Family: What the Bible Says About Divorce and Remarriage
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). From this and similar scriptures, some people conclude that divorce and Christianity are incompatible.
Nevertheless, divorce affects many Christians. Some are involved in divorce before they come to faith in Christ; others while they are Christians. Christians sometimes initiate the divorce; sometimes they are divorced against their wishes. Sometimes divorce involves a believer and an unbeliever, and sometimes both spouses are believers and both wish to remarry within the church.
Some churches forbid remarriage and are accused of being hard-hearted; other churches allow remarriage and are accused of cheapening the sanctity of marriage.
|In Western society, where divorce is common, Christians need to understand what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage.|
In Western society, where divorce is common, Christians need to understand what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage. It affects many believers and their children. It affects their finances, their happiness and their spiritual health.
Is divorce always a sin? Is remarriage permitted? If Christians sin in a divorce, how should the church respond? Let’s look at the relevant biblical texts. We will note some observations about what these passages contribute to our understanding of this subject.
Biblical texts and comments
Genesis 2:23-24: “The man said, ‘This [Eve] is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman,” for she was taken out of man.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”
God made both male and female, and he declared this situation “very good” (Genesis 1:27, 31). Man and woman are made of the same flesh and blood — they belong together. Therefore men and women leave their parents and unite with one another to form new families. This man-woman union, generally called marriage, is described before Adam’s sin, and this scripture is cited with approval by Jesus (Mark 10:6-8), so we see that marriage is part of God’s design for humanity.
|Marriage is, in part, culturally defined, and different cultures use different definitions.|
“One flesh” includes sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 6:16, 7:2-5), but there’s much more to marriage than sex! Genesis says it also involves separation from parents and a union of a man and woman.1 This passage does not describe what a marital “union” involves; it assumes that readers already knew what it was. The Bible does not give many details about what marriage is. Marriage is, in part, culturally defined, and different cultures use different definitions. The New Testament tells us that the marital union includes, among other things, emotional and spiritual ties.2
What criteria are necessary for a biblically “legitimate” marriage? Is it simply that man and woman form one flesh by sexual union? No. Sex alone is not enough to create a marriage, although in Old Testament times it could create an obligation to marry if the father approved (Exodus 22:16-17).3What if the couple had a marriage ceremony but did not form a union (for example, Samson in Judges 14)? Some modern “marriages” are contracted for immigration purposes, and some of these are sexually consummated, but neither party expects the relationship to be permanent. It was just a legal formality. Are such people, simply because of civil laws, “married” in the sight of God? Or, for an opposite situation, many couples leave parents, form new household units they intend to be permanent, have emotional ties, and have sex — meeting the description of Genesis 2:24 — but without benefit of civil or religious ceremony. Are they “married”? Does the church submit to the civil government’s definition of marriage?
|Interpreters face difficulties when they act as if marriage is defined by a vow, ceremony or legal status, which are not mentioned in Genesis 2:24.|
Interpreters face difficulties when they act as if marriage is defined by a vow, ceremony or legal status, which are not mentioned in Genesis 2:24. A focus on civil legality seems to trivialize the intent of marriage by focusing on external aspects. It is theologically inaccurate to view marriage and divorce solely in external formalities.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.”
This legislation does not institute divorce; rather, the certificate of divorce is mentioned as an already existing social custom. This passage accepts divorce as an existing custom without comment on its righteousness. The “something indecent” seems to be a sexual indiscretion,4 but both adultery and premarital fornication were dealt with in other ways (Deuteronomy 22:13-22).
|This legislation does not forbid remarriage — indeed, the certificate is given to enable a remarriage.|
This legislation does not forbid remarriage — indeed, the certificate is given to enable a remarriage.5 Nor does the legislation forbid marriage to a third man. Presumably that would also be permitted and would not be “detestable” to God; the woman is not “defiled” for a third husband. The only thing that is forbidden in this text is a remarriage to the first husband.
