Tag Archives: Biblical view on divorce

Divorce the Sons of Disobedience or Sink Into Damnable Idolatry

“I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before Me.” The first of the Ten Commandments could not be clearer, yet the Israelites continually sought the gods of the nations, particularly they worshipped the Baals. The worship of any other than the living God is by definition idolatry—having an idol. However, this unfaithfulness to God is also called adultery; theologically it is called spiritual adultery so that it remains distinct from physical adultery.

God uses the imagery of physical adultery to show Israel how wicked they behaved in their relationship with God when they turned to the gods of the nations–they were guilty of spiritual adultery.  So then, is it also spiritual adultery when an idol worshiper turns from their idol(s) to serve the living God?  Both have stopped serving the god of their youth and joined themselves to a different god, so the sin must be the same, right?   No, not at all.  Those born into families that worship false gods and later turn to Almighty God are not guilty of spiritual adultery because it is not only the Israelites who must have no other gods before the God of creation, but all of mankind is guilty of spiritual adultery when they fail to worship God.  In fact, those who serve any false god are guilty of spiritual adultery regardless of their spiritual past because all worship belongs to Almighty God.

So then, spiritual adultery takes place whenever anyone worships anything or anyone other than the God of creation to whom they belong.  And physical adultery is committed whenever a married person becomes sexually involved with someone other than the person to whom they belong.  This seems simple to comprehend, but a common assumption is made that whomever a believer marries is the person to whom they belong, but this assumption is not always true.

Because God forbids unequally yoked marriages believers can no more be married to unbelievers without committing adultery than can they worship a false god without committing spiritual adultery.  This is true because a genuine child of God no more belongs with an ungodly spouse than they do a false god.  Both are prohibited by a commandment of God.  Both sins bring light and darkness together, which is impossible.  Once light enters the darkness, then the darkness is no more.  God’s word equates these two sins in Paul’s instructions to the churches at Corinth (2 Corinthians 6:15, 16).

One major argument against divorce for the unequally yoked believer is that it is too damaging for a family and especially the children to go through a divorce.  Yet this was no obstacle for Ezra and Nehemiah as they forced their unequally yoked men to divorce their wives and children.  Neither is it an obstacle for our Lord.  In fact, Jesus understands that once a person becomes born-again they will be separated from most if not all of their closest family relationships not in Christ (Matthew 10:32-39; Luke 18:29-30 includes wives).

And what does the reader suppose to be the cause of this separation?  Light and darkness do not mix.  The sword that Christ wields separates believers from those who continue to worship idols and it does so because the idol worshipers harbor resentment toward believers who reject the gods of this world.  The godless always resent God, so is it any surprise that they resent the godly.  The good work of Christ’s sword is the most efficient when believers obediently recognize and perform this obligation to become untangled from the world and all worldly influences–starting with removing themselves from unequally yoked relationships.

Just as all who worship false gods are spiritual adulterers even when they have never abandoned their first idol, God’s children commit adultery by remaining bound with unbelievers even when the unbeliever is their first spouse.  This is true because all saints should remain single or belong in a marriage to a fellow believer in Christ.  Believers are commanded to marry only in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14).  Just as new believers come out of the sin of idolatry (spiritual adultery) and cling to Jesus Christ so too must they also come out of the sin of physical adultery with their unbelieving spouse and join themselves to a believing spouse because they must not have any earthly entanglements.

Just as it is a sin to continue serving false gods after being born-again it is a sin for a believer to remain in and unequally yoked marriage.  A covenant to a false god/religion and a covenant to a child of unrighteousness are both broken by the death of the believer.  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Christ has no harmony with a son of destruction (2 Cor. 6:15) and neither do his disciples.

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14).  So then, God’s word clearly states, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, and “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” thus God’s people must divest themselves of any and all false gods and they must divorce themselves of any and all unequally yoked relationships with worshipers of false gods.

Scripture uses the marriage between a man and a woman to demonstrate man’s relationship with God. Israel and Judah are depicted as being the bride of God. The church is depicted as the bride of Christ. The gospel commands all men to come to Christ; being apart from Christ is to be guilty of spiritual adultery. Those born under false gods are commanded to divorce themselves of those gods (repent of their idolatry) and embrace Christ Jesus. In exactly the same way those married to the children of Satan are commanded to divorce their spiritually adulterous spouses (repent of being unequally yoked) and remarry only in the Lord or remain single.

THE CHURCHES ONE SIZE FITS ALL APPROACH TO MARRIATAL DIVORCE

Whether it is with the god of ones youth or the bride of ones youth it is too simple to say that staying with them until death is necessary in order to be free of adultery. Adultery is joining to a third person when already joined to another. This manifests three situations whereby believers are guilty of adultery. The first order of adultery: The first of the Ten Commandments commands all humans to have no other gods besides the Creator, which is God’s claim upon mankind.  Therefore, anyone worshiping idols or false gods is guilty of spiritual adultery.  Secondly, when an equally yoked man and woman unite in marriage they belong to one another as husband and wife, which causes either one to be guilty of adultery if they join to a third person.  Finally, when a believer is joined in marriage to an unbeliever whether intentionally or unintentionally they are committing adultery because God’s word clearly instructs that he belongs to/with a fellow believer; he literally belongs to another (a coheir of Christ Jesus) even when her identity is yet unknown to him.

