Does the Bible Permit Divorce and Remarriage?

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Image by stevepb. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 28/Jul/2021

The Bible’s Answer

The Bible prohibits both divorce and remarriage after divorce. According to the Bible, marriage is a life-long, covenantal union between one man and one woman1, whom God has joined together and made one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:6). It is an indissoluble life-long union which not even divorce can terminate, but ends only when either the husband or wife dies (Romans 7:2–3; 1 Corinthians 7:39).

The Lord Jesus Christ gave the universal prohibition for anyone to separate such a union, by which he condemned and forbade divorce for any reason (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19:6). The Apostle Paul also prohibited divorce, and taught that people who are divorced/separated should either remain single or else reconcile with their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10–11). Finally, Jesus clearly taught that whoever divorces their spouse and marries another commits adultery, and that whoever marries a divorced person commits adultery (Mark 10:10–11; Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:32).

Jesus’ Teachings

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18, ESVUK)

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31–32)2

Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:7–12)

… ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” … “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:5–6, 8–9)

Paul’s Teachings

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10–11)

For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:2–3)

The Early Church’s Teachings

Hermas

What then shall the husband do, if the wife continue in this disposition [adultery]? Let him divorce her, and let the husband remain single. But if he divorce his wife and marry another, he too commits adultery. (The Shepherd 4:1:6 [A.D. 80])3

Justin Martyr

In regard to chastity, [Jesus] has this to say: ‘If anyone look with lust at a woman, he has already before God committed adultery in his heart.’ And, ‘Whoever marries a woman who has been divorced from another husband, commits adultery.’ According to our Teacher, just as they are sinners who contract a second marriage, even though it be in accord with human law, so also are they sinners who look with lustful desire at a woman. He repudiates not only one who actually commits adultery, but even one who wishes to do so; for not only our actions are manifest to God, but even our thoughts. (First Apology 15 [A.D. 151])

Clement of Alexandria

That Scripture counsels marriage, however, and never allows any release from the union, is expressly contained in the law: ‘You shall not divorce a wife, except for reason of immorality.’ And it regards as adultery the marriage of a spouse, while the one from whom a separation was made is still alive. ‘Whoever takes a divorced woman as wife commits adultery,’ it says; for ‘if anyone divorce his wife, he debauches her’; that is, he compels her to commit adultery. And not only does he that divorces her become the cause of this, but also he that takes the woman and gives her the opportunity of sinning; for if he did not take her, she would return to her husband. (Miscellanies 2:23:145:3 [A.D. 208])

The Synod of Elvira

Likewise, a woman of the faith [i.e., a baptized person] who has left an adulterous husband of the faith and marries another, her marrying in this manner is prohibited. If she has so married, she may not receive Communion—unless he that she has left has since departed from this world. (Canon 9 [A.D. 300])

Augustine

A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should die, not if he commit fornication. A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of fornication; but the bond of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adultery if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of fornication. (Adulterous Marriages 1:9:9 [A.D. 419])

Why Jesus Prohibits Divorce

The context of Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19 comes from the Pharisees trying to test him. They wanted to see if they could make Jesus contradict the law of Moses. In the passage, we read:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:3–8; see also Mark 10:2–9)

In response to the Pharisees’ question of whether it is lawful to divorce one’s wife (in the Jewish culture of the time, only the husband could divorce his wife), Jesus said no, on the basis that man should not separate what God has joined together (Genesis 2:24). Then, after asking Jesus why Moses allowed men to write certificates of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), Jesus gave the astonishing answer that Moses only allowed this because of their “hardness of heart”, before saying that this was not the case in the beginning. In other words, Moses merely tolerated divorce because the people were so “hard-hearted”, that is, unwilling to love, support, or be faithful to their spouses, that it made laws concerning divorce necessary.

Therefore, Jesus was not contradicting the law of Moses by prohibiting divorce. He was simply commanding all people to now obey the law the way God has always wanted and we know from God’s Word that God has always opposed divorce (Malachi 2:16). Instead, Jesus earnestly desires all married couples to work through their differences and disagreements in a loving, patient, and humble manner (1 Corinthians 16:14; Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:1–2; Mark 10:42–45). Jesus wants marriage to reflect his relationship with the church, as Paul taught (Ephesians 5:32).