The main point is that the Law of Moses permitted divorce to continue, and gave it some restriction. This helped set the scene for Jesus’ comments about divorce. The Pharisees in his day argued the meaning of “something indecent” — one group was strict and allowed divorce only for adultery; another group permitted divorce for any reason at all. (The Essene view, forbidding all divorce and discouraging marriage, does not seem to be addressed in the Bible.)
Jeremiah 3:8: “I [God] gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.”
This passage, although metaphorical, suggests that it is not unrighteous to divorce in cases of repeated adultery. God put the northern kingdom away (Hosea 1:9). If we continue the metaphor, however, we learn nothing about the possibility of remarriage. God remained “married” (or “betrothed”) to the southern kingdom. This passage, due to its metaphorical nature, contributes little concretely to the discussion, but it sets a tone in contrast to God’s statement in Malachi 2:16.
Ezra 10:10-11: “Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.’”
|Ezra, God’s agent to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem, commanded separation.|
Ezra, God’s agent to the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem, commanded separation. The Jews had married foreign women (Ezra 9:1-2). The problem was not that the marriages were with foreigners (Deuteronomy 21:10-14 permits international marriages), but that the wives were pagan (Ezra 9:14). The existence of Jews as a distinct people who worshipped God was being threatened.
“Separate yourselves,” Ezra said, and he indicated that separation was God’s will. But Ezra did not use the more common word for divorce (Laney, p. 26). There are three possible explanations for the unusual word: 1) Perhaps the marriages were not legitimate in God’s eyes and therefore divorce was not the right word to use. If so, the men were free to marry Jewish women (Heth, 90). 2) Or perhaps the men were to separate only, without any permission to remarry (Laney, 26). 3) The word for separate may be synonymous with divorce, and a right of remarriage is assumed. We do not know which situation is correct; we must turn to other passages for clearer teaching.
Malachi 2:14-16: “The Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.”
In this situation, Jewish men were divorcing their Jewish wives so they could marry Gentile women (v. 11). This was a politically expedient thing to do (Efird 41), since there was a possibility that the empire would remove its permission for the existence of a Jewish state. If that happened, leadership would revert to Gentile families, and Jews who had intermarried into those families would benefit. Again, the existence of the Jewish nation was being jeopardized. The people did not have faith.
|The Jews did not consider this statement a prohibition. The facts argue against a universal application.|
“I hate divorce,” God said. We must agree that divorce is not good (modern sociological studies verify that), but we must also ask if this brief statement is intended as a universal prohibition. The Jews did not consider this statement a prohibition (Efird, 42). We have already seen that God described his own action toward Israel as a divorce. These facts argue against a universal application and suggest that God’s hatred is toward the faithless, cavalier divorces being discussed in this passage. The passage tells us that, in flesh and in spirit, marriages ought to be subservient to God.
Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
|The short saying about divorce is one of the exaggerations Jesus used to make a point — without intending to formulate an exact law (cf. Luke 6:30). His statements may describe a godly ideal without prescribing every detail and circumstance.|
This is the shortest New Testament passage on the subject, and we will give it only brief discussion, for its content is duplicated in Mark and Matthew. Also, the context in Luke does not clarify the meaning of the short saying about divorce. It is a radical statement, one of the exaggerations Jesus used to make a point — without intending to formulate an exact law (cf. Luke 6:30).6 [Click here for a study of Jesus’ exaggerations in the Sermon on the Mount.] Christ emphasized intent and attitude. His statements may describe a godly ideal without prescribing every detail and circumstance.
In the short saying we see in Luke and Mark, readers may have understood that the saying was an exaggeration, assuming that the law had exceptions that did not need to be stated every time. Matthew may have also understood that the short form had an implied exception, which he spelled out for the benefit of his readers. Either way, the short saying cannot be taken as the last word on the topic. There is at least one exception — at least the one Matthew was inspired to include.
The second part of this verse implies that a woman unjustly divorced should not remarry. It seems to state that the innocent party cannot remarry. This seems to contradict what Paul wrote; perhaps it may also be seen as an exaggeration.
Mark 10:2-12: “Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’
“‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female.” “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’
“When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, ‘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.’”