We know from First Corinthians chapter seven that God has established an allowance for new believers that will help them transition from the condition of being unequally yoked to becoming equally yoked to a believer.  Their new life in Christ will either be shared with their current spouse who God will soon quicken and save as He did them, or they will be required to untangle from and to divorce their hard-hearted spouse and petition God for a believing spouse.  The sword of Christ will be working the separation naturally through the resentment of the unbelieving spouse.  The believer must simply look for the softening or hardening of their unsaved spouse’s heart to determine whether to remain in the marriage or to dissolve it.

God’s desire for His children is that they love Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and that they dwell together in unity (love one another as they love themselves). Psalm 133:1 says, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” In the 101st Psalm David is speaking not on God’s behalf but on his own when he says, “No one who has a haughty look and an arrogant heart will I endure. My eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in a blameless way is the one who will minister to me. He who practices deceit shall not dwell within my house; he who speaks falsehood shall not maintain his position before me (Psalm 101: 5-7).

Believers are commanded to dwell in unity with those who are faithfully walking in God’s blameless way.  David clearly states that the unbeliever shall not “dwell within my house” nor shall he “maintain his position before me.” Oh man and woman of God, do you share the heart of David who himself was a man after God’s heart?  Do you allow a child of Satan to dwell within your house?  Do you have a spiritual adulterer maintaining their position as your spouse?  King David clearly says he would not allow such.  Jesus agreed with David when He said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29).

The Lord’s meaning is made clearer in Matthew 10:34-39 where Jesus informed His followers that He brings not peace but a sword, and with the sword He would divide and separate His children away from those who remain lost in disobedience. Even the most intimate family relationships will be divided as we follow God’s way while our family members continue in the way of unrighteousness.

So then, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed.  It is obvious that scripture commands God’s children to separate themselves from all unbelievers and dwell in unity with their fellow heirs in Christ Jesus.  Both biblically and logically this doctrine would include divorcing unbelieving spouses.  A failure to do so makes believers guilty of committing adultery for they belong to and must delight in the majestic ones upon the earth (Psalm 16:3).  Yet the church has taught for centuries that to divorce an unequally yoked spouse is adultery.  The word of God must correct the traditions of men.  The word of God must determine our doctrinal views.  The word of God must correct man-made doctrines even when those doctrines are held by otherwise godly men.  We must not allow man-made doctrines, even those that have become centuries old traditions, the power to interpret the word of God.  The time has come to correct this misunderstanding of God’s holy word and separate ourselves from the sons of disobedience.  This is a if not the primary reason why the church in the 21st century is weak and horribly splintered.

I dedicate this article to my beloved wife Hilary who is a fellow heir of Christ Jesus and truly a Proverbs 31 lady. We were joined in holy matrimony on this very date four years ago. Thank you Lord God for the beautiful gift you provided for me in answer to years of earnest prayer.


Does God Actually Hate Divorce?

A straight commandment against divorce does not exist in the holy word of God. Even a clear condemnation of divorce would be useful for the fight to prohibit any divorce actions, but that too is not found in God’s word. In the entire Old Testament not a word against divorce is spoken until the final book. In the short book of Malachi many point to the words so poorly translated in modern versions of the Greek text, “’For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel’” as all the proof they need that every divorce is an act of sin. Even those who clearly know better use this passage and give hearty approval to others to use this passage to say something it clearly does not say. Why would men of God act so wickedly about a passage of God’s word? It is done because those who passionately obstruct every path to divorce have very weak biblical grounds for their position, so they must distort biblical passages to justify it. Though it is true that God’s word clearly condemns those who use divorce to deal treacherously with their spouse it is a man-made doctrine that restricts divorce entirely.

What does the short book of Malachi actually say regarding marriage and divorce? As always the beginning point is to understand the book’s purpose or “big point”. Malachi is directed, almost entirely, at the priests who have clearly fallen into a state of unbelief—they no longer fear God. Malachi 1:6 quotes God as saying, “O priests who despise My name.” Think about that statement for a moment.  The very men who were granted the task of speaking to God on Judah’s behalf hated the very name of God.  This is unthinkable…it is horrible.

Then Malachi lists several sinful behaviors that the priests routinely engaged in that demonstrated their hatred of God or even their disbelief altogether. Parenthetically, God compares the priests of Malachi’s day with Levi of whom God says, “…he revered Me and stood in awe of My name…but as for you, you have turned aside from the way…you have corrupted the covenant of Levi” (2:5-8). God, through Malachi, continues pointing out some of the many ways in which the priests have become entirely godless.

Then using the synecdoche “Judah”, to continue referring to the priests, Malachi adds a transgression of great importance for our discussion to the list of transgressions against God’s law.  These wicked priests were “entering into forbidden marriages with godless woman”.   “Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Isreal and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11). In this passage and ubiquitously throughout scripture unequally yoked marriages are viewed as acts of treachery against our covenant to be God’s people.

