When we are tempted to consider divorce, we need to reflect anew on what the Bible teaches. In particular, we must understand God's plan for marriage, so that we can understand His opposition to divorce. From the beginning, he made man as male and female, and caused them to join together as one flesh. When asked about divorce Jesus quoted the words of Genesis 1:24, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined [cling, cleave] to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Marriage creates a one-flesh union between a man and a woman. Although they may separate, this union cannot really be broken. Psychological studies have shown that any separation of husband and wife - through divorce or death - generates profound confusion, grief, and sadness. This union occurs when a man and a woman publicly commit themselves to each other, live together, engage in sexual intercourse, and work together. The bond thus forged lasts for a lifetime. Thus, changing marriage partners is not like changing clothes, as some erroneously believe. Because man and wife are one, they can bring each other either great joy or bitter sorrow. We are hurt most by those closest to us. No one is closer than our mate; that is why marital conflict produces such pain. Marriage, even when there is conflict, bestows many benefits: Companionship, help, security, an extended family, new friends, division of labor at home, to name only a few. Sexual pleasure adds to the delight of living with someone. For men, sexual intercourse fulfills a powerful drive, one which tends to dominate a man's life. For women, it can bring pleasure, release from tension, and a sense of being loved and desired. Sexual frustration, on the other hand, causes profound tension, especially in the man. God intended marriage to result in children. To carry on the human race, He ordained that new life should begin in a home with a father and a mother. He further planned that children should grow up in a stable home with two parents, as recent studies have proven. But what about the pain of marriage, to which we referred above? The benefits we can easily understand; they drove us to marriage to begin with. But the awful feelings accompanying conflict or even just lack of intimacy - what are we to do with these? Do they not prove that we made a mistake and married the wrong person, or that the union should be terminated? Here many people go wrong. They do not comprehend the role of pain in life, including married life. In a perfect world, pain would not exist. But in this fallen world, populated by sinners, pain plays a vital role. Walter Trobisch, the famed marriage counselor of a previous generation, used to say that "Growth is connected mostly with pain." God intends for His people to grow up into maturity, into the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13 ). That is, Our Father wants us to become like His Son Jesus. That means that we must learn how to love as Christ loved, laying down His life for His friends, giving Himself, sacrificing Himself. We come into this world infected with sin, a chief trait of which is profound selfishness. When we love, we deny ourselves for the good of another. We are also naturally filled with unbelief in God's goodness and power. When we trust Him, we receive both His love and His power to love others through us. As Martin Luther said, marriage is a "school for character." By living closely with someone whose personality, background, interests, desires, fears, and hopes differ so radically from ours, we must learn to love. But that means sacrificing ourselves. And that means pain. If we run from the pain, we shall never learn to love and we shall never grow up. We shall remain infants, pre-occupied with ourselves, demanding instant gratification of our own wants, regardless of the cost to others. Have you ever noticed how her baby's cry immediately captures a mother's full attention? God meant it that way. In the same fashion, the pain of conflict with our marriage partner engages us. We can't ignore it. If we run towards pain, seeking the cause and, relying on God's help, dealing with the problem, we shall grow through pain to maturity. If we run away, we shall lose the opportunity to experience God's power and love. But we shall never love perfectly, nor shall we ever be fully loved by another. Marriage confronts us with that sobering fact within a short time after the wedding. God knew that, too. He uses marriage (and other close relationships) to remind us that only He can fulfill our longing for unconditional love. When we feel the limited acceptance, or even rejection, of those close to us, God invites us into His own gracious presence, where we shall receive His boundless affection. Likewise, when we confront the reality of our own pride, laziness, fear, selfishness, and even malice, we can turn to God for forgiveness. Jesus has died for sinners, so that we can be reconciled to God. Failure to love others can drive us to the cross, where God's love meets our hardness of heart and melts us, again and again. Paradoxically, by confessing our faults and receiving God's mercy, we find new energy to extend mercy to others. In other words, our own failure - if turned over to God for His transforming work - can equip us to grant pardon and compassion to our spouse. All these blessings we lose if we give up and march into the divorce court.
The Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage
Here are the main passages explicitly dealing with divorce and remarriage after divorce.
For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce... Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously. Malachi 2:16
The words of Jesus:
Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except fornication causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 5:32 Have you not read that He who made them at 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 then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate... Whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 19:4-6, 9 Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, he commits adultery. Mark 10:11-12 Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. Luke 16:18
The words of the Apostle Paul:
The woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. Romans 7:2-3 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And if a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her let her not divorce him... But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 15 A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7:39
It would seem that these passages are plain enough, but several different interpretations have arisen among Christians:
- There are no grounds for divorce. Remarriage after divorce amounts to adultery.
- There is one legitimate cause for divorce: Fornication, which is defined either as pre-marital sexual relations or marriage to a close relative; if either of these is discovered after marriage, divorce is lawful. Remarriage after such a divorce is not lawful in God's eyes.
- There are two grounds for divorce: Marital unfaithfulness (adultery) and desertion of a believer by a non-believer because of the faith of the Christian. Remarriage by the innocent partner after divorce on either of these grounds is lawful in God's eyes.
- There is more to adultery than a physical relationship with someone other than your spouse, and more to separation than actually leaving. Thus, anything which shows a profound lack of commitment to the marriage constitutes either adultery or separation, and offers suitable grounds for a Biblical divorce.
- Athough Christians may not divorce (or remarry after divorce), Christians who were divorced before they believed in Christ are fully forgiven and free to re-marry.
As we consider this vital subject, we need to remember several facts:
- When Matthew and the other Gospel writers use the word "fornication" [sometimes translated as "sexual immorality"] he does so differently from Paul. He carefully distinguishes adultery (unfaithfulness of someone who is married) from fornication (sexual sin before marriage). Thus, any interpretation which fails to take note of this distinction will miss the point of Jesus' teaching.
- Jesus, while allowing divorce for "fornication," explicitly forbids remarriage after divorce, and He does so in the clearest possible language.
- Paul states clearly that married people are bound to each other until death.
- Paul, while allowing the believer not to contest the departure of an unbelieving mate, does not grant the right to re-marry, but at the end of the chapter explicitly says that married people are bound to each other until death.
- Contemporary Jews allowed divorce and remarriage for all sorts of reasons. Jesus obviously meant to distinguish His teaching from theirs. His words could not have been much more clear.
- Adultery, while devastating to a relationship, does not break the bond or kill the marriage. If that were the case, Israel's constant unfaithfulness to her God, often termed adultery, would have severed the covenant with God, which it did not. The entire book of Hosea makes this one point: God remained faithful to His people even when they were not faithful to Him. How could He allow Christians to do otherwise?
- There is a difference between forgiveness of sins and responsibility for the consequences of our actions. We live in a moral universe; God does not repeal His moral laws for His children. Therefore, when we sin - and we all do - and confess our sins with faith in the death of Christ for our forgiveness, God full pardons us. But we shall have to live with the consequences of our sins, as David did after he committed adultery with Bathsheba. One of the consequences of divorce for a believer is loss of freedom to marry again.
- Jesus and Paul make no distinction at this point between believers and non-believers. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that God's order for marriage began at creation, and thus applies to all men. We cannot apply one principle to people before, and another after, they believe. What we do as non-believers has consequences for our life as believers. People who crippled their bodies by reckless driving before coming to faith in Christ will have to live with their disability, just as those who divorced as unbelievers will have to remain single. In each case, God will provide sufficient grace to serve Him with joy (2 Corinthians 12:9).
- Moses in Deuteronomy 24 (a passage often cited in defense of the right to marry after divorce) says that a divorced woman who marries another has been "defiled." The most natural interpretation of this is that she has done what she should not have done.