This passage is similar to Matthew 19 in setting: a discussion with the Pharisees about divorce. In Matthew, the Pharisees ask whether it is permissible to divorce “for any and every reason,” thus putting the discussion in the context of an argument between two groups of Pharisees. The Hillelites said that a man could divorce for any and every reason; Shammaites said that only adultery was grounds for divorce. In Matthew, Jesus was being asked to side with one school or another. Mark may have omitted this phrase because his Gentile readers would not be familiar with the details of the Pharisaic arguments. Whatever the reason, Mark does not hint at any exception. Nor does he say that Jesus did away with the old law.
|In Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus indicated that the principle of mercy superseded the letter of the law. Since we live in a sinful society, our applications have to include mercy.|
Jesus bypasses the argument, saying that the Pharisees are discussing the wrong part of Moses’ writings. Rather than asking what is permitted, they should ask what God wanted in the first place. Instead of worrying about the minimum standard of godliness, the Pharisees should strive for the maximum, with a focus on purpose rather than legal loopholes. In Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, Jesus indicated that the principle of mercy superseded the letter of the law. Since we live in a sinful society, our applications have to include mercy. We do not yet live in the fullness of the kingdom of God — if we did, divorce would not exist — nor would there be any marriage!
Moses permitted divorce because the people were hard-hearted. They were not transformed by the Holy Spirit in them. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were hard-hearted, too, but that did not give them permission to divorce and remarry even if the letter of the law allowed it. Jesus said that they committed adultery in their remarriages. We cannot assume an action is good simply because it is not prohibited; we should also look at larger theological principles (a major lesson of the Sermon on the Mount). The Jews, as a people of God who claimed to live by the Torah, were guilty because they should have known better.
|What has God joined together? Jesus said what, notwhom — there is no reason to assume that God joins every couple.|
What has God joined together? Jesus said what, not whom — he is discussing marriage as an entity, not individual couples. God has joined male and female to create the institution of marriage, and Jesus implied that easy divorce was destructive of marriage as an institution. From this passage, there is no reason to assume that God joins every couple — for example, those who dedicate their union to pagan gods, or those who have civil ceremonies without mention of God,7 or unbelievers who mention the name of God simply because it is traditional.8 Perhaps God considers their commitments binding; perhaps not — it cannot be decided on the basis of this passage. 9
Mark mentions a woman who initiates divorce. This was possible in the Gentile world, but not among the Pharisees.10 Mark may be giving a cultural translation to help his Gentile readers see that Jesus’ comment applies to both sexes.11 Either way, divorce and remarriage is called adultery. But readers might understand that the rule did not necessarily apply in some unusual circumstances. Let us now look at the exception clause that Matthew includes.
Matthew 5:31-32: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
|There is a legitimate reason for divorce, and that reason is porneia, a Greek word that included harlotry and a wide variety of sexual sins.|
This passage comes in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus has several sayings with the formula, “It has been said…but I tell you…” In these sayings, Jesus makes the divine commands stricter, based on attitude rather than action. He starts with divorce for any reason (“anyone”), the only restriction being that legal formalities had to be followed for the wife’s benefit. But he says that divorce on demand is wrong. There is a legitimate reason for divorce, and that reason isporneia (a Greek word that included prostitution and a wide variety of sexual acts, all of which would be adulterous for a married woman).12 Under Old Testament law, an adulterous woman would be killed, but the Roman rulers did not allow this in Jesus’ day.
Jesus indicated that porneia was legitimate grounds for divorce. The role of forgiveness, which Matthew also stresses (6:12-15, 18:21-35), would affect the way this exception worked.
Jesus’ saying here comes with a slight variation. Instead of the divorce-initiator committing adultery directly by remarrying, in this saying he causes his wife to commit adultery (unless, of course, she is already an adulteress), presumably because she will remarry.13 The word “illegally” seems to be implied — that a man who divorces his wife illegally puts his wife in a situation where she must seek a another husband. Jesus did not condemn the wife — the blame is given to the husband.
