When Marriage Goes Wrong: The Right Way to Respond
Someone was crazy enough to ask me about my position on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. I struggled because my answer was short and lacked context. Later, it made me think that we Christians need to adjust how we think about marriage. Too often we focus first on the posed situations. “When can people get divorced?” “Which marriage is recognized by God?” “Can marriage survive without love?” If we’re answering wrong, we build a list that shows what to avoid and when you’re okay. Indeed, we don’t have 613 laws for tough questions. We need to start elsewhere. (tl;dr)
Jesus’ Way of Dealing with the Broken Informs Our Response
We can’t start to answer without acknowledging the brokenness. Psalm 84:6 has a phrase, the Valley of Tears, which has often been applied to life in this world. People all over live through bad situations. Sometimes they make awful choices that affect the rest of their lives. Broken people in a broken world.
Jesus, at a dinner at a Pharisees house, encountered a woman who was known as immoral (Luke 7:36). We don’t know if she was an adulteress. We don’t know if she was a prostitute. We know that the Pharisee knew her reputation and we know that she came to find Jesus, to weep, and to kiss his feet. Jesus admitted that she was a huge sinner (Luke 7:47). He doesn’t stop her sorrow to lambast her. Nor does Jesus ignore the fact of her sins. Instead he goes to the heart of her need: he forgives her (Luke 7:48).
Throughout the book we see this repeated point that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:24). It’s only later in Luke where we find out how the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins. As he’s pinned to the cross he says “Father, forgive them: they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). On the one hand, he can forgive sins because he’s ultimately the most offended party in any sin (Psalm 51:4). On the other, this was the point of his mission: to die and reveal his appropriate authority as the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14). After his resurrection, Christ opens the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures and he says to them (Luke. 24:46-47):
Thus, it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
Some will raise questions about marriage while being in the midst of sin and ruin and they’re hoping for forgiveness. They have surely sinned but in Jesus Christ our Lord, there is forgiveness indeed. We must answer carefully, choosing the right season and recognizing the many ways we are all in need of forgiveness.
Jesus’ Way of Answering Tough Questions Inform Our Position on Marriage
We must also answer truthfully. Though forgiveness and restoration is pastorally critical, we mustn’t forget that Jesus didn’t ignore the sin. Jesus, at one point when asked about divorce by people trying to challenge him, didn’t respond with forgiveness nor did he immediately answer the question (Matthew 19:1-8). First, he spoke about the origin of marriage. Then he went deeper. It’s important that we note the pattern: start with the model then explore the ramifications.
New Testament Writers Recorded Jesus’s View of Marriage
One of the (many) things that the New Testament writers teach us is how to read the Bible backwards. They teach us to read the Old Testament texts in light of the arrival, rejection, crucifixion, and resurrection of the Son of God. They don’t do this so as to split the text from history. They do it to remind us that the author behind the authors is God and he had a point beyond the needs of then current readers (2 Peter 1:21). He directed people to write in such a way that it had direct application to their day while simultaneously pointing to the reality in Christ. That means that some folk, including Biblical authors, spoke better than they knew (John 11:49-53). At other times, they penned the shadows cast by the reality of what was to come in the future (Col 2:17).
Why did Matthew write chapter 19? Did he only want to record facts? Matthew learned something back when it happened, but it got more significant for him after Christ’s resurrection. Even after having already recorded another interaction about marriage in Mathew 5:31-32 during the Sermon on the Mount, he felt he needed to record this incident as well.
Jesus’ Historically Relevant Actions Inform Our Position on Marriage
Allow me another example. In John 2, the writer wants us, on this side of the resurrection, to look back at Jesus’ actions in light of the cross and resurrection (John 20:31). Yes, specifically when Jesus foretells the destruction of his “temple” but also including his first sign at a wedding in Cana.
Jesus is attending the wedding with his disciples. His mom is actively involved but disaster hits: the wine has run out. Back then it indicated poor planning, a legal failure in lacking the necessary funds to finance the wedding, and likely dreary festivities since wine greased the happiness wheels (Ecc 9:7; Psalms 104:15).
At this stage of the wedding, since the guests have already been drinking (John 2:10), nothing can be done. Here, at the beginning stage of a new relationship, not even the groom knows how bad it is. They’re happily partying, and they’ve lost the wine.
