Comments by J.H., a standing brother in speaking recently with his pastor….
I was invited to lunch today by an elder in our church. Our meeting lasted nearly 3 hours. After we were done, he thanked me for sharing my views on MDR with him. Later in the afternoon, he sent me a copy of John MacArthur’s church position paper on the topic. I believe this has been discussed here before; it did not take long for me to find several points of contention. I would appreciate any and all comments that point out the places where we believe this paper would be flawed. Any and all comments are desired as I develop any response I may make to this elder. Thanks.
(CRITIQUE OF) DR. JOHN MACARTHUR’S GRACE COMMUNITY CHURCH DISTINCTIVE
God Hates Divorce. He hates it because it always involves unfaithfulness to the solemn covenant of marriage that two partners have entered into before Him, and because it brings harmful consequences to those partners and their children (Mal. 2:14-16).
Error #1 – Dr. MacArthur fails to point out that the context of Malachi 2 is specifically addressing only the covenant with the spouse of our youth, and that God not only called breaking faith with that indissoluble covenant “treacherous” and “violent”, He said it always resulted in broken fellowship with Him, and also that it defiled future generations. The word “sane” שָׂנֵ֣א is the same strong word God used for “hate” in Proverbs 6:16-19 when He tells us His 6 or 7 “hot buttons”
Divorce in the Scripture is permitted only because of man’s sin.
Error #2 – Divorce of a consummated marriage was never “permitted” in scripture, but only to dissolve a ketubah betrothal contract, under which a fiancé was legally considered a wife prior to consummation of the marriage according to Mosaic law. To the contrary, Jesus said Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning IT WAS NOT SO!
Since divorce is only a concession to man’s sin and is not part of God’s original plan for marriage, all believers should hate divorce as God does and pursue it only when there is no other recourse.
Error #3 – Our Holy God never makes “concessions” to man’s sin! In fact, in Hebrews, He calls this “insulting the spirit of grace”, “trampling under foot the Son of God”, and “regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant” sanctifying us. He says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. (Matt. 5:48)
With God’s help a marriage can survive the worst sins.
A civil-only “marriage” (unlike true holy matrimony) cannot survive the worst sin, that of being only carnally joined to someone else’s one-flesh covenant mate, as per 1 Cor. 6:16, rather than joined by God’s hand as per Matt. 19:6. There is no “help from God” for that which Jesus repeatedly called adulterous. In fact, in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus gives us the true picture connected with violation of Luke 16:18, after commending John the Baptist for rebuking the adulterous remarriage of Herod and Herodias, being concerned enough for their souls that he gave up his head.
In Matthew 19:3-9, Christ teaches clearly that divorce is an accommodation to man’s sin that violates God’s original purpose for the intimate unity and permanence of the marriage bond (Gen. 2:24).
Error #4 – in Matthew 19:8, Jesus teaches clearly that civil divorce is a man-made construct under which Moses tried to regulate the dissolution of Hebrew betrothal so that an unholy arbitrage in the bride price paid under ketubah would not result. With regard to consummated holy matrimony, God may have a “purpose” for marriage, but that “purpose” is fully a COMMANDMENT, because Jesus very clearly and imperatively stated, “therefore what GOD has joined, let NO MAN separate.”
He taught that God’s law allowed divorce only because of “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8).
Re-assertion of Errors #2 and #4 discussed above. Jesus did not say, “God allowed”, He said “Moses allowed.”
Legal divorce was a concession for the faithful partner
Re-assertion of Error #3 above. Jesus was clearly stating in 19:6 that man is given no power or authority to dissolve a covenant in which God Himself is an irrevocable participant, nor to unjoin the one-flesh entity He has joined.
….due to the sexual sin or abandonment by the sinning partner, so that the faithful partner was no longer bound to the marriage (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:12-15).
Error #5 – both Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9 (full text) clearly state that anyone / everyone who marries any divorced person commits continuous, ongoing adultery. The only conceivable reason for this is that man has no authority or power to “dissolve” holy matrimony. Since marriages cannot possibly be only half-adulterous, it follows that there cannot therefore be any provision for either partner to remarry so long as both spouses remain alive without it being adultery for both.
Error #6 – Dr. MacArthur is being intellectually dishonest in his claim that 1 Cor. 7:12-15 releases the “faithful partner” from the marriage bond. Any lay person going online and consulting a Greek-English interlinear tool can see that the word dedoulōtai δεδούλωται (Strongs 1402) means “enslavement / subjection”, not “marriage bond”. The true word for marriage bond, dedetai δέδεται (Strongs 1210) is used, however, in verse 39 where Paul makes clear that nothing but physical death breaks that bond, echoed also in Rom. 7:2. For the founder and president of a theological seminary, Dr. MacArthur’s sloppy hermeneutics is inexcusable.
