This post will serve as a response to the view of divorce as presented by Mrs. Rebecca VanDoodewaard in her article “A High View of Marriage That Includes Divorce”. Her article will be linked below.
The thesis of Mrs. VanDoodewaard’s article is that it is necessary to maintain divorce as a Biblical option, under the right circumstances, in order to maintain a high view of marriage. To suggest that a wife stay with her estranged husband, for example, is not a high view of marriage but a degraded one since such a suggestion fails to hold the husband in question accountable for his actions (of adultery, or persistent pornography use, etc.)
Most of her arguments are based on the logic that insisting that a woman stay in a marriage with a husband that is either using pornography, committing adultery, abusing his spouse and/or has abandoned the marriage is to fail to recognize that “Jesus didn’t die to save marriage” and that requiring women to stay in these types of marriage is to embrace the lie that “God hates divorce more than He hates abuse and sexual sin.”
To start, I should say I wholeheartedly agree that we should not require woman to remain in marriages that have Biblical precedent for divorce (in cases of sexual immorality). However, to present Biblical divorce as, “on par with maintaining the marriage” and to say that “legitimate divorce is holy and biblical if God Himself can speak of initiating it” is, I think, not an accurate representation of Scripture.
In order to make this assertion, the author quotes the 1992 report by the PCA study committee on divorce and remarriage. The quote uses Jeremiah 3:8 as an example of God enacting divorce. The verse says, “She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce”.
On the surface, it might look like God is here saying that even He has divorced His bride. However, it is shocking that this PCA committee seems to overlook the obvious – God never has or ever will divorce His bride. This is simple covenant theology which is a pillar of the PCA denomination. Even more astounding is that there seems to be no mention of the immediate context of the verse in question. Starting just three verses later in 3:11-14, God calls for “faithless Israel” to return to Him. He says, “faithless Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah” (3:11) and “return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever” (3:12) and “return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion” (3:14). If verse 3:8 is an indication of God divorcing Israel, what are we to do with vv. 11-14 that depict God ruthlessly forgiving her, and not just being willing to take her back, but calling for her to come back? If divorce is “holy”, is not reconciliation more so?
When reflecting on “God Himself [justly divorcing] His bride” in Jeremiah, the committee goes on to say that, “it seems difficult to conclude that Jesus would not have had similar words on his own lips.” Again, this simply seems to be unscriptural. Immediately following His seven admonitions of the hypocritical and sinful Pharisees, Jesus says this, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matthew 23:37-39). One can imagine the pain in Jesus’ voice and the tears in His loving eyes as He gives this wooing call to the unlovable city of Jerusalem that turned its back on Him. The picture here is not of Jesus divorcing the adulterous city, but it is one of forgiveness and desire for true reconciliation despite murder, malice, and abandonment.
Here we come to another important point the author makes. Mrs. VanDoodewaard says, “Scripture commands forgiveness where there is repentance, but it never requires that a relationship continues in the way that it was before the covenant was shattered.” This is a very dense statement that requires some unpacking.
Firstly, the author says that Scripture mandates forgiveness “where there is repentance” (emphasis mine). Now, the author, when questioned, might not want to make this preposition unequivocal, but we must consider that to be the case in the interest of clarity. To claim that Scripture only requires Christians to forgive when the offending party is repentant is to blatantly disregard the Gospel. Christ does not forgive us on the basis of our primary repentance. In fact, we repent because Christ first forgave! This is the power of Christ’s “seventy times seven” instruction. Jesus tells us to be habitually incessant forgivers. If someone requires our forgiveness 490 times (the sum of 70 x 70), we would be right to conclude that the person is not repentant. Though repentance does not mean another offense will not be made, it does indicate at least a gradual decrease in the offense in question. If I ask for your forgiveness 490 times because I stole your wallet 490 times, you would be just to declare me unrepentant. As we all know, the seventy times seven mandate is not to impose a limit on forgiveness, but it is there to remove it. We are to forgive and infinite amount of times. It may sound harsh but there is no other way I know to say it – to say that forgiveness is not required except for when the offending party is repentant is to offer what is known as “cheap grace.” Again, I am not claiming that is the author’s intention behind this phrase; it just seems prudent to define our terms so to speak.
Next we see that the author claims that Scripture “never requires that a relationship continues in the way that it was before the covenant was shattered.” This phrase has two points that I would like to discuss.