It is at this dismal point that John has his readers look and see that Mary merely brings the issue to Jesus. Remember, John wrote his gospel after Matthew, Mark and Luke were written. He penned the words remembering the event and thinking about the importance of Jesus’s response. Jesus answers, in this context of a wedding and needed wine, that his hour had not yet come (John 2:4).
Any person who has read through John knows that this phrase “the hour” comes up a lot. John 4:21, the hour is coming; 4:23, the hour is coming but is now here; 5:25 the hour is coming and now here; 5:28, the hour is coming; 7:6 my time has not yet come; 7:8 my time has not yet come; 7:30 his hour had not yet come; 8:20, his hour had not yet come. Finally, in John 12, in his last week, we see 12:23 the hour has come; 12:27 for this reason I have come to this hour; 13:1 Jesus knew his hour had come; 16:25 the hour is coming, indeed it has come when you will be scattered; and lastly, right before he gets arrested while he’s praying 17:1 Father, the hour has come.
The hour is the time of his death, burial, and ultimately resurrection.
At the wedding, Jesus says, in light of needing new wine, that his hour had not yet come. Nevertheless, he acts by commanding that the ceremonial purifying water jugs be filled to the brim. Then he tells some servants to draw the water and bring it to the headwaiter (John 2:8). The headwaiter, not a drunk party guest but the master of ceremonies, tastes the water and John records that it has become wine. The waiter speaks to the groom in amazement that the best wine was saved until this deep into the wedding.
From this side of the cross we start to put it all together. Back then, the best wine that changed this new relationship was only made possible by Jesus’ hour-driven actions. Back then, his disciples believed him. How much more now, do we Christians find our joy in our new eternal relationship grounded in what he has done on the cross and the empty tomb? What a better wedding reception are we looking forward to?
This backward looking then also takes us beyond the problems to purpose—especially the purpose behind Christ’s intentional actions within these settings. That should teach us how else to think about these tough issues.
( TL;DR ) We Christians must follow Jesus’ own thinking when it comes to questions about marriage. Jesus forgave but he also acknowledges where people have sinned, even while forgiving. Jesus Christ, when asked about divorce, shines his light on the Biblical texts. When ensuring the joy of a wedding we see that his actions shine a light on the future. We partially get to see that future by being on this side of the cross and the empty tomb. This all should all impact how we answer any question on marriage.
Where Marriage Comes From: God’s Established Model of Marriage
Jesus, when asked about the legality of divorce for any reason (Matt 19:3), focused on the origin of marriage (Matthew 19:4-6). (tl;dr)
“Haven’t you read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, ’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus quotes from the oldest marriage event which is a powerful argument to the listening Jewish authorities.
The First Marriage was in God’s Image
In Genesis 1:26-27 the text summarizes the creation of humans on the sixth day. God has spent each day creating something or separating and on the last day he gets to the crown of his creation: the creation of ‘Man’. The text goes on to show that it is using ‘Man’ generically to refer to all humans.
When the living God wanted to paint of a picture of himself, he created humans in his image with the details being that this picture consisted of both male and female. Now the text isn’t saying that God is himself both male and female. Rather the point here is that both of them individually are in his image and both of them together, with their differences, are in his image as rulers.
As God reigns over all creation, people are to reign. As he is over everything, they are to be over every beast and living thing. This creation, of his complementary image bearers both reigning over all, was declared good by God himself (Genesis 1:21). It’s the perfect condition, both male and female, united as one, reigning over creation as under-rulers of God, and told to populate it.
The First Marriage had a Purpose
Genesis 2:4 is a close-up of what happens in day six. We get to see how God forms man and woman in relationship to each other—these are details underneath the telos, the purpose or designed end-goal, of his forming them in his image. The ground was wild with no one to cultivate it (Gen 2:5). God forms man from the dust of the ground and gives him life and purpose. God puts the man in an enclosed area to learn cultivation and also issues commands on how the man is to operate. It’s here we see, for the first time, what God identifies as not good: the fact that man is alone.
That is not a statement about the badness of singleness. In Genesis (2:18) God knows that man needs a helper that corresponds to him as a man (not to him as the individual Adam). Someone who not necessarily completes him psychologically nor merely corresponds to him physically, but one who joins the man at his side to complete the purpose for which both were made. This is God creating the need, identifying the need, and knowing how to fulfill the need.
