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God's Word on Divorce and Remarriage (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 05/16/2012

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Respected theologian John MacArthur points to Scripture to discern what God says about divorce and remarriage and how those guidelines apply to specific situations. (Part 1 of 2)

Episode Transcript


John Fuller: On today's "Focus on the Family," we're gonna touch upon a very sensitive and difficult subject, and that is divorce and remarriage. And while we always pray before these broadcasts, we're gonna do something a little bit different today and have our guest, Pastor John MacArthur, pray for our time together.


Dr. John MacArthur: Father, we pray today for that listener who is tuned in maybe intentionally, and maybe surprisingly just finding this program today, whose marriage is in severe trouble where there seems to be no immediate answer and maybe even no hope. We pray that the program today will have such an impact that a new direction, the dawning of a new day will occur in that marriage to your glory. We pray this in Christ's name. Amen.

End of Excerpt

John F.: Well, that is the voice and the heart of Pastor John MacArthur. And we're so glad to have him on today's"Focus on the Family"with our Focus president Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller, and Jim, what we just heard there reflects a deep heart for marriages that are in trouble. And we hear from folks all the time who are in the midst of divorce or contemplating divorce and it breaks our hearts to hear from so many who find no recourse or seemingly no recourse.

Jim Daly: It does, John, and I am thankful for the two way conversation that goes on. We're able to talk about marriage on this program and we hear from you and we hear your heart. And John, you have two or three examples of that where people in very difficult situations have responded to a marriage program in the past. Can you take a second and read those?

John F.: Well, yeah, in fact, some of these folks and we're changing the names here, but they reflect, I think, a lot of our neighbors, our friends, folks in our church. Ben's wife of 31 years left him and he's got an 18-year-old daughter still in the home, but he's really asking for prayer. Derek wrote to ask if he has biblical grounds to divorce his wife. She might have had an affair. Sandy's husband has at least had an emotional affair, what she called an emotional affair with a co-worker and she doesn't believe in divorce, but she kind of feels she has no option. And those are tough questions, Jim. I mean, there's not a clear answer to some of these, but there is clarity in the Scripture, which is where we are going today.


Jim: That is where we want to go today with an incredible guest, Dr. John MacArthur, who is a Bible scholar. It's always good to talk about biblical things with a Bible scholar. And Dr. John MacArthur, of course, is a respected pastor and teacher. You know Pastor MacArthur from his radio program and ministry "Grace to You" or you just may be carrying around a MacArthur's Study Bible or have a few of the MacArthur New Testament commentaries in your library at home. He and his wife Patricia live in Southern California and enjoy their 15 grandchildren. Pastor MacArthur, welcome back to "Focus on the Family."

Dr. John MacArthur: Thank you so much, Jim. Thank you, John. It's a delight to be here and thank you for addressing this particular subject, which is so needy. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

Jim: Dr. MacArthur, when you look at divorce, it's a very difficult thing in our culture because the culture has played so loosely with it. Even within the Christian church, we have struggled to be committed to our marriages and the testimony that, that actually is and what people see. People that don't know the Lord and look at us, when they see a divorce rate of 35 percent or 40 percent within the church, it doesn't feel right, does it?

John M.: Well, it isn't right. I think the bottom line when we talk about this is to remember the first person comment from God Himself: "I hate divorce." And that's the bottom line. God hates it because it's a violation of the one-flesh-for-life union by which righteousness is passed from one generation to another and also by which the relationship between Christ and His Church is demonstrated and symbolized in the world. And when that is shattered, there's loss on all fronts, not only does that union break up, the question of passing righteousness to the next generation falls under terrible duress. And then you have lack of clarity about the church and its relationship to Jesus Christ. It's all tied together. And I think, in any case, divorce always has negative ramifications, even when it is justified.

Jim: Dr. MacArthur, sometimes we look at these biblical figures as something different than human. These were people just like us that were going through difficulty and divorce was a factor back in the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. We'll talk more about that a little later. But the culture really plays havoc with marriage, doesn't it? No matter if you're born in 500 B.C. or 500 A.D. or today, it is an amazing power and influence, the power of marriage and the power of divorce.

