Amy Grant has sold more than twenty million albums of contemporary Christian music. Vince Gill has sold more than twenty million albums of country music. When Amy and Vince got married a few years ago, they became the number one power couple in the music industry.
Recently Amy Grant and Vince Gill were featured in a magazine article on how country music’s top couples keep the romantic fires burning. They say that the most important thing is friendship. “What really matters is companionship that is moving and touching and is inside of you,“ says Vince. “I’m inspired by loving my friend.“
Amy agrees. “Vince and I are great friends,“ she says. “It’s fabulous being married to your friend.“ How fabulous? “When people say, ?How is it?’ you want to hold up the scorecard: 10. It’s great!“
I wish them both the best, but I wonder why an article on how to keep romance going would feature two people who have been together only a few years and who both divorced previous spouses before marrying each other. In order to qualify as authorities on lasting love, is it more important to sell millions of albums than actually to keep a lifelong covenant with one person?
For twenty years and more, Amy Grant has been the top star in contemporary Christian music. For sixteen years she was married to Gary Chapman, a fellow musician who wrote her first number one song. Gary and Amy had children together, and many religious fans idolized this glamour family, not knowing how much Gary and Amy struggled in their relationship. Amy’s fans were stunned and saddened when she announced that she was separating from her husband and when she filed for divorce. Still, she remained popular and album sales remained brisk.
Even before the divorce became final, rumors flew about Amy’s relationship to Vince Gill. Amy and Vince had developed a close friendship while both were still married to other people. Amy vigorously denied that she and Vince were sexually involved. She said that although she and Vince were dear friends, they never committed adultery. She insisted that her friendship with Vince did not destroy Vince’s marriage or her own marriage. But it was only after Vince met Amy and after Vince’s wife found love notes in his golf bag that she made a decision to divorce Vince. And once Amy made her decision to divorce her first husband, the ink was hardly dry on the divorce papers before she began appearing publicly with Vince. Soon they were married. Now, a few years later, they are advising magazine readers on how to keep romance warm and alive.
I don’t mention Amy Grant and Vince Gill to rehash old news or to speak ill of their present relationship. I mention this famous couple because they are a very public case of something that’s common in our society and common among churchgoers: divorce and remarriage. About 25 percent of people in North America have been through at least one divorce, and among churchgoers who claim to be born—again believers in Jesus Christ, the figure is even higher: 27 percent. I also mention Amy and Vince because their actions and public statements indicate blind spots in their understanding of biblical teaching on marriage and divorce, and many others in our society and churches have the same blind spots, the same wrong assumptions.
- Blind spot #1: If you feel really unhappy in a marriage and counseling doesn’t make the marriage happy, then it’s time to end the marriage and move on.
Blind spot #2: if you can’t stand living with someone and decide to separate, you are free to start over with someone else. Even if the divorce itself is wrong, once the damage has been done, it’s okay to remarry.
These blind spots affect the attitudes and actions not just of superstars but also of millions of ordinary people.
The Pursuit of Happiness
The first blind spot involves attitudes about when a marriage is worth continuing. It’s common to assume that marriage must bring happiness to be worthwhile. If a marriage is unhappy, the last, best hope to make it happier is to see a professional marriage counselor. If, after enough time and enough visits to the counselor, the husband and wife still aren’t happy with each other, it’s time to end the marriage.
Amy Grant said of her decision to divorce Gary Chapman, “None of this was taken lightly. It was years in the making. Gary and I went to all kinds—tons—of marriage counseling.“ When the counseling didn’t produce the hoped—for results, Amy finally decided that enough was enough, and she filed for divorce.
Gary didn’t want the divorce to go through. Though not pretending to be perfect, he said, “I’m an old—fashioned guy who believes marriage should last until one of you quits breathing.“ That old—fashioned idea is found in the Bible. In the words of Romans 7:2—3, “By law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress.“
A traditional wedding vow includes the words, “Till death do us part.“ Amy Grant said of Gary Chapman, “His feeling was that this ? is our commitment, and being true to this standard and keeping this vow is the most important thing for us, for our children, for our spiritual wellness.“
But Amy saw things differently. For her the main point was thriving together and enjoying each other. In an interview with CCM magazine, she says a counselor told her, “[God] didn’t create this institution [of marriage] so He could just plug people into it. He provided this so that people could enjoy each other to the fullest.“ Grant says: “If you have two people that are not thriving healthily in a situation, I say remove the marriage. Let them heal.“
This sounds very sensible—until we consider the facts. Is removing a marriage the most likely path to healing? One study used large—scale surveys to compare unhappy spouses who divorced or separated with unhappy spouses who stayed in their marriages. On average, the unhappy spouses who divorced or separated were not happier five years later than those who chose to stay in unhappy marriages. This was partly because divorce didn’t improve happiness as much as people hoped, but it was mainly because “most of the unhappy spouses who avoided divorce did not stay trapped in misery,“ writes researcher Maggie Gallagher. “Two—thirds of unhappy spouses who stayed married ended up happily married five years down the road.“ Many people might tend to agree with Amy Grant’s statement that “if you have two people that are not thriving healthily in a situation, I say remove the marriage. Let them heal.“ But in reality most unhealthy, unhappy marriages do heal and become happy if only both spouses stay committed and hang in there long enough.
