Divorce & Remarriage

By David Crank


ONE of the great evils of our time is the epidemic of divorce, which we are told affects more than half of all marriages in our country. At first, marriages made up of “born again” believers appeared to be mostly immune. However now, to the shame of the church, we are told that the divorce rate among Christians is as high as that among unbelievers! Whether these studies and statistics are altogether correct, I do not know. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that the Christian church has now brought shame upon the name of the Lord and given unbelievers excuse to blaspheme, by the widespread failures of supposedly Christian marriages.

Yet when we look more closely at individual cases, we see not only sin, but also much tragedy. There are those who appear to have done everything they could to keep their marriage together, yet their spouse was determined to divorce and abandoned them. We hear of   cases of extreme abuse, unending adulteries and eventual abandonment, and cruelties almost beyond belief. Some were married and divorced before ever coming to Christ. Some were divorced by an unbelieving mate precisely because they did come to Christ. Others  divorced were immature believers, who had never been taught what the Bible had to say about divorce. Perhaps they were even counseled to divorce by their church leaders or supposed Christian counselors.

Divorce is a great tragedy for those divorced and even more so for their children. So how should the church respond? In many churches little is said about divorce from the pulpit, perhaps due to fear of offending so many who have been divorced. To not address this issue clearly from the Scriptures just encourages more divorces  - tragedies for the individuals and the church alike. Some churches teach about divorce, but without showing  compassion and with rejecting those who have divorced - even though these may be repentant and unable to undo what has been done. Other churches err by accepting the sin along with the sinner. Compassion and acceptance may be freely offered, but without telling the truth from God’s perspective – justifying the sin.

 God’s Design

To address the question of divorce, we must begin with God’s design. In the beginning God designed marriage as a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman, what He termed a “one flesh” relationship (Gen 2:24). Jesus explained how God had made marriage in the beginning and instructed  that “what therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 9:6). God’s design prescribed complete loyalty and faithfulness of the husband and wife to each other. God also defined the roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives in marriage (i.e. see Eph 5:22-33, Col 3:18-19, 1 Pet 3:1-2,5-7, etc.).

 Sin Enters the World

With Adam and Eve’s sin, sin in all forms entered the world and the human race became an inherently sinful race. Breaches of God’s required marital fidelity became common. Sins such as fornication, adultery, and harlotry became commonplace. Husbands abandoned wives and children. Wives abandoned husbands and children. Men practiced polygamy and acquired concubines. Some became addicted to substances such as alcohol, to the extent that they were no longer able to fulfill their marital responsibilities. Both marital and child abuse came into being. Along with all of these things came the legal provision of divorce. Even without such a provision spouses were abandoning one another and taking up with others without regard for their marriage vows.

So within the Law of Moses we find provisions governing the practice of divorce. If a man took a woman captive during war and rather than keeping her a slave, he made her his wife, he could not again treat her as a slave when he later became displeased with her. He could not sell her or mistreat her, but must let her go free wherever she wished (Deu 21:10-14). If a man turned against his wife and was found to have falsely accused her of immorality prior to marriage, he lost all right to ever divorce her for any cause (Deut 22:13-21). Likewise a man who violated an unmarried woman was required to marry her and never permitted to divorce her for any reason (Deu 22:28-29).

The Law also addressed the circumstance of a man sending his wife away with a certificate of divorce because he found some “indecency” in her. If she thereafter remarried another, her first husband was not permitted to take her back again (following a second divorce or even his death). (Deu 24:1-4).

 God’s True View of Divorce and Remarriage

In the book of Malachi, and then through Jesus’ teachings, we come to understand God’s perspective on divorce far better than we could from the few provisions within the Law. In the book of Malachi the people of Judah are confronted by God concerning their divorces. God no longer regards their offerings because the men have dealt treacherously with their wives by divorcing them. They were in a covenant relationship of marriage, yet they broke that covenant, and God described this as treachery! Then God clearly states, “For I hate divorce.” (Mal 2:13-16).

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He is questioned closely about divorce as the allowable reasons for divorce has become a contentious issue among the Jews. Yet Jesus astounds them all by taking a position against all divorce and explaining that Moses only permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. This was not what God intended. To divorce and then remarry results in the sin of adultery. Merely divorcing your wife makes you guilty of causing her to commit adultery. This teaching is stated repeatedly in varying levels of detail in Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:18.

