Tag Archives: Can a Christian divorce an unbeliever?

Jesus on Divorce in Matthew 19

By way of reminder, this blog is not so much about divorce as it is about divorce for the believer who is unequally yoked with an unbeliever.

When discussing the topic of divorce certainly the words of our Lord Jesus should be of great interest to everybody.  One text in particular is used by those who hold to the Permanence View (no divorce for any reason).  In Matthew 19:3-9 Jesus is asked (tested) by the Pharisees whether or not it is lawful for a man “to send away (divorce) his wife for any reason at all”.  In short, Jesus’ answer was that marriage takes one man and one woman and the two become “one flesh…What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”  Then they wanted to know why Moses allowed for a certificate of divorce, and Jesus said it was because of man’s hardness of heart, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.”

With such stark words it is not difficult to see why those who believe that divorce is always a sin hold such a view.  But Jesus is not finished speaking, (Vs. 9) “And I say to you, ‘whoever sends away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery'”.  Now we can see how important it is that people making the decision to get married take it very seriously as the marital relationship is indeed intended to be until the death of one of the two parties.  Nevertheless, our Lord provides two very significant exceptions to this overarching rule.  The second exception is pretty obvious to most people although (and this is unfortunate) many who hold to the permanence view even reject the immorality exception.

We Shall Begin With the Second Exception–Porneia

Jesus made it pretty clear that porneia (Gk) or immorality was a justified cause for divorce and thus an exception to the overarching rule on the permanence of marriage.  The reason for such an exception is that the very act of sexually joining oneself to a third party fractures the marital bond.  The marriage relationship has been so tragically altered that the marriage has actually been ruined/destroyed/broken by the immoral act(s).  The two individuals that had become one flesh have had their union fractured or destroyed by the introduction of a third person.

The marriage covenant is built upon a promise to one another to remain faithful and uphold the conditions of the marriage covenant  until death ends the marriage.  When immorality is committed at least one (forsaking all others) of the two (to love and cherish one another) most significant conditions has been broken .  Jesus is telling us that in this event the marriage covenant has been broken, and the innocent party is no longer bound by the marital covenant.

The Bottom Line: Treachery

Here is the bottom line when it comes to God sanctioned marital divorce.  When a marital spouse commits treachery thus being a traitor to their own spouse the innocent party to the marriage is not only allowed but obligated to divorce their treacherous spouse.

How does a married person commit the kind of treachery that demands a marital divorce?

  1. By demonstrating oneself to be outside of the family of faith (unequally yoked)
  2. By having sexual relations outside the marital relationship (adultery)
  3. By habitually denying the privileges of the marital bed
  4. By abandonment
  5. By endangerment (attempted murder and real physical harm at minimum)

Now For the First and Greatest Exception That Interrupts the Blessing of a Life-Long Marriage

Now we can consider the first exception which interrupts the blessing of lifelong marital bliss. It is in my opinion a far superior, but a less obvious (to our utter shame) exception to God’s intentions that marriage was intended to be a life-long covenant of love between a husband and his wife.   It is also seen in Jesus’ teaching in the 19th chapter of Matthew.

This exception is so ubiquitous in scripture that it is even the first command in the scriptures found in Genesis 1:4 “God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”  In this instance, God’s command is an implied command for man to follow after God’s example and keep separate light from darkness, but it is often repeated as a direct command.  Leviticus 20:26 says, “Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.”

This sin of marrying unbelievers is also called “the matter of Peor” in Numbers 31:16 referring back to Numbers 25 where we read about the Israelites joining themselves with the daughters of Moab, which caused the Israelites to bow down to their gods and they joined themselves to Baal-peor making God fiercely angry with them.  Phinehas in his anger and jealousy for the Lord’s holiness took a spear and drove it through and Israelite and his Midianite woman (wife), and God was pleased with Phinehas.  Then God said, “Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them; for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor…”

God frequently commands His children to refrain from marrying foreigners.  By foreigners God does not mean people from other lands, but rather He is referring to people who worship anything other than God.  God’s people are not to be bound together with unbelievers in marriage (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Today being unequally yoked to unbelievers is almost viewed as an inconsequential condition.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The greatest treachery a spouse could commit is being unrepentant and unfaithful to God.  God does not want His children to be bound together or unequally yoked to unbelievers because bad company corrupts good morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).  In fact, such relationships to unbelievers always leads to idolatry, which is spiritual adultery.

