A Pastoral Letter on Divorce and Remarriage
A Pastoral Letter on Divorce and Remarriage
Revised 2008, 2012
Dr. Jeff VanGoethem
Some years ago John Stott of All Souls Church in London wrote a book entitled "Between Two Worlds" in which he described the dilemma of the modern pastor. On the one hand the Pastor lives in the world of the Scripture, charged with the sacred task of discovering and delivering God's message. He must accurately relay that message, based on God's unchanging revelation. On the other hand, the Pastor lives in the real world and ministers to real people. He must tenderly and compassionately minister to hearts and lives, exactly how he finds them.
Scripture often gives guidelines that are clearly high and holy.1 Not everyone reaches them. The Pastor is then confronted by a sizable gap between what ought to be and what is. In no other area is the gap more troubling than in the area of marriage. The Scripture gives a lofty ideal for marriage. God's plan for marriage offers considerable hope and blessing. The ideal must be taught. Yet the world (and the church) is filled with the sorrow of broken marriages, broken homes, and broken people. The pastor is often faced with the question of how to bridge the gap between what ought to be and what is in the marriages he encounters. It has to be dealt with to some degree in the church redemptively.
We all realize that divorce is not an unpardonable sin, although it surely involves sin on the part of one or both parties. And surely we would hasten to add that people who sin are not unredeemable – if they were, where would any of us be? So even in the wreckage of divorce, we find that in the church we must labor to salvage the martially broken. God's blessing is not permanently removed from those who sin. If it were, none of us would ever experience God's blessing. So the gap between what ought to be and what is in the area of marriage must be bridged in God's church somehow. This letter is an attempt to do that. It is an attempt to preserve the clear teaching of the Bible on divorce and remarriage, and suggest the counsel of the Bible on this matter. And yet it is an attempt to minister to people who have been touched by the tragedy of divorce – giving guidance on what ought to be done in times of marital trouble and failure. And finally, it is an attempt to provide you, the reader, with the means of giving God's counsel to others you minister to as you have occasion to do so.
All members of the body of Christ should understand how you and others will be counseled and guided regarding divorce and remarriage. I hope this letter makes that abundantly clear. I also hope and trust that it offers you the guidance, hope, and courage you need in your life and ministry. Before we proceed with the explanation, let's remind ourselves why this is a very difficult issue. There are several problems.
1.The Problem of cases. Each troubled marriage and each divorce is a unique situation, with its own pains, sorrows and perplexities. The problems are many, individualized, and often found in various unique combinations. It is not easy to apply hard and fast rules that automatically produce innocent and guilty parties. Applying the Scripture to a couple with a complicated marital history is like trying to enforce traffic laws at the Indianapolis 500. It can be vexing. Bear in mind as you counsel others or as a pastor counsels you that it is a tough assignment to bring the Scripture to bear upon a troubled marital situation. Counseling those with troubled marriages, those who have been divorced, and those seeking remarriage can be very perplexing.
The process of developing guidelines and policies in the church is also difficult. Often those who seek restoration in the church after divorce claim they were wronged by their previous spouse. That can be true, but a broken marriage is seldom a one way street. It is certainly necessary then to thoroughly debrief BOTH partners to a broken marriage in order to get the clearest picture – and those caught in the throes of a troubled marriage and subsequently wounded by divorce often have difficulty gaining objectivity on what has happened. The difficulty of assessing what has happened in the case of a broken marriage can be very difficult and one wisely withholds judgment until gaining as much of the true story as humanly possible. So the assessment of troubled marriages and cases of divorce is in itself a difficulty.
2. The Problem of culture. Our cultural situation makes the task even more laden with frustration. The society surrounding us cares little for God's message on marriage and divorce. The divorce rate over American history was relatively low and stable until the post world war II era when it began to climb. It increased exponentially following the 1960’s and has not significantly abated since. The length of the average first marriage which ends in divorce is between ten and fifteen years -- hardly long enough to fulfill the desirable goals of marriage and family. The statistics are even more sobering for second marriages, which end in divorce about 2/3 of the time, averaging less than ten years. Our culture is a culture of easy divorce – and this has penetrated the modern church, much to the church’s disgrace.
Clearly, it has become socially and morally acceptable to hop out of one troubled relationship and into another. Sacred vows are discarded, no stigma is permitted, and everyone is free to do what is right in his own eyes. This is our cultural mentality. But as Christians, we must always reckon first with what God has said. Christians, and pastors in particular, often find themselves with the difficult assignment of saying, "Wait a minute!" to individuals who are caught in the mindset of the culture, having forsaken the teaching of the Bible or having not been grounded in it at all. In our counsel regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage, we in the church must always turn first to what God has said. His Word must be established before we can begin to give proper counsel on life and living. This point is an imperative and nonnegotiable starting point within the church.