John M.: Well, of course, if you look at the book of Genesis, you have in Genesis at the very beginning, God ordaining marriage–one man, one woman, one flesh for life. And you're not very far past that until you see every possible aberration, every possible assault on marriage. It doesn't take long before you have prostitution, polygamy, adultery, all kinds of deviations in the book of Genesis. So you don't even get out of Genesis before the enemy starts to tear at the fabric of society and marriage.

Jim: When you look at the issue of divorce today, so many people who write Focus on the Family, the three letters that we talked about at the top of the program here, people are looking for an answer. They're struggling. They've either been the victim or they are the victimizer. And typically as human beings, we try to justify, especially for Christians, we try to justify our actions by finding that Scripture that matches our heart. She wounded me. He hurt me. Therefore, I have the right to get divorced, but what does the Bible actually say about divorce?

John M.: And that is the ultimate question for Christians, but it's also the ultimate question for non-Christians, because marriage is an act of God. It's a work of God even between unbelievers.

Jim: Now do you think that's because it reflects His image--

John M.: I think--

Jim: --two people becoming one?

John M.: --part of it reflects His image. Absolutely, part of it reflects His image. God is a Trinity. Relationship is at the heart of who He is. Marriage, therefore, is a reflection of even the Trinitarian character of God. And you can look at it this way, a man, a woman, and offspring. That's kind of a trinity in its own, so there's the reflection of the image of God there. But I think God has ordained marriage--one man, one woman--for life, for the well-being of society, even as a common grace. It's the best for a culture and a society in any case, whether or not they become Christians. And of course, once you become a believer, now you are responsible to be obedient to what the Word of God says about marriage and about divorce with the promise that, if you are obedient, God will pour out blessing on that obedience.

Jim: You have been engaged training, mentoring pastors around the world. How are we doing within the church about this issue of marriage? So often what I hear is that divorce is so prolific in the Christian church that it's hard for pastors to preach about it on Sunday because there'll be some that are offended in the congregation. Is that the right tact or should we really say what it is and what we need to do?

John M.: Well, we have one responsibility as pastors and that is to teach the Word of God, preach the Word, in season and out of season. We don't have an alternative. We can't edit God. That's the wrong thing to do. We have been called to this ministry for the purpose of disseminating to our generation the truth of the Word of God. We have no other message. I have no message other than what God has put in the Word. So my task and the task of every pastor is, to take the Word of God and proclaim it to the church and to the generation in which that pastor serves.

Jim: A pastor's heart is something special. I, my brother was a pastor. There's something wonderful about their desire to help people move along in the faith, to become closer to God's heart, the sanctification process. I love that about a pastoral heart. As you walked people through tough issues in their marriages for over 35 years--

John M.: Yeah, more.

Jim: --more-- (Laughter)

John M.: Keep goin'.

Jim: --you've probably sat in a lot of counseling sessions with hundreds, if not thousands, of couples. What were some of the things that you saw? What did you feel in your heart about what you were seeing in those couples' journey?

John M.: Sin and selfishness and a lack of forgiveness will devastate any relationship. We all have to deal with sin. We all have to deal with selfishness. But the final breaking point is the absence of forgiveness. In the end, the destruction of any relationship comes down to whether or not you can forgive, because we're gonna need to be forgiven. We have to forgive each other in our marriage. We have to forgive each other as we work together in the kingdom. You have to forgive each other aroundFocus on the Familybecause we're not perfect.

Jim: Do you hear that, John? (Laughter)That's the nature of life.

John F.: You've gotta be able to forgive, yeah.

Jim: You've gotta forgive me.

John M.: That's why our Lord taught us to pray, you know, forgive us as we forgive others and when you forgive others, the Lord forgives you. This is where the real hard work of shepherding the people of God is, showing them the power and the freedom and the blessing of forgiveness, because when you do that, you will sustain every relationship.

Jim: As you sat there, with your heart going out to these very difficult situations, let's apply the biblical standard. There are certain reasons in Scripture for divorce, but God hates divorce. Take us through the biblical justification for divorce and those things that we probably push the edges on.

John M.: Really that comes down to the bottom line, Jim and I, and I would say this that every pastor in the world and every Christian is responsible to be obedient to the biblical mandate and it's not unclear; it's not unclear. Go all the way back to Moses. Moses says, "Because of the hardness of your heart, God has allowed divorce." In other words, there aregonna be situations where hard-heartedness, it shatters the union and it's irreparable. But even in the law, there's a measure of grace. Originally, if you committed adultery, stoning was the punishment.

