This is one of those moments when any preacher with an ounce of wit stands in the pulpit with a sense of trepidation, because there are just so many ways to go wrong. On the one hand, it’s perilously easy to slide into judgment here, and wind up hurting and discouraging a lot of people. On the other, it’s equally easy—and at least as perilous—to let the desire to avoid doing so move us to misuse the word of God and misrepresent his will and his holiness. As Mark Driscoll put it last Sunday, this is one to thread the needle on; it’s critically important to say the right thing the right way with the right heart.
As such, there are a few things we need to say right off the bat. First, our passage in Malachi deals with divorce, but it isn’t actually about divorce—God has a broader concern here, which we will most definitely talk about. Second, neither Malachi nor Jesus are issuing blanket condemnations of everyone who has ever been divorced, nor does this mean that anyone who has ever been divorced is permanently unfit or disqualified or second-class. It’s important to remember here that Jesus is in the redemption business; the fact that we sin doesn’t disqualify us from being redeemed, it’s the reason we need to be redeemed in the first place—all of us. It’s also important to remember that all divorces, and all divorced people are not the same.
This is a particularly important point because it helps us focus on the central concern of the Scriptures here. I know there are those in the church who will always tell people never to get divorced, no matter what, but that’s not really the message here. On the other hand, when pastors and teachers talk about Scriptural justifications for divorce, there’s something wrong with that. I think they’ve rightly identified the sins which can truly destroy marriage—the four As, if you will, adultery, addiction, abuse, and abandonment, based either on the explicit teaching of Scripture or as logical extensions of that teaching—but when we start talking about justifications for divorce, we have the order all wrong. We justify what we have already decided to do: the desire comes first, the reasons afterward. That, too, is not what Scripture is on about.
Rather, if we look at the reasons that are adduced from Scripture for divorce, what is the common thread? They’re all about breaking faith. Marriage is a covenant, held by God; when you marry someone, you covenant with them that they will always come second in your life only to God, that you will love no one else more and have no other priorities ahead of them. None of us ever perfectly keeps that covenant—this is why grace and forgiveness are necessary—but we must hold to it in the essentials; any ongoing betrayal of the core of that covenant, such as adultery or abuse, destroys the covenant relationship. Divorce is merely a recognition and formalization of the covenant death which has already happened.
The key aspect here, the fundamental sin, is faithlessness—the willful failure to keep the faith one has promised. It is this that Malachi attacks, and on which his judgment falls; and it’s this that is the common thread between verses 13-16 and verses 11-12. In 11-12 the complaint is not divorce, but that Israelites are marrying people who worship false gods. It’s not a matter of ethnic purity here, but of purity of worship: their marriages are pulling them away from God and toward the gods of the nations. They may well be keeping faith in marriage, but they aren’t keeping faith with God in choosing to marry someone who does not worship him; they are choosing to honor their own desires rather than their commitment to God.
In doing this, they aren’t just affecting themselves, either. That may sound strange to some in our culture, which has an increasingly individualistic view of marriage—I marry the person who fulfills me, who meets my needs and satisfies my desires and makes me happy, and never mind what anyone else says about it—but the fact is, marriage is a community act, and the decisions we make regarding marriage ripple through the communities to which we belong.
If we marry someone who pulls us away from God, or if we betray our spouse and destroy our marriage, we aren’t the only ones that hurts—it hurts our family, our church, and everyone we might have helped if we had chosen to honor Christ instead. Most of all, it hurts our children, and makes it less likely that they will grow up to love and follow Jesus—which in turn hurts the community of faith for the next generation. I said some time ago that when we live by faith in Christ, we never know how many people we may bless; in the same way, when we break faith with him and with each other, we never know how many people we may hurt.
God created marriage—and all of a piece with it, he created sex—as a very particular thing, for very particular purposes. He is forming us to be a faithful people—faithful to him, to each other, to our commitments—and faithfulness to his call and commands in marriage is an important part of that. If we let our desires drive us to break faith—to marry someone who will turn our heart away from God, to betray a loving and faithful spouse in pursuit of new pleasures—then we undermine the work of God in our own life and in the life of the church. However anyone may justify them, such acts are wrong; and whatever anyone might think in the heat of the moment, they are not the path to real blessing. The world might bless them—or maybe not—but God won’t.
So what do we say from this? Two things, I think. First, where does Malachi end? “Guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” He’s talking to a people who have already done this stuff, but obviously you can’t undo the past, and there’s only so much you can do to make it right; judgment will come as the Lord wills—as for example the prayer of Malachi in verse 12 that whoever marries outside the people of God should die childless—but how do you go forward? Answer: you set right what you can set right, and when the temptation comes to break faith, you guard your heart and don’t give in. To take the obvious example, if you’re divorced and remarried, be faithful to the person you’re married to now. You can’t unscramble the egg, and you can’t unweave the past; but you can keep the faith in the present time, and that’s what God asks of you.
Second, we need to stand up and bear witness to the biblical vision of marriage—which is a lot more than just saying “divorce is bad.” For that matter, it’s a lot more than just saying “marriage is between a man and a woman,” which is one reason the Christian Left likes to beat on evangelicals with an old axe handle; the claim that evangelicals divorce more often than the general population is actually false once you take church attendance into account, but still, we could do a better job on this point.
If we only tell people “God says ‘no,’” they’ll tend to come away thinking of God as someone who just says “no” for the fun of it—which is the exact backwards of the truth; God says “no” to some things because he’s said “yes” to something much, much better, and we need to communicate that. Our culture has an increasingly impoverished view of marriage, as it has an increasingly impoverished view of faith, because of its increasingly shallow individualism; we have a much richer alternative to offer, a better understanding, a more excellent way, and we need to bear witness to it. We have good news—about life, ourselves, marriage, everything; we need to understand it as good news, and we need to tell it, every chance we get.