3. The Problem of confusion. Some pastors and churches permit marriages for those who have been divorced, some permit only some, and some permit none. Some seem to take a “forgiving” view of the sin of divorce, emphasizing God's grace and compassion; and some take a more firm view, pointing out God's standards and will, emphasizing the Truth. Some interpret the Bible this way, some that way. What are we to think? We have to accept that there will be some disagreement even among equally respectable Christians and teachers.2 In the notes at the end of this letter, you will find a brief discussion of the various views held in the Christian Church on divorce and remarriage.
I do not believe that all the views have equal validity. Certainly we must recognize them as honest attempts to resolve a difficult issue. This letter will at least lay out for you how I approach the issues. I will try to explain how I see the Bible's counsel and application in this area, which is important for you to know. The view I present reflects the longest and most ancient expression of the Biblical interpretation on marriage and divorce in the history of the church. So it is not a novel view, although it may not be the most common view held in the church today. I am not trying to add to the confusion, but to offer some clear direction for you and our church.
4. The Problem of circumstances. Each of us will come to this study with a background and a set of experiences that has influenced us. Those of us who have been touched by divorce personally will be influenced by that experience. Those of us who have not will be equally affected. It is important to recognize that objectivity on this issue will be very elusive. Certainly we must all labor to base our conclusions on Scripture. Let us try and put aside our own experience as we reflect on what God has said about divorce and remarriage.
Have you done that? Dear reader, are you willing to look at Scripture, as it was written, as God’s clear wisdom on the matter, without bias or self justification? And are you willing to follow it, without reservation? No matter how emotionally costly it may seem to you? Do you agree with Jesus, “not my will but yours be done?”
One is reminded of the story of the famous humorist W.C. Fields, who was known to be a reprobate and notorious unbeliever. While hospitalized with a serious illness he was found by a visiting friend leafing through the Bible. The friend asked, “Why W. C. is that you looking through the Bible – I thought you did not believe in the Bible?” Fields responded, “I am looking for loopholes.” It is tempting when we have been touched by the sin of divorce to find some way it was not sin for us – or to cite some reason to justify our actions. Yes, there is grace for the divorced, but grace does not allow us to alter the teaching of God’s Word. Let’s remember that. If we have violated God’s Word or if we are about to do so, we must own up to this and humble ourselves before God, embracing without reservation the teaching of His Word. That is the pathway of repentance. And repentance is the pathway to grace. To fail to do this is to indulge in license and not grace.
Certainly we would add, that whatever conclusions we come to, we should hold them with love for one another, grace toward all, and humility toward God. Not everyone in the church sees the teaching of scripture the same way. We must be charitable.
Onward now to the Bible's counsel on divorce and remarriage. From God's Word I see four important principles that must be understood and applied. They are matters, I believe, of God's counsel on marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
PERMANENCE: You will be counseled to stay in your marriage.
Although there are various views on divorce and remarriage represented in Christian thinking, almost all agree that marriage creates an indissoluble bond.3 The reason why marriage creates a bond that cannot be broken is stated as early as Genesis two. When God brought Eve to Adam and Adam "married" her, he remarked:
"This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23).
The marriage of Adam and Eve resulted in a "one flesh" relationship, which throughout the Bible refers to a permanent, blood relationship (cf. Genesis 29:14, Judges 9:1-2), the same kind of relationship that exists between parents and children and all other close relatives. Husband and wife become kin (blood relatives) through marriage. Such a relationship can only be severed by death, as Paul stated (Romans 7:2-3). The Lord Jesus also referred to this in His discussions on the subject (e.g. Mark 10:1-12), emphatically stating:
"What God has joined together, let not man separate." (Mark 10:9).
Marriage is therefore more than a contract for temporary companionship. It is a lifelong, kinship, blood tie that cannot be severed any more than can the relationship of children to parents. It is a bond created by God, permanent in its very nature – that is why we make vows “til death do us part.” Obviously, God intended this bond to be the basic building block of human civilization.
Clearly then, it is our duty to seek to save marriages from divorce. Not only is divorce contrary to God's plan and will, it breaks something not meant to be broken. This helps explain why divorce is so devastating to men, women, children, extended families and the overall social fabric. It breaks something that cannot really be broken.
This is why I counsel those with troubled marriages that we are going to do everything possible to save the marriage, no matter how hopeless it may seem. This is the expectation we begin with. There is clear direction from God that we should strengthen and rescue marriages, not dissolve them. Certainly we offer support, compassion, and sympathy for those in marital turmoil, but it is not doing God's work to advise others to end their marriages. I have never counseled anyone to discard their marriage, although I have recognized the need for separation or even divorce in some of the more appalling situations I have encountered, when a spouse has gone bad, when the legal protections of divorce are clearly necessary. Still, even in extreme situations when a person must separate or divorce just to protect life and limb, the marriage is still permanent and not to be discarded.