The next transgression listed against the priests of Malachi’s day is that they “have dealt treacherously” with their godly wives whom they married when they were young—and presumably at least trying to live faithfully in their covenant with God. How were they dealing treacherously with their Judean wives?  From the previous verses we saw that they were taking for themselves additional, godless wives who no doubt appealed more to their lust. Secondly, as if that were not bad enough, they began “putting out” their Judean wives.  The text does not actually use the word for divorce, so we do not know if these Judean wives were being given a certificate of divorce or not (most believe they were not). Either way as the acts of dissolution of the marriage covenant were a result of treacherous behavior on the part of the priests these acts angered the Lord God because they were wicked treatment of the women—failure to love your fellow man. Thus we have the infamous quote of God saying, “I hate divorce” (2:16).

The better English translation comes from the American Standard Version because the New American Standard Bible broke its own rules and interpreted the text instead of merely translating it. The infamous verse actually says, “For I hate putting away, says Jehovah, the God of Israel, and him that covers his garment with violence, says Jehovah of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that you deal not treacherously” (2:16 ASV).

It is the acts of treachery that God hates so very much as should men of God in every age. With respect to marriage, there were two treacherous acts these godless priests were committing against God. The first was entering into unequally yoked marriages with women who were not part of the family of God or said differently “the daughter of a foreign god”. The second was to deal treacherously with their Judean wives of whom the passage says, “…you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (2:14).  The priest’s wives were faithful in their companionship, which is to say that they had not put out their husbands, they remained faithful in their marriage covenant, which is to say that they remained pure by not sexually joining themselves to anyone other than their husbands nor were they making themselves unavailable to their husbands in the marriage bed.

In the 21st century the faithful wives of these treacherous priests would be treated with the same disdain as their godless husbands because they would have the same “D” for divorce hanging over them for the remainder of their lives. Although they were living up to their end of their marital covenant they still experienced a divorce because their spouse ended up being a traitor to God and a covenant breaker to them.  But those who prohibit divorce in every instance label the innocent victims of treacherous spouses as equally treacherous themselves because they have a d-i-v-o-r-c-e on their record.

I have no delusions, I realize that the permanence view people would decry my argument as slanderous to their actual position, but they are wrong to defend themselves. The outcome of their position paints every divorced person equally guilty and shameful, regardless of their guilt or innocence.  They believe that every man who has suffered a divorce cannot serve as a pastor regardless of his guilt or innocence in the matter.  This current state of affairs should and must be set right.


Has the Church Inadvertently Institutionalized Unequally Yoked Marriages?

Marriage has been in the news for many years now as those passionately fighting for the advancement of the homosexual agenda have sought the inclusion of homosexuals in the various states’ marriage laws. On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a 5-4 decision forced all 50 states to recognize homosexual marriages as equal with traditional marriages. In a loving, Christian response John Piper discussed some differences in the approach to this issue between those outside the body of Christ and those of us who are a part of the body of Christ.
He said, “Christians know what is coming, not only because we see it in the Bible, but because we have tasted the sorrowful fruit of our own sins. We do not escape the truth that we reap what we sow. Our marriages, our children, our churches, our institutions – they are all troubled because of our sins. The difference is: We weep over our sins. We don’t celebrate them. We don’t institutionalize them. We turn to Jesus for forgiveness and help. We cry to Jesus, ‘who delivers us from the wrath to come’” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

Piper’s line really got me thinking: “We weep over our sins. We don’t celebrate them. We don’t institutionalize them. We turn to Jesus for forgiveness and help.” Generally speaking this line is very much true of all those who have been regenerated by God’s Holy Spirit. However, I suspect some sins have escaped our notice and slipped into the church. Piper himself and the majority of the faithful seemingly make an exception for unequally yoked marriages. When a regenerate Christian marries an unregenerate person of the opposite sex most in the church celebrate their union at the wedding and institutionalize their godless union by validating it under God’s institution of marriage even though God has made it abundantly clear that He forbids unequally yoked unions the greatest of which are marriages. Oddly enough, many pastors will refuse to perform wedding ceremonies for unequally yoked couples, but then turn around and participate in the celebration and institutionalization of those marriages after a more liberal “man of God” or an officer of the state has performed the wedding ceremony.

How in good conscience can this be when God’s word clearly says, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness with lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God…” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16b).

Clearly an exception has been made by most in the church for those who are breaking God’s law against being unequally yoked, but they refuse to make a similar exception for those breaking God’s law against gay marriage. Both scripture and reason dictate that we treat these two cases the same. Both homosexuality and unequally yoked relationships are forbidden by God’s word. It is entirely inappropriate to celebrate or institutionalize either marriage. The consistent and righteous position for the regenerate person is to continue standing firm against gay marriage for Christians and to repent of the position that celebrates and institutionalizes unequally yoked marraiges. If marriage is God’s institution, and if God joins a man and a woman in marriage, then He has not joined in marriage a regenerate person to an unregenerate person and he does not join in marriage a gay couple. If either is to be joined, then they are joined by man without God’s blessing.

