Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18



Divorce & Remarriage In Light of Redemptive History & The Perspicuity of Scripture

  1. Introduction & Thesis

The topic of divorce and remarriage is not new to the Church but it has perhaps never before been so relevant as it is now. With the rise of individualism and the erosion of the authority of Scripture, particularly in the west, divorce has become accepted and remarriage celebrated within the Church. It is time for an honest assessment of our reasoning and exegesis as we approach the relevant texts. The pressure of culture has led to truncated arguments and complicated exegesis in what appears to be a constant quest for exceptions. Much of the research in favor of allowing remarriage fails to see the trajectory of redemptive history in regards to marriage under the new covenant, employing a somewhat pessimistic retrieval ethic. Those in favor of remarriage seem to imply that though divorce and remarriage is not what should be, it is what must be at this time. Such capitulation to the world has led to a church plagued with divorce and remarriage. And how did the church get here? By failure on the part of pastors and teachers to hold to the Scriptures when it was difficult. As should be expected this has led to much harm to the institution of marriage in the west.

The thesis of this paper is simply this, that considering the clarity of Scripture[1]and the trajectory of redemptive history, the teaching of Jesus and Paul on divorce and remarriage should be taken with the simplest reading, which is to say that Christians may never instigate a divorce, and in the case of divorce remarriage is never allowed, except by the death of the spouse.

  1. Commentary on the relevant texts in Scripture

As evangelicals the Holy Scriptures, not culture or bare reason, are the authority for all of life. This should be especially true of the institution of marriage which God set forth as his good design for mankind in Genesis 2. Marriage is portrayed as the final, crowning touch to a good creation and for God to declare something to be good it must be good. I will speak more on the subsequent fall and its effects on marriage later when dealing with the trajectory of redemptive history, but it is sufficient to say this matter is of no small importance.

The importance of the divorce and remarriage issue should strike us considering that the Gospels address it four times, twice in Matthew, once in Mark, and once in Luke. There are so many things that could have bee recorded and the fact that there is so much on divorce and remarriage in a relatively small canon, should be of note.

In Matthew 5, Matthew 19, and Mark 10, Jesus speaks on divorce and remarriage in direct connection to Moses’ allowance in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus brings up the subject on his own in Matthew 5 where he is the middle of contrasting the application of the Law under Moses with the application of the Law in the Kingdom. Matthew 5:31-32 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”[2]At first glance this text seems to provide an easy out, but a couple of problems arise. One that is worth noting is the Jewish audience and the use of the same Greek root in Matthew 1:19, when Joseph contemplated divorcing Mary because of here supposed sexual immorality. Proponents of this view would argue that Jesus is allowing a dissolution of the betrothal in the case of sexual immorality, but not after consummation of the marriage.[3]It is pointed out that Jesus uses the porneia, meaning sexual immorality, instead of the more exact term moicheia which he uses elsewhere for “adultery”. This view is interesting and possible, but not necessary when the text is considered closely.[4]

Notice that Jesus says that the man who divorces his wife for a reason other than porneiacauses her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Therefore,“whether she became an adulteress by her own volition or by the situation forced on her, the man who married her also committed adultery.”[5]This statement by Jesus, taken prima facie, nullifies the claim that an innocent party who is put away is free to remarry. It behooves anyone looking into this debate to feel the weight of that wording in the text.

In Matthew 19 Jesus is tested by the Pharisees. They want to know if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Quoting from Genesis 2 Jesus reveals the absurdity of divorce in light of God’s created order, exposing the ignorance of his interrogators. Their error was rooted in the fact they had taken permission from Moses and turned it into a command[6], for they said to Jesus, “Why then did Moses commandone to give a certificate of divorce and send her away.”[7]Moses did not command divorce, but permitted divorce, and the only reason he did this was because of the hardness of their hearts. It was “sin-management” you could say for a covenant community that was mixed with regenerate and unregenerate people.