How does this look? Husbands ought to love their wives in the same way Christ loved his bride, the church, so much that he died for her, and wives ought to respect and submit to their husbands in the same way that the church respects and submits to Christ’s loving leadership in all things (Ephesians 5:22–33). In the same way that Jesus welcomes us back with open arms each time we return to him in repentance, after straying in sin, husbands and wives also ought to always forgive one another when they repent for their wrongdoing, and reconcile (Luke 15:21–24; Matthew 18:21–22).

Are There Biblical Alternatives to Divorce?

Although the Bible does not permit divorce, Paul acknowledges that sometimes separating—not divorcing—from one’s spouse is an inevitable reality, when he said that a wife should not separate from her husband, and then adds in parentheses “but if she does…” (1 Corinthians 7:10–11). Examples of when separation might be prudent would include an unrepentant spouse who is abusive, or who commits adultery. In such situations, the victim would be able to stay separate for as long as he/she feels necessary. However, this should only be done if the innocent spouse has done all that he/she possibly can to reconcile with his/her spouse.

However, a situation may arise in which the innocent spouse needs to get legal custody over the children, finances, or property, etc. In this situation, filing for a civil divorce may not simply be an option, but a necessity. Although this situation is not ideal, the innocent spouse in this sort of situation may be forced into doing it because of the legal system. Christians should not pass judgement on such a person, especially if he/she has tried as hard as possible to make reconciliation possible (1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 16:18). After all, Jesus does not charge those who are divorced with sin, even though he prohibits it; he only charges those who remarry after divorce with the sin of adultery (Mark 10:11–12).

However, the innocent spouse’s civil divorce should not be considered an “absolute” divorce, implying the dissolution of marriage (which is impossible, except in death), but rather a “limited” divorce (implying that he/she is still married, but no longer has to live with his/her spouse).4 In this case, the law of 1 Corinthians 7:10–11 would still be in effect, so both the husband and wife would either have to stay single, or, if the innocent spouse desires, reconcile with the guilty spouse if he/she repents. If either of them marry another person while the other is still alive, they commit adultery.

Why Remarriage after Divorce Is Always Adultery

The Lord Jesus Christ unequivocally calls every marriage in which one or both members of the marriage have been previously divorced an adulterous union, when he said:

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11–12)

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)

This may sound harsh, but no matter how hard humans may try, they can never separate what God himself has already joined together for life (Mark 10:2–9; Matthew 19:3–8). The only one who can do such a thing is God, and God does not do this through divorce, but through death alone (1 Corinthians 7:39; Romans 7:2–3). Because widows are released from the law of marriage, they may remarry, if they desire, although Paul advises them to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:40).

However, because divorced people are not released from the law of marriage, and still have a one-flesh union with the first spouse whom they divorced, they cannot remarry while their first spouse is still alive. If they do, they have committed adultery against their first spouse, to whom they are still married in God’s eyes, and adulterers who refuse to confess and repent of their sin (1 John 1:8–10; Luke 13:5) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). Because adultery is not simply an act, but a state of sin that persists until one ceases from it and repents, people who are remarried after being divorced are in an ongoing adulterous relationship.5

As a result, those who are remarried while their first spouse is still alive, or who are married to a divorced person, find themselves in a situation in which they directly contradict the law of Christ. Therefore, they should not receive Holy Communion for as long as this situation persists, lest they eat and drink judgement upon themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27–32; see also 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). They should also be forbidden from entering into certain biblical offices; for example, men who remarry while their first spouse is still alive cannot be pastors (1 Timothy 3:2). The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ covers all offenses (Psalm 32:1–2, 5; Acts 15:10–11; Romans 8:1), however, the Lord commands that, after we confess our sins, we “sin no more”, rather than continue living in sin (John 5:14; 8:11).

Finally, some people try and justify remarriage after divorce because of sexual temptation. However, you cannot “solve” one sin problem by committing another, even worse, sin. Such thinking only continues the vicious cycle of sin, and, in fact, displays a potentially ingenuine faith in Christ (James 2:26; Hebrews 10:26–27).

Are There Scriptural Exceptions for Divorce and Remarriage?