God doesn’t explain any of this to Adam.
He lets Adam work, trying to fulfill his purpose. He lets Adam name the animals. He lets him examine the fact that animals have mates. He lets Adam draw the conclusion that, as a human, no one corresponded to him (Gen 2:20). Here, when Adam realizes it, God is the one who causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep and then woman is fashioned from his side.
God himself then presents this woman to the man, in all her perfection. It is here, in light of God’s bounty, that man acknowledges how the woman completes him and consecrates that completion. It is here that I think we see both a covenantal embrace and a deep fulfillment of God-placed desire. The man has at last discovered how God completed him. Man draws a circle around this new unity and confesses Woman’s inestimable worth (Gen 2:23).
“This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; This one is named Woman, because this one came out of Man.”
She was part of him. She was his very life and being. She was the one thing that made this ultimate union possible. She was the one who corresponded to him. Equal but different in all the right ways.
The First Marriage As Created Is the Model
Allow me a moment of imagination where the text remains silent. The woman didn’t know any of this. She was formed, molded and presented in all her radiance. I imagine the first light she saw from her newly formed eyes was the light of God himself. In that glory, she would have understood the goodness and greatness of the one who gave her the ability to see color and hear the breeze during the cool of the day. In trust she rises and allows herself to be led to a man when she has known no others. There he stands, in his radiance and power, and the first words she hears in her new existence is the words of this one claiming that she isn’t alone, that she’s part of him, that she’s his very being and life-blood.
The text explains that this is the model of marriage. It is for this very reason, it says, why future men leave their parents and are joined completely and utterly to their wives and the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24). Not only because of sex or love. Not only to have children and keep humanity alive. Ultimately because God fashioned it this way.
But you know, humans mess things up. Years later, Lamech boasts to his two wives Adah and Zillah (Gen 5:23) about killing a man who hurt him: all of life has gone wrong from the home to interactions out of the home. Even later, the battles between wives in Jacob’s own family attests to the wrongness in relationships. The history of marriage is filled with bad examples.
Jesus’ point is clear. The goodness of marriage is not grounded in the quantity of times people got it right. The goodness of marriage is qualitatively found in the origins of the first marriage. Jesus makes clear the connection: marriage, as created, is very good.
( TL; DR ) Marriage is a good that comes from, and belongs to, God. Marriage, though good for humans, never came from people. Marriage, though good for government, never came from government. It is why a person, beyond saying the words, can’t really say that marriage is an outdated institution or that marriage can be redefined. Christ, looking back at this text in Genesis 1 and 2, summarizes the origin and owner of this man-inconceivable union: it belongs to God. God came up with the fact that the two different beings (male and female in his image) made up one whole that were joined together as one flesh. They were multiples now united; a unity instead of individuals. In marriage the man and woman are one, in God-created union. It’s not a question of what we can legally do with our marriage; it’s a question of ownership of the marriage. It belongs to the creator Lord God: humans dare not interfere with that fact.
What is Marriage and Why Is Marriage Important
Why did God do it this way? Why make two beings of the same kind who have key differences in roles and yet inseparably unified? If it was to be a picture of God, why not just paint a picture in the sky of who he is? Why go through the trouble of having people grow up in a home, leave their parents, unite to another and start over? Beyond the lesson for the man in the beginning, why have us look backwards and see the fact that his wife was presented to him at all? Wasn’t it enough that the man would learn the lesson?
Above, I noted the fact that Jesus began his ministry in the context of a marriage (John 2). There’s a reason for that and to understand it we have to first look at Paul’s warning to the Corinthians.
Marriage is More Than Sexual Union—but Not Less Than It
The Apostle Paul warns the Corinthians about their sexual unions. He says that they’re not just visiting temples and paying for a prostitute’s services. They’re actually taking part in something bigger and trampling the point of the original marriage picture. He writes in 1 Cor 6:16:
Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.”
