And He answered and said to them… ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’. So then, they are no longer two but one flesh… And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. from Matthew 19:4-6, 9NKJV
Today we continue our examination of Question 139 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the seventh commandment?” The fourth part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are… having more wives or husbands than one at the same time; unjust divorce, or desertion.” Last time we looked at how sin corrupts marriage. Today we consider biblical marriage and divorce.
In the text above Jesus affirmed the Old Testament teaching that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Even if Scripture had not explicitly stated this fact, human nature and biology dictate that only one man and one woman can be properly united together. Thus, when Sarah gave her maid Hagar to Abraham in order to “obtain children through her” (Gen. 16:2), she and Abraham sinned against God and corrupted marriage. No doubt they were imitating their culture, which condoned polygamy, but by going against God’s law they brought difficulty into their lives. So also, even as children usually build on the bad habits of their parents, Jacob went beyond his grandfather by, in effect, taking four wives. Along with the increased corruption of marriage, Jacob’s family life was riddled with strife and jealously as the Scriptures painstakingly reveal.
Not learning from the example of the patriarchs, and even going against the direct command of God (Deut. 17:17), David and the other kings of Israel multiplied wives, even to the point of absurdity, as with the case of Solomon who had over a thousand “wives” (including concubines – another sinful corruption of marriage; sort of second class wives). How easily the godly can imitate the culture to their own harm and shame? The first man to pervert marriage by taking multiple spouses was the pagan Lamech (Gen. 4:19). The same sinful pride that led him to take two spouses led him to kill a man for almost nothing and boast about it (Gen. 4:23). Surely, it is only due to the lingering influence of Christianity that our society still frowns on polygamy. One wonders how long before even this perversion of marriage will become legitimate in our increasingly immoral culture?
Because God alone instituted marriage, He alone can set the terms for when a marriage can be legitimately dissolved. Thus the Catechism here condemns all “unjust divorce” and “desertion.” The Westminster Assembly, following the Scripture quoted above, did recognize just divorce. Although some churches, interpreting this passage from Matthew with the corresponding ones in Mark and Luke incorrectly, allow for no divorce; clearly Jesus here states that there are Biblical grounds for divorce, namely sexual immorality. Later, in 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul adds another, or some would say explains how Christ’s one ground of sexual immorality also includes the ground of willful desertion. But whether you understand this to be two grounds or one the result is the same: there are times when a married person is permitted by God to divorce.
So far so good, all of this is fairly uncontroversial in Reformed circles. The difficulty begins when you try to determine, in specific cases, what exactly constitutes these grounds and when they are present to the degree that would allow for the person being sinned against to seek divorce. Sexual immorality, porneia in the Greek, is a broad term. It can refer to any and all sexual sin. How much is enough to qualify for divorce? For desertion; can a spouse, while present, neglect his/her role to work/provide, intimacy, parenting, etc., to the degree that it becomes Biblical desertion (called functional abandonment)? If so, when does that occur? Additionally, do we include spousal abuse under one of the grounds? How do we define it? When does it rise to the level of being a ground for divorce? Finally, if the guilty party repents does his/her spouse still retain their right to divorce? If not, what constitutes the repentance that would remove that right? All of these and more are some of the questions different Reformed teachers wrestle with every time a divorce case comes up. May our good God deliver us from these difficulties by protecting and blessing our marriages!