Jesus ends his Matthew 19 encounter by restating the standard set in Matthew 5. And it would appear that the “loophole” of remarriage after divorce on proper grounds might stand, until you read on and see the disciples’ reaction. If Jesus allowed remarriage then his view would not have been much more radical than that of many Pharisees of the school of Shammai[8], but the response of the disciples leads us to believe that Jesus has a higher standard in mind. “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man and his wife, it is better not to marry.”[9]Jesus did not relieve their anxiety with some quick qualifications, instead he implied that if a man cannot imagine such enduring faithfulness, then it is better for him not to get married, thus Jesus launches into his discourse on eunuchs, most likely not referring to castrated males[10]but to those who choose a celibate life or as Wenham asserts[11], considering the context, Jesus is likely including those who are divorced and must not remarry. Considering the reaction of the disciples and the context, this appears as a compelling interpretation.

In Mark 10 we have the parallel to Matthew 19 and Jesus once again roots his prohibition against divorce and subsequent remarriage in God’s original design for marriage rather than in Moses’ sin-managing permissiveness. But here we see a new wrinkle introduced that we do not see in Moses, where the woman is now the instigator of the divorce. Again, Mark’s account gives no indication of an allowance for remarriage. Notice thus far that divorce is its own sin which precipitates, in the case of remarriage, the sin of adultery.

Luke is the strictest of all of the accounts. It is worth quoting the Lukan passage in its entirety because it is so direct and succinct. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”[12]What catches our attention here is the inclusive language “everyonewho divorces his wife and marries another….” Even more astonishing is the assertion that “he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”[13]This seems to say that in a remarriage there is no innocent party. Counter to the appeals to reason made by John Murray[14], whatever the cause for divorce, subsequent remarriage is portrayed as adultery from every angle.[15]

Now we get to the Pauline discourse on this issue and the so called “Pauline Privilege” found in I Corinthians 7. Having just addressed the rampant immorality in Corinth and perhaps the tendency to react with asceticism, Paul lays out expectations for marriage and encourages singleness. After stating his desire, but not command, in verses 8-9 that the unmarried and widows remain unmarried, he gives direction to those that are married. He reflects here the teaching of Jesus that marriage is indissoluble. He says in verse 10 that the “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.” The words for “separate” and “divorce” are different in the Greek here than in the Gospels, in fact Paul employs two different words here[16], but it is well within the same semantic range. Verse 11 is especially important, for it implies a time when divorce might be allowed, but clearly forbids marriage to another man.

In verses 12-16 Paul deals with a mixed marriage. His address of this issue makes two things clear: first, divorce between Christians is sin and unacceptable. Second, Paul clears an innocent party in a mixed marriage of the shared guilt of divorce, while not necessarily allowing that innocent party to remarry, rather the instruction given in verse 11 should still be considered as applying.

Finally, in verse 39, Paul says that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives and after he dies she is free to marry. You would think that he might insert a caveat like “as long as they are married she is bound.” But he makes no such qualification in this final word of his discourse on marriage.

  1. Two options given by the relevant texts

Considering the texts that we have briefly, and admittedly in a very cursory manner, examined, I want to consider two of the most likely interpretations.

  1. Divorce allowed in some circumstances, remarriage allowed in those circumstances

This has been the predominate view in much of the church since the Reformation. The reformer John Calvin[17]held to this view and some Puritans such as Richard Baxter agreed.[18]However, it is worth noting that those closer to the culture of the day, men such as Augustine[19]and Tertullian[20], both North African church fathers, held to a strict permanence view, which we will address soon.

This view, in its narrower interpretation posits that in Matthew we see that adultery effectively breaks the marriage covenant, which frees the innocent party to remarry. In response to the relevant texts in Mark and Luke, proponents of this exception clause would say that the clause is implied. “It goes without saying”, as it were, that adultery breaks the covenant, freeing the innocent party. In defense those that hold this view will sometimes appeal to places in the Old Testament where God expresses his intention to divorce Israel for her spiritual adultery[21]. In those cases, God is the analogical “victim” in a marriage relationship and will therefore leave his adulteress “bride” and be joined to another.

Furthermore, in favor of this view you could argue that the exception clause in Matthew is shocking as it appears because it is more narrow than Moses’ allowance. For Moses allowed divorce for “indecency” which could be more broadly interpreted, whereas Jesus said sexual immorality alone was reason, thus narrowing the Mosaic permissiveness. Also, whereas the conservative rabbinical school of Shammairequired divorce for porneia, Jesus merely allowed it.[22]There are problems with this view, which we will see shortly.

