Scriptural teaching on divorce is rather easy to derive, as there are very few verses concerning it and they are quite clear. The problem is that these are very difficult to accept or apply.
The Lord's will concerning divorce is severe, to be sure. "Who then should get married?" was the response of those who first heard it. If we aim to understand God's word now we are likely to be just as shocked as they were back then. For what God says is easy to understand concerning divorce and remarriage. It is just that once understood, few are really willing to follow Christ in this.
Rom 7:1-3 (NRS) Do you not know, brothers and sisters--for I am speaking to those who know the law--that... a married woman is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives?.. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive.Below are all four direct quotes of Jesus on the sin of "remarriage" from the New Testament. Following these is a text from Paul concerning the same.
Note the reaction then, which is not much different than now.
Luke 16:15-18 (NKJ) And He said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God... Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery."So then, the Bible does not allow for many of our modern ideas and practices concerning divorce and "remarriage". The only possible exceptions given are:
Mat 5:31-32 (NAS) "It was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
Mat 19:3-12 (NIV) Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?" And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?" He said to them, "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." The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."
Mark 10:2-9 (KJV) And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?" tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, "What did Moses command you?" And they said, "Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away." And Jesus answered and said unto them, "For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."
1Cor 7:10-15,27,39 (NIV) 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 bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife... A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord.
- 1) in the case of unchastity (Mat 5:32 and 19:9)
- 2) in the case of death (Rom 7:3, below)Mat 19:10 (NIV) The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."To the above two exceptions, some would add the case of abandonment of an unbelieving spouse for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 7:15). But the plain-sense reading of this verse is that the abandoned spouse is free ("not bound") from the obligations of marriage, not "free" to remarry again. Given the strict warnings and teachings elsewhere, it seems a flimsy pretext to claim the "free" of 1Cor 7:15 disqualifies other all-too-clear scriptures concerning the inherent adultery of "remarriage". Rather, 1Cor 7:15 is saying that if an unbelieving spouse insists on leaving, then God is releasing the believer from being unequally yoked. Paul in 1Cor 7:15 is certainly not disagreeing with Jesus, for in the same chapter he confirms that if you separate or divorce you cannot remarry as long as your spouse is still alive.
1Cor 7:39 (Wey) A woman is bound to her husband during the whole period that he lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to marry whom she will, provided that he is a Christian.As well, we must consider the possibility that Matthew's exception case of "unchastity" (the word pornea, normally translated fornication) is not contradicting the other Gospels or the rest of scripture, but rather speaking to the unique Jewish situation of betrothal. For an excellent treatment of this, see John Piper's commentary and position paper.
Finally, some use the "He who is able to accept this" statement as an excuse to dive into the sin Jesus depicts. But this is tantamount to saying: "I know Christ is not sufficient to get me through", is it not? It is a manifestation of unbelief, and open statement that says, "I don't have grace." Such a stance of putting yourself outside of those who can by grace enter into the kingdom is not a strategy that any sensible believer should take. If Jesus is not talking to you, then you have a more serious problem than adultery. (Jn 12:39-40)
So, looking beyond traditional or convenient misinterpretations, the only solid reason God has given us for remarriage is the case of being widowed. These are "hard teachings" indeed.
John 6:60 (NIV) On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" ...Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you?.. This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."In a moment, we will offer some advice for those not yet married or contemplating divorce. As for those whom Jesus' words would condemn as living in adultery, even if "remarried", the question becomes a simple--if painful--choice between sin and obedience. For example, we know many "remarried" couples who by Jesus' words are living in adultery; despite the social legitimacy of a "remarriage". What to do? What to say? Beyond repeating what Jesus said, all we can do is pray for God to lead those He has chosen into the radical obedience of grace. If such messy situations seem unsolvable and unprecedented, they aren't. In the past (1Cor 10:11) when people have strayed far from the commands of God concerning marriage and then have come to understand that they were living in sin, they earnestly repented and obeyed the expressed will of God--even though the emotional and familial cost was exceptionally high (Ezra 9-10, especially 10:3). Sin is to be repented of and abandoned, not accommodated, no matter the cost (Mat 5:29-30).
A biblical situation very much in context here is that of Herod rejecting the godly rebuke of John the Baptist.
Mark 6:17-18 (NIV) Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."Upon being widowed, marrying a brother's wife was a common, even noble, tradition in the ancient world. The problem here was that Herod's brother Philip was still alive.