Why do true Christians not weep over the multitudes who continue to participate in unequally yoked relationships? Why do they not call the guilty to repentance? Why do they not call those who have fallen into this sin to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and help? Some will say that they do call those caught up in this sin to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and help, but for this one sin they leave repentance out of the equation. Jesus called all men everywhere to “repent and believe”. The rich young ruler believed Jesus had the power to save him, but he was unwilling to repent of his love of money so he took his sins with him as he walked away from Jesus. Every sinner must lay his sins at the foot of the cross. We cannot have both Christ and our sin. Repentance is the first word of the gospel. A faith without repentance is a faith in something other than Christ Jesus. With Ezra and Nehemiah as our guides we must repent of our unequally yoked marriage and lay them at the foot of the cross and walk away from them. To remain in these marriages is to remain unrepentant—to remain in sin.

The reason Piper and all true Christians cannot celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision is because to do so and to accept the institutionalization of homosexuality will encourage rather than discourage our fellow man to incur the wrath of God. It pleases me that so many modern Christians seem to understand this even while the majority does not, but unfortunately this same understanding has been lacking for those who have entered unequally yoked marriages with the sons and daughters of Belial. Because the church encourages rather than discourages its own members in unequally yoked marriages we have for many generations experienced an epidemic of godless unions, which have destroyed individual lives, families, and churches. I am calling upon the church to recognize its error and reverse this catastrophic position.

Consider the story of Jehoshaphat, who was among the godliest of Judah’s kings. After giving his son in marriage to Athaliah (the evil daughter of wicked king Ahab and queen Jezebel) and trying to join Judah with Israel in war God sent a prophet to Jehoshaphat to ask the king this very poignant question, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord and so bring wrath on yourself from the Lord” (2 Chron. 19:2)? Jehoshaphat got the message and maintained his separation for many years, but he reached out to join up with the godless king Ahab one last time in part because his son remained married to the evil princess Athaliah, and the wrath of God came down upon him and all of Jerusalem in a terrifying way. And to make God’s point even clearer His wrath came upon Jehoshaphat and Judah through the very girl to whom he gave his son in marriage. Athaliah murdered his son as well as Jehoshaphat’s entire family, after having the godly king dethroned and murdered she took his thrown for herself. For six long years, as the queen of Judah, Athaliah systematically destroyed nearly every memory of the Lord God that Jehoshaphat tirelessly built throughout his days on the throne. In Athaliah’s pilfering of the temple and the king’s treasury the last two mites that she stole from godly Jehoshaphat were his reputation and his legacy as almost nobody ever mentions the name of Jehoshaphat when they list the truly great men of God in the bible.


Part 1: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse

Note: Both R.C. Sproul and the author of this blog disagree with Dr. Bahnsen’s final point; it is the prerogative of the innocent spouse to divorce or not to divorce the adulterous spouse.  Of course, forgiveness must be liberal, but the church has no right restricting the innocent partner from the exception clause that Jesus provided them as a liberty. 

The point of contention is: C. 5. A regenerate believer who has an adulterous, but repentant, spouse will forgive the spouse and seek a restored relationship, imitating God’s gracious reaction to the sinner.

A. At the beginning of human history, prior to man’s sinful condition, there was no just ground for divorce.

1. “He said to them, With reference to your hard-heartedness Moses authorized you to divorce your wives, but it has not been so from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

2. “From the beginning” (Matt. 19:8) alludes to man’s situation when God “made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4) – when God instituted marriage with the words of Genesis 2:24 (Matt. 19:5).

3. “Hard-heartedness” (Matt. 19:8) is a Biblical figure of speech for man’s fallen or unregenerate nature which does not believe or obey God (see LXX for Deut. 10:16; Prov. 17:20; Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 3:7; and in the NT, Mark 16:14). Regeneration is described as God taking away the “stony heart” and replacing it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26).

B. Ideally there should be no divorce; it is contrary to what God desires most.

1. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).

2. “For I hate divorce, says Jehovah, the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16).

3. These words state the ideal, for God Himself makes provision for putting marriage asunder (Matt. 19:8-9; cf. Deut. 24:1) and practices divorce Himself (Jer. 3:8).

4. Similarly, death and killing are contrary to the divine ideal (and would not have come into the picture “from the beginning”), but due to man’s sinful condition God gives orders regarding them (e.g., Gen. 9:6; Deut. 21:23).

C. Between two regenerate believers, there should be no divorce whatsoever, even for the cause of fornication.

1. For believers redeemed from sin, the original creation ordinance (A) and God’s highest desire for marriage (B) will be their guide. Sinful behavior and attitudes between husband and wife will be dealt with apart from recourse to divorce – according to redemptive principles (analogous to the relation between Christ and the church, Eph. 5:22-33).

2. “But unto the married I give charge (not I, but the Lord) that the wife not depart from her husband…, and that the husband leave not his wife” (I Corinthians 7:10, 12).

3. Fornication is not the unforgiveable sin (cf. 1 Cor. 6:11; Mark 3:28; 1 John 1:7).

4. A regenerate believer who falls into the sin of adultery will offer genuine repentance for it (Ps. 51; Jas. 4:8-10; I John 1:9; Matt. 5:23-24) and do the works appropriate for turning from it (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20). Refusal to repent in this way must be taken as a sign that the person is not truly a believer (I Cor. 6:9-10; Prov. 28:13; Luke 13:3, 5) – eventuating in excommunication, if need be.

