When nonbelievers decide to get a divorce, they can go directly to the civil authorities and take action. Not so for Christians! In the first place, we must think of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, where Paul said that we dishonor Christ before the unbelieving world when we go to court against a fellow believer.
Second, the love principle calls on us to seek the spiritual good of fallen Christians, no matter what they have done. Then too, a believer should think very carefully before breaking the “for better or for worse as long as we both shall live” marriage vow.
After failing on their own to get the attention of their mate, wronged or hurting Christians can take steps to increase pressure on the offending spouse by asking one or two others to act as witnesses to the problem. This procedure was outlined by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 18:15-21.
In my experience as a pastor, I have found that following the confrontational strategy of Matthew 18 can be effective. I vividly recall occasions when I felt nervous and actually trembled at the thought of going with a church member to confront an erring spouse. I expected anger and defiance. Instead, I observed the husband’s embarrassment and sense of shame, and I was deeply stirred as the wrongdoer repented before God, his wife, and myself.
Such confrontation, however, does not always work. The next step is to ask the church to use its influence in seeking to bring about a change of heart. If the offending mate still doesn’t respond, then the church must formally disassociate itself from the sinning member. Paul gave us an example of this when he told the church in Corinth to excommunicate a man who was living in an incestuous relationship (1 Cor. 5:4-5).
After much prayer and serious effort to lead the sinning person to repentance has failed and the excommunication process has been carried out, the wrongdoer is to be treated “like a heathen and a tax gatherer” (Mt. 18:17). The person may be a genuine believer, but he is now looked upon as an unbeliever. This means that though we still love him and desire his spiritual restoration, we can now go to a secular court for a divorce. Even then, the wronged believers must be careful about their testimony. It should be apparent to the judge and all other observers that the innocent mate is not a greedy or vindictive person. We must always keep in mind our Lord’s exhortations to go the extra mile (Mt. 5:41) and to love our enemies (Mt. 5:43-44). Remember too that the apostle Paul declared that we should be willing to be cheated rather than to bring reproach on Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:7).
This suggested procedure cannot be followed completely if the erring spouse is not a church member. But even then, wronged persons can seek counsel, exercise patience, and be conscious of their testimony when reaching a settlement.