May 8, 2009 by Stacy McDonald

John MacArthur’s New Book: The Divorce Dilemma

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The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment

A new book by John MacArthur

Ever since publishing our family’s testimony, Beauty for Ashes, I have received numerous emails from women who are relieved to know there is hope for them (Jeremiah 29:11) – that although they may have been forsaken by the husband of their youth, God will never leave them nor forsake them. And neither does He leave them in bondage to man made doctrines.

As many of you know, James and I are passionate about God’s purpose for marriage and family. It is our highest desire to see God glorified in the midst of this rebellious generation. We invest much time and effort attempting to strengthen and equip the Christian family with God’s Word, and helping them to apply it to their daily lives.

So at first glance, it may seem strange that we would even mention a book discussing what God’s Word says about divorce. However, I believe that the way we view divorce (and remarriage) says a lot about how we view marriage. For instance, in John MacArthur’s new book, The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment, he lays out four main views on divorce:

1. The secular view (which, sadly, even some professing Christians embrace) which says that divorce and remarriage is allowable for any reason at all.

2. No divorce for any reason, ever.

3. Divorce “under certain circumstances,” is allowed; but, “no remarriage is allowed – ever- at any time, for anybody, for any reason.”

4. The last view is that “biblically, both divorce and remarriage are possible, but only under certain circumstances.”

Each of these positions communicate different messages pertaining to the way we as a church view the permanency and importance of marriage, as well as the importance of passing on a godly legacy to our children.

So which option is the biblical one? In chapter one, Pastor MacArthur asserts that the answer can be found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He points out that “Jesus was confronting the sins of the Pharisees” and “unmasking their hypocrisy.” Not only had they attempted to exchange God’s standards for their own, but they had twisted Scripture to fit their own views (and wicked desires): “A majority of the Pharisees decided that any husband ought to be able to shed his wife whenever he wanted.”

He goes on to say:

“The people, guided by their leaders, tolerated divorce and remarriage for any reason. Jesus’ response in verse 32 is that God does not permit divorce except for one very specific reason. The exception is important. Notice that while Jesus was plainly confronting the Pharisees’ too-lax attitude toward divorce, He expressly recognized an exception: ‘except for the reason of unchastity…’”

As MacArthur explains more fully in a later chapter, “Jesus was speaking of the kind of serious unrepentant sexual sin that represents a full-on assault against the sanctity of the marriage union and irreparably fractures every vestige of trust and intimacy.”

And read his following statement carefully:

“Some Christians, with the good motive of wanting to halt the social ills of divorce, would prefer to ignore or explain away the exception clause and insist that divorce is never permissible, period. But we can’t outthink Jesus and must not make the Law more rigid than He did. We need to deal honestly with everything He taught, and not add to or subtract from his Word. Let’s explore further to see exactly what He said about divorce and why.”

I have heard it argued that it is better to err on the side of stringency (never allowing divorce or remarriage) rather than to err on the side permissiveness (allowing divorce and remarriage for any reason). But I would contend that both are equally harmful and both dishonor the institution of marriage. One view leaves intact marriages open to devastation; while the other view forbids marriage to the faithful spouse whose union was stolen from them.

The disposable view of marriage that is prevalent in today’s culture is tragic; and it is heartbreaking that even many professing Christians support this dishonest view of marriage. However, when we place thousands of “grace widows” under the man-made bondage of perpetual celibacy and deny them their Christian freedom to remarry we communicate in a way that marriage is not all that important after all.

In The Divorce Dilemma, Pastor MacArthur does an excellent job of defending the permanency, beauty, and holiness of marital oneness, while balancing it with the Scriptural reasons why God made the allowances He did for divorce and remarriage under certain circumstances.

Each chapter is well organized and engaging. Pastor MacArthur is thorough in his exegesis without being the least bit wearisome. The last chapter includes a helpful Q and A, which includes the following answer given to someone who asked how to help a friend who has biblical grounds to remarry, but feels she would be violating the vows she made to her husband if she were to marry again. John MacArthur answers:

“I would begin with 1 Corinthians 7, commending her for understanding and applying two of Paul’s main themes: that it can be good for her as an unmarried woman to remain single, and that it is best for her to be content with her current marital status, not quick to change it.

“Then I would ask her to read verse 15: ‘If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases,’ asking her, ‘Since God does not consider a woman in that situation to be bound to her marriage vows anymore, would it be right for the woman to consider herself still bound?’