Remarriage seems to be assumed in these divorce sayings. Jesus is not talking about annulment or separation, but divorce, a legal term that indicates a person is free to marry again.14 (If separation was meant, he could have used chorizo, as he did in Matt. 19:6). Here, the remarriage of the innocent party is called adultery not only for her and her new husband, but blame is assigned to her first husband.
Matthew 19:3-12: “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’
“’Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’
“The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’ Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’”
In our last and most complex passage from the Gospels, Jesus covers some of the same ground as in other passages. The Pharisees ask about unlimited divorce, and make the mistake of saying that Moses commanded divorce. Jesus replies that divorce was only allowed, not commanded, and not ideal, and he again includes the porneia exception clause.
|Jesus did not comment on the person who divorces because of porneia and then remarries. If anything, he implies that remarriage under such circumstances is permissible.|
Does the exception clause apply to divorce, or also to remarriage? Grammatically, it applies only to divorce.15 No one remarries because of porneia. But the effect of the clause extends to remarriage. This can be seen by observing that divorce, even when it is a sin, isn’t adultery unless a new sexual union is involved. The adultery applies only to people who fit both conditions: 1) divorce without sufficient cause, and 2) remarriage. Jesus did not comment on the person who divorces because of porneia and then remarries. Rather, he implies that remarriage under such circumstances is permissible.
Jesus sided with the strict school of the Pharisees on this point. Some modern interpreters ask, if Jesus’ conclusion is identical with one of the major Pharisaical schools, why were the disciples so dismayed? The disciples’ reaction is exaggerated, as if it would be far worse to stay single after a divorce than to remain single in the first place. Second, the disciples were not known for being smart. They were often astonished by Jesus, or they did not understand or have faith. Their dismay in this case is similar, showing that they needed the teaching as much as the Pharisees did.
If remarriage were permitted in some cases, why did Jesus speak about voluntary eunuchs? For two reasons: Some people will divorce for inadequate reasons, and they should not remarry. Second, some people will be allowed to remarry but circumstances will not permit it, perhaps due to not finding a suitable partner, or a call to an unusual ministry, such as Paul’s. Not every disciple is affected by this saying.
1 Corinthians 7:8-15, 27-28, 39: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
“To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace….
“Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this….
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”
Paul is addressing some problems the Corinthians had with sexuality. Perhaps influenced by a Greek philosophy that separated body and spirit, some were willing to accept an incestuous situation (1 Cor 5:1-2) as if it had no bearing on spiritual maturity. Others seem to have ceased sex even within marriage, perhaps thinking that sensual pleasures were incompatible with spirituality, and Paul therefore told them that they should have sex within marriage (7:3-5).
|If married Christians separate, Paul says, they cannot remarry. There is no criticism or rebuke regarding such separations; the tone is matter-of-fact.|
Paul then makes a few comments toward the unmarried (7:8-9) and then toward the married (7:10-11). If married Christians separate, he says, they cannot remarry. There is no criticism or rebuke regarding such separations (Furnish 41); the tone is matter-of-fact.
Paul then addresses “the rest” beginning in 7:12a. Who are these people? Those who had unbelieving spouses (7:12b-13). The Christians in such circumstances should not initiate a divorce. But if the unbeliever initiates the divorce, the Christian would not be “bound.” Does this mean that such a Christian could remarry after desertion? Apparently so.
|Does this mean that such a Christian could remarry after desertion? Apparently so. If “not bound” merely meant permission to live alone, Paul would not need to give them such permission.|
- If “not bound” merely meant permission to live alone, Paul would not need to give them such permission, since they had no choice in the matter.
- Believers who separate are specifically told they cannot remarry; the Christian deserted by a nonbeliever is not told this.
- Verse 39 indicates that a widow is “not bound” and therefore free to remarry. V. 39 uses a different word, but the meaning seems similar.
- In vv. 27-28, Paul advises unmarried people (the Greek term is “loosed”; v. 28 uses a different word for virgins, so the meaning is widows and divorced people) that they do not sin if they remarry.16
- In v. 2 Paul says that each man should have his own wife because of the prevalence of immorality. This would affect divorced persons as much as, perhaps even more, than single people. In context, v. 2 applies to married couples, but the rationale would seem to apply to divorced people, too.
