It is sad to see born-again children of God considering their options in marriage. After being married for eleven years this September, and going from literal hell to grace during the first nine years, I can empathize and also stand firm on God’s Word concerning hard times in marriage and possible divorce.
As I descent into this topic, I will exhaust as much as I can, as concisely as I can. I should caution, this a little lengthy, but my hope is it's informative enough that it’s worth the time.
What the Bible says Marriage is and is not
Allow me to start with explaining what the biblical teaching on marriage is. God didn’t waste any time defining what marriage is, but without the term “marriage”. In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” And so God made a woman—from man—for man to be in a covenant (a mutual binding) relationship with one another (Gen. 2:19-25). The man is rejoined to the woman to again become one flesh. Thus, marriage is a relationship between a man who leaves (uncommits himself from) his parents and becomes joined (bound—covenanted in soul, in mind, in emotion, in speech, and in the physical) as one flesh with his wife in the sight of God. Furthermore, the New Testament solidified this covenant relationship when Jesus and the Apostle Paul quoted the same statement by God in Genesis 2 (cf. Matt. 19:3-6, Eph. 5:31).
The God-designed marriage as seen in Genesis nullifies our contemporary definitions of what marriage could or should be. A God-designed marriage cannot be between same sexes. A God-designed marriage is not a civil union. A God-designed marriage is not living together as boyfriend and girlfriend or even as engaged. A God-designed marriage is not a long-term relationship that acts or looks as if it is a marriage. A God-designed marriage is not between multiple men and women—polygamy. A God-designed marriage cannot be between children; for children are still under the care of their parents of whom the man has to leave in order to become one flesh with his wife. A God-designed marriage excludes “the mentally impaired, and those who are psychotic or psychopathic at the time of entering into marriage.”(1) Why exclude these particular classes—children, psychotic, mentally impaired, and psychopathic? That can be answered like such,
"To sunder one’s parental relationships and join oneself in (sic) intimate, lifelong union with a person who hitherto has been a stranger demands a considerable degree of maturity—as expressed in a capacity for self-giving love, emotional stability, and the capacity to understand what is involved in committing one’s life to another in marriage.(2)"
Also, the God-designed marriage as seen in Genesis is the foundation for the condemnation of fornication (sex outside of marriage) and adultery (unfaithfulness within the covenant relationship of marriage); because you’re only suppose to become one flesh/joined with your husband or wife. Furthermore, God charged the first male and female, who were married, to be fruitful and multiply—that is, have sex and reproduce only in the context of marriage (Gen. 1:27-28). Accordingly, we can clearly see marriage is serious in God’s eyes.
God's view on Divorce
With seeing what God’s designed marriage is, we can now appropriately move into God’s view on divorce. In Deuteronomy 24 is where we find the first mention of the law concerning divorce. I like what D.J. Atkinson had to say in regards to the law concerning divorce. He said, “this legislation is granting a permission, not giving a command.”(3) If you take a hard, long look at the passage, there is no hint of a command to divorce but rather the presupposition that divorce will take place. Atkinson goes on further to say, “the main point of the paragraph is concerned with remarriage….The paragraph recognizes that divorces happen, though it does not command or encourage them.”(4) The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “Moses’ aim was “to regulate and Thus (sic) to mitigate an evil which he could not extirpate (completely remove).””(5) Hence, we can see from the inception of this law divorce was never commanded by God, but simply orderly permitted because sinful man was already inclined to divorce.
The follow-up question to this is what is permissible for divorce then? According to Deuteronomy 24:1, what was permissible was “he has found some uncleanness in her”. The term “uncleanness” is interpreted in others translations as “indecency”. Regardless, both in the Hebrew for this context mean nakedness or to make/become naked.(6) Matthew Henry writes in his commentary, “This uncleanness must mean something less than adultery; for, (sic) for that, she was to die…”(7) The Bible says in Leviticus 20:10 that both the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death. So this passage in Deuteronomy could imply a number of different reasons for one to get a divorce.
The same ambiguity in the Deuteronomy passage was presented before the greatest scholar ever to live, Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisees’ asked Jesus “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matt. 19:3). Jesus answered quoting Genesis 2:24. What does this mean? Jesus was stating, if you get married stay married and only let God separate what He has joined together; hence it’s more lawful (right) to stay married rather than divorce. The Pharisees then bring up Deuteronomy 24:1, but presented it out of context. “They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”” (Matthew 19:7). Jesus first corrects their misinterpretation by telling them, one, the certificate was given because of the hardness of your heart not as a way out for you in your marriage; two, Moses permitted it not commanded it; and three, “from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8). Again implying it’s more lawful (right) to stay married rather than divorce. But then Jesus, whom I believe knew in their heart they weren’t satisfied with the answer He gave them, goes on to supersede the old law—i.e. with the phrase “And I say to you” (Matt. 19:9 compare with Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-37)—and clarify the ambiguity with “found some uncleanness in her” by restating what He taught in the sermon on the mount in “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”(8) This response by Jesus we can tell, by the response of the Apostles, was taken with more conviction and had hit a nerve in the heart behind most Jews reasons for divorce: “His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”” (Matt. 19:10). So we can see that Jesus put more emphasis on how it’s more lawful (right) to stay married rather than divorce, but if one must divorce, then it is permissible on the grounds of sexual immorality.
