Marriage and Divorce
David J. Engelsma
Every pastor knows how serious is the threat to
marriage in the church today. That marriage is in trouble in the world
hardly needs to be pointed out: many live together without marrying, or
fornicate promiscuously like beasts—holding marriage in contempt; many
others divorce and remarry.
But marriage is under attack also in the church. No
denomination or congregation is exempt. The attack on marriage in the
church is made through divorce: two who have become one in marriage
split up again into two. Either the wife leaves the husband, or the
husband puts away his wife, or they file for a full, legal divorce. More
and more, all the members of the congregation notice the threat to
marriage in the church, because their fellow members are getting
divorces, where such a thing was unheard of, even unthinkable, before.
The pastor knows how much more danger there is behind the scenes, where
trouble in the marriage is not suspected by the membership of the
Every pastor also knows how snarled and horrible some
marriages become, through the sins of the husband and the wife—marriages
in the church. Although they live together, under one roof at least,
some husbands and wives so sin against each other, over a long period of
time, that their marriage is a mockery of the close, delightful bond
described in the Scriptures. Either the husband is a cold, unfeeling
brute who rules tyrannically, or the wife is a contentious shrew, always
contradicting her husband. Or the marriage is constant criticizing and
bickering. Or they pretty much go their own ways.
Every pastor has had the feeling in his difficult
labour with the married that the only way out is divorce, that it would,
in fact, be an act of mercy to counsel them to divorce. Woe to him if he
follows his feeling instead of the Word of God, but this is his feeling.
What is said in this pamphlet about divorce cannot be ascribed to the
writer's ignorance of how complicated marriage situations can become in
the church or of how fearfully sin can strain and tear the marriage
Although our sin complicates matters, the Word of God
gives clear instruction concerning marriage and divorce. In fact, the
truth is so simple that a child can understand it. The Word has much to
say about marriage, because marriage is important. What it says is
clear. The Word speaks clearly on every aspect of marriage: the origin
and institution; its nature; its purpose; and how we are to live
together in it. No married person will ever be able to plead ignorance
for violating marriage. No church will ever be able to appeal to
Scripture's obscurity to excuse its wrong views on marriage and divorce.
We must let the Scriptures govern here; we must bow
to them in the matter of marriage. As Protestants, our confession is:
Scripture alone. Not our feelings, not our circumstances, not even our
"tender mercies" may be determinative here, but the Word only. The issue
for the church as regards her significant role in defending marriage is
this: Will she speak the Word of God and do discipline according to the
Word, or not?
What do the Scriptures teach?
The Biblical Prohibition of Divorce
Marriage is an institution of God. God established
marriage on the sixth day of creation when He made the woman from the
man and gave her to the man as his wife (Gen.
Eph. 5:31). Because it has been instituted by God, marriage is
subject to God's will. Marriage is not merely a human arrangement, to be
made, broken, and adjusted at our convenience. The will of God governing
marriage was revealed in the very institution itself in the beginning.
Repeatedly, Christ and the apostles derive their teaching on marriage
from that original institution of marriage. When the Pharisees ask
Matthew19, whether it is right to divorce for every reason, He
answers, "Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning
made them male and female ...?" When, a little later, they mention a
deviation from the law of marriage in the Old Testament—Moses'
permission of divorce—Jesus' response is: "but from the beginning
it was not so." Christ's concern for the original institution of
marriage is zeal for God. He does not answer questions on marriage
problems in order to suit men, but with the determination to please God.
In the beginning, God made marriage as a bond of the
most intimate fellowship of love between one man and one woman. The two
become one flesh. Such is God's declaration in
Genesis 2:24, quoted by Paul in
Ephesians 5:31. There is a bodily oneness in the sexual
relationship, but also a oneness of soul. Married persons share one
life. The Lord Jesus stressed this in
Matthew19:6: "Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh." We
must not think of married persons as two, but as one. This union of the
two, the male and the female, is God's act in the case of every
marriage. In marriage, God joins two persons together (Matt.