- Some people have a “gift” for remaining celibate (v. 7), but there is no guarantee that God will give this ability to everyone who becomes deserted by an unbelieving spouse. If they do not have a special gift for celibacy, they may marry (v. 9).
Paul encouraged people to be single, but he made it clear throughout that it was simply his preference, not an apostolic command (vv. 7, 17, 26, 40). He referred to a “present crisis” and “many troubles” and that “the time is short” (vv. 26, 28-29). Perhaps he expected Christ to return soon, or perhaps he simply expected persecution. Regardless, his advice was not a requirement, and it was based on a temporary situation.
|Paul did not assume that Jesus’ saying was an exceptionless command. He saw that the Corinthians faced a situation Jesus never addressed, and Paul did not rigidly adhere to the letter of the saying — he simply indicated that there was another exception.|
|“Peace” implies an exception for much more than desertion — situations such as child abuse, wife beating, drug abuse, and financial desertion. Each of these makes a travesty of marriage.|
Paul permitted divorce, with possibility of remarriage implied, on the basis of desertion by an unbeliever. Despite knowing at least some of Jesus’ commands (v. 10), probably including his prohibition of divorce, Paul did not assume that Jesus’ saying had no exceptions. He saw that the Corinthians faced a situation Jesus never addressed, and Paul did not rigidly adhere to the letter of the saying — he simply indicated that there was another exception. And he did not argue the point at any length; his readers would have also understood that exceptions were allowed to Jesus’ hyperbolic sayings.
Paul’s rationale is particularly interesting. He could have equated desertion with spiritual death, or an irreparable breach of covenant, or some other legalistic approach,17 but instead he says, “God has called us to live in peace” (v. 15). The principle of “peace” (or well-being — Efird, 75) is more important than Jesus’ saying about divorce!
“Peace” implies an exception for much more than desertion — situations such as child abuse, wife beating,18 drug abuse, and financial desertion. Each of these makes a travesty of marriage as the model of Christ’s relationship to his church (Eph. 5). Using Paul’s logic, such intolerable situations are also legitimate reasons for divorce with permission to remarry. “If the spouse persistently refuses all attempts at reconciliation [or repentance of marriage-destroying behavior], he has de facto placed himself in the position of an unbelieving, deserting spouse” (Davis, p. 104).
The Old Testament takes divorce as an already-established custom. Abuses were criticized, but the practice was not outlawed.
The Synoptic Gospels report what Jesus said about divorce. In Mark and Luke, his statements seem to prohibit divorce, but Jesus did not intend for those statements to be used as an exceptionless code of conduct. In Matthew, an exception is allowed for cases of porneia.19
Although Paul was aware of the Lord’s teaching about divorce, he did not consider the Mark/Luke version final. Nor did he consider porneia the only legitimate exception, so Matthew’s statements are not the complete description of God’s will, either. Jesus’ statements did not cover every possible situation that might arise within the church. Paul, recognizing that he faced a new situation, permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of desertion. Paul’s statement isn’t complete, either, since he does not specifically mention porneia. Paul did not intend to provide an exhaustive list of exceptions (just as none of his lists of spiritual gifts, virtues or vices is complete).
|Situations arise that were not addressed by either Jesus or Paul.|
Even if we combine all the New Testament statements, resulting in a prohibition with two exceptions, it would seem unlikely that we have a complete statement of God’s will on the subject. Situations arise that were not addressed by either Jesus or Paul. New situations may call for new exceptions, and new judgments. Paul indicates one way the church can judge: the principle of peace, which he deemed more important than a law-based prohibition. This suggests that Christians today may also use the principle of peace to release people from the bondage of certain marriage vows.
