There are numerous and varied opinions among Bible scholars on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage. The absence of a consensus has resulted in both confusion and diverse reaction to discussions on divorce and remarriage. However, in spite of the difference of opinions, there is no question in the minds of most Bible scholars that God’s perfect will is for marriage to last a lifetime.
However, the Bible also reveals a permissive will of God. This is evident in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where divorce is permitted. His permissive will is also revealed in the polygamous marriages in the lives of the patriarchs in the Old Testament. Therefore, in a study of marriage and divorce, it is essential to first of all determine what the Scripture teaches regarding God’s specified will on this subject.
The Foundation for Marriage
The divine prototype for marriage is found in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:7-24. God created male and female in His image—Adam from the dust of the ground and Eve from Adam’s rib. Eve was created from Adam and for him (cf. 1 Cor. 11:9). God’s perfect plan for marriage is found in Genesis 2:24 where a man is to leave his parents and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh. The divine ideal, as specified by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6, is one husband and one wife for one lifetime
The practice of polygamy in the Old Testament (the breaking of the prototype) has many examples: Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah (Hannah’s husband), David, and Solomon who had multiple wives. Polygamy is always outside the direct will of God. The breakdown of divine ideal for marriage resulted in severe moral and social problems in each case (Gen. 30; 1 Sam. 1).
Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament
Abuses to the institution of marriage in Genesis resulted in penalties found throughout the Mosaic Law (e.g. Lev 18; 22). But in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, divorce is allowed because of the hardness of the human heart (cf. Matt. 19:8). The message in Deut. 24:4 is that the Law prohibited remarriage to the first husband but allowed marriage to a second husband. The problem is meaning of the phrase “some indecency” (24:1). This could be Canaanite cultic involvement. Thus, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is possibly the background for Ezra 9:1-5, 11-12, 10:3, 10, 18-44 (cf. Neh. 13:23-27). It cannot refer to adultery or incest (Lev. 18; 22) since both were punishable by death. The Old Testament later provides examples of marital forgiveness in cases of adultery. In Hosea 3:1-5, Hosea is told by God to forgive and restore Gomer as his wife. Some suggest Gomer was involved in Canaanite religious prostitution. From this we learn that there can be forgiveness for the most terrible marital sins. It is always within the plan of God to forgive (Eph. 4:32). It is interesting that the most detailed passage on divorce and remarriage in the Bible (Matt 19:3-9) is preceded by an entire chapter on forgiveness (Matt. 18). In Malachi 2:16, the Old Testament ends with a clear statement of God’s attitude toward divorce. In the Hebrew manuscript, it is plainly stated, “God hates divorce.”
Divorce and remarriage in the Gospels
There are four major passages (Matt. 5:31-32, 19:1-10; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18) dealing with marriage, divorce and remarriage in the Gospels. There are a least five views of marriage and divorce today.
- Remarriage permitted only at the death of a spouse (Rom. 7:1-4).
- Divorce and/or separation from the marriage with no remarriage.
- Divorce with remarriage permitted.
- Divorce and remarriage allowed only during Jewish betrothal (Matt. 1:19)
- Divorce and remarriage for desertion (1 Cor 7:15).
Matthew 19:1-12 is the most critical passage on the subject on divorce and remarriage. The Pharisees came to test Jesus, hoping to trap Him in order to bring Him to trial. In verse 3, they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” It is interesting that although the Pharisees themselves were divided on the issue of divorce, yet they were united against Jesus.
In response to their question, in Matthew 19:4-6 Jesus refers to the divine prototype of marriage in of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He does not agree with either group of Pharisees: the Hillel (divorce for any reason) or Shammai (divorce only for adultery). He rather states, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6b). Jesus then corrects the Pharisees, explaining that Moses never commanded divorce, but permitted it because of the hardness of man’s heart. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, God permitted divorce and remarriage. This passage may be a reference to the practice of Jews marrying Canaanite women, as mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In Matthew 19:9, the meaning of the Greek words porneia (fornication) and moikao (adultery) must be understood in context. Jesus clearly distinguished between these two words. If Jesus wanted to say that adultery was the divorceable issue in the passage why did He not use the specific word for adultery? Porneia is the more general word for sexual sin, allowing for a variety of sexual sins, including most deviant sexual behavior. How can Jesus contradict His own words in Matthew 19:4-6 and now say that there are a variety of reasons for divorce being in the will of God when He just said that what God has joined together let not man separate?
