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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am service, 2015-04-19

Text: 1 Corinthians 7:10-16,27

 

The marriage institution has fallen on hard times. In Singapore, the number of divorces is still rising. Just two weeks ago, a report which was released by the Ministry of Social and Family Development showed that more couples are untying the knot as the years go by. Dissolutions are now taking place within fewer years of marriage. The report showed that by the 15th year of marriage 20% of couples have gone their separate ways. This is almost double the number of dissolutions within 15 years of couples who had got married 10 years earlier. If this trend is not stopped, then 30 years from now, only half of all married couples will still be married after their 15th  year.

The grim picture that we are now faced with is that many couples are taking marriage and divorce too lightly. Whenever questions on marriage and divorce arise they get answers from all the wrong places – from what they view on the media, from what their friends tell them, and from the world at large. Many are told that marriage is merely a social and legal construct which was meant to provide a stable environment for children. Since marriage is man-made, it is not binding and can be dissolved for any reason. But these are not the right answers to questions on marriage and divorce.

The right answers must come from God Himself. Since marriage originates from Him, He is obviously the best authority on the subject of marriage. We should therefore seek the answers to all questions on marriage and divorce in His Holy Word. God’s Word tells us that marriage was instituted before sin entered the human race. It was God who brought the first man and the first woman together and joined them permanently in a one flesh union (Genesis 2:18-24), and then He gave them the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ (Genesis 1:28) It was God who put a special commandment in place – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – in order to protect the marriage bond from being violated.

The sanctity of marriage can also be seen clearly in the New Testament: Our Lord Jesus blessed it by performing His very first miracle at a wedding – when the couple ran out of wine during their wedding reception, He provided a large quantity of good quality wine out of six stone water pots. It was Jesus who upheld the divine origin and permanency of the marriage bond when He boldly declared, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Furthermore the Scriptures teach us that Christian marriage is meant to reflect the permanent union between Christ and the Church: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.  Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:23-25).

All these biblical instructions are not only helpful to those who are already married. They will also help those who are unmarried and who may get married at some point in time, if the Lord should lead them to do so. Let us all therefore listen to what we are about to hear from 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. The instructions given here were meant for three groups of Christians.

1. For Christians Married to Other Christians (vv.10,11)

The basic instruction given to them is: “Let not the wife depart from her husband…and let not the husband put away his wife.” Life partners are meant to be partners for life! This is implied in Genesis 2:24 which says, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” The word ‘cleave’ in this verse means ‘to cling to one another permanently until death by any one of the parties should separate them.’ Therefore, husband and wife must remain faithful to each other. Both must take their marriage vows seriously: “I take thee....as my lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part.” These vows must be kept no matter what happens – till death us do part, and not till divorce us do part.

Whenever I conduct premarital counseling for couples who are planning to be married, I emphasise that divorce should never be considered as an option after they are married. And I tell them that if a conflict should ever arise between them and there is a heated exchange, the word ‘divorce’ must never be mentioned. Why? Because God never ordained divorce. He ordained marriage, but only endureddivorce because of man’s sin, and even that has to be carefully regulated.

During the time of the prophet Malachi many Israelite husbands were divorcing their aging wives in order to marry younger women from foreign lands. Malachi rebuked them for doing this, and said that they were dealing treacherously! “Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.  And did not He make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.” (Malachi 2:14-16) Thus we see that divorce is actually contrary to God’s plan. God hates it!

But what if one marriage partner goes astray and becomes unfaithful because of temptation? Then the other partner has two options: The preferable option is to save the marriage by working towards reclaiming the straying partner, following the pattern given in the book of Hosea. But what if circumstances make this impossible (e.g. the straying partner refuses to give up his or her adultery)? Then the other option may be used: Sue for divorce. Divorce should only be used as a last resort, and only when adultery has been proven – not just alleged or suspected. This is what Jesus taught concerning divorce in Matthew 19:9 – “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

From the phrase ‘except it be for fornication’ we understand that it is legitimate to divorce and remarry on the grounds of proven adultery. However, statistics have shown that only a tiny fraction of divorces (1%) are filed on the grounds of adultery. Most civil divorces in Singapore (51%) are filed on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour.’ This covers a wide variety of reasons, including mental or verbal abuse, accumulation of excessive debt, addiction to alcohol or gambling, and the absence of emotional or financial support.

If you ever encounter any of these problems in a marriage relationship please do not think of ending your marriage. Seek to overcome them with the grace that Christ gives to us. Take time out of your busy schedule to talk things out objectively and to understand each other. If you were to probe carefully into the root cause of marital problems, you will soon discover that in most cases it is a breakdown in communication.