We are often tempted to respond to this kind of strong statement, "But what about this situation, what about that situation?" I cannot address every situation. What I can say is that God has clearly spoken that those who enter a marriage are called to remain in it. This is consistent with the kind of vow we utter at our wedding ceremonies. If we do not believe that marriage is a permanent, indissoluble bond why are we uttering vows to that effect? If marriage can be ended by divorce why don’t we just incorporate that into the vows and eliminate the sham of our wedding ceremonies? Perhaps we should recite “as long as our love shall last” or “as long as it works out” or “as long as I am happy.” Anything but “until death do us part.”
Yet this powerful language reflects the teaching of the Bible. So we require these words are our wedding ceremonies. Later on, when things grow difficult, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to fulfill the vows we have made. So, you will be counseled to stay in your marriage and we will give every and any kind of help to seek its restoration.
A SOFT HEART: What you will need to make your marriage work.
There are many different kinds of marital problems, including some that are quite severe. Yet we must recognize that marital problems do not cause divorce. Every couple has some degree of marital difficulty, but not every couple gets divorced. The Lord Jesus stated very clearly that divorce is caused by "hardness of heart" (Matt. 19:8). This means that divorce is caused when we adopt attitudes that prohibit successfully working through marital problems. Divorce occurs when one or both parties are unwilling to obey God and unwilling to take the steps necessary to heal the troubled marriage. The roots of divorce according to the Lord are sinful attitudes that result in a hard heart.
So you will be counseled to cultivate a soft heart, a heart that must be soft in two ways: one that is humble and obedient toward God, and one that is forgiving toward your spouse. Certainly I acknowledge the serious hurt and wounded trust that often results from marital problems, but ultimately there is really only one godly pathway out of that hurt, and it involves forgiveness and a soft heart. Healing hurts and problems may take time and effort, but your marriage is worth that time and effort. And God is always glorified when we obey Him.
The Bible states that we are to extend the forgiving grace of God to others, even when they have done us wrong (e.g. Matthew 18:21-35, Ephesians 4:32). It will be necessary to do this in all marriages and perhaps repeatedly and deeply in very troubled marriages. As we have accepted the grace of God who has forgiven us of all our sins, so also must we extend it to others, including husbands and wives. This is what makes a hard heart soft. This effort, coupled with an obedient heart toward God, will carry us through our seasons of marital difficulty. This understanding marks out the direction of the Bible’s counsel for the martially troubled.
But what about those situations where one party refuses the process of healing and willfully proceeds to destroy the marriage? In my years as a pastor I have observed this a number of times. It is very painful. Do we not have to recognize that in a fallen world, some divorces simply will occur no matter what attempts are made to avoid it? Yes, it is true, we do. But there is some important counsel from God on this as well. And this is where the church must part company with the world.
RECONCILIATION: The necessary goal when things go wrong.
What about those situations when you have no choice but to divorce? When your partner divorces you against your will? When you have to secure legal protection for your sake and the sake of your children? What about those tragic cases when there is nothing else you can do? The Bible clearly acknowledges that divorce is going to happen because of such circumstances.4 In a fallen world there are going to be situations where one or both parties will not make it work, when hardness of heart prevails, and when sin wins out.
Moses had to reckon with it, Jesus had to reckon with it, and Paul had to reckon with it. So do we. For example, Paul spoke specifically about the case of a believer being divorced by a non-believing spouse. Even though he clearly commanded that no believer was ever to divorce his or her spouse, even if that spouse is an unbeliever (1 Corinthians 7:10-13), he, like all of us, had to acknowledge it's going to happen sometimes anyway.
So there may be times when the church simply has to accept divorce. Despite the lofty standard God has laid out, we realize it will not always be met. Sometimes there is a clear offending party, sometimes there is not, and sometimes it is disputed. Most of the time it is pretty difficult to learn with 100 percent certainty what went on between two people in a marriage. The church needs to be extremely careful with its judgments and discipline in these cases.
And of course, divorce must be dealt with in the church. We cannot just look the other way as marriages dissolve, since marriage involves God’s most fundamental human ordinance, of which the church is the primary guardian. But like any other sin or problem in the body of Christ, it must be addressed by each church and its Elders in a godly, just, and redemptive way.5 Since the circumstances of each situation are unique, the church needs to use a tender, sensitive, and careful hand in investigating and remedying cases of marital breakup. Hopefully, our ministry will be directed to rescuing marriages, and not to driving people away in their time of trouble.
With this said, there is one more critical point that I must make. It was articulated by the Apostle Paul. To those believers who have experienced divorce, Paul gave this crucial guideline:
". . . remain unmarried or be reconciled . . ."(1 Corinthians 7:11)
The fact that a divorce has occurred does not automatically grant a right to remarry. Please go back and re-read the previous statement, as this is where many Christians have fallen into the thinking of the world that says, "Oh well this marriage is over, now I'll just move on to the next one." In fact, many get divorced precisely because they want to marry someone else (someone better they hope). This is wickedness (cf. Malachi 2:14-17). The human or legal instrument of divorce (which is a necessary provision in a fallen world) does not change anything that God has said about the permanence of marriage. Therefore, even when divorce has occurred God says that the goal of reconciliation must remain for anyone who has experienced divorce, whatever the reasons for the divorce, regardless of who was at fault. Marriage is permanent – we have to get this into our minds. Not marriage should be permanent. No. Marriage IS permanent. Divorce does not end a marriage, it merely provides for the legalities regulating a marital breakup. It is a legal fiction, although a necessary legality for a fallen world.