My hope is that she will see that no one has a higher regard for what is right than God does. Then I would apply the same reasoning toward the exception clauses
regarding adultery in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. I would go back to 1 Corinthians 7 and encourage her to consider before God whether she has been
specially gifted with singleness (verses 7-8) or not (verse 9). May her gifting, not false guilt, be her guide.” (Emphasis mine)

An interesting and powerful finale’ to the book is a letter of rebuke written by the father of a forsaken woman to her adulterous husband. This letter, written lovingly, firmly, and pointedly was instrumental in this man’s eventual repentance and restoration to his family.

I believe that whether or not you have been touched by divorce, The Divorce Dilemma is a must read for everyone. I believe it is crucial that leaders and laymen alike, with Bible in hand, read this refreshing and balanced book. Thank you Pastor MacArthur!

The Divorce Dilemma: God’s Last Word on Lasting Commitment by John MacArthur, Day One Publications (April 2009)

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25 Responses to “John MacArthur’s New Book: The Divorce Dilemma”

  1. Persuaded says:

    stacey.. it is so interesting to me that you should be reviewing john macarthur’s book on this subject. years ago i heard him on the radio speaking about divorce and remarriage… his definition of what the “exception clause” was fascinating to me. i had heard it stretched to mean so many things.. sometimes basically allowing divorce for practically anything… that it had ceased to have meaning for me. i was afraid to use that clause, for fear that i was misinterpreting it (does that make any sense?) anyway, when i heard his interpretation- of continuing unrepentant s*xual sin, it resonated with me. it seemed to make sense. i remember that as the first time that i truly felt *hope.*

    i honestly don’t know whether it is God’s will for me to divorce and remarry. but i greatly appreciate mr. macarthur’s stringent yet grace-filled interpretations of this issue. his words to the “friend” seemed as if they had been written to me.
    thank you so much for sharing this stacey?

    and may you have a blessed mother’s day!

  2. Amanda says:

    I’ll have to read this book. It looks like it might be the kind of book you pass around to everyone you know!


  3. Sharon says:

    Thank you for both this post, and the previous post about your family’s testimony. Sometimes I feel that divorced women live with a stigma in Christian circles, even if they were the innocent party in a Biblical divorce. Your story is encouraging. :)

  4. Mary at Civilla's Cyber Cafe says:

    I have heard all 4 arguments, but have always believed the Bible teaches #4. I like John MacArthur’s commentaries, and we have the set.

  5. Sharri says:

    Dear Mrs. McDonald,
    I just finished reading your Beauty for Ashes/Becoming a Family and John MacArthur’s New Book posts. They were sent to me by a dear friend who knows that I have been absolutely battling with this whole issue–to the point that I believed that I was doomed for hell because I remarried.

    You see, when I was 19 I married a young man from the Bible college I attended that was going to be a preacher. This never transpired however, and he began to drift away from the Lord. A few years later he informed me that Bible college had not been “the real world” because of the restrictions and rules. And that he had “missed out” on the stuff most kids get to do.
    And so, he moved out, and began dating other women. (But, he wanted to date me too). I did get counsel from one of the pastor’s at the church I was attending to keep away from my husband as he believed because of his behavior, he was also doing drugs (which it turned out that he was).
    Within a year, he had divorced me-even though we did try to reconcile, he kept cheating. (To date, he’s been married 5 times).

    We did not have any children, so I was on my own, just working. I was introduced to my current husband by mutual friends (he had never been married). We have now been married 21 years and have two children ages 19, and 16.
    The Lord began working on our hearts about 10 years ago and began reforming our family. My husband and I have worked very hard to keep open to the Lord’s leading, and follow His guidance with our family and marriage. We have kept our children’s hearts, and have raised them to love Him, and keep themselves for Him, and for the mate He has for them.

    So, this brings us to date. We live in an area with no like-minded believers. All the churches age-segregate, and persecute you if you won’t do it (this has also happened to us)… so, we listen to alot of tapes, and read alot of books. This is a hard road that we are on…

    One of the tapes that we heard was a teaching that tells us that since I remarried, I am in a perpetual state of adultery, and that since adulterers cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, I will go to hell, and so will my husband for marrying me.

    With all the horror happening in our country right now, and seeing that there will be more forthcoming, that the end times must be so close, I have been terrified thinking that if Christ were to return, I would not be taken. :(
    Then tonight I read your articles. I heard you saying the same things that I felt. That we’re 2nd class Christians. No good to any church, unuseful…I read the Scripture that you used and the thoughts that you wrote, and I felt a peace for the first time in a long time!
    I see now that Satan is just trying to discourage us! He’s just trying to render me fearful and hopeless. I am recapturing the joy of the Lord!
    Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. You will never know how much they have blessed me.

    May the Lord continue to bless your ministry!