Ethical principles are more important than strict rules.20 Satisfying hunger is more important than keeping Sabbath rules (Mark 2:27-28); justice, mercy and faith are more important than scrupulous tithing (Matt 23:23). Principles are sometimes even more important than the exercise of specific freedoms: Although a Christian may eat meat, it is better to abstain if eating might offend another believer (Rom 14). These examples show that principles are more important than narrowly defined laws.
|Commitment within marriage is an important principle; peace, unity and love are important, too. If the unity and love are so lacking that the marriage threatens Christian peace and joy, the principle of peace may outweigh the principle of commitment.|
In a bad marriage, principles must be weighed. Commitment within marriage is an important principle; peace, unity and love are important, too. If the unity and love are so lacking that the marriage threatens Christian peace and joy, perhaps the principle of peace outweighs the principle of commitment. The marriage may in fact be an oppressive relationship that opposes God.
Let’s briefly address some tangential issues. Divorce may be permitted for adultery. But isn’t a Christian obligated to forgive without limit? Yes — but that doesn’t mean that the marriage itself has to stay intact. In financial terms, forgiving a debt does not necessarily imply an obligation to make a new loan. A Christian could forgive an adulterous spouse, having no desire for vengeance, and also have the wisdom not to stay with a person with a life-threatening character flaw. But reconciliation should be attempted. “The believer is never compelled to seek a divorce, not even when the spouse is guilty of adultery” (Scott, p. 193).
May the guilty party remarry? Davis (p. 103) says yes, “if the guilty party has truly repented and attempted to make restitution for personal and financial obligations that may have been forsaken during the dissolution of the marriage.” “As Clinton Gardner has observed, remarriage should be permitted for the repentant and only for the repentant” (Scott, p. 197). Admittedly, this can create awkward situations: There may be a divorce, the church may permit one person to remarry, and later accept the repentance of the other person and in effect allow spouse-swapping within the church.21 Such situations may be inevitable in an age containing both sin and grace, and they cry out for caution by all involved. Time and counseling need to be involved before divorce andbefore a remarriage.
Appendix regarding ministers
Can divorced persons serve in the ministry? Some people read 1 Timothy 3:2 in that way, but Keener (83-103) refutes the arguments:
- Few people interpret these words so literally as to forbid single people from ministry (Paul, at least at the time he wrote, was not a husband of one wife). Nor do these words forbid a minister who remarried after his first spouse died.22
- Polygamy was not common in Greek areas, and was probably not being addressed.
- The qualification list is designed so that ministers would be “above reproach” in the community. The pagan community would think no ill about a remarried person, and they might even criticize a prohibition (101).
- Paul also uses the term “wife of one husband” in 1 Timothy 5:9, and there is no reason here to discriminate against widows who remarried. In graveyard inscriptions, this term seems to be used in the sense of faithfulness, not in its root meaning of having only one spouse.
Paul was trying to combat a heresy of marital asceticism (1 Timothy 4:3), and implying that remarried people were tainted would ironically promote abstinence.
- Paul was trying to combat a heresy of marital asceticism (1 Timothy 4:3), and implying that remarried people were tainted would ironically promote abstinence. “Husband of one wife…may actually be requiring church leaders to be married rather than single” (101). If so, instead of forbidding divorced ministers to remarry, “we ought to be urging them to establish families as quickly as possible” (102)!
Bruce, F. F. “Divorce and Remarriage.” The Hard Sayings of Jesus, by F. F. Bruce. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1983. 56-62.
Davis, John Jefferson. “Divorce and Remarriage.” Evangelical Ethics, by John Jefferson Davis. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1985. 92-105.
Edgar, Thomas R. “Response [to Laney].” House 63.
Edgar, Thomas R. “Divorce and Remarriage for Adultery or Desertion.” House 137-160.
Efird, James M. Marriage and Divorce: What the Bible Says. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon, 1985.
Furnish, Victor Paul. “Sex: Marriage and Divorce.” The Moral Teaching of Paul, by Victor Paul Furnish. Second edition, revised. Nashville: Abingdon, 1985. 29-51.
Geisler, Norman. “Marriage and Divorce.” Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, by Norman Geisler. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989. 277-292.
Heth, William A. “Divorce, But No Remarriage.” House 79-104.
House, H. Wayne, editor. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990.