Porneia must be understood in the light of the Jewish culture of the day. Matthew’s gospel was written specifically with the nation Israel in mind. One possible explanation for Jesus’ use of porneia is divorce during the Jewish engagement period (Matt. 1:19; Gen. 29:21; Deut. 22:28-30). Joseph was going to divorce Mary because of her pregnancy until God stopped him. Today we do not follow the Jewish custom of engagement being considered as marriage.
The severity of Jesus’ view of divorce is obvious when the reaction of the disciples in Matthew 19:10 is considered, “It is better not to marry.” This follows the logic of Jesus’ reference to one husband and one wife for one lifetime in Matthew 19:4-6. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus is reinstating the divine prototype of marriage in opposition to the Old Testament practice of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
There has been a great deal of debate over the exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Both verses use the word porneia (fornication) as the reason for divorce. However, all the other passages on divorce in the Gospels have no exception clause.
Both Mark and Luke use the word, moikao, which is a specific word for adultery (cf. Matt 19:9b) rather than the general word, porneia. If porneia were used in these two passages, it would then allow divorce for a broad range of sexual sins, including pornography. It is interesting to note that Mark 10:1-12 is the only passage that mentions a wife initiating the divorce.
The meaning of the phrase “makes her commit” adultery in Matthew 5:32 must also be considered. By divorcing his wife, a husband is forcing her to commit adultery when she culturally would be required to remarry for economic reasons. They are still married in the eyes of God.
We must also understand the meaning of the phrase in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, “whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” This clearly shows that no divorce is considered by God to be a termination of the marriage. But remarriage to another person is adultery. The context of Matthew 19 is forgiveness. This is an important element in restoring marital harmony and preventing divorce. Forgiveness is always possible when faced with a divorce.
In John 8:1-7, Jesus forgave woman caught in adultery. He did not abolish the penalty for adultery. The abolishing of the adultery penalty is consistent with the abolishment of entire Mosaic Law system for the church age (Rom 7:1-4; Gal. 3:19-21). In Matthew 19:8, Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. He charged them with “hardness of heart.” Their interpretation of marriage and divorce is not God’s original plan for marriage.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Epistles
Romans 7:1-3, 1 Corinthians 7:39 and 1 Timothy 5:14 record Paul’s teaching concerning the remarriage of widows. From these passages, we learn that the marriage bond is broken by death. Widows are then free to remarry, but only a believer (cf. 2 Cor 6:14-18).
The Apostle Paul steadfastly maintained in 1 Corinthians 7 that whether single, married or widowed, believers are to remain in that state and not seek to change their marital relationship (vv. 7, 8, 20, 24, 26, 27, 40). One reason for this admonition was the severe persecution of believers throughout the Roman Empire. In 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, Paul also argues that the primary concern of the unmarried believer is to please the Lord rather than a spouse.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul admonishes believers not to divorce each other. A wife who leaves her husband must either reconcile to him or remain single. A husband is not to leave his wife. The word leave is the Greek word, choridzo, which means to depart, divide or separate. It may imply either separation (Luke 9:33) or divorce (Matt. 19:6).
In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul gives instruction regarding a believer’s marriage to an unbeliever. This unequal union is likely the result of one of the spouses becoming a Christian after the marriage. Prior to this section, in The Apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:14–15). Christians were not to marry unbelievers.
But in the case of only one spouse becoming a believer, Paul strongly advises that the believer stay married in order to influence the unbeliever toward salvation (1 Cor. 7:14-16; cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-6). The word sanctified or holy in this passage means that the unbeliever is more likely to hear the gospel when married to a believer. It cannot mean that the unbeliever is automatically saved because he or she is married to a believer. Each person is individually responsible for that decision (John 3:16; Acts 16:31).
Paul then adds that the believer is not under bondage to the marriage, if the unbeliever leaves, but is called to live in peace (Rom. 14:19). The phrase “not under bondage” is the Greek word, douloo, meaning “to enslave.” There are two possible views for “not under bondage.” This phrase is understood by some to mean that the believing wife is now free to remarry, as a widow would be (cf. 1 Cor. 7:39). Also in 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul advised the younger widows to remarry. The other view is that the abandoned believer is to remain single. This is based on 1 Corinthians 7:24 where Paul advises the believer to remain either single or married (1 Cor 7:8, 26, 40).
There is no concrete evidence that Paul is addressing the issue of remarriage following the abandonment. To hold this view is to base an argument on silence. The phrase “not under bondage” thus means that the believing spouse is under no obligation to fulfill any marital responsibilities following the abandonment by the unbelieving spouse. But there is no clear statement of an abandoned or divorced believer remarrying, only that she is no longer “under bondage.”