  6. Stacy McDonald says:

    Dear Sharri,

    Thank you for sharing your story. Yours is a perfect example of why it is so important for the church to sort through these issues biblically. Failing to do so, leaves too many men and women in bondage and feeling useless to the Body of Christ. I have heard from women who thought their (current) marriages were cursed and their children were doomed because they remarried. This is so heartbreaking!

    I have even heard of a few extreme teachings that tell people they should divorce their current spouses in the hopes that their previous spouses would either divorce (if they remarried) and reconcile with them, or die!

    This is a very important topic that I pray the church will start addressing.

  7. Stacy McDonald says:

    Dear Persuaded,

    I remember you sharing your story in the Beauty for Ashes thread and relating to so much of what you are experiencing. How long ago did your husband leave? I will be praying for you as you work through these things. Please feel free to write me privately if you need specific prayer.

  8. BassoonJedi says:

    I feel this is worth a look at the Biblical terminology used here. I believe the KJV is the only version that correctly translates the word “apoluo” as “putting away.”

    At that time among the Jews, there existed a practiced called “putting away.” If the wife displeased her husband, he could put her away by sending her away, without divorcing her. She wouldn’t be legally free from the marital relationship, but she wouldn’t be living with the husband. If she remarried in this instance, the husband would be forcing her to commit adultery, since she was still legally bound to him.

    BUT, as Jesus says, if the husband puts away his wife because she committed adultery, then she’s ALREADY an adulteress. The husband can’t MAKE her an adulteress by putting her away… she already IS in that circumstance. We’re interpreting His statement as an “exception,” when it seems to be merely a clarifier.

    I think we need to look at this passage in cultural context as well as examine the exegesis in order to make sense of it properly.

    Furthermore, we should consider what an interpretation of “divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery” implies for those who have divorced and remarried for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness, and then whether or not such an interpretation makes sense in light of such. Let’s say they are committed Christians in love with the Lord. Umm… is that just in their heads and they’re really going to hell? Maybe it’s okay if they weren’t a Christian at the time? Their children from such a relationship are damned? They’re saved but God really begrudgingly extends salvation to them and doesn’t care for them much? Maybe it’s okay if the spouse actually had physical relations, but not okay if it was p*rnography, or maybe if the spouse pursued an affair with someone else but they turned him/her down, that’s not actual s*x and therefore is fine? If someone who divorces is a Christian, then God takes away their salvation? Jesus said whoever looks at a woman lustfully commits adultery with her in his heart. So is divorce and remarriage in such an instance permissible? What *exactly* is meant by “God doesn’t allow it?” People still do it, so God doesn’t zap them dead instantly. Does this really mean “God despises this practice? God sends you to hell? Your future Christian life is ruined, so just give up and live however you want?”

    These questions that inevitably arise from such an interpretation seem to conflict directly with other Christian beliefs, such as positional justification, eternal security of the believer, monergism, irresistible grace, and so on. Clearly divorce isn’t God’s best, regardless of how one interprets this passage.

  9. Persuaded says:

    stacey.. my husband left us august 19, 2000… although i knew he would be going earlier, on the mother’s day of that year. this has been a very long journey for me, and honestly i don’t know where or how it will all end up. right now, i don’t feel that release to divorce my husband, but i do feel that i would freely let him go if he chose that path. he has told me that he would like to divorce, but won’t because of finances (it would be very expensive for him due to some legal issues) i greatly appreciate your prayers… your posts on this matter have been a tremendous help to me. i have felt “lighter” about these issues just since reading them( if that makes sense!) thanks ever so much?

  10. Jennifer says:

    Bassoon, that is brilliant! I never knew those facts before! My God, how vital they are. Thank you so much!

  11. JOYce ~?~ says:

    I’m grateful you have shared this new MacArthur title, Stacy; I look forward to reading it as I’m “where the rubber hits the road” familiar with MacArthur’s Bible study guide of divorce and remarriage from the Biblical perspective written many years ago(80’s) that had slipped my mind with the book being still tucked away from moving(God saw fit for our marriage to be major tossed and tested but not severed 18 years ago though folks, even believers, that are bottom feeder condemnation types would rather focus on rather than victory in Jesus) ~ On Divorce: Matthew 19:1-12, John MacArthur’s Bible Studies. This was the original title: Jesus’ teaching on divorce: Study notes, Matthew 19:1-12. Both titles on Grace to You would give insight as to John’s great care concerning God’s Word and those God loves that we should love likewise ~ click resources and then input 2336, 2337, 2338, 2339, 2340, or 2341 for the transcripts, etc. of original tapes that went along with the 80’s book on divorce and remarriage. The latter for those not able to purchase in this economic climate ~?~ no offense intended toward you and the ministry, Stacy.

