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Volume 15, Issue 3: Husbandry

Time to Walk

Douglas Wilson

An important part of our Christian responsibility is the prevention of divorce. God hates divorce, and so should His servants. Divorce divides what God has united. As an act of rebellion on someone's part, it has cascading destructive consequences—and the children are usually at the bottom of the avalanche.

But there are times when divorce is not only lawful, but proper and even obligatory. In a day when divorce is commonly sought as a solution of first resort, Christians sometimes shy away from this. But it is important to affirm this principle, and teach it, for a number of reasons. In any setting where divorce is virtually impossible, all the cards have been given to those who are hard-hearted. Jesus said that divorce was given through Moses precisely because of hardness of heart. In other words, the wisdom of God determined that divorce was an appropriate answer to that kind of hard-heartedness. It is never a positive good, but it is sometimes the only appropriate response to that which is evil.
But there are churches where divorce is entirely excluded. Unfortunately, they are usually not so successful in banning hard hearts. There are other churches where divorce is virtually excluded. Again, hard-heartedness is not virtually eliminated in any kind of parity. What this means is that the hard-hearted one is given a free hostage, and he can then do whatever he wants. Because of the stand taken by the church, the one in the marriage who winds up getting hammered is the one who actually cares what God's Word says. Not only so, but he or she is hammered twice—once by the sinning spouse, and secondly by the sinning church. Until we recover what it means to think covenantally (because covenants have stipulations and conditions), we will continue to struggle with this.
Sin specializes in walking the line, usually just a little bit on the wrong side of it, wherever that line has been drawn. This tendency can be illustrated with minor and endearing infractions. Just last night I was watching my one-year-old grandson being told not to touch a vase of flowers. So he touched the flowers with his head. "Nobody said not to use the head. You meant not to touch it with my hands. Didn't you?" Of course, he did not say this—he can't talk. But that is what he was doing. But the same pattern is not nearly so endearing when it grows up; it can be employed by those who are interested in pursuing their abominations. The sinful mind is inherently a legalistic mind and loves detailed arcana.
Because of this, those who have a wooden view of the scriptural requirements of divorce don't know how to handle the creativity of sinful weirdness. The hard-hearted one can make sure that he gets all his sinning in without giving his spouse a lawful out. What counsel do you give a woman if the husband gets breast implants and wears dresses around the house? And what do you say if he demands to be shown a verse? Okay, Deuteronomy 22:5, but where does it say in that verse specifically that this is grounds for divorce? Of course, there is no specific verse to that effect.
But Jesus allowed divorce for porneias. The word is not the specific word for adultery, and it is a very broad term referring to sexual uncleanness. It is broad in just the way that legalistic sinners hate. Whenever someone is caught in sin, their first reaction is to grab for the rulebook in order to challenge the point. "It wasn't adultery because it was oral sex. It wasn't adultery because I didn't really love her. It wasn't adultery because a twenty-year collection of child porn magazines isn't adultery. It wasn't adultery because I was just fondling our daughter. Fondling is not adultery."
But whether or not it was adultery, all the above have to be considered as porneias—sexual uncleanness. And Jesus says that whoever divorces, "except for porneias"is guilty. Now if you have an example of such porneias, but it is followed by true and genuine repentance, down to the ground, then there is the possibility of reconciliation. I don't believe that marital reconciliation can be demanded (either by the guilty party, or by the church), but it should be sought. And when a biblical reconciliation can be brought about, that is what we should strive for.
At the same time, this pursuit of reconciliation should not be done in such a way as to place any unnecessary burdens on the victim. The Bible teaches that a man reaps what he sows, but often Christian counsel tries to make the innocent party share in the harvest. "For better for worse" in the wedding vows does not refer to the "worse" of covenant-breaking. It refers to sickness, health, riches, poverty, and so on—all the things bestowed by a wise Providence on married couples across the spectrum. It does not refer to rejection of the basic commitment made in the covenant. Marriages are covenants, and covenants can be broken.
So suppose there has been a clear-cut example of porneias. If repentance follows, forgiveness must be extended, but this is not the same thing as saying that marital reconciliation must be extended. The qualifications for personal fellowship and holding office (in this case, of husband or wife) are different. But let us further say that instead of repentance following, we instead find explaining, excusing, blame-shifting, logic-chopping, waffling, noodling, or backfilling. It is time to walk.

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