Jesus’ firm declaration that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery, coupled with the assertion that no man has a right to put aside what God has joined together in marriage implies that divorce does not truly end a marriage. In God’s eyes, you remain married until one of you dies. Under the civil law you may be divorced and thus separated for legal purposes, no longer being held to the responsibility of being a husband or wife. However, with God, the one flesh relationship and the life covenant remains. To remarry another following a divorce constitutes adultery. To divorce your spouse is tantamount to causing your spouse to commit adultery – making you guilty of causing your spouse to sin (Matt 5:32).

The apostle Paul affirms the very same in Romans 7:2-3. A married woman remains bound to her husband as long as he lives. After he dies, she can remarry without being an adulteress. If she remarries before his death, she is guilty of adultery. Also in 1 Corinthians 7:11-13 Paul explicitly states that the wife should not leave her husband and the husband should not divorce his wife. And he adds that if the wife does nonetheless leave, she “must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.”

Many churches also believe that the divorced are disqualified for the offices of overseer (elder) and deacon, based on Paul’s requirements communicated in 1 Timothy 3:2,12 and Titus 1:6. However there is disagreement concerning the precise meaning of Paul’s “the husband of one wife” phrase. Some believe this is only a prohibition of polygamy. Others believe it is better translated  “a one woman man” and refers only to present fidelity to one wife. From the Greek terms used and the absence of further clarification by Paul, there is reason to question precisely what Paul was meaning.

In favor of the divorced being disqualified are the points: (1) Jesus’ pronouncements on divorce regard the divorced as still being married in God’s eyes and guilty of adultery upon remarriage. Being judged as an adulterer hardly fits the requirement earlier stated in 1 Tim 3:2 for an overseer to be “above reproach;” (2) Paul’s use of same words/phrase in 1 Tim 5:9 concerning a widow “having been the wife of one man”, in context implying only married once in her lifetime; (3) Paul in Romans 7:2-3 makes no allowance for divorce ending the marriage relationship – marriages last until death; and (4) a parallel seen in the restrictions upon the Levitical priests in Lev 21:1,6-7 and Lev 21:13-15, forbidding marriage to a divorced woman, or a harlot, or even a widow. So though it may not seem entirely fair to us that a man divorced, perhaps even prior to his salvation, should be disqualified from these key leadership positions, yet this may well be God’s intent.

 Is There Ever Reason For Divorce?
 The Exception Clause

What about the so-called exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9? In these two verses, Jesus appears to allow for divorce for one cause – “except for the reason of unchastity.” The meaning of this exception had been the cause of considerable debate for some centuries.

The “exception clause” is regarded by many as allowing for divorce and remarriage when adultery has occurred. However, on close examination, this position is difficult to maintain. It should be noted that this “exception” is not included in the parallel passages in Mark 10:2-12 or Luke 16:18. So did Mark and Luke inaccurately quote Jesus, omitting a key exception without which their statements are not entirely true? Or is what first looks like an exception really not an exception at all? Also the response of the disciples in Matthew 19:10 implies they understood Jesus’ teaching as allowing virtually no exception. (Some scholars say that the Rabbinical school of that time held the view that divorce was permitted only in the instance of adultery. So why would Jesus’ teaching be so surprising to the disciples?)

The word translated as “unchastity” is nowhere else used within the Bible to refer to unfaithfulness within marriage. It’s meaning and use pertains to immorality when unmarried. If accepted as allowing divorce and remarriage following adultery, further difficulties are raised. Does one instance of adultery provide permission in God’s eyes to break up the marriage and take another spouse, even if it the adultery was repented of and it was 20 years earlier, and the spouse not committing adultery was guilty of encouraging the adultery to a great degree, etc.? If both marriage partners had a single early “fling” of infidelity, does that then give them both the right to divorce and remarry at any time in the future that they please?

Many Biblical scholars believe that the “exception” pertains only to immorality during the Jewish betrothal period. Within Jewish tradition, the breaking off of a betrothal required a divorce (see what Joseph intended to do regarding Mary in Matthew 1:19). This would allow for the normal meaning of the Greek word translated as “unchastity,” while maintaining the inviolate nature of the consummated marriage, avoiding the apparent contradiction with parallel passages, and avoid a host of other difficult questions raised. It is also interesting to note that this phrase only occurs in the gospel of Matthew, a gospel written for Jewish believers which contains many more references to specifically Jewish customs than the other gospels directed towards Gentile believers.

 Is Divorce Justified for Repeated Adulteries?

In Jeremiah chapter 3, God speaks of Himself as if He were the husband of both the nation Israel and Judah. In verse 8, God speaks of having divorced Israel and sent her away because of her widespread and continuing harlotries. God says He thought that afterwards Israel would return to Him, but she did not (3:7). Based on this illustration some have argued that repeated and continuing adulteries might be just cause in God’s eyes for a divorce.

