Divorce and Remarriage?
Today, divorce is commonplace. It even provides the background for a number of family shows on TV. Unfortunately, divorce has been grossly misunderstood among evangelicals. Biblical principles have been ignored, and divorce is considered by many to be the unpardonable sin. Also, many new believers coming into the church today are very likely to be divorced (or divorced and remarried). Therefore, it is vital that we understand what the Bible says about this important topic.
What is God’s plan for marriage?
The divine ideal for marriage is clearly a lifetime commitment that unites husband and wife in a one-flesh relationship (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5). God hates divorce for at least three reasons. First, it pictures theological error. Marriage is designed by God to picture Christ’s love for His Church (Eph. 5:22-33). Divorce rips at the very core of Christianity, namely, a covenant of love with God. Christ promises to never leave or forsake His church (Jn. 6:39-40). When divorce occurs, it creates an unbiblical view of God’s love and shatters the hope, power, and witness of the gospel. Second, it always involves unfaithfulness to the solemn covenant that was made by two people before God. Third, divorce has incalculable consequences not only to married partners, but to their children as well (Mal. 2:14-16).
Does God ever permit divorce?
Even though divorce is not God’s ideal plan, He does permit divorce under certain circumstances. However, Scripture never deals with it lightly. In Matthew 19:3-9, our Lord teaches that divorce is a concession to man’s failure and that God allows divorce only because of hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8). God’s plan for marriage is to permanently leave parents and cleave to a spouse. Moses declared this when he said, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
The Law of Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife when she found “no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deut. 24:1). The primary purpose of this legislation was to prevent him from taking her again after she had married another man—“an abomination before the Lord” (Deut. 24:4). This law was intended to discourage, rather than encourage, divorce. A public document known as a “certificate of divorce” was granted the woman. This permitted her the right to remarry without civil or religious sanction. Divorce could not be done privately. The Mosaic Law called for severe penalties for certain types of “uncleanness.” Adultery carried the death penalty by stoning for the woman. If a man believed that his wife was not a virgin when he married her, he could have her judged by the elders of the city. If they found her guilty, she could be put to death (Deut. 22:13–21). In Jesus’ day, confusion prevailed about the grounds for divorce. In Matthew 19:3-9, the Pharisees came to Jesus to question Him about divorce. In our Lord’s response he strongly taught that, established by God, marriage is an indissoluble unit and that it should not be terminated by divorce. He responded by saying, “Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh’?” However, Jesus does state that there is an exception clause, “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The cause of unchastity can be understood in several ways: (a) a single act of adultery, (b) unfaithfulness during the period of betrothal (engagement) (Matt. 1:19), (c) marriage between near relatives (Lev. 18:6-18), or (d) continued promiscuity.
Even though Jesus did say that divorce is permitted in some situations, we must remember that His primary point was to correct the Jew’s flippant and indifferent view of divorce. They believed that they could divorce their wives “for any cause at all” (Matt. 19:3). Our Lord’s response to their question was to show them the gravity of pursuing a sinful or unbiblical divorce. Therefore, the believer should never consider divorce lightly, but only in specific circumstances after all efforts for reconciliation have been exhausted and there is no other recourse.
The only two New Testament reasons for divorce is sexual sin and desertion. The first is found in Jesus’ use of the Greek word porneia (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). This Greek word is a general term that encompasses all sexual sin such as adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest. When one partner violates the unity and intimacy of marriage by sexual sin, and forsakes his or her covenant obligation, the faithful partner is placed in an extremely awkward and difficult situation. It places the faithful partner in a bondage that God does not expect to be maintained. Because of the distress on the faithful partner God does permit release from the unfaithful partner through divorce. Paul told the Corinthians “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace (1 Cor. 7:15).