One can experience God’s grace of forgiveness for divorce, but that does not change the clear guideline that God has articulated for those who are divorced: remain unmarried or be reconciled.
This point was undergirded by the Lord's strong statement that remarriage constitutes an act of adultery against the first spouse (Matthew 19:9). Remember we said that marriage creates an unbreakable bond? What the Lord was saying is that even if one achieves a full, legal, documented divorce, it does not end the marriage. A second marriage is an adulterous act against the first marriage because the first marriage remains a kinship bond, despite the divorce. So in reality divorce is a mere legality, a technicality which human society has erected to regulate sinful behavior. But marriages in God’s eyes are permanent. Thus, to obey God, a divorced person is obligated to seek reconciliation.
This is how you will be counseled and how you should counsel others. We all can see that sometimes divorce is going to occur. The Scripture envisions this. But this does not remove the obligation to seek reconciliation. A believer who finds himself or herself separated or divorced is bound by God to work for, pray for, and wait for the opportunity to reconcile. That is why Jesus called remarriage a sinful, adulterous act against the first marriage.
Sometimes, admittedly, this can be very difficult, especially when there is an adulterous or negligent or abusive spouse. Do I have to reconcile then? Some Bible teachers see some exceptions to the rule of reconciliation, but these exceptions have a weak foundation in Scripture. All the teaching of the Bible points to restoration of the marriage. God means for us to stay committed to our marriages, in keeping with the vows we have made.6 This is what glorifies Him.
Despite what you may have read or heard or thought, it is simply not the counsel of the Bible to assume that divorce grants an automatic right to remarry. Neither is there a scriptural “right” to marry a divorcee. Such a person is already bound to a spouse. Such thinking contradicts everything the Bible says about marriage, and often opens the door for wickedness. So you will be counseled to keep the goal and hope of reconciliation even if divorce is thrust upon you.
In this you are called to trust God, obey God, and believe Him for what seems impossible. Do we all not know that God can work in even the most hopeless of situations?7 In this commitment to obedience I believe God will show you that His way is best. You can give your heart and life to Christ and to His work, despite the misfortune you have experienced. Many have done this throughout the history of the church, to the glory of God. You must also allow God time to work according to His timetable. In this spirit you will be counseled to pray for, work for, and wait for reconciliation. This is the clear teaching of scripture. God’s Truth must always trump feelings, opinions and personal desires. God’s way is always best.
So considering all of the teaching on marriage and divorce in the Bible, one can see why Paul gave the injunction he did in 1 Corinthians 7:11: be reconciled or remain unmarried. I cannot see anything unclear about 1 Corinthians 7:11. It is a very straight forward statement and is meant to be followed in God’s church. It is an apostolic instruction, it is inspired scripture, it is the rule of the church for the divorced.
Moreover, from a practical point of view, a divorced individual who comes to a pastor for a wedding when he or she has a former, unmarried spouse is asking a pastor to do what scripture does not allow and in fact, is asking the pastor to do something that contradicts his most fundamental belief – the power of the gospel to change lives. How can a pastor officiate the marriage of a divorced person to a new spouse on Saturday and then preach (theoretically) to the ex-spouse on Sunday? What if that ex-spouse repents on Sunday and awakens to his or her responsibility to God and the former spouse? This amounts to the defrauding of the former spouse. Reconciliation therefore must remain the goal for those who have been divorced.
That is not to say that working toward reconciliation is always easy or quick. Your attempts at reconciliation may be rebuffed. It may become necessary to come to terms with your situation emotionally and redirect your life away from the marriage for a time. But God has said your marriage is permanent, you are bound to that person as kin, and it is His will for you to continue to retain the hope and goal of reconciliation. Such a reconciliation would give maximum glory to God. This is the goal we are to seek.
But what about when reconciliation becomes impossible? What about when all hope is ended, when the ex-spouse remarries, contrary to God's will? What about when the goal of reconciliation is permanently lost?
REMARRIAGE: The terms under which you can enter a new marriage.
There are some Bible teachers who maintain that remarriage is never permitted after divorce, even when one's former spouse has remarried.8 I respect this position. There is no question that the Scripture states that those who divorce must remain unmarried or be reconciled. But what about when reconciliation is impossible? What about when a spouse has abandoned the marriage and married someone else?