    While some within and without the fold will encourage that God simply wants us to be happy and thus divorce is first-choice best when the toast has been burned or the cap hasn’t been replaced on the toothpaste tube, MacArthur points to what matters: what God says and means. Between married believers, between married unbelievers, between married believer and unbeliever and considering circumstances. John MacArthur provides the foundation for happiness via holiness ~ yielding Biblically. It is good to embrace not putting asunder what God hath put together…yet He lovingly provides for those defrauded irreconcilably by their spouses, too, though forgiveness is always available. We only need wait on and rest in Him and be edifiers and encouragers to those that have been there and done that or are going through it. God is always good!

    {{{HUGS}}} to Diane and Sharri. You both are precious and very loved ~ do trust God’s heart when you can’t yet clearly see His face and hand.

  12. john says:

    As I Christian, whatever separates my home is capable of separating me from His kingdom. John's interpretation of what Jesus said is absolutely wrong because the married cannot commit fornication, read the original King James Version.

    Pastor John Kosin

  13. James McDonald says:

    Pastor John,

    You have an interesting interpretation there. You mention, "whatever separates my home is capable of separating me from His kingdom." Yet Paul says that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39). I sure hope you don't believe your salvation is dependent on another's actions. If your faith is dependent on your works or that of your wife, it is a tenuous faith at best.

    I encourage you to read the original Greek.

    For the Kingdom,

    Pastor James McDonald

  14. DebD says:

    Malachi 2: (NASB) is directed to MEN/HUSBANDS not to wives == this is NOT her responsibility…

    12"As for the man who does this, may the (AA)LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob everyone who awakes and answers, or who (AB)presents an offering to the LORD of hosts.

    13"This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He (AC)no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.

    14"Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the (AD)wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt (AE)treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.

    15"But not one has (AF)done so who has a remnant of the Spirit And what did that one do while he was seeking a (AG)godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal (AH)treacherously against the wife of your youth.

    16"For I hate (AI)divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with (AJ)wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously."

  15. Stacy McDonald says:

    Deb – not sure what you're saying. While many men have dealt treacherously with their wives, women have done the same, and are indeed held responsible.

    "This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, “I have done no wrong.”" (Proverbs 30:20, ESV)

    And of course, there is the example of the Proverbs 7 woman.

    Men and women are both capable of this sin; and will both be held equally responsible.

  16. Georgia says:

    What if the husband is both physically and verbally abusive to his wife and children? For her safety she and the children may have to get out of there. If adultry is the only way out of a dangerous marriage what is future of a battered wife?
    Surely the sanctity of marriage should not supercede the safety and well being of the wife and children.

  17. DebD says:

    Stacy, say what?
    You wrote< "Men and women are both capable of this sin; and will both be held equally responsible." ??
    As a response to what God wrote in Malachi?
    I don't get it — how can it possibly be aimed at the wife? re-read the scriptures please.
    And, while at it, please read the FIVE times in the new testament that the HUSBAND is told to agape-love his wife. (Tph 5:25, 28, 29, 33; Colossians 3:19) The wife is not told to agape-love the husband (she is to be encouraged to "phileo-love" her husband (Titus 2.
    Don't get the two confused. The husband is not the wife — he is to love first, the way God loved, and is NOT to deal treacherously with his wife, which includes emotional abuse, financial abuse, scriptural abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc.
    check out

    The focus is ALWAYS on the husband treating his wife correctly — with agape-love. When he does this she will respond with love and respect in return. However he treats her, she reflects/responds back to him as she mirrors him. They are supposed to be one flesh.

  18. DebD says:

    Please don't take scriptures totally out of context. Stacy refers to:
    "This is the way of an adulteress: she eats and wipes her mouth and says, “I have done no wrong.”" (Proverbs 30:20, ESV) does NOT have to do with a woman's sin causing divorce… it has everything to do with an abandoned woman taking the consequences lightly and ignorance of being in the sin and is a continuation of vs 18 "Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:"
    Proverbs 7 is all about being wise and alert concerning not getting involved with sin….

    We would have far less divorce if husbands would follow God's plan and agape-love their own wife, living with understanding with her, cherishing and honoring her, putting her first. Mutual honor, mutual love, mutual submission — that is what marriage is about, and that is what will prevent divorce and will also increase JOY within marriage. sheds much more light on this topic of joy within marriage, divorce prevention and restoration once a man decides to agape-love his wife.

  19. Jennifer says:

    Georgia, I'm sure Stacy understands the importance of getting away from physical abuse. She's said so repeatedly elsewhere and here it's made clear that sometimes less dangerous situations are grounds for divorce.

