Review: The Divorce Dilemma by John MacArthur

The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment by John MacArthur is used in many Bible counseling training programs. The subtitle “God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment” is consistent with the message that God hates divorce and intends for marriage to be a permanent covenant. However, the book is marred by the false doctrine of extreme predestination, which permeates every page, with many outright attacks on contemporary evangelicalism. The book ignores God’s laws about multiple wives and God’s protections for slave wives, which would add valuable insight to the subject of Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. Additionally, the author’s personal opinion is revealed in hundreds of self-defeating statements like: supports, implies, it might well be possible, I see no reason, I’m not prepared to state dogmatically, is therefore likely, so here is my best counsel. These problems will make it very difficult for some people to read, but it is worth the effort to eat the meat and spit out the bones. Here are the resulting biblical principles…

Four different views on divorce in Christianity today

First overriding truth: God instituted marriage to be permanent

When God first described the marriage relationship, he used the word “joined”, which means a strong steadfast grip of deep attraction that sticks together. In contemporary English, we might say fastened, glued, or welded to mean the same thing. There is no divorce in this concept because dividing something that is joined like this causes damage to both parts.

This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.
Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Genesis 2:24-25

God instituted marriage to be permanent. He joins the husband and wife together. It is a union of physical and spiritual proportions. It wasn’t intended to become unfastened, unglued, or unwelded.

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 19:4-6

God intended marriage for many reasons…

  • Procreation, be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28)
  • Pleasure (Prov 5:18-19)
  • Partnership (Gen 2:18)
  • Metaphor of the church (Eph 5)
  • Provision and protection (Eph 5)
  • Purity (1 Cor 7)

Second overriding truth: God never intended for marriage to end in divorce

Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure.    You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows.
Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth.    “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Malachi 2:13-16

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”
“Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 19:3-9 (also Matt 19:3-12 // Mark 10:2-12; cp. Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18 (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 19:3)

Third overriding truth: All divorce is the result of sin

Without sin, there would be no fights and irreconcilable issues that could lead to divorce. Without sin, there would be no lust that could lead to unfaithfulness. Without sin, there would be no sexual perversion that could lead to immorality. So, all considerations and counseling about divorce is working with sowing and reaping of sin.

Thank God, he is in the sin fixing business. There is help for hurting marriages. There is hope! There is forgiveness. There is reconciliation.

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (NLT Study Bible Text,) 2 Corinthians 5:18-21

At the fall, sin caused a separation of God from mankind, a separation of mankind from nature, and a separation of husband and wife.

Then he said to the woman,
“I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy,
and in pain you will give birth.
And you will desire to control your husband,
but he will rule over you.”
And to the man he said,
“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Genesis 3:16-17

We see this every day. Women desire to control their husbands. Men overreact and try to dominate their wives. Neither behavior is God-ordained. Neither behavior results in godly marriage. And, both behaviors will destroy a marriage.

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 5:27-30

The certificate of divorce

Therefore, Moses allowed a certificate of divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. This was an accommodation of God’s grace to human sin. The certificate of divorce did not make it the “right” thing to do, but gave the innocent victim some legal protection.

“Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes her a letter of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. When she leaves his house, she is free to marry another man. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Deuteronomy 24:1-2

In addition, the death penalty for heinous sins solved the divorce and remarriage problem. The old testament law required the death penalty for at least 16 sins: murder, kidnapping, striking or cursing parents, incorrigible rebelliousness, idolatry of sacrificing to false gods, violating the Sabbath, Blasphemy, being a false prophet, human sacrifice, divination or witchcraft, adultery, bestiality, incest, homosexuality, premarital sex, and rape (Apologetics Press – Capital Punishment and the Bible). The death penalty was a permanent and irreversible dissolution of the marriage because the guilty party was put to death.

“Anyone who dishonors father or mother must be put to death. Such a person is guilty of a capital offense.
“If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the man and the woman who have committed adultery must be put to death.
“If a man violates his father by having sex with one of his father’s wives, both the man and the woman must be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.
“If a man has sex with his daughter-in-law, both must be put to death. They have committed a perverse act and are guilty of a capital offense.
“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.
“If a man marries both a woman and her mother, he has committed a wicked act. The man and both women must be burned to death to wipe out such wickedness from among you.
“If a man has sex with an animal, he must be put to death, and the animal must be killed.
“If a woman presents herself to a male animal to have intercourse with it, she and the animal must both be put to death. You must kill both, for they are guilty of a capital offense. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Leviticus 20:9-16

Anyone who was married to someone who was killed for any of these crimes, was freed from their marriage covenant.

