Dr. Rick Phillips is the Bible teacher of the God’s Living Word broadcast, S.C., having served previously as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Coral Springs/Margate, Florida, and as minister of preaching at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan, a master of business administration degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and a master of divinity degree at Westminster Theological Seminary. Prior to entering the ministry, he commanded tank units as an officer in the U.S. Army and later served as an assistant professor of leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He writes:
We are having a great PCRT in Grand Rapids this weekend. Our speakers Iain Duguid, David Garner, and David Murray have been terrific on our theme of Holiness and Honor: A Reformed View of Marriage and Sex. We also had an insightful Q&A session. Unfortunately, it was way too short to get to even a majority of the questions. Therefore, I promised to tackle them here on Ref21 in the upcoming days. So here goes with the first question for the PCRT Q&A leftovers:
“David Murray mentioned that marriage is honored when it is only ended on biblical grounds, which are adultery and desertion. Will you explain this?”
Dr. Murray is setting forth the standard Reformed view of biblical divorce in keeping with the Scriptures. Two key texts are involved. The first comes from Jesus in Matthew 19. First, Jesus stated the principle, saying that a married couple “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt. 19:6). The question was then raised to him about divorce and Jesus answered: “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9).
Notice that here we have an exception to the rule that prohibits divorce among Christians. I have heard pastors say that Christians may not divorce, with no exceptions. Here is a good rule, however: when Jesus himself uses the word “except,” then there is an exception! Here, the exception is adultery. The Greek word is porneia, and it is rightly understood to refer to sexual infidelity in violation of the marriage bond. Any other divorce is wrongful and a Christian who divorces without this ground, Jesus says, commits the sin of adultery.
There is a second situation, however, that is cited by God’s Word as a ground for divorce. The apostle addresses this in 1 Corinthians 7:15. He writes that “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” The word “enslaved” means “bound” to the marriage. A person who is “loosed” from marriage on biblical grounds not only may divorce but may also remarry in the church. Here, the ground is abandonment. I.e. a spouse leaves the marriage and refuses to be reconciled. Notice that Paul says that it must be an unbeliever. It may be someone who professed faith in Christ but who revealed by his or her breaking of the marital bond that he or she is not a believer, in which case such a covenant-breaker will generally be excommunicated from a godly church. Thus the abandoned spouse is free to divorce and remarry.
A few notes are significant about abandonment as a ground of divorce. In his address, Dr. Murray stressed that it must be “irremedial abandonment.” By this, I presume that he meant that the one spouse has rejected all attempts at reconciliation or even has physically absented himself or herself from the marriage in such a way that he cannot be found. The point is that we do not declare abandonment simply when one member of the marriage moves out or goes to spend at night at his parents. It is final abandonment, leaving the abandoned spouse with no recourse but to end the marriage.
Second, abandonment is widely used today in cases of severe abuse. It may be the case that a spouse has not physically left the marriage but is so physically or emotionally abusive that the principle of marriage has been abandoned. In this, such a person will have rejected the authority of the church in seeking repentance, resulting in excommunication. Different churches hold different views and practices about abuse. In my view, severe abuse may constitute abandonment, but this principle should be practiced with great care and reluctance. An angry blow-up does not constitute abandonment of the marriage via abuse. It must be a protracted and seriously harmful situation from which one member of the marriage must be protected via church discipline.
These, then, are two biblical grounds of the divorce, which churches acknowledge from Scripture and practice with great care, sadness, and even reluctance. It is, however, the teaching of the Word of God and therefore these two grounds for divorce obligate our belief and practice.