Chastity before marriage, fidelity after marriage, and a lifelong commitment of one married partner to the other with no thought of divorce! What a high standard that is! No wonder the disciples reacted with the cynical comment: “If such is the case of a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt.19.10). We hear something very much like that today, especially from people who often say, “I have never known a happily married couple; therefore, I am not going to get married.”
The obvious answer to such cynicism is to model happy marriages, which Christians can do in spite of the sin that mars even Christian marriages and the need for repeated forgiveness that any close relationship entails. But strikingly, this is not the answer Jesus gives. Instead of reassuring the disciples that it is possible to have a happy marriage and instructing them on how they might achieve it, Jesus responds by saying that it is in fact better for some not to marry, if this is what they are called to do by God. Jesus refers to those who are unable to marry because of a physical lack or deformity and to others who are called to renounce marriage “because of the kingdom of heaven.”
This is what Paul says in Corinthians, where he advises remaining single. He was thinking of difficult missionary work and was acknowledging that it might be better done by single people. Yet he adds that there is nothing wrong with marriage. Jesus spoke to the disciples as He did because He was giving them the same high calling.
That is the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is consistent with the Bible’s teaching as a whole, and there is no legitimate way of getting around it. But where do we come in? We can acknowledge the Bible’s high standard and still struggle with how to do what is required. Or we can struggle over what to do when we fail to live up to Jesus’ teaching. Many people are hurt by situations involving estrangement, divorce, or remarriage. How should we apply these standards?
First, these are standards for Christians, not for the world. This means that believers must not try to impose them on other people. We believe that following Christian standards would make men and women happier than they are apart from them, and we can point with justified alarm to the weakening of the family and the decay of lasting relationships in today’s society. But the majority of people are not Christians, and it would be both wrong and irrational to expect them to lead Christian lives.
C. S. Lewis offered a good suggestion when he argued that “there ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: “one governed by the state… the other governed by the Church…”
Second, because many persons become Christians after they have been married and divorced, sometimes more than once, we must never forget that their previous conduct, along with their past, is wiped clean by their conversion to Christ and that they therefore have the right to marry for the first time as Christians. The Church at Corinth had many, Paul said, who were fornicators, adulterers, and idolaters before their conversion. Still, he calls them “new creations” in Christ. When a new creation in Christ meets another new creation in Christ and God leads them to each other, do they not have a right to marry and establish a Christian home regardless of their previous marital history?
There are also cases in which one of the spouses is a Christian and the other is not. What is the Christian to do under these circumstances? Paul faced this situation not only in Corinth but in other cities, and his advice was this: First, the Christian should remain with the unbelieving spouse if at all possible, for, he says, how do you know that you will not be the means by which God will save your husband or wife? It is possible, however, that the unsaved spouse will not stay with the Christian. If that is the case, Paul says to let the unbeliever go. How can the Christian stop the unbeliever from doing so?
We live in an imperfect, sinful world, and there will always be situations in which a Christian will have to choose the lesser of two evils. In some circumstances, this could be divorce. For instance, a woman may be married to an abuser, a man who wastes their money and then deserts his wife while she must raise and educate the children. In a situation such as this, I believe it would be right for the wife to initiate the divorce, even if she is a Christian, since her chief responsibility at this point would be to the children and their future.
Finally, it is true that Christians who marry out of God’s will and get divorced often remarry (frequently to Christians) and that God seems in grace often to sanctify and bless the second marriage. Does this mean that God modifies His standards? No. But it does mean that divorce and remarriage, as bad as they are, are not unforgivable and that God is always willing to begin again with us wherever we are or whatever we have done. Churches should never be closed to such people, and Christians above all should be understanding of others and show mercy.
There is hardly a matter in today’s Church that is treated with more laxity than the issue of divorce and remarriage. But identifying with and seeking to help people who have failed in their marriages does not mean lowering the standards. We must maintain the standards, but we must also be compassionate and understanding of those who have not followed them. We will never be of much help to anyone if we are not.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org