Pastor John Piper is a major figure in Reformed, Evangelical Christianity in the United States. He hails from my home state of Minnesota. Having heard him preach myself years ago, I would say that he is a very gifted communicator, and I do not doubt his passion for Christ. He strikes me as a man who is sincere about his convictions and his desire to honor Scripture.
So, I want to be clear about my purpose behind writing this piece. I am not interested in calling John Piper’s character in question. This is not a personal attack. In fact, I hope my words will be found edifying for all who read them.
I choose to write a response to Piper’s blog post and audio file entitled, “Does the Bible Allow for Divorce In the Case of Adultery?” for several reasons. First, the post by John Piper pertains directly to the focus of this blog–namely, adultery and divorce. Second, his very public position and arguments on these matters have a major impact on evangelical Christianity and are thereby worth addressing. And finally, his teaching on this matter fall into several of the classical pastoral errors on the matter of adultery and divorce. They are dangerously damaging teachings and thereby need addressing pastorally.
Does the Bible allow for divorce in the case of adultery?
I don’t think so. I don’t think the Bible allows divorce and remarriage ever while the spouse is living. That’s my radical, crazy, conservative, narrow, hard-nosed, very needed view in our divorce-happy culture.
As I hear/read his position, Piper seems to take divorce and remarriage as more egregious sins than adultery. This is not the heart of God on the matter as consistently demonstrated throughout Scripture. Divorce did not make the explicit prohibitive list of the Ten Commandments! Adultery did. I wrote on this distortion in an early blog post entitled “Divorce is not sin.” and again in conversation with another pastor (link here).
Piper goes on to dismiss the exception clauses for divorce in Mathew 5:32 and Mathew 19:9 as not referring to adultery but rather fornication as the word Jesus uses (original is “porneia”) may have that meaning. He makes the argument that Jesus was thinking of his parents in their situation prior to his birth as he said this and was encouraging people to marry not letting past sexual sin (i.e. fornication) prevent them.
Honestly, this argument is far from coherent. If you are not married, then you cannot get divorced. Even if Jesus is thinking of the betrothed situation of his parents (similar to legal marriage today), Joseph’s decision to divorce quietly was attributed to his righteous character! It makes no sense to say this is about encouraging marrige after Scripture clearly states the decision to not marry–i.e. to divorce Mary quietly–was a perfectly fine choice of a righteous man. Furthermore, this interpretation misses the point that Mary was with Child by the Holy Spirit (i.e. she did not fornicate, even if waging tongues said otherwise).
Finally, I will point out his interpretation hangs on his tenuous treatment of “porneia” as only meaning one thing sexually–i.e. sex before marriage (fornication). This restrictive definition is contrary to what my Greek lexicon says, and I trust my Greek lexicon more than any one pastor’s interpretation of a word. Furthermore, I have seen it argued that this word–“porneia”–was used to expand, not restrict, the sexual exception clause for divorce as it made it more broadly about sexual sins and not just the specific sexual sin of adultery (Richard Hays, New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School makes this case for interpreting “porneia” more broadly in his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pp 354-355.).
Next, John Piper moves to Ephesians 5,
But, even if you leave aside all that I have just said here, go to Ephesians 5 where it says, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church.”
Well, has the church ever committed adultery? Like, daily?
I address this distorted us of Ephesians 5 in my post entitled, “Not A Submission Or Leadership Failure.” Unless Piper wants to defend a position that all enter heaven, I find this position untenable. More on this later…
Now, we go to his interpretation of Jeremiah 3:8, and I do hand it to him that he actually brings up this text:
And God, ultimately, never divorces his people. There are separations: she goes into exile in Babylon. And you get divorce-type language. You’ve got to be careful in Jeremiah! It says he gave her a bill of divorcement, but not really. He sent her away and then he went and said, “My heart grows warm for you. I’m taking you back!” And then Hosea illustrates that by going and marrying a prostitute.
Because Piper seems fuzzy here, let me quote to you what it actually says in Jeremiah 3:8–“She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore” (ESV).* Piper misses the part where the Scripture says God “sent her away.” I think it is very dangerous to say the Bible says something but it does not mean it.
The text is very clear in this verse: God divorced Israel in this instance.
The woman (Israel) is even sent away further indicating a divorce actually took place.
God was not bluffing. And this was no “separation” as Piper calls it as God sent Israel packing with a certificate of divorce!
As to the question of whether God reunites with Israel, I would suggest this point is moot if we take the plain meaning of the metaphor in Jeremiah 3:8 as it is written. We could have an eschatological argument over whether every single biological descendant of Jacob will be in Heaven, but I doubt that is a position Piper would defend and such a discussion is unnecessary in light of the plain meaning of the text.
God divorced Israel. Period. If God did this, it cannot be sin.
And God entered into another covenant with Gentiles through grace in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, does that make God an adulterer? I think not.
My final point is that Piper does not deal with the elephant in the room about adultery. He does not speak about the proscribed death penality in Scripture for this serious sin (e.g. Deut. 22:22). This is a major Biblical omission to make in this discussion about God’s mind on the matter of adultery and divorce. Divorce would be unnecessary if we followed the Hebrew Scriptures in this directive–not that I think we should start killing adulterers/adulteresses, mind you. Divorce is the merciful alternative to death.
It seems Piper would rather extend mercy and grace to cheaters than to the faithful spouse thereby leaving the faithful spouse in a position less merciful than if they lived in Old Testament times. Personally, I think that violates both the letter and spirit of the Law.
My next post will be on how these teachings are damaging.
*As a side note, I wonder how many pastors you know who would say a cheating spouse is someone who “played the whore” like Jeremiah does here? My point in that is to say God is very consistent in calling out the sin of adultery and making it the focus, which is unlike the current focus too many Christians place on stopping the divorce after adultery.
Here’s the full link to the Piper audio/blog from which I quote–http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-the-bible-allow-for-divorce-in-the-case-of-adultery