Such a deed certainly acts against the first marriage in a decisive way. It takes away the very goal Paul outlined. It undermines the very point the Lord was trying to make by stating that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery. What the Lord sought to deter by His unambiguous pronouncement has happened anyway. Now the question is, what is to be gained by requiring divorced Christians (who may have worked and sought for reconciliation) to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives (or the rest of their ex-spouses' lives), because their ex-spouse has married again? When Paul articulated the command to reconcile or remain unmarried, he clearly conceived of reconciliation as a possibility.
In the matter of divorce and remarriage, it is my view that once it becomes impossible to fulfill the will of God through reconciliation, there is no requirement that one remain unmarried. The reason we are commanded in the first place to remain unmarried is to permit reconciliation. The remarriage of an ex-spouse makes reconstitution of the first marriage impossible. Therefore, in this limited case, the freedom to remarry does not violate the spirit of Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthians 7:14-15.
Consequently I counsel that this is a matter of conscience. Some believers will be persuaded that they ought to remain unmarried perhaps as a testimony to their marriage vows, and perhaps for more practical reasons, the consideration and welfare of children, for example. However, others can embrace freedom before God to remarry. This I judge to be permissible, given the impossibility of reconciliation. But more must be said about this.
Not everyone who has freedom to remarry should remarry or is ready to remarry. In fact, as the statistics bear out, it seems that most individuals are not ready to remarry following a previous divorce. Therefore in those cases when remarriage is permissible, individuals must be counseled very carefully. Here are some things I think are important.
- The new partner must be a believer, fulfilling the requirement of marrying in the Lord. (1 Corinthains 7:39).
- The new partner must himself or herself be free to marry, according to the guidelines outlined above.
- Sexual purity must be maintained prior to the second marriage. There is no acceptable reason to violate God's standards for sexual purity and marital preparation. Moreover, an overemphasis on sex may build the new relationship on an improper foundation. This is not wise, given the common difficulties of second marriages.
- There is a recognition of the sin of divorce, including confession and honest reckoning with the factors that may have led to hard-heartedness in the first marriage. Before a second marriage is contemplated, one must account honestly to God, to the body of Christ and to one’s former spouse for the sins which led to the destruction of the first marriage. This is not done to "extract a pound of flesh," nor should our counsel have that spirit. This has to do with the importance of entering a second marriage with a clean conscience and a cleansed life.
- There must be an adequate resolution of any "emotional baggage" left over from the previous marriage, particularly bitterness and lack of forgiveness. It is obvious that carrying such into the next marriage would be devastating. Bitterness, regret, anger, etc. must be healed prior to a second marriage, or else it is likely that past sins will be carried into the second marriage.
- Amicable relations with the previous spouse should be established if at all possible, particularly if there are children involved. It is important that the visitation practices, the legal arrangements and the overall relations with a previous spouse do not add turmoil into the new relationship.
- The new partner must be emotionally and otherwise prepared to assume whatever circumstances are present because of the previous marriage, including step-children, financial problems, legal orders, etc. Remember, marriages are not meant to be broken. Problems and complications almost always accompany a person who has experienced the misfortune of divorce.
- There must be a sound understanding of the Biblical commitment of marriage that has not been weakened by the previous experience. A Scriptural understanding of marriage needs to be intact.
- Christians seeking remarriage must evidence a proper commitment to the body of Christ. Those seeking remarriage need the support and accountability of the church.
10. There must be an adequate period of time between the ending of the first marriage and the remarriage to insure that all of the above concerns have been addressed. In my experience, the time that is necessary is best measured in years not in months or weeks. Healing and restoration take time.
Whether it is a first marriage or a remarriage, we in the church must remain committed to strong marriages and families. I am very cautious in my counseling with those who have experienced the trauma of divorce. It is often not easier the second time around. I urge you to be cautious also.
This letter displays for you my conscience concerning God's counsel on the difficult subject of divorce and remarriage. I readily recognize that not everyone will be able to agree with my thinking. Yet what I have written reflects my honest attempt to understand and apply God's Word to His people. That is all I have tried to do. I hope you can at least respect that and understand that I will counsel by these guidelines. I hope you will also. Again, I repeat and reiterate that the teaching I have outlined here is hardly novel. One can find it as far back as there have been teachers and commentators in the church. I think it represents the proper understanding of the biblical teaching on marriage and divorce.
In conclusion, I want to set out a summary of the points I have made.
1) God states that marriage is permanent and divorce is contrary to His will.
Believers will therefore be counseled to stay in their marriages.9
2) Divorce involves a sinful hardness of heart on the part of one or both parties.
Believers will therefore be counseled to heal troubled marriages through obedience to God and forgiveness toward their spouses.
3) When the tragedy of divorce occurs, believers are commanded to remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouses.
Believers will therefore be counseled that a divorce does not automatically grant the right to remarry and they will be pointed toward the obligation to reconcile with their estranged spouse – no matter how impossible it may seem. Scripture views a divorced person as still bound to his or her marriage.