19:6). Although there is a uniquely rich aspect of the God-worked
intimacy of marriage in the case of two believers, God joins two
together as one flesh also in the world. Marriage is an institution of
God in creation, like government. Whenever two people use this
institution, they are joined by God. Hence, according to
I Corinthians 7:12-17, the marriage of a believer and an unbeliever
is a valid marriage, which must be maintained. A husband and wife
experience and express the intimacy of marriage as unique love and
Marriage is a relationship for life. This is built
into the institution: one man and one woman become one flesh. Since
marriage is a union effected by God, man neither may nor can "put
asunder." Only God may, and only God can, divide what He has joined. God
does this in death. "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the
law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she
is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband
liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an
adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so
that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man" (Rom.
I Corinthians 7:39 teaches the same thing: "The wife is bound by the
law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at
liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord." For good
reason, the marriage forms—until recently—had the couple vow to take
each other as wife or husband "till death us do part."
In harmony with the truth of marriage, the Scriptures
forbid divorce. Divorce is sin: a man or woman's faithlessness, i.e.,
hatred, towards his or her mate and revolt against the God who joined
them in marriage. This is Christ's radical doctrine in
Matthew19. When the Pharisees asked whether a man might put away his
wife for every cause, His answer was: No divorce! "Let not man put
asunder!" The toleration of divorce by Moses was due to the Israelites'
hard hearts, and divorce is not to be suffered any longer. The sin that
a man commits, when he divorces his wife, is that he makes his wife
commit adultery (Matt.
5:32). He exposes her to an adulterous relationship with a third
Even separation is forbidden. A wife may not leave
her husband (I
Cor. 7:10), or the husband, his wife—not even if the mate is an
Cor. 7:12ff.). Marriage is communion: the two must live together.
Not only must they live together under one roof, but they must live
together sexually: "Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence
(literally, 'the debt'): and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise
also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud
ye not one the other ..." (I
There is one exception in Scripture to the
prohibition of divorce, namely, "fornication." According to
Matthew 5:31-32, a man does not sin if he puts his wife away because
she lives in adultery with another man. This indicates the gravity of
adultery. It is taken lightly today. It is joked about. It is toyed with
when men enjoy the movies, magazines, and novels that present adultery
as an accepted, attractive way of life. One thing is so destructive of
the union of marriage, striking as it does at the heart of that
institution, that it tears the two apart to the extent that the ability
and calling to live together are gone: adultery. Besides this, there is
no ground for divorce, not mental cruelty, not incompatibility, not a
bad wife or a miserable husband—nothing. In marriage we take each
other—as the old forms also stated—"for better for worse, for richer for
poorer, in sickness and in health."
In keeping with its doctrine of marriage, as well as
its prohibition of divorce, the Word also prohibits remarriage, while
one's (original) mate still lives. This is the implication of the
institution of marriage: one man and one woman joined as one flesh by
God for life. Only God dissolves the union, and He does so by death. As
long as the two are living, their union leaves no place for a third
party. When churches today bring up examples of the permission of
remarriage in the history of the church, we ask, in all seriousness,
"What was the rule in the beginning?"
The New Testament makes explicit the teaching that is
implicit in the institution of marriage. This is done in the passages
already quoted from
Romans 7 and
I Corinthians 7: married persons are bound to each other for life;
only death looses the bond, so that one may marry another; marriage to
another before the death of one's mate makes one an adulterer or
Three other passages speak directly of remarriage:
Luke 16:18 and
I Corinthians 7:10-11. The two former passages are absolute,
unqualified condemnations of remarriage as adultery. "Whosoever putteth
away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever
marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery" (Luke16:18).
I Corinthians 7:10-11, after Paul tells the wife not to leave her
husband, he conceives of the possibility that she may have to leave
nevertheless; in such a case "let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled
to her husband."