The counseling profession includes some compassionate, wise, Bible—based therapists. But many counselors do more harm than good. Some see divorce not as a problem but as a normal event. William Pinsof, a marriage therapist and editor of a journal on family counseling, says, “It is time to move beyond thinking about the divorce rate as an indicator of a social disorder that must be reduced. Divorce should be regarded as one of the “normal social events in the life course of modern families.“ Such thinking is too common among marriage counselors. Maybe that’s why marriage counselors themselves have a divorce rate that is higher than almost any other profession: they see divorce just one of those “normal social events“ that modern families ought to expect.
Many psychotherapists go to great lengths to keep people from feeling bad, and the therapeutic approach becomes part of the way we think. For example, Amy Grant says, “What I find in life is that it’s not so much about good and bad people, but about good and bad combinations.“ The upshot is that if a marriage falls apart, it’s probably a matter of two good people who just weren’t a good combination and would be better off trying a different combination with someone else.
Amy Grant knows her Bible and her own experience too well to think that divorce is happy or positive. “I am not an advocate for divorce,“ she insists. “The Bible clearly says God hates divorce.“ Describing her own sense of failure, she says, “On one level, I think anyone who has been through a divorce—in your worst moments what you feel like you deserve is the big rubber stamp FAILURE upon your forehead every morning when you wake up.“
Amy knows that God hates divorce, but does she know the full reason why? Do we know the full reason? Amy says God hates divorce mainly because it causes so much pain to spouses and children. No doubt that’s part of why God hates divorce, but he doesn’t just hate it for therapeutic reasons. He also hates it because it defies God’s commands and breaks a solemn covenant, a covenant designed to image God’s own faithfulness and the love of Jesus Christ for his church. Marriage is about more than helping two individual flourish and be happy together, though that’s often a blessed result. Marriage is also about being faithful to each other no matter what, out of obedience to God and a desire to reflect his faithfulness in our own lives.
A marriage is not over just because one or both spouses are unhappy. A marriage is not over just because a number of counseling sessions have occurred without doing much good. A marriage begins with a vow and with two bodies becoming one flesh. God designed the one—flesh union of sex takes it very seriously. As Jesus puts it, “What God has joined together, let man not separate“ (Matthew 19:6). God takes the sexual union seriously, and he also takes promises seriously. The Bible says, “It is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it? Do not protest, ?My vow was a mistake.’ ?Therefore stand in awe of God“ (Ecclesiaste 5:5—7).
If marriage is just a matter of happiness and friendship, then why bother promising to be faithful “for better or for worse, till death do us part“? Why not say instead, “I promise to stay with you as long as you make me happy and we feel like friends, and as long as we don’t have problems too serious for counseling to cure.“ If that’s how we really see marriage, then we should say so and not make false vows. We should say what we mean, and mean what we say. If we promise “till death do us part,“ we had better mean it.
The modern mentality, fostered by many counselors and therapist, says that marriage should continue only if both partners are enjoying each other and flourishing together. In this mentality, we assume that the only way a marriage can last is if it brings enough happiness and doesn’t bring too much struggle. We also assume that if we do have trouble and spend some sessions with a counselor, then we’ve done just about everything that can be expected, and if we’re still not happy, it’s time to end the marriage and move on. This mentality is a huge blind spot for many people. It’s out of tune with God.
Another major blind spot is the idea that if one marriage fails, there’s nothing wrong with marrying someone else. In this way of thinking, it’s wrong to commit adultery with someone while you’re married to another person, but once you’re divorced, it’s fine to remarry someone else.
