(Extensive inspiration for the sermons in this series derived from the sermon samples in the "Who Cares" promotional series by Outreach Ministries.)
I opened with the following poll, asking respondents to keep their hands down until all the options were shared. Then there was a simultaneous raising of hands which revealed the impact of divorce church wide.
- Have you ever been or are you going through a divorce?
- Do you have an immediate family member (mom, dad, brother or sister)going through or previously divorced?
- Do you have a close friend, neighbor or co-worker going through or divorced?
- Raise Hands
Some Seemingly Positive Conclusions to Such Results:
For example. One might say, “Well, we are all in the same boat on this topic.” Not only in the church, but outside the church. In fact, famous pollster George Barna’s research shows that divorce in the church is just as common as it is outside the church. In the church 33% of marriages end in divorce. Outside the church, the number is 34%. And it doesn’t differ much in the Bible belt. In fact, the south is second in the nation in divorce. The south has a divorce rate of 35%, just behind the west at 38%, and leading the Midwest and the Northeast geographically.
So we are all in the same boat, which can lead to a second seemingly positive reality, that being that there is no longer much of a stigma to being divorced. It is pretty common place. Not as shocking or disturbing to people as it once was.
Of course, those are just “seemingly” positive conclussions. And they are way out numbered by the actual challenges presented by such statistics, not the least of which ironically enough is that there is not much of a stigma. And being in the same boat just means we are all in the same pain. Pain often felt similar to this (Who Cares Video).
Margaret Atwood is quoted to have said, “A divorce is like an amputation: you survive, but there’s less of you.”
Maybe the greatest challenge to the issue of divorce in the church today is not the lack of stigma, or the commonality of it, but the greatest challenge just might be the fact that the Biblical teachings on divorce are tough.
So people will wonder –
- What will Pastor Chip say are legitimate grounds for a divorce?
- Will pastor say that once you get a divorce, you are not allowed to remarry?
- If you do remarry, will he say you are committing adultery?
- What if my spouse is not a believer?
- What if I was not a believer when we got married, but I am now?
A tough issue with plenty of tough questions. So let’s open with a unique prayer that asks God to prepare us with an open heart for what He might have to say on this issue. (Pray)
Well, let’s go the authority. Let’s look at what the Bible would offer on divorce. Divorce is nothing new. In fact, it was common throughout the ancient world, usually favoring the man. So the Law did not establish divorce, it already existed, but the law attempted to bring justice to an existing practice of the day. That is an important distinction. Turn with me to Deuteronomy 24 (read verse 1 to 4).
Here we find Moses speaking of a certificate of divorce which will set the tone for centuries of debate inside and outside the church regarding divorce. Apparently the husband was to initiate the preparation of this official document dissolving the marriage. He could have it written if he found any “uncleanness” in his wife. No one knows exactly what “uncleanness” meant. In that day it would normally be a term linked to sexual behavior or promiscuity. But whatever the case, it was sufficient grounds for divorce.
Time goes by. This “certificate of divorce” has seemed to open the door to legitimately ending a marriage, and then we come across a rather widespread practice of divorce that seemed to move it from the realm of occasional teaching to actual common practice. Apparently what happened is that a substantial number of husbands in postexilic Judah were “dealing treacherously”, as the Word of God describes it, by divorcing their wives.
Then in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we can find not only the cause of many divorces, but even the suggestion that two great leaders of the day were challenging the men of the land to “put away” the wives that they had married.
Turn with me to Ezra 9 (read verses 1 through 4). Ezra cries out to God, and subsequently calls all the men of Judah to Jerusalem, and issues an order. Ezra 10:10 (read through verse 11). He is basically commanding the men to divorce themselves from the Canaanite women and other peoples of the land as a means of cleansing the nation and returning to the covenant of God.
We find a similar situation in Nehemiah 13 (read verses 23 through 27).
So we have Moses teaching regarding the issuance of a certificate of divorce from an “unclean” woman, or a woman that following the marriage the husband finds something “indecent” about. Then we have this situation of intermarriage among peoples and tribes that God did not desire His chosen people to intermarry with, and a God ordained cleansing of the people through divorce. Two specific situations.
But what it seems like happened, as early as Malachi who was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah, was that these allowances, even commands, even national policies of dissolving mixed marriages may very well have helped to create a jaded attitude about divorce. While obviously not God’s intention, it appears to have actually contributed to a climate in which divorce became an easy alternative even when both partners were Jewish, evidence of which we continue to see in Jesus’ day, and we will look at in a minute.
