QUESTION: “Is it ever acceptable for a believer in Jesus Christ to divorce and remarry? If God “hates” divorce, will He hate me if I am divorced?”
ANSWER: When God created marriage, He did so to enrich the lives of men and women. Marriage was to bring blessing, joy and fulfillment to the two people. God’s ideal was and is one man and one woman for life. But joyful marriages seem to be the exception and not the norm, and divorce has become very much part of life in our society. It is hard to find a family untouched by divorce. When we deal with divorce and remarriage, we don’t want to embrace the perspective of culture, nor do we want to simply embrace “church tradition.” We want to be as biblical as we can be, and this necessitates looking at the key biblical passages, starting with Deuteronomy 24.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4: The Foundation for a Study of Divorce and Remarriage
The key to the subject of divorce and remarriage is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Here Moses (as God’s prophet and spokesman) allows for a husband to give a writ of divorce to his wife because of “uncleanness”. This seems to complicate the matter since in the Old Testament there are some 70 different matters that cause a person to be “unclean”. This large number of things that were “unclean” led to the very liberal view of divorce that was held by some scholars in Jesus’ day. This liberal view held that a man could divorce his wife for just about any reason. This present passage in Deuteronomy does not say “adultery” could cause a writ of divorce because the Law earlier was clear that that was a capital crime and death was the penalty. What is significant about the Deuteronomy 24 passages is that Moses allows for divorce and for subsequent remarriage. According to Deuteronomy 24, if “husband A” gives his WIFE a writ of divorce, she leaves his house and can become the WIFE of “husband B”. Husband B is in fact called her “husband.” Furthermore, “husband A” is referred to as her former husband and she is not allowed to AGAIN become his wife, which tells us that their marriage was in fact terminated by the writ of divorce. This seems to remove the idea that they were “still married in God’s eyes” even if they were separated in man’s law court. It is worth noting that what God prohibits He does not regulate. In other words, He does not say “you can’t do that” and then proceeds to give exceptions and modifications. He regulates the divorce/marriage matter which points to the reality that He does not make a blanket prohibition against divorce and remarriage. Deuteronomy 24 is especially important because it is the first time that there is any extended discussion of the matter after marriage was established in Genesis 1 and 2.
Matthew 19:1-9: The Key New Testament Passage on Divorce
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees confront the Lord Jesus on the matter of divorce, seeking to find out where He stood on the subject. Most of the Pharisees would probably not have held liberal of divorce for most any reason, but would have seen reasons for divorce from Deuteronomy 24. They wanted to know if Jesus agreed with the idea that a man could divorce his wife “for any cause.” When they posed their question to Jesus, the Lord responds by taking them back to God’s ideal of one man/one woman for life. Jesus clearly is reminding them of God’s ideal which is always the best way to go. But they are not satisfied with that answer and push Him to explain why Moses then allowed for the ideal to be broken (They were referencing Deut. 24). Jesus said that divorce was permitted because of the hardness of their hearts. It appears that all He was saying is that marriage was given in the sinless environment of Eden, but with the entrance of sin into the human condition things changed. But now the question is how marriage can function in a sinful situation. He does not want people to get divorced, but recognizes that sin is a new player in the game and can be deadly. But He makes it clear to the Pharisees that He does not subscribe to the liberal view found in Jewish society. Rather, in Matthew 19, He limits divorce to fornication (sexual sin of any kind as found and defined in passages such as Leviticus 18). Scholars have looked closely at the “exception clause” and have come up (as they always do) with various interpretations. A popular view is that Deuteronomy 24 and Matthew 19 are not addressing marriage/divorce as we think of it but those Scriptures are addressing couples who were betrothed (like Joseph and Mary). I personally think that is a bit of a stretch which few would see in the passages if they did not come to those passages with that idea already in place. These passages are marriage passages and not betrothal passages. So it seems that Jesus wants us to avoid being careless and worldly with our approach to marriage/divorce, but at the same time recognizes that the marital covenant can be damaged or broken by sexual sins. It is absolutely true that marriage is a one flesh relationship. However, while that is true, it must also be acknowledged that such a union can be broken by sexual sin.
1 Corinthians 7:10-16 – Important Apostolic Information
A third crucial passage is 1 Corinthians 7 where the Apostle Paul addresses several situations. In reading that passage we should note that when our text speaks of “leaving” and “sending away” it is not speaking about our idea of legal separation, but rather these are the common terms for divorce. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth not to divorce. But if they do divorce, they need to remain unmarried or return in marriage to their spouse. In the case of a mixed marriage (where one is a Christian but the partner is an unbeliever), the believer should attempt to keep the family together and should not initiate a divorce. This is because the believer can have a continuing influence for Christ in that home. But if the unbeliever insists on divorce and leaves then the believer is no longer under marital obligation. It does get a little tricky here because a spouse who “leaves” the marital relationship and contract, may not bother or wish to get a legal divorce. I dealt with a woman some years ago who had a trucker husband who did indeed have a girl in every truck stop. By his actions he had left the marriage and had broken the marital covenant. But he did not want to get a divorce for financial reasons and because he had a house to come home to when not on the road. She eventually got a divorce from him and was the one who initiated it. I could not disagree with what she did but as you can tell we are in murky water at this point.