5. A regenerate believer who has an adulterous, but repentant, spouse will forgive the spouse and seek a restored relationship, imitating God’s gracious reaction to the sinner (Matt. 6:12-15; 18:15, 21-35; Eph. 4:32). Forgiveness necessitates reconciliation and precludes divorce, for God does not forgive the sinner and then say “Depart from Me into everlasting darkness”! (Matt. 25:21, 30, 34, 41; Ps. 85:2-3; 103:12; 2 Cor. 5:18-19; Col. 1:21-22; cf. 2 Cor. 2:7-9) Refusal to forgive in this way must be taken as a sign that the person is not truly a believer (Matt. 6:15; 18:34-35; I John 3:14-16) – eventuating in excommunication, if need be.
Author: Greg Bahnsen


Part 2: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse

Continue from Part 1

D. Where a marriage involves an unbeliever, the only just ground for divorce is “fornication.”

1. The situation now envisioned is that at least one partner to the marriage is an unbeliever, one who refuses to live by the principles stated in the above points (whether professing to be a follower of Christ or not).

2. “Is it permitted [lawful] for a man to divorce his wife according to every reason [upon any ground]?… But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife not upon [the ground of] fornication and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3, 9). Christ here censures any divorce which is not “for fornication,” thus leaving one and only one just ground for divorce – viz., “fornication.”

3. This is clear from Matthew 5:32, “Everyone divorcing his wife apart from a matter of fornication….” The Greek term means “except for” (e.g., Acts 26:29) or “outside” (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:28). Jesus spoke quite categorically: any reason outside the category of “fornication” is a sinful basis for divorce. Fornication is the only “exception” to this censure against divorce.

4. Jesus was also speaking categorically in the sense that His principle was meant to be applied universally – to all men. He stated that “everyone” (pas, Matt. 5:32) or “whoever” (hos an, Matt. 19:9) divorces apart from the ground of fornication was doing wrong – whether believer or unbeliever, Jew or Gentile. Note that Christ’s teaching was based upon factors which apply to all men in general: (1) the creation ordinance, and (2) the condition of man’s sinful heart. God does not have a double standard for marriage: the only proper ground upon which a believer or unbeliever may divorce his/her spouse is “fornication.”

5. Although Paul deals with a particular case in I Corinthians 7:12-17 which was not directly addressed during Christ’s earthly ministry (“To the rest I say, not the Lord,” v. 12), it would be fallacious to assume that the general moral principle which he applied to that case was contrary to the teaching of the Lord – namely, that only fornication is grounds for divorce. In saying that, Jesus did not give any hint of restricting His moral principle, as though He were speaking only for the case of believers. (In fact, what He addressed was the problem of hard-heartedness – those who are unregenerate.) Rather, He explicitly directed His principle to “everyone” and “whoever” pursues divorce.

E. The scope of “fornication” in Biblical usage is broader than adultery and even broader than illicit sexual intercourse.

1. In Matthew 19:9 Christ clearly uses two distinct Greek terms for fornication and adultery; they are not identical. If “fornication” is not the reason for the divorce, He says, “adultery” will be the consequence. [Cf. the distinct use of the two terms in I Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19; Heb. 13:4] (Note that the Hebrew terms for “fornication” and “adultery” are also distinct.)

2. In Scripture (LXX & NT) “fornication” can refer specifically to sexual sin of all sorts – whether pre-marital unchastity (Ezek. 23:11-19; John 8:41), sex outside of marriage by a widow (Gen. 38:24), returning to a divorced spouse after an intervening union (Jer. 3:2), adultery (Jer. 13:27; Hos. 2:2), prostitution (Deut. 23:18; Micah 1:7; 1 Cor. 6:16-18), incest (1 Cor. 5:1), homosexuality (Jude 7), marrying foreign wives (Heb. 12:16; cf. Gen. 26:34-35), or inter-religious sexual union (1 Cor. 10:8; cf. Num. 25:1-9).

3. It should be noted that “sexual sin” (=fornication) need not involve genital intercourse. Imagine a wife who engages in romantic kissing, undressing, caressing, fondling, mutual masturbation, or oral sex with someone not her husband. It would be ridiculous to defend her against the charge of “fornication” by appealing to the absence of genital intercourse. The Song of Songs presents the kind of activities mentioned here as appropriate to the state of marriage.

4. In Scripture “fornication” can also be used more generally for moral rebellion and unfaithfulness, when there is no figurative suggestion of intercourse (as with idols) – for instance: arrogance (Isa. 47:10), disbelieving God (Num. 14:11, 33), or departure from God’s standards of righteousness (Isa. 1:21; 57:3; 2 Kings 9:22). “Fornication” appears to be part of a synecdoche for all sins in Ezek. 43:9 and Hos. 6:10. In Paul’s epistles “fornication” is sometimes run together with uncleanness, covetousness and idolatry as a way of covering all forms of immoral conduct (e.g., Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3-7) – which explains why many translations render the Greek word generally as “impurity” or “immorality.” “Fornication” covers all of the defilements and abominations represented by ungodly Rome (Rev. 17:4; 19:2) as well as the teaching and idolatrous associations of heresy in the church (Rev. 2:21). Accordingly, the whole of sanctification can be typified as abstaining from “fornication” (1 Thess. 4:3; cf. Heb. 12:14, 16). [Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism #99]

5. In addition to the specific and general uses of “fornication” for moral rebellion, we can observe the figurative use of the term (against the background of sexual looseness) for religious unfaithfulness (Jer. 2:20; Hos. 4:11-12) – apostasy (Ezek. 6:9; 23:35; Ps. 73:27), idolatry (Isa. 57:9; 1 Chron. 5:25; Ezek. 16:15, 25) and foreign allegiance (Ezek. 23:11-19).