Jim: Stoning to death.

John M.: So if you were stoned, you wouldn't need a divorce because you'd be dead.

Jim: Right.

John M.: But God in mercy brings in divorce rather than stoning and you see that with Joseph and Mary. He had to decide whether to kill her or put her away privately. So, the law was there originally to show God's hatred of divorce. It was so serious that the death penalty was to be enacted, and then God demonstrates His mercy in that situation and allows for divorce in hard-hearted situations. So what are those situations?

There are two that are clear in the Scripture. One is adultery, that is sexual sin in the marriage. That is sexual relationships with someone other than your spouse. And that's very clear in the teaching of Jesus,Matthew 5, Matthew 19, explicit.

The other one is when an unbeliever departs. First Corinthians, chapter 7, in the instruction, Holy Spirit-inspired instruction of Paul. So, the Lord recognizes there may be an absolutely impossible situation in which you have one of the partners in a marriage committing adultery.

Now I want to say beyond that, it doesn't mean that if you can catch your partner in an act of adultery, you have a full, you know, prescription from God to dump that partner. That's not the point. It is simply that when that is hard-hearted, impenitent adultery, and there's no way around it or out of it, divorce is the final option.

I think Scripture's clear that when Hosea the prophet saw his wife becoming a harlot, you see he went into the slave market. She was prostituting herself, selling herself. He went in and bought her and treated her like a bride and embraced her and it's a picture of God recovering Israel. That's the high ground. Where you have a willing and penitent adulterer in a marriage, I think that's where forgiveness works. That's where grace works. And the primary response would be to take that person back the way God took back Israel. And you know, God says, "I've divorced you."You know, God said He would divorce Israel. Jeremiah quotes that, and so does Isaiah. But we all know in the end, God isgonna restore Israel. All Israel will be saved. That's the model.

Jim: So even in adultery, God's heart is for that marriage to be made whole again.

John M.: That's right. And it's a question of sin. Adultery is a sin. It is a terrible sin. It is a severe sin against marriage. But there are a lot of sins. And if you can't forgive in a marriage, then you're notgonna have any kind of relationship. Even a severe sin like that which is such a violent breach, I think the high ground, scripturally speaking, is forgiveness. That's the model of Hosea and Gomer. That's the model of God. And that's also the model of Christ and His church. If He didn't continually forgive us, we wouldn't have a relationship with Him.

Jim: Hm.

John M.: So, yes, where there is impenitence and no way to resolve that, no way out, God provides for divorce in that case to free that other person up from the impossibility of that relationship.

Jim: Now in that context, just to complete the story,if divorce is the option after an adulterous affair, what you're saying is God is recognizing the termination of that holy union and that, that victim in the marriage is free to remarry.

John M.: Well, that's the whole reason for divorce. That the whole point of divorce is, so that that person is not shamed. And even Moses said you have to have a certificate of divorce which is a vindication of this innocent person for the very purpose of remarriage. So that's assumed in the category of divorce. So when there's no resolution on the part of an impenitent sinner adulterer, yes, divorce and divorce for the specific reason that remarriage can occur.

And the same would be true in first Corinthians 7, if an unbeliever departs, they leave, they want out of the marriage, Paul says you are not under bondage, and that verb is the verb that connects to the bond of marriage. So you are now free from that bond and the whole point of that is so that that person can be married to someone else.

John: Our guest today on "Focus on the Family" is Dr. John MacArthur. I'm John Fuller. Our host is Jim Daly and as we're talking here, you're delivering a hard truth, Dr. MacArthur, and taking it back Jim to where you had asked a question earlier, as you're talking to somebody who desperately wants a divorce, but you can't find the biblical grounds for that, how do you manage that, because we have listeners right now who are squirming.

John M.: Well, I'll tell you how you manage it.

John: It's uncomfortable.

John M.: You have to believe that obedience brings blessing. You have to trust God. Happy is the man who hears Me. Obedience produces blessing. Obedience produces, not just minimal blessing, but great blessing. So, your choice is dump your spouse, you know, take the low ground and forfeit the best that God has.

Jim: Hm.

