MDR: Matthew 19, Part 2 (Pastoral concerns)

And so, should elders attempt to compel a divorce by a husband and wife who have wrongfully broken up a marriage to get married? I don’t think so. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The marriage having been made, it would be the rarest of cases where the first marriage could be put back together (real people just don’t act that way) and a violation of Deuteronomy 24, to the extent it continues to have force. The need is not for a second divorce, but for a better second marriage and for Godly regret and repentance of the sin — not only the sin of breaking a marriage, but also of the sins that led to breaking the marriage (perhaps lust, selfishness, or lack of compassion, for example).

It is therefore urgent that we do a better job of teaching on marriage and counseling our troubled couples. It’s not enough to threaten men and women who have problem marriages with a denial of the right to remarry. Threats aren’t the solution.

I’m no marriage counselor, but even a casual observer can see that we aren’t coping with this problem well. Divorce is far too frequent — even within the church. We need to teach our members to be less self-indulgent, more giving, less demanding, and just plain better people.

I’m afraid that part of our problem is our failure to pastor members as individuals. Often times, our members’ closest contact with the ministers and elders is through the pulpit. We’ve got to find a way to have a more hands-on ministry — especially to the weaker Christians. It’s easy to hang around strong Christians — they aren’t as high maintenance as weak Christians. But it’s the weak Christians that we often pastor the most poorly. Just a thought …

Some would argue that allowing the remarried couple to “profit” from their sin by remaining married condones the sin of the divorce — indeed, it appears that the couple will have gotten away with their sin with no real consequences! And isn’t it awfully easy to claim to have repented after the second marriage?

Such a view fails to understand the nature of grace. The first mistake is a failure to realize that only God may exact penalties for sin.[1] It is not the role of an eldership to exact punishment.[2] And, of course, we can’t refuse to extend grace to those who’ve repented just because some will falsely claim to have repented. The problem of knowing who has truly repented comes up with every baptism and every restoration. We really have no choice but to offer outwardly repentant remarried couples the benefit of the doubt, or else we risk becoming a very cynical, judgmental group of people — surely not what God wants of us.[3]

Moreover, suggesting that allowing the couple to continue in the second marriage allows the couple to avoid the consequences of the divorce greatly misapprehends the severe earthly consequences of a divorce. Generally speaking, even the spouse that initiates the divorce suffers mightily from all the problems that a divorce brings on both spouses — not to mention their children.

I should add that whatever I’ve said regarding a wrongful remarriage is also true regarding a murder. How does the Bible say that we should deal with a Christian who is guilty of murder? Plainly, a Christian guilty of murder may be accepted as a forgiven Christian, no longer accountable to God for his sin, if he is truly penitent. This is so even though he can’t bring his victim back to life and can’t undo the pain he’s caused the victim’s family. Allowing a murderer to be forgiven by the mere expedient of repentance hardly condones the murder — rather, it is the very definition of grace. And there is no imaginable reason that grace should be denied a penitent divorcee.

Thus, breaking a marriage is certainly not okay. But the cure is not to be found in having the church take on the role of avenger of sins. Rather, the cure is in doing a better job of pastoring the married to keep them married. If the marriage nonetheless breaks, we should recognize that the church has failed as well as the spouses. We will discuss this further later.

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

The disciples evidently got Jesus’ point. Marriage is not for the faint of heart! It’s a lifetime commitment. And Jesus makes it clear that marriage is not for everyone. At the time, the Pharisees taught that a man was not fully Godly unless he was married. Jesus says that you don’t have to marry to please him. Indeed, some may need to renounce getting married for the sake of God. It was radical preaching in First Century Palestine.

Recall Matthew 5:29-30 —

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Jesus said this just before speaking on divorce in the Sermon on the Mount and just after warning about lust of the eye. Some people have personal issues that prevent them from making the commitment of marriage. They shouldn’t marry. And the church shouldn’t treat them as second class citizens. Rather, we should respect their decision, as it may well involve considerable discipline and personal sacrifice.

[1] (Rom 12:19) “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

[2] This does not contradict the doctrine of disfellowshipping. The goal of disfellowshipping a Christian is to bring the Christian to repentance (2 Thess. 3:14-15), not to punish sin.

[3] Now 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 does enjoin us to judge those within the church, meaning that we should use Godly judgment to judge whether our brother is living such an immoral life as to jeopardize his salvation. This concept applies, of course, to unrepentant sin, where the Christian must change his conduct to retain his relationship with God.

Thus, a spouse who continues in the same wicked behaviors that destroyed the first marriage may well be appropriately disfellowshipped by the church in an effort to rescue the second marriage. This is not punishment, but sound pastoring. See further on this subject —

Church Discipline, Introduction

Church Discipline, The Member Struggling to Repent

Church Discipline, Those No Longer Penitent

Church Discipline, Those Without Faith

Church Discipline, Divisiveness

Church Discipline, Conclusions

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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