  20. Lauren says:

    >Sniffle< I just typed out a lengthy comment and lost it in cyberspace…

    So here is an attempt to write again (a bit more briefly!):

    I used to agree with MacArthur's view on divorce and remarriage. But there are some issues that arise with a careful study of the Scriptures. John Piper has dealt with this subject wonderfully here:

    If you haven't read his article, I highly recommend it for your consideration. It is a position that teaches that "biblically, both divorce and remarriage are possible, but only under certain circumstances", but differs in what the Scripture says those circumstances are.

    The gist of it is that the exception clause is referring to fornication in Greek, not adultery. And that the very same passage says plainly that any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Period. Other passages shed light on this as well: Rom 7:2-3 teaches that remarriage is allowed only if the previous spouse has died.

    Piper goes into much greater detail and deals with many other Scriptures and practical questions–I can't explain it all here! I was challenged on this issue at one point, and it didn't make sense to me (like I said, I used to agree with MacArthur), but Piper's article spelled it out pretty plainly. No, this is not at all an issue of salvation, or even whether or not we are able to be a contributing part of the Lord's body. But it is an area in which we need to seek to conform our lives to the word of God, and as you have pointed out, our culture, and much of "Christian" culture, fails to do so. I just think what the Scripture calls us to is a bit higher of a standard than MacArthur has described.

    All of that said, I highly respect you and am grateful for your service to our great God and Savior!

    Lauren @

  21. Stacy McDonald says:

    Hi Lauren,

    The Greek word "porneia" includes all sorts of sexual sin, not just fornication. It includes adultery, fornication, incest, bestiality, homosexuality, and harlotry.

    That's why the NKJV and the ESV translate it as "sexual immorality," not fornication.

    "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, EXCEPT for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery…” (Matthew 19:9, NKJV and ESV)

    The Septuagint (the first translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, made into popular Greek in the 3rd century BC) uses the term pornea repeatedly to describe Israel's adultery against God. It is used throughout the Book of Hosea to describe his adulterous wife, Gomer, and Israel.

    And Israel's adultery is repeatedly called pornea (in the Septuagint (Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel).

    You said: "I just think what the Scripture calls us to is a bit higher of a standard than MacArthur has described."

    Be careful. We can't try to be holier than Jesus. :-)

  22. Lauren says:

    Thank you for that quick response. I'll have to look into what you said about "pornea" being used for "adultery" in the OT.

    And I have no desire to be "holier than Jesus", though I can appreciate the warning. I want to be faithful to what He Himself has said. From what I understand at this point in my short life, what MacArthur says is not necessarily exactly what Jesus says. :-) That is all.

    Grace and Peace!

  23. Lauren says:

    Thank you for that quick response. I'll have to look into what you said about "pornea" being used for "adultery" in the OT.

    And I have no desire to be "holier than Jesus", though I can appreciate the warning. I want to be faithful to what He Himself has said. From what I understand at this point in my short life, what MacArthur says on this particular subject is not necessarily exactly what Jesus says. :-) That is all.

    Grace and Peace!

  24. Heather says:

    I myself am an adulteress. I am the greatest of sinners, and I know it. I say it with shame, not pride. my story:

    my 1st husband turned several times to other women, via imagery, pornographic movies and eventually the arms of a woman he was working with while he was deployed in the Navy. I too was horrid because I would flirt seeking the attention he should have given me.

    At one point, he was studying to be a Christian Chaplain in the Navy and I was proud of him. I wanted to honor him however I could and help him with his studies.

    During his last deployment he decided to turn to the woman and ignore his family, despite my pleas- I litteraly begged him! I told him I wanted a separation. During that time I met and fell in love with a man who gave me the attention that I felt I should have had from my husband. After my ex and I were divorced, I eventualy re-married that man.

    I have asked God for forgiveness and to create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. I love my husband and give him all honor. Now I don’t even look at other men, and my husband doesn’t at other women. I know that I have sinned and it’s between me, God and my husband.

    I don’t tell anyone this to get condemnation or praise becuase I haven’t judged anyone else. My heart goes out to those that are hurt by that act, becuase I have both hurt and been hurt by doing it. I would however like scripture on this, and no church has told me that I’m “going to hell” however if God says it, I still want to raise my children to be godly even if I won’t see them in eternity.

  25. Stacy McDonald says:

    “So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.

    And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”” (John 8:7-11, NKJV)

    “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.

    But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NKJV)


    Rejoice in the great work that God has done in you. Do not be bound up in guilt and doubt. Jesus came to set the captives free! You are at liberty to love and serve the Lord!

    Grace and peace to you, dear sister.

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