“The soul of a marriage can be a trusting place where two people can come together quietly from the struggles of the world and feel safe, accepted, and loved … or it can be a battleground where two egos are locked in a lifelong struggle for supremacy, a battle which is for the most part invisible to the rest of the world” (Keith Miller, The Taste of New Wine). For 38 years I’ve sat on my side of the pastoral desk, handling the ugly carnage of marital warfare. The stories are numerous, with gut-wrenching heartache as the perpetual theme.
To be honest, I knew this would be the case when I entered the ministry. I can’t plead the Fifth with the popular excuse “They didn’t teach me this in seminary!” Both in seminary and throughout my pastoral years, I’ve attempted to do my homework on the various views of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Having done so, I don’t claim to have the corner on the truth; I continually desire to be teachable. I also have learned that good and godly people hold views opposite my conclusion. This has tempered me to hold my position with gentleness, grace, and humility. All that being said, I hold the position that the weight of Biblical evidence lands on affirming no divorce, no remarriage after divorce. Why do I hold that position?
What I will first do is walk you through an understanding of how various views on divorce and remarriage developed. Due to the limited length of this article, I will share what I see are the main views, acknowledging that there are multiple others. Next, I will share a compilation of Biblical evidence that supports a “no divorce, no remarriage after divorce” position. Finally, I will illustrate how I practice this position when handed the heartrending fragments of a broken marriage.
The Evolution of Schools of Thought
It’s no secret that marriage is under attack. My presupposition is that the creative design for marriage is its permanence (Gen. 2:24). The fall of man in Genesis 3 evidenced itself when sin landed smack in the middle of marriage, with spousal blame-shifting as a new unlearned skill set (Gen. 3:11–12). Fast-forward to Matthew 5:27–32 and 19:1–10. Here, to counter cultural pressure to deviate from the creative design, Jesus blows gaping holes through two schools of thought in order to both preserve and protect marriage. The school of Hillel held the liberal view that divorce was permissible for any reason. The more conservative school of Shammai taught that divorce was permissible only for a major offense. Jesus says, “You’re both wrong.”
Today there exists basically four schools of thought:
- Both divorce and remarriage are permissible for any reason or none. This view is prevalent in secular society.
- Both divorce and remarriage are permitted under certain circumstances. During the Reformation, Erasmus proposed a view of divorce and remarriage that became known as the Erasmian position. In 1961, Scottish theologian John Murray popularized this view in his classic work Divorce. Broadly speaking, this view instructs that sexual infidelity (Matt. 5; 19) and the desertion of a spouse (1 Cor. 7:15) provide grounds for a divorce. This view also implies the right to remarriage.
- Divorce is permitted under certain circumstances, but remarriage after divorce is never permitted.
- Divorce is not permissible under any circumstances or for any reason, nor is remarriage after divorce.
And the Raw Data Say …
It is my conviction that the weight of Biblical evidence supports the position that divorce is not permissible, nor is remarriage after divorce. I land here for four reasons.
Matthew’s use of porneia with a Jewish audience
In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus details the one reason why a divorce could be acceptable. It is referred to as “the exception clause.” What Jesus meant when He said “except for” and used the term porneia, translated “sexual immorality,” is one reason Solomon said, “Of making many books there is no end” (Eccles. 12:12)! All humor aside, there are four basic views on the interpretation of porneia in these texts. First, porneia refers to a single act of adultery. Second, porneia applies to a lifestyle of continued promiscuity. Third, porneia refers to unfaithfulness during the period of betrothal or engagement (Matt. 1:19). Fourth, porneia points to a marriage of too-close relatives resulting in an incestuous relationship prohibited in Leviticus 18:6–18.
Matthew’s Gospel is Jewish in nature. It is a Gospel to the Jews. Due to that fact, Matthew’s use of porneia is addressing a unique Jewish situation. Fascinatingly, in the identical passages of Mark 10:2–12 and Luke 16:18, neither one includes the “exception clause.” Why? Because their audiences were Gentile, and this restricted use of porneia used by Matthew would have made no sense to Mark and Luke’s intended recipients as Gentiles.