It was upon this foundation from the Old Testament that marriage was a family of faith institution that Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce. When Jesus says that marriage makes the two become one flesh it is assumed that God’s children would not enter into marriage by breaking God’s command to marry only within the family of faith.  So then, whenever a believer comes to the realization that they are joined in marriage to an unbeliever, then at that time they are to separate the light from the darkness, which means in the context of marriage they must get a divorce.

Not only are these many Old Testament passages the context in which Jesus is teaching, not only is this the assumption that God’s word always has when teaching on marriage and divorce, but Jesus teaches the principle of this exception in Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life.” Most modern translations of God’s word have removed the word “wife” from this text demonstrating the bias of the interpreters.

I discovered the inclusion of “wife” in this text when I was reading Jonathan Edwards’ lectures compiled into the book titled Charity and Its Fruits, which you should all read as it is among the very best books ever written. Edwards quotes this verse in lecture XII, and the translation he used still contained the word “wife”. You will also find a note in the column of the NASB Side-Column Reference Edition Copyright 1996 by The Lockman Foundation referring to wife being in at least one early manuscript.

In conclusion, verse 29 indicates that to leave a family member in order to follow and serve Christ Jesus would be worthy of praise and not condemnation…that such would inherit eternal life–not on the basis of works, but because they clearly demonstrate a love for Christ. The spousal relationship was included in the ancient text, so we understand that God means it when He says, Do not intermarry with foreigners (OT) and Do not be unequally yoked to unbelievers (NT).

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It Is Lawful to Leave a Broken Covenant.

When one spouse breaks one or more conditions of the marriage covenant their marriage partner is no longer bound by the covenant because it has been broken. For example, when a married man is addicted to pornography and he refuses to get professional help so that he can escape the addiction, he is breaking the condition of fidelity to his wife. When he prefers images of strange women performing lurid sexual actions so that he can inflame his own sexual desires and fantasies he is being unfaithful to his wife.

Now those who define “until death do us part” as a divine command to never divorce for any reason would say this situation is unfortunate for this woman, but she still must remain faithful even though her husband is perpetually committing infidelity. Even though he is perpetually committing crimes against her and sins against the Lord she must remain faithful as our heavenly Father is faithful. They claim that she would be committing a crime against her husband and a sin against our Lord if she were to break the marriage covenant by divorcing her unfaithful husband. They claim that her vows are broken by her divorcing her husband—vows made in the presence of witnesses and before God.

First of all, those who hold such a foolish position should bring forward as evidence the vow that says I shall remain faithful to this covenant regardless of my spouse perpetually breaking the conditions of the covenant. The very purpose of the conditions is to assure that both parties are protected from this kind of deception. The conditions of covenants exist so that both parties will be assured to receive the benefits for which they enter the covenant in the first place. The purpose of a covenant is to convey one or more blessings upon one or both parties to the covenant. A bilateral covenant (such as the marriage covenant) conveys blessings on each party—otherwise the parties would have no interest in entering into the covenant. A covenant is an obligation. Why would anybody unnecessarily obligate themselves?  Again, nobody in their right mind would bind themselves for nothing; however, they obligate themselves because there is a desired reward for doing so.  Keeping the covenant’s conditions allows both parties access to the blessing promised.  So when either partner to the covenant demonstrates that they are breaking the conditions that were requirements in the covenant, then they have broken the covenant effectively  withholding the promised blessing(s); therefore, the injured covenant partner is no longer bound by the covenant (as it has been broken) freeing them to enter into another new covenant with someone who intends to and is able to keep the covenant conditions.

Some will argue that as believers in Christ Jesus we should follow God’s example and forgive our spouses even when they break the conditions of the marriage covenant?  This of course restricts divorce more severely than Christ Himself who gave us the exception clause: “except in the case of pornia” (a term with broad meaning but surely encompassing adultery).  In addition, this is a false argument because it is not what God does.  God sends unrepentant sinners (covenant breakers) to eternal damnation—“away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thes. 1:9).  God only enters into relationship with covenant keepers.  Of course it is God who keeps the covenant for (on the behalf of) His beloved children, but the covenant between God and His children is perfect as God is perfect and its conditions and blessings are all intact.

