Three area pastors talk about God's plan for marriage and the sin of divorce.
by Kirk Rattray

Marriage, Divorce And The Church

The turkey is a memory, the tree is now mulch, and we have ushered in another New Year. The holiday season is over, and the next celebration for married couples is Valentine's Day.

Sadly, many of these couples will not celebrate the next holiday season together. While everyone knows that fifty percent of marriages in this country end in divorce, no one has any solutions. Divorce even affects the church. Connection magazine has asked several area pastors some tough questions about marriage, divorce and God's plan for His bride. The pastors are: Paul Thompson, Parma Heights Baptist Church; Kent Jarvis, First Assembly of God, Akron; and Steve Geis, Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cleveland.

Here is how they responded.

Why are so many Americans divorced? Are churches to blame?

Paul Thompson: Because our culture has forsaken God and His principles and people are doing that which they feel is right in their own eyes. Our culture has become hedonistic. People's hearts have become hard (Mt. 19:8). The church is partly to blame because it has not spoken out strongly on this issue.

Kent Jarvis: I believe that there are so many divorces in America due to attitude of self. One of the things that made this country great at its foundations was that for the most part, there was an attitude of interdependence, one of self sacrifice. One would sacrifice personal desires, comforts, and at times, dreams, for the betterment of society and others. This is the foundation of love, an unselfish act of the will. In the most recent history, our society has abandoned this attitude for one of "looking out for number one."

As for the churches, or better, the church, I do not feel that it is wholly to blame, but it does bear a great deal of the burden. Rather than being pro-active and maintaining a strong Biblical influence on society, it has let society influence it. The church as a whole has allowed society to cloud our view of Biblical perspective and the scriptural patterns for living. We have become more reactive and now spend more time dealing with the hurts and pains of the bad choices so many have made in their lives.

Steve Geis: This is an incredibly complex question. Fundamentally, I think there has been a shift in our way of thinking that has led to the growth in divorces. First, we have come to think of marriage as just one more option in a list of lifestyle choices. Marriage is no longer seen as vital for raising children or for being a source of societal stability. Second, we have raised up personal satisfaction as an idol. In our worship of this idol we have placed on its altar our commitment to fulfill our vows to God. We have also sacrificed self-denial and the emotional well being of our children. Is the church to blame? We do have our share of blame when we have been quick to marry people without significant pre-marital counseling. We are to blame when people in our churches divorce without legitimate Biblical grounds and nothing is said; that there is no cost or repercussions attached to that sin.

Why is the institution of marriage so important to God?

Paul Thompson: Because life is sacred (set apart for God's special purpose). Therefore, the act of teaming up with God to create new life is also sacred. In that Holy Covenant between man and woman, children find security and identity. Marriage is a human illustration of our divine relationship with God.

Kent Jarvis: First, it was His established pattern for the greatest earthly happiness for the human race. After creating Adam, God saw that there was no suitable helpmate for him. So the Lord created Eve and established that one man and one woman would come together to share their lives, hearts, and souls. Second, it is the provision that God made for the propagation of humankind. Through the union of husband and wife, out of love, was to be birthed the next generation of God's crowning work of creation. Thirdly, it is the metaphor for the relationship that He desires with the Church, one of love and affection, not based on the rules and regulation of religion, but based on unselfish love.

Steve Geis: Marriage is God-ordained. Biblically it is the normative way of life, created prior to the entrance of sin into the world (Gen. 2:24-25). It allows for the fulfillment of the first command from God (Gen. 1:28). I think it helps us better reflect God's glory since both male and female are created in His image (Gen. 1:27) Also, when you think of how sin affected the first marriage (division & blame casting; much like sin affects marriages today) it makes sense that God wants to bless marriages (in part) to show His power over sin. To show that He can overcome the sinfulness of two people and make them "one flesh." Finally, I think God wants marriages to last because He has chosen the image of marriage as a symbol of the permanent love between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-33).

Why is divorce a sin comparable to adultery?

