Gospel Witness And Divorce

So this was the plan they followed. Ezra selected leaders to represent their families, designating each of the representatives by name. On December 29, the leaders sat down to investigate the matter. By March 27, the first day of the new year, they had finished dealing with all the men who had married pagan wives. These are the priests who had married pagan wives: From the family of Jeshua son of Jehozadak and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah. They vowed to divorce their wives, and they each acknowledged their guilt by offering a ram as a guilt offering.

– Ezra 10:16-19, NLT



Does divorcing an adulterous spouse destroy one’s Gospel witness?  

In other words, does divorce de facto dishonor God?


These are the questions on my mind and heart today as I ponder Scripture on adultery and divorce. I wonder how much we have imported our own evangelical sub-culture’s aversion to divorce to the exclusion of God’s heart on the matter.


To some degree, I get the concern about divorce running rampant within the Christian community. It looks really bad when God’s people are not keeping their covenant promises. Marriage is supposed to image Christ’s relationship with the Church (see Eph 5). It does not look good when Christian men and women are divorcing their spouses.


However, I would argue such an understanding is far too simplistic, and it reinforces a damaging, shaming environment for all divorcees regardless of the circumstances of their divorce, which is to say it is unjust and ungodly. If God divorces over adultery (Jeremiah 3:8), then certainly we ought not to shame our brothers and sisters who divorce over similar adulterous circumstances!


Furthermore, the idea of covenant people being separated–i.e. divorced–from God is present in the Biblical witness as well. We know from Scripture that many will say they follow Christ as well as many thought they were safe within the nation of Israel, yet God will turn them away on the Judgment Day because they never knew Him as evidenced by their wicked choices (e.g. Jeremiah 3:8, Mt 7:21-23, Mt. 25:31ff, Hebrews 6:4-8, I Cor. 6:9-10). That is to say the Great Divorce is coming for many who are living in sin and denying God by their actions (to borrow terminology from C.S. Lewis’ book-long parable on Heaven and Hell entitled The Great Divorce).


Divorce is not a sin. If it was, then today’s passage from Ezra would make absolutely no sense. Ezra is calling the people of God to divorce their pagan wives! I find it hard to believe God would have His priest and prophet call the people to sin. Now, I am not suggesting this is a mandate for us today. Much is going on in the passage from Ezra that is not directly applicable to the garden variety, adulterous situation today. However, I am making the point that the Bible does actually command divorce in the name of being a holy people–i.e. a holy people bringing honor to God’s Name!


Such a passage or command may make little to no sense in a culture so distanced from understanding God’s holiness and desire for His people’s holiness. Holiness matters to God. And that is in part why divorce is on the table in the case of adultery. After all, God instructed His people to purge such evil by a death penalty to anyone daring to violate the sanctity of marriage by committing adultery (Deut. 22:22 and Lev. 20:10). God is deadly serious about stopping adultery in His people.


It is hard to sweep adultery under the rug when a divorce has taken place. Divorce begs the question: why? As a divorcee myself, I know this is the case especially in the evangelical Christian community. Whether it is articulated or not, people want to know why a Christian has divorced (doubly so, if you are a minister). Such a situation poses a dilemma to the faithful spouse: do I tell them the truth about my former spouse’s adultery? Or do I hide the truth in pleasant niceties because I do not think these naive Christians want to deal with the ugly truth?


I will encourage all faithful spouses to choose to speak truth if asked. You do not have to slander your spouse. Just tell those asking what behavior took place that ended the marriage. For example, I am divorced because my former spouse abandoned me, chose adultery, and refused to end her affair; (I gave her the option to end her affair and work on the marriage or to continue with the divorce. She chose divorce and keeping her affair partner). Those are the actions that ended my marriage. It sounds bad because what was done was bad.


In the end, I think holiness and walking in the truth honors God more than living a lie and enabling sin. Sometimes this might mean divorcing a spouse who refuses to repent from adultery. So, I actually see staying in a marriage still fractured by unrepentant adultery as a worse Gospel witness than divorcing an unrepentant adulterous spouse.