When Amy Grant announced the breakup of her first marriage and began appearing in public with Vince Gill, many wondered whether she and Vince had committed adultery while she was still married to her first husband. Amy strongly denied committing adultery and insisted that she and Vince had just been very close friends until after her marriage ended. She and her fans apparently agreed that it would have been bad for Amy to sleep with Vince Gill while she was married to someone else. She and most of her fans also agreed that it wouldn’t be so bad for Amy and Vince to get together once the divorce was final.
But what does Jesus say? “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery“ (Mark 10:11—12). This means that if someone divorces without biblical grounds and remarries, it’s beside the point to ask whether there was adultery before the divorce. The decision to find a new mate is itself adultery.
There may be marriages where husband and wife are so at odds with each other, so fed up with each other, that they can’t live together or sleep together. In such cases, separation might not be as bad as daily strife. Separation may be the lesser of two evils, but even if separation is considered necessary, that does not make it moral to get a final divorce and find a new spouse. In 1 Corinthians 7:10—11, the Bible says to Christian couples, “A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.“ The ideal is not to separate at all, but if you feel you must live apart, you have two choices: stay single or reconcile to your spouse.
Let’s be honest. If remarriage were not an option, there would be far fewer divorces in the first place. A great many marriages would not come to an end and a great many wounded relationships would heal if the only choices were to reconcile or remain single. Many people would rather struggle in a hard marriage than be alone. But when the possibility of finding someone else and remarrying enters the picture, there’s much less incentive to do everything possible to save an unhappy marriage. Sometimes a marriage breakup is a direct consequence of adultery by one partner. But even when adulterous acts haven’t yet occurred, just the thought of finding someone who could make you happier than your present spouse can weaken your resolve to keep your vows.
Amy Grant is a prominent example of this problem. She denied committing adultery with Vince Gill and said her friendship with him was not the reason her first marriage ended. She said: “I didn’t get a divorce because I had a great marriage and then along came Vince Gill. Gary and I had a rocky road from day one. I think what was so hard—and this is what one of our counselors said—sometimes an innocent party can come into a situation, and they’re like a big spotlight. What they do is reveal, by comparison, the painful dynamics that are already in existence. Through all of that process in my life, Vince was a friend of mine.“
Take a closer look at this statement. Amy said the breakup had nothing to do with Vince and that the road with Gary was rocky from day one—but Amy didn’t decide it was the end of the road for that marriage until after she met Vince. Amy’s recalls her counselor talking about the painful dynamics of marriage being spotlighted “by comparison“ with the pleasant dynamics of a relationship with “an innocent party.“ In plain language, you don’t realize how bad your relationship with your spouse is until you get close to someone else, make a comparison, and decide that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
Part of the old marriage vow includes the words “forsaking all others.“ That’s not the language of much modern counseling, but it fits biblical teaching. When you marry somebody, you forsake all other prospects for marriage. If you don’t forsake all others and allow for the possibility and a new and happier marriage, it’s like acid eating away at your present marriage.
Before Vince Gill’s wife divorced him, before Amy Grant divorced her husband, Vince wrote his 1995 song “Whenever You Come Around.“ In one part the song says, “The face of an angel; pretty eyes that shine, I lie awake at night wishing you were mine.“ Vince says that he wrote that song with Amy Grant in mind. He was fantasizing and wishing Amy Grant was his wife long before the two of them got divorced and became romantically involved with each other.
When people get divorced and remarry soon after, they commonly say that their first marriage was over no matter what, even if someone else hadn’t come along. But they’re often fooling themselves. They didn’t realize how “trapped“ they felt, how “dead“ their marriage really was, until they met someone else who was really “compatible“ and revealed to them what a good relationship could really be like. But without the possibility of a new relationship, was the old marriage really so dead? When people see marriage as permanent and rule out the possibility of marrying someone else, they are far more determined to bring a “dead“ marriage back to life.
In any case, whether or not hopes for a happier second marriage hasten the end of many first marriages, the fact remains that Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her“ (Mark 10:11). Jesus also says, “Anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery“ (Matthew 5:32). Unless the divorce fits the biblical exceptions that we’ll look at in a moment, remarriage violates the way of Christ. If you decide to divorce your spouse, it is adultery for you to remarry. Even if you don’t want a divorce but your spouse divorces you, it is adultery for you to remarry unless a biblical exception is involved.
This means that if a husband chooses to end a difficult marriage, the wife can’t say, “Well, I didn’t want the divorce, but now that it’s come to that, I’m at least free to find a new man.“ A man who meets the newly divorced woman can’t say, “Great! She’s available, and I want her.“ If a marriage ends simply because of incompatibility, it is adultery to remarry.