6. Thus “fornication” need not connote sinful sexual intercourse. This is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that desertion of a marriage (apart from any issue of adultery) counts as fornication in Biblical teaching: “But if the unbelieving [spouse] separates him/herself, let him/her be separated; in such cases the brother or the sister do not remain bound” (1 Cor. 7:15). Yet on the authority of Christ we may recognize only one just ground for divorce, namely “fornication” (D). Therefore, unless Paul be pitted against Christ, the Pauline permission of divorce for desertion must imply that desertion is a form of fornication in God’s evaluation, regardless of any accompanying issue of illicit sexual intercourse.

7. In Judges 19:2 the desertion of the Levite’s concubine from him is described with the distinct Hebrew term for “fornication” zahnah, confirming the above observation. (The use of zahnah in the text does not suggest that the concubine literally became a harlot for a while and then went home to her father – a very unlikely course of events. The Levite, then, would not have been permitted to pursue her tenderly to remain his wife [Judges 19:3; cf. Lev. 21:7; Deut. 22:20-21].)

8. Therefore, in order to understand properly the teaching of Scripture on the grounds for divorce, we will of necessity need to engage in more than lexical studies. What will be needed is a broader, theological understanding of the nature of marriage and the rationale which lies behind whatever grounds for divorce are set forth. We need to approach the question in such a way that we can account for (a) the narrowness of grounds for divorce, (b) the harmony of Paul and Jesus in giving grounds for divorce, (c) the full Biblical evidence on the subject of divorce, and (d) the reason why certain offenses are legitimate grounds for divorce, while others are not. A simple appeal to the word “fornication” cannot accomplish these ends.

F. The only forms of “fornication” which provide just grounds for divorce are those which violate the essential commitments of the marriage covenant.

1. “Fornication” can cover a wide scope of sins, but Jesus intended to restrict and narrow the just grounds for divorce when He rejected the notion that one may put away his wife for just any reason (Matt. 19:3, 9). In contrast to less rigorous schools of the rabbis, Jesus did not espouse divorce as a remedy for just any sin whatever. Accordingly, we would expect that Jesus was referring to “fornication” in some restricted, but non-arbitrary, sense – that is, is some way which follows a principle (rationale) for narrow delineation.

2. However this sense cannot be so restricted that it pertains only to illicit sexual intercourse (cf. E.3,6).

3. Therefore, we must pursue Biblical reasoning to determine just what forms of “fornication” constitute proper grounds for divorce. [Those who want to adhere strictly and literally to the Westminster Confession’s statement that “nothing but adultery” and irremedial desertion are sufficient cause for divorce (XXIV.6) will be under a similar necessity, for the Westminster Standards go on to define “adultery” so broadly as to include things which are not reasonably taken as grounds for divorce, such as intemperance, immodest apparel, idleness and drunkenness (Larger Catechism #138, 139). Scripture too uses “adultery” in a broad fashion (e.g., Jas. 4:4).]

4. Marriage is a covenant: e.g., “Jehovah has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have broken faith, though she is your companion and the wife of your covenant” (Mal. 2:14; cf. also Prov. 2:17). Marriage is a legal contract with moral stipulations and obligations to which the Lord is witness (e.g., Gen. 31:50).

5. In the case of the legal obligations of other covenant relations, one party is not released from the obligations of the covenanted commitment unless the second party has violated the mutual contract by acting contrary to its terms. For instance, when Zedekiah broke his covenant of loyalty, Nebuchadnezzar was no longer bound by that covenant to protect Zedekiah as king in Jerusalem (Ezek. 17:12-21; cf. 2 Chr. 36:13; 2 Kings 24:20-25:7; Jer. 39:4-8). Likewise in the case of God’s own covenant with Israel as a nation: “For thus says the Lord Jehovah: I will also deal with you as you have done, who has despised the oath in breaking the covenant” (Ezek. 16:59). “They did not continue in My covenant, so I disregarded them” (Heb. 8:9). When the Jews confessed their transgressions, their only plea was accordingly: “Do not abhor us…break not Your covenant with us” (Jer. 14:21). Cf. Ex. 19:5; Lev. 26:15ff.; Deut. 31:20, 29; Jer. 11:10-11; 22:5-9; Hos. 6:7; 7:13; 8:1, 4; Rom. 11:20-22.

6. Likewise, in the case of the marriage covenant, the only thing which provides a just ground for one party to be released from the covenant (i.e., to pursue divorce) would be the violation of that covenant’s essential obligations by the other party – the breaking of the covenant. Accordingly, such things as (1) constant bickering over money, (2) refusal to repent for rude behavior, telling lies, taking God’s name in vain, dishonesty, etc., or (3) breaking a promise (even if stated along with one’s wedding vows) not to move out of state do not illustrate grounds for divorce because none of them violates what is essential to the covenant of marriage.