4) When reconciliation becomes impossible due to the remarriage of one's divorced spouse, one may remarry under certain circumstances.
Believers in these specific circumstances will therefore be counseled that remarriage is a possible and permissible option, but every step must be taken to insure that a second marriage has the highest opportunity for success and Gods blessing.
1. The main passages in the Bible which are most often discussed in treatments of this issue are: Genesis 2:23-24, Dueteronomy 24:14, Malachi 2:14-16, Matthew 5:31-32,19:3-12, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, Romans 7:1-6, 1 Corinthians 7:10-15.
2. An interesting volume produced by Intervarsity Press, "Divorce and Remarriage, Four Christian Views," Illustrates the remarkable disagreement some of the Biblical issues relating to divorce and remarriage. The views include some wide disagreement and sharp rebuttal; yet the authors all hold degrees from the same school, Dallas Seminary. Dallas is known for a particular theological viewpoint and its emphasis on careful and conservative study of the Bible. Still, the four principle views on divorce and remarriage emerge from its graduates.
3. Among conservative Bible teachers, there seem to be four main views on divorce and remarriage. If one labors long enough, one will discover some sub-views but these are less common and less important. Here is a short explanation and brief critique of these four views:
A. The no divorce no remarriage view. This view sees marriage as indissoluble, based on the kinship implications of Genesis. There is no permission in the believing community for divorce or remarriage. Any remarriage after divorce constitutes at the very least an act of adultery. Those who hold this view often argue for enforcement of this standard in the church.
Critique: This view seems to have the proper understanding of marriage. The Scripture does present marriage as an unobliterable kinship bond. The principle weakness of this view is the failure to acknowledge the reality of divorce. Although the Bible nowhere promotes, sanctions, or establishes divorce (or grounds for divorce), it does acknowledge it. Moses and Paul both saw it as a reality in a fallen word, even in the believing community. The Scripture clearly maintains that divorce involves sin, but it is not something that can be completely prohibited.
B. The divorce but no remarriage view. This view presents the identical understanding of marriage as the first view. However, it sees the Scripture as allowing some necessary divorce, but without any permission for remarriage.
Critique: Since this is my own view, I find it hard to disagree with it. Again I believe it is built on the foundation of the Biblical understanding of marriage. It does acknowledge with the Scripture the reality of divorce, but disputes the worldly notion that divorce grants an automatic right to remarry. That thinking does not seem to follow Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthains 7:10-11. Some who hold this view believe that the divorced must commit themselves to life long singleness, if reconciliation becomes impossible. This aspect of the view I do not embrace as I explain in the text of this paper. According to many writers and scholars this view also represents the ancient view of the church.
C. The divorce and remarriage for adultery and desertion view. This view sees the sins of adultery and desertions as so heinous as to merit the dissolution of the marriage. The "innocent party" acquires a "right" to seek divorce and remarriage. Some who hold this view see marriage in a different light, as a contract for companionship rather than a kinship bond. Others see marriage as a kinship bond, but permit it to be broken because the sins of adultery and desertion act so strongly against the marriage.
Critique: There are several problems with this view. First, there is legitimate reason to object to the "exceptions" of adultery and desertion on Biblical grounds. I do not believe the Scripture intended to grant such exceptions and therefore see these "grounds" as based on a faulty understanding of the Bible. Second, the understanding of marriage in this view can be questioned, most obviously in those who fail to see the permanent kingship bond. Third, this view contradicts the consistent teaching given by the Bible on divorce by permitting, and even sanctioning a right to divorce. And fourth, the history of this view argues against it. According to some scholars, this view was invented by the Reformation era Catholic thinker Erasmus who concocted it in the desire to see the Catholic church become more tolerant and forgiving of divorced individuals. It was later that others came along and tried to search out some exegetical basis for it. This leads one to have reservations about its Scriptural basis. Finally this view brings forth the absurdity that God was not wise enough to establish all of the potential “grounds” for divorce. Adultery and desertion only? What about wife beating? What about child molestation? What about willful impoverishment? Clearly God did not mean to supply only two grounds for divorce. Divorce is reserved for those appalling situations in which one or both spouses have gone bad, whatever the manifestations and realities which appear.
D. The divorce and remarriage in light of God's grace view. This views understands the Scripture very well, arguing that marriage is an indissoluble kinship bond and that divorce and remarriage involve sin. However, it views this merely as an ideal. God has stated his ideal in the Bible, but permits divorce and remarriage as a necessary convention in light of man's sinfulness. Therefore God's grace permits us to divorce and remarry when we find that our marriages are irretrievably broken.
Critique: This view is the most troubling because of its treatment of the Bible. The Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage is not seen as a compelling guideline to be taught and established in the believing community, but as a high standard that cannot be attained. Therefore, when anyone decides he cannot achieve the ideal, so be it. This reminds one of the era of the Judges, when everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.” This view also stresses that the church has no authority to hold anyone accountable to the teaching of the Bible, since only two people can decide if and when their marriage is finished. On the contrary, it does seem that what is written in the Bible about divorce and remarriage is meant to establish guidelines and to compel us to obey.