Which pretty much matches our society. The more frequently we encounter an issue, the more numb we become to it. And what once appalled us, is now just common place. Think about it in secular music lyrics. Television programming. Public dress and attire. It happens all the time.
So this increase of divorces for reasons that God commanded to purify His people, resulted in divorce becoming more and more common. More and more frequent. More and more acceptable. And the prophet Malachi has to speak out against it.
So let’s look at what Malachi had to say, as he reflected God’s attitude regarding divorce. Malachi 2:13 (read through verse 16). The prophet warned the people to “take heed to your spirit.” This casual attitude toward divorce was a symptom of a problem with one’s heart attitude toward the Lord. God was actually seeing this flippant dissolving of marriages, as a sign of dis-loyalty to Him. Choosing the path of man, rather than of God.
As we continue to explore what the Bible says on divorce, we find Jesus teaching on the subject. First, in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:31 (read through verse 32).
Pretty short and hard teaching on divorce. Especially if pulled out of the context of the entire sermon that Jesus is preaching. So rather than do that, I simply want you to set that passage aside, and look forward to January when we are going to spend about 8 weeks studying this key sermon of Christ, the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Little advertisement.
Later on, Jesus provides us a more elaborate teaching regarding divorce in Matthew 19. Matthew 19:1 (read through verse 9).
You with me so far? We know there is a modern day challenge of divorce both outside and inside the church. We know that it is effecting many of us in fairly direct ways. We have some significant Biblical teaching and background regarding divorce. Both Old Testament and New. So, now focusing in on Jesus teaching here in Matthew, let’s look at a few things this passage, this teaching from Jesus should make clear in regards to divorce, and what the position of the church might be today. First, and this is where it has to start, we know that. . .
1. MARRIAGE IS A HOLY INSTITUTION ESTABLISHED BY GOD
To address the issue of divorce, you have to start with one’s perspective on marriage. When God created the world, we are told in Genesis that He made male and female and established that they be united in marriage. Genesis 2, beginning in verse 18 says:
“Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
From the start, the marital union was to be and is to be characterized by singular faithfulness. Regardless of the views of man, God considers the marriage bond sacred. And that has been lost in today’s society resulting in the acceptance of divorce.
There was a woman who accompanied her husband when he went to get a haircut. Reading a magazine, she found a hairstyle she liked for herself, and asked the receptionist if she could take the magazine next door to make a copy of the photo.
"Leave some ID, a driver’s license or a credit card," the clerk said.
"But my husband is here getting a haircut," the wife explained.
"Yes," she replied. "But I need something you’ll come back for."
Someone has said that marriage is like flies buzzing around a screen door in the summer. All those on the outside want to get in and all those on the inside want to get out.
Two images that are not how God intended it to be. He meant for it to be a holy institution. Established by His bonding union of two individuals. And a process by which in a supernatural way, two people actually entered into a trinity relationship with the husband, wife, and the Holy Spirit. Three unique entities, but bond together as one.
That needs to be the position of the church today in regards to marriage. When a pastor suggests that he won’t marry people without pre-marital counseling, that shouldn’t upset people within the church, and believe it or not, sometimes it does. There should be an agreement, and recognition of the sacredness of this relationship that is being entered into. Even if the couple doesn’t view it that way, God does, and His view is kind of the one that matters.
This is where we start in facing the challenges of divorce. Not at the point of marital conflict and actual divorce, but at the point of marriage. Placing it on a divine pedestal of holy union. That is why we call it, or at least used to, Holy Matrimony.
Think about this question. What makes marriage holy? Surely not the two people. The joining of two unholy people would not naturally result in a holy union. Right? But God’s ordaining of it makes it holy. The Holy Spirit’s union of it makes it holy.
Attending a wedding for the first time, a little girl whispered to her mommy, "Why is the bride dressed in white?"
"Because white is the color of happiness, and today is the happiest day of her life," Mommy tried to explain, keeping it simple.
The child thought about this for a moment, then said, "So why’s the groom wearing black?"
Think of all the joking we do regarding marriage. Especially on the male side as he prepares to enter into marriage. It is no longer sacred or holy. Even in the church. We have to return it to a triune relationship between husband, wife and Holy Spirit.
I don’t find it a coincidence that "Marriage and Divorce magazine discovered that one out of every three marriages ends in divorce, but when the couple is married in a church ceremony, and they attend church regularly, and they pray and read the Bible together, then the chances for divorce drop to one out of 1,105."