However, we must remember that this is just an illustration used by God. God explains their infidelity towards Him and His judgment on their sin, in a way they can easily understand, in the picture of a loving husband divorcing his wife in hopes that she will then repent of her adulteries and return to him – but she doesn’t. To take this illustration as an approval of divorce requires quite a stretch, and also goes directly against the teachings of Jesus and Paul in the Scriptures.

 Ezra Commanded Israelites to Divorce Foreigners

In Ezra Chapter 10, we read of an instance where Ezra the priest actually commanded certain Israelites to divorce. These were men who had married foreign wives, contrary to the Law of Moses. These foreign wives presumably brought idol worship into their families. These men were commanded to divorce their wives and send them away, along with any children they had. The same situation is also discussed in Nehemiah 13.

So why did God encourage divorce in this situation if He truly hates divorce? I’m not sure I entirely understand. Perhaps Ezra was wrong in solving this problem by means of divorce. However, in the absence of any recorded criticism from God, it seems more likely that Ezra was carrying out God’s will. Perhaps in this instance divorce was the only solution to an even worse problem that threatened the spiritual health of the whole nation and to bring them under severe judgment again.

Spiritually Mixed Marriages: Is Remarriage Permitted?

 In 1 Corinthians 7:8-17, Paul discusses several points concerning marriage, including the problem of marriages in which only one becomes a believer. Though making it very clear that the believer is not to break up the marriage, Paul recognizes that there will be instances where the unbeliever will abandon or divorce the believer in spite of efforts by the believer to keep the marriage together. In this case Paul writes, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.”

Some have interpreted this statement as permitting the believing spouse to remarry in such an instance. However, the meaning of “not under bondage” is far from clear, and Paul makes no direct mention of remarriage in this instance. It seems very inconsistent to make this particular instance an exception to God’s view of marriage as lasting until death of one of the parties, and of remarriage prior to death constituting adultery. Just a few verses prior (verses 10 & 11), Paul speaks to the similar situation of a Christian wife who, in spite of Paul’s instruction, leaves her non-Christian husband. In this case Paul says she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. Yet we know she may have been virtually driven out by her non-Christian mate, so does it seem likely that Paul would require this wife to remain unmarried while approving of remarriage in the similar instance where the unbelieving husband decides to leave?

Other commentators relate the phrase “not under bondage” to the statement immediately prior in the same verse – “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave.” Paul is just telling the believing spouse not to fight it, but to allow the unbelieving one to leave as peaceably as possible (“God has called us to peace”).

In my study of the passage, I’m unable to conclude for certain exactly what Paul was meaning about “bondage.” On the basis of everything else written by Paul and Jesus concerning marriage and divorce, I don’t think he was meaning to offer a justification for remarriage – but I may be wrong. I can see why some commentators would interpret it thus – but it seems highly speculative to me.

 The Hard Cases

The Biblical evidence is strong that: 1) God intended marriage to be life long and He hates divorce; and 2) divorce, when it nevertheless occurs, does not end a marriage in God’s eyes – those who remarry are guilty of the sin of adultery. That much is relatively easy, the hard part is knowing how to apply these truths in some of the extreme cases. We live in a very sinful world and this sin enters into marriages. How should we counsel a woman whose life is being threatened by a wife beating husband? Or whose children are being abused? Should she not leave until there is some reliable sign of repentance on the part of her husband? Suppose her only legal means of obtain protection from her husband’s abuse is through a legal divorce. Should she use the legal tool of divorce for this reason alone? The questions get hard, don’t they?

In nearly every situation, both marriage partners are found to have contributed to a marriage failure to some degree. Yet it only takes one to divorce or to abandon the other. However much one person may refuse to divorce and seek every means to reconcile with his or her mate, the divorce may still occur. When God speaks of divorce as treachery in Malachi, those accused had sent their wives away with a certificate of divorce, and in many cases probably took new wives to suit their liking. The wives who are being cast out by their husbands are not being rebuked by God, though they may have been far from perfect wives.

So what should we say? Both partners within a marriage are bound by covenant to each other. They should seek to remain faithful to that covenant however hard the circumstances may be. One may be called on to suffer quite a lot in some situations. There may be many sins of your spouse’s to forgive. Your spouse may be breaking the covenant of marriage or shirking the responsibilities of marriage. Yet, your duty to God and your spouse remains. There are situations where appeals for help should be made to the leaders of the church and possibly to the spouse’s parents, to help bring the wayward spouse to repentance or to help counsel both through numerous difficulties. Sometimes correction from the governing authorities may be called for, when laws are being broken and lives are being endangered. Sometimes the counsel of the church leaders or parents may wisely and justly include a temporary separation. However, reconciliation and restoration should remain the goal and waiting in faith for God to work.