The second ground for divorce and remarriage is the “Pauline Privilege” of I Corinthians 7. In this case, if a believing brother or sister is abandoned by their non-believing spouse most take the words “is not enslaved” to implypermission to remarry “in the Lord”.[23]Meaning they are free to marry another believer.

So there are two grounds for divorce in this view, adultery and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. And both of these, it would be argued, imply the freedom to remarry.


  1. Divorce allowed in some circumstances, remarriage never allowed[24]

Admittedly this has been the minority view since the reformation, but this would not be the first time a crucial truth was a minority view.[25]As Wenham points out, “The early church, up to AD 500, maintained that Christ allowed separation but not remarriage.”[26]The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century writing that was circulated widely enough in the church that it was a disputed book when considering canonicity, directly addresses the matter of divorce and remarriage, forbidding remarriage even in the case of adultery.[27]  In American evangelicalism few have dared to take this position, but most notable among the proponents of it would be John Piper.[28]Church history is not our authority, but when the relation of the Markan and Lukan texts with the Matthean record is in question and two possible interpretations are before us, we should give weight to church history.

In defense of this view, first it must be clear that saying that divorce is “allowed” must be qualified. Neither Jesus nor Paul ever give permission for pursuing divorce, rather they clear the innocent party of guilt should they be divorced.[29]It may be argued that Matthew allows the offended party to instigate divorce, but it could also be argued that the unfaithful spouse is the de factoinstigator of divorce, especially if Paul’s instruction to seek restoration has been followed. As F.F. Bruce says, “For a Christian husband or wife divorce is excluded by the law of Christ.”[30]Furthermore, the Christian victim of divorce is given no reason to believe that remarriage is allowed in any case, because though the marriage bond be violated it is not dissolved, for it can apparently only be dissolved by death.[31]For Jesus clearly does not command divorce in the case of sexual infidelity, but rather allows it. If the marriage bond was truly broken by adultery, then any sexual relations between the husband and his wife after adultery by either party would then be fornication because their covenant would be dissolved.

Furthermore, Luke says “he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery”. If a woman divorced by her husband is truly separated from her husband, why is it adultery to marry her? Or why, in the case of Matthew 5, is a woman wrongly divorced committing adultery if she remarries? It is adultery because the pronouncement of man cannot dissolve what God has established. And as Romans 7 and I Corinthians 7 make clear, it is only by death that God ends that bond.

The conclusion is that what God has joined man cannot separate. So in a sense one must say that divorce is never allowed, though there is exemption of guilt for divorce for those that are divorced by another.[32]And if divorce is never allowed, then remarriage is never allowed. Paul seems to make this expressly clear in I Corinthians 7 when he says that if a woman is separated from her husband she is to be reconciled or remain unmarried. This instruction in light of Matthew 19 and Luke 16 makes this position the most acceptable.

This leads us to consider why this view is such a minority in the church today. We want to take care here because we all see that to be a loner theologically is never a good idea, but the reality is that until the time of Erasmus in the 16thcentury permanence was the predominant view in the church and vestiges of this reality remain in the Roman church to this day.[33]


  1. Egalitarianism, homosexuality, divorce, and remarriage: Cultural pressure on exegesis

Many of the arguments for the majority view sound like the same arguments made today for egalitarianism, homosexuality, and other such hot topics. Too often the question that is being asked of the texts is “When is this allowed?” Rather than asking the question, “What does God intend?” Many in mainstream Christianity look at the passages on homosexuality and by digging deep into cultural nuances and semantics, they attempt to remove stigma from homosexual relationships. As we look at much of the material on divorce and remarriage, it seems that this same approach is being taken to soften the statements of Jesus and Paul on divorce and remarriage. Perhaps it is time for us to consider that the pandemic of divorce and remarriage in the church is simply a forerunner to the sexual revolution overtaking us; a revolution that cannot be stood against as long as cultural forces are allowed to spawn unnatural readings of Scripture and complicated exegesis. This matter directs us to the next point.


