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Divorce and Remarriage - Part I

I have two goals that seem to be incompatible and irreconcilable. It is going to be difficult for me to achieve them both. It seems as if to emphasize one is to minimize the other. Let me explain.


On the one hand, I want to emphasize the value and dignity of marriage. Jesus himself in the passage from Matthew 19 is emphatic about the divine design for marriage: “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” Therefore, sundering or severing what God has forged or united is a serious matter. The problem is that marriage is not held in high regard in our society. Even worse, it isn’t held in high regard in some of our churches across the land. When it comes to marriage, our standards have gradually eroded until we’ve come to view it as merely a temporary arrangement between two people rather than a permanent covenant. Whether or not people stay married has become an issue of what brings immediate happiness or instant gratification, rather than an issue of obedience to the Word of God.


Whereas statistics can often be twisted to prove just about anything, when it comes to the problem of divorce in American society the message is loud and clear. In 1910 only 1 in every 10 marriages ended in divorce. By 1920 it had risen to 1 in 7. By 1940 it was 1 in 6. By 1960 1 in every 4 marriages ended in divorce and by 1970 it had escalated to 1 in 3. Today, for every marriage that lasts a lifetime there is yet another that does not. In other words, 1 of every 2 marriages today will end in divorce.


On the other hand, however, and here is my dilemma, I want to eliminate the stigma and shame that divorced people live with, especially those in the church. Divorced people are held in contempt and viewed with suspicion. They are regarded as second-class citizens in the kingdom of God and are treated as if they have committed the unpardonable sin. You may think you don’t think about them that way, and I hope you don’t. But because of both the public nature of divorce and its incredibly painful impact, divorced people feel extraordinarily vulnerable to these things.


So here’s the problem: How do I honor and esteem marriage without dishonoring and defaming those who have experienced divorce? And how do I encourage and affirm divorced people without appearing to minimize the importance of honoring one’s marital commitment and vows? If I magnify the value of marriage and stress the importance of faithfulness to one’s marital vows, divorced people will feel judged and rejected and unfit for ministry and service in the church. But if I express compassion and love for divorced people and remind them how much God really does love them, others will think I’m glossing over their failures and that I’m contributing to the very devaluation of marriage that I earlier denounced. How do I stress the permanence of marriage without condemning the divorced? And how do I love and affirm the divorced person without condoning sin and failure?


Our challenge is to mingle the call to obedience with the tears of compassion . . . to be both tender to those who have failed without compromising the high standards of Scripture.


Here, then, is my two-fold appeal. (1) To the divorced I say that my emphasis on the importance of marriage and honoring one’s vows and fighting to stay together does not mean I don’t love you and care about you or that you aren’t wanted or can’t fit in or can never be active in ministry. (2) To the married I say that my emphasis on the dignity of the divorced person and their value to God and the forgiveness and restoration that is available to them through the cross does not mean that we can take a flippant, casual attitude toward marriage or that marriage isn’t worth preserving or that we are adopting a loose view toward sin.


Why this special concern over divorce and remarriage? Four reasons:


(1)       Divorce invariably involves sin that is more destructive than many others. The devastation caused by the breakup of a marriage is so widespread and deeply painful that it needs to be addressed in a clear and forthright way. Divorce is indescribably painful. It is emotionally wrenching, more so than the death of a spouse. It is often the culmination of years of anguish and pain and bitter words and hurt feelings. The sense of guilt and shame and failure and rejection is more deeply felt in divorce than in perhaps any other human experience. There are the accompanying feelings of loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, and hopelessness. Court proceedings, financial settlements, custody battles, and the inescapable wounds that are inflicted on the children, all combine to make this issue one of extreme importance for the church to address.


(2)       Marriage, divorce, and remarriage involve the taking of sacred oaths and vows and entering into a sacred physical relationship, together with the breaking of those vows and the severing of that relationship.


(3)       Marriage is unique among all human relationships in that it is ordained by God to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church. Not parent/child, not friend/friend, not brother/sister, but husband/wife. Therefore the preservation of this bond, or conversely, its breaking, is crucial to the message we send to each other and to the world.


(4)       The stability and growth of the church, as well as its witness to the world, is in large part dependent on both its commitment to the pre-eminence of marriage as well as how it responds to the divorced in its midst.


Our concern is not to determine why the divorce rate is so high, but to evaluate what the Bible says about the grounds, if any, for divorce, and the grounds, if any, for remarriage.


There are, broadly speaking, two categories or positions, within which there are number of variations and options:


1.         Divorce is never permissible


According to this view, divorce is never permissible under any circumstances. Neither adultery nor desertion nor any other sin can warrant the dissolution of the marital bond. Indeed, the marital bond is inherently indissoluble. Although a husband and wife may obtain a certificate of divorce from the state and subsequently pursue other relationships, perhaps even remarriage, this view insists that they are committing adultery insofar as their original marital covenant is, in the eyes of God, still in force.


