Divorce and Remarriage

Separation and Divorce are often painful and complicated. For Christians there may be also strong feelings of guilt and failure. These notes are to guide you to relevant parts of the Bible to see what it teaches and to encourage godly decisions.

John Robertshaw  

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1) Background
2) Marriage between Believers
3) Christian married to an Unbeliever
4) Domestic Abuse
5) Summary

1) Background

Marriage was designed by God for human beings. Christian marriage involves a covenant before God made between a man and a woman. God did not intend divorce but unfortunately our sinful nature can cause marriage breakdown, separation and divorce.

Gen 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

  • This is the first description of marriage in the Bible - leaving parents, forming a new family and becoming 'one flesh'.

In the Old Testament, a wife was considered the property of her husband and she was effectively bought from the bride's father with a dowry or bride-price. (Gen 34:12, Ex 22:16-17, Deut 22:29) Sometimes the bride-price was replaced with years of service or a heroic act. (Gen 29:18, 27-28, Judges 1:12, 1 Sam 18:25.) This ownership meant that only the husband could initiate divorce or separation - not the wife. By the time of the New Testament there is mention of wives divorcing husbands.

Deut 24:1-4 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has 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, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, 3 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, 4 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.”

  • This is the only Old Testament law which regulates divorce - some other laws presume divorce.
  • The word indecency suggests sexual immorality - here either real or imagined.
  • A certificate of divorce is mentioned. A covenant of marriage is mentioned in the Old Testament but not described in detail. This certificate of divorce is presumably a document which annuls the marriage covenant.
  • If a woman is divorced and remarries and then this second marriage ends through death or divorce, the first husband cannot have this woman back as his wife again. This preserves the integrity of marriage covenants and protects the woman from exploitation.

Mal 2:14-16  ...Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

  • This prophecy declares the importance of the marriage covenant and the spiritual union which it represents.
  • Some translations include in v16 the statement "'I hate divorce!' says the LORD...".
  • There is also the mention of violence from divorce - harm to the love between husband and wife, the covenant, the family, the spiritual union between man and wife, and the spiritual progress of the children (offspring).
  • Divorce is harmful. Everything should be done to rescue problem marriages.
  • Twice we are exhorted to guard ourselves in our spirit and not be faithless.

Matt 19:3-8 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (also Mark 10:2-9) 

  • The question reflected two types of Pharisee with different interpretations of Deut 24:1.
    • Hillel Pharisees - liberal - you can divorce for any reason.
    • Shammai Pharisees - conservative - you can only divorce for adultery.
  • Jesus answered the Pharisees' question in verse 9 which is covered in the next section.
  • Jesus re-emphasises the institution of marriage in Gen 2:24 and adds:
    • They are no longer two but one flesh
    • God has joined the man and wife together
    • We should not separate what God has joined together
  • Marriage was invented by God, divorce is invented by us human beings.
  • The command about a certificate of divorce in Deut 24:1 was only given because we are sinful human beings with hard hearts - divorce would be unnecessary in a perfect world. God regulated divorce. This is a good example of Gal 3:19 - the law was added because of transgressions.
  • Divorce always involves sin somewhere.
  • God knows about divorce and describes himself as a divorced person! Israel - his wife - went after other gods and idols and he issued her with a certificate of divorce! (Jer 3:8)

2) Marriage between Believers

Teachings of Jesus

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record words of Jesus about divorce.

Matt 5:31-32 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.”

Matt 19:9 “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

Mark 10:11-12  And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Luke 16:18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

  • These words of Jesus do not permit you to divorce your spouse simply because you don't get on well together! And you certainly cannot marry someone else if this is your reason - otherwise it is adultery.
  • For a Christian couple you need to work on keeping your covenant before God and making your marriage work. There is some advice on this in Christian Marriage.
  • The only ground given here for divorce is sexual immorality (Greek: porneia) which is is wider than adultery and includes many of the sexual sins mentioned in the Old and New Testaments including: incest, homosexual behaviour, sex with animals, prostitution, rape, orgies, filthy talk, sensuality, lust etc. (Matt 5:32, 19:9, Mar 7:21-23, Ex 20:14, Lev 18:6, 20, 22, 23, 19:29, Deut 22:5, 23-24, 25, 23:17-18, Rom 1:26-27, 13:13, Gal 5:21, 1 Peter 4:3, Eph 5:3-4, 1 Thess 4:4-5). Other additional sins today are pornography etc. which are included by Jesus. (Matt 5:28)
  • If a wife indulges in sexual immorality, then it appears that the husband is permitted to divorce her and then marry another. This answers the questions from the Pharisees. (Matt 19:3)
  • Presumably the ground for divorce is the same if the husband indulges in sexual immorality.
  • Although you are permitted to divorce your spouse for sexual immorality, you are not obliged to do so. A better solution is repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of the marriage. (Matt 18:21-22, Luke 17:3-4, Col 3:13-14)
  • God pleads with faithless Israel to return to him. (Jer 3:12)
  • If there is no sexual immorality and you separate or divorce, you should not marry anyone else. To do so is adultery.
Teachings of Paul

Paul repeats the teaching of Jesus - "not I, but the Lord".