4. It should be stated that the Bible in no way institutes or prescribes divorce. Rather it is better said that it acknowledges it, and even, we may say, permits it. In other words there are no Old Testament or New Testament passages, which compel or call for divorce. It is simply seen as an inevitability in a sinful world. The first major passage in the Bible on the subject illustrates this. Dueteronomy 24:14 is an obscure piece of case law that regulates the practice of divorce and remarriage, specifically prohibiting the return of a divorced woman to her original husband when there has been an intervening marriage. In such circumstances, Moses evidently provided for the issue of a bill of divorcement, written to settle the legal and financial questions involved. This reflects the Bible's approach to divorce and remarriage: not something God desired or invented but something which has to be acknowledged and regulated because of humanity’s sinfulness.
5. Various works on this subject have included discussion on how to apply church discipline in cases of divorce and remarriage. It is certainly right to say that believers are accountable within the body of Christ for steps taken in this area. However, one should question the erection of an entire disciplinary program just for divorce, which treats it as some kind of exceptional sin. Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota has produced an excellent statement on this point in a paper entitled, "A Statement on Divorce and Remarriage in the Life of Bethlehem Baptist Church" (pages 30). It captures the need for discipline in the matter of divorce and remarriage without giving it exceptional status. I quote from this document in part:
"Neither divorce nor remarriage is in itself the unforgivable sin any more than murder, stealing, lying or coveting... Church discipline... is never a simple response to past sin. It is always a response to sin that a person continues to affirm or practice. No past sin that is renounced, confessed and forsaken is a ground for church discipline.
Therefore, marital sin is in the same category as lying and killing and stealing when it comes to church discipline and church membership. If someone has lied, killed, stolen, or illegitimately divorced, the issue is not, can they be forgiven? The issue is do they admit that what they did was sin? Do they renounce it? And do they do what they can to make it right?
If a person in the church were known to affirm lying, killing or stealing as appropriate behavior for a Christian, that person would be liable to the discipline of the church. Not because they have lied, killed or stolen in the past and cannot be forgiven, but because they go on affirming NOW that sin is not sin.
Or if a person was openly planning to lie, kill, or steal with a view to receiving (cheap!) forgiveness afterward, that person too would be liable to church discipline.
In all these ways illegitimate divorce and remarriage are NOT in a class by themselves. They are not the unforgivable sin. When it comes to church discipline and church membership they should be treated the same way other public sins are treated.
What makes divorce and remarriage seem to be a special matter of concern in the church is that very seldom does someone affirm the rightness of lying, killing, and stealing. But people often affirm the rightness of divorce and remarriage.
In other words what usually causes the conflict is not whether divorce and remarriage are unforgivable sins, but whether they are sins at all to be confessed (from the past) and to be avoided (in the future).
If a person has stolen things in his past and wants to join the church, no one would say that we are treating stealing as the unforgivable sins if we insist that this person confess his sin and begin to make amends to those he defrauded.
A sin is not unforgivable because it must be confessed as sin, renounced as an option, and its effects made right (as far as possible).
So it is with illegitimate divorce or remarriage. It should not keep anyone out of the church nor put anyone out of the church any more than a past life of robbery. But there must be a heartfelt confession of the sin committed and a renouncing of it and an affirming of what is right, just as with all other sins of the past."
With this understanding each case of divorce and remarriage must be assessed in the fellowship just like any other serious sin. Discipline may be needed where there is willful sin and no repentance. Redemptive love may be needed when sin is forsaken. Correction may be called for when there is a faulty understanding of God's will, and encouragement and support when the understanding is sound. Certainly compassion and action are called for in the cases where a person has been victimized by sin.
6. The so called Traditional Protestant View (divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery and desertion) has majored on two exceptions to the general teaching on the subject. The general teaching of the permanence of marriage and the sinfulness of divorce becomes null and void in cases of adultery and desertion. In these cases there is a "right" to divorce and remarriage. The following points can challenge this analysis:
- The term used in Matthew's "exception clause" (Matthew 19:9) is the Greek word porneia (fornication) not moicheia (adultery). If an exception on the grounds of adultery was clearly the intent, why wasn't the precise term used? The two terms are not interchangeable. This choice of words brings with it a suggestion that something else was intended. Porneia has a wide range of meaning in the area of unlawful sex.
