180810Readers' Questions

What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?

Your question is broad, but I’ll do my best. Most people who ask it have something more specific in mind. Does the Bible permit me to get a divorce? Since I am divorced, can I get remarried? Are divorce and remarriage unpardonable sins? Then again, maybe you meant to be vague, looking only for general principles and passages about the subject.

I’ll start with what I call the natural law of marriage found in the book of Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Ge 2:24). I prefer the term natural over moral because God ingrained these laws into creation itself. Long before he issued any positive laws, written or verbal—think of the Mosaic law—he made certain laws instinctive. Jesus even alludes to the preexistence and supremacy of the natural law when he says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).

The natural law of marriage is simple enough. One man enters into a binding covenant with one woman where they become not two individuals together, but one co-dependent family. Jesus stresses the covenantal requirement of the relationship when he adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6). Two become one flesh as the man holds fast to his wife (Ge 2:24).

God designed marriage to be permanent. In fact, the only thing that can destroy a marriage is sin, directly or indirectly. Indirectly, a marriage may end when a spouse dies. Death, of course, is a consequence of sin. Directly, a husband may divorce his wife to, let’s say, marry someone else. Regardless, we can trace the end of every marriage back to sin, and that’s helpful to keep in mind as you study this subject in Scripture.

Roughly 2,500 years after the fall of mankind and plenty of wickedness later, God gives his positive law through Moses. One passage, in particular, is especially relevant to your question:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Here’s the all-important phrase: “If … he found some indecency in her” (Dt 24:1). By the time of Christ, the Jews couldn’t agree on a proper interpretation of that statement. The Jewish Mishnah proposes three possibilities:

The school of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her. … And the school of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him. … Rabbi Akiba says, [he may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she.

Jesus affirms the most conservative of the three positions, saying, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,” that is, unchastity or indecency, “and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9; Dt 24:1). In other words, neither God nor Moses would ever condone divorce because your spouse burned your supper or you found someone else you like better. God’s positive law (Dt 24:1-4) doesn’t change or undermine his natural law (Ge 2:24), which was from the beginning (Mt 19:8).

Moses never commanded anyone to give a certificate of divorce and send his wife away as the Pharisees claimed (Mt 19:7). Instead, he put tighter restrictions on the practice. Namely, he wouldn’t allow any man to divorce his wife unless she had been unfaithful, meaning she had already broken the marriage covenant. A divorce, then, was little more than a legal formality acknowledging the violation of God’s natural law.

Jesus’s teachings about divorce give modern readers the most trouble. In his sermon on the mount, for instance, he challenged Israel’s status quo by claiming:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32)

Here, strangely enough, the divorcee, not the one who initiates the unlawful divorce becomes an adulterer. Even so, the divorcee isn’t to blame. The one who divorces his wife … makes her commit adultery along with anyone she marries (Mt 5:32). His wickedness is like a disease that spreads to anyone he touches. No wonder God described divorce as bringing sin upon the whole land (Dt 24:4). It is never self-contained because divorce is a sin that inevitably involves more than one person. When subsequent remarriages take place, the violation of God’s natural law spreads even further.

There is no mistaking the heinous nature of divorce in God’s mind. With or without an exception clause, God never intended the marriage covenant between a husband and his wife to be broken. In Matthew 5, Jesus is distinguishing the lax views of Israel concerning God’s commandments and the Lord’s pure, unadulterated law. It’s not that he makes the law harder to keep. He just clarifies what the law always demanded of us.

But that, of course, is the law by which no human being will be justified … since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20). The first challenge of anyone studying the topic of divorce and remarriage in the Bible is admitting that divorce and remarriage condemn us under the law right along with unrighteous anger and lustful intent. (Mt 5:22; 28). Any deviation from God’s natural law is sin, and we become accountable to God as well as his divine wrath against lawbreakers (Ro 3:19).

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Our second challenge here, at least for some people, is to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve known more than a few Christians who want to leave their divorced brothers and sisters in a state of condemnation. While it is true adulterers cannot inherit the kingdom of God—the law won’t allow it—God’s people were washed … sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1Co 6:9-11). We must factor grace into the equation when considering a redeemed child of God.

According to Paul, the believer has:

died to the law through the body of Christ, so that he or she may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. … We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in a new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code, that is, the letter of the law. (Romans 7:4; 6)

To be clear, Christ doesn’t free us from the law to divorce and remarry all we want. To the contrary, our sanctification moves us toward greater and greater holiness where we serve in a new way of the Spirit and bear fruit for God as we never could before (Ro 7:6; 4). Ultimately, we are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Ro 3:24). Despite the adulterous sin of breaking the sacred covenant of marriage, we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1Co 6:11).

Ironically, the legalists among us will use Romans 7 to defend their position. “See,” they say, “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives. … She will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (Ro 7:2-3). I call it ironic because Paul uses this example to teach God’s grace while the Christian legalist uses the same passage to prove the perpetual, unforgivable nature of divorce and remarriage. They trap sinners in a place where repentance and forgiveness are impossible. The divorced person can’t undo his divorce. The remarried person can’t undo his marriage without another divorce. Without grace, they’re stuck.

In case you didn’t know, some go as far as to claim a second marriage isn’t a marriage at all. It’s merely an adulterous affair. Yes and no. It is adulterous—technically, divorce itself is adulterous according to Matthew 5:32—but it’s still a God-recognized marriage. Jesus told a Samaritan woman, “You have had five husbands,” suggesting all five relationships were legitimate marriages (Jn 4:18).

This kind of legalism causes an assortment of problems. Depending on the particular variety, they say divorce can be a means of repentance. I’ve also heard it said a divorced person can be saved, though not a member of the local church. Perhaps the wildest notion I’ve discovered is where some pastors, who believe remarriage is a sin barring the remarried from church membership, will recommend the remarried stay married for the sake of their children. In other words, their advice is to continue in what they perceive to be sin for the good of the children. How can sin ever be good for anyone? But that’s where legalism can take us.

As Christians, our salvation doesn’t undo the sins we’ve committed nor does it allow us to sin all we want. Instead, the Spirit compels us to turn to God for forgiveness when we sin and seek to avoid sin in the future.

The divorced Christian learns to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I will not get remarried if I can exercise self-control and not burn with passion” (Lk 15:18; 1Co 7:9). The divorced and remarried Christian learns to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, but I will lead the life … to which you have called me. Though I have broken your natural law of marriage in the past, I will keep the covenant I have made with my current spouse” (1Co 7:17).

Does that answer your question? Maybe it’s a start at least.