What are the biblical exceptions which would allow divorce and remarriage? There are two. The first exception is if one spouse is already guilty of sexual unfaithfulness. In that case, the one—flesh union has been violated. Jesus allows (but does not require) the betrayed spouse to end the marriage and to eventually remarry someone else (Matthew 5:32, 19:9).The second exception is when a non—Christian spouse abandons a spouse who has become a Christian.
The Bible speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 7:12—16. At the time the New Testament was written, you could get in big trouble for becoming a Christian, and your spouse might be persecuted along with you, even if they didn’t share your faith in Christ. If they didn’t want to face the trouble, they might want to get out of their marriage to you. Also, it could be just plain upsetting to a pagan for a spouse to suddenly become a follower of Jesus. Some non—Christians chose to abandon and divorce spouses who had become Christians. The Bible said that these Christians were not bound by their previous marriage. This freed them to start over in a new marriage to a fellow believer.
Still, in cases where the unbelieving spouse was willing to continue the marriage, the Bible says that the Christian partner must not seek a divorce (1 Corinthians 7:12—16). If there was a choice to end the marriage, it must be the unbelieving spouse, not the follower of Jesus, who sought the divorce. “But if the unbeliever leaves,“ says the Scripture, “let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound is such circumstances“ (1 Corinthians 7:15). The phrase “not bound“ is, in the original language, a technical term for being free from a marriage and available to remarry.
God permits you to divorce and remarry if you spouse has been sexually unfaithful or if your spouse rejects your faith in Jesus and abandons you, but if you divorce for any other reason, then to remarry is to commit adultery.
But what if you’ve already remarried? Is it ongoing adultery to remain in the second marriage? Must you leave the person you remarried? No, you can’t undo one wrong by committing another wrong. If you’ve remarried and made vows, keep those vows. Be the best spouse you possibly can in your new marriage. But don’t pretend that your decision to divorce and remarry was just fine if the Bible says it wasn’t. Admit your sin to God, and ask him to forgive you for the sake of Jesus’ blood. Then press on to do God’s will from this point on.
This is not a blank check to say, “Okay, even if it would be adultery for me to divorce and remarry, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway, and then count on God to forgive me later.“ That’s a deadly game to play. How do you know God will give you the grace of true repentance? If you harden your heart to him now, how can you be sure your heart will soften later? The gospel of forgiveness is good news, but it is not a guarantee that you can do as you please and get away with it. The Bible warns, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord“ (Hebrews 12:14).
I don’t want to minimize the pain of difficult marriages. I don’t want to be legalistic or cruel. I don’t want to open old wounds or to heap guilt feelings on people for past sins that have already been confessed and forgiven. But I do want God’s Word about divorce and remarriage to be clearly understood. And once his will is understood, we must seek not only God’s forgiveness but also his cleansing and his power to obey.
All Things Are Possible
I mentioned earlier a study which found that most people in unhappy marriages who decided to stick with their marriage found that their relationship ended up getting much better. That may sound impossible in your situation—but it can happen, especially if you desire to please God, trust in Jesus, and depend on the Holy Spirit’s power. Listen to a letter a woman wrote to me at the Back to God Hour:
- Dear Pastor Feddes,
I would like to tell you that you have been a great blessing in my life. The Holy Spirit used your sermons to make me fall in love with the Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Of course the evil one didn’t waste time and started attacking me through my own family. My husband and I separated. We were talking about divorce. We were both full of hate and anger. I thought our marriage was the messiest of all marriages and that only the greatest miracle on earth would save it.
At that point she was struck by a Back to God Hour message on Jesus’ statement that all things are possible for those who believe. She still thought no marriage could be uglier than hers. “However,“ she writes,
- I decided to take your advice seriously and said, “Yes, it’s possible. With God all things are possible.“ Then I gave everything to God, in the name of the Lord Jesus, and sure enough, everything started gradually changing for the best. It has been almost three years since that horrible nightmare and—praise be to the Almighty!—our marriage can’t be better. We are very close to the Lord and often pray, joining hands. Now we enjoy being together.“
What if that that woman or her husband had chosen the path of divorce and remarriage? That would have destroyed the path to reconciliation and renewed love. At one point they were so angry and hated each other so much that couldn’t live in the same house, but they didn’t pursue love with someone else, and eventually God raised their marriage from the dead.
What about you? Is your marriage dead? Are you sure? And even if it is dead, are you sure it can’t come alive again? I know a Savior who specializes in resurrection. Do you know him?