Paul Thompson: The Bible says that God hates divorce because it is breaking a covenant, not only with each other, but also with Him. "What God has bound together, let no man separate." (Mt. 19:6)

Kent Jarvis: God's pattern is one man, one woman, partnered in marriage for life. The partnership is only broken through death of one of the partners. Marriage is a covenant, not a contract, and death is the only way for the covenant to be broken. Adultery is sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage. Thus, if the partners of the marriage covenant are both still living, any relationship beyond their covenant would fall into that category.

Steve Geis: When Jesus speaks of divorce (Matt. 19), it is not the divorce itself that is compared (actually equated in the text!) with adultery. It is remarriage that is called adultery, but only when the grounds for divorce are not Biblically legitimate. This makes sense given the Biblical understanding that when two people marry, they are no longer two separate individuals: they are one flesh. A certificate of divorce cannot undo the reality of being emotionally, physically, and spiritually one flesh.

Is it possible to be divorced without sinning?

Paul Thompson: Yes. There are two allowances in Scripture for divorce:

1. Marital unfaithfulness (Mt. 19:3-9)
2. Unbelieving spouse deserts and remarries (I Cor. 7:15)

Kent Jarvis: Divorce is the result of sin. I believe that all divorces are outside the will of God. The scriptures tell us that God "hates divorce." On the other hand, God is in the business of grace and mercy. Through Jesus all sin is forgivable.

Steve Geis: Absolutely, but it may not be easy. If the grounds for the divorce were not Biblical, the individuals can choose to remain single and thus not be sinning. Beyond this, it is important for those who have divorced to avoid sin by forgiving their former spouse (Matt. 18:21-35). Whatever has been done to us by a former spouse, we are called to forgive (which is not the same as reconciliation of the relationship). We release our ex and their sin to the Lord, trusting Him to deal with their sin (just as He will deal with our own!) This is especially important when children are involved. To be divorced without sin requires that we do not trash our ex in front of the kids. The question of divorce and sin is a big one. Two other factors must be considered to determine what is sin. First, when did the divorce occur? Pre or post conversion to Christ? (2 Cor. 5:17) Second, was the former spouse a Christian? Did they push for the divorce? (1 Cor. 7)

What can be done to make marriages as God intended them?

Paul Thompson: First is repentance. I believe separation happens because people are not walking in harmony and in humility with God. If people's hearts are right with God, then God's love will draw them together and they will overcome any obstacle to follow God's purpose and plan.

Kent Jarvis: First and foremost, both partners in the marriage need to have Jesus Christ as Savior. When we surrender to God's lordship in our lives, we start on the path of living selflessly. Then the Holy Spirit can work in us to continue to convict us of our selfish attitudes. We then should always look to the betterment of our marriage partner. Always take note of what we think and how we speak. If both the husband and wife have the same attitude and approach to the marriage, then both will not be concerned with their " needs" being met. The whole focus changes from self to each other. When children are added to the family, the children are taught the same way of living; then that family lives with the same attitude of Christ, found in Philippians 2. Second, is communication. Selfish people will seldom communicate heart, just usually make demands. Selfless people will open themselves up and be transparent, sharing hopes, dreams, hurts, and joys. Marriage is intended to be the union of two best friends. Outside of the Lord, there should be no one that is a better friend than one's spouse. Lastly, the spiritual condition of the marriage must be cultivated. Prayer, scripture, service together in church and community are all important ingredients to developing a healthy God centered marriage.

Steve Geis: Basic Christian discipleship will go a long way toward a good marriage. Death to self, surrender of my will to God's will, prayer, listening to the Spirit's voice, putting the Word of God into practice, etc. If we are doing what we need to do to avoid sin and we are growing in our relationship with Jesus, (e.g., learning to love like Him sacrificially; to the point of death) this will be a great foundation for building a marriage. "Building" is a good word to use. Marriage is hard work since both husband and wife are incredibly good at sinning and now in marriage they sin in close proximity. It is hard work to communicate honestly so that both spouses are able to be "naked [vulnerable] and not ashamed" as Adam & Eve were before sinning. We need to learn how to fight in a healthy way; sifting our words before we say something in anger that really hurts and is damaging. We need to get rid of unreal expectations that we have of marriage. Our spouses are not, never have been nor never will be perfect like some character in a movie or a book. Thank God for the incredible gift (flaws included) He has given us in our spouses. Ponder the vow you made standing in that church and then live it.