And if you come to an impasse in dealing with all the sticky issues that stand between the two of you, don’t be ashamed to get the help of a Christian marriage counsellor or pastor to facilitate better communication and prayerful resolution of the problems. And don’t act rashly to file for divorce on grounds of unreasonable behavior – remember that God hates divorce! In His eyes unreasonable behaviour is not legitimate grounds for divorce. And even if the state legally permits you to divorce on such grounds, you should remain unmarried after that. This is stated clearly in v.11 of our text: “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried…”

There are however, two possible ways that a Christian who has divorced onillegitimate grounds can remarry. The first is when his former spouse dies. As v.39 says, “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”

The other way that a Christian who has divorced on illegitimate grounds can remarry is when his former spouse becomes attached to someone else and marries that person. This would amount to adultery by his former spouse, which then gives the Christian legitimate grounds to remarry. There is a good reason why Christians who divorce or separate on any other grounds except proven adultery should not remarry: It keeps the way open for their marriage to be restored. Who knows that the estranged husband or the estranged wife may return one day just like the prodigal son did, with a totally changed heart? Then they can be happily married to each other again. All things are possible with God. And reconciliation is always the best option for Christians who are married to other Christians.

At this point I want you to note that this instruction for Christians who are married to Christians had originally come through our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was only reinforcing what Christ had already taught as recorded in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 16. But the instructions that follow just after this did not come through Christ although they are also from God. This helps us to understand what is written at the beginning of vv.10 and 12. In verse 10 Paul wrote – “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord…” But in verse 12 he wrote – “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord…” The ‘Lord’ here refers to Christ, who never spoke on what Paul was about to speak on in vv.12-16, simply because the situation which is addressed here did not exist in the time of Christ. But since Paul is an apostle of Christ, the instructions he gives here are no less authoritative than all the instructions Christ had given. With that understanding we shall now consider God’s instructions…

2. For Christians Married to Unbelievers Who Want to Stay Married (vv.12-14)

The basic instruction given to them is: “…let him not put her away…let her not leave him.” In other words, keep the marriage. It is important to understand that this does not teach that Christians can marry unbelievers. Verse 39 makes it clear that when Christians marry they should restrict themselves to marrying ‘in the Lord’ (“…but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”) which means, marrying a believer.

Verses 12 is about a person who was not a believer but becomes a Christian after he is married (Thus he is called a ‘brother’). But his wife still remains an unbeliever, and yet she is content to stay on in the marriage. Such a person should not divorce but seek to win his wife to the Lord. The apostle Peter addressed a similar situation in 1 Peter 3:1,2 – “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.” Here, the wives are the ones who had become Christians, and they are told to conduct themselves in a godly and submissive manner to their unsaved husbands in the hope of winning them to Christ.

One possible reason why the Corinthian Christians needed this instruction is that there were some among them whose spouses were still unbelievers living in the grossest sins and pagan idolatry that Corinth was so famous for. And as the Christians grew in their love for God and His holiness, they naturally found it more and more difficult to tolerate their spouses’ sinful habits and ungodly behaviour, fearing to be spiritually defiled through them. The urge to walk out of such a marriage would have been very great. This may be the reason why Paul wrote to them v.14 –“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.” Here he was telling them that staying married to the unbeliever does not defile them. Contrary to that, it sanctifies the unbeliever they are married to.

The word ‘sanctified’ here refers to the holy influence that the unbelieving husband receives from living with a Christian wife. He is blessed with opportunities to hear the gospel from her and to see it working in her life. Besides that, whenever she is blessed by God, he gets to enjoy the overflow of those blessings into his own life.

When Jacob sojourned in Haran and married into Laban’s family, Laban testified to him after many years had passed, “I have learned by experience that the LORD hath blessed me for thy sake.” (Genesis 30:27) When Joseph became a slave in the home of an Egyptian officer named Potiphar, we are told in Genesis 39:5, that “…the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the LORD was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field.” How good it is to become a source of blessing to others, even to unbelieving husbands and wives. For their sake therefore, Paul urges the Christians who are married to them to remain in their marriage.

He then adds another reason why they should do this: The children of such a marriage are not unclean but holy. This is found at the end of v.14 – “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” This does not mean that all the children in a family are automatically saved when one parent becomes a Christian. The word ‘holy’ here means that they are ‘set apart’ from the children of unbelievers. They have ample opportunity to receive the gospel and godly influence from the Christian parent. But each child still has to respond to the Gospel with faith in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

A non-Christian home where one family member has turned to Christ for salvation is just like a dark room where a lamp has been lighted – the light shines in the darkness and brightens up the whole room. The rest of the family are blessed because of him. One Christian in a home graces the entire home! A few days ago, a member of our church shared with me that he and his son used to be the only Christians in his family. But that has changed. Last year his mother was baptized and then his father. And through his niece who is also a Christian, his brother has also become a Christian. This is all the Lord’s working and it is marvelous!