Because of the Jewish nature of Matthew, I see merit to understand that porneia is a reference to laws governing incestuous relationships in Leviticus 18:6–18. Here God prohibited Israelites from marrying close relatives. As a serious sexual transgression, these invalid marriages were to be terminated (cf. Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 5:1). I believe this view gives clear understanding to the disciples’ response to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:10. They concluded, “If such is the case of the man with his wife [that they are related], it is better not to marry.”
I also believe that Deuteronomy 24:1–4 has a similar connotation in that it prohibited a divorced woman from returning to her first husband after a second marriage to another man. Why? Because there was still a one-flesh bond in existence that even a legal divorce does not eliminate.
Another possible view of porneia in Matthew is that it is a reference to what could happen during the Jewish betrothal period. This view teaches that legal marriage began with the establishment of a marriage covenant that lasted approximately one year. During this time if the wife was unfaithful to the betrothed husband, he could divorce her and would be permitted to remarry, since the initial covenant was not consummated. I believe this is what Joseph was considering in Matthew 1:18–19.
The Bible’s teaching on the permanence of marriage
Genesis 2:24 teaches that in marriage, two people become “one flesh.” It is an indissoluble blood relationship in which two people are “joined.” It is a firm permanent attachment (“to bind like glue”). A divorce might terminate a legal contract, but it does not abolish the permanent one-flesh blood relationship that results upon marriage. Several New Testament passages teach that divorce does not terminate this bond, nor does it give someone the right to remarry while both spouses are alive:
Mark 10:11–12 and Luke 16:18. Here both Mark and Luke record no exception to Jesus’ instruction on marriage’s permanence. If one spouse divorces the other, there is no permission for remarriage. To remarry is to commit adultery. Why? Because the one-flesh (i.e., “kinship”) relationship still exists.
Romans 7:2–3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39. According to these passages, the death of a spouse is the only thing that terminates a marriage and permits the surviving spouse to marry another person. The living spouse is not guilty of adultery if he or she remarries, because the original one-flesh bond of marriage is broken upon death. Some teach that adultery in marriage breaks the marital bond, thus giving permission for both divorce and remarriage. These passages clearly teach that only death, not adultery, gives liberty for remarriage.
1 Corinthians 7:10–11. Here Paul echoes what Jesus taught, that is, a husband or wife should not divorce his or her spouse. If a divorce occurs, there are only two options: “remain unmarried” or “be reconciled.” If Paul had understood Jesus in the Erasmian sense, which gives an exception for divorce and then permission for remarriage, this text would have been different.
The teaching on divorce in the Old and New Testaments
The Bible acknowledges that Israel was already practicing divorce (Lev. 21:7, 14; Num. 30:9; Deut. 22:19). That being said, nowhere in Scripture is divorce officially instituted. Ezra 9—10 is a unique occurrence, when the covenant line through which the Messiah was to come was threatened because of intermarriage with pagan wives. It was descriptive in that specific setting, not prescriptive as a way to solve marital difficulty. In Malachi 2:14–16, God declares His hatred of divorce, because marriage is a covenant of companionship not to be broken. As referenced earlier, both Mark 10:2–12 and Luke 16:18 affirm this through an absence of any exception.
First Corinthians 7:15 is sometimes used as support for divorce. I believe, however, that Paul is making an allowance for separation, not divorce. Should an unbelieving spouse persist in a desire to depart, the believing partner is not obligated to prevent it. The verse is not teaching a doctrine of divorce, much less freedom for remarriage, as some teach. I believe the entire goal of 1 Corinthians 7:15–16 is to instruct the believing spouse to do as much as possible to maintain a platform for future reconciliation.
The teaching of Ephesians 5:22–32
The dominant illustration used in Scripture to model Christ’s lasting relationship to His church is marriage. To where does Paul go to teach this? To the original intent taught at the outset of God’s creative design for marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). People cannot literally see the relationship of Christ to His church, but they can see the relationship of a husband to his wife. Paul believed that the marriage relationship is so unified and permanent that it can illustrate Christ and His committed bond to the church. Tragically, divorce destroys this God-given analogy.