However, if your spouse divorces you, or if you are compelled to the legal remedy of divorce to protect yourself or your children from serious harm, it should still be with the hope of restoring the marriage. God has worked miraculous changes for others. He has totally turned around lives and restored marriages that were totally dead. Do all that you can to restore your marriage and turn to God for His help, waiting patiently upon Him.

 The Remarriage Dilemma

 The separation of divorce brings many hardships and temptations for the former spouse who is now left alone. To a certain extent, while there is some hope of a reconciliation, these difficulties can help to encourage efforts for restoration of the marriage. But once the ex-spouse has married another, such hope ends. And practically, the longer the time period and the more severe the reasons for separation, the harder it becomes to retain hope.

Divorce creates a serious dilemma. Paul counsels most unmarrieds to become married, in order to avoid immoralities (1 Cor 7:2,9), recognizing that many, if not most, will lack the self control to remain celibate. Paul also advises younger Christian widows to remarry (1 Tim 5:14). Do not these same reasons for marriage apply to the divorced? If anything, the divorced are likely to have greater temptations in this area than both the unmarried and widows (due to both the loss of the marriage relationship and the pain and rejection that often accompanies divorce). So wouldn’t remarriage seem wise for the same reasons?

Nevertheless, remarriage constitutes adultery against a still living spouse, which God judges as sin on your part, even though that spouse is no longer faithful to you and may be guilty of the same sin. So what is one to do? The best answer, the one most pleasing to God in this awful situation, is to remain unmarried and free from immorality (1 Cor 7:11 et. al.). However, if one, as Paul says, “lacks self-control”, the result will be immorality outside of marriage, which also constitutes adultery against the divorced spouse. In such cases it would seem better to remarry and be guilty of adultery against the first spouse, while being committed to fidelity and keeping your vows with your new spouse, than to remain single and be involved in possibly a whole string of adulterous relationships outside of marriage.

I have read that the early church fathers also struggled with this issue. Some permitted remarriage in certain instances “to prevent worse ills,” though all recognized remarriage as contrary to the Scripture. It is also interesting to note that in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus judges the husband who divorces his wife to be guilty of causing his wife to commit adultery. Yet his ex-wife would not be guilty of adultery if she remained celibate and unmarried. So is Jesus perhaps assuming that in nearly every case, divorce will lead to either immorality or remarriage?

So should the divorced remarry? How can we counsel remarriage in the face of what Jesus and Paul have said? There are also other issues that might weigh against remarriage. If you have not adequately dealt with the things in your life that contributed to the failure of your first marriage, then a second divorce is very likely. Just the fact of it being a second marriage brings many added difficulties into the marriage relationship. Also remarrying with young children in the household can sometimes create serious problems beyond those from the divorce. Children may totally reject the step-parent seen as replacing their real dad or mom, making the successful raising of children all the harder. Nevertheless, when a restoration of the first marriage is no longer possible, and when it becomes clear that remaining pure as a divorced single is very unlikely, remarriage may seem to be the lessor of two evils.


Both the church and our society at large have a huge problem with divorce. The fact of believers divorcing discredits God and His church, while also bringing much destruction upon that family. Many of our divorces represent a lack of commitment to marriage vows and a lack of obedience to God. Many others could be prevented if churches strongly taught against divorce, more effectively taught Biblical marriage roles, more effectively discipled all believers to maturity, offered wise and godly counsel when marital difficulties arose, and exercised church discipline when called for by serious misbehavior in marriage.

As more and more people divorce, the church too easily accepts divorce as normal. Our laws now make obtaining a divorce an easy thing, thus encouraging many to give up on the marriage and choose what looks like an easier solution.

On the one hand, we need to strengthen marriages, teach life-long commitment, encourage Christian maturity, and react with combined horror and sorrow when we see a Christian marriage ending in divorce. We must teach our children that divorce is not right, that it is a shame and a disgrace to God, that God hates divorce and that marriage is based on a vow and a covenant – not our personal happiness. As individual Christians and as churches, we must combat this plague of divorce within the church.

On the other hand, we must show compassion to those who have divorced. We must encourage the restoration of their marriage when that is possible. We must encourage repentance concerning their part in the breakup of their marriage. We must be ready to help heal and aid them as best we can as they struggle with the aftermath of the divorce and if they remarry, the difficulties inherent in that relationship.                                                                                                             V

Divorce & Remarriage: Letter & Response


Hello Brother,

 I recently received this sample magazine.  Most of it seemed wonderfully Scriptural.  However, I was quite confused about two articles that seemed to contradict one another. 

