Divorce, Remarriage, and Honoring God
Given your outspoken position on divorce and remarriage, we get a lot of questions in the inbox on this front. Here’s one from a podcast listener named Lisa. “Dear Pastor John, I read your long article about divorce and remarriage and agreed all along. Near the end you restated that only God can end a marriage. Yes. Then you went on to say that remaining in a second marriage is right. I noticed that you did not give Scripture to back that up. That’s where I no longer agreed. All the other Scriptures seemed to only prove marriage to be impossible to end. Are there any passages to suggest that a divorced spouse should remain in their second marriage?”
Should I Stay?
It is important to point out that this question that is being asked is a question everyone has to face, not just me with my conservative view of divorce and remarriage. It is a question that everyone has to face, except those who think that all divorce and remarriage is biblical. If you have any limits at all in your view of divorce and remarriage, you will sooner or later meet a couple who has transgressed even your limits and are in a marriage that they should not have entered — that you think they should not have not entered, not just me.
“If you are divorced and remarried, keep your promise. Don’t break your word a second time.”
So, this is a question then for almost every Christian. If the marriage that you are in was entered wrongfully, you shouldn’t have entered it. Should you stay in it? That is the question. And my answer is: Yes. Repent honestly before God to each other and to him. Admit it should not have happened. Ask for forgiveness from each other and from God, perhaps from former spouses. And then keep your promises that you made to each other when you made your vows, rather than a second time breaking your word.
Lisa’s question is: Are there texts for that opinion? I mean, you are just saying that, Piper. What about the Bible? And I want to say here: I could be wrong about this. I could be drawing inferences from texts illegitimately. But there do seem to me to be three or four or more pointers in this direction in the Bible, and I will give them to Lisa now.
1. Meet the Gibeonites
In Joshua 9 there is the story of the Gibeonites who, you may remember, hear about Joshua and the Israelites destroying cities, and they don’t want to be destroyed. So, they know they are going to be next on the list of destruction, so they pretend to be from a far away country. They lie to Joshua, and they get him to promise that he will not kill them because they are not in his territory.
Joshua makes a vow and swears to them before God that he won’t kill them. Then he finds out that they were lying to him. It says in Joshua 9:19, “All the leaders said to all the congregation, ‘We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them.’”
There are two reasons why they shouldn’t have entered this vow: (1) the Gibeonites were lying to them, and (2) because it says explicitly that they did not consult God — and God explicitly intended for the Gibeonites to be destroyed (see Joshua 9:14, 24).
Now they are keeping the vow they never should have made under horrible circumstances, thus, elevating the importance of promise-keeping or vow-keeping even when it was entered into wrongfully. I am saying that perhaps suggests — I think it does suggest — that a vow you make to a person to be their husband or their wife till death do you part is not something to be taken lightly.
2. Woman at the Well
Jesus talked to the woman at the well in terms that suggest pretty strongly that he believed she had five genuine husbands and one non-genuine live-in. He put it like this:
“The vow you make to be a husband or wife till death do you part is not something to be taken lightly.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:16–18)
Now, think about that. What does that imply?
It is true that the Greek — that includes this text here — does not have a different word for husband and man or husband and male. So, it could be translated “You have had five men and the man you now have is not your man.”
But even if you translate it that way, it doesn’t make sense unless you distinguish this sixth man from those other five in some way, because he says: This is not your man. Those were your men. This is not your man. This is not your husband. Those were your husbands. What was the difference? Well, the only thing I know to suggest is that they had somehow formalized the relationship in a ceremony in which they took some promises to create the relationship that was known as marriage — or husband and wife.
So, it seems Jesus put some stock in calling those five men real husbands different from five live-in boyfriends that she never married.
3. Marrying Someone Divorced
Interestingly enough, I was talking this over with all the team of the Together for the Gospel guys, and I won’t say who said it, but one of them, I thought, very provocatively pointed this out: Jesus does use the verb marry for what they should not do and do when he is forbidding them from doing it. Let me show you what I mean. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
He doesn’t say whoever presumably marries or tries to marry. He says marries. He doesn’t say presumes to marry or tries to marry — as if, yes, this is a real marriage being created. It should not be created, and it is like committing adultery when you enter it.
He says a similar kind of thing in Mark 10:11–12. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
So, if Jesus is willing to call wrongfully entered relationships marriages, then it seems to me that we should hold people to the expectations of holiness and permanence implied in the word marriage, till death do us part. I take the warning that remarriage involves adultery, “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” not to mean that sexual relations in a wrongfully entered relationship can never be sanctified through repentance and forgiveness, but rather that an unholy relationship involves unholy sex until that relationship is newly consecrated to God through repentance and forgiveness. That relationship remains tainted at every level.
4. Hold Fast
One last thought. If this seems strange that a prohibited relationship can become a consecrated and holy one, consider the example — and there are several in the Bible — of the kingship of Israel.
“I would appeal to those in a marriage they should not have entered to remain there.”
The people came to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8:6–7 and said, “‘Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.’”
Yet, in spite of this evil origin of this new relationship of king and people and God, God made the kingship an integral part of his plan for Jesus to come as the King of kings and Lord of lords and as the Son of David.
So, those are four reasons, examples, kinds of texts, in the Scriptures. I would appeal to those in a marriage they should not have entered to remain there and consecrate themselves by confession and repentance and consecration so that henceforth they will keep their sacred promises.