Iowa District East Theological Journal — What does God say about Divorce?

Iowa District East has started a new Theological Journal for the Church for the laity in their district. This is one article out of the first issue of the journal.


by Pastor Herbert Mueller III

Pastor Herbert Mueller III is pastor of St. Peter Lutheran Church, Westgate, IA and Grace Lutheran Church, Fayette, IA

And Pharisees came up to [Jesus] and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He an-swered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

You shall not commit adultery. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other. (Small Catechism, 6th Commandment)

Never has there been a time when issues concerning the Sixth Commandment were handled correctly by fallen mankind. Divorce is a case in point. What has approval in the civil sphere, among the courts, does not have the approval of God. Sometimes, however, a divorce is recognition that the marriage has already been destroyed by one of the parties. In this case, Jesus permits divorce only “on the ground of sexual immorality.” In this situation, the one-flesh union has already been destroyed by marital infidelity.

The word there for “sexual immorality” in the Greek is “porneia.” (The English word “pornography” comes from this Greek word.) Porneia means sexual intercourse in general outside marriage. The spouse that divorces on the grounds of porneia does not cause the other to commit adultery. Adultery has already been committed and the deepest levels of the one flesh union are already broken. “The spouse who suffers this form of abandonment may (though certainly not must) put away the partner guilty of porneia without forcing such a one into adul-tery.” (“Divorce and Remarriage: An Exegetical Study” CTCR report, 1987, p. 25)

Divorce where marital infidelity has not taken place, however, is the active destruction of the marriage by one or both of the parties. Our Lord Jesus Christ points to God’s institution of marriage and says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Most of what follows is directed at divorce where the one-flesh union has not yet been destroyed by infidelity.

Divorce is the destruction of a vow. When a bridegroom stands before God and says, “I (name), take you, (name), to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy will; and I pledge to you my faithfulness,” this is the language of a vow. The bride’s vow is the same. They exchange rings, visible reminders of the vows they have spoken to one another.

While not specific to marriage, Scripture has this to say about vows:

Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. If a woman vows a vow to the LORD and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself and says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. (Numbers 30:1-4)

In Deuteronomy 23 we read this about the obliga-tion of vows:

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin… You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth. (Deuteronomy 23:21, 23)

It is clear by these words and others that breaking a vow is serious business. Whether the vow is broken before the divorce in the form of infidelity or deser-tion, or the vow is broken by the divorce itself, divorce is still a tragedy, breaking what should not be broken.

Divorce is the destruction of a person. It was not good for the man to be alone. The very first wedding is recorded in Genesis chapter 2. There, God presents the woman to the man. She is the “helper fit for him.” The word “helper” has been at the brunt of much discussion. Some have even gone so far as to accuse the biblical writers of hating women. The Hebrew word “helper” here, however, does not mean inferiority or unimportance. God is also called a “help” using the same word. (cf. Ps. 33:20) The idea of “helper fit for him” is that the man and the woman were made for each other.

At that first marriage, the man didn’t have a low view of his wife. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” He recognized that he was limited without the woman. Is it possible to live a God-pleasing life totally single and apart from marriage? Yes. This may be necessary, especially in times of persecution as the Apostle Paul recommends, but it is not the normal order of things that God set up in the Garden of Eden. God created us for marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

Far beyond the merely sexual, this one flesh union is taken seriously in Scripture. Jesus reiterates, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” They are one flesh in the marriage bed, yes, that is true. But they are also one flesh as they live together, as they have children together, as they cleave to one another. This one flesh union is destroyed in divorce. Our culture focuses primarily on what I, the individual, need and want. Independence and self-determination are the altars at which we sacrifice. The one flesh union of marriage just becomes one more of those sacrifices one makes when “what I want” or “what I seem to think I need” is threatened by it. But this is never how God intended us to be: destroyed half-people seeking only what we as individuals think we want and need.

The relationship between bridegroom and bride, husband and wife is described by Paul in Ephesians chapter 5.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the LORD. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and give Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body.” (Ephesians 5:22-30)

The focus of husband and wife is to be on the other. Ideally, in marriage, God turns our selfish nature outward to our spouse. This looks different for both husband and wife because husbands and wives are different from one another.