With a statistic like that, I know what my first question is going to be from now on for all marital counseling. Are you going to church, reading your Bible, and praying together? If you do, the odds of getting divorced go from one in three to one in 1,105.
Why? Because it is a holy union, that if fostered and incubated in a holy environment, it will survive. Another point the church needs to emphasize, and teach is that. . .
2. GODLY MARRIAGE IS BASED ON TRUST AND FAITHFULNESS
We know that God considers marriage a sacred bond, and He expects the partners to honor that union with an exclusive, lasting commitment. Look at Jesus words again in Matthew 19. (Read verse 6)
The two have become one. (Make pitcher of lemonade). They can’t be separated. Maybe through some complex, scientific activity that is way beyond me. But the two have become one.
So what violates that union? What can actually begin the supernatural separating of the one? A violation of trust and faithfulness. Adultery used to be considered the ultimate sign of being untrustworthy and unfaithful. Right? If you would violate the sexual intimacy of marriage with another party, there was no area you could be trusted or found faithful in. Remember Bill Clinton? (i.e. couldn’t be trusted with national security)
God desires that marriage be based on trust and faithfulness. Which now helps us as we move towards God’s feelings on divorce. Why does God hate divorce as it says in Malachi? Well, simply put, it is because. . .
3. GOD HATES UNFAITHFULNESS
The root cause for divorce is unfaithfulness at some level. Not only sexual infidelity, but emotional unfaithfulness. Allowing one’s affections and commitments to wander away from one’s mate so that trust, commitment, and communication break down. And God hates that type of unfaithfulness.
He judged Israel severely because His people proved unfaithful to their covenant with the Lord. Do a study through the Word of God of the times and people that He brings His judgment upon, and you will see this common thread of unfaithfulness. Because God hates unfaithfulness. And divorce is a result of unfaithfulness at some level.
So then, it is a natural outflow of a hatred towards unfaithfulness that brings God to a hatred of divorce. But I want to be sure we understand this morning, that. . .
4. WHILE GOD HATES DIVORCE, HE LOVES DIVORCED PEOPLE
Where many people get offended in the church and by the church is by what they think they hear in that statement. A divorced person is usually more defensive about their situation. That’s only natural. We all are. So all too often they think they hear, “God hates people who divorce.” And nothing could be further from the truth.
While God hates divorce, certainly He loves the divorcee. Just like God hates alcohol, yet loves alcoholics. He hates homosexuality, but He loves the homosexual. In each and every case, the God who hates the sin, loves the sinner!
And understand this. Our God is not a cosmic killjoy, looking for ways to make life miserable. So if the Lord God Almighty says that He hates something, it is only because He knows that it will bring heartache and turmoil into our lives. That is the case with addiction. That is the case with homosexuality which has an absurdly higher rate of suicide. And that is the case of divorce.
In a long term study of couples who were at a point of getting a divorce, 22% of those who went ahead with the divorce reported they were happy 5 years later. 22%. One out of five happier five years later. While 86% of those who decided to stick it out, seek help and counseling to fix their marriage reported they were happy 5 years later. Nine out of ten. That is why God hates divorce, because He knows that divorce hates you, and will hurt you and destroy you.
So what about the person stuck in a horrific marriage? Well, we do see from the Word of God that. . .
5. DIVORCE IS A CONCESSION BY GOD
In Matthew 19 Jesus explains that while God hates divorce, He permits it as a concession to the fallen nature of humanity. Matthew 19:8 (read). Because of the hardness of heart. Easy divorces were the standard of the day in the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. And as the people of God watched the nations around them, saw people having the opportunity to “escape” their marriages, their hearts grew harder and harder towards the plan God had for them in marriage. So the Law established guidelines to limit the Hebrews from abusing each other through divorce. But even at that, it would seem that...
6. THE GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE ARE FEW
Today, legally, a marriage can be dissolved quite easily. But if one considers the Bible, there are few reasons why divorce is permissible. And even at permissible, with the exception of the commands of Ezra to the returning exiles, it is never mandated.
The New Testament appears to allow two reasons for divorce: adultery, which we have seen in Jesus teachings. And the second reason being the desertion of a Christian by an unbelieving spouse. Turn to 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul teaches on this.
I Corinthians 7:10 (read through verse 16). Notice Paul’s clear admonishment here saying “let it be so”, meaning let the divorce occur, is a situation where the unbelieving spouse walks out. Is gone. Deserts the spouse. Otherwise, he says, who knows but if God might utilize the relationship to bring the unbelieving spouse into a saving faith.