But what about the remarriage of the one divorced on
the biblical ground of adultery? One passage in all Scripture seems, at
first glance, to permit the remarriage of one divorced on the ground of
Matthew 19:9: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for
fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso
marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." If this were the
correct interpretation of the text, there would be one, and only one,
ground for remarriage: the adultery of one's mate. The "innocent party"
would be free to marry another. However, there is powerful biblical
evidence to the contrary. There is the testimony of the Scriptures that
only death dissolves the bond of marriage. There is the unqualified
prohibition of remarriage elsewhere in the Bible. And there is the last
Matthew 19:9 itself. The last part of the text calls the new union
of the woman divorced un-biblically, whose husband has since remarried,
union. The Lord expressly states that the "innocent party" may not
remarry. The exceptive clause in
Matthew 19:9 ("except it be for fornication") is intended to qualify
only the prohibition of divorce, in perfect harmony with the fact that
the Lord is answering the Pharisee's question concerning the legitimacy
of divorce (cf. v. 3).
The Scriptures draw the lines plainly. Marriage is a
lifelong bond; divorce is forbidden, except on the ground of the sexual
unfaithfulness of one's mate; remarriage is forbidden until death
separates the two. These lines make a narrow way into the Kingdom for
men and women, as regards marriage; and it is not surprising that there
are only few who find it. But this is the way into the Kingdom; no
adulterer shall enter. This is what the church is called to preach,
publicly and privately, and when we do, we are defending marriage in the
face of the all-out assault on marriage today.
The Church's Calling to Defend Marriage
The church must condemn divorce sharply and in no
uncertain terms and, with it, the remarriage that usually follows. It is
high time that the church call divorce what it is: sin. Today, many
people, even many churches, have nice things to say in defence of
divorce. They excuse it. It is due to love, really: so-and-so fell out
of love with her husband and fell into love with another man. But the
church, in her preaching, must adopt God's attitude and judgment with
regard to divorce: "For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he
hateth putting away" (Mal.
Divorce is disobedience to God's law and an act of
rebellious violence against His institution of marriage. It is hatred
It is also hatred for one's mate and children. Rather
than leave her husband for another man, a man's wife could better shoot
him—and the children. Divorce causes cruel suffering; it is the
destruction of mate and family. God calls it treachery in
Malachi 2: "Let none deal treacherously against the wife of his
youth" (v. 15). A man lives with his wife for years. She has his
children, cares for him, and suffers with him through the hardships of
life. Then, when they are both older, he leaves her for a younger,
prettier woman. This is treachery. The sin against one's mate committed
by the man or woman who divorces, or leaves, is that of exposing the
mate to the temptation of adultery. Such is Christ's condemnation of
Matthew 5:32: "Whosoever shall put away his wife ... causeth her to
commit adultery ..." We are made with needs, need for companionship, and
sexual needs; the man who divorces his wife is responsible for placing
her in circumstances in which she is likely to sin, thus coming under
the threat of damnation. This is not the behaviour of love.
The wave of divorce rolling over the world and over
the churches today is not, for the most part, due to complicated
psychological factors—"my wife does not understand me." On the contrary,
the cause is lust: "... when I had fed them to the full, they then
committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots'
houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after
his neighbour's wife" (Jer.
If the church hates divorce and condemns it, she will
discipline the guilty. She will excommunicate the man who divorces his
wife; she will excommunicate the woman who leaves her husband for her
neighbour's. In the Old Testament, Israel had to kill both the adulterer
and the adulteress; today, the church is required to set them outside
the Kingdom of heaven, and what we bind on earth will be bound in
heaven. There is always room for repentance; indeed, repentance is the
goal of discipline, but repentance must include breaking with the sin,
i.e., breaking the adulterous relationship and going back to one's mate.
For the church to mouth condemnation of divorce, but to allow it to go
on in her fellowship is hypocrisy. Nor will such loose dealings check
the tide of divorce, teach others to fear, or defend marriage.
In our missions, we must preach the sinfulness of the
marital folly and disobedience of the people and call them to
repentance, which repentance includes doing works worthy of repentance (Acts
In her opposition to divorce, the church is for
marriage—she is defending and promoting marriage among the saints. She
hates divorce, because she loves marriage. She says "No" to divorce in
the service of saying "Yes" to marriage. Say what they will, those who
tolerate unbiblical divorce and permit remarriage become party to the
attack on marriage in our day.