  1. Divorce and remarriage and the perspicuity of Scripture

The doctrine of the perspicuity, or the clarity, of Scripture seems to have been left out in the cold in most dealings with this highly sensitive and culturally explosive issue. Those that hold to perspicuity of Scripture should affirm that knowing what certain rabbinical schools believed or what Roman divorce law was should not be required to understand the text before us. The same God who has supernaturally preserved his word is able to preserve it in a way which is clear, timeless, self-interpreting, and self-authorizing. To assert that extra-biblical data is needed to understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce is to undermine the doctrine of the clarity of the Bible. Complementarianism, as an example, is a clear issue when one reads the relevant texts naturally and in light of all of Scripture. Even egalitarians scholars agree with this.[34]If we accept Paul’s appeal to the created order as the foundation for complementarianism, why don’t we do the same with Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage?

The Scriptures do have a cultural context, but they are also timeless and preserved by God in order to be revealed to the simple, even to children. Knowing the Scriptures well is needed for good exegesis of them, but knowledge of Scripture alone seems to be in favor of the permanence view.

The complicated arguments should be avoided, especially when the result of those arguments could be giving license to adultery. An appeal to safety must be made here. Singleness damns no one. Paul even encourages it under the New Covenant.[35]Adultery is another story. Taken prima facie, the relevant texts forbid divorce except perhaps in special cases and they always forbid remarriage. To make the text say anything different requires some measure of eisegesis. At the very least, considering the texts, it is disturbing how confident most evangelicals are with their permissiveness.

Furthermore, a clear view of the scope of Scripture points us both back to a good creation and forward to a restored creation of which the church is to be a reflection, which leads to consideration of the next point.


  1. Divorce and remarriage and the trajectory of redemptive history

Genesis 2:18-25 sets forth the “good” design of God for the marriage covenant. It is this design which Jesus later appeals to. After the fall the immediate result of sin is a fracture in relationship between husband and wife, something God said would be characteristic of their fallen state. In the generations that followed perversions of God’s good design followed, such as polygamy. After God makes his covenant with Israel at Sinai, in Deuteronomy 24 we find permission being given by Moses for divorce in certain circumstances and Moses forbidding it in others. But what Moses established was not normative. It was sin-management in a community mixed with regenerate and hard-hearted people. By the time Jesus arrived the Pharisees had come to see Moses’ permission as a command to be followed, rather than a sad indictment of the state of humanity under sin. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus got to the heart of the matter. Then in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 he directly addressed why Moses allowed divorce, but unlike Moses, Jesus did not come to manage sin, but to do away with it. As those belonging to the kingdom inaugurated, the church is not to bow to the tyranny of sin and settle for sin management, but cry with life and lungs against the tide of rebellion, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

If one considers the new covenant in Ezekiel 36 with the promise of new, soft hearts, a change in marriage should be expected. Relationships that reflect more fully the restoration to come. Jesus brought up Genesis 2 because the kingdom standard for marriage is the original standard for marriage. As those united together already in Christ believers reflect as a people the work of reconciling all things together in Christ. And “all things” includes marriage.

Under the old covenant a retrieval ethic was employed by Moses, but Jesus wasn’t interested in retrieval, he was interested in restoration. The current reality of sin does not demand that we bow to sin’s tyranny, but that we fight the good fight, even if it means being single. Sadly, the church has been content to manage sin by providing for its constrained exercise – namely through marriage that is at best disordered and possibly not even marriage of any kind.

Under the New Covenant we see a new dignity to singleness not found in the Old. So if the question is asked whether or not there is a retrieval ethic in the New Covenant for victims of divorce the answer is the glory of singleness outlined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. The ruin of marriage here in this age does not change the marriage to come, to Christ our betrothed. In the new heavens and earth we will be “neither married nor given in marriage, but will be like the angels in heaven.”[36]Marriage for Christians is a good thing, but it is not ultimate.[37]Our identity as Christians is not ultimately found in our status as married or single, but in our status as “in Christ”[38]. A union which God has joined and no man can separate.


  1. Pastoral implications and conclusion

The permanence view raises an array of pastoral questions, some of which may be answered by the previous paragraph. All of these questions are difficult, as a pastor I can testify to this. But when pastors are not faithful in one generation, they inevitably make the job more painful for the next.

If the problem of divorce and remarriage in the church is going to be changed it has to start with pastors proactively teaching on it and raising the next generation with the view that marriage is for life and that divorce is never an option for believers. For those that are divorced, there is a need for biblical teaching on the dignity and purpose of singleness in the kingdom of God. For children that are victims of divorce the church needs to compassionately shepherd them, giving them a vision of something greater.