Also, in my mind, shaming a faithful spouse for divorcing an unrepentant adulterer or adulteress is far more damaging to the Gospel witness than the actual divorce. It sends a clear message to faithful spouses that God rejects them and parties with their abuser–i.e. the adulterous spouse.


When will the Church arise and become more concern with eternal holiness than a marital status due to expire on this temporal earth? When will holiness be more important to the Gospel community than simply staying in a marriage that continues to be ravaged by adultery?


I hope soon.


Does divorcing an adulterous spouse destroy one’s Gospel witness?




Refusing to address the adulterous sin undermines the Gospel witness.


“…for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”

– I Peter 1:16, NIV




3 thoughts on “Gospel Witness And Divorce”

  1. Biblically, the only stated ground for divorce is infidelity and even in these cases, it seems clear that God would rather us remain together. But, He provides the “out clause” of adultery because He knows that we are not as strong as Him and may not be capable of offering that sort of radical forgiveness and grace. Reasonable minds may also be able to differ as to whether (physical, mental or spiritual) abuse should be included as another legitimate ground for divorce. But, that is not my point for the time being.

    In a Christian marriage, we commit to loving the other person through the thick and thin, no matter the circumstances and we commit to loving and looking out for our spouse over and above our own interests. Husbands in particular are told to love their wives as Christ loves the church. This is a tremendous charge, for God repeatedly forgives our transgressions, idolatry and waywardness on a daily basis despite how much it breaks his Heart to see us forsake Him. This capacity to forgive is truly divine and something no person could ever achieve, particularly on such a repetitive basis. But, we are called to try to imitate this love and radical forgiveness by becoming grace incarnate to our spouses when they disrespect, hurt, and even abuse or cheat on us in our marriages.

    So, when have we forgiven too many times? Never. Jesus specifically said that we should never time of forgiving (77 x 7, etc.) and that wouldn’t we rather be hurt than to hurt another. Then, he modeled it Himself by dying on the cross.

    Forgiveness is one thing, but at what point is a husband relieved from having to try and work on the relationship with a wife who is in that abusive ‘tearful apology’ cycle? Such a statement sounds so paradoxical to me in many ways. Of course, I understand that forgiveness does not have to be followed by reconciliation, trust or working on the relationship together again in the future. But if she is willing to work on it, then should he always be more concerned with her interests and spiritual standing than his own? Trust does not grow immediately from forgiveness and in fact it may not ever return again so what sort of relationship can even be rebuilt from the ashes?

    My question revolves around when a spouse should feel as though they have offered enough forgiveness and grace so that they can feel (eternally) justified that they have lived up to their marital commitments to their spouse and God.

    If you ever give up on your marriage, you will seemingly fail to meet God’s standard and His hope that we will imitate Him, personifying his Grace to a wayward spouse and a fallen world. Isn’t it very possible that this love and personification of God’s grace is a greater good than avoiding the pain/difficulty of a broken, even a repeatedly broken marriage? I don’t want to be a martyr in my marriage, but might showing that sort of grace be precisely the sort of counter-cultural love that God wants from us?

  2. Pete,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog post. I hope to give you a more thorough answer to your questions in a post later on the blog as I think what you have written is worth a detailed response.

    That said, I will give you a quick response now. It sounds like you are already aware of the answer to your questions. You grasp that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation/restoration. While practically no limit is given on forgiveness as you point out, Scripture does not demand we reconcile/restore a relationship.

    Also, it would be unwise to trust someone who has demonstrated such contempt and disregard for one’s well-being as an adulterer/adulteress does by their sins against God and the faithful spouse. I would not counsel a woman to go back to her husband if he had already pulled a knife on her and then continue to blame her for “having to pull a knife on her.” That would be irresponsible. I see it as no different in the case of adultery–i.e. the STD “knife” has been pulled or the STD Russian Roulette has been played with the faithful spouse’s life.

    As to the Ephesians 5 passage, I will write more about how Christ dying for the Church is not universally applicable in the way it usually is used. Jesus did not call us to be doormats. And God respects our choices to reject Him. More on this later.


    PS Today’s post talks about how the permission to divorce after adultery is not the same thing as a command to divorce. It takes wisdom to discern whether or not this is the best of the bad options in front of the faithful spouse.

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