“Michelin” Theology for Marriage Applied: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
This is my personal pastoral gut check. If I may be candid … I do not particularly enjoy my position. It is not an easy view to hold today. In our culture, people want what they want and expect you as a pastor to accommodate what they want. Almost all people believe they have a good reason to pursue a divorce and an even better one to remarry. For them, “For better, for worse” means “I have the worse, and I am going to get the better.”
A former professor of mine, Dr. Gary Meadors, said it most helpfully: “The eternal cultural problem is whether we will accept God’s view of life or whether we will endeavor to impose our own.” What does this look like in the work of a pastor? On the one hand, I believe the Bible teaches the ideal on this topic, that marriage is permanent. No divorce. No remarriage after divorce. On the other hand, in the arena of my life, that ideal has been relentlessly tested, with the most crushing occurrence being when the spouse of one of my adult children left my child after six months of marriage. I share this personal testimony of crushing pain simply to illustrate that I’m not preaching my view from a sanitized bubble.
With all this being said, what do I as a pastor do when I am handed the broken pieces of a marriage? I’ve landed on this construct: the most redemptive thing possible.
What this looks like varies as I juggle two tensions: the fact of consequences and the fact that God’s continuing ministry with people never ends. It is not possible in this brief article to flesh out the many situations I’ve had to address or the multiple nuances of marriage, divorce, and remarriage difficulties that land on a pastor’s desk. My approach is anything but a cookie-cutter method. Some might even think that how I apply this approach fudges the facts. That’s okay with me, because I already know that someday when I stand before the Lord I’m going to have a very big learning curve on more than just this subject.
First, as I stated at the outset, my discovery in the study of this subject is that good and godly people hold different views than mine. Because of that reality, especially when it comes to the area of a desire to remarry, I place the weight of that decision on the person desiring a new marriage. My church does not discipline individuals who might choose to remarry but allows the decision to be a matter of Christian liberty and conscience. This is much different from a person who blatantly sins, refuses reconciliation, and chooses to divorce his or her spouse. Upon that kind of context, we follow the guidelines of Matthew 18.
Numerous times people with painful and difficult divorces in their past have approached me requesting I marry them to a new spouse. Though I love them, my short answer (for the purpose of this article) is that because of where I land on my understanding of this subject, I am not comfortable with performing a marriage ceremony. I encourage the couple to study the matter for themselves so they can make what they believe is a Biblically informed decision. Should they still desire to proceed with marriage, I also remind them that marriage is not foremost a Christian institution, but a societal institution. Two believers are no more married than two unbelievers. Marriage is given to all of humanity as a creative mandate. Therefore, while it might not be their Plan A with me as an officiant, they could ask a justice of the peace to perform their marriage ceremony.
Several years ago a young unsaved couple began attending my church. After a few weeks they both made professions of faith! Did I forget to mention that both had been divorced, they were living together, and she was pregnant with his child? How did I handle their situation? The most redemptive way possible. As best I could, I taught them why I was not comfortable with performing their wedding: in addition to their previous divorces, their sin had resulted in the conception of a life with an eternal soul. How do you handle this additional rupture of God’s ideal? The most redemptive way possible. What that child needed was to be raised in a Christian home with Christian parents. They were married by a justice of the peace, established a Christ-honoring home, and to this day have raised children who are devoted Christ followers. As a family, they are choice servants in our church.
When it comes to marriage, I attempt to practice preventive maintenance as much as possible. I teach people to marry well the first time. Yet in this very broken world when dreams crash, forgiveness is real, God’s mercy restores, and His grace heals. Pointing people to that sure hope is the job I do enjoy.
Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.
Don Shirk (DMin, Baptist Bible Seminary) has been pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Batavia, N.Y., since 1987. He is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and a Batavia police chaplain endorsed by Regular Baptist Chaplaincy. He notes, “I am indebted to multiple contributors from whom I have learned on this subject. Three sources in particular that have shaped my understanding are ‘The Argument of Matthew,’ MDiv class notes from Dr. Robert J. Williams, Baptist Bible School of Theology, 1981; ‘Contemporary Christian Issues from the Corinthian Church,’ DMin class notes from Dr. Gary T. Meadors, Baptist Bible Seminary, 1994; and ‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage Issues,’ a succinct presentation paper given to the Northeast Fellowship by Dr. Renald Showers in 2001.”