Ask Steve: Divorce and Remarriage

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Question: Steve, what is your view of divorce and remarriage? How strictly will you follow this view in practice?

Answer: Divorce and remarriage is a popular, if not touchy, subject in the world today. Societies try to redefine the moral boundaries of divorce and remarriage, as if the standard is entirely based on the person’s emotional preference or life circumstance. However, the Bible has definitive teachings on this matter, which no man can change. Marriage, divorce, and remarriage are defined by God. Therefore, to go against God’s timeless principles as it regards divorce and remarriage would constitute sin – a rebellion against God’s intentional order.

My view on divorce and remarriage is what I believe God’s word teaches about this matter – that it is permissible, but in limited circumstances. The Lord directly states in Malachi 2:16, “I hate divorce.” It is evident since the book of Genesis that God intended marriage between a man and a woman to be lifelong. It is not in God’s desire that marriages end in divorce, especially sinful divorce. Jesus the Son of God affirms this when He answers the Pharisees’ question concerning the legitimacy of divorce: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:5-6).

However, this does not mean that divorce is not permitted or sanctioned under any circumstance. In the same passage, Jesus provides a helpful commentary on the ancient Mosaic practice of a husband writing a certificate of divorce and sending his wife away (v. 7). Christ explains that Moses did not command or encourage that a husband divorce his wife after her unfaithful act or habit. Rather, Moses merely permitted it as a last-resort response to the spouse’s hardened heart. In other words, divorce (and remarriage) have been permitted by the Lord to accommodate to certain occurrences that happen as a result of living in a fallen, sin-cursed earth. Jesus teaches that a man cannot divorce his wife unless she has committed physical adultery or vice versa (v. 9). A person who divorces his spouse (without the proper biblical reason) and marries another woman is guilty of committing adultery (v. 9), because the marriage pact of the original couple is still divinely intact, no matter if the world separates them by a legal divorce.

Divorce 2Other sections of Scripture comment on the biblical legality of remarriage. Divorce is permitted if an unbelieving, unrepentant spouse wants to separate from the Christian spouse (1 Cor 7:15), although the Christian should attempt to keep the marriage intact if possible, for the sake of God’s design of marriage. In any case, the Christian should not be the one to initiate the divorce from the unbelieving spouse, especially if the unbeliever wants to keep the marriage binding (1 Cor 7:12). As the passage states, “…if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband…”

If the Christian has no choice but to agree to the legal divorce because the unbeliever cannot tolerate the spouse’s faith, then it is permissible for the Christian to let the unbelieving spouse go for the sake of peace in the family (Rom 12:18). In this situation, the Christian can either remain single and devote his life/her life exclusively to the service of Christ (v. 34-35) or he can remarry, but only to another Christian (v. 39-40). In fact, the marrying option was encouraged for widows who continually burn in their desire for a man (1 Tim 5:17), especially if it is evident that they have a greater desire for marriage than an exclusive, full-time service to the Lord in ministry.

Finally, remarriage is legitimate if the spouse dies. As Romans 3:3 says, “So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.” In this case, the spouse is freed from the spiritual liabilities and penalties of God’s law in marriage, since the statutes of marriage are only binding for this life. Marriage is not intended to go into eternity, but ends at death. The purpose of marriage is that it points to a greater reality: Christ. The picture of marriage is ultimately fulfilled in the final marriage between Christ (the groom) and the church (the bridge) (Eph 5:26-27; Rev 19:9). In fact, the entire gospel (man’s salvation and union with Christ) explains the mystery behind the human institution of marriage.

Divorce 3Why is there such thing as marriage in the world? Why is marriage supposed to be between man and woman? Why is marriage supposed to be lifelong? Why does marriage involve festivities? Why is marriage exclusive, in which partners cannot seek other “loves” outside of the two-party union? Because it is modeled on the future covenant between Christ and the church. The picture on earth is a type that points to the future heavenly reality. We see God’s faithfulness to the elect in that those who are saved by faith will not fall away from His forgiving grace, no matter how much Christians have sinned after their justification. In other words, Christ does not “divorce” or cast off those whom He has elected and justified. We see the picture of the marriage in heaven between Christ and the church (Rev 19:9), in which Christ promises to be their God, and they His people, forever.

This is the reason why marriage is to be permanent. Marriages cannot be broken because a husband is “bored” with his wife, desires a more compatible mate, or even because of constant conflicts or domestic abuses. “Irreconcilable differences” does not fit the biblical permission for divorce. Remarriage is only permitted when the spouse is unfaithful, dies, or the unbelieving partner leaves. Other reasons for remarriage are not permitted in the Bible.

Some dilemmas typically arise with these mandates. One of the prevalent reasons that people divorce is incompatibility or domestic abuse. Many see this as a legitimate reason to divorce. However, the Bible does not entertain this reason. The principles in Scripture are timeless and do not change based on unique circumstances. If a wife is suffering abuse from her husband, the most appropriate course of action is to seek biblical counseling for the marriage and/or enter into a period of separation (not divorce) from her husband for safety’s sake. She is to pray that the Lord would bring her husband to saving faith or repentance from his actions. If he repents, then reconciliation and healing takes place. If he does not repent and files for divorce (which demonstrates that he might not truly be a believer), then she is not obligated to remain with him. Remember, the Christian should not be the one to sin and initiate the divorce, but to do what is right and trusting in the Lord’s providence.

Another popular situation involves a person who becomes Christian after he has been divorced from his wife. Should he pursue reconciliation with his wife? What if she is an unbeliever? Though the man’s past sins (including unjust divorce) have been forgiven through his salvation in Christ (Acts 2:38; Col 1:14), he should still do what most honors the Lord and upholds the testimony of the gospel message. He is free to remarry another Christian woman, but he should seek to reconcile with his wife if it is possible. Even if she is an unbeliever, it is more appropriate to first pursue marriage amendments with her. If that reconciliation is not possible because she adamantly declines or she has remarried and/or started a new family with another person, then the Christian is under no obligation anymore in God’s law to pursue reconciliation with the former spouse (1 Cor 7:15), but is free to remarry. This same principle applies in the case of newly converted Christian women attempting to seek reconciliation with her unbelieving husband.

Another question that is typically asked, “Should I keep the marriage intact even if my adulterous wife genuinely repents?” Even though adultery provides the legitimate grounds for divorce, we must keep in mind that God’s intention from the very beginning is that marriages remain intact, since He hates divorce. Therefore, if an adulterous spouse genuinely repents from his/her actions, it is better to forgive, pursue reconciliation, and keep the marriage together. I say this not only for the peace of the family (including the children), but because such display of grace and mercy brilliantly captures the grace that Christ shows to His church (even when we sin in multiple ways against Him everyday, some of which includes idolatry).

Since Christ promises to commit to Christians until the end, so should we toward our spouse, even in severe times of conflicts. The preservation of the marriage, in the spirit of love, testifies to the grace that God provides for marriage, and is a sound testimony to the gospel itself. We love our wives and serve them selflessly (despite their difficulties) because Christ loved us (despite our daily disobedience to Him). We stay with them to the very end because Christ promises to be with His church to the very end.

My convictions regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage impacts how I teach this principle and counsel others who are not living out the biblical guidelines concerning divorce and remarriage. Because these principles are grounded in God’s revealed will, it will be the basis for which I conduct marriages and remarriages. It will be the standard for which I advise couples concerning divorce.

Recommended Resource: God, Marriage, & Family by Andreas Kostenberger