In the meantime, we face the most difficult pastoral situation. Is there a retrieval ethic for those that have already been divorced and remarried? The answer is an uneasy “yes”.  Entering into the illicit union needs to be acknowledged as sin, but the union is still a union. Jesus still refers to the adulteress union as a marriage. It is a disordered union, but still a union, somewhat akin to the “one flesh” union that occurs when a man is joined with a prostitute.[39]Therefore, they should repent and not do it again. This is admittedly an unsatisfying response, because it could be argued that they are continuing in adultery and that a more radical repentance, such as separation may be required. Such a response is not beyond the realm of possibilities and would admittedly appear to be the more consistent, though much more harsh, view.

A clear implication is that pastors should never perform weddings for people divorced for any reason. Furthermore, if a member of a church engages themselves to a divorced person they should be warned and disciplined if they continue.  For those divorced prior to becoming Christians and wanting to get married as a believer, we must acknowledge that as the Bible treats it a marriage outside of the household of faith is still a marriage.[40]

This issue certainly raises a number of moral and pastoral quandaries. But generations of compromise always do.[41]Doing faithful pastoral ministry in an environment that has abandoned or never had the authority of Scripture is going to lead to sticky situations. So the clarion call should be for a return to faithfulness while praying desperately for wisdom. Pastors should take every case of people who are already divorced and remarried with great care and have a determined vision for the future of marriage in the church as permanent.

In conclusion, attempting to be aware of cultural pressure, in light of the clarity of Scripture, and the trajectory of redemptive history, the Bible teaches that New Testament marriage is for life, a believer may never be the instigator of divorce, and remarriage is always forbidden. Looking to Jesus and to Paul, this means that if one cannot embrace this truth they should not get married, if you are married you are in it for good, and if you are currently divorced your identity is not found in a spouse, but in Christ. May Christian marriages reflect the exclusivity and the permanence of our eternal bond with Christ.






Baxter, Richard, and J. I. Packer. The Christian Directory. Vol. 1. (Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 1996)

Bruce, F.F., Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977)

Calvin, John, and John Pringle. “Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids(2010).

Eden, Kathy. “Rhetoric in the Hermeneutics of Erasmus’ Later Works.” Erasmus Studies11, no. 1 (1991): 88-104.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., and David Wayne Jones.God, marriage, and family. Crossway, 2010. 2ndEdition

Plumpe, Joseph C., and Johannes Quasten. Ancient Christian Writers: the Works of the Fathers in Translation. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1946.

Murray, John. Divorce & Remarriage, RPM, Vol. 11, Num. 9 (March 1, 2009) accessed November 9, 2015,^^^articles^joh_murray^joh_murray.divorce.remarriage.html/at/Divorce%20and%20Remarriage

Pierce, Ronald W. Rebecca Merrill Groothius, Gordon Fee, Editors, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, (IVP Academic, 2005, Kindle Edition) Location 1989

Piper, John. “Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper.” Pages: Desiring God(1986).

Augustine, Aurelius. “‘On the good of marriage’.” Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, first series3 (1997).

Warden, Duane. “The Words of Jesus on Divorce.” Restoration Quarterly39, no. 3 (1997 1997): 141-153. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed November 10, 2015).

Wenham, Gordon J. “May Divorced Christians Remarry?”(1981): 150-161.


[1]An objection often raised to my appeal to the clarity of Scripture is that if the issue were so clear it would not be so debated across the history of the church. I believe that the reason for the debate is not so much an issue of clarity as it is our tendency to respond to the Bible’s teaching on this in the same manner that the disciples did in Matthew 19.

[2]All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (Crossway) unless noted otherwise

[3]John Piper, Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper, Desiring God (1986) 10

[4]I personally do not consider this to be an airtight argument. I think there are clearer, more compelling arguments to be made, but this one is worth recording for consideration.

[5]Duane Warden, “The Words of Jesus on Divorce.” Restoration Quarterly39, no. 3 (1997 1997): 143. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed November 10, 2015).

[6]As a command this would have been in contradiction with God’s revealed pattern for marriage

[7]Matthew 19:7

[8]A rabbinical school which interpreted the indecency in Deuteronomy 24 as being sexual in nature only and required divorce if discovered

[9]Matthew 19:10

[10]Considering the law of Moses, celibacy rather than castration is what Jesus clearly has in mind; see Deuteronomy 23:1

[11]Gordon J. Wenham, “May Divorced Christians Remarry?”(1981): 158.