Hauck, F., and S. Schulz. “Pórne…” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, translated and abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985. 918-921.
See also a book that was published after this article was written: David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans, 2002).
Keener, Craig S. …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1991.
Laney, J. Carl. “No Divorce and No Remarriage.” House 18-39.
Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, editors. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1988.
Reisser, H. “πoρvεύω [porneuo].” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,edited by Colin Brown. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1986. 497-501.
Scott, Lane. A. “Divorce and the Remarriage of Divorced Persons.” Christian Ethics,edited by Leon O. Hynson and Lane A. Scott. Anderson, Indiana: Warner, 1983. 177-199.
Vermes, Geza. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin, 1987.
1 J. Carl Laney claims that “cleave” implies a permanent bond (“No Divorce and No Remarriage,” pp. 15-54 in H. Wayne House, editor, Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 18-19). But Thomas R. Edgar points out that “cleave” can be used for clods of dirt and military alliances, so it does not inherently imply permanence (“Response [to Laney],” pp. 61-66 of House, 63, and “Response [to Heth],” pp. 135-143 in House, 137). When Jesus wanted to stress the union of marriage, he referred to the word “one,” not to “cleave.” And since “one flesh” can apply to sex with a prostitute, it does not inherently imply permanence, either. The permanence of the marriage relationship should be demonstrated in other ways.
2 Ephesians 5:21-22, 28, although written millennia after creation, describes an ideal within Christian marriages, and it is legitimate to infer that this attitude was part of God’s original intent for marriage.
3 If we considered this rule binding today, many marriages in the United States would be invalidated, since many men and women would have obligations they had not been released from.
4 “John Murray notes that this exact phrase occurs elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 23:14, in reference to human excrement…. It may have referred to some shameful conduct connected with sex life” (John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1985), 95).
5 “The essential formula in the bill of divorce is, ‘Lo, thou art free to marry any man…. Thou art a freedwoman’ ” (Keener 61, citing Mishnah Gittin 9:3).
6 Luke 6:30 (“Give to everyone who asks you”) is an example of another exaggerated statement. “Modern readers, who are accustomed to think of exaggeration as a form of deception rather than as a colorful, interesting portrayal or metaphor, are apt to miss the impact of ancient hyperboles…. Jesus couches his words in the rhetorical style of his day…. Graphic illustrations and succinct, uncompromising assertions would best grab hearers’ attention and make them consider their ways. But most assertions in such a succinct form require qualification before they are to be taken as law…. All ancient legal scholars knew that broad principles of law had to be qualified for specific cases…. If there are circumstances under which it is appropriate to call someone an offensive name (as Jesus does in [Matt.] 23), there may also be circumstances under which divorce and remarriage are not adulterous…. The context of the divorce saying suggests that we take it…a combination of a wisdom saying and a prophetic summons…. Exaggeration is used precisely to force us to grapple with the radicalness of what it says” (Keener 20, 22-24).
7 Some conservatives act as if civil authorities have power to bind together but not to loose. This seems inconsistent. If humans have joined the couple together, can’t they also authorize a separation and a new union? This again suggests that marriage cannot be defined by civil formalities.
8 All marriages should be done according to divine purpose, but we should not pretend that they are. For some horribly mismatched couples who finally divorce, it might be asked whether the sin was not in the divorce but in the original marriage. “What is wrong is that it is too easy to get married in the first place!” (Efird 89).
9 Edgar comments: “The same God can also decree when it can be dissolved. In other words, all the argument on permanence cannot overrule the clear statement in Matthew 19:9 allowing the exception. The crux of one’s position on divorce and remarriage is not on alleged implications from verses not discussing divorce, but from explicit statements from verses specifically dealing with the issue” (p. 137).
10 Jesus’ audience may have understood this as a reference to Herodias, who divorced her husband according to Roman law so she could marry Antipas (Bruce 60). The beheading of John the Baptist is evidence that her remarriage was a hot political/religious topic.
