By David Huffstutler. Read Part 1.
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found myself asked to present my view on divorce and remarriage.” This paraphrase of Jude 3 reflects how I feel as a Christian and pastor who has dealt with the difficult topics of divorce and remarriage after divorce. Perhaps you feel the same as I do. Divorce involves a broken marriage, broken hearts, suffering, and sin. And even if one allows for remarriage, painful memories linger. Can we talk about salvation instead?
But as difficult as this topic may be, we need to know what the Bible teaches about it, and we should understand our fellow Christians even when we disagree. I look forward to reading Pastor Shirk’s article to help me better understand his view, and I will do my best to present my own. Knowing that many readers may not hold my position, my goal is not to persuade but merely to present my view.
In my understanding of divorce and remarriage, the Bible allows for divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances. I will explain my view according to three related statements: (1) the Bible describes marriage as a covenant; (2) if the marriage covenant is broken, the Bible allows for divorce; (3) if the Bible allows for divorce, the Bible also allows for remarriage.
Marriage as a Covenant
The Bible generally teaches about marriage and specifically calls it a covenant. The Bible’s ideal for marriage is the union of a man and woman for life. Genesis 2:24 states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Jesus quoted this verse to uphold this ideal in Matthew 19:5, as did Paul in Ephesians 5:31. Deviations from this ideal include polygamy, incest, and more (cf. Lev. 18:9–18).
Assuming this general teaching about marriage, some passages also specifically call marriage a covenant, and the contexts of these passages teach us what the marriage covenant involves. First, Proverbs 2:16–17 speaks of the adulteress who through her adultery “forsakes the companion of her youth” and thus “forgets the covenant of her God.” The context and parallelism of these two phrases indicate that this companion was her husband by means of a covenant involving God.
Second, Ezekiel 16 pictures an idolatrous Jerusalem as breaking her marriage covenant with God. Though God “entered into a covenant with” Jerusalem and provided her with food, clothing, and love (Ezek. 16:8, 13), Jerusalem played the whore and used these provisions to practice idolatry with pagans (Ezek. 16:15–19). According to Exodus 21:10–11, a man’s second wife could leave the marriage if she was deprived of food, clothing, or marital relations. As David Instone-Brewer points out in “Three Weddings and a Divorce,” this passage was applied to wives in general, and it provides the theological background for Ezekiel 16. Jerusalem violated her marriage covenant with God and misused what God had provided to her. Putting these passages together, if the man failed to provide his wife with food, clothing, or marital relations (Exod. 21:10–11), or if the wife egregiously sinned by offering these to others (Ezek. 16:8, 13), the marriage covenant had been broken, allowing for divorce (cf. Exod. 21:10–11). We also learn from Ezekiel 16:8 that this covenant involved a “vow” (the same concept as “the oath” in Ezekiel 16:59). This vow or oath was a commitment by both the husband and wife to honor the marriage covenant and all of its expectations.
Third, Malachi 2:14 rebukes each man of Judah who had “been faithless” to his “wife by covenant.” The men of Judah broke their marriage covenants by divorcing their wives to marry younger pagan women (Mal. 2:11, 16). God equated this act with murder (Mal. 2:16, “the man . . . covers his garment with violence”), saw these men as unbelievers, and therefore refused their worship (Mal. 2:11–13). The reason behind God’s refusal was that He “was witness” to their marriage (Mal. 2:14). God did not merely spectate their marriage but held them accountable for being faithful to each other.
The New Testament does not call marriage a covenant, but neither does it deny what the Old Testament teaches. The New Testament writers likely assumed the Old Testament’s teaching that marriage is a covenant. The New Testament reveals that the husband and wife picture Christ and the church in their love and respect for one another (Eph. 5:22–33; cf. Col. 3:18–19; 1 Pet. 3:1–7).
Summarizing these points, marriage could be defined as a covenant in which an unrelated man and woman vow before God and others to be faithful to each other as husband and wife. At the very least, the husband loves his wife and provides for her needs. Likewise, the wife respects her husband and helps him by managing the home.