Firstly, to claim that Scripture never tells us to continue in a relationship that has covenant-breaking sin it is not true. Take Hosea and Gomer for example. God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute who He knew would commit adultery. God told Hosea not only to remain in the marriage after the covenant was broken by Gomer, but He told Hosea to pursue his wife and reconciliation. Now, this is God speaking to Hosea which does not necessarily mean that it is God telling all of us what to do. God is speaking to Hosea, not Rob Golding. But, to say that this interaction between God, Hosea, and Gomer is simply prophecy and not, at least, a moral guideline for us is to miss the point of the story. The Lord says to Hosea, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods…” (Hosea 3:1). God is showing His love for Israel, and therefore His love for all of us (His church), by using an adulterous marriage as an analogy. Now, if God loves and forgives us, though we commit adultery against him by creating idols in our hearts, why are we not therefore responsible for forgiving and reconciling with spouses that do the same? Should we not “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37)?
At this point we should note another point the author makes which is that forgiveness does not necessitate reconciliation. Mrs. VanDoodewaard says, “Wives in particular are told that God requires that they forgive a repentant spouse, which is true, and that this means that they need to stay in the marriage, which is not true.” I do not disagree that true forgiveness can be had without the reconciliation of the marriage. However, to claim that you forgive your spouse for committing adultery while filing for unilateral divorce, is not true forgiveness. Or at least, it is not complete forgiveness. Refer to the Biblical examples of forgiveness given above, and this should be clear. If the offending spouse poses a physical threat to the other spouse or children, then one could absolutely see the need for physical separation. At this point it is the church’s responsibility to protect the oppressed spouse. However, even in these sorts of extreme cases, divorce is not a requirement. A spouse would be justified in pursuing divorce if the threat of physical harm was coupled with sexual immorality, but, in light of Jesus desire to bring murderous Jerusalem back to Him like a “hen gathers her brood under her wings”, we can see that separation without divorce, in order to leave the door to reconciliation open, is preferable.
The second point in the above phrase that requires attention is the notion that sin “shatters” the marriage covenant. This is a loaded word and it requires some interpretation. If the author means that the marriage covenant is shattered to the point of utter destruction (which is what we usually think of when we use that word), then it would seem that Scripture gives a different perspective (again reference the verses above). That understanding would seem to indicate that no marriage could recover from adultery. However, if the author means that sin greatly damages a marriage, then this would be completely in line with Scripture. Sin does ravage marriages. Especially sexual sin and abuse. However, the destruction that sin wreaks on a marriage will never be unfixable by the blood of the Cross. If God can do it for Hosea and Gomer, He can do it for us. If God can reconcile us, “while we were God’s enemies”, He can reconcile us to one another (Romans 5:10).
Now, at this point we should note the merit of the article. The author repeatedly points out that Churches can be guilty of putting pressure on spouses to remain in marriages that they have Biblical grounds to leave. She says, “The sinner gets counsel, support, help, and prayer, while the sinned-against gets pressure, guilt, and a crushing future.” This scenario is not Scriptural. This is not the Gospel. God does not “guilt” us into forgiving one another. He invites us into forgiveness in light of His first forgiving us. It seems that Mrs. VanDoodewaard is having a right reaction to a problem in the church. Unfortunately, it seems she is not just reacting, but over-reacting. In the attempt to put Biblical divorce back on the table (which is a good thing), she is diminishing forgiveness.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the church needs to present Biblical divorce as an option to those to whom it presents itself. However, to practice true Scriptural counseling, the church should also present reconciliation as a better option. This is simply letting Scripture speak for itself. Yes, Jesus does say in Matthew that “sexual immorality” is grounds for divorce. However, when He speaks in Mark and Luke, this warrant is interestingly not present (Paul also leaves the adultery-exception out in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Could it be that the concession is made in one Gospel and not the other in order to illustrate the restraint with witch it should be used? Further, though Jesus does make divorce an option, He also makes reconciliation the undergirding theme throughout Scripture, both in terms of our relationship to Him, and our relationships with one another. Yes, we should make Biblical divorce an option, but it should be a whisper and reconciliation should be our shout, for this is what we see in Scripture.
 It could be argued that the parable of the good Samaritan is a picture of marital reconciliation because the Samaritan’s were hated by the Jews, yet this one took care of a Jew. Hate from a spouse should be met with the love of the other.
 There is an interesting argument on the basis of textual criticism that the exception clause in Matthew was added by Erasmus and not original to Jesus.