The importance of a study in ethics has become abundantly clear to us at this point. So, we must question the morality of the things that we see in our own context. Many Christians get funny when we begin talking about issues of morality. We know what we believe to be right or wrong, but rarely do we answer as to the reason why. Such is the case with issues like polygamy and divorce. Most see divorce as acceptable under a specific set of circumstances and see polygamy as absolutely wrong. Here, we will not content ourselves to make assumptions nor be satisfied with our presumptions. We want to know precisely what is right and what is wrong.
This in no way is a works based Gospel. Salvation is only gifted by the grace of God. In that salvation, God sanctifies us and brings us into good works. In our study of ethics, God is not saving us, but is continuing His work of sanctification for those who belong to Him. With this in mind, we ask the question: What of polygamy and divorce?
Matthew 19:1-10 HCSB
When Jesus had finished this instruction, He departed from Galilee and went to the region of Judea across the Jordan. Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there. Some Pharisees approached Him to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”
“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female,” and He also said:
“ For this reason a man will leave
his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
“Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”
He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning. And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
His disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry!”
As people, and this is an irony that we have developed all on our own, we have a ridiculous way of determining what we think is right and wrong. More and more in our context, right and wrong is determined by how the person feels on an individual level. We feel like we deserve to be provided for by the government or we feel that it’s right to be called by the name of the opposite gender. When someone feels differently than we do, they are obviously wrong, but we have no objective reasoning to back up why we feel, morally, the way that we do. This causes us, as a society, to develop, not just a bad morality, but a weak morality that can be tossed to and fro by the wind. This causes us to appear to be naive, and it creates entire generations of people who never learn how to think about what is right and wrong. It is damaging, to say the least.
Jesus, in the passage above, reveals probably the best way to think about morality. He reveals His own divine ethic, and I think it proper for us all to pay very close attention. He does not say, “Well, the Bible says that this is wrong!” That is what the pharisees were doing in order that they might trap Jesus (sadly, there are so many ‘Christians’ today who behave more like the pharisees than like Jesus). Jesus, instead, thought back to the creation, where the nature of God was perfectly revealed in an uncorrupted manner through what He had made. Based on God’s created order, Jesus established an ideal moral stance. This allowance in the Law for people to get a divorce was given in the context of sin because of the hardness of people’s hearts, but it was not God’s design.
In this, I learn something important about the manner in which I should practice ethics, or seek to discern what is right or wrong. My ethic needs to come from God’s character. Thus, the closer I am brought to God, the better I will be able to discern regarding my own moral choices and opinions. Without first being brought into relationship with God, then, we are unable to discover God’s character and unable to develop a God-honoring morality while we live in this present world.
Considering the ethical standard that Christ set for us, then, we turn to the questions of polygamy. According to a Gallup poll (May 2017), about 17% (which is high for a culture like ours) of Americans believe that polygamy is morally acceptable. This number is up from 7% in 2003. There is no verse of Scripture that condemns or condones polygamy. As it is described in Scripture, though, it is always described in a negative manner. This being one of those instances (and there are more than some might care to admit) where Scripture is not explicit the moral acceptability of an issue, we must take the approach that Jesus did. We look at the order of creation and, in that order, discover something of God’s character and conform our morality to the very character of the Creator.
In Matthew 19, Jesus actually does this for us. In verses 5-6, Jesus states that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. This is God’s design and reveals something about God’s character. If marriage, according to God’s own design, is to be between one man and one woman, then polygamy cannot be something that is pleasing to God. If it is not pleasing to God, then it is not something that can be right morally.
Divorce is a little more difficult to discuss because there are so many people in our society who have either had a divorce or who have been impacted by divorce. If this describes you, please know up front that in no way do I condemn you (I don’t have that right). Furthermore, there is always forgiveness at the cross. Since salvation is a gift and there is nothing that can be done to earn that salvation, there is also no action that can cause salvation to not be made available. Sin cannot separate those who belong to God from the love of God.
According to the same Gallup poll, about 73% of Americans believe that divorce is morally acceptable. This number is up from 59% the first time that the company asked this question.
In verses 6, 8, and 9 in Matthew 19, the Gospel writer, quoting Jesus, indicated that divorce does not please God because people do not have the authority to separate what God has joined. In Genesis 1-2, we see that God’s design is committed marriage for life (this was before human death was given as a consequence). Malachi 2:16 states explicitly that God hates divorce. Ephesians 5:24-33 states that women are to submit to their husbands and husbands are to love their wives (even dying for them); the relationship is a priority that requires both commitment and resolve.
In verse 9, we find what is commonly called the exception clause, “except for sexually immorality.” This might indicate that, on the basis of infidelity, divorce is perfectly acceptable. It might, though, indicate that Joseph, whom Matthew records as planning to quietly divorce Mary (while they were betrothed), would have been justified in calling off the marriage if Mary had become pregnant by a means other than miraculous conception. No other Gospel records Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary quietly and no other Gospel gives an exception clause like this. Furthermore, this sort of divorce, according to Jesus in the passage above, would be allowed, not right. It would be allowed because of the hardness of the human heart. Divorce, it seems, is never a part of God’s design or God’s plan, and this should weigh heavily upon us in our day. Even if my wife were to be unfaithful, by the grace of God I would need to love her in such a way that I am still willing to make every sacrifice for her even to the point of giving my own life. For the most part, we don’t know what it is to love like this in our society, and I think that is to our own detriment.
This, though, is the very way that Christ has loved us. We were rebellious against Him. It is we who prostituted ourselves with sin, wanting to become our own masters. It is Christ who still pursues us and did so even to the point of death so that we might live with Him. God is so good.