The second reason for permitting divorce is abandonment by the unbelieving mate. Scripture teaches that God allows divorce when the unbelieving spouse will no longer live with the believing mate. When an unbelieving spouse cannot tolerate the partner’s faith and wants a divorce, it is best to let that happen in order to preserve peace in the family (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Because God has called us to peace (v. 15), divorce is allowed by God and may even be preferable in situations where circumstances are extreme for the believing spouse. When an unbeliever desires to leave and refuses to file for divorce, trying to keep him or her may create greater tension and conflict. This places the innocent spouse in an impossible situation to fulfill any marital or moral obligation. In such cases the believing spouse is no longer obligated to remain married, the believer may file for divorce without fearing the displeasure of God.
Can a believer remarry after divorce?
Throughout Scripture, whenever legitimate divorce occurs, remarriage is assumed. When divorce is permitted, so is remarriage. Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner only when the divorce is on biblical grounds. Reading Matthew 19:9 closely shows that divorce includes remarriage as a part of the exception statement, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The implication is that remarriage is acceptable when there has been immorality on the part of the unfaithful spouse.
The faithful spouse who divorces because of adultery, therefore, not only has legitimate grounds for dissolving the first marriage but is free to remarry as well. That means that the faithful believer will NOT be guilty of adultery if he or she remarries. In fact, a biblical divorce makes it clear that the faithful partner is free to remarry, but only in the Lord (Matt. 1:9; Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:27-28, 39).
Those who divorce for any other reason, sin not only against God but also against their original partners by committing the act of adultery (Mark 10:11-12). Paul comments on this principle in 1 Cor. 7:10-11. He plainly tells believing women who sinfully divorce that they should remain unmarried, “or else be reconciled to her husband.” If she repents from her sin of unbiblical divorce, the true fruits of that repentance would be to seek reconciliation (restoration) with her former husband (Matt. 5:23). The same is true for a man who divorces unbiblically (1 Cor. 7:11). The only time such a person could remarry another is if the former spouse remarries, proves to be an unbeliever, or dies, in which cases reconciliation would no longer be possible.
The Bible also gives a word of caution to anyone who is considering marriage to a divorcee. If his or her divorce was not on biblical grounds and there is still a responsibility to reconcile, the person who marries the divorcee is considered an adulterer (Mk. 10:12).
Does the church have a responsibility to enforce biblical truths about divorce?
Believers who pursue divorce on unbiblical grounds are guilty of sin and, therefore, subject to church discipline. The Elders (Pastors) are responsible to lovingly direct the erring parties back to a path of obedience and righteousness as outlined in Matt. 18:15-17. If repentance is not achieved, after all the steps of discipline have been administered, then they should be excused from the privilege of church fellowship and be considered as an unbeliever (17). When such steps are taken and the unrepentant spouse refuses to repent, then the faithful spouse is free to divorce according to the provision for divorce as in the case of an unbeliever departing (1 Cor. 7:15).
What about those who were divorced before they were saved?
According to 1 Cor. 7:20-27, there is nothing about coming to Christ that demands a particular social or marital status. The Apostle Paul, therefore, instructs believers to recognize that God providentially allows the circumstances they find themselves in when they come to Christ. According to 1 Cor. 5:17 we are new creatures with the old passing away and the new coming. If they were saved while divorced, and cannot be reconciled to their former spouses because that spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, then they are free to either remain single or be remarried to another believer (1 Cor. 7:39; 2 Cor. 6:14).
What about repentance and forgiveness?
In cases where divorce took place on unbiblical grounds and the guilty party later repents, the grace of God is operative at the point of repentance. A sign of true repentance will be a desire to follow 1 Cor. 7:10-11, which would involve a willingness to pursue reconciliation with his or her former spouse, if that is possible. If reconciliation is not possible, however, because the former spouse is an unbeliever or is remarried, then the forgiven believer could pursue another relationship.
In cases where a believer obtained a divorce on unbiblical grounds and remarried, he or she is guilty of the sin of adultery until that sin is confessed (Mark 10:11-12, 1 Jn. 1:9). God does forgive that sin immediately when repentance takes place, and there is nothing in Scripture to indicate anything other than that. From that point on the believer should continue in his or her current marriage.