1 Cor 7:10-11 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

  • The word for separate here (Greek: chorizo) is the same word used by Jesus (the Lord) "what God has joined together let not man separate." (Matt 19:6, Mark 10:9) 
  • The two situations in this verse are a wife separating from her husband and a husband divorcing her wife. Both are not permitted.
  • Paul does not permit remarriage and encourages reconciliation. He does not mention the exception for sexual immorality taught by Jesus. (Matt 5:32, 19:9)
Church Justice

You may consider this course of action if your spouse threatens to leave you or divorce you.

Matt 18:15-17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

  • If your spouse threatens to leave or divorce you, you may feel that they are being disobedient to God and sinning against you!
  • You are then in a position to apply the teaching of Jesus with the following stages:
    • Confront them with the issue alone - it's best if it can be sorted out between the two people.
    • Confront them with one or two friends to try to resolve the problem.
    • Confront them before the church! It may be easier to do so before the elders of the church so that it is less public!
  • If there is no response to these, the person is to be considered as a Gentile and a taxcollector - that is as a non-believer.
  • The situation then reverts to the case of a Christian married to an unbeliever. 

3) Christian married to an Unbeliever

This situation may arise for the following reasons

  • A Christian unwisely marries a non-Christian
  • One of a non-Christian couple becomes a Christian after marriage
  • One of a Christian couple ceases to be a Christian after marriage

Paul who was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles addresses this situation which is not covered by the teaching of Jesus "I, not the Lord". This is still the word of God!

1 Cor 7:12-16 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving spouse separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? 

  • As the believer in such a marriage, it is your responsibility to stay with your unbelieving spouse.
  • Your marriage to your unbelieving spouse does not save them but they are made holy by marriage to you. This means that your own spiritual life and that of your children is not defiled in any way by your marriage to your unbelieving spouse!
  • A major aim of your marriage should be to be a good and faithful spouse and to sensitively help your spouse to come to faith. (1 Peter 3:1-2)
  • Surely the eternal salvation of your spouse is infinitely more important than your marriage situation here in earth?
  • If your unbelieving spouse decides to separate or divorce you should allow them to do so. This appears to be another ground for divorce. Your unbelieving spouse has abandoned the marriage and the contract or covenant has been broken.
  • You are not enslaved or bound. This may mean that you are free to remarry someone else. However, if you love your unbelieving ex-spouse and they remain unmarried, you may wish to wait and try to restore your marriage and see them saved.
  • If your ex-spouse marries someone else then you can never marry them again. (Deut 24:1-4) You are, of course, free to marry someone else. 

4) Domestic Abuse

The Bible does not directly address domestic abuse but biblical principles may be applied to deal with it. Abuse may occur when both spouses are believers or if one of the spouses is an unbeliever. The abuser may be the husband or the wife.

  • Abuse may be physical, psychological, sexual or economic.
  • It may involve violence, manipulation, restriction, control, domination, oppression, captivity, unreasonable behaviour etc.
  • As a Christian, you may be ashamed and guilty of this behaviour and be secretive about it. You may wish to protect the reputations of yourself and your spouse. Abuse, however, is wrong and it is important to address it and expose it where necessary.
  • If both spouses are believers then the church justice route above may be followed - first try to sort it out together, then with two witnesses, then before the church (possibly elders). (Matt 18:15-17). Hopefully, with support from friends and church leadership, you may be able to resolve the situation. Accountability before others always helps and ongoing support will be necessary.
  • If one spouse is an unbeliever, then it may be possible to enlist help from your church if the unbelieving spouse has respect for the church leadership. It may even be possible to bring the unbelieving spouse to faith.
  • It is best to try church justice first. (1 Cor 6:1-8)
  • If the church route is unsuccessful and the abuse continues, then you may find it necessary to leave your spouse and resort to secular justice.
  • Marriage vows include promises to love, care for, protect, honour and respect your spouse. Abuse is the opposite of these and the abuser is breaking the covenant of marriage. This gives the abused spouse a reason to withdraw from the marriage.

5) Summary

The Bible does not promote divorce. The aim should always be to preserve marriage and to resolve problems. Divorce is always a last resort.

  • If your spouse is involved in sexual immorality, then you are permitted (but not obliged) to divorce them and then remarry someone else. (Matt 5:32, 19:9)
  • If your unbelieving spouse decides to divorce you, then you are not 'enslaved'. Presumably you are free to marry someone else. (1 Cor 7:15)
  • If your spouse dies, then you are permitted to marry someone else! (Rom 7:2-3, 1 Cor 7:39, 1 Tim 5:14)
  • If there is domestic abuse then you should try to resolve it first with church justice. (Matt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 6:1-8) Failing that you may need to resort to the secular justice. You may be able to satisfy yourself that your spouse has effectively abandoned the marriage covenant by their abusive behaviour.
  • If your divorced spouse marries someone else, then you become free to marry someone else and cannot return to your first spouse.

And what if I've done things wrong in the past regarding divorce, marriage etc? 
It's the same as everything else in life - repent of your past behaviour - put things right as far as possible - believe and receive God's forgiveness, grace and restoration - resolve to serve God better in the future with his power! (1 John 1:9, Gal 2:20-21) 

Last Edited: 2020-03-04   

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