7. Because marriage was ordained by God (Gen. 2:24), it is God’s revealed will – not man’s wisdom or desire – which defines the nature and essential obligations of the marriage covenant: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
Author: Greg Bahnsen


Part 3: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse

Continue from Part 2
G. The obligations of the marriage covenant include at least [1] “leaving father and mother,” [2] “cleaving” to one’s spouse, and [3] becoming “one flesh.”

1. These three aspects of the marriage covenant are explicitly mentioned when God originally ordained the institution: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

2. These three aspects of the marriage covenant are not distinctive to one dispensation of God’s dealing with men, but are repeated throughout Scripture: for instance, at Matthew 19:5 and Ephesians 5:31.
3. It may be that there are other integral aspects of the marriage covenant in addition to these three mentioned. To legitimately assert them would require Scriptural warrant of some sort (e.g., Biblical teaching on the essential meaning of marriage, or on accepted grounds for divorce, etc.).

H. In light of the vow to be “one flesh,” we can understand that sexual infidelity breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.

1. The expression “to be one flesh” denotes sexual intercourse, thus being applied even to relations with a harlot: “Don’t you realize that he who is joined to a harlot is one body? for ‘the two,’ He said, ‘shall become one flesh'” (1 Cor. 6:16). Note how “marriage” is treated in parallel to “the bed” in Hebrews 13:4.

2. One of the divine purposes for marriage is to provide the proper outlet for the sex drive, thereby avoiding fornication: “Because of fornications, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband…. It is better to marry than to burn (with passion)” (1 Cor. 7:2, 9). Outside of the marriage bed is fornication and adultery (Heb. 13:4).

3. Refusal of sexual relations is contrary to one of the very purposes for marriage, then, and illegally subjects the marriage partner to fornication – having a marriage, not in substance, but only in name.

4. Engaging in sexual relations is a “debt” which must be “paid (rendered)” to one’s spouse (1 Cor. 7:3; cf. the use of the same two words in Rom. 13:7, “render to all their dues”). It is a contractual obligation of marriage.

5. Willful refusal of sexual relations with one’s marriage partner is thus explicitly called “defrauding” (or stealing his/her rights) in 1 Corinthians 7:5. (The word is used of defrauding workers of the pay which is due to them in James 5:4; cf. Mark 10:19; 1 Cor. 6:8, referring to matters settled by court [vv. 1, 6].) It is a breaking of the contractual obligations of marriage. Paul’s use of this kind of language is noteworthy for understanding the covenantal nature of the marriage bond as well as how it is dissolved.

6. This is confirmed by the law at Exodus 21:10-11, which stipulates that a wife who has been deprived of “her conjugal right” becomes free of the marriage commitment, being released from her husband. (It would make little sense to say that “she shall go out from him” pertains only to her slavery, leaving her bound to the marriage, when it is her conjugal rights [which have nothing to do with the institution of slavery] that are not being observed.)

7. Since the marriage vow is (among other things) a public commitment to be sexually faithful to one’s spouse, sexual relations apart from with one’s spouse is a violation of the marriage covenant. Thus, as is commonly recognized, Scripture teaches that when a wife commits adultery, she may be put away and given a bill of divorcement (Jer. 3:8; cf. Deut. 24:1, noting that the Hebrew term “indecency” refers to illicit cohabitation, e.g., Ezek. 16:36; 23:29; throughout Lev. 18; 20:10ff.). Adultery “defiles” the marriage bed (Heb. 13:4).
Author Greg Bahnsen


Part 4: Dr. Greg Bahnsen’s Theses on Divorce and Spousal Abuse

I. In light of the vow to “leave father and mother,” we can understand that desertion of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.

1. By leaving one’s father and mother to become married, one puts behind one social grouping and forms a new social unit – a new family nucleus. (This may be done, by the way, whether or not one separates from the vacinity or house of his parents. Spatial location is not the point here.)

2. “Leaving father and mother” is thus for the purpose of creating a new bond, now with one’s spouse (cf. the following words in Gen. 2:24, “and cleave to his wife”). The “leaving” is just the other side of the coin of the commitment to live with one’s marriage partner.

3. Abandoning one’s spouse and returning to one’s parents is thus denominated “fornication” in Judges 19:2. Deserting the spouse is a violation of that marriage commitment implied by one’s “leaving father and mother” – whether the deserting partner literally returns to the parents’ home or not.

4. Confirmation of this is found in 1 Corinthians 7:12, 13, where Paul describes the state of marriage in terms of “consenting to dwell with” each other – that is, living together.

5. When an unbelieving spouse refuses to live with his/her marriage partner, the covenant between them is broken. In such a case, when the unbeliever “separates him/herself” (by divorce, cf. v. 10), Paul declares that the believing party is “not bound” any longer (I Cor. 7:15).

6. The fact that the believer is not bound to the marriage commitment any longer – unlike the case of an improper divorce (v. 10), where Paul holds that the deserting party is indeed morally bound to remain unmarried and pursue reconciliation with the divorced spouse (v. 11) – shows that we find here legitimate grounds for the dissolution of the marriage covenant, not merely “consent” to the evil desire of an unbeliever. The wickedness of others does not release Christians from their own moral obligations! Paul’s words show that this particular form of evil violates a contractual obligation, and (only) in that way releases the Christian from former obligations.