Because Deuteronomy 24 and Matthew 19 were already in place when Paul wrote, it is legitimate to suggest that if the unbeliever were involved in sexual sin then the believer could in fact initiate the divorce. In the days of Rome, as in our own day, there is no death penalty for adultery as there was in Israel in the OT. Obviously, if the adulterer was put to death, the spouse is able to remarry. There is no unfaithful spouse to deal with.
Additional Scripture Passages
#1 – Malachi 3:16. This is the oft quoted passage where God says He hates divorce. The prophet Malachi has just rebuked many of the men in Israel who broke their covenant commitment with their wives and married foreign women (3:11, 14). God had specifically warned Israel about marrying foreigners because the foreigners would bring in their false gods and corrupt the nation of Israel (see Deut. 7:1-4). This flagrant act of disobedience put Israel in a place of being disciplined by the Lord. That is when we read that “I hate divorce.” The impression is that this is a blanket statement against all divorce. Now, it is true, that since sin is involved in divorce (immorality, selfishness, pride, etc) that God does not look with satisfaction on it. However, that may not be what the text is saying. The ESV of Malachi 3:16 reflects something different, as it sees the man, and not God, as the one doing the hating. It reads:
“FOR THE MAN WHO HATES AND DIVORCES, SAYS THE LORD, THE GOD OF ISRAEL, COVERS HIS GARMENT WITH VIOLENCE, SAYS THE LORD OF HOSTS. SO GUARD YOURSELVES IN YOUR SPIRIT, AND DO NOT BE FAITHLESS.”
The subject of “he hates” is most likely not the Lord, but the man. This actually reflects some of Moses’ wording in Deuteronomy 24 when he speaks of “husband B” who hates his wife, which was seen as an unjustifiable divorce in that passage. If that is indeed the case, then the Malachi passage is not a blanket statement against divorce for any reason. Rather, it is pointing out the unjustifiable divorce that was going on in that day, of getting rid of their wives in order to marry foreign women.
#2 – Matthew 5:31-32. Jesus again using wording that was quite similar to the conservative view regarding divorce that was held in His day. That view was that “nothing but indecency” could make a divorce legal, by which they were referring to sexual sin. He adds that if a divorce is not legal then anyone marrying those with that kind of divorce will themselves be guilty of adultery.
#3 – Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18. The “exception clause” is absent in these two passages where Jesus says something about divorce. The question is why Mark and Luke do not include the exception clause found in Matthew’s gospel. It is, of course, very difficult to say why an author did not include something but rather chose to leave it out. It is likely that these passages are simply generalizations which do not discuss the complete matter nor include exceptions. This phenomenon is found in other sayings of Jesus. For example, He said (in Matt. 13:57) that a prophet has no honor in his own town or family. Well, we understand that this was a general observation but that there were clear exceptions to it. So these brief verses should not be used, as they sometimes are, to be the foundation for the discussion of divorce and remarriage. If there is any foundational passage, it is Deuteronomy 24.
Conclusion. We want to stem the terrible tide of marital failure. But a blanket “no” to divorce and remarriage does not faithfully deal with the key passages involved. God’s ideal remains true. However, sin has had a terrible impact on the ideal of marriage. Genesis 3 (the Fall) does come after Genesis 2 (marriage in Eden). And so, when there has been sexual sin then divorce is permitted (not required). God would like us to show mercy and grace to our sinful spouse in the same way He showed grace and mercy to us. If, however, the sinful spouse refuses reconciliation then I see divorce with the right of remarriage as an option. Some also believe that if the spouse “deserts” their partner, they do break the marital covenant (which is a possible understanding of 1 Corinthians 7) then divorce and remarriage is an option. This is a complex subject but I think there is enough light to guide us along with the help of the Holy Spirit. We all agree that once God’s ideal is broken then there will always be difficulties and often pain and unpleasantness. We wish it were not so but this is part of living in a fallen world.
- Dr. Paul Benware
For additional study: “REMARRIAGE AFTER DIVORCE IN TODAY’S CHURCH” Paul Engle (ed); “DIVORCE” by John Murray; “THE RIGHT TO REMARRY” by Dwight H. Small