Although Jesus did say that divorce is permitted in some situations, we must remember that His primary point in this discourse is to correct the Jews’ idea that they could divorce one another “for any cause at all” (Matt. 19:3), and to show them the gravity of pursuing a sinful divorce. Therefore, the believer should never consider divorce except in specific circumstances (see next section), and even in those circumstances it should only be pursued reluctantly because there is no other recourse.
Error #7 – there is never “no other recourse” for problems in the holy matrimony covenant of our youth. In fact, 1 Cor. 6:1-8 forbids Christ’s disciples to take matters before a pagan judge instead of the church. Also, 1 Cor. 7:10-11 provides for separation without dissolution or remarriage for the most dire of cases that might arise in holy matrimony. That said, an unlawful civil marriage where one of the spouses has a living, estranged prior spouse must be dissolved civilly in a step of repentance since Jesus defined adultery as marrying a divorced person, and nobody living on in the state of adultery has any inheritance in the kingdom of God.
The Grounds for Divorce
The only New Testament grounds for divorce are sexual sin or desertion by an unbeliever. The first is found in Jesus’ use of the Greek word porneia (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). This is a general term that encompasses sexual sin such as adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest.
Error #8 – There is no stated grounds to dissolve holy matrimony ever mentioned in scripture for desertion. To the contrary, Jesus clearly stated in Matt. 19:6 that men have no power or authority to dissolve consummated holy matrimony. The only sexual sin where Jesus permitted divorce was in the case of fornication (porneia) – rendered prostitution or whoredom in all lexicons and translations prior to 1850 – that occurred during contractual Hebrew betrothal and only up to the wedding night.
Error #9 – Porneia is not a general term that encompasses adultery, bestiality or incest according to the older, more reliable lexicons where it was consistently rendered as prostitution. The Roman term “fornication” literally comes from the fornix – the arches under which prostitutes carried on their trade, and a porne was a temple prostitute during Christ’s time on earth. In fact, both Jesus and Paul consistently referred to porneia (fornication) and moicheia (adultery) separately in several lists of grave sins, and also referred to sodomy separately.
When one partner violates the unity and intimacy of a marriage by sexual sin—and forsakes his or her covenant obligation—the faithful partner is placed in an extremely difficult situation. After all means are exhausted to bring the sinning partner to repentance, the Bible permits release for the faithful partner through divorce (Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:15).
Re-assertion of errors refuted above, with “extremely difficult situation” duly acknowledged, as Christ acknowledged it. Discipleship and purity carries a cost – that of laying down our lives for the kingdom of God.
The second reason for permitting a divorce is in cases where an unbelieving mate does not desire to live with his or her believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Because “God has called us to peace” (v. 15), divorce is allowed and may be preferable in such situations. When an unbeliever desires to leave, trying to keep him or her in the marriage may only create greater tension and conflict. Also, if the unbeliever leaves the marital relationship permanently but is not willing to file for divorce, perhaps because of lifestyle, irresponsibility, or to avoid monetary obligations, then the believer is in an impossible situation of having legal and moral obligations that he or she cannot fulfill.
Error #10 – the “peace” the disciple is called to is not a lack of conflict with the departing spouse, but the inner tranquility of a life in Christ for the obedient spouse who continues in the unbroken covenant with God. The assumption that civil divorce is “necessary” to avoid conflict itself conflicts with many other scriptures, notably 1 Cor. 6:1-8.
Error #11 – while the believing, abandoned spouse is indeed left in a difficult situation, there is no impossible situation in Christ. Indeed, Jesus discussed this situation in Matt. 19:10-12 when He talked about the three types of “eunuchs”, with the third type being the one who wasn’t born that way, nor physically injured that way, but becomes a eunuch voluntarily for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Because “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15) and is therefore no longer obligated to remain married, the believer may file for divorce without fearing the displeasure of God.
Re-assertion of Error #6, discussed above. The very reason the brother or sister is not “under bondage” is their salvation / sanctification itself, not any man-made attempt to dissolve what Jesus said cannot be dissolved except by death. Of course we risk the active displeasure of God and all fellowship with Him when we disobey His explicit commandments.
