We believe God created marriage, as defined within the parameters of the Bible, to be a rich and rewarding expression of God’s love for humanity to those not called to singleness. More importantly, God also designed marriage to be the physical and visible earthly representation of what a relationship with Him is all about (Ephesians 5:32).
God’s gracious benefits notwithstanding, God hates divorce because it is a violation of His very nature and character. He hates it because it always involves unfaithfulness to the solemn covenant of marriage that two partners have entered into before Him, and because it brings harmful consequences to those partners and their children (Mal. 2:14-16). Divorce in Scripture is permitted only because of man’s sin. Since divorce is only a concession to man’s sin and is not part of God’s original plan for marriage, all believers should hate divorce as God does and pursue it only when there is no other recourse. With God’s help a marriage can survive the worst sins.
In Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus teaches clearly that divorce is an accommodation to man’s sin that violates God’s original purpose for the intimate unity and permanence of the marriage bond (Gen. 2:24). He taught that God’s law allowed divorce only because of “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). Legal divorce was a concession for the faithful partner due to the sexual sin or abandonment by the sinning partner, so that the faithful partner was no longer bound to the marriage (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:12-15). Although Jesus did say that divorce is permitted in some situations, the key to understanding Jesus’ perspective on divorce is directly tied to the
question He was asked in Matthew 19:3, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
Jesus then answered the Pharisee’s deceitfully manipulative question with a question that demonstrated the following about marriage:
- the authority regarding marriage is God’s Word; ‘have you not read’ (then quotes Gen. 2:24)
- the only partners permitted in marriage are one man and one woman; God ‘made them male and female’ (both terms are singular in original language; see also Gen. 1:27)
- the intended permanence of marriage; ‘…and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh.’
- the sacredness of marriage; ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.’
Jesus’ answer to the question of divorce ‘for any reason at all’ is a resounding “no” or perhaps better “How?” How can a man and a woman who have become one become two again? Attempting to pit Jesus against Moses the Pharisee’s ask “Why then did Moses command to ‘give her a certificate of divorce and send’ her away?”
Jesus responded, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’
To understand what Jesus meant by this we need to look at what was happening during the time of Moses relative to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4). In that time the strongest deterrent against adultery was death. If caught in adultery both the unfaithful man and the unfaithful woman were stoned to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:21-24). So clearly the men Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 24 were not divorcing their wives for reasons of adultery; they didn’t have to divorce them since their wives would have been stoned and their death would have allowed the husbands to remarry.
Sadly, Moses was moved to give the women of that time a certificate of divorce to protect them against hard hearted men who trumped up ridiculous reasons to divorce their wives. Divorced women in that culture were assumed wrong, not being considered much more than property, and ostracized from society. Without the certificate of divorce given them by Moses they would have faced impossible odds to even survive let alone continue as a welcomed member of the community.
With that understanding, however, Jesus did say ‘…whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’ So we believe there are Biblical grounds for divorce and subsequently remarriage. We would stress that divorce is not mandated but only permitted. We believe God still hates divorce and would prefer marriage. We would welcome any chance to help families stay together and encourage couples to trust God for what seems to be the impossible (Matt. 19:26; Rom. 4:17).
The Grounds for Divorce
We believe the only New Testament grounds for divorce are sexual sin or desertion by an unbeliever. The first is found in Jesus’ use of the Greek word porneia (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). This is a general term that encompasses sexual sin such as adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest. When one partner violates the unity and intimacy of a marriage by sexual sin—and forsakes his or her covenant obligation—the faithful partner is placed in an extremely difficult situation. After all means are exhausted to bring the sinning partner to repentance, we believe the Bible permits release for the faithful partner through divorce (Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 7:15).
The second reason for permitting a divorce is in cases where an unbelieving spouse does not desire to live with his or her believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:12-15). Because “God has called us to peace” (v. 15), divorce is allowed and may be preferable in such situations. When an unbeliever desires to leave, trying to keep him or her in the marriage may only create greater tension and conflict. Also, if the unbeliever leaves the marital relationship permanently but is not willing to file for divorce, perhaps because of lifestyle, irresponsibility, or to avoid monetary obligations, then the believer is in an impossible situation of having legal and moral obligations that he or she cannot fulfill.
Because “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases” (1 Cor. 7:15) and is therefore no longer obligated to remain married, the believer may file for divorce without fearing the displeasure of God.
The Possibility of Remarriage
Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner only when the divorce was on Biblical grounds. In fact, the purpose for a Biblical divorce is to make clear that the faithful partner is free to remarry, but only in the Lord (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39).
Those who divorce on any other grounds have sinned against God and their partners, and for them to marry another is an act of “adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). This is why Paul says that a believing woman who sinfully divorces should “remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:10-11). If she repents from her sin of unbiblical divorce, the true fruits of that repentance would be to seek reconciliation with her former husband (Matt. 5:23-24). 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 the divorce was not on Biblical grounds and there is still a responsibility to reconcile, the person who marries the divorcee is considered an adulterer (Mark 10:12).
The Role of the Church
Believers who pursue divorce on unbiblical grounds are subject to church discipline because they openly reject the Word of God. The one who obtains an unbiblical divorce and remarries is guilty of adultery 9 since God did not permit the original divorce (Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12). That person is subject to the steps of church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. If a professing Christian violates the marriage covenant and refuses to repent during the process of church discipline, Scripture instructs that he or she should be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever (v. 17). When the discipline results in such a reclassification of the disobedient spouse as an “outcast” or unbeliever, the faithful partner would be free to divorce according to the provision for divorce as in the case of an unbeliever departing, as stated in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Before such a divorce, however, reasonable time should be allowed for the possibility of the unfaithful spouse returning because of the discipline.
The leadership in the local church should also help single believers who have been divorced to understand their situation Biblically, especially in cases where the appropriate application of Biblical teaching does not seem clear. For example, the church leadership may at times need to decide whether one or both of the former partners could be legitimately considered “believers” at the time of their past divorce, because this will affect the application of Biblical principles to their current situation (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Also, because people often transfer to or from other churches and many of those churches do not practice church discipline, it might be necessary for the leadership to decide whether a member’s estranged or former spouse should currently be considered a Christian or treated as an unbeliever because of continued disobedience. Again, in some cases this would affect the application of the Biblical principles (1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 6:14).
According to 1 Corinthians 7:20-27, there is nothing in salvation 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. If they were called while married, then they are not required to seek a divorce (even though divorce may be permitted on Biblical grounds). If they were called while divorced, and cannot be reconciled to their former spouse 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).
Repentance and Forgiveness
In cases where divorce took place on unbiblical grounds and the guilty partner later repents, the grace of God is working at the point of repentance. A sign of true repentance will be a desire to implement 1 Corinthians 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 under the careful guidance and counsel of church leadership.
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). God does forgive that sin immediately 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.