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  • Writer's pictureDr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.

Marriage & Divorce

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. — Matthew 19:4-6, 9


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, as a kind of second-class

wife). 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 a second ground, or some would say explains how

Christ’s one ground of sexual immorality also includes 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 (a kind of 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 God deliver us from these difficulties by protecting and blessing our marriages!

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