- The adultery exception is found only in Matthew's gospel. There is no way that Luke's and Mark's readers would have had knowledge of Matthew's exception. Therefore, if Matthew intended a general exception for adultery, the readers of Mark and Luke received teaching which was substantially different. This kind of discrepancy cannot be treated as a simple "detail" that was not included; it involves considerable moral importance. A better explanation is that no general exception was given; rather Matthew's statement has something to do with his peculiar purpose and audience (a Jewish audience). My own view is that the exception refers to permission to break a marriage contract during the Jewish betrothal period for sexual infidelity. This fits the Jewish marriage customs of the day and explains why the exception is omitted in the Gentile oriented gospels of Luke and Mark. Under this thinking, Matthew is consistent with all the other texts on divorce and remarriage. Under the other thinking, the "exception" must be read into every other passage.
- The exception thinking sets up the idea of a "right" to divorce and remarriage. This kind of language and thinking does not seem to be Biblical. It is a stretch to think the Lord meant such a thing when he made His simple statement.
- Adultery is a terrible sin which has great consequences for a marriage but how does it change anything that God has said about the permanence of marriage." Adultery notwithstanding, couples are still bound by God to remain committed to their marriage, and many do, resolving the problem of infidelity. This godly pathway is what the Bible points us to, not a "right" to divorce.
- The history of the adultery exception argues against it. As pointed out above, Erasmus popularized it in the reformation era for practical not scriptural reasons.
- The desertion exception can be criticized for many of the same reasons as the adultery exception, including the permanence of marriage and its more recent origins.
- The text used to argue for a desertion exception (1 Corinthians 7:15) does not explicitly state that one has freedom to divorce and remarry. In fact, the context militates against such an interpretation (see vs. 11, which states that if a partner deserts, one is obligated to be reconciled or remain unmarried). The statement that one who is deserted is "not under bondage" (vs. 15) has a much disputed meaning.
- Careful study of the passage in First Corinthians seven shows that the passage is actually addressing only those who have been deserted by unbelievers. So even if an exception is granted it is only granted in the case of a mixed marriage, a point that few who hold to this exception acknowledge.
7. Most of us can think of examples where patience and time have allowed God to work. Consider two cases known to me (with slight alteration of details).
- A husband viciously abuses his wife and children, usually due to the excessive use of alcohol. His wife, a Christian, divorces him just to protect herself and the children. The man is later sent to prison for various crimes. He becomes a Christian in prison and begins to walk with the Lord in a wonderful way under the guidance of a prison ministry. After several years, he left prison and remarried his wife (who remained faithful to him), and has been leading his family for over ten years. What a God-glorifying outcome. What if her thinking had been that she had a "right" to remarry? What God is saying in His Word is that marriages are not to be discarded under the pressure of temporary circumstances, however difficult they may be at the moment.
- After twenty five years of marriage a husband carries on adulterous relationships. He moves out of house and divorces his wife, a fine Christian. She is, of course, deeply wounded and wronged by this, but survives and continues to faithfully live the Christian life, becoming a tireless servant in the church. She has remained committed to her marriage for the nearly twenty years since the divorce, praying without ceasing for her unsaved, wandering husband. Now in her sixties, she continues to wait. Does not this kind of godliness adorn the Christian faith? She trusts in God as the Bible says and does good. What God is saying in His Word is that preserving marriages is to involve godliness and obedience, not just personal desires and convenience.
8. Those who hold this view take Paul's statement in 1 Corinthains 7:11 to mandate life long singleness even if reconciliation becomes impossible. The following reasons are usually given for this.
- The marriage bond is permanent. That does not change even if a remarriage occurs.
- It is not necessary to be married to be "fulfilled". A person in this situation is to embrace the single life as a gift from God to be used for His glory. Remarriage is often a "selfish" or "passionate" act, which is beneath God's highest will and purpose.
- The remarriage will probably be laden with problems and be more trouble than its worth. Most remarriages do not work out well.
To these arguments, the following counter arguments can be made:
- Although the meaning of marriage does not change when reconciliation becomes impossible, the second marriage by the offending spouse certainly ends that first marriage in every sense imaginable. What remains? It becomes an impossibility. The spirit of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthains 7:11 is not violated by a remarriage after reconciliation becomes impossible.
- The accusation that one is being "selfish" in seeking to be married is too categorical. It is perfectly ordinary for Christians to desire to be married. The Bible encourages marriage as a rule. Insisting on life long singleness seems to be a legalistic ethic, which holds to the letter of the law absent the spirit or intent of it.
- It is true that second marriages are more risky than first marriages, but statistics do not doom anyone's marriage. Each marriage must succeed or fail on its own merits, not on the basis of statistics. Do we all not know some remarriages that are excellent marriages that seem to be filled with love and God's blessing? Caution is called for in remarriage, to be sure, but not prohibition.
9. The ordinance of marriage in the Bible stems from creation, not just faith. It applies to all mankind. Some make a distinction for various reasons between "pre-conversion" divorces and "post-conversion" divorces. This may or may not have validity, depending on the reasons. But the counsel suggested by this paper can be used for both believers and unbelievers since it reflects God's will for mankind. One may have to approach the situation differently, but the direction of our counsel should be the same for those outside of or inside of Christ.