“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Singleness, marriage, and divorce are tough issues to talk about. They are emotional ones. Singleness is a difficult journey in and of itself. Cultural pressures to be sexually active regardless of marital status combined with pressures from the current culture of the church for everyone to be married and which suggest that singleness is a kind of second-class status make it even more difficult. Marriage opens us up to a level of intimacy that is often a lot scary and hard to maintain. Its “til-death-do-us-part” mantra is daunting, especially when you start it young. And, once again, culture puts all kinds of pressure on us to make it something entirely less sacred and permanent that it was designed to be. And, because of the intimacy of marriage, divorce is always messy. If the Scriptures are right in that the married couple becomes one flesh, a divorce for any reason is akin to amputating a part of our body, and not something small like a toe. It’s more like taking off an entire leg or arm. In other words, these are big issues.
The guidance the Scriptures offer on the topic is a matter of some debate because Jesus and Paul can be made to sound at odds, and even Jesus in the various Gospels can be made to sound like He wasn’t sure what His own position was.
That being said, I think the Scriptures are more consistent than they can seem at first read. Because of that, I think there are some things we can say. The first is this: marriage is a good, but it is not the ultimate good. Singleness is a good and noble thing as well. There are benefits and challenges of both. Both offer ways to serve the Lord and advance His kingdom that the other does not. Folks who are single are not burdened by having to care for a family and can thus give a great deal more attention, energy, and focus to the things of the Lord than their married brothers and sisters can. Folks who are married can serve together and offer a balanced set of gifts that will empower their ministry such that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When a couple is given the gift of children, they are the primary force for passing on the faith to the next generation.
As for which station is best for a person, that is between them and God. Both marriage and singleness are callings. Marriage is undoubtedly the calling for most, but the calling to singleness is an equally high one that should be honored.
Second, for those who are called to marriage, it was designed by God to be a covenant union between and man and a woman that lasts until one or the other dies. That’s the ideal. Too often today, though, we are encouraged to see marriage as a contract. A contract always has an escape clause. It’s also limited to a specific amount of time or act of service. When the time is completed and all services have been rendered, the contract is ended. Also, if the terms are violated along the way, the whole thing becomes null and void.
A covenant, on the other hand, does not have any kind of an ending point. Its terms hold regardless of how one party or the other is doing at seeing them fulfilled. There may be consequences for failing to fulfill them, but the existence of the covenant is not itself threatened by this. A person can move out of the boundaries of the covenant, but that doesn’t mean the covenant has ended. It only means you have removed yourself from it.
A covenant does not have to be a burden, though. It can be a source of incredible life and joy. To see this happen it takes sacrifice, service, submission, and a whole lot of special sauce–a dogged intention to see the other become more fully who God designed them to be (that is, love). When we get it right, we serve as a picture to the world of what the relationship between Christ and the church should look like. This is a powerful invitation to the kingdom of God.
The third part here, however, is that divorce is a reality. It is an all-too-frequent reality. It is an unfailingly tragic reality. When a divorce happens, we are breaking something that was designed to be permanent. That is never a pretty picture.
Divorce always happens because of sin. The exact nature of the sin isn’t important here and is as varied as are the relationships, but sin is always what lies at the heart of a divorce. In the vast majority of the cases reconciliation is possible, but one or the other or both parties are not willing to do the work necessary to see that happen. When sin has wrecked a marriage, the road to restoration is through dealing with the sin. Too often, though, folks simply run from it, taking the sin with them, often into another marriage, where the unresolved issues are allowed to wreck yet another marriage. There is a reason the divorce rate increases sharply for marriages subsequent to a first.
Just because divorce is always a result of sin, however, does not mean it is never permissible for a follower of Jesus to seek to initiate one. There are some cases in which abuse threatens the health, safety, and even the lives of one partner or even the children, such that divorce becomes a necessity. Infidelity can also provide grounds for a justified divorce, although if repentance and forgiveness are willing to be pursued, reconciliation and restoration are most definitely possible however difficult they may be to experience. I’ve seen it happen and it is unfailingly a beautifully enacted picture of the power of God’s own love for us through Christ. In the verses that follow these, Paul offers an additional teaching that for a Christian married to a non-Christian (presumably because the Christian became a believer after getting married, not because he or she married an unbeliever in the first place), if the unbelieving spouse seeks divorce because he isn’t willing to live with the believer any longer, there is no fault to the believer in this case.
Ultimately these are three issues that get right to the center parts of our lives. These are real situations that affect real people and as the church we need to be prepared to deal with them with grace and truth. Our church communities should be places where singles are honored for their commitment to Christ (a commitment which we enable and encourage through loving care and gentle accountability), where marriages are celebrated and strengthened, and where those who have faced the pain of divorce are shown compassion and care and helped to process through the sin involved, seeking repentance and offering forgiveness as is necessary. All of this is done with the goal of moving people in the direction of Jesus no matter what their starting point may be. This will create a church community where every part can be a part, and the whole will be strengthened to stand and effectively invite people into the kingdom of God. It is a hard balance to maintain, but one worth all the effort we can give it.