So, this may beg the question, what about persistent physical or emotional abuse? Don’t you think a divorce is justified in those situations? Let me address that, but first let me address the way the question is often asked. “Don’t you think the divorce is justified?”
I personally feel that it is important that the believer never be looking for a way to apply divorce to their situation. To “justify” it. The attitude, the heart that is searching for a justification of divorce is often the heart and the spirit that is already checking out of the situation rather than seeking the miraculous moving of the hand of God. Not always.
Please do not leave here today and say, “Pastor Chip said if someone is looking towards divorce, they don’t believe God can work a miracle.” I’m not saying that. But we are human. And as soon as the possibility of divorce enters our minds, the reality of divorce looms that much closer.
So again, what about situations of persistent abuse? To answer that, we have to ask, why did God allow Moses to provide a provision for divorce? I believe it was to protect the woman. In that culture, and to some extent in our culture, left to their own the men would have just thrown their wives aside for any reason. Leaving them homeless. Destitute. Without income or support. Publicly ostracized as used goods.
So God told Moses to set down some strict rules. Namely, that only marital infidelity was reason for divorce. This protected the woman from the man that would divorce her and abandon her because she cooked bad. Because she didn’t keep the hut the way he wanted. Because her mother was a nag and wouldn’t mind her own business.
We actually find God doing this in several other situations. Slaves for instance. God made laws regarding slaves, in His Word, for masters to obey. Doesn’t mean He agreed with slavery, but He made rules to protect slaves from undue punishment.
So I don’t believe that it is God’s desire for any woman, wife, or in some cases even husbands, to be in a place of constant physical and emotional danger. However, that doesn’t assume divorce. At least not as the first and immediate course of action. Our God is still a God of redemption, restoration, and miracles. And at the same time, He is a God that has made allowances throughout history to protect His people.
Finally, it is vitally important that the church remembers. . .
7. THE CHURCH IS TO BE A PLACE OF COMPASSION AND HEALING FOR THE DIVORCED
As much as God hates unfaithfulness and divorce, He shows compassion for divorced people, and is ready to forgive and to restore any who have come short of His expectations when they seek His pardon. Divorce, whatever the grounds, is not the unforgivable sin.
And here is a point where things might get real tough, and I need you to hear my heart and not misinterpret my words. Repentance is critical to restoration. I have yet to run into a divorce, or even a marital separation, that was the fault of only one party. In each and every situation I have counseled, reflected on, or lived through within my circle of family and friends, in every one, both sides of the coin had points of repentance and confession that they needed to take before the Father.
Until we repent, we can not be restored. If you have remarried, and have never dealt with the junk of marriage number one, or two, or whatever. The junk between you and God. This marriage will never be all it can be, and you will never be whole. No other person or relationship can do it for you. It is a healing that can only occur at the foot of the cross, and through the grace of your heavenly Father.
So that is where we, the church comes in. We don’t take divorce lightly. We uphold marriage as a solemn commitment that should be entered into carefully and with a view toward permanence. And when we see that sin has wrecked havoc on God’s design to the point of divorce, we open our arms as a place of love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness.
As we wrap up, many of the challenges we are looking at during this series have had a direct impact on my life, and I’ve shared that. Fortunately, divorce is not one of them. Though it well could have been. When Debbie and I went through our four month separation 10 years ago, we were as close to a divorce as a couple can be.
But you know what? It wasn’t some instant revelation and miraculous transformation that detoured us from that tragic path. It was gut wrenching confession. Heart tearing repentance. It was transparency and sacrifice. And it still is today.
I am amazed at how many people can look at a pastor’s family and say, “Well, they just don’t get it. Everything is so perfect in their lives.” You have got to be kidding me. The Big Brother house has nothing on most of the parsonages I have lived in or had the opportunity to see the insides of. There are times when for Debbie to stay married to me is like having a tonsillectomy without any anesthetic. And lest you “amen” too loud, she has her days when I would rather head off to the dentist for a Novocain free root canal.
Marriage is tough stuff. But divorce need not be the only response to a troubled relationship. When obstacles arise, both parties must commit to trying all available means to preserve the union that God has sealed. Help can be found in friends, the right friends, church, or even professional counsel. But most of all, help is available from God Himself, who wants to see marriages succeed.
And if yours has failed, there is a place of love, and compassion and healing. A place to repent, and find a comforting answer to the question, “Who cares?” Let’s pray.