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Chapter 7: Divorce and Remarriage


Key Scripture: "Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’...Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery’" (Matt. 19:3, 8-9).

Divorce American-Style

Divorce in America has escalated at an alarming rate. As mentioned in the first chapter, 43 percent of first marriages will end in divorce. The chance of divorce climbs with each subsequent remarriage. What is truly alarming is that the divorce rate among believers is approaching that of unbelievers! If Christians are to be in this world but not of it, clearly they need to know God’s Word regarding divorce and remarriage.

What is Divorce?

There are various kinds of marital dissolution. An annulment declares that the marriage is invalid and that for legal purposes it never took place. Desertion regards the marriage as not legally sanctioned and therefore against the will of one spouse. A lawful separation occurs when both sides agree to part, and all of the conditions are spelled out. Separation ends the marriage relationship, but not its legality. Divorce is the termination of the marriage with both parties agreeing to the distribution of the marital assets. Legally defined, divorce is the final dissolution of the marriage contract.

Reasons for Divorce

A couple may seek a divorce for many reasons—infidelity, "falling out of love," emotional problems, financial problems, physical abuse, alcohol problems, sexual problems, and problems with in-laws. Often people mistakenly believe a divorce will ease the complications in their lives. But the opposite usually occurs. Christians may divorce for two further reasons. First, the church has often abandoned the standards of God and of Scripture (the current form of "hardness of heart"), and thus given its members a wrong view of marriage. Second, many Christian couples have received inadequate preparation for marriage. They do not know what their obligations are or how to fulfill them. Though divorce results from forsaking God’s marital plan, there is never any justification for treating the divorced in ways that are unloving and unforgiving.

Effects of Divorce

The effects of divorce are complex and long-lasting, and often depend on a particular couple’s circumstances. There are six overlapping divorce experiences - —emotional, legal, economic, co-parental, community, and psychic. Socially, divorce is a process, which affects each member of the family differently. The effects on children can be quite traumatic, and it is often incorrectly assumed that children "will get over it." The possible effects cover emotional, physical, spiritual, economic, environmental, and psychological areas. For a Christian, the effects of divorce also vary. If the believer has a biblical right and God’'s permission to divorce, the effects of divorce may be far different from those suffered by someone who divorces regardless of Scripture or of divine guidance.

Divorce in Scripture

When discussing divorce and the Christian, there are two basic issues involved. First, is divorce always a sin, or are there legitimate grounds? Second, is remarriage permitted, and under what circumstances? The answers to these questions have been the source of much controversy and debate, even among conservative scholars. The Bible is the clearest on the issue of divorce; on remarriage it says little. This chapter seeks to summarize the scriptural teaching on these issues. Each Christian must come to his or her own understanding of this complex issue after prayerfully studying the Scriptures, consulting church guidelines, and counseling with a pastor.

There is a difference between Christian marriage and secular marriage; consequently, there is a difference between Christian divorce and societal divorce. In secular marriage the partners can legally petition to be freed from the contract when they feel the marriage is no longer in their best interests. The Christian marriage, however, is not a contract; it is a covenant in which the husband and wife place themselves under the lordship of Christ. Therefore, it is Christ himself who is the final authority over the marriage. Only God can give permission to divorce. Before believers can divorce, they must first determine if they have a biblical right. However, the biblical right to divorce does not constitute divine permission to do so. They then need to ask for divine permission. Unless they have both, believers should not divorce.

Divorce in the Old Testament

The Law of Moses addresses several specific marriage and divorce situations. Adultery was not a reason for divorce because the guilty party was put to death. This mandatory death penalty released the innocent party to remarry (Deut. 22:20-25). In some situations divorce was never permitted (vv. 13-19; 28-29).

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 prohibits a husband from remarrying a former wife to whom he has given a certificate of divorcement on the grounds she is "displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her." This indecency was not adultery or another moral failing punishable by death. Its exact nature is unknown. Childlessness, however, was a common cause for divorce in the ancient world. Note the IBC’s comment on this passage: "It is important to recognize that this law deals with one very special case only and in its complexity...assumes rather than promulgates a law of divorce. Such a law is nowhere stated in the Old Testament and must be inferred" (p. 274). Thus Moses did not command divorce, but simply was regulating an existing practice.

The practice of divorce contradicts the permanent status God had intended for marriage. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus explains that this accommodation was made because of the hardness of heart that has always been part of marital covenant relationships.

Divorce in the New Testament

Jesus Christ through his incarnation fulfilled the Law and reconciled humanity to God. He was always more concerned with the spirit of the Law than with its letter. The New Testament, expressing this concern, deals explicitly with two situations under which divorce is permitted, though not condoned. The first occurs when one marriage partner is guilty of marital unfaithfulness; the second when a believer is deserted by an unbeliever because of faith in Christ. The innocent party is permitted to divorce in both situations.

