Up to the early years of the twentieth century, divorce was almost unheard of in the Christian community. Soon after World War II, however, the increasing divorce rate created a need for many churches to review their rigid condemnation of divorce followed by remarriage. By the end of the twentieth century, a California-based polling and marketing group that specializes in religion, called the Barna Group, found that those who characterized themselves as fundamentalists had a slightly higher rate of divorce than did the general public. Members of the more traditional, liturgical denominations had fewer divorces.
A Philadelphia psychologist and counselor decided to focus on this disturbing information for his doctoral research. He learned that the most prominent reason for divorce among the general population was incompatibility. The primary reasons for divorce among the Christian population were adultery, abuse (substance, physical, verbal), and abandonment. He also found that while Christians stay with their marriages longer, they divorce anyway after putting up with considerably more pain.
The problem of failure of so many marriages with their tragic aftermath is huge and complex. The purpose of this booklet is to help sort out the Bible’s position regarding divorce; and under what circumstance, if any, Christians may remarry without manifestly sinning against God and His family.
A Lifelong Commitment
God has always intended marriage to last as long as both partners live, and it continues to be what He wants. It is self-deluding and sinful to enter marriage with any other thought in mind than to stay together until death. Note what is but a sampling of many biblical statements affirming this:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to men who know the law — that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man (Romans 7:1-3).
Pharisees Test Jesus
Though divorces became more widespread during the twentieth century, marriage dissolutions have been taking place for millennia. It was a sensitive issue during Jesus’ time. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to divulge His opinion regarding this social and moral problem. After one of His teaching sessions, they approached Jesus to pose a test question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Jesus asked the Pharisees what provisions existed in Moses’ law. They replied that Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce wherewith a man could send his wife away. Jesus acknowledged that Moses issued such a law, but it was made available because of the people’s hard-heartedness. This allowance did not conform to the original intent for marriage. Jesus reviewed the original intent, cited in a passage above.
Jesus also stated,
The “Porneia” Clause
The original plan for marriage was for couples to remain together as long as both live. No exceptions were included. Later Moses provided for certificates of divorcement, but the reasons for which a wife could be sent away became cause for dispute among Jesus’ countrymen. Two prominent beliefs existed at that time. One was a school named after Rabbi Hillel, whose adherents gave a liberal interpretation of the law. Using modern scenarios, a man could divorce his wife if she cooked badly, spoke disrespectfully of in-laws, talked too loudly, talked to a strange man, spent too much money — or if he saw another woman who attracted him. Almost any excuse to divorce was adequate.
A second school, named after Rabbi Shammai, was strict. The only legitimate cause for divorce was marital unfaithfulness, which had to be proven. No other reason was accepted.
Matthew’s Gospel, which also describes the Pharisees’ test of Jesus on this issue, includes an added phrase:
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
Porneia is the Greek word from which “marital unfaithfulness” is translated. The older King James Version, used almost exclusively in Protestant congregations years ago, translated this word “fornication,” which was given a narrow meaning of sexual intimacy before marriage. This was the basis for some to argue that only a premarital sexual relationship could be legitimate grounds for divorce. Adultery, incest, or any other sexual aberration did not qualify as biblical cause to dissolve a marriage.
Modern versions are helpful because they offer more accurate and comprehensive translations of porneia. It must be noted that this “exception clause” is restricted to sexual unfaithfulness as opposed to non-sexual incompatibility. It provides cause but does not mandate dissolution.
When porneia is the cause for the divorce, the innocent victim does not commit adultery if he or she remarries.
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
1. The Bible says that those who marry become “one flesh.” It is taught that this expression means a lifelong bond has been created that can never be broken. If this is true, is it moral to remarry under any circumstance as long as the first mate still lives?
The Bible’s expression “one flesh” does not specify a lifetime union.
Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16).
Paul advised to “flee sexual immorality” (v. 18), which he described as a “sin against one’s own body.” Paul is hardly stating that everyone who copulates with a prostitute has entered a lifelong marriage bond with her that can never be broken. But by becoming “one flesh” with her, he has, in that immoral act, sinned against his own body. The verse cited above answers straightforwardly what “one flesh” means.