J. In light of the vow to “cling (cleave) to” each other, we can understand why attempting to destroy the life of one’s spouse breaks the marriage covenant and is, as such, grounds for divorce.

1. The verb “to cling (cleave)” in Genesis 2:24 (Matt. 19:5; Eph. 5:31) stands between and complements the ideas of [1] leaving father and mother (to cleave to one’s spouse) and [2] becoming one flesh (cf. the verb’s use in I Cor. 6:16-17). Nevertheless it adds something to both notions. It denotes more than living together and going to bed together.

2. This is evident from the use of the verb elsewhere in Scripture. In Hebrew and Greek it can apply to a physical joining of things together (e.g., Job 19:20; Ps. 22:15; 2 Sam. 23:10; Lk. 10:11; Acts 8:29). However, in terms of human relationships, it means “to join with,” “enter into a close relation with,” “associate with on intimate terms,” “make common cause with,” “be committed to in loyalty.” For instance, it denotes clinging to someone in affection and loyalty: e.g., Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:14), the men of Judah to David during Sheba’s rebellion (2 Sam. 20:2), Shechem to Dinah (Gen. 34:3, “speaking to her heart”), Solomon to his foreign wives (I Kings 11:2, “in love”), the prodigal making common cause with his employer by being “joined to” him (Lk. 15:15); it was unlawful to have this kind of relationship – to adhere – to a foreigner (Acts 10:28).

3. Thus we see what is entailed by the word when it is used in the Old Testament for Israel adhering to the Lord in love and submission (e.g., Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20; Jos. 22:5; 23:8; Jer. 13:11). When the Psalmist says that he “clings” to God’s testimonies (Ps. 118 [119]:31 LXX), he refers to his support and commitment to them – not somehow to a physical relation with them. Likewise, Paul bids us to “cleave to that which is good” (Rom. 12:9) – the other side of abhoring evil. New converts “cleaved” to Paul (Acts 17:34) by taking up his cause. Believers are described as “joined to” the church (Acts 5:13; 9:26), which obviously speaks of their making common cause, supporting, and being loyal to the perspectives and purposes of God’s people.

4. Likewise, a husband and wife are to “cleave” to each other by being committed to and seeking to do what is in each other’s best interests; they are to be united, not simply in body, but in loyal support of each other’s lives. They are positively to adhere to the genuine needs of each other. This is the diametric opposite of abhorring each other’s life and trying to kill each other.

5. Accordingly, if we examine the husband’s marriage obligations, Scripture teaches us that he is to “dwell together with” his wife “as a weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). He is obligated to show consideration and protection for his wife in light of her physical vulnerability, treating her as a fragile container. Failure to supply the necessities and protections of life, not to mention physical abuse of this “weaker vessel,” is clearly forbidden.

6. The gravity of a man refusing to supply what is necessary for the physical life and protection of his wife is made evident by the stern words of Paul: “if anyone does not provide especially for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). When one remembers the evaluation and destiny of unbelievers according to the theology of Paul, these words have incredible intensity and severity. Someone who exposes his wife and family to physical harm by deprivation of their basic necessities is (somehow!) in a worse moral condition or under greater condemnation than an unbeliever. If this sin of omission brings someone into such a dreadful evaluation, one can imagine how much more positive abuse – or sins of commission against the physical life and well-being of his wife and family – would do so.

7. Rather than taking steps to kill their wives, husbands are morally bound by their marriage covenant to give up their lives for the sake of their wives: “Husbands, love your wives, even as also Christ loved the church gave himself up on behalf of it” (Eph. 5:25).

8. The obligation entailed here has very obvious outward and physical manifestation. Husbands are required by their marriage covenant to love their own wives “as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28). Just as they would not do anything detrimental to their own physical well-being or life, so they have strict moral orders not to do so to their own wives. They are forbidden to “hate their flesh” (Eph. 5:29), which clearly rules out depriving them of sustenance and protection or showing them physical violence. By direct contrast, Paul teaches in the same verse that it is the duty of husbands to “nourish and cherish” their wives’ flesh.

9. Accordingly, when a husband deprives his wife of nourishment, physical covering and protection, or (more) when he actually beats her and threatens her life, he has done far more than fall short of “an ideal mate” – like someone who lies to his wife or sins in other ways. This kind of sin has a special intensity. He has violated an essential obligation of the marriage covenant, refusing to adhere or cleave loyally to his wife’s well-being and life.

10. If in the other two cases of covenanted obligations of marriage (sexual fidelity, living together) violation of the terms of the covenant grants the offended party the moral right to seek dissolution of the legal bond (by divorce), we should reason that it does so also in the case of the covenanted obligation of “cleaving to” each other. To deny that implication without sound and Biblical reasons for doing so would be to indulge special pleading and preconceived notions – a kind of arbitrariness which must not characterize Christian theological thinking. (But doesn’t the Biblical teaching that “only fornication” is grounds for divorce argue against this implication? See again D,E,F above.)
Author: Greg Bahnsen