Now, later on the Apostle Paul addresses again this topic of marriage and divorce. But first, let’s clear up a possible misinterpretation before moving forward. In Romans 7:1-3 and 1Corinthians 7:11, Paul is not saying by his silence in this passage that whoever gets a divorce is committing adultery, for we already know Jesus said divorce is permitted on the grounds of sexual immorality. Yet, the Apostle does add to the teaching on divorce in 1Corinthians 7. Paul says if a Christian is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever decides to depart the marriage, the Christian is not bound in that type of divorce (1Cor. 7:15). Thus, as "narrow-minded" as this may sound to some, according to the New Testament, divorce is permitted only on the grounds of sexual immorality and the departure of an unbelieving spouse. Any other reasons cause the Christian to commit adultery.
What about Remarriage?
The next question is, is it then ever acceptable for a Christian to remarry? According to the passages we just discussed, yes, either if there is (i)a divorce on the permitted grounds of sexual immorality or (ii)departure of an unbelieving spouse, or, according to Romans 7:2, (iii)if the spouse dies. Now on a more personal perspective, because Christians are justified by Christ alone through faith alone, if a Christian does divorce and remarry for other reasons and circumstances other than what the Scriptures state are permissible, while they may be charged under Scripture with committing adultery that has no bearing on their justification (i.e. their salvation status before God) nor God's love for them. Yes there will be consequences for the decisions and actions. But according to 1John 1:9, as long as they sincerely confess their sins Jesus is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So their new marriage is fine, and hopefully will be better than the first after learning from the previous experience. Moreover, I believe that just as there are other extreme cases where divorce is permissible (e.g. a pattern of physical abuse, a spouse has been lost/missing for years, etc), if one get’s remarried after an extreme case that it too is permissible.
Divorce, although permissible, and although it cannot separate you from God’s love for you (Rom. 8:31-39), it will always leave debris. D.J. Atkinson describe it this way, “The word “divorce” in the phrase “bill of divorcement” is related to the word for hewing down trees, even cutting off heads. It indicates the severing of what was once a living union. Divorce, then, is a kind of amputation. It cannot happen without damage to the partners concerned.”(9) I’ll go further and say, divorce cannot happen without damage to not only the partners but the families and, if present, the children as well. The debris of divorce from Christians affects the church in its witness to the world and hinders it from glorifying and representing Jesus in our families. Also, divorce in general affects society by diminishing the view and standard of marriage to the watching generations.
Reflect and Respond well
It is because of sin and the hardness of man’s heart that divorce is permissible. But it is permissible with consequences. These consequences are serious and have to be taken into thoughtful consideration, especially if you’re currently thinking about divorce. Divorce should not be an option, but I understand that it is and I understand sometimes it may be necessary. But there will still be consequences, so prayerfully respond well.
Remarriage from a divorce while permissible is questionable without maturity from the one seeking to be remarried. Otherwise you’ll bring the same personal issues and character defects into the new marriage. Remarriage is as equally serious as an initial marriage. Please take this into thoughtful consideration. Be sure to clear up all the debris from your divorce or risk bringing those unhealthy damages into this new union and possibly contaminating it.
God’s designed marriage, if done using His wisdom and led by His Spirit, is a beautiful, lifelong covenant of mutual intimacy, support, companionship, and maturity, best described and displayed in the mystery of Christ and His Church. Biblical courting, pre-marital counseling and mentoring, and not rushing into marriage are good ways to make sure time and godly discernment are properly vested before you say “I do” to a lifelong covenant relationship with another fallen human being. Please take this into thoughtful consideration.
And for those already married, things like marriage counseling and mentoring, individual counseling, personal discipleship, and building relationships with other mature, godly married couples to help hold you accountable, pour into, and build up your marriage are great ways to assist in the success and joy of this lifelong covenant relationship. Please take this into thoughtful consideration.
I’ll end with this, divorce is permissible and remarriage is permissible, and God loves you in it all and through it all. But God’s desire is it’s best that if you get married to stay married and only let Him separate what He has joined together.
1. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 744
2. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 744
3. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 346
4. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 346 (emphasis added)
5. James Orr, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia via eSword, “Divorce in The Old Testament” (parenthetical remarks added)
6. Ervah—From arah; nudity, literally (especially the pudenda) or figuratively (disgrace, blemish) -- nakedness, shame, unclean(-ness). Arah—A primitive root; to be (causatively, make) bare.
7. Matthew Henry (1662 - 1714). Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible
8. Matthew 19:9 compare with Matthew 5:31-32
9. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 348 (emphasis added)