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A Biblical Catechism on Sex and Marriage: Divorce and Remarriage

[This post concludes a series of posts entitled 'A Biblical Catechism on Sex and Marriage'.  The intention is to provide basic material for further instruction by a trusted teacher of God's Word in a church that is committed to Biblical authority.  The Church’s mission is to invite all people to live under God’s righteous rule.]

Question 10. What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?

Answer: God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).  What God has joined together, no person should separate (Matthew 19:6).

Comment 1: The subject of divorce and remarriage involves various issues, not just a single issue.  As a result, Christians have taken different stances in their interpretation of Biblical texts.  Yet, some things are clear and can be stated.

Comment 2: Divorce was a way of giving a woman legal protection from a former husband in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  The Pharisees took the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for ‘any cause.’  Jesus replied that sexual immorality (Greek: porneia) was the only acceptable cause for divorce, or, as some argue, for divorce and remarriage.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house,  2 and if she goes and becomes another man's wife,  3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife,  4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Matthew 19:1-12 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.  2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.  3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?"  4 He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,  5 and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh'?  6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."  7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?"  8 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.  9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."  10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry."  11 But he said to them, "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.  12 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." [For this comment, note especially verses 3, 7-9.  Cf. Matthew 5:31-32; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18.]

Comment 3: In the Old Testament, marriage to a divorcee was forbidden to priests.  In the New Testament, it was forbidden to overseers/elders and deacons.  [See further, Question 9.]

Leviticus 21:7 They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God.

Leviticus 21:14-15 A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin of his own people,  15 that he may not profane his offspring among his people, for I am the LORD who sanctifies him."

1 Timothy 3:2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,2 sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach….

1 Timothy 3:12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

Titus 1:5-6 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you -  6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife,1 and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.  [‘Elders’ are likely the same group as ‘overseers’ in 1 Timothy 3:2.]

Comment 4: The apostle Paul opposes but will allow separation of either wife or husband from the spouse.  Yet he rejects remarriage.

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband  11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. [Note: When he distinguishes what the Lord says from what he says, he is clarifying who said what, not which statement is authoritative and which is just opinion.]

Comment 5: Some have argued that there are other instances in which someone might divorce and remarry than only in the case of sexual immorality, particularly in the cases of abandonment (examples of abandonment are debated and may include: refusal to fulfill conjugal responsibilities in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-5), emotional abandonment, and desertion (1 Corinthians 7:13-16)) and abuse.  Abandonment by an unbelieving spouse is discussed in 1 Corinthians: God has called believers in peace, not to enslavement (some take this to mean that they are free to remarry in this case).  Opposition to abuse and violence in marriage is derived from the nature of marriage discussed in Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:22-31.

1 Corinthians 7:1-5 Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."  2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. [Note: verse 1 seems to be a sentence from the Corinthian church’s letter to Paul that he responds to in the chapter, not Paul’s own statement.]

1 Corinthians 7:13-16 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  14 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.  15 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.  16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?

Colossians 3:18-19 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.

Ephesians 5:22-33 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.  23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.  24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.  25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.  28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,  30 because we are members of his body.  31 "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."  32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.  33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

Comment 6: A reason for Jesus’ opposition to divorce is that it rejects God’s intention in creation for marriage to be a permanent ‘one flesh’ union between a male and a female.  Jesus’ ethic of the Kingdom or Reign of God does not accommodate sinfulness but calls for righteousness.  Righteousness is here understood to comply with God’s intentions in creation that a male and a female come together in permanent marriage.

Matthew 19:3-8  [Quoted above.  Reference is made to Genesis 2:24.]

Comment 7: Jesus’ opposition to remarriage after divorce is that, except in the case of sexual immorality, it causes the woman to commit adultery.  Perhaps it causes a woman to commit adultery because society at that time rarely knew independence for women, who needed the support and protection of a male—a father, a husband, a son.  A divorced woman was likely to remarry. One can assume that, in the case of sexual immorality, the innocent party is not the cause of adultery and that, since sexual immorality breaks the one flesh union in a marriage, the person has a cause for divorce.  In the Old Testament, an adulterer would have been executed (and leave the spouse to remarry).  Such a punishment might be mitigated by practicing divorce.

Matthew 1:19 And her [Mary’s] husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Matthew 19:9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."

Comment 8: People often become Christians with complicated pasts in sex and marriage.  Paul offers advice to remain in the state people were in when called and to begin to lead the life that God has called them to lead.  (This would, of course, only apply to a marriage that is legitimate in the first place—not so-called homosexual “marriage” or, e.g., divorce in order to marry one’s brother’s wife—cf. John the Baptist’s opposition to Herod’s marriage, Matthew 14:3-4, Leviticus 18:16.)  He uses other examples to make the point (circumcision and slavery), but 1 Corinthians 7 is about sex and marriage.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.  18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.  19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything.  20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.  21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.  22 For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ.  23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.  24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

Comment 9: Note that decisions about divorce and remarriage are not simply left to individuals.  The church community needs to own and oversee this ethic.  Individuals are not left alone to do what seems right to themselves.  Indeed, the church is an extension of the family, and healthy churches are important for healthy relationships.  A church should be able to decide such matters.

1 Corinthians 6:1-8 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?  2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!  4 So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?  5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,  6 but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?  8 But you yourselves wrong and defraud - even your own brothers!