The church's unbending opposition to divorce has
practical results in the congregation. Open the door of divorce just a
crack, and married people will rush through it, for it is easier to
divorce than to repent, confess, forgive, and reconcile. Keep that door
shut—as tightly as the Lord did—and the saints in marital trouble will
realize that the only way out is reconciliation, and they will work at
reconciliation. The fruit, therefore, of opposition to divorce will be
stable marriages and solid homes with the untold blessedness that this
means for the church, the married people themselves, their children, and
The church has special reason for proclaiming and
defending marriage. In doing so, she witnesses to the gospel itself. Not
only is the truth of marriage an important part of the doctrine of Jesus
which He has commissioned us to teach all nations to observe (Matt.
28:19-20), but marriage itself is the symbol of the relationship of
intimate love between Christ and His church—the symbol of the covenant
Ephesians 5 teaches this. From verse 22 on, the Holy Spirit calls
the wife to behave towards her husband as the church behaves towards
Christ, and the man to behave towards his wife as Christ does towards
the church, because marriage is the earthly picture of the spiritual
relationship, or bond, between the heavenly Bridegroom and His wife.
This is plainly stated in verse 32. Verse 31 has quoted God's words on
Genesis 2:24, words that emphasize that marriage is intimate union:
"and they two shall be one flesh." Then, Paul says: "This is a great
mystery." What is a great mystery? Earthly, human marriage, we would
answer. No, says Paul, "but I speak concerning Christ and the church."
The reality of marriage is the intimate, covenant relation of Christ and
the church, because marriage, my marriage, your marriage, the
institution of marriage, is the God-appointed symbol of Christ and the
In this real marriage, the one Man, Christ,
and His bride, the elect church, are so united, by the
wonder of the grace of the Holy Spirit, that the two become
one: Christ is the Head, and we are the body. There is
inseparable, unbreakable union. Christ never divorces us,
much less takes another. By the power of His efficacious
love, the church never leaves Him, gives herself to Him
alone, and desires Him alone. Her love-song is: solo
Christo, "Christ alone." By the grace of God, the
covenant is characterized by faithfulness, faithfulness born
of love and serving the interests of love.
This constrains the church in her doctrine of
marriage. As she hears the gospel of faithful love—and experiences it—so
does she preach and defend faithfulness in marriage. Where the gospel of
the gracious, faithful covenant is lost, there the picture is corrupted
also. Always in Israel's history, two sordid things were found together:
Israel went a-whoring from Jehovah after the idols, and Israelite
husbands and wives committed adultery.
Do not think for a moment that this implies that the
church has no eye for the happiness of the saints, or that she lacks
compassion for the sinner. But compassion for the sinner never lets him
go on in sin. It calls him back. Perhaps it calls the sinner to a
painful action, e.g., the Lord's "sell all that thou hast ... and follow
me," but love imperiously calls the sinner from sin. Nor is the church
unfeeling and hard-nosed in condemning divorce. Rather, in the love of
Christ she seeks the genuine bliss of the saints. Divorce means ruin and
misery, now and eternally. Marriage, even a difficult one, means
joy—above all, and in any case, knowledge of the approval of God.
The Calling of the Saint to Uphold Marriage
As the pillar and ground of the truth, the church is
called to maintain marriage. But so is each believer. The man, or woman,
for whom the truth of marriage means sacrifice, suffering, and loss,
perhaps all his life, is called to uphold marriage. There are such
saints. There are men wickedly deserted, who must live alone all their
lives. There are women whose husbands cannot function as husbands in the
home, on account of accident or disease. There are men and women with
miserable mates. These are called to bear their burdens and suffer for
Christ's sake. God's Word and God's institutions are not changed to fit
our circumstances. Every believer must be ready to deny himself and to
suffer the loss of wife and children for Christ's sake. If one is not
ready to do this, he is no disciple of Jesus. Churches today are making
every effort to make Christianity an easy religion. It is not. Christ
expressly said that His doctrine of marriage means that some make
themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake (Matt.
19:12). The people of God in such circumstances will have grace to
do what God requires of them. In just this way, they uphold marriage;
they witness to the faithfulness of the real marriage. Faithfulness is
not easy in the covenant relationship between Christ and the church. For
Christ, it meant death; for us, it means tribulation.
