manner in the Old Testament brought sever recourse. A recourse that undeniably affirmed that sex was a sacred union meant solely for marriage and those bound by it. To adulterate the gift of sex, especially within covenant bondage justified the ultimate penalty. An important question to answer is, was there recourse for adultery?
The permanence view creates an enigma that leaves the divorced or innocent party defenseless and instructs them to try to be satisfied with a life of singleness, a life of consequent frustration and hardships. They believe for example, that if a man with two small children divorces his wife for another woman and gets remarried, his former wife is to live her life without a companion and raise the children without a father (in the home). The exception clause Jesus gives allows her recourse to deal with a husband that has abandoned God’s will.
A few of these men concede that a spouse can be involved in gross sexual immorality that warrants a divorce, but teach that the innocent party should not remarry. Ironically, most in the permanence view would instruct the man in this example to continue his second marriage while instructing his former wife to remain companionless. I see no biblical justness in that. This position should be shown to be erroneous so that the innocent doesn’t suffer needlessly, attempting to live their whole life without a companion.
I agree with Dean's frustration with John Piper's position, while not his sentiments about John personally. He is a humble and godly man who has followed a wrong supposition.

Neal Doster said...

A response to Sarah's post 1/24. The main objective is to determine the limits of Church law so that it can confront those that are violating God’s will. These limitations should represent His expectations and not man’s. Keep in mind believer’s responsibility toward one another in regard to open sin (Galatians 6:1). The proviso view coupled with the restoration procedure of Matthew 18 offers the best solution to resolve these issue. This is because the principle will not leave anyone in divorce limbo, especially when there is refusal to reconcile when obligated. The obligation to reconcile is a key to understanding the remarriage debate. This fact is the apostle Paul’s point of difference in 1 Cor. 7:10-15. This key helps the Church to bridge the gap between a divorced state to that of remarriage. I believe the answer to the debate lies in the emphasis of stopping adultery and not remarriage. This will require the Church to prohibit and restrict remarriage up until a given point.
The proviso view restricts divorce and remarriage under most circumstances. The Matthew 18 principle draws these cases to a conclusion by classifying those involved in violating God’s will. This classification coupled with the Apostle Paul’s proviso allows the innocent/obedient party to eventually remarry. This provision allows for remarriage when reconciliation is no longer expected. This allows the Church to put forth it’s best effort to stop adulterous remarriages while not forcing the extra biblical mandate of perpetual singleness. This allows the Church to restrict remarriage but retain the overall allowance for it as seen in the Old Testament.

Neal Doster said...

A response to Emily's post 1/24.
* Remarriage preceded by divorce supersedes the former covenant but can be adulterous.
* Remarriage is a marriage even when adulterous.
* Remarriage after divorce is adulterous only if one was under covenant obligation to reconcile with their ex-spouse.
* Remarriage after divorce constitutes a second covenant of marriage to which one should be true.
The Proviso given through Paul in 1 Cor.7:15
In verse 12 “I, not the Lord, say” speaks to a dimension of divorce that Jesus had not addressed. That being, what do you do about a couple who are in covenant relationship with each other, but one of them is not in covenant relationship with God?
Consistent with the Lord’s teaching he instructs the Christian not to divorce the unbeliever (verses 12-13) and to continue to be a godly testimony to them (verse 16 also 1 peter 3:1-2). But in verse 15 he includes a proviso in the case where the unbeliever desires to divorce the believer. He concludes that this act of repudiation would exonerate the Christian from further marital obligation (v.15 “a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.”) The allocation “ a brother or sister” differentiates them from the unbelieving spouse unlike the previous situation and consequently releases them from the residual obligation to reconcile.
Remember adultery would only result when there remains the obligation of loyalty to the former spouse such as the Christian couple of verses 10 and 11. Being relieved of covenant obligation absolves the believer, they are set free. Verse 15 “not under bondage” carries the same idea as verse 39 “at liberty”, subsequently and consequently remarriage will not result in adultery.
The permanence view misses the significance of Paul’s change of address in verse 12 “But to the rest” which clearly speaks to and instructs differently than He did in the circumstance He made in verses 10 and 11.
Because the permanence view advocate’s that “not under bondage” (verse 15) only means that a believer is free to yield to a divorce but is not free to remarry, it’s important to keep in mind that Paul is addressing dissimilar situations. He is not instructing the same solution in verse 15 as he did in verse 11. The expression “not under bondage” follows in logic by contrast, the admonition to “reconcile or remain unmarried” (verse 11). The admonition to “reconcile or remain unmarried” reminds the Christian couple that they, although unmarried, are still under covenant bondage and that this bespeaks the obligation to reconcile. Conversely, the expression “not under bondage” instructs the individual there that they are free from such obligation. It is the contrast of being under the bondage of the marriage covenant that Paul is referring to. He conveys here the same idea as he does in v.39 “at liberty to be married”.
Yielding to divorce is found in the expression “let him depart,” while “not under bondage” conveys the consequence of this departure. The believer experiences freedom by the unbelievers act of repudiation. Following the flow of Paul’s thinking we see Him reversing the instruction to “remain unmarried” to that of giving freedom to do so. The expression “not under bondage” is the freedom an individual has from the previous covenantal bondage that is normally retained when divorced, such as the unmarried Christian couple. The retention of covenantal obligation is key to understanding when and why remarriage is adulterous.
This retention is also key to understanding when the Church should allow for remarriage after divorce. Three things in scripture potentially frees a married or previously married individual from covenantal bondage. Fornication, repudiation by an unbeliever, the remarriage of an ex-spouse. When these things have occurred, a divorced individual is “not under bondage” to reconcile and should no longer be expected to remain unmarried.

Phil said...

@Sir Aaron: You said: "And I would say that if we took divorce more seriously, we'd take spouse selection more seriously"

As an unmarried man, I can't tell you how big of an issue this is. The fact is, Churches are usually so busy preserving the marriages that they do next to nothing (*cough* singles ministry *cough*) to help Christians find and choose wise Christian partners. The silent message of most Churches is "come back when you're married." The Christian singles scene is an abysmal mess, and I wish pastors would at least facilitate some help. It's no wonder we have quasi-Christians marrying haphazardly, and then wonder why we have the divorce rate we do.

DJP said...

Sad but true, Phil.