The Possibility of Remarriage
Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner only when the divorce was on biblical grounds. In fact, the purpose for a biblical divorce is to make clear that the faithful partner is free to remarry, but only in the Lord (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39).
The only purpose for a “biblical divorce” is to repent from an adulterous remarriage while having a living, estranged prior spouse, as repeatedly defined by Jesus (Matt. 5:32b; Matt. 19:9b and Luke 16:18) in order to recover one’s forfeited inheritance in the kingdom of God.
Since divorce is only a concession to man’s sin and is not part of God’s original plan for marriage, all believers should hate divorce as God does.…Those who divorce on any other grounds have sinned against God and their partners, and for them to marry another is an act of “adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This is why Paul says that a believing woman who sinfully divorces should “remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:10-11). If she repents from her sin of unbiblical divorce, the true fruits of that repentance would be to seek reconciliation with her former husband (Matt. 5:23-24). The same is true for a man who divorces unbiblically (1 Cor. 7:11). The only time such a person could remarry another is if the former spouse remarries, proves to be an unbeliever, or dies, in which cases reconciliation would no longer be possible.
Since Christ repeated three separate times using the present indicative verb tense of moicheia (commits continuous adultery), that an otherwise perfectly-innocent person is entering a state of ongoing adultery by marrying any divorced person, it should be abundantly clear that there is no “permission” to remarry while having a prior covenant that is undissolved by death. It should also be clear that man’s divorce neither unjoins one-flesh, nor removes God’s participation from the original covenant. Paul says to remain un(re)married or be reconciled because to remarry without being widowed is to forfeit heaven.
The Bible also gives a word of caution to anyone who is considering marriage to a divorcee. If the divorce was not on biblical grounds and there is still a responsibility to reconcile, the person who marries the divorcee is considered an adulterer (Mark 10:12).
The last part of MacArthur’s last statement is ironically true, and it echoes Matt. 19:9b, from which most modern English translations fraudulently omit this critical phrase (see King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, and Wilbur Pickering’s The Sovereign Creator Has Spoken). The two other occasions where Christ made this same unconditional, exceptionless statement are Matt. 5:32b and Luke 16:18. This alone should be ample proof of the heresy of MacArthur’s liberal and soul-destroying position.
The Role of the Church
Believers who pursue divorce on unbiblical grounds are subject to church discipline because they openly reject the Word of God. The one who obtains an unbiblical divorce and remarries is guilty of adultery since God did not permit the original divorce (Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12). That person is subject to the steps of church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. If a professing Christian violates the marriage covenant and refuses to repent during the process of church discipline, Scripture instructs that he or she should be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever (v. 17). When the discipline results in such a reclassification of the disobedient spouse as an “outcast” or unbeliever, the faithful partner would be free to divorce according to the provision for divorce as in the case of an unbeliever departing, as stated in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Before such a divorce, however, reasonable time should be allowed for the possibility of the unfaithful spouse returning because of the discipline. The leadership in the local church should also help single believers who have been divorced….
While there are believers who have been divorced, it certainly does not follow that they are “single”, since man’s divorce does not dissolve holy matrimony per Matt. 19:6, Rom. 7:2 and 1 Cor.7:39, as well as a host of other scriptures. The only “single believer who has been divorced” is the widow or widower who never reconciled with their one-flesh.
….to understand their situation biblically, especially in cases where the appropriate application of biblical teaching does not seem clear.
[This paper by MacArthur appears to be the classical example of Calvinist misapplication of biblical teaching….]
….For example, the church leadership may at times need to decide whether one or both of the former partners could be legitimately considered “believers” at the time of their past divorce, because this will affect the application of biblical principles to their current situation (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Also, because people often transfer to or from other churches and many of those churches do not practice church discipline, it might be necessary for the leadership to decide whether a member’s estranged or former spouse should currently be considered a Christian or treated as an unbeliever because of continued disobedience. Again, in some cases this would affect the application of the biblical principles (1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 6:14).
In addition to the spiritual state of the spouses being an entirely irrelevant matter in this context, each believer is irrevocably sealed with the Holy Spirit who can be grieved or quenched. It is never the domain of church leadership to pass judgment on the state of anyone’s soul beyond what scripture says about their final, unrepented destination. This is why in 1 Cor. 5:5, Paul instructs the church to hand a man who is fornicating with his step-mother over to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh so that his spirit may be saved. ” MacArthur apparently would have made a subjective judgment of salvation based on the man’s present conduct, of whether the man had truly been born again. This, even though Paul specifically says in this same passage that we don’t judge those outside the church, but only those within it.
