When Churches Exceed Their Authority, Evil Comes into the Church

This is a guest post kindly submitted at my request by James and Linda Sander. They are the authors of Rethinking Biblical Divorce: Let Scripture be Your Guidewhich I highly recommend. Let me introduce their article with a few words:

Without thinking, most Christians assume that they must obtain permission from their pastor/church in order to divorce their spouse. And local churches certainly behave as if this were true, even to the point of ex-communicating a member who divorces for “unbiblical” reasons (as defined by that local church or pastor). James and Linda Sander maintain that Scripture nowhere gives churches that authority and they outline at least part of their argument here in this post. I fully agree with them.

Let me make a clear point lest anyone misunderstand. Neither the Sanders nor myself are denying that the church has Christ’s authority in certain arenas. The Word of God is authoritative and when the church preaches it in truth, there is authority. And of course the church has authority to put wicked counterfeits out of their midst and to admonish those who are sinning. Largely in our day churches are failing or refusing to exercise this proper authority and instead are claiming authority that is not theirs. The result is that the wicked are enabled while the innocent are cast out.

In their book the Sanders also argue (quite well I might say) that no one but the individual Christian has the right to decide if remarriage is permissible and that when a church claims authority in this matter, that church is contradicting Jesus’ words:

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”  (Matthew 19:10-12)

Here then is what the Sanders maintain about church authority and divorce:

Jesus said,

Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)

And the cross reference,

But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Mark 10:6-9)

In discussing these verses, we will focus on the words, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (or “let no man separate”).

If asked, “What do the words, ‘What God has joined together, let no man separate’ mean?” many Christians will answer (perhaps somewhat uncertainly), “It means we should not divorce.” But is this what the words are really saying? There are three difficulties with this understanding.

  • One, most Christians agree the Bible does allow divorce.We might differ regarding when it is allowed, but most of us agree Scripture does indicate divorce is allowed. Therefore, it would be inconsistent to assume Jesus’ statement, “What God has joined together, let no man separate” means we should not divorce.
  • Two, the command,“What God has joined together, let no man separate,” is found only in this confrontation with the Pharisees; it is found nowhere else in Scripture.Jesus said this as a retort to the Pharisees in their attempt to trap him.

We often see in Scripture that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in a different way than he spoke to his followers or to the receptive crowd like the one listening to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. This makes sense because the Pharisees were antagonistic and were not interested in learning from Jesus’ answers nor were they interested in becoming followers of Jesus. In the passage we are considering, the Pharisees confronted Jesus and were attempting to trap him and publicly discredit him. Because of this, Jesus does not answer them in the same way he answered questions from his followers who were seeking truth. [NOTE from Jeff: This point about Jesus speaking in a different way to the Pharisees than to receptive people is incredibly important and is in my opinion one of the most important interpretive principles that the Sanders emphasize both here and in their book]

  • Three, there is another meaning of this command that better fits the context. We take a step toward understanding what Jesus meant when we keep in mind that the Pharisees thought of themselves as the arbiters of most issues of Jewish life. They considered themselves to be the ones with insight and understanding. Further, they considered that their rulings should be deemed authoritative for the masses in issues of daily life and religion, which, of course, included divorce.

Once we realize the Pharisees claimed the religious authority to say under what circumstances a husband and a wife could divorce, then we begin to understand how Jesus’ command would challenge their position.In fact, Jesus was doing this very thing with his command—he revealed to all that the Pharisees’ authority was self-appointed rather than from God.

The word “man” is anthropos, here meaning “human being” (male or female). Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let no human being separate.”Jesus is contrasting mere man with the Almighty God. God created marriage and God is the one who joins a couple together in marriage. The idea is, “If God joins a couple (and everyone in Jesus’ audience agreed that this is true), then who is a human being to say when a couple is permitted to divorce? How did the Pharisees, mere human beings,obtain such an authority that they can separate something God has joined together?”

Picture Jesus developing his argument as he responds to the Pharisees’ attack (and the crowd listens in)—

  • “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female,” and everyone agrees with these familiar words.
  • “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” Again, they agree with this Old Testament statement describing marriage; a new family unit begins.
  • “And the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” And again, all nod their heads understanding that in marriage and in the sexual relationship, the man and woman become one.

No one would disagree with anything Jesus said; in fact, they are all in agreement. They revere the words of the Old Testament.

Then Jesus quashes the Pharisees, “What God has joined together, let no human separate.” Jesus bluntly tells them that no human has authority to separate a marriage God created.

The Pharisees had usurped an authority that belongs to God alone, and with these words, Jesus exposed their lack of God-given authority.

The correct way to think is, “What God has joined, God alone separates.” No Pharisee, or any other human being or any human authority, has the right to separate what God has joined together.

“What Godhas joined together, let no humanseparate,” means “It’s not up to you—mere human beings—to decide who is allowed to divorce.” Jesus used the “let no man separate” command to challenge the Pharisees’ self-appointed authority that they are the ones who determine if a couple can divorce. Pharisees should not decide when a divorce is allowed, and they should not decide for a couple if they are permitted to divorce.

Jesus’ command includes the word “therefore.” “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no human being separate.” The “therefore” lets us know that this is the summation and answer to the Pharisees’ original question. The Pharisees’ original question was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” Jesus’ “therefore” statement renders irrelevant the Pharisees’ question whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason—Jesus commands that no human, which includes these Pharisees, decides this.

There are two interesting points of grammar about Jesus’ words “Let no man separate.” First, it is clear in the Greek that this is a command; we might not fully realize it is a command because of the use of the word “Let.” But make no mistake, this is an imperative—Jesus gave a command.

Second, notice Jesus’ use of third person here. He included other people besides these Pharisees. He uses third person because he is stating a command that goes beyond the Pharisees.

Although Jesus’ command was initially directed to the Pharisees and was designed to strip the power from the Pharisees (who were the ones ruling on divorce issues at that time), the use of third person strips the authority from any who would claim such power today. It removes the right from anyone who would decide for a couple if they are allowed to divorce—or from anyone who might be tempted to take on such authority.

There is no place in the Bible that gives one person the authority to decide or pronounce when or if another person is permitted todivorce. In fact, we see in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees it is just the opposite. Only God has this authority. This is the purpose of the “Let no human separate” command. It is not a statement explaining if or when divorce is allowed.

So in this passage, it is critical for us to note that this command does not prohibit divorce. What it states is that no human has the authority to say if or when a couple can divorce.

Since Scripture does allow divorce, we are then left with the questions, “Who is allowed to divorce?” and “How is it decided?” Simply, Christian men and women decide this in the same way they decide any other issue that might come up in their lives—by prayer, by spending time in the Word, and by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

We explain more about this topic, and others, in our book Rethinking Biblical Divorce, Let Scripture Be Your Guide (available at Amazon).