The Broken Marriage Covenant
If the marriage covenant is broken, the Bible allows for divorce. Though the Bible stresses its ideal for marriage, sin mars many marriages, and some of them end in divorce. From the passages examined earlier, a man might leave his wife for a younger, more attractive woman, or a wife might forsake her husband for someone else. Both the Old and New Testaments acknowledge these kinds of situations, and the Bible allows for divorce when the marriage covenant is broken. The following surveys these situations.
First, while many disagree over how much the Bible allows for divorce, many agree that Paul allows for divorce in the event of desertion, that is, when an unbeliever deserts the marriage and divorces the believing spouse. Paul states, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:15).
If Paul is applying his understanding of the marriage covenant to this situation, we could say that the unbeliever has abandoned his or her covenant responsibilities by deserting the marriage. In this instance, the believer has innocently suffered a divorce.
Second, Jesus allows for divorce in the event of sexual sin. Matthew 19:9 records Jesus’ words forbidding divorce and provides for an exception: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (See also Matthew 5:32.) In leading up to this statement, the Pharisees had challenged Jesus about the extent of divorce. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). Jesus replied, quoting Genesis 2:24, that the ideal for marriage should be upheld, so, no, one may not divorce for “any cause” (Matt. 19:4–6). Pressing further, the Pharisees recalled Deuteronomy 24:1–4 and asked, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Jesus replied that Moses did not “command” divorce but “allowed” it (Matt. 19:7–8). Jesus Himself taught (“And I say to you”) not to divorce for any reason “except for sexual immorality” (Matt. 19:9).
Interestingly, Mark 10:2–12 parallels Matthew 19:3–12 but does not contain this exception clause. Neither does Luke 16:18, a verse similar to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Either Mark and Luke stressed the ideal for marriage by leaving out this clause, did not intend to be as absolute as a surface-level reading suggests, or knew their readers were familiar with this exception. However one explains the absence of the clause in Mark or Luke, Matthew includes it, and one must reconcile all of these passages together.
If Jesus applied His understanding of the marriage covenant in Matthew 19, it is not surprising to see Jesus allow for divorce in the event of sexual immorality. This sin was the “indecency” that Moses had in mind in Deuteronomy 24:1–4, and it was apparently significant enough to break the marriage covenant, allowing for divorce. The difference between Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15, however, is that Matthew 19:9 grants the innocent party the option to initiate the divorce.
Other passages imply divorce in the event of sexual sin as well. God speaks of the sins of Israel as “adulteries” in Jeremiah 3:8 and declared, “I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.” Though once His people, now they were not (cf. Hos. 1:9). If God could picture Himself divorcing Israel for adultery, then this picture could also be true: one could divorce his or her spouse for adultery. God would not picture Himself as sinning in any way.
Breaking the marriage covenant
If desertion and sexual immorality show how to break a marriage covenant in such a way that leads to divorce, there may be other sins as well that break the covenant and allow for divorce. For example, a husband who continually assaults his wife is obviously not providing for her physical welfare. A husband who chronically neglects to work and provide shelter for his wife and children abandons his family’s physical welfare as well. In these cases, if the sin is significant enough, though the unbeliever has not initiated a divorce, the marriage covenant has been broken, and a believer may initiate the divorce and end the marriage.
Divorce: The Last Resort
So, if that’s what Scripture says, may I divorce my spouse? With the theology offered here, that’s the kind of question I’ve received as a pastor. My answer to that question has multiple parts.
First, even in the event of serious sin, the couple should try to make the marriage work (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10–11). Physically separate for a time if necessary, seek counseling, and let love cover even the worst of sins. The sinning party should repent, and reconciliation can take place.
Second, if a husband or wife believes that the marriage covenant has been irreparably broken, the couple should divorce (or not) because of what that person believes the Bible says about divorce. As a pastor, I have counseled marriages and seen them improve. Sadly, others have not. In a worst case scenario, I might conceivably recommend a divorce as my own convictions and conscience allow, but if a spouse differs from my convictions on the matter, I cannot advise that person to go against a Biblically informed conscience.