According to 1 Corinthians 7:20-27, there is nothing in salvation that demands a particular social or marital status. The Apostle Paul, therefore, instructs believers to recognize that God providentially allows the circumstances they find themselves in when they come to Christ.
The circumstance of every believer called while having a living, estranged spouse (and therefore an inseverable, God-joined one-flesh partner) is called while married to their living covenant spouse regardless of their civil status under man’s immoral laws. Salvation does nothing to change this, and in fact, actually imposes a duty of purging immoral relationships such as serial polygamy (carnal civil unions which God did not join), to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation, or pursue forgiveness and celibacy while the true spouse remains alive – 2 Cor. 5:18; Matt.6:14-15, Matt. 18:21-35, 1 Cor. 7:10-11). Sanctification resulting from salvation imposes a duty to obey all of God’s revealed word, and to watch out for the souls of everyone in the believer’s life including that of the counterfeit mate and watching children who might emulate the immorality.
…If they were called while married, then they are not required to seek a divorce (even though divorce may be permitted on biblical grounds). If they were called while divorced, and cannot be reconciled to their former spouse because that spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, then they are free to either remain single or be remarried to another believer (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14).
1 Cor. 7:39 actually states the exact opposite, that only death dissolves the God-joined union and any other “marriage” constitutes ongoing adultery. 2 Cor. 6:14 cannot therefore be retroactively applied to a one-flesh entity that GOD has joined, as Dr. MacArthur suggests. Instead, Paul assures us in 1 Cor.7:14 that the believing spouse who lives in sold-out obedience to Christ sanctifies the unbelieving spouse.
Repentance and Forgiveness
In cases where divorce took place on unbiblical grounds and the guilty partner later repents, the grace of God is operative at the point of repentance. A sign of true repentance will be a desire to implement 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, which would involve a willingness to pursue reconciliation with his or her former spouse, if that is possible. If reconciliation is not possible, however, because the former spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, then the forgiven believer could pursue another relationship under the careful guidance and counsel of church leadership.
In cases where a believer obtained a divorce on unbiblical grounds and remarried, he or she is guilty of the sin of adultery until that sin is confessed (Mark 10:11-12). God does forgive that sin immediately when repentance takes place, and there is nothing in Scripture to indicate anything other than that. From that point on the believer should continue in his or her current marriage.
Error #12 – In cases where a believer obtained a divorce on unbiblical grounds and remarried, he or she is guilty of the sin of adultery until that sin is fully and physically repented of by exiting the adulterous union. MacArthur’s claim that there is “nothing” in scripture to indicate anything other than “confession” being sufficient is patently false. Jesus specifically used a verb tense to indicate this was an ongoing state of sin, which if died in would result in loss of the kingdom of heaven. All scripture is clear that sin is only forgiven where it is discontinued, not just confessed. Our nation is under judgment because it is repeating the grave sin of Israel and Judah of God’s priesthood being complicit in rampant immorality exactly as MacArthur is, and the book of Ezra, chapters 9 and 10 point up God’s expectation for repenting, and possibly turning away His advanced wrath. MacArthur is mocking God by implying that lesbian and homosexual “married” couples can therefore also confess their sodomy and remain in it, while he has no clue that the Lord is returning the mockery in-kind, to get the nation’s attention. Furthermore, pastors who perform such weddings are taking the Lord’s name in vain (misusing His name to perform a vain act). They are therefore guilty of corrupting those souls over whom they claim God forsakes His first covenant to covenant with adultery, or that He replicates the one-flesh entity of holy matrimony – neither act being within His holy character. Lastly, living on in a state of separation from the only person God’s hand has made a covenant spouse one-flesh with is living on in a state of permanent unforgiveness and lack of reconciliation. Jesus stated several times that unless we forgive, we will not be forgiven, also thereby forfeiting our inheritance in the kingdom of God. It is ridiculous to presume that a one-flesh spouse is the only possible exemption in all of the kingdom of God from this basic law of God.
For a fuller treatment of divorce and remarriage, see The Biblical Position on Divorce & Remarriage from Grace Community Church’s Elders’ Perspective Series, from which this paper was adapted.
For a truthful and biblically-faithful treatment of divorce and remarriage which applies a disciplined and sound hermeneutical approach to the difficult scriptures and to the common abuses of them in the evangelical world, see our 7-part “Stop Abusing Scripture” series on “standerinfamilycourt’s” blog:
7 Times Around the Jericho Wall. www.standerinfamilycourt.com.