In this situation, was John saying, "Herod, if you repent and join our church, your illicit marriage with be grandfathered in"? Was John saying: "It was a mistake to marry her, Herod; but now that you have done so you should stay in the marriage for the sake of the kids"? No, John was saying: "This marriage is simply human-justified perversion, and you are not fooling God. Her husband is still alive, and your sham 'marriage' is not license for ongoing adultery. You must stop, and end, this bogus 'marriage'; for it not lawful."
John, you might note, gave up his life for refusing to back-off of just this point: calling out an adulterous "remarriage" as sin. Today, are there those among us so sold out to God that they will proclaim the truth and call people to repentance--no matter the cost? Herod, we are told, admired the clarity and boldness of John's message (Mr 6:20), even though he was puzzled about what to do about it. Well, his new "wife" knew what to do: she conspired to rid herself of the messenger. Might this be a prophetic harbinger of things to come?
For nowadays, "Herod" might be the pastor of your church, "married" and having sex with another man's wife. Go to get counseling from such ministers and you might get kicked out of the church if you start quoting convicting scriptures.
For those unmarried, or married and considering divorce, God has made plain that marriage is a once in a lifetime deal. Because our "hearts are hard" (and whose is not?) God in His mercy does allow for divorce--even though He "hates it".
Mal 2:16a (NIV) "I hate divorce," says the Lord...While God "hates divorce", He allows it--if but once. For the teaching of Scripture is clear enough: one chance, and if you make a mistake and feel you must divorce, then you only will have two options within God's will:
...otherwise you are committing adultery with whomever you "remarry".
- 1) be "reconciled" with your "one flesh" later, or
- 2) live as a single person
The point bears repeating. If a marriage is too overly painful and debilitating--a mistake--divorce is allowed by Scripture. But not re-marriage except in the case of death. Again, divorce is a one-time escape clause that means a life of being a single and no chance of having sex again (unless you are reconciled) without committing adultery--"remarriage" or no. That is what Jesus said very clearly, and more than once, for those who care to know. Let us "count the cost" of our actions when considering either marriage or divorce.
Mat 19:6 (NIV) "So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."The only other text in the New Testament concerning divorce uses it as a "type" of our relationship to the old and new covenants. Assumed is the understanding detailed above, and the severity of it.
Rom 7:1-3 (NAS) Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man.To understand the full typological meaning of this, it must be understood that in the Old Testament "law" Israel is pictured as the wife of the Lord God.
Is 54:5 (NAS) "For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the Lord of hosts..."But note that God, who is just and without sin, DIVORCES ISRAEL:
Jer 3:8 (NIV) "I [the Lord] gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries..."The Lord will remarry, but only after Israel is dead in accordance with the gospel. For God is not asking us to play by any other rules than what He Himself lives by. The Lord did what he "hated" to do (divorce Israel), but had to do. Yet, the Lord will be reconciled with His previous wife when Israel is regenerated in accordance with the gospel (1Cor 15:1-4) along with the church--of which there is already a first-fruits. He will gather us together to Him as one pure and spotless bride.
Is 54:5 (NAS) "For the Lord has called you, Like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, Even like a wife of one's youth when she is rejected," Says your God. "For a brief moment I forsook you, But with great compassion I will gather you."So divorce, properly understood, is used by God as a "type" of His dealings with us. We on earth should consider the perspective of God, and what all He might teach us, even through a divorce. In this, we can experience the feelings of God, and even His reconciliation by grace to our "once beloved" if we do not give ourselves over to adultery.
We hope this helps in some way to clarify God's purpose and will concerning marriage.
Our present situation is a nasty mess, with swapped wives and husbands all around "remarried" and living in adultery, according to God. We are a far cry from being a pure and spotless bride. Dealing with and repenting of these long-term adulterous relationships after the fact is exceedingly painful and difficult. So, if you are contemplating remarriage, don't even start down this ruinous path. Count the cost. Divorce if you must, but don't enter into a "remarried" relationship that will preclude your entry into the Kingdom of God.
1Cor 6:9-11 (NAS) ...Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers... will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified...God's will and word concerning this is fairly easy to understand, but it might take some sweating of blood to live out in practice. Yet His grace is sufficient, even for this. We have been told in advance that for us to receive His holiness in this sin-sick world will mean pain. Nonetheless, be encouraged to strive to enter into the narrow gate.
Instead of us calling Him "Lord, Lord," and then not doing what He says, let us instead simply abide in His word and obey it, no matter what offense our flesh takes.
1Pet 4:12-19 (NIV) Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed... If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, "If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
Acts 14:22 (NIV) ...strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said.
Rom 8:37 (NIV) In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Jas 5:20 (NIV) Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.