What the Bible Teaches about Divorce and Remarriage

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There are few issues that require more pastoral sensitivity than the issue of divorce and remarriage. Getting it wrong one way can have massive consequences, particularly for women who feel trapped in abusive and unsafe relationships. Getting it wrong the other way can bring shame and infamy upon the name of Christ. Pastors and elders therefore have a responsibility to know what the Bible says and to teach, counsel, lead, correct and discipline their people accordingly.

The Key Passages In Scripture:

In developing Biblical perspectives and policies on divorce and remarriage in the church, pastors and elders will want to begin by wrestling with the teaching on this topic recorded in Matthew 19.

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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3–9 ESV)

The key word in the above passage for our purposes is the Greek word pornea translated in the ESV as “sexual immorality”. The word has a range of meanings, but is almost certainly a reference to the entirety of the Holiness Code as recorded in Leviticus. The Holiness Code exhaustively itemizes prohibited forms of sexuality:

And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her….. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion. (Leviticus 18:20–24 ESV)

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them.  If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them….  If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal… “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people….  (Leviticus 20:10–21 ESV)

Thus by pornea we can safely conclude that Jesus considered adultery, homosexual sex, incest and bestiality as constituting grounds for divorce.

The Apostle Paul adds another exception in 1 Corinthians 7:

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 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. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12–16 ESV)

Thus the Bible adds the issue of abandonment due to spiritual incompatibility as a potential justification for divorce.

The Biblical Grounds For Divorce:

Based on the passages above, we can say with confidence that a believer may initiate divorce in the following cases:

1. Her husband [1] has committed adultery with another man’s wife.
2. Her husband has had homosexual sex with a man.
3. Her husband has had sex with an animal.
4. Her husband has had sex with a relative.
5. Her husband no longer wishes to be married to her because of her Christian faith.

In any of the five above cases the believer may pursue a divorce.

What About Physical Abuse?

The Bible doesn’t address the issue of physical abuse as a potential justification for divorce, but it does say a variety of things that will be helpful to any pastor, elder, counselor or friend giving counsel to an abused person. The first thing that should be said is that physical abuse is a sin. The Bible commands a Christian to: Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11 ESV).

Husbands are told: Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7 ESV).

The Bible commands all Christians to be gentle in their dealings with one another, and it tells husbands to be understanding towards their wives and to treat them with special honour. Therefore all forms of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse would be forbidden.

Physical abuse is a sin and should be named as such by pastors, elders and counselors.

It’s also worth noting that the Bible disqualifies abusive men from serving in leadership positions within the church. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul says:

If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded …  not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money…. (etc.) (1 Timothy 3:1–4 ESV)

The Greek literally says “not a plektes” – not a “striker”. A man who hit his wife was disqualified from serving as an elder in the church. Most commentators understand the qualifications for an elder as simply the marks of an actual Christian. Paul is therefore insisting that elder candidates be genuinely born again – that they have given reasonable evidence they are growing by degrees into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ.

To state the obvious, saved and sanctified men don’t abuse their wives. Therefore, physical abuse is a sin and it disqualifies a person from serving in leadership in the church.

It is also against the law.

A woman who has been hit by her husband should do two things immediately. First, she should call the police. The Bible says that the king does not bear the sword in vain: For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4 ESV).

The Bible says that God gives to the government the authority to restrain evil and to punish evildoers, so if a wife is struck by her husband she should call the police. God gives guns and Tasers and handcuffs to the police for the protection of the vulnerable. A wife should make appropriate use of that provision. Government officials are charged by God to restrain evil and to punish evildoers. The church must never stand in the way of that commission.

The second thing an abused Christian woman should do is call her pastor or the elders of her church. If the husband is a member of the church he should immediately come under discipline. If he does not repent, he should be excommunicated. Excommunication implies that the church can no longer credit his profession of faith. It does not “make him an unbeliever”, but it does declare that the church does not believe that he is truly saved.

In the eyes of the church, the woman is now married to an unbeliever, with all that that implies – see grounds for divorce #5 as detailed above.

Can A Rightly Divorced Person Remarry?

When the Bible permits divorce, it is so that the wronged or abandoned party may remarry.  That’s what a certificate of divorce is.  Therefore, in any case where a divorce is biblically permissible, it is by definition also permissible for the wronged or abandoned party to remarry.  In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus says:

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 ESV)

Here Jesus is simply saying that if a divorce is not legitimate, then the remarriage is not legitimate.  If the divorce is legitimate (he uses the word pornea again), then the remarriage is legitimate.

Similarly the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that if the unbelieving spouse does not want to stay in the marriage and does not want to live with an active and obvious Christian, then the believer should let them go. In such cases the believer is not bound – that is to say they are free to remarry. The Pillar Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7 makes that point clearly:

Not bound here refers to freedom to remarry. Instone-Brewer explains: “The only freedom that makes any sense in this context is the freedom to remarry … [A]ll Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman ones contained the words ‘you are free to marry any man you wish,’ or something very similar.[2]

If the individual believer had Biblical grounds for divorce, then he or she is permitted to remarry – but only in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39).

Is Divorced Required In Each Of The Above Listed Cases?

No.

The Pharisees thought that divorce was required and commanded in the Scriptures, but Jesus sets them straight. In Matthew 19:7 the Pharisees challenged Jesus saying: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).

Jesus corrected them saying: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

The Bible does not command divorce – it permits, regulates and limits divorce. The Bible allows divorce – in certain situations – because of the hardness of human hearts. Hard hearts cause people to persist in sin and hard hearts make it hard to forgive others but becoming a Christian is about getting a new heart – a soft heart filled with the Holy Spirit. Such a heart is capable of change in the direction of Jesus Christ and is capable of forgiving a brother or a sister of even the most grievous of sins.

Therefore, there really is no reason for two legitimately born again Christians to ever get divorced. By the grace of God they can change and they can forgive.

But because of the hardness of hearts – because some professed believers are not truly born again – a spouse may persist in sexual sin or a spouse may not wish to be married to a true believer – in such cases, the believer is not bound. He or she is free to remarry – thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter


[1]  I’ve used consistent gender pronouns for the sake of simplicity, but the same principles apply in the case of a husband pursuing a divorce from his wife.

[2] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 302.

N.B. To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here; to listen on SoundCloud see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

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