The increasingly liberal attitude to sexual relationships (both inside and outside the Church), make it inevitable that God’s people will be presented with complicated cases in terms of what they should recognise as marriage. It is now commonplace for people to get divorced, and then re–marry, and the reasons for divorce allowed by the state can be many. What then is to be regarded as a legitimate marriage in the eyes of God, and, by extension, who should Christians allow into fellowship? Do the presence of children change matters?
It is important to realise that the NT teaching on divorce and marriage is always addressed to those who profess to be the people of God, whether Jews (in the Gospels) or Christians (in the epistles). The case of the pagan or atheist is not taken up, although one can presume that there must have been many thousands of complex cases involving such in the early Church as people were converted and entered into blessing. It appears that where persons had come straight out of heathenism, then their household arrangements (if it can be put that way) would generally have been accepted as they were. Titus 1: 6, for example, would suggest that some Christian converts were polygamists, and yet there is no indication given that after having embraced Christianity these persons were obliged to divorce any ‘extra’ spouses. For converted Jews in NT times, the situation was somewhat different, because to that nation had been given “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2) and they had a measure of understanding of the mind of God. However, a Jew that had divorced his first wife under the legitimate OT arrangement (see Deut. 24: 1–3; Matt. 19: 7) and remarried before being converted to Christianity would, I think, be accepted as he was. What the Lord introduced in Matthew 19: 9 (“But I say unto you”) was indeed a new standard but it was not retrospective. It would hardly be just for persons to be called to account for doing what was legitimate at the time they did it. By extension, it would seem right that Christian teaching regarding marriage and divorce should not be imposed on the past of persons converted out of non–Christian backgrounds. Sexual relations outside marriage are always sinful, “for fornicators and adulterers will God judge” (Heb. 13: 4), but standards regarding marriage and divorce among “Jews, or Greeks” may differ from those in “the assembly of God” (1 Cor. 10: 32). We should generally respect what we find in order that (to borrow an expression from another context) “the word of God may not be evil spoken of” (Tit. 2: 5).
The case with those who divorce after conversion is surely different. As Christians we are responsible to be bound by the teaching of the Word of God, and particularly the NT (since that is of particular application to Christians). We may not be aware of all the Biblical instruction (and that may lessen our guilt if, through ignorance, we go against it) but if we profess belief, then we are always bound by the Word. Now Scripture is quite explicit that “Whosoever shall put away his wife and shall marry another, commits adultery against her. And if a woman put away her husband and shall marry another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10: 11, 12). Thus if a married person divorces his spouse and marries another, he commits adultery. Why? Because his first marriage is still legitimate and (in the eyes of God, if not the authorities), his second marriage is not really marriage at all. What then is to be done? One thing at least is very clear: the couple cannot continue practically as man and wife in a union that God considers sinful. The presence of children may seem an added complication but they really do not change anything. Children do not make a union more legitimate. Of course, the relationships of father and mother remain, irrespective of what happens to a marriage—as do the responsibilities attached to those relationships. Above all these, however, God must be honoured, and if God’s Word is ignored then it is manifest that God Himself is being ignored, and that we are in the path of self–will. It may well be that past disobedience will lead to present difficulty, but that is not the fault of the Bible. We must never forget that God’s government is just as much a reality as His grace, and that “whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap” (Gal. 6: 7).
God is very insistent that “marriage [be held] every way in honour” (Heb. 13: 4). Why is this? The answer is given in Eph. 5: 31, 32, which teaches very clearly that the marriage between a man and a woman is a picture of the indissoluble union between Christ and the Assembly. If we think only in terms of a human arrangement, then we will, like Israel in the OT (see Matt. 19: 8), have standards that are below God’s. If, however, we think of marriage as a divine arrangement, then our thoughts regarding it will be correspondingly elevated.