John M.: Or take that sinning and penitent spouse who says, "I don't want a divorce. I'm sorry. Forgive me. Show me grace; restore this relationship," believe God for that act of forgiveness being the spiritual high ground and believe that God will pour out blessing on that obedience. Look, the bottom line is do you want what you want? The best that you can get on your own? Or do you want what God will give, the best that He offers those who obey Him? It all comes back to that, and yeah, you all know this. We live in a world of just dominating selfishness.

Jim: Yeah, we do.

John M.: And everybody wants what he wants or she wants now. Forget God. I've even had people tell me, "I'm divorcing my wife. What's the worst God could do to me?" "Well, I guess the worst He could do to you was kill you." "And he said, "And if He kills me, I'm going to heaven, right? I'll take my chances."

Jim: Wow, now that's bold--

John M.: It is bold--

Jim: --and ignorance.

John M.: --and I can only tell you the agonizing result of the decision that he made--

Jim: Dr. MacArthur, you--

John M.: --particularly in ... in the children.

Jim: --you're saying something here I don't want to pass by because it is critical and even research is holding up what you're saying. And what I'd like to simply note here is that research is clearly suggesting that a couple, and I'm thinking of the particular research project that I'm aware of, where unhappy married couples, two groups--one got the divorce, the other fought through their marriage and fought for their marriages. Five years later, the ones that divorced are less happy and the ones that fought for their marriages are more happy, or happier in their marriages. That's vindicating what you're saying.

John M.: Why is it that life actually works out to be the way God says it is?

Jim: Right.

John M.: Yeah, you know, Jim, that's so very, very important. And let me tell ya, you can even take it to another level from the standpoint of personal experience. The love that forgives and the love that restores is a dimension of love that is beyond the love that doesn't have to do that. There's something wonderful, there's something exhilarating, there's something precious in that Christ-like love that just keeps restoring and restoring and restoring, and like it says Ephesians 5, "Love your wives as Christ loves the church."

How does He love the church? Forgivingly, graciously, mercifully, consistently, unwaveringly. And the exhilaration of loving like that, it transcends the kind of selfish love that defines most people.

Jim: We've talked about the issue of adultery in marriage and the outcome, the biblical outcome for that, the choices that are there for the believer. Let's talk about abandonment. The other option. People use that one in a broad context. I don't feel connected; therefore I'm abandoned. It's a justification. Help narrow the focus of what the--

John M.: right.

Jim: --Scripture is telling us.

John M.: Just to make the parallel, Jim, they also will say since Jesus said if you look at a woman to lust after her, you've committed adultery in your heart. That would qualify as adultery and of course, it doesn't or every marriage would fall apart.

Jim: Hm.

John M.: But the same thing is true. People say, Well, he's left me emotionally. He's abandoned me economically or whatever. Now, what that text in first Corinthians 7 is saying, it's very clear, if an unbeliever departs, let him depart. This is literally, physically abandoning the union. You're not under bondage anymore because God has called us to peace.

That would put a believer in an impossible situation and most often this would be a woman with no resources, no help. To whom does she turn and we've all seen that in the single mother syndrome that just devastates our society. So, that woman upon the departure of an unbeliever from that union is free to remarry. But that's an actual abandonment and an actual departure. It's not adequate to say, Well, we don't connect emotionally or he's not the perfect person, he's not my soul mate. I'm looking for my soul mate.

And again, look, you can make your choice. You can make up your own rules for divorce, but you take yourself out from under the blessing of God. You will, in the end, as reality indicates from the study that you said, you will put yourself in a position for greater heartache. You will devastate the people around you, and if there are children in the situation, you'll devastate them, as well, in that act of selfishness. Far better to obey the Word of God and take the blessing that He gives to that obedience.

Jim: Dr. MacArthur, when we look at current cultural critics of Scripture, those that look at the church scientifically and they're measuring things about who we are and what we believe, our marriage and divorces rates, those kinds of things, oftentimes they'll say, "Well, you pick and choose from the Old Testament. You want these tough divorce rules and laws that were handed down by Moses, but you don't enforce the dietary laws of not eating shellfish."

John M.: Yeah.

Jim: It's a fair question. Are we picking and choosing or what is God actually saying to us today in this culture about what we need to adhere to in the Old Testament to honor the New Testament?