Wives submit; the word in the Greek means “to subject oneself, be subjected or subordinated, obey.” It’s submission involving the recognition of an ordered structure. The fact that our current egalitarian society doesn’t think this is helpful or good doesn’t change what God’s Word says. Let the world go on with its selfishness and self-actualization which leads to di-vorce.

Husbands love. And their love is to be just like Christ’s love for the church. Christ sacrificed Himself for the church. He shed His blood for her. And likewise, a husband is to lay down his life in sacrificial love for his wife. He does not consider what he can get out of the relationship, but what he can give. He receives blessing when he cares for his wife, loving her as his own body. Again, even if our current society doesn’t think this is helpful or good, this doesn’t change what God’s Word says.

Notice that this is not merely a picture of how a married couple ought to live. More important is the picture that Paul gives us of what it means for Christ to be the Bridegroom, who lays down His life for His bride, the Church. Something wicked and sinister happens when the Bridegroom is separated from His bride. When this picture is dashed to pieces in the form of divorce there are spiritual consequences. One’s trust in the Bridegroom is harmed because one’s relationship with one’s spouse is destroyed.

Divorce is the destruction of a family. This may be a bit redundant, but it’s also true. Children are affected by divorce. God brings man and woman together as husband and wife, and then when children are born, as father and mother. Children are best reared and cared for in a home with a father and a mother. We should have compassion for any single parent, and just the fact that a child has a single parent does not automatically mean that things will turn out poorly for the child. It just means that things will be harder. There is something about the office of father and the office of mother that is essential in the development of children.

Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 6: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the LORD.” (Ephesians 6:4) Divorce, the breaking of a vow and the destruction of the one flesh union, teaches children the exact opposite of the “training and instruction of the LORD.” One of the definitions of “exasperation” could be one of the many ways di-vorced parents use their children to get at their former spouse.

Divorce, except in the case of sexual immorality, abuse, or abandonment, is sin against God. This is the conclusion of the above sections. Jesus says in Matthew 19:9, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” In Mark 10:11-12 again Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Paul is very clear about this as well in 1 Corinthians 7:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the LORD): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

As a general rule this is true. Yet in the cases of infidelity, abandonment (a spouse leaves with no plan to return), or abuse, divorce is biblically permitted.

Jesus Christ died for your sins. Those who suffer because of divorce need our compassion. Those who have committed the sin of infidelity or abuse or abandonment need to hear the Law in all its terror. They need to know that their actions have destroyed their relationship with God as well as with their spouse. If the offender is a church member and is unrepentant in the face of God’s Law, the destruction of their relationship with God must be made very clear through the proper use of the binding key, i.e. excommunication. When contrite, they then need to hear the good news that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Those who have suffered the brunt of their spouse’s sin need to know that they don’t have to divorce their spouse, but they may divorce on the grounds that the one-flesh union has already been destroyed by their spouse’s actions. Here is a situation that calls for discernment and tact. One must approach such situations with great compassion. It can be that one spouse is nearly one hundred percent to blame for the failure of the marriage, but there may still be feelings of guilt even in the one that does not bear the brunt of the blame. There will be opportunities for confession and forgiveness here for them as well.

Those who are intent on destroying their marriage even when no marriage-destroying infidelity, abuse, or abandonment has happened need to hear God’s Law in all its sternness. Again, they are destroying their relationship with God by destroying their marriage. If they are church members and they are not repentant, the proper use of the binding key, or excommunica-tion, is warranted. When contrite, they then need to hear the good news that Jesus Christ took their sins on His back. They ought to attempt reconciliation and forgiveness with their spouse or ex-spouse.

All in all, compassion, reconciliation, and for-giveness are the watchwords when dealing with divorce. The goal should never be for the pastor or the church to “put a good spin” on the divorce or “give their approval” for the divorce. Only in the case of marital infidelity, physical abuse, or abandonment is
divorce permissible, and even then it does not have to happen. “What God has joined together, let man not separate.”

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