Adultery, Divorce, and The Believer

She sat in my office and tearfully told me she was leaving seminary to go fight for her marriage. This promising student, let’s call her Shari, had discovered her husband was the epitome of unfaithfulness. The details are not important other than to say it involved adultery, deceit, an unplanned pregnancy, and a wounding that cut to the core of her being. And yet, she wanted to fight.

As I heard Shari’s story, I applauded and encouraged her decision. At the same time, I knew that many would not blame her, some would even encourage her, if she decided to walk away from her 15-year marriage. And most of those people would be in the church.

We all know marriages where adultery has occurred. We have watched television couples deal with adultery who profess to be Christians. And many, even those in the church, are astonished when the first response is not to walk away from the marriage.

Marriage is a sacred union with a purpose greater than the bride and groom standing, vowing to one another. God did not institute marriage only for the pleasure and procreation of humans. Rather, it was created also to be a visible representation of the relationship Jesus has with the people of God. When a man and woman stand before God and enter into a covenant relationship, it teaches us about our relationship to God like none other.

Paul unpacks this for us in Ephesians 5:22-31. These verses that conclude the fifth chapter of Ephesians fall as a continuation of the command in verse 1 to “Be imitators of God.”

Vs. 22-24 – “Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord . . .” The phrase “as to the Lord” in connection with the remaining verses sets marriage as a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. That puts a whole new meaning and purpose to submission and to marriage in general. Submission is not just a good idea or even step one in “seven steps to a happy marriage.” It is much loftier than that. The biblical model of marriage places wives as a picture that parallels the relationship of the church to Christ.

Vs. 25-31 – “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. . .”The love of a husband is to be a sacrificial love that imitates the sacrificial love of Christ for us. But, even further, note that Paul goes on to speak about the one flesh relationship. Marriage brings men and women into such an intimate relationship that it is as if they have become a single person. A husband does not wish to hurt his own flesh and thus does not wish to hurt his wife because she is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Just as the wife reflects the relationship of the church to Christ, so too does the husband. Christ loves the church because the church is in fact, His body.

It is easy to embrace this higher purpose for marriage when the picture is bright, happy, and colorful. But what happens when that picture becomes hard, difficult, and painful?  Should a believer divorce her spouse if he is unfaithful? Let’s look at this through the lens of the purposes for which marriage was created.

A believer initiating divorce because of adultery paints a picture of God walking away from His faithless people. Shari could have chosen to divorce her husband. The man with whom she entered into a covenant relationship violated that covenant. Many Christians may even claim that God would allow her to divorce because of what is called by some the “exception clause” based upon Matthew 19. But note, Jesus says, the reason Moses provided a way for divorce was “because of the hardness of your hearts.” It was noted as an option selected because of Israel’s sinful heart. The purpose and permanence of marriage was established from the time Adam and Eve were created, and God does not compromise His principles nor lower His standards because of the sins of His children.

Sin may distort but it does not transform the greater purpose of marriage. It is always meant to proclaim the gospel … the whole gospel … and adultery provides a powerful opportunity to do so.

Adultery provides a believing spouse the opportunity to show redeeming, unconditional love. Shari chose to stay and fight, waiting for her husband to return. She showed faithfulness in the midst of the unfaithful. And, through much prayer, work, counsel, and support from godly mentors, in the end, their marriage was restored.

You may be reading this, having fought, but still lost. This is not a magic remedy that heals all marriages. An offended spouse who chooses this path cannot be guaranteed a restored marriage. What can be guaranteed is this: If she loved, forgave, kept arms of redemption open in the midst of the pain and violation, and did nothing that closed the door for restoration, then she will stand before the Lord without regret for the choice she made. And God will heal her hurts because she is His child. And He will completely forgive where she may have fallen.

We are called to forgive in the same way God has forgiven us.

We are called to love unconditionally in the same way God loves us without condition.

We are called to remain faithful in the midst of unfaithfulness in the same way God remains faithful to us when we are faithless.

We are called to remain bound to the covenant we made in the same way our covenants with God cannot be broken

Is it easy? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Is it possible? With God’s help, YES!

Shari’s story is not uncommon, but her response was. Perhaps, though, if this became the expected solution for the body of Christ instead of looking for “the exception,” marriages would be stronger, and the silent observers that we may never know, will be reminded that there is a God who will never let us go, no matter what.

4 thoughts on “Adultery, Divorce, and The Believer”

  1. Allison says:

    i wasnt going to comment. but you really can’t ‘shame’ people into feeling guilty if they choose not the stay. Why because Jesus said ‘except for martial unfaithfulness’. That means it is clear that this is a breach in the original plan. He doesn’t hold a stick over our heads stay you ‘should do’ you ‘ought to’. Now with that being said we know GOD would welcome reconciliation, fights for marriage and asks that we forgive. So since we know HE hates divorce reconciliation is always best. but you cannot hold a believer to that as a law, bc God doesnt. He wants us to work it out, but i don’t think He will ‘shame’ someone into doing so if the bond has been violated. tho HE does want us to forgive. I think there should be no reason for divorce bc we are all human and flawed however, i will not make a woman live with a man who has created another family if she chooses not to that is her choice. it is sad but not my job or role to force anyone.

  2. A wife says:

    Phew, what a tough and touchy topic you picked this time!
    I’m glad you did and I think you did a wonderful job showing love while speaking truth.
    The thing is so many women are out there HURTING and I think a big heartache would be to have to go back and ask “did I do everything in my power to save my marriage” This would be so hard to do if your husband broke his promise to you!
    My husband and I had a very dark moment in our marriage and I thought for sure he was being unfaithful to me. Whether or not he was in unimportant anymore. What I do want to point out is that, during that time, I was falling apart; mentally, physically, emotionally. I hurt all over and I did NOT want to be trapped into a marriage. I wanted to be “strong” and walk away. One night I was rocking our infant and I prayed “God there is nothing left of me. I’m ready to leave. If there is anything you can do to save us YOU have to do it, I have no strength or dignity left in me”. All I can say you out there struggling is this: If you’ve already left I understand. I think God understands. There IS grace and love for you. If you haven’t left yet please please call on God. My husband and I’s marriage is something I never ever thought it would be.
    God is love and He is good. He promised He knows what He’s doing. Faithfully follow His lead in these areas. And whatever you do DON’T harden your hearts by calling this post shaming. There is no shaming in God’s truth. Once we let GO there is only love. God bless you.

  3. Renee' says:

    Thank you Dr. Stovall for speaking Truth on a difficult topic in today’s culture .

  4. Dee Parsons says:

    God dealt with the unfaithfulness of His people in many ways. He didn’t always use the Hosea approach in the short run. Sometimes He allowed an invading pagan tribe to take His people into captivity and slavery for generations. Could that also be used as a solution?

    I think it is important not to overuse one of God’s responses to apply to all situations. In many cases of adultery, abuse is a common thread. Perhaps the hardness of heart example was not to be pinned on the hurting party but to point at the adulterer.