John M.: Yeah, it's a very good question. The answer is this. In any feature, any reality, any dimension of life that transcends the Old Testament, the standards are the same. For example, murder transcends the Old Testament. Idolatry, worshipping another god, that transcends the Old Testament. Marriage transcends the Old Testament. It comes before the law of Moses in the Garden of Eden, and it's gonna be around till Jesus comes. If you're talking about dietary laws, clearly, those do not transcend the Old Testament because the New Testament cancels them out.

Jim: Uh-hm.

John M.: Paul says, don't say no to any food. Receive everything with thanksgiving. Don't let anybody hold you to a dietary law. Don't let anybody hold you to a new moon, a Sabbath, a feast day. He obviates all of that. You know, Peter, remember when he was at the house of Cornelius, he says, I can't eat that stuff. And the word from heaven is, "Arise Peter and eat. That day is gone."

Jim: Right.

John M.: So, the New Testament will obviate those things that were temporary and partial and connected to the isolation of Israel. In other words, one of the things God was doing was isolating Israel in the midst of an idolatrous world by making it very difficult for them to interact. They had dietary laws that made it almost impossible for them to have a meal with Gentiles. They had clothing laws, cooking laws, all kinds of social structures that isolated them from the idolatrous influence around them. All of that has been obviated in the New Testament. But when you're talking about marriage or you're talking about the sanctity of human life, those things transcend that and therefore, all that the Bible says about those things is for all of us in all times.

Jim: When we look at the types of divorce that we've talked about so far, you've talked about the Christian couple that ends up having an affair, one of them, a sexual affair, what they can do. Abandonment, which is the leaving, the physical leaving of one of the partners in the relationship. We need to touch on a couple of other areas and I'd like to come back next time if you're willing to stick with us and dive a little deeper into some of the way that today we Christians apply or misapply these truths into our own relationships. Can you stick with us and come back next time, and we'll keep rolling?

John M.: Sure.

Jim: All right.

John M.: Glad to do that.

Jim: Let's do that. Okay.


John F.: Well, this is a hard topic and I think Dr. MacArthur, you've really addressed it with great sensitivity, because for those who have been through a divorce, it's heartbreaking. It's challenging. It's difficult and as we've tried to stress here, God's heart is for marriage. And it may be that you're in a hard spot. You can identify with some of the challenges we've brought up today and it'd be a privilege for us to have our caring Christian counselors spend a little bit of time with you on the phone and think through this and pray with you about your situation and even direct you to somebody in your area to have some ongoing conversations. Call us and know that when you leave your name and number, our staff will get back in touch just as soon as possible. The number is 800-262-6459; 800-A-FAMILY.

Jim: We also have something we call Hope Restored, which is our marriage intensive experience. If you're really struggling, I mean, you are close to calling it quits or maybe you've signed the paperwork, um ... this intensive program has a[n] 84.7 percent success rate and I want to encourage you to give us a call specifically to ask about that. Again, this is for the couples who are in a desperate moment and we want to be there for you, because we believe in marriage and we think those tools will help you, not only survive, but thrive in the years ahead.

In fact, a woman just wrote us the other day to thank us for making a difference in her life. She said her marriage was shattered because of infidelity and she had filed for divorce, but through our encouragement, she and her husband had seen God restore their relationship. And I'm tellin' you what, we're praisin' the Lord for that and we want to ask you to support this work which provides that kind of testimony. Stand with us to bring these families back together. You want to fight poverty? Let's keep the marriage together, because divorce is the No. 1 predictor that poverty will take them over. So, let's do it together and give God glory in doing it.

John: Well, I appreciate that passion, Jim and I trust that you'll support this ministry as we do just that. And when you send a gift of any amount, we'll be happy to send Dr. MacArthur's book, The Divorce Dilemma to you. It's a great overview on what Scripture says about this topic, answering the more common questions that come up. Call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or stop by to contribute and find additional resources.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we hear more about this important topic from Dr. John MacArthur and once again, help you and your family thrive.

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John MacArthur

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John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif. He is also a conference speaker, president of The Master’s College and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry. A graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary, John is a prolific author, having written or contributed to nearly 400 books and study guides, including The MacArthur Study Bible and The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series. John and his wife, Patricia, have four married children and 15 grandchildren. Learn more about John by visiting the Grace to You Ministry website.