[12]Luke 16:18

[13]For those that address the all-encompassing language in Luke 19 with the appeal to consider Luke in light of Matthew, could it not just as easily be argued to consider Matthew in light of Luke? Is not the general rule in exegesis that the simpler, more clear text interprets the more ambiguous text?

[14]John Murray, Divorce & Remarriage, RPM, Vol. 11, Num. 9 (March 1, 2009) accessed November 9, 2015,^^^articles^joh_murray^joh_murray.divorce.remarriage.html/at/Divorce%20and%20Remarriage

[15]If it be argued that adultery breaks the marriage bond therefore creating the one allowance for remarriage would this not mean that divorce is required? Also, that that there would be more freedom for those than commit adultery?

[16]χωρίζω to divide, separate; αφιημι send away, dismiss

[17]John Calvin and John Pringle, “Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians.”Christian Ethereal Library (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) Vol. I

[18]Richard Baxter and J.I. Packer, A Christian Directory. Vol. 1(Soli Deo Gloria Ministries, 1996) pg. 444

[19]Aurelius Augustine, On the Good of Marriage, I in NPNF3:406.

[20]Joseph C. Plumpe and Johannes Quasten, Ancient Christian Writers; the works of the Fathers in Translation, (Westminster, MD: Newman Pres, 1946) 13:93

[21]Jeremiah 3:8

[22]Andreas J. Kostenberger and David Wayne Jones, God, Marriage, & Family, (Crossway, 2010) 229.

[23]I Corinthians 7:15, 39

[24]John Piper, Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper, Desiring God (1986)A possible variation of this asserts the Matthean betrothal theory.

[25]Example: Justification by faith alone

[26]Gordon J. Wenham, “May Divorced Christians Remarry?”(1981): 151.

[27]Trans. Lightfoot, 29:7. I recognize of course that this is not canon and therefore not binding on conscience. However, because it was so widely read it does give an indication of the early church’s understanding of the issue.

[28]Andreas J. Kostenberger and David Wayne Jones, God, Marriage, & Family, (Crossway, 2010) 230. Note: Piper holds to the “no divorce, Matthean betrothal view”

[29]Granted, Hermas, which I just mentioned, required divorce in the case of ongoing, known adultery while forbidding remarriage after the fact.

[30]F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 267.

[31]I Corinthians 7:39

[32]The topic of lawful, celibate separation for the sake safety is another issue.

[33]Kathy Eden, “Rhetoric in the Hermeneutics of Erasmus’ Later Works.” Erasmus Studies11, no. 1 (1991): 88.

[34]Ronald W Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothius, Gordon Fee, Editors, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, (IVP Academic, 2005, Kindle Edition) Location 1989

[35]Pastorally speaking, if I take the permanence view and require that divorced people remain single, I have led no one into sin. If the mainstream permissiveness is wrong, then the implications for many pastors are devastating who will be held to a stricter measure of judgment. James 3:1

[36]Matthew 22:30

[37]For those that would retort to this with 1 Corinthians “it is better to marry than burn” offers a retrieval ethic for those divorced, they need only consider what such an argument would imply for those who burn with homosexual desire? Clearly there are some cases where celibacy is the only faithful option.

[38]Ephesians 2:6

[39]I Corinthians 6:16

[40]We do not require married couples to remarry each other when they become believer and Paul’s instruction to people with unbelieving spouses in 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that marriage is not dependent on being in the church. However, the strict expectation of permanence or celibacy is only holding on Christians. We cannot expect unbelievers to be held to “soft-heart” standards, the permissiveness under Moses makes that clear.

[41]As an example, think of missionaries dealing with the issue of polygamy in new converts

Cruciform Marriage

When an argument is made for God’s design for marriage as the best pattern for married life, perhaps in the vein of Ephesians 5, people are quick to point out that many people who do not follow the Bible enjoy long unions where both people are fulfilled. We need to admit this is true, and even be thankful for it. God has designed marriage to be something that last “until death do us part” and when this happens in a broken world, we should give thanks! But at the same time we need to acknowledge that as Christians we are not pragmatists, not even in marriage. So in other words, just because a marriage works doesn’t mean it is healthy, just because it is happy does not mean it is holy,  just because a marriage last doesn’t mean that it is a reflection of what marriage is supposed to be.