Advocates of this strict view (e.g., J. Carl Laney in his book, The Divorce Myth [Bethany House, 1981]) argue that if a person is divorced by his/her spouse, he/she must remain single or be reconciled with their partner. Even should the partner who initiated the divorce marry another (who, by the way, therein commits adultery), the victim of the divorce is not free to remarry. Very few evangelical scholars embrace this view of divorce and remarriage.


Marital union is brought about by: 1) the commitment of two people, one to another, for life, signified by their leaving (the Hebrew word ‘azab is a very forceful one)father and mother and cleaving (Heb. dabaq = to cling to, remain, close, adhere, be glued firmly) to each other; and 2) the act of God whereby he unites them as one ("those whom God has joined together" in Mt. 19:6). The key question is this: Is this marital bond inherently and irrevocably indissoluble or only ideally indissoluble? Those who argue against divorce on any grounds insist the marital covenant cannot be broken. Those who allow divorce insist that the bond should not be broken but acknowledge that in reality it can be. Both sides agree that physical death severs or breaks the marital bond (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39), thereby freeing the partner to remarry. Does this argue against the notion of absolute and inherent indissolubility? As the Feinbergs have noted, “if the bond cannot be broken, one would expect a married couple to be married throughout eternity. Scripture teaches otherwise. Scripture allows widows and widowers to remarry (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39” (Ethics for a Brave New World, 304).


2.         Divorce is sometimes permissible


Under this general heading are two sub-categories. There are those views which recognize that whereas divorce is on occasion permissible, remarriage is not. Others insist that if divorce is ever permissible, so too is remarriage. These two positions, along with variations within them, are as follows:


a.         Divorce but no remarriage


1)         Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity only but remarriage is not permitted.


This view was the majority position of the early church fathers. The most articulate modern defenders of this view are William Heth and Gordon Wenham, who have written extensively on the subject (see esp. their book, Jesus and Divorce [Hodder & Stoughton, 1984]).


2)         Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity and desertion but remarriage is not


b.         Divorce and remarriage


1)         Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity only. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. [However, it should be noted that sexual infidelity never necessitates divorce. It makes divorce permissible, but never mandatory.]


The reason why the innocent party is free to remarry is that infidelity has severed the marital covenant. If the covenant is sufficiently terminated to free the innocent party to remarry, would not the guilty party also be free to remarry? It must be noted that the NT never addresses the "rights" or "freedom" of the guilty party. Why?


2)         Divorce is permitted for sexual infidelity and desertion. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. This is commonly referred to as the Erasmian view, named after the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.


A variation within this view is the position that whereas both sexual infidelity and desertion are legitimate grounds for divorce, only in the case of sexual infidelity is remarriage permitted. If a person's spouse deserts him/her, he/she is free to initiate a divorce but is not free to remarry. In practical effect, however, this option ultimately does not differ from the other simply because desertion virtually always leads to adultery, which would then grant the innocent party the right to remarry.


The practical problem one faces here is the definition of desertion. The Bible provides no explicit guidance on this point. Question: does physical abuse, sexual abuse (of spouse or children), drunkenness, financial recklessness and irresponsibility that endangers the family, etc. = desertion and thus a severing of the marital covenant?


3)         Divorce is permitted for any act (such as, but not limited to, adultery and desertion) that breaks the marital covenant. The innocent party is permitted to remarry. This raises the issue of what specific acts have the potential to break a marital covenant. Again, can any conclusions be drawn on the right of the guilty party to remarry?


Several issues have not been addressed:


First, what is the status of those who were married and divorced before coming to saving faith in Christ? Do conversion, forgiveness, and the fact that they are now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) have an effect on their freedom to remarry?


Second, no attempt has been made to address the practical complexities that arise when someone has been married and divorced several times (for illegitimate reasons).


Third, nothing has been said about issues related to the status of the “guilty” party in a divorce.



Note: Reasons people give for divorce that are not permitted by Scripture:


·      “We don’t have anything in common: goals, values, hobbies, joys, etc.”

·      “I don’t love him/her anymore”

·      “Staying married will do more harm to the children than getting divorced”

·      “We never have sexual relations”

·      “He/she isn’t a believer”

·      “I’m exhausted. He/she will never change. Its useless and hopeless”

·      Incompatibility . . .



A Survey of the Biblical Evidence


It’s important for us to be aware of the extremely complex and therefore controversial nature of this issue. The passages we will examine are not as clear as we might wish. Christian scholars of both the Old and New Testaments, all of whom embrace the inspiration and authority of Scripture, continue to disagree on what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage. We need to be cautious about how we state our positions and remember that we are dealing with an issue that, unlike other doctrinal disputes, touches the heart and soul of people who are often already deeply wounded and filled with shame. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t hold firmly to our convictions. It is only to say that pastoral sensitivity and tenderness are especially crucial as we try to help people embrace a biblical perspective.