 The article on page 16 explained that divorce and remarriage is adultery if the first spouse is still alive.  But, then there was an article on 8 that encourages families to live together even if committing adultery.

                  A Reader


The two articles certainly didn’t seem contradictory to me when I wrote them! But perhaps there is one part of this issue that I did not adequately address that may be contributing to the confusion.

I have heard of at least one denomination that teaches that when a man has divorced his spouse and remarried another, he should separate from that new wife, on the grounds that then he will no longer be participating in adultery. To further support this position, they might cite the example recorded in both Ezra and Nehemiah when these Jewish leaders commanded the Jewish men to put away their foreign wives.

Is this permanent separation or a second divorce the solution for “making things right” following a divorce and remarriage? I don’t think so! That remarriage involved solemn vows before God and witnesses, just as the first marriage did. One is not released from such vows merely because they were previously made to another, or perhaps should not have been made. To break such a vow is to seriously wrong the one you made it to (your spouse), as well as an affront to God before whom you made such a vow.

In Malachi 2:15-16, God speaks of divorce as “dealing treacherously” with your wife. How could it be otherwise when you have vowed to love and care for her for life? The fact that you should never have divorced your first wife and remarried another, does not excuse you from your obligations – it is as much a sin to divorce your second wife as it was your first!

 Doing the same wrong to another does not atone for the sin of the first. Consider also the added wounds caused if there have been children in the second marriage. We should remember Jesus’ warning about causing a little one to stumble. If you divorce your child’s mother, such an act is almost certain to cause your children to stumble – perhaps even to their destruction.

 Now some might advocate that you not divorce the spouse of your second marriage, but that you live a celibate life hereafter and no longer share a home as husband and wife. Would not this solution both avoid divorce and the continuation of living in adultery against your first spouse? No, this solution is entirely unsatisfactory as well. Whether or not it is  legally declared a divorce, such an arrangement is a clear breaking of the marriage vow nonetheless. You remain just as guilty of breaking your vows of marriage with your second spouse. So now you have added to your sins the breaking of a second marriage vow and all the accompanying harm to your second spouse and any children from that marriage.

When there is an adulterous relationship within a marriage, repentance and forgiveness can often restore that marriage, though it may be hard and take a long time for the marriage to fully recover. Likewise, when there has been a divorce without remarriage to others, this marriage too can be restored, by God’s grace. However, when the divorce is followed by remarriage to another, there is no way to go back and undo what has been done.  Repentance is still called for, but the first marriage cannot be restored at the expense of the second. There will be hard consequences of this, but with God’s grace you must now make the best of your present circumstances.

Is the remarried divorcee still in the sin of adultery? It could be judged so in the sense that you remain unfaithful to your first marriage relationship. Yet in another sense it might be judged that the remarriage was an act of adultery, but the marriage relationship following, being within the bounds of marriage, does not constitute adultery. Matthew 5:32 declares that a man commits adultery by marrying a divorced woman, but does not clarify whether the continuing relationship following the marriage is considered one of adultery. On the other hand, leaving your second spouse to return to your first would appear to constitute adultery against the second spouse.

Some might argue that the second marriage was invalid since God does not allow for divorce. However I find no scripture supporting this. Though God never approved of divorce, nevertheless the Law of Moses permitted both divorce and remarriage. New wives taken following a divorce appear to have been granted all the same protections as first wives in terms of restrictions on when divorce was not permitted and requiring a written certificate of divorce, etc.  The sole exception I have found is that of the non-Jewish wives taken by some of the Jews who returned to rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah learned that some of the people, even priests and Levities, had taken foreign wives contrary to the Law (Ezra 9:1-2; Neh 13:23-24), and at the people’s own suggestion, urged them to put away their foreign wives and their children (Ez 10:2-3, 11).  Some of these also had children by these foreign wives (Ez 10:44).

Consider also the problem of polygamy in the Bible. Though Jesus made it clear that God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman, yet many men of God of earlier times took more than one wife without a biblical record of a rebuke from God. Should these men be considered to be perpetually in sin, living their entire married lives as adulterers? The list of such men would include Jacob, Elkanah, David, and many others. These men are not labeled adulterers for having multiple wives, nor are their wives for having relations with another woman’s husband (since he was also their own husband).

So no, I don’t think the article on page 8 encourages living together in adultery. Rather it encourages restoring as much as can be restored and seeking God’s grace to deal with the consequences of prior sin, while seeking to remain faithful to the present marriage.                                                                                                                         V

Article From:  Volume 5 Issue 1

Letter & Response From :  Volume 5 Issue 3

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