The world most commonly says that a marriage works through compromise. Successful relationships, many will say, is about living with an understanding of “give and take”. This philosophy when held to can indeed make marriages last a long time. And when we hear it, it seems right and fair, like a good formula for a successful marriage. But this is where I think we need to slow down and remember that just because something works doesn’t mean it is how it should be done. We need, rather, to be asking what God has designed for marriage and furthermore, we need to consider how marriage should look in light of the good news of free salvation through Jesus Christ.

So back to the most common pragmatic approach to making marriage work. Compromise. Give and take. When held up in light of Scripture, is this really a biblical philosophy for marriage? I am arguing that it is not. Because think about it. The strategy of “compromise” for an enduring marriage is built on maintaining the union by feeding the individual selfishness of the two parties involved. “Okay, fine. You can go bowling on Thursdays, but that means I get a day at the spa”. Or “Okay, fine. You can buy that dress but I get to buy those new tires I have been wanting”. It is not always that obvious, or even put into words, but you get the picture. Marriages work, or I should say, they happily maintain in this way. But those involved ultimately remained unchanged. And for Christians, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any meaningful relationship – be it the church or marriage or friendship – to be maintained by placating the inner pride and selfishness of the other person involved.

Christian marriage isn’t about maintaining for the sake of keeping the marriage going. Christian marriage is about transformation. If the man and woman were originally created to complement one another in their calling, Christian marriage follows this same design. And what is the calling of the Christian? Ultimately, it is to be conformed into the image of the Son of God. Yes, into the image of Jesus who in love offered up himself as a substitute sacrifice for sinners! So Christian marriage serves the purpose of our calling as Christians – to be conformed into the image of Christ, to reject the status quo, to throw off the tyranny of sin and this through the same means that Christ did. Through death.

Marriage means death. That is how Christian marriage works. Through glad death for the joy set before us. Through the realization that unless a grain falls into the ground and dies it cannot bring forth life. When a marriage is marked, not by the mutual compromise of two individuals, but through the death of two that have become one – God is glorified as the marriage speaks to what God is like.

Or to put it in biblical terms from Ephesians 5, the husband dies, the wife submits. In the end it looks like the Gospel – it is cruciform. It requires not that they meet in the middle, not that each becomes weak, but that each dies. Both the leadership of Jesus and the submission of Jesus, both driven by love, led to his being offered up to death. But what is the result? Glory.

And I want to argue that glory is the result in a marriage when a marriage takes the shape of the cross.

Think of it this way.

As the husband goes the way of the cross in his role as head in the marriage and the wife goes the way of the cross in submission to her husband both are honored. When the husband lays down his life for the spiritual flourishing of his bride, she is uplifted, she shines. When the wife dies to herself by submitting to her husband, he is uplifted, he shines. And with each passing moment and year, taking the shape of a cross, their relationship builds through death into in a Gospel-gleaming monument that stands in defiance to a fallen creation that maintains itself ultimately through self-preservation.

In the original creation, marriage that reflected the Maker would have been marked by a self-giving generosity, joy out of seeking the good of the spouse, reflecting the generosity and self-giving that God showed man and woman, which would ultimate redound to the glory of God and the lead to the good of creation. And now marriage in the history of redemption is a reflection of that same divine generosity, that same grace, now taking the shape of a cross.

Seeing this and pursuing this in marriage may actually make your marriage more difficult in some respects than the compromise-based marriages in the world. As you, husband or wife, pursue cruciform marriage, such an approach may not be reciprocated and as you die to self with no acknowledgment from your spouse, you will be tempted in that moment to climb down from the cross and return to a “better”, “easier”, “more realistic” strategy for maintaining your marriage. But I pray, as a married person for other married people, that we will learn to stay there and endure, trusting in the joy that awaits on the other side of the pain. A cruciform marriage will be difficult, it is in the shape of a cross after all! But in the end it will be a marriage that is what marriage was made to be, it will be a marriage that makes sense in light of the gospel, it will be a marriage that glorifies God and is glorified.