Every married person is called to maintain marriage,
especially in these days of the undermining of marriage. He
does this by actively, energetically living with his mate
from day one of the marriage in the manner prescribed by the
Word of God, Holy Scripture, i.e., according to the pattern
of Christ and the church. It is a mistake to suppose that
all that matters is that we not divorce. The husband must
love his wife, day in and day out, after the starry-eyed
romance has worn off, with a love that nourishes and
5:25ff.). Live with her, the Word says (I
Peter 3:7); live all your life through your wife (I
Cor. 11:12); be understanding (I
Peter 3:7). There may be no independency, no tyranny,
and no bitterness (Col.
3:19). As Christ behaves towards the church ...
The wife must submit and obey, reverencing her husband (Eph.
5:22ff.). She lives her life as a "help" to her
husband—this is her life (Gen.
2:18). Her one question is: "How can I please my
Cor. 7:34). There is no rebellion, insubordination,
disobedience, or nagging; neither is there any independency,
i.e., that the woman lives a certain part of her life "on
her own," "doing her own thing," finding "fulfilment" apart
from her husband. Does the church live any part of her life
independently of Christ? The moment that we do, we find
"fulfilment" with some other god, and this is what happens
to many wives today—they end up "fulfilled" in the arms of
another man. The woman's "liberation" movement is
antichristian deviltry, from beginning to end. No Christian
can make peace with it.
Living so with each other, the husband loving and the
wife submitting, the married couple simply rule out the very possibility
of divorce. For the husband to love his wife means certainly that he
does not divorce her; for her to submit means certainly that she does
not run off and leave him. Besides, when he loves and she submits, they
grow closer; the intimacy becomes deeper; and the unique bliss of
marriage becomes richer. The thought of divorce never even comes into
We must work at our marriages. It is exceedingly
strange that we often devote our energy to other things, far less
important than our marriage, and allow our marriage to drag along as
best it can.
In time of trouble—and no marriage is completely free
of trouble, whether it be the husband's aloofness, the wife's nagging,
or the sexual relationship—the married saints must remember that there
is only one way out: reconciliation, through repentance; confession;
forgiveness; removal of the sin that divides; and living in the right
way. Divorce is not an option! They must also remember that God
has joined them together. A couple may come to the point that they feel
that they have made a mistake. No matter; God did not make a
mistake: He brings each man his wife, as He did in the case of Adam.
There is help for troubled marriages in Christ. Christ uses pastors to
give this help. Although it is not easy for the couple to come to the
pastor, nor pleasant for the pastor to work at this task, it is
necessary that this be done.
Married persons also uphold marriage by teaching
their children about marriage. They do this by their own example. They
do this also by instruction. A goodly part of the book of Proverbs is
the parents' plain, pointed instruction and admonition to their child
concerning marriage, fornication, the strange woman, sex, and home-life.
Parents are also responsible before God to oversee the dating and to
direct the marriage-choice of their children.
The calling to maintain marriage extends finally to
the unmarried youth of the church. To a large extent, the battle is won
or lost on the day one marries. If he marries a fellow-believer, a
"sister," according to
I Corinthians 9:5, with whom he is one in the Lord, and if they
marry, consciously, "in the Lord," all will be well. They will still be
subject to many "troubles and afflictions," as our marriage form puts
it, but they will be assisted and kept by the grace of God.
When the young people date and consider marrying, let
them keep in mind what marriage is, not a sexual game to play, but a
divine institution symbolizing the covenant of Jehovah and jealously
defended by the holy God. Let them remember that marriage is for life.
With a sense of such solemnity—which in no way rules out joy—let them
This is the work of the saints. We do it by grace
alone. We do it willingly and cheerfully, out of gratitude to God for
His covenant faithfulness in Christ. We do it with the purpose that we
obey and glorify our glorious Husband, Jesus. And we do it so that we
may enjoy the blessing of marriage and family: "Thy wife shall be as a
fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive
plants round about thy table. Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed
that feareth the Lord" (Ps.