11 Efird (50-51) gives further evidence that Mark has put Jesus’ meaning into a new cultural context: “There [in Mark 10:11] is the curious idea that a man could commit adultery against his wife. This was not a part of the culture and tradition of the Jewish people at that time.”
12 “Mark Geldard [and others] takes the term to refer to premarital sexual unfaithfulness” (Davis, 98). Premarital fornication discovered after marriage was a part of the first-century debate (Hauck and Schultz, 920). Also in favor of this view is the observation that porneia usually referred to immorality by an unmarried woman; the same action by a married woman was usually calledmoicheuo (Louw and Nida 1:772). But the word is not restricted to premarital sex, as noted by Efird (57-58), Hauck and Schultz (919), Louw and Nida (1:771) and Reisser (497). In Sirach 23:23, for example, it refers to a married woman. The premarital-sex interpretation is possible, but it loses force when we see that Paul allowed an additional exception. Other interpreters (e.g., Laney, p. 35-37) suggest that porneia referred to incestuous relationships, and that this would explain the dismay of the disciples. It is true that incest was debated at the time (Lev. 18:13 forbids sex with an aunt — Vermes 39 explains the first-century debate on whether an uncle was permitted), but it seems unlikely that Jesus would have dealt with legalistic trivia involving in determining whether a union that was already illegitimate could be severed. Laney (p. 37) suggests that it is a historical allusion to the Herodians’ incestuous marriages, but he offers little concrete evidence. An objection to the meaning of adultery: Can porneia mean (for practical purposes) adultery when another word in the sentence, moicheuo, refers to adultery? Why use two words for one concept?Porneia may indicate something more perverse than one act of adultery.
13 There were few viable options for detached women in that society (Efird 57).
14 The early church did not allow remarriage (Heth 104), but the early church was excessively strict and ascetic in many ways; the evidence doesn’t carry much weight (Edgar, p. 141).
15 Edgar, refuting Heth and Wenham’s view, gives a convincing grammatical analysis of the placement of the clause (pp. 158-160).
16 Laney places these verses under the instructions for virgins, which starts in v. 25 (p. 45). V. 27, in contrast, mentions married people — possibly meaning betrothed virgins, but more likely married in the full sense. This is substantiated by the contrast between the unmarried who marry (vs. 27b-28a) and the virgins who marry (v. 28b). Laney (p. 46) says that the word for unmarried,lelusai, meaning loosed, is a perfect participle, emphasizing current status of singleness. It is true that the perfect tense emphasizes current status, but it also refers to an event in the past that has created that status — in this case, a loosing, that is, a divorce. Moreover, v. 27a uses the same word, in aorist tense, for a marital separation. The NASB brings out the similar words: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you [that is, a released person] should marry, you have not sinned.”
17 “Paul in his treatment of Christian morality hardly appeals to the Law at all” (Scott, p. 194).
18 “Behavior such as persistent physical abuse is a violation of the marriage covenant and is a prima facie indication that true consent is not being given to living in harmony with the believing spouse” (Davis, p. 102).
19 How might we understand Luke 16:18b and Matt 5:32b, which say the innocent victim of divorce commits adultery if she remarries? Paul clearly permits remarriage after desertion; it would be inconsistent to hold that remarriage is not permitted after being put away unjustly (in such cases, the divorce-initiator is acting like an unbeliever). The explanation that makes the most sense is understanding Jesus’ saying as an exaggeration, not intended to be applied to every situation.
20 “Marriage was made for man; man was not made for marriage. Hence, the person should be preeminent in the consideration, not simply a prescription about divorce…. When legalistic emphasis is placed on the divorce law at the expense of showing mercy to the divorced, then we find ourselves in the same legalism Jesus repeatedly condemned in the Pharisees” (Geisler, pp. 286, 288).
21 “If they fail again, it would be unwise to allow them to continue to repeat this error” (Geisler, pp. 292).
22 “If one wishes to be absolutely literalistic about the saying, it would then mean that even a person who had been widowed and had remarried could not be considered eligible. Such a meaning is very unlikely given the high mortality rate among young women who had babies” (Efird 34).
Author: Michael Morrison