Divorce & Remarriage

Straight Talk

The Question

Do you consider it scriptural for Christians to remarry after divorce? If so, what are the qualifying situations?

– Richard from Illinois

What do the scriptures say about remarriage; is it only right if the widow’s husband is dead?

– Brandon from Ohio

The Answer
Part 1: Scriptural issues
Part 2: Questions
Part 3: Grace

I’ve been ducking this question for years. Each time a reader asks about it I frown a lot and then put it in a pile of things to think about later. I have a pretty big pile. The truth is, I consider divorce and remarriage a difficult and sometimes confusing issue and I’ll show you why in a moment.

People’s opinions about whether you are permitted to remarry after a divorce often depend on their own personal stories. If they have experienced divorced and they want to remarry they can usually figure out a scriptural reason why they are allowed to. Those who haven’t dealt with divorce and therefore haven’t faced the prospect of remaining single for the rest of their life find it much easier to say, “No, it’s not permitted.”

Why can’t we just look it up in the Bible to settle it? Because the divorce and remarriage question is not black and white in the Bible. At least in my view, there is a lot of gray about it. I’ve never been able to come to a definitive answer myself so I’ve certainly hesitated advising others.

Before we get into all the ambiguity there are thankfully two points of complete clarity. The first is that it was God who instituted marriage and blessed it. “Then the Lord said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” (Genesis 2:18) Also, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” (Verse 24) The second point is equally as clear. “’For I hate divorce,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Malachi 2:16)

Yet, even though God hated divorce, he made allowance for it in the Old Testament and made special rules to handle it. (See Deuteronomy 24:1-4) This is why when Jesus came along it was accepted that divorce was permitted within the Law of Moses. When the Pharisees asked him about it, Jesus told them that, “’Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.’” (Matthew 19:8)

Now things start to get sticky. Jesus appears to rescind the permission for divorce. He also appears to give an exception clause. “’And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:9) “Immorality” in this text means sexual immorality or unchastity. So if your husband or wife commits adultery, you can divorce them and remarry someone else? But for any other reason, you are still actually married to the original spouse?

Various Christian traditions interpret these scriptures in different ways. Even the strictest denominations, though, have to be realistic and accommodate divorce in some manner whether they want to or not because divorce is so prevalent. Unfortunately, the truth is simply this: divorced people will remarry, even if they have to leave their religious tradition and find another that accepts them.

Questions (Part 2)

I have a lot of questions about all this. One of them is: if God accommodated divorce due to hardness of heart once before, what about the rampant hardness of heart today? Clearly, committed marriage (one man and one woman) is God’s plan because that’s what he created as the best blessing for individuals and society. Yet committed marriage is increasingly rare.

For those persons who divorce, should they then remain single for the rest of their lives? Very few will accept this. If adultery was involved, doesn’t that only let one person off the hook? For instance if the husband committed adultery, then he cannot remarry but the wife can? Yet, since he ignored the marriage vows to begin with, isn’t he the more likely one to ignore any rule about remarrying?

Is the sin of divorce the only sin that has permanent consequences? As Christians we are taught that all sin can be forgiven. And what does forgiveness give us? God is speaking here: “’Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18) Yet if you can’t remarry after the sin of divorce, what do you have but a stain that can’t be whitened? Does that really restore a repentant person to the position of grace? Does forever carrying the baggage of a failed marriage align with this scripture: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”(Romans 8:1)

That raises another issue and it’s one that Jesus never discussed but Paul did. What about a believer married to an unbeliever? The implication in the text is one who converted to Christianity while the spouse did not. Paul says that where this situation exists, the two parties should not divorce over the issue. “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15) One more exception clause.

While we have a small amount a light shed through these two scriptural “exceptions” (adultery and unbelieving spouse leaving), does it cover the myriad of situations actual people live with in our modern society?

For instance, should a battered wife be required to stay in a marriage because she has no scriptural grounds for divorce? Suppose two people marry and divorce before ever becoming Christians—must they remain single for life? If they have already remarried do they have to divorce the new partner and live single? Are they required to return to the original marriage? These are only a very small sampling of the very real life situations people face.

What’s the answer?

Grace (Part 3)

You may be under the impression by now that I believe remarriage is permitted after divorce. Actually, as I said earlier, I’ve never come to a definitive decision but it doesn’t really matter what I think. What matters is what the Word of God says. The problem is that regarding remarriage after divorce, scripture seems to leave quite a few gaps. I wonder if that’s done on purpose.

The Old Testament is filled with rules and regulations that get very specific. As an example, Leviticus 14 spends the whole chapter discussing cleansing a leper and his house. If you want detail, there it is. But the New Testament is more about GRACE than LAW. Paul speaks of this in 2 Corinthians 3:6. “Our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

In light of this, what if we return to those two things that scripture is quite clear about? What if we accept the principle that marriage is a gift from God that he takes very seriously? We should do the same. When two people are considering divorce, what if they reminded themselves of what Jesus said: “’What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.’” (Mark 10:9)

There are innocent parties in divorces but to the extent that a person caused or contributed to divorce, that is sin. God still hates divorce. In that case, real genuine repentance is called for. Okay, now let’s move on.

Remarriage? It’s an issue deeply personal and each one will have to decide with honesty and a humble spirit. I don’t think one “rule” fits all. Prayer, godly wisdom and counsel from mature believers, seeking God in his Word—all these things will eventually produce an answer for the seeker. If they have truly put God first in their life they should be willing to accept the Lord’s plan over their own—whichever way it goes.

To any of us on the outside of that decision, we should not judge it too closely. Each of us is going to have to give an account of ourselves to God. Remember “’For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light.’” (Mark 4:22) That means their sin but it also means yours!