The Lutheran Witness - What God Has Joined Together - For the Christian, divorce is simply not an option, period.

What God Has Joined Together

Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June, The Lutheran Witness will be sharing print articles from the past few years on topics of marriage, family and sexuality. Check back for more content each week in June, and view these and other articles here.

By Rev. Dr. Joel Biermann

There are times when the church’s teaching on an issue sparks discussion and controversy because there is some debate over the precise meaning of critical words or ideas in the teaching. Other times, a doctrine of the church generates keen discussion and disagreement because the teaching is exceedingly plain and clear but difficult to practice. The church’s teaching about divorce falls into the latter category.

Jesus is quite explicit and succinct. In the Sermon on the Mount, He establishes a sweeping prohibition against divorce, with “the ground of sexual immorality” as the only exception (Matt. 5:32). And then, in response to a devious line of questions from contentious Pharisees, Jesus fully quotes the last word of the creation account: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” He then declares the familiar words: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:7–9). Later, in answer to His disciples’ need for clarification, Jesus is again terse and sweeping: The man or woman who divorces wife or husband and marries another commits adultery (Mark 10:11–12).

Following a few other relevant passages (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:12–16), the church has consistently prohibited divorce with only two caveats: when one spouse is sexually unfaithful or when a spouse deserts the marriage. In such cases, the other spouse is free to recognize legally the tragedy that has in fact already occurred: The marriage has been shattered and destroyed by sin. Divorce is not the end of the marriage, but the acknowledgement of the fact.

Such sinful tragedies do strike even Christian marriages, nonetheless divorce must always be considered as a sad anomaly and never as a viable possibility for a couple committed to following God’s will for marriage. Of course, in the face of such a challenging teaching, questions about what precisely constitutes “scriptural grounds” for a divorce have notoriously generated what seem to be rather expansive understandings of “desertion.”

Rather than engaging in closely argued debates about when a Christian might seek a divorce, however, the wiser and far more beneficial course of action should be to emphasize that God intends every marriage to last a lifetime. The church, in turn, should follow her Lord in expecting nothing less from those who are married. Instead of finding a reason to get out of a marriage, Christian husbands and wives should take Jesus at His word, resolve never to break their promise to God and their spouse, and concentrate their efforts on nurturing and building their marriage and the marriages of everyone else they know. For the Christian, divorce is simply not an option, period.

To her shame, the church in America has cultivated a remarkably high tolerance for divorce and has honed uncanny abilities to accommodate the ideas and practices of the world. Christians have become comfortable with, and have even adopted, the world’s attitudes toward marriage and divorce. So it is that people marry to find happiness, and when this ebbs or fails to materialize, then they feel almost an obligation to start over and pursue the path to happiness with a new, perhaps more compatible, partner.

Driving this common way of thinking is the assumption that individual fulfillment and personal happiness are at the core of the meaning and purpose of life. A difficult marriage, an unpleasant spouse, a disappointing relationship and unmet expectations all add up to obstacles to individual happiness, and — in the thinking of the world — amply justify divorce.

But this way of thinking and acting is simply wrong and antithetical to Christianity. Personal fulfillment is not the meaning of life, nor is it a basic human right; and the goal of life is not happiness. An unhappy, unfulfilling or difficult marriage does not call for a divorce, but for redoubled effort to craft a marriage that honors God and serves one another and others. The foundation and the motivation for this hard work is not an amorphous feeling labeled love, but the promises of God, trust in the grace He gives and commitment to live in obedience to His will.

While there are obviously certain situations when the sinful behavior of a spouse may necessitate a marital separation simply to guard a person’s safety, such exceptional cases are not the standard by which Christians live. The standard is rather the selfless love and the willing giving of the self for the other that is exemplified in Christ’s love for His church and the church’s eager submission to her Lord.

Marriages that operate with Christ as the model and the source of strength do not decay, unravel or atrophy into inevitable divorce. They witness to the church and to the world the truth of God’s grace that enables fallen and fallible humans to die to self, forgive, live for the other and move forward regardless of what feelings may be present — or absent. Divorce destroys this witness.

If the church is going to witness the reality of Christ’s grace to the world and offer the world a living image of the difference that Christ makes when He re-creates people in the wonder of His Gospel, then we must resist the easy path of accommodation to the sin of divorce. Christians do not support those in a painful, dying marriage collapsing into divorce by “being here for both of you at this difficult time of divorce.” Christians help those in such marriages by refusing to allow them to divorce for any reason other than the narrow concessions granted by Jesus. He promises to make all things new, and He will — and in His mercy, those who live in His truth may well enjoy delightful foretastes of that newness even now.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

For more resources on marriage and the family, visit the LCMS Family Ministry page.

2 thoughts on “What God Has Joined Together”

  1. RE: “An unhappy, unfulfilling or difficult marriage does not call for a divorce, but for redoubled effort to craft a marriage that honors God and serves one another and others.”

    What exactly might a “redoubled effort to craft” such a marriage entail? What is the most helpful role of Christian family members, close friends, and the congregation (if any) where the couple has been worshipping?

    RE: “Christians help those in [‘painful, dying’] marriages by refusing to allow them to divorce for any reason other than the narrow concessions granted by Jesus.”

    I was in my twenties when my parents’ marriage came apart. Neither parent asked me whether I would “allow them to divorce.” For many months I deeply lamented where things were headed and at one point asked my pastor what I could do. He replied, “My experience tells me that the best thing would be for them to get into marriage counseling as soon as possible.”

    It is relatively easy to make doctrinaire statements opposing divorce on biblical grounds. Far more difficult is knowing how to engage divorcing and divorced friends and loved ones wisely over a period of many years, especially as unanticipated difficulties arise time and again. If Christian love means expressing opposition to a divorce that is proceeding on unbiblical grounds, how is Christian love best expressed after the divorce is finalized?

  2. I agree with your article with one exception.. I think in today’s society with misuse of drugs, pornography, gambling,etc. it changes the marriage to the point of having to divorce to save the children and yourself, frankly. When one of the spouses gets into these vices, takes treatment and still cannot keep away from for instance, gambling, the choice is limited! Support for the surviving spouse (women are getting into these vices more and more) and supporting the dads and the children is what the church can do.

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