Proposing that the “one flesh” union defines a lifetime commitment deduces that a person may be divorced officially but not in reality. The couple may be separated by divorce decree, but the attachment is never dissolved. Biblical concepts indicate otherwise. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 describes a hypothetical situation in which a man put away his wife. She married a second man, who was also displeased with her and put her away (divorced her). In such a situation, the first husband was not allowed to take her back even though the second husband may have died. It was called “detestable in the eyes of the Lord.” If she were still attached to her first husband in a “one flesh for life” provision, nothing could prohibit the original couple from getting back together after a second marriage. Divorce ends the marriage.
Ezra 9 and 10 inform of the terrible sins committed by God’s people in marrying “foreign women.” To correct their error,
Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law (Ezra 10:3).
It would be highly unlikely that these Israelites who followed God’s will by putting away these foreign women would still be married to them.
Further indication that marriages can be dissolved is in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. As you read this passage, note how firmly Jesus agrees that this woman, married five times, has no husband.
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true” (John 4:16-18).
If this woman was not cohabiting as man and wife with a man to whom she was not married, it would be difficult to ascertain what Jesus meant when He said, “The man you now have is not your husband.” One does not automatically marry someone for the rest of both their lives as a consequence of sexual intimacy.
2. I have heard that God does not recognize a second marriage as legitimate, that partners continuing in a second marriage live in adultery. Don’t these couples have to dissolve their second marriage in order to stop committing adultery?
Jesus’ language provides clarification. Note His use of the word marries. When people marry after a divorce or marry someone who is divorced, they commit adultery, but the remarriage is still legal and they are committed to it. While many remarriages are adulterous, not every act of adultery produces a marriage. The difference is that a marriage forms a husband-wife relationship. By definition, one cannot commit adultery by uniting sexually with his or her own mate. If Jesus recognized two people to be married to each other, He obviously applied the sin of adultery to the act of remarrying. Once married, even though sinfully, a marriage union is formed. If a person divorces a second time to return to the first mate, adultery is committed by marrying the first mate a second time. We may conclude from Jesus’ statements that anyremarriage after any divorce, except for marital unfaithfulness, is committing adultery. See again Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
“Living in adultery” is not a biblical term. However, the phrase may be applied where two people who are married but not to each other are living together as man and wife.
Herod and Herodias were married to each other and were living in adultery (Mark 6:17-19). The circumstance is worthy of analysis. Another issue is introduced here. John the Baptist condemned this union because of its illegality. The Bible affirms they married, indicating that Herodias became Herod’s wife. Yet John the Baptist’s accusation was “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herod, Philip’s half-brother, went to Rome where Philip and his wife, Herodias, lived, and he accepted this brother’s invitation to stay at his home. When Herod returned to Jerusalem, he took Herodias with him. There is no mention when or where they were married.
There are three reasons that John the Baptist correctly termed the marriage “not lawful.” The first two were that each partner had a living mate. The third reason was that they were too closely related to allow a lawful marriage (review Leviticus 18:1-20). Herodias was the niece of both Philip and Herod. The term “living in adultery” is not used in any description of this marriage or cohabitation. Because John denounced the marriage as “not lawful,” he reasoned that Herodias was still Philip’s wife. An illegal marriage is not recognized as a marriage, making subsequent living together as husband and wife immoral.
3. How should the church react to members who divorce and remarry, thereby committing adultery?
Organized churches are institutions run by humans for humans, and it is difficult to describe generally how denominations ought to regulate these multifaceted problems. It is difficult to be consistent. If a divorce and remarriage took place before the couple became Christians and they have been forgiven by God, they would likely be extended the same acceptance and latitude offered the general membership.
On the other hand, if a divorce and remarriage took place while the partners were members in good standing of the church, dealing with the severe infraction is more intricate. In addition to knowingly and willfully disobeying the church’s prohibitions, they have ignored God’s disallowance and warnings, demonstrated their rebellion, and risked His wrath. Such behavior should hardly escape retribution.
Adultery is a grievous sin because of its assault on families, churches, and countless others. A church’s reaction to such a sin demonstrates the strength of her determination to protect against this harmful compromise of Christian witness. To trivialize it is to bring severe injury to God’s family.
However, all have sinned and come short of God’s glory. Where people recognize the gravity of their error, and then sincerely repent, express remorse, and acknowledge their misdeed, and where they feel God has forgiven, who can deny such people God’s forgiving grace? Adultery is forgivable; Jesus forgave. Where God has forgiven, it is severe for others to remain unforgiving.
