Seminary never really prepared me for marriage and divorce issues in the church.
My professors tried, mind you, and I got the basics in my New Testament and ethics classes. It was there that I came to the common evangelical understanding of when divorce (and thus subsequent remarriage) was appropriate or permitted. Like most, I hold to an understanding that divorce is permissible in cases of adultery (usually of the unrepentant type) or desertion by an unbeliever. At Edgewood we use this criteria to determine whether we can perform a wedding of someone who has been divorced.
But…I’ve found through the years that it is almost always very difficult to sort these things out in the vicissitudes of day to day life. Circumstances are never as simple as the ethics textbook led me to believe they would be. So many times I have felt coldly clinical and legalistic as I have tried to think through a person’s circumstances which might make remarriage possible. I need…we need…to be biblical, but applying biblical standards always feels so hard.
But I get good instruction on these issues as I read Paul’s word to the church at Corinth on divorce and remarriage. In 1 Corinthians 7, we find that when Paul considered these issues, he was moved and motivated by thoughts of eternity. In other words, when the question came up of whether divorce was permissible, Paul gave standards which we need to follow, but he also asked, “Which course might lead my unsaved husband/wife (and children!) to trust in Jesus?” Consider…
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 1 Corinthians 7:11-16 (ESV)
I know that some couples are suffering greatly in their marriages. And I feel for men and women married to unbelievers, especially when these believers have unsaved spouses who are quite antagonistic toward Christianity. I have heard many sorrowful stories through my years of pastoral ministry. And as we have already said, there are surely sometimes biblical reasons for divorce. (And by all means, if you are feeling unsafe, or are being hurt, talk to us at the church and we will help you get to a place of safety.)
But aside from all this, Paul makes the powerful case to hold on if at all possible…because sometimes unbelieving wives and husbands are “made holy” through their Christian spouses. And of course they are! How many non-believing spouses have trusted Christ through the faithful witness of their spouse? Surely many are enjoying eternal life now because a spouse held on.
And what he says about children is probably an even greater motivator to most people, for even if someone cannot be motivated to hang in there to save an antagonistic spouse, they are likely to be moved by thoughts of their kids in eternity: “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Wow. As we think about eternity and our longing for our beloved children to be there with us, staying married is apparently important, even staying married to an unbeliever. So ask the Lord for His grace, either to hang in there now in a tough marriage, or even possibly…to consider reconciliation.
All that said, whatever your story now, remember that God can save anyone, including your ex-spouse or your children of divorce. So ask Him to move…and keep asking; He loves to save the children of believers in all circumstances.
For Thursday, May 14: 1 Corinthians 8