So far in my ministry, even in instances of obvious violations of the marriage covenant, I have never encouraged anyone to divorce. For example (and told by permission), I have spent many hours over the years talking with a friend about his wife’s repeated infidelity, unbelief, and failure to repent. I always encouraged him to pray for her and try to make the marriage work. I told him that I would not personally see it as wrong if he divorced, but if he did, he should divorce because he felt that was best from his own personal conviction. Over the course of time while I was writing this article, his wife initiated a divorce, and my friend has become the victim of desertion according to 1 Corinthians 7:15. Generally speaking, an unrepentant spouse who breaks the marriage covenant will eventually leave the marriage. If the unrepentant spouse remains in the marriage while persistently and egregiously breaking its covenant requirements, sorrowfully, it may be best for the believer to end the marriage by divorce, but only as a last resort.
Remarriage after Divorce
If the Bible allows for divorce, the Bible also allows for remarriage. This conclusion stems mostly from the passages examined earlier.
Remarriage after divorce due to sexual sin
Matthew 19:9 not only allows for divorce in the event of sexual sin, but it also allows the innocent party to remarry after adultery. Matthew 19:9 states, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” The husband in question (“whoever”) engages in two actions in this verse: he “divorces his wife” and “marries another.” If sexual immorality has not been the cause of his divorce and remarriage, he “commits adultery.” However, if his divorce is provoked by the wife’s sexual immorality, he may remarry and not be committing adultery.
Remarriage after divorce due to desertion
First Corinthians 7:15 teaches that a believing spouse may allow the unbelieving spouse to end the marriage in divorce. Paul states the result of such a divorce in that same verse: “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” In 1 Corinthians 7:39, another verse about when a marriage has ended, Paul uses “bound” (deō), a synonym for “enslaved” (douloō) in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul states, “A wife is bound [deō] to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” So if death leaves a wife no longer “bound” (deō) in marriage and “free” to marry another (but only a Christian, the meaning of “in the Lord”), one could conclude that a victim of desertion is no longer “enslaved” (douloō) to the spouse and is likewise free to remarry “in the Lord.” (For more details on this viewpoint, see Heth, “Remarriage for Adultery or Desertion,” 74–76.)
Remarriage after divorce due to breaking the marriage covenant
As explained earlier, Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 likely applied the marriage covenant to the situations at hand, allowing for divorce. This being the case, there may be other situations in which the marriage covenant is irreparably broken, resulting in a divorce allowed by Scripture. And if so, the innocent spouse may remarry as well. I’ve already mentioned situations of chronic abuse or neglect. Whatever the sin may be that leads to a divorce, that sin should clearly have broken the marriage covenant as described in the Bible. If so, the innocent spouse may remarry, just as in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15.
Remarriage after divorce: Is it wise?
Even if a believer has suffered a divorce allowed by Scripture, must that believer remarry? Remarriage is not commanded in the Bible, and sometimes it may be unwise. Has the legal process taken its course? Has the individual Biblically processed the damage and hurt from the broken marriage? If children are involved, does the innocent spouse want to add a new parental figure to the children’s lives? Is alimony involved? Is there a joint-custody agreement? How will the parent handle the holidays with three sets of grandparents who want to see the kids?
Anyone pondering remarriage should consider these questions and others. However, this is not to say that God cannot overcome the consequences of a broken marriage and grant a new one in the future. One should be careful, however, not to let a second marriage be what heals the first but to be a blessing in and of itself.
I will admit that in many ways, I did not want to write this article. The last thing I would ever want is someone in a hurting marriage to read these words and find an excuse to divorce a spouse. I have tried to go out of my way to clarify that divorce is a last resort and that an innocent spouse’s remarriage should be “in the Lord” and according to wisdom. At the same time, we should understand what the Bible teaches about these matters and seek to understand each other’s views, even when we disagree. As I stated earlier, my goal has been to inform, not to persuade. I hope this article helps us understand each other better. For whatever differences remain, I am thankful that we are united in Christ and that our bond to one another in Him is one that can never be broken.
Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved. All Bible quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
David Huffstutler is lead pastor of First Baptist Church, Rockford, Ill.