1 Corinthians 7:28 states “But if you marry, you have not sinned.” This is thought by some to refer to those who were anticipating marriage, perhaps even engaged. This would grant permission to those who choose to marry in spite of Paul’s concern in times of persecution. Others take this to be a general statement to all believers, even those who have been divorced or abandoned. However, this would contradict Paul’s own words in this chapter, where he argues against remarriage in verses 11 and 39).
The Husband of One Wife
The context for 1 Timothy 3:2 is the leadership qualifications of an elder-bishop, the principal official in the local church. The Greek word episcopos means overseer. This word is used interchangeably with the Greek word presbuteros, or elder (Titus 1:5-7; Acts 20:17, 28). The elder-bishop is called to his leadership position by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). Included in this position are those who have the spiritual gift of pastor. The other members of the local church must recognize his call from God.
There are several views on the phrase of “one wife” in 2:3. The first view allows a divorced man to be an elder-bishop of a church. But in 1 Timothy 5:9, the older widow who is salaried by the church for ministry is clearly to have but one husband in her lifetime. In essence, this first view of “one wife” would make the widow’s requirements for church leadership higher than that of the elder-bishop who would be allowed a divorce prior to his assuming the office an elder bishop.
The second view is that the elder-bishop has one wife during his lifetime. But this view does not allow for the death of a wife and the remarriage of the widower. It also does not allow for a man to be divorced as an unbeliever and remarried as a believer. The third view is that the elder-bishop could have been married and divorced (or even remarried) as an unbeliever. All past sins are forgivable.
The fourth view is that the elder-bishop can be a widow who is remarried. This view is based on Romans 7:1-4. In summary, the elder-bishop is to be a highly qualified office. The example of his marriage and his life in the home is of critical importance.
Overview of Divorce and Remarriage
Marriage was designed by God to be a union between one man and one woman for a lifetime. Although polygamy occurred in the Old Testament, it resulted in marital problems. Divorce was also permitted, but not commanded. Adultery and fornication were punishable by death under the Mosaic Law, and therefore were not divorceable issues. The Old Testament prophet Malachi records that God hates divorce.
In the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew is most important discussion on the subject of divorce and remarriage in the four Gospels because it contains the only “exception clauses.” Rather than agreeing with either the Hillel or Shammai views on divorce, Jesus adhered to the original prototype of marriage between one husband and one wife lasting for a lifetime. He declared that God intended all marriages, irrespective of their problems, not to end in divorce. The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ statements indicates He had a very strict view of divorce and remarriage. Mutual forgiveness is an alternative to divorce.
The Apostle Paul restates Jesus’ teaching on marriage—one man and one woman for a lifetime. Believers who are separated should either reconcile or remain single. There is no clear indication of the believer being free to remarry a second person in the case of divorce or abandonment. In the event of the death of a marriage partner, the surviving spouse is free to remarry in the Lord.
Divorce and remarriage is often argued from a few select Scriptures to the exclusion of the overall teaching of Scripture on the subject. But a careful study of the Scriptures reveals that the original plan of God for marriage has not changed. God did not create a prototype for marriage and then discard it because it was too difficult to follow. Divorce was permitted because of the hardness of Israel’s heart.
The response today to the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is often in direct opposition to that of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 19:10-12. Some have become more interested in what God permits than what He desires. The marriage covenant is frequently broken. Divorce is often viewed as a quick fix for marital problems or an escape from responsibility and commitment. However, in cases of severe abuse, separation or divorce must be considered. In such situations, the Scriptures advise remaining single after the divorce.
Divorce and remarriage is widespread in our society. This has had a lasting effect on the society, the church and the families of divorce, especially the children. Yet there are divorced and remarried believers today who have committed the past to God and are now serving the Lord. Their goal is to make their present marriage a success and a witness for Christ.
Those who are contemplating divorce or remarriage must diligently study the plan of God for marriage from the Scriptures. They must prayerfully seek the will of God based on the Word of God.
A Summary of the Biblical Teaching on Divorce
- Jesus’ primary teaching was that marriage last a lifetime (Matt. 19:4-6).
- A believer whose spouse has died is free to remarry (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Tim. 5:14).
- A believer who was divorced prior to salvation is free to marry a second person who is a believer (Heb 10:10-17; 2 Cor 6:14-18).
- Believers who are separated should either reconcile or remain single (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
- A believer who married to an unbeliever should not leave her husband but stay married as a witness to the gospel (1 Cor. 7:13-14).
- A divorced believer who is now remarried should stay married (1 Cor 7:27).
- A believer who has been divorced or who initiates the divorce should remain single (1 Cor 7:27).