The apostle Paul told us that we are to do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). This should be our goal, even when considering a divorce. In such a situation we glorify God by doing all we can to protect the name of Christ from reproach and by seeking the eternal good of everyone involved— including the offender.
A divorce between Christians tends to reflect badly on the Lord Jesus. It can be viewed by nonbelievers as an indication that faith in Christ is not as life-changing as we proclaim it to be. Even after church discipline has given believers the authority to deal with the sinning mate as an unsaved person, the people in the court and the public will view both parties as believers. It seems to me that the Christian who has been wronged should be fair, even to the point of being overly generous. A bitter court fight should be avoided if at all possible. This is in line with Paul’s challenge to believers to let themselves be cheated in order to protect the name of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:7).
We also glorify God by showing love for the offenders. We can do this by treating them kindly, by doing our best to lead them to repent, and by forgiving them when they do. These repentant offenders should feel the warmth of our love.
After they have given good reason for the church to believe in the reality of their repentance, they should be restored to fellowship. Paul had to address this situation in 2 Corinthians because the congregation was apparently withholding restoration to the man who had been excommunicated for an incestuous relationship (see 1 Cor. 5:4-5). In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 he wrote:
If anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. . . . Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.
Those who repent should also gradually be restored to places of service. The time frame and the degree of the restoration must be determined case by case. It is almost impossible to set up a rigid timetable procedure. The situation is quite similar to that of restoring a pastor who has fallen into sexual immorality. Sometimes full restoration is possible; sometimes it is unwise. After immoral conduct or an unwarranted divorce, we must be keenly aware of Paul’s requirement that a church leader be “blameless” and “have a good testimony among them who are outside” (1 Tim. 3:2,7).
One mistake often made is that divorce is viewed as the sin of all sins. Men who repent of sexual immorality are often restored to service far more readily than those who wrongly obtain a divorce. I have seen Christian workers who had been guilty of sexual immorality restored to their offices, while innocent victims of an unfaithful mate were rejected.
A former pastor I know lost his position in a Christian organization when his wife left him and married another man. She admitted that he had been a good husband and father, but said his income level had been too low. He now is not permitted to serve as an elder because he is viewed as not meeting the “husband of one wife” requirement of 1 Timothy 3:2. This man, an innocent victim of his wife’s greed, had been dealt with far more severely than many pastors who repented after immorality. This troubles me. A man thus divorced still meets the “husband of one wife” qualification, even after a new marriage. The Greek expression is literally “a one-woman man.” This refers to a man whose life as a husband was marked by fidelity to his mate. A good husband who remarries after his wife dies is also a “onewoman man” in spite of having a second wife.
We must therefore recognize that divorce is sometimes permitted by God. Since this is true, a person does not sin when he or she obtains a divorce on grounds of sexual immorality or desertion by an unsaved spouse. Let’s not treat such people as somehow and somewhat tainted!
People who have divorced on inadequate grounds and remarry have sinned. But their sin is just as forgivable as any other sin. They should be treated the same way as those who are guilty of fraud, theft, sexual immorality, or any other sin. We are to forgive all who repent. And we must seek their restoration to usefulness in the Lord’s service.
Restoration to leadership —a deacon, elder, pastor, Bible teacher—is to be handled with much care. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the apostle Paul placed much emphasis on making sure that the prospective elders and deacons be “blameless” and have a “good reputation on the outside.” When Christian leaders obtain a divorce and remarry, a group of Spirit-filled believers should work with them. Sometimes these church-appointed people may be led to grant full restoration; sometimes not. The wrongdoer, realizing that the name and reputation of Christ is at stake, should humbly accept their decision.
In summary, the Bible permits divorce and remarriage on two grounds: sexual infidelity and the desertion of a believer by an unbeliever. However, a Christian should never rush into divorce, no matter what the situation. Sincere effort must be made to bring the wrongdoer to repentance. Spirit-filled men and women should be involved with the wronged spouse to reach this goal. If the sinning party is a church member, the discipline procedure of Matthew 18 must be carried out. If not, fellow believers can offer counsel and be involved in supportive prayer. People who disobeyed God in their divorce and remarriage must be shown love, even though we do not approve of what they did. The aim should be their repentance and restoration to fellowship. Restoration, especially to that of leadership, must be handled very carefully to protect the name and reputation of Christ.