The speaker in the above clip from The Gospel Coalition, which is a theologically Reformed group of like-minded, evangelical Christian leaders, is Pastor Erwin Lutzer. He is a longtime senior pastor at The Moody Church in Chicago, IL. Pastor Lutzer does radio shows espousing his evangelical views and is a very prolific writer publishing many books. He earned his masters in theology at Dallas Theological Seminary plus has a doctorate from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. I share these brief biographical details to explain where this author stands in the conservative evangelical community. He is well-respected as this brief bio suggests.
While I agree with Pastor Lutzer on adultery being clear grounds for the faithful spouse to divorce* Biblically, I am concerned about his focus following that statement. He talks about encouraging reconciliation, which is wise only if the adulterous spouse as first and foremost demonstrated clear repentance. The focus of avoiding a divorce to the exclusion of talking about real repentance following adultery is a subtle but important blindspot.
To be fair, he does talk about repeated adultery as grounds for Biblical divorce; however, I noticed that he goes to forgiveness first in talking about restored marriages. The Biblical order is repentance first and then forgiveness. That was the order presented by John the Baptist leading the way for Jesus’ ministry. And that is the order we need to follow if marriages are really going to be restored.
I believe this is often missed because so much emphasis is placed on not divorcing in the evangelical Christian community. That assumption misses a harsh reality:
Divorce is NOT the worst outcome following adultery discovery.
Repeated adultery in the same marriage is a far worse outcome. It may come with STDs and greater costs to the faithful spouse than if he/she had divorced years earlier in light of his/her spouse’s adultery the first time. That’s why it is important to follow the Biblical order on this one: repentance first then talk of forgiveness and restoration (of trust and maybe the marriage). Personally, I think it is pastorally irresponsible to encourage marriage restoration following adultery unless one is utterly convinced the adulterous spouse is truly repenting. Too much is at stake to not make sure the root sin issues are addressed in the adulterous spouse.
Also, it still remains in the court of the faithful spouse to make the decision whether to remain married or divorce. It is not the pastor’s decision to make. Faithful spouses are the ones bearing the risk and the primary costs of making it work. Plus, God has given them permission to divorce (Mt 19:9). The faithful spouse does not owe it to the pastor or the adulterous spouse to stay married.
While divorce is not a good option, sometimes life does not offer us a good option to take.
We must choose from a buffet of bad options.
But choosing divorce is better–by far in my opinion–than tolerating adultery and not insisting on full repentance from adultery as the foremost condition to even considering marriage restoration.
* As a side note, I think Pastor Lutzer’s interpretation of I Corinthians 7:15 is far too restrictive. Often times, one is not given a reason for the abandonment. To require it to be because of the faithful spouse’s Christian faith is practically hard to prove and is an addition to the actual verse under question. Personally, I believe the context that the unbelieving spouse is allowed to leave in peace here is because an abandoning Christian spouse would be subject to Church discipline if he/she did the same thing. So, I read I Corinthians 7:15 as it is simply written without adding to the reasons why the non-Christian spouse abandons the marriage.