In two passages in Matthew, Jesus deals specifically with divorce: "But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (5:32); and "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery" (19:9). The Greek word translated "marital unfaithfulness" is porneia. In the New Testament porneia is used to describe all forms of illicit or unnatural sex (e.g., fornication, homosexuality, bestiality, and incest as well as adultery).

When the Pharisees tried to catch Jesus in a legal argument on divorce, he did not refer them to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy but to God’s original intent for marriage at Creation (Gen. 2:24). He then explicitly sanctioned divorce on the grounds of porneia. Although he did not condone divorce, Jesus followed the biblical pattern of justice in which the innocent was not condemned with the guilty. Innocence here does not mean sinless or flawless, but refers to the condition of the partner who has maintained the marriage covenant by not committing porneia.

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul explains the second condition under which a believer may divorce. A situation arose in pagan Corinth after Paul preached the gospel there. In some households only one partner became a believer. The Corinthian believers in such an unequally yoked marriage were questioning Paul regarding their marital duty. He responded: "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...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" (vv. 12-13, 15). The Christians were to remain in their marriages unless their unbelieving spouses wished to divorce. They were then to allow a peaceful separation and were no longer bound to the marriage.

To summarize, divorce is scripturally permitted under two circumstances: when marital unfaithfulness occurs and when an unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage. Other circumstances may also be permitted, for the Bible assumes that certain situations do not exist. An example is spousal abuse, which was unknown in ancient Israel. When a spouse so harasses or brutalizes the other mate that it is impossible to live together any longer, "constructive desertion" has in effect, taken place. Such abuse is the equivalent of desertion.

Although the believer has biblical grounds for a divorce, he or she must then receive permission from God to divorce. Many marriages have survived, in spite of adultery, desertion, and abuse. As Paul asks, "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" (1 Cor. 7:16). Your love and forgiveness might bring your sinning spouse into a restored relationship with both you and Jesus Christ. Before filing for a divorce, a believer should prayerfully make this decision with the counsel of a pastor or a Christian marriage counselor.

Life Application: Consider Jesus'’ attitude toward the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3-11. Do you have neighbors or even members of your church whom you have judged because they are divorced? Make a special effort to extend the love of God to them, drawing them to Christ. Christ not only loves the innocent person who goes through a divorce, but he also forgives and seeks reconciliation with the guilty spouse.

Reconciliation, Recovery, and Remarriage

Key Scripture: "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" (1 Cor. 7:10-11).


Reconciliation is the process by which a damaged or broken marriage covenant is restored. Because the relationship is three-sided, restoration must initially be made between each spouse and God, and then between the estranged partners. When Paul wrote "not I, but the Lord," he was emphasizing that the source of this command was Jesus himself. He then states that the wife is to remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. During this "cooling off" period, God has the opportunity to reconcile the couple. This is why receiving divine permission to divorce is so important. A hasty divorce will shortchange God’s potential healing of the marriage, and both partners will suffer the many consequences of divorce.

Reconciliation can and should take place before a divorce. Unfortunately, Christian couples will often visit a lawyer before their pastor or a marriage counselor. An estranged partner does not need a different mate in another marriage; he or she needs to be another mate to have a better marriage. Reconciliation must be given a chance within the marriage. For God established marriage, and he wants it to succeed. Each partner must also be reconciled to God at any cost.


God desires that marriages be restored. To achieve this, a couple must allow him to heal any past wounds. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16) because he knows how much it hurts to break the "one flesh" bond. He likewise has been rejected from the covenant relationship he established with humanity. Through his Son, he has made a way by his Spirit to bring redemption to marriage. When Christians are divorced, whether or not by biblical right and divine permission, they must come to the Lord in repentance, submission, and obedience in order to rebuild their lives.

There are four predictable stages for recovering from divorce:

•Shock. The partner who did not initiate the divorce is often stunned.

•Storm. Emotional reactions such as anger, fear, and guilt are common.

•Search. A search for new meaning from past mistakes occurs.

•Sequel. Having found new meaning, anticipation of the next period of life begins.

This process, which can take from six months to two years, is always made easier by dealing with rejection rather than running from it. Acknowledge this wound, and believe that its healing is available in Christ’s sacrifice. Lay down all bitterness and resentment against the former spouse. Remember that forgiving the other party comes by a decision to forgive, regardless of feelings. Emotion is not necessary; obedience is, so ask for the help of the Holy Spirit. Finally, begin again. Having learned from the past, turn away from it and commit your future to the Lord (Phil. 3:13-14).


Divorce apparently does not sour most people on marriage, for many remarry soon after divorce. Sometimes, patterns of serial marriage and divorce are established. But, again, neither marriage nor divorce solves problems. Most people who marry again have different expectations and believe their second marriage will be better or more stable. Statistically, however, second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages.