- When Jesus says that not all can receive His teaching, He referred not to the binding nature of His laws about divorce and remarriage, but to His saying that some people deliberately forego marriage so "for the kingdom of heaven's sake," as the punctuation in the New King James Version indicates (Matthew 19:11-12).
Thus, I accept the second position named above, although I respect the first one; all the others I consider to be improper interpretations of the Biblical passages. If divorce (and thus remarriage) is not an option for God's people, that leads to the obvious question: What, then, should we do with a difficult marriage? First of all, we need to understand that ALL marriages are difficult! People think that only they are having marital problems when, in fact, all married couples do. We are selfish sinners, and will inevitably encounter conflict with each other. Then, we need to ask, What is God trying to teach me? How does he want me to grow in faith, hope, and love? How does my spouse's sin show me my own sin? How does his criticism point up my fault? How would Jesus love this person? As we seek God's wisdom, we shall find that we need His help. We shall see our sin more clearly, and our need for His forgiveness and His power to love the unlovely. That will drive us to prayer and to the Bible. In prayer, we should confess our own sins, asking God's forgiveness and His love for our mate. Then we should pray for our partner, asking God to forgive him and change him. We should find some other person of the same sex with whom we can pray. But be careful! Don't spend time complaining about your mate. Instead, confess your own faults and ask for prayer. You will find that mutual prayer will give you strength to go on. Of course, we need to go to church regularly. By worshiping God with others, we shall forget our own troubles for a while and concentrate upon the greatness and the goodness of God. In church, we remember why God made us - to know and glorify Him, not to have a happy life on this earth. Find some Bible passages that speak to your difficulty. If your wife is contentious - and most wives ARE contentious - then meditate upon those Bible passages which speak of returning evil with good, being patient, gentle and kind, and the duty of the husband to love his wife as Jesus loved the church (like Ephesians 5:22 -33) If your husband is unloving - and most husbands ARE unloving - then focus upon those passages of the Bible which remind us that Jesus is the only source of unconditional love, and those which require wives to submit to their husbands, even non-Christian ones (like 1 Peter 3:1-6). It is good for us to submit to God's discipline. Through marriage, he disciplines us, to cause us to grow more loving and to trust Him more. Remember, too, that marriage lasts only for a few years. When we die, we shall no longer be married, except for our union with Christ. We can stand a few more years of difficulty, knowing that we have ahead of us an eternity of delight. At the same time, we should try to be thankful. No one is totally evil all the time. Think of your spouse's good points, and meditate upon those, with thanksgiving to God. Speak words of encouragement and gratitude to your partner; this will encourage him to keep doing what you like. Nagging and criticism do no good, nor do they change the other person. After you have expressed your preferences once, take them to God in prayer and as Him to change your spouse. Your words of disapproval will only make the situation worse. Believe me - I speak from experience! Rather than concentrating upon the faults and failings of your spouse, ask God for strength to do your duty as a married person. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her; men must sacrifice for their wives. Wives, submit to your husbands as the church submits to Christ. Show him respect and serve him, and our life with him will be happier. We could go on and on, but these few suggestions are enough to show how we should begin to deal with a difficult marriage - which is a normal one! Finally, we need to address the very real situation of those who have already been divorced. They know pain that the rest of us do not, and need special comfort from God. Here are a few brief guidelines:
- All who repent of their past sins and believe in Christ receive full forgiveness. Divorce and remarriage - and all the sins which cause these actions - can be forgiven by God.
- Those who harbor resentment do not enjoy God's favor. Divorced people need to forgive their former spouses. If they have not remarried, they need to seek reconciliation.
- Although they can be admitted to communion, men who are divorced (or remarried after divorce) can not serve as elders or deacons in the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).
- We should all deal gently with people who have gone through divorce or remarriage. They are our fellow sinners; we are no better than they are; if we are self-righteous, we are even worse than they are! We should look to ourselves, asking God to keep us from all sorts of sins, including sins against marriage, for this is an institution much beloved by God.