Not only does God give his children the righteousness of Christ, which maintains their good standing with their covenant with God, but God also places His Holy Spirit within them to cause them to walk according to His statutes and He empowers each of them to observe His ordinances (Ezekiel 36:27).  So the reality is that each of God’s chosen children are keepers of all of the conditions of the covenant that God has welcomed them into for His glory and for their salvation.  As a result both parties of the beloved’s covenant with God will receive the blessings for which they entered the covenant.

God is and will be fully glorified and shown to be worthy of all praise and His chosen vessels of mercy will receive salvation and an eternity in heaven with God.  God guarantees both ends of the covenant.  Neither party must languish in and serve a broken covenant providing blessings to their spurious partner while being defiled and derided by that same person, which is precisely what the anti-divorce crowd insists for the innocent spouse.

Now if men had the power to keep both ends of the marriage covenant, then it could be argued that a godly person should do so in keeping with the Father’s example, but men do not have the power to repent for another person or to keep another person from sin. Neither can we pay for the sins of another person.

Those who claim that divorce is always a sin would argue that Christians must follow the law of love and endure their unfaithful partner with long-suffering because their reward in heaven will be great.  Their reward in heaven will be great because Jesus has won it for them.  Having long-suffering for the brethren is not at issue in a marriage to an unbelieving spouse.  Believers suffer the imperfections of one another because it is the loving thing to do and because each one remains imperfect as long as they are in the flesh, but believers are commanded to separate themselves from the unrepentant because bad company corrupts good morals, because a believer and an unbeliever have nothing in common, because Ezra’s godly example demands as much, and because God did so to Israel.

The damage done to the believer who is frightened by “Christian” superstition into remaining in an unequally yoked marriage with the threat of God’s eternal wrath is awful indeed.  They are providing benefits in exchange for nothing, which is very much like making a house payment faithfully each month even though the house has never been made available to live in and enjoy.  In addition, any children in an unequally yoked marriage will receive an undue influence from the unbelieving spouse because the children come into the world slaves to unrighteousness, which causes them to feel a greater kinship with their unbelieving parent.  The believing spouse will be discouraged in their own sanctification efforts, and the children will be encouraged to sin without consequence, seeing that their unbelieving parent is more often than not rewarded for taking tremendous advantage of the believing spouse.

Another sad reality of the position that says the dissolution of an unequally yoked marriage is always a crime against man and a sin against God is that it appears to turn the unbelieving, perpetually offending marriage partner into the innocent victim while at the same time slanders the name and reputation of the believing spouse who has kept the conditions of the marriage covenant often for years or decades without benefit. The obedient child of God is turned upon and torn to pieces by the very people (other Christians) who should be most supportive as in the days of Ezra.  Perhaps the reader has heard the saying that “Only Christians kill their own wounded”?

By seeking a divorce the obedient child of God is following God’s command not to be in any unequally yoked relationship (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Ezra 10: 3, 11; Judges 3:6-8; Deut. 21:10-14; Psalm 89:38-45), yet he will be portrayed by many in the church as the offender against God and man, while the true offender snickers as they are lofted as the poor victim.  The godless spouse often goes beyond snickering to libeling their believing partner in order to bring undeserved discredit to them.  Those who hold this position in the church happily join forces with the godless partner in order to shame and pressure the believer into repenting of their decision to divorce their unrepentant, unbelieving spouse.  Of course doing so would require them to break with scripture, reason and their own conscience, which does not seem to bother those who hold this shameful man-made doctrine of no divorce ever.

So then, is it lawful to leave a broken covenant?  The answer found in God’s word and by eminent reason is an emphatic yes.  It is a fools errand to remain in a broken covenant.  Having said that, the answer found in most Christian circles is no–you made your bed and now you are going to have to sleep in it.  Let the reader decide whether or not they prefer the approbation of God or the praise of men.  But as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord…all of us!