4. Didn’t Paul say that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, the marriage can be dissolved?
Yes, he did. This is what has been termed the Pauline Privilege. First Corinthians 7:12-16 contains important specifics. Paul instructs that the believer must not break up the marriage. If the unbeliever wishes to continue in the marriage, the believer must concur. This provides for the possibility that both the unbeliever and the children will be sanctified through a believer’s presence in the home. However, if the unbeliever leaves, that is allowed, because people of faith have a right to live at peace. Paul’s language indicates that when the nonbeliever leaves, “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” (v. 15). This means the marriage is dissolved.
5. How do annulments fit into the Bible’s teaching on this subject?
Annulment suggests that the couple whose marriage is annulled should be considered as though they were never married. Where the marriage was never consummated (no sexual intimacy), an annulment may document this, which might be helpful when a partner anticipates marrying again. From a moral and biblical standpoint, annulments and divorces are the same. There may be differing legal and civil considerations.
6. Isn’t marriage a sacrament* that makes it indissoluble?
This question calls for important distinctions. Our focus is on biblicalteachings regarding divorce and remarriage. It is important, therefore, to distinguish between what the Bible teaches and what the Catholic church decrees by tradition.
The “sacrament of matrimony” suggests that a holy bond is created between a man and a woman that gives a special grace and strength to the couple. The sacrament requires that both parties to the marriage be baptized, that the marriage be held in a Catholic church, that a priest or deacon witness it, and that if one of the partners is not Catholic, he or she must agree to the teachings of the church on marriage and agree to raise their children as Catholics. The couple must give full consent to the marriage. Any exceptions to these provisions must be reviewed and agreed to by a member of the Catholic church’s hierarchy. If all qualifications are in place and the marriage is recognized as a “sacrament of matrimony,” the union may not be dissolved for any reason as long as both partners live. Under certain extreme circumstances, a couple may divorce and live separately, but they may never remarry except to each other. If one remarries anyone else, the couple lives in sinful adultery as long as the second marriage continues.
However, there may be cause to nullify** the marriage under these circumstances: if there was question about consent (such as marrying because of premarital pregnancy); if it was “meant to be”; if other family members were pushing it (a mother wanting grandchildren); or if a couple dated long enough, prompting suggestions that it was time to marry, etc., and indicating that both partners may not have been fully convinced to seek marriage.
In addition to questions about full consent, if there were questions about whether a couple did not know who they were marrying, such as a surprise from their past, or an unknown physical or character impediment, there might be cause for annulment. Also, if a partner did not understand what it meant to be married, there could be cause. The grounds for termination of the marriage may be considered for judgment by a member of the Catholic church hierarchy with a view toward annulment.
These regulations are by Catholic church decree and are fallible. They have evolved over the years through amendment of church tradition. They satisfy a church. However, the principles reflecting the will of God are found in the Bible. In God’s Word a marriage is stipulated as a union of a man and woman who agree to leave father and mother and commit to cling to each other as long as both live. It is an arrangement ordained by God but was never described as or designated a sacrament. There is no passage in Scripture that ties a wedding to a church ceremony.
A church organization has a right to determine boundaries for marriage to suit its own traditions and membership requirements. But it has no authority to superimpose these onto God’s definition of marriage and onto the provisions for dissolution described in the Holy Scriptures.
Marriage was ordained by God. Though created by Him, it is not an ecclesiastical but a civil and social status. It is the commitment of a man and woman to leave father and mother and live together as “one flesh” as long as both live. Because of hard-heartedness, Moses allowed a certificate of divorce. Jesus taught that if a divorcee remarries, or if someone marries a divorcee, he or she commits adultery. However, if the cause for divorce was marital (sexual) unfaithfulness, the innocent party is free to remarry. The Pauline Privilege provides that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, the believer must remain with the marriage, giving potential for the children and unbelieving mate to experience sanctification. However, if the unbeliever wishes to leave, it is permitted; the marriage is dissolved.
Adultery is forgivable when a person seeks God’s grace on His terms. When a person remarries, a new union is formed that requires all of the commitment and devotion of any marriage. Matrimony is not sacramental, and there is no meaningful difference between annulment, which the Bible never mentions nor describes, and divorce.