The biblical passages on divorce are largely silent on the matter of remarriage. Deuteronomy 24 forbids a woman to remarry a former husband after an intervening marriage to another man. If divorce was permitted in the Old Testament for hardness of heart, by extension, remarriage was also.

Jesus’ teaching on remarriage in the Sermon on the Mount is certainly one of his "hard" sayings: "But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:32). The husband (the guilty party) who divorces his wife (the innocent party) causes her to become an adulteress if she remarries. The man who marries the divorced woman also commits adultery. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus addresses the husband who is the guilty party. If the man divorces apart from sexual immorality and remarries, he commits adultery. In Mark’'s version, a woman who initiates a divorce is also addressed. "And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery" (10:12).

Paul’'s words in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11— - the Key Scripture - —are perhaps the clearest teaching on the issue of divorce and remarriage among believers. In the Corinthian church, Christians had apparently divorced their believing spouses. The reason was not to remarry someone else, but to forgo sexual relations altogether. Apparently a group within the church was teaching that it was more "spiritual" to be ascetic. Paul commands couples to divorce no longer. Those who are divorced must remain unmarried or be reconciled to their former spouse. Remarriage to another partner was not an option. In verse 15 of the same chapter Paul addresses the innocent party divorced by an unbelieving spouse. The phrase "is not bound" has been much debated. The comment in the IBC, "[it] seems to imply freedom to remarry" (p. 1362), is the consensus of most scholars on Paul’s meaning here.

To illustrate the binding character of the law, Paul in Romans introduces an analogy from marriage: "For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man" (7:2-3). Paul here affirms that remarriage while a spouse is still living is adultery. If a partner dies, however, the widow (or widower) is free to remarry— - a right Paul also acknowledges in 1 Corinthians 7:9.

Two scriptural principles that influence remarriage are mercy and justice. Mercy considers the frailties of the human condition, which God himself has compensated for. Justice never treats the innocent as guilty or the guilty as innocent. In the case of divorce, guilt or innocence is based on the commission of porneia, not on the number or kind of mistakes each partner makes.

A practical principle based on physical need must also be considered. Paul writes, "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor. 7:9). Although these words are directed to widows and perhaps widowers, they have ethical relevance for today. If a believer with the right to remarry cannot resist sexual temptation, it is better to marry again than to commit fornication.

Even as the New Testament gives limited grounds for divorce—sexual immorality and desertion—it also gives limited grounds for remarriage - —sexual immorality, desertion, and death. It is once again important to remember that God'’s intent for marriage is not based on a contract (law), but on a covenant. The conditions for remarriage, in addition to those given above, are that the civil law be complied with and that the believer must marry another Christian (1 Cor. 7:39). If the believer seeking remarriage meets these requirements, he or she is then free to seek divine permission to remarry.

In the church today many Christians wish to remarry who do not meet the biblical criteria. If they have been the guilty party, these Christians must first be reconciled with God. Then if possible, they should seek reconciliation with their former spouse. Otherwise, according to biblical teaching on remarriage, they should remain unmarried. In conclusion, guidance from a godly pastor or Christian marriage counselor is critical in making a decision on this complex personal issue.

Life Application: Everyone has suffered rejection at one time or another. Prayerfully review the steps for recovering from the wound of rejection as stated above. Discuss with your spouse any remaining patterns of behavior that may be causing that area to remain sensitive; put into practice ways to prevent future wounds from occurring.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Test your knowledge by taking this short quiz which covers what you just read. Select the correct response based on the lessons and concepts.

1. The two reasons Christians seek a divorce are a wrong view of marriage and inadequate __________ for marriage.



2. Believers must have both a biblical right and divine __________ to divorce.



3. Jesus explicitly sanctioned divorce on the grounds of sexual __________.



4. Divorce is the __________ termination of a marriage.



5. The __________ divorce is the initial experience in the divorce process.



6. Couples often fight over issues that are actually __________ for the real concern.



7. When a couples communication becomes strained, their __________ relationship is the first to suffer.



8. In some ways the loss of a spouse through divorce may be worse than the loss of a spouse through __________.



9. The two types of legal divorce are __________ and __________.

Fault, No Guilt

Incompatibility, Abuse

10. It is common for children of divorced parents to experience __________.



11. __________ is the process by which a broken covenant relationship is restored.



12. Christian couples should counsel with their minister or marriage counselor before seeing a __________.



13. The two principles governing the scriptural view of remarriage are __________ and __________.

Mercy, Justice

True, Aggreable

14. Second and subsequent marriages are __________ likely to end in divorce than first marriages.



15. In the gospels Jesus states that remarriage results in __________.



16. Jesus gives one exception for divorce in Matthew __________.



17. The school of __________ argued that "something indecent" meant sexual immorality.



18. The school of __________ argued that indecency meant anything that displeased the husband.



19. The exception clause is only found in Matthew because he was writing for __________ believers.



20. The __________ of scholars feel that Paul permits remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.



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