New Covenant Singleness

A recent conversation about singleness on a podcast I listen to called The Reformed Pubcast[i] sparked some consideration in my mind with where I stand on that matter. Specifically the tension that there seems to be in conservative Christian circles between Paul’s writings on the issue in I Corinthians 7 and the Genesis 1 & 2 command that a man should cleave to a wife and be fruitful and multiply.

The direction that is often taken, especially in the setting I grew up in, is to respond to Paul’s words in one of three ways:

  1. We “hmm-haw” about it and tend toward the side of Genesis 1.
  2. We use 1 Corinthians 7 as a comfort for those that are “unfortunate” enough to not be able to find a husband/wife.
  3. We take the heretical approach and state that Paul was simply speaking his opinion here and these words are uninspired (please don’t do that!)

I think that there is a real danger in not simply taking Paul at face value, as difficult as it may be to swallow.[ii] And further, I don’t think there is a tension here between Paul and Genesis. And the best way to see that a tension does not exist is to view the issue of singleness through theological lenses.

Let me lay out that theological lens which must be considered. First, it is my view that the Scriptures reveal that God interacts with his Creation through various covenants. And second, I am also “baptistic” in the sense that I believe that under the new covenant the covenant “children” are those that are born-again, exhibiting repentance and faith, thus making them the rightful recipients of the covenant sign, which is baptism.[iii] You may be wondering what that has do with Genesis, 1 Corinthians 7, and singleness. But trust me! We will get there.

The Bible teaches that, from my viewpoint, Adam was under a covenant.[iv] Like all covenants, this one had terms[v] and responsibilities[vi]. Among the responsibilities was that man was to be fruitful and multiply.

Had Adam not transgressed the covenant by eating from the forbidden tree, his children would have been covenant children – fellows in this mission to fill and subdue the earth. The same seems to be the case with the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, where children born to families under those covenants were given the covenant sign of circumcision and were expected to “be fruitful and multiply”.

Now we come to the New Covenant, ushered in by Christ and sealed with his blood, where there is an important shift. Children are no longer born into the covenant people “by the will of the flesh, nor the will of man” but are born “of God” into the covenant people.[vii]

Just as God in Genesis 1 gives authority to man to subdue the earth and commands him to be fruitful and multiply, with the dawning of the New Covenant God gives authority to his covenant people –the church- and also commands them to be fruitful and multiply.[viii] There has been a shift in categories of covenant offspring from the strictly biological to the spiritual[ix] and therefore a shift in the paradigm of “be fruitful and multiply.”

So now we get back to Paul in I Corinthians 7. Paul, I believe, understood this distinction in what makes someone a child of the covenant. Just read Romans and Galatians. Paul even refers to Timothy as his “true child in the faith.”[x] Paul believed that in his singleness he was obeying the covenant duty to be fruitful and multiply. Just like Old Testament saints he understood that just as God opens and closes the womb he also opens and closes the heart[xi] and he made it his aim to “procreate”. Paul saw, under the New Covenant, that he could better pursue fruitfulness as a single man because he would be freer to scatter the seed of the Gospel which God may be pleased to spring to fruit.

Under the new covenant, therefore, there is a dignity and a purpose to singleness like never before. Our union with Christ and his church means that we are not robbed of meaningful fellowship outside of marriage. We are not defined by our ability to have sexual intimacy, but rather by our inseparable, intimate marriage to Christ as a member of his bride – the church.

What this means is that marriage is good. Marriage is honorable. Marriage is pure. But it is not better than singleness in the eyes of God. The new covenant removes that tension.

So if the Lord has called you to singleness this is my admonition: Jesus is enough. Now, pursue fruitfulness and multiplication by sowing the seed of the Gospel in broad and daring ways that you never could if God had called you to be a husband/wife, father/mother.

The command stands. The paradigm has shifted.



[i] A Christian podcast about theology, pop culture, and beer.
[ii] I speak as someone who is happily married and wish many were as I.
[iii] I don’t have time to get into all the details of this. For more info message me and I can suggest some reading.
[iv] Hosea 6:7
[v] Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:16)
[vi] Subdue the earth and be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28)
[vii] John 1:13
[viii] Matthew 28:18-19
[ix] I understand this is something my Presbyterian brothers will disagree with.
[x] 1 Timothy 1:2
[xi] Genesis 29:31, Acts 16:14

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