For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Romans 7:2-3

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord. (NLT Study Bible Text,) 1 Corinthians 7:39

Although we don’t have the death penalty in the New Testament for these kinds of sins, it remains true—just as in Genesis 2—that these unconfessed and unrepentant sins destroy our relationship with God, and destroy our relationship with each other, and destroy the relationship between husband and wife.

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.
If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. (NLT Study Bible Text,) 1 John 1:5-10

Jesus specifically named one of these exceptions in the famous sermon on the mount…

“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 5:31-32

It’s important to recognize that Jesus chose a specific word: porneía (the root of the English terms “pornography, pornographic”; cf. 4205 /pórnos) which is derived from pernaō, “to sell off”) – properly, a selling off (surrendering) of sexual purity; promiscuity of any (every) type. This is much more general than other words he could have chosen, such as: moixeía (“marital unfaithfulness“). This does not give license for any kind of divorce at any time for any reason, but it does show we must be careful to allow for grace in these kinds of situations. Consider the woman taken in adultery and cast at the feet of Jesus.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) John 8:1-11

Yes, there was a death penalty, and that would have solved the problem for the innocent spouse of the guilty man who was not brought by the Pharisees, but God’s grace extended to the woman. She acknowledged her sin by recognizing Jesus as Lord and he forgave her. We may hear the rest of the story in heaven, but for now, we don’t know if the man and his innocent spouse divorced or not. It would have been allowed by the law and by Jesus. Or maybe, he confessed his sin, and she forgave him and said, “Sin no more.”

Divorce from an unbeliever

There is a special case for a Christian who is married to an unbeliever because without Christ there is no power to live a holy life. In this case, if the unbeliever wants to depart, then the believer is freed from the marriage bond.

Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord. If a Christian man has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her. And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him. For the Christian wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the Christian husband brings holiness to his marriage. Otherwise, your children would not be holy, but now they are holy. (But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the Christian husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.) Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you? And don’t you husbands realize that your wives might be saved because of you? (NLT Study Bible Text,) 1 Corinthians 7:12-16

The underlying principle that the Apostle Paul appeals to is “God has called you to live in peace.” This gives some liberty to the believing spouse. For instance, if the unbelieving spouse just abandons the marriage without a legal divorce, then it may be appropriate for the believing spouse to file the paperwork.

In addition, this helps us understand that it is not appropriate for a believing spouse to compromise their Christian principles or violate their conscience in a desperate bid to prevent divorce. That is against God’s will. In this case, “Let him leave,” is a command, not just permission or allowance.

Otherwise, it is preferable for the believing spouse to remain and live a godly life. Here are 3 examples of spouses who were successful in difficult situations.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go and love your wife again, even though she commits adultery with another lover. This will illustrate that the Lord still loves Israel, even though the people have turned to other gods and love to worship them.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Hosea 3:1

In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives. (NLT Study Bible Text,) 1 Peter 3:1-2

Mordecai sent this reply to Esther: “Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Esther 4:13-14

This principle of grace and forgiven sin also applies to complicated convoluted cases of prior sins of ungodly divorce and ungodly remarriage. If someone finds themselves in this kind of situation, divorcing their current spouse would just compound the sin.

The truth is we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). There is good news, however: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). Because, in reality, let’s never forget, Jesus is in the sin-forgiving business.

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Psalms 51:16-17

Remarriage for the innocent victim

To permit the divorce but deny remarriage for the innocent victim would actually turn mercy on its head by sentencing the innocent party to a life of loneliness and misery.

In fact, Jesus said there were only 3 categories of people who can accept singleness…

Jesus’ disciples then said to him, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!”
“Not everyone can accept this statement,” Jesus said. “Only those whom God helps. Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (NLT Study Bible Text,) Matthew 19:10-12

Finding a remarriage partner is no different than finding a first marriage partner. God has shown what he requires.

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God. (NLT Study Bible Text,) Micah 6:8

The Lord intends for you to find a Christian spouse.

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (NLT Study Bible Text,) 2 Corinthians 6:14-16

Therefore, these are proper guidelines for seeking a spouse…

  • Seek the Lord and his righteousness and he will provide for you. (Psalm 37; Matthew 6)
  • The only way to find the right person is to be the right person. (1 Timothy 4:15)
  • Cultivate friendships with mature Christians who understand your needs and will hold you accountable. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Redirect your energy in ways that will serve God (Philippians 4)
  • God has a plan for your life and will bring the right person to you at the right time. (Jeremiah 29:11)
  • Be content with what God is doing in your life right now. (Philippians 4)

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