A.        The Old Testament on Divorce and Remarriage


1.         Deut. 24:1-4


Several observations are in order:


a.         This passage reveals that in the law of Moses divorce was permitted but not prescribed. In other words, there was sufferance but not sanction. Thus "there is no evidence to show that divorce was approved or morally legitimated. Permission, sufferance, toleration was granted. But underlying this very notion is the idea of wrong. We do not properly speak of toleration or sufferance as granted or conceded in connection with what is intrinsically right or desirable" (John Murray, 8).


b.         The purpose for the bill of divorcement was first, to serve as a deterrent to hasty, frivolous, thoughtless action by the husband; second, to testify to the woman's freedom from marital obligation to the husband who divorced her; and third, to protect her reputation, i.e., from slander that she was an adulteress; it declared that the end to her marriage was caused by something less than violation of her marriage vow.


c.         On what grounds was divorce allowed? What is the meaning of the word indecency, literally, nakedness of a thing? During the period of the OT there were two schools of thought:


1)         The rabbinic school of Shammai embraced a narrow, conservative view. They interpreted indecency as some grave matrimonial offense; a violation of marital propriety.


2)         The rabbinic school of Hillel embraced a broad, liberal view. They interpreted indecency to mean virtually any trivial offense, from being physically unattractive to being a poor cook.


There are several theories for the meaning of indecency that are not likely: (1) adultery (in which case death was required for both parties; Dt. 22:22-27); (2) adultery suspected but not proven (in which case the rite of bitter water was applied; see Num. 5:11-31); (3) a betrothed woman charged on her wedding night of not being a virgin (Dt. 22:13-21); (4) a betrothed woman who was raped (Dt. 22:25-27); (5) an unbetrothed/unengaged woman who commits fornication (Dt. 22:28-29; the two must get married and can never divorce); (6) other sexual offenses such as homosexuality, bestiality, or incest, the penalty for which wasn’t divorce but death (Lev. 18, esp. vv. 26-29).


The only place this word is used elsewhere in the OT is in Dt. 23:14 where it refers to human excrement.


Most agree that it means some sort of shameful behavior short of sexual infidelity. Others have suggested it may refer to barrenness or some form of birth defect. We simply do not know.


The Feinbergs offer an interpretation that needs to be noted. They argue that the indecency mentioned in Dt. 24:1 is not legitimate grounds for divorce. Moses is merely describing a divorce under such circumstances. He is in no way prescribing that such be done. The only actual commandment Moses issues regards the bill of divorcement (which was necessary to protect the woman; see above). Thus, if a man divorces his wife on grounds of indecency, in God’s eyes they are still married. “Consequently, if either mate remarries (and men and women in that society were quite likely to do so), sexual relations with the new spouse are adultery, since the marital bond with the first mate is not severed” (313). This is where the “defilement” of v. 4 comes from. She has been “defiled”, and thus cannot remarry her first husband, because her second marriage was adulterous. It was adulterous because she was divorced by her first husband on frivolous and illegitimate grounds. But if she becomes an adulteress by getting married a second time, why isn’t she stoned to death as prescribed by the Mosaic Law? The Feinbergs contend that her second marriage is more the fault of her first husband than her own. He, in effect, forces her to get remarried by divorcing her (living as a single woman in that society was difficult; many eventually turned to prostitution just to support themselves). Her adultery, so they suggest, would have been unintentional and involuntary. Thus they conclude that “the reason the remarriage mentioned in Deut 24:4 is abominable is that it is abominable to marry an adulteress! Deuteronomy 24 does not say that if her first husband divorces her for ‘erwat dabar [“some indecency”] and she remains unmarried, then it is abominable for her to return to her first husband. Presumably, she could return to him under those circumstances, if he would have her back. . . . Only the woman made an adulteress by a second marriage could not return to her first husband after a divorce from the second” (314-15).


2.         Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13:23-27,30a; Malachi 2:10-16


Each of these texts speaks of a situation in Israel's history in which the people of God intermarried with pagan Gentiles. Each is explained in the light of Deuteronomy 7:1-5.


Could these texts be used today by a Christian to justify divorcing an unbelieving spouse, even when neither sexual immorality nor desertion has occurred? No. We must remember that in neither testament is a believer permitted to marry an unbeliever. More important still is the fact that in the OT national survival was at stake. The demand that such spiritually mixed marriages be dissolved was motivated by the concern for national, theocratic preservation. Finally, Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:12-16 that a believer is not to divorce an unbeliever simply because of the latter's lack of faith.