This is the reason why husbands and wives who have become Christians should continue in their marriage if their unbelieving spouse does not mind staying with them. The instruction is different however…

3. For Christians Married to Unbelievers Who Insist on Leaving (vv.15-16)

Verse 15 begins – “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart.” In this situation, the unbeliever strongly objects and wants to terminate the marriage after his or her spouse becomes a Christian. This may happen right at the moment when that spouse announces his desire to be baptized. Emotions flare up as the wife issues an ultimatum: “Now you must choose between me and your desire to change your religion. If you change your religion I will walk out of your life right now!”

It is extremely painful to end a marriage for the sake of one’s faith in Christ, especially after living together as husband and wife for many years. But the difficult step has to be taken since our Lord Jesus has said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37,38) But our Lord also offers words of comfort, “There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” (Luke 18:29-30)

Someone may then say, “But I love my wife very much, and I wish that she would be saved as well. If I agree to this divorce, how can I ever bring her to Christ? But if she is forced to stay in the marriage at least there is still some hope that she may be saved.” Paul would reply that this hope is a vain hope because she has already made up her mind. He says this in v.16– “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” If you make her stay against her will when she wants to leave the marriage, you will only create more strife and unhappiness. Thus it is better to part peacefully than to seek reconciliation in the vain hope of trying to save her soul.

In the face all the tears and heartbreak, God’s instruction to a Christian in this situation is very plain – “If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (v.15) This provides another grounds that is legitimate for a Christian to divorce and remarry besides proven adultery: Willful desertion by the unbeliever. This is understood from the words ‘not under bondage’ in this verse, since Paul used the same term in v.39 when he wrote about remarriage after the death of a spouse: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” Likewise, the Christian who is deserted by an unbelieving spouse is at liberty to remarry if he wishes to do so, but only to another Christian.

However a happy ending is still possible even after the unbeliever has willfully deserted the believer. For God in His great mercy and providence may turn that unbeliever into a Christian later on. Remember how Paul himself was persecuting Christians before the Lord made him a Christian on the road to Damascus. If the Lord turns that unbeliever who leaves the marriage into a believer, then the broken marriage relationship can be joyfully restored if both have not married others yet. Anything is possible with God! Our part is simply to trust Him as we obey His instructions.

Here then is a summary of God’s instructions concerning marriage and divorce. If Christians marry, they should marry Christians and not unbelievers. Christians who are married should not divorce. If unbelievers marry and one of them becomes a Christian after marriage, he/she should not divorce, but should also not refuse to be divorced. Christians may remarry in three situations: When their spouse dies (v.39), when they are the innocent party in a divorce which had resulted from adultery, and when they have been divorced by an unbeliever.

Before we end, I would like to give some pastoral exhortation to all of us: If the Lord leads you to marry, please make sure that you are well-prepared for a life-long commitment of marriage, and then seek His help to build a strong Christ-centered marriage that will glorify Him! Doing this requires much effort both by the husband and by the wife. Both of you must be willing to put in the effort to be faithful and committed to each other. You need to do these things well and consistently. Therefore please pray that God will make you the best marriage partners that you can be and that you ought to be, so that you can build a strong Christ-centered marriage that will glorify Him.

Despite doing all this, problems will still arise occasionally. Even the best Christian marriages have problems because men and women are constituted differently. But you can resolve them by making a conscious effort to do more listening than speaking. This will help you to understand your spouse better and to clear up any misunderstanding. You must also keep yourself in control of your reactions – don’t say or do anything that you may regret later on. And this is something that you can do, with God’s help.

Finally, let me share something that I have found in all my years of pastoral ministry. The most important element in resolving all marital problems is forgiveness. Many couples have resolved their problems and reconciled well through forgiveness. Someone has said that a happy and long-lasting marriage is a union of two imperfect people who are good “forgivers.”

Forgiving your spouse is also something that you can do with God’s help. Please remember this: God has done so much more to forgive you than you can ever do to forgive your spouse. He gave His only begotten Son to die on the cross so that all your sins may be forgiven! When Christ was unjustly tried, sentenced to die, humiliated and nailed to the cross to die at Calvary, what did He say? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Is it so hard to forgive your spouse or anyone else you know, when God has forgiven you? May the Lord help us to do what He wants us to do.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25