Some people claim that in Matthew 19:9, Jesus permits people to divorce and subsequently remarry. The passage says:

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8–9)

They claim that according to the “contrary” meaning, if a man divorces his wife on account of “sexual immorality”, and marries another, he has not committed adultery. First, such an explanation forces a human interpretation on the text that our Lord does not give. Jesus does not permit anything in this passage, so one cannot base an entire doctrine out of an argument of silence; that is an exegetical fallacy.6 Second, Jesus just prohibited divorce before (Matthew 19:6–8), so he is clearly not contradicting himself here. Most recent writers on this passage believe that Jesus allowed separation on account of porneia, but not divorce with the right of remarriage.7

Third, the word for “sexual immorality” is from the Greek word porneia, meaning fornication (unlawful sexual intercourse in general), which is distinguished from the Greek word moicheia, meaning adultery (when a married man or woman has sex with anyone other than their spouse).8 It appears, then, that Jesus is distinguishing a true marriage from concubinage (the same can be said for Matthew 5:31–32); for the former, divorce and subsequent remarriage are not permitted.9,10 Another passage some people bring up is the following one:

But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15)

Some people have claimed that when Paul says a Christian is no longer “enslaved” when an unbelieving spouse separates from the Christian spouse, that this means their covenant union has ended, which allows the Christian to divorce and remarry. This is simply an unbiblical assertion that is forced on the text, not something that the text itself tells us.

The word Paul used for “bound” in 1 Corinthians 7:39 and Romans 7:2 is deo, which refers to the legal aspect of being bound to a marriage partner, but here, for the word “enslaved”, Paul used the word douloo instead, which emphasises that Paul does not permit remarriage afterwards.11 Christians are not “enslaved” in that they do not have to fight to preserve their togetherness, and if the unbeliever insists on separating, they can permit it.12 Romans 7:2–3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 make it clear that only the death of your spouse ends the marriage covenant. Finally, another passage some use is 1 Corinthians 7:27–28, which says:

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. (1 Corinthians 7:27–28)

The word Paul used for “free” here is from the Greek word luo, which Paul never uses for the word “divorce”; rather, for “divorce”, Paul uses the words chorizo (1 Corinthians 7:10–11, 15; cf. Matthew 19:6) and aphienai (1 Corinthians 7:11–13).13 Luo is never used for divorce in the New Testament.14

Is This Fair?

Many people today would be shocked by the strictness of our Lord Jesus’ and Saint Paul’s teachings on this topic. In fact, Jesus’ own disciples were also shocked after he had taught this, which prompted their reply: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Indeed: if by marrying, one takes the risk of either being “trapped” in a difficult marriage, or, if the marriage fails, “trapped” living a single life, it is better not to marry at all! However, look at how Jesus responded:

But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Matthew 19:11–12)

Jesus’ response is, essentially, “Even though it may be difficult, God has destined some people to marry, and others to stay single.” In fact, when Jesus spoke of “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, this could very well refer to those who are separated from their spouse, and choose to remain celibate afterwards, in accordance with Jesus’ command. Jesus’ teachings may not seem “fair” or “reasonable” to us, but his word is still the truth (John 17:17), and the truth is final.

Jesus never said living as a Christian would be easy; to the contrary, he said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If you think the consequences of divorce are too great for you, then it is probably better to not marry in the first place. Paul himself never got married and wrote that there are many blessings of a Christian living a single life, because that way you can give your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32–35).

However, Scripture also teaches that there are many blessings to getting married (Psalm 127:4–5; Proverbs 18:22; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 8–9; Ephesians 5:31–32). If you do want to get married one day, then make sure from the beginning that you are willing to stay with the person you want to marry for the rest of your life, for God does not take rash vows lightly (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5; Proverbs 20:25).

Conclusion

If you are divorced, then you must either remain single or else reconcile with your spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10–11). This may not be easy, but know that the Lord Jesus Christ will never leave you for as long as you believe in him (Matthew 28:20). He will give you the strength and resolve to conquer every obstacle in life until he calls you to his heavenly home (1 Corinthians 10:13), by his Holy Spirit, who dwells in Christians (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).

If you are already divorced and remarried, or married to a divorced person, then you are currently in an adulterous union (Mark 10:11–12; Romans 7:2–3). As a result, you should be put under church discipline for as long as this situation persists, which would involve not receiving Holy Communion as well as being forbidden from entering certain biblical offices, lest you incur divine judgement upon yourself (1 Corinthians 11:27–32; 1 Timothy 3:2). No one is beyond the grace of our Lord Jesus (Psalm 32:1–2, 5; Acts 15:10–11; Romans 8:1), however, the Lord clearly commands us to “sin no more” after we confess our sins to him, rather than continue living in sin (John 5:14; 8:11).

If you are married and have never been divorced, then you should not divorce your spouse (Matthew 19:6). Just as Christ and the church love each other, so too should you love your spouse (Ephesians 5:22–33), and resolve any conflicts you may have with love, gentleness, and respect (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:1–2).

To learn about the the good news of salvation (gospel) concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, please read the below article.

See Also

Notes

  1. Many countries have recently legalised “same-sex marriage“, i.e., allowing two persons of the same sex to marry one another. According to the Bible, though, marriage is only between one man and one woman, so same-sex (or homosexual) marriages are not real marriages, and are thus adulterous relationships (Matthew 19:4–6). Furthermore, the Bible teaches that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God (Romans 1:26–271 Corinthians 6:9–10Leviticus 20:13).
  2. In Matthew 5:31–32, Jesus was describing the Jewish system of divorce of the time, in which only a husband could divorce his wife, by obtaining a certificate of divorce and then sending her out of the house. The husband makes the wife “commit adultery” in the sense that, because in those times women often married for financial security, a divorced woman would most likely seek to remarry, which would be adultery. Although Jesus does not exonerate such women, he places the emphasis on the fact that the husband was the one who unjustly put her in that situation, and so he is guilty of the greater sin.
  3. All of the Church Father quotes here were taken from Catholic Answers’ article “What the Early Church Believed: Marriage”, found at <https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-permanence-of-matrimony>.
  4. Catholic Answers Staff, Divorce.
  5. Allen Roth, Divorce and Remarriage.
  6. Trustworthy Word Staff, What Does The Bible Say About Divorce And Remarriage?, 2–3.
  7. Gordan Wenham, May Divorced Christians Remarry?, 158.
  8. Catholic Answers Staff, Does Jesus leave a loophole for divorce in Matthew 19:9?
  9. Ibid.
  10. See also John Piper’s fantastic explanation on this in his article “Does the Bible Allow for Divorce In the Case of Adultery?”, found at <https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-the-bible-allow-for-divorce-in-the-case-of-adultery>.
  11. John Piper, Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper.
  12. Ibid.
  13. John Piper, I Don’t Think So, Doug.
  14. Ibid.

Bibliography

Allen Roth, n.d.. Divorce and Remarriage. Biblical Mennonite Alliance. Accessed on 20/07/21. http://www.biblicalmennonite.com/divorce-and-remarriage.html.

Catholic Answers Staff, n.d.. Does Jesus leave a loophole for divorce in Matthew 19:9? Catholic Answers. Accessed on 17/06/2021. https://www.catholic.com/qa/does-jesus-leave-a-loophole-for-divorce-in-matthew-199.

———, n.d.. Divorce. Catholic Answers. Accessed on 18/06/2021. https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/divorce.

———, n.d.. What the Early Church Believed: Marriage. Catholic Answers. Accessed on 18/06/2021. https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-permanence-of-matrimony

Gordan Wenham, n.d.. May Divorced Christians Remarry? Accessed on 19/06/2021. https://churchsociety.org/docs/churchman/095/Cman_095_2_Wenham.pdf.

John Piper, 21 July 1986. Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper. desiringGod. Accessed on 17/06/2021. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper.

———, 9 January 2009. Does the Bible Allow for Divorce In the Case of Adultery?. desiringGod. Accessed on 19/06/2021. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/does-the-bible-allow-for-divorce-in-the-case-of-adultery.

Trustworthy Word Staff, n.d.. What Does The Bible Say About Divorce & Remarriage? Trustworthy Word. Accessed on 19/06/2021. http://www.trustworthyword.com/what-does-the-bible-say-about-divorce-and-remarriage.

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