This is big. He cites the passage in Genesis 2:24, as above, to prove the point that their bodies joining is, in effect, a play at what actual marriage is supposed to be. Although marriage is more than the sexual union, it isn’t apart from it. Paul underscores the wrongness of this physical momentary union by showing us that individual Christians are in fact spiritually united to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:17). By joining with a prostitute, it is as if the Corinthians were taking Christ himself and joining him—God forbid—with that prostitute (1 Cor 6:15).(tl;dr)
It is because in this spiritual union the individual has given up complete rights over his or her own body to belong to God.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
The marriage union is so all-encompassing that both individuals lose authority over their own bodies. They no longer can do what they want with their bodies. They belong to the other (1 Cor 7:4).
The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
The union with the prostitute turns that on its head. It says that the union of two bodies is purely transactional and solely physical. A person is momentarily selling what belongs to him or her and the buyer thinks he can use his own body, and the seller’s own body, in this way. When they’re done, they break the union and walk away.
Marriage, Paul basically says, is deeper. It’s not a transaction. It’s not even two individuals taking the next step while remaining individuals. They’re doing something greater. Christians, he noted, are spiritually joined in one spiritual body to Christ. In Ephesians 5, another passage where he reflects on Genesis 2:24, he fully fleshes this out. This is where we really start to understand why Jesus would start his public ministry in a marriage.
God Created Marriage as a Picture of Christ and His Church
In Ephesians, Paul talks about the roles of husbands and wives, but he does so in a way where he keeps referring to the union of Christ and his church. Christ is head of the church and savior of the body; Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her; Christ gave himself up so as to sanctify her, cleanse her, and present her to himself in all her glory; Christ did this so that she would be holy. Because of this, the church joins with, submits to, and serves her husband Christ. Although she is many members, she is one body with Him.
In Ephesians 5:31 Paul quotes the model of marriage (Gen 2:24) established in the Garden of Eden between Man and Woman but not to finalize his argument of marriage roles. Instead he quotes the passage to tell us what the author behind the author was talking about. In Ephesians 5:32 he says:
This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
Someone might make the mistake that Christ loving the church is like marriage. That’s not the picture at all. In God’s infinite mind and wisdom, as he created humans in his image, he created a complex picture that would depict the future reality that had not yet come. The reality of Christ and the church is so important and complex, that God had to build the metaphor beforehand to explain it. The metaphor is marriage.
The greatest spiritual union that then presses itself on the actions of people. It is this greater union which was pictured in the setting of Christ’s first miracle at a wedding. It is because of this greater union that Paul says in Ephesians 5:33 “each man is to love his own wife as himself and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband”. They’re one flesh after all and “no one has ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it” (Eph 5:29). Cohabitation, swinging, serial divorce, abusive relationships, friends with benefits, polyamory (and any other thing) ignores why marriage is important: it is a picture Christ and the church.
( TL; DR ) You see, marriage is important because it is God’s picture. Marriage is good even while people get it wrong. Getting what God’s picture or marriage tells us would point us back to Christ. If people ignore how marriage should be pointing to the greatest reality, people will do what they want with marriage. Like the Corinthians, people would do what they want in their bodies. Or like the Jewish leaders, put away their wives for any reason while hypocritically thanking God. Or refusing to get married at all (1 Tim 4:3). Marriage is God’s way of telling us deep things. Marriage is a picture of God himself. Marriage is also a picture of how Christ would completely join himself to the church (and she to him). In reality, that union never dissolves but is incorruptible and doesn’t fade away (1 Peter 1:4) as it results in the church’s glorified perfection (Eph. 5:27). It is important to get the model of marriage right before trying to figure out how people get marriage wrong.
Which Marriage is the Best: The Perfectly Kept Marriage Vow
A Cultural Marriage Union
Marriage, in the Biblical cultures, wound up being a way to form an alliance. In the ancient world, it was the way that two families would come together to become something greater and stronger. Marriage was usually arranged by the parents and either the parents of the groom or by the bridegroom himself. These ancient marriage contracts began with the exchange of gifts and were followed by the betrothal. (tl;dr)
A betrothal was more than a modern engagement. Engagements today are an agreed intent to get married. The couple is committed but they’re open to change their minds. Historically, betrothal was more serious than that. It had the legal status of a marriage even though the marriage was not actually in fact consummated. It’s why the men that were going to marry Lot’s daughters were already called sons-in-law (Gen. 19:14). Its why Joseph was going to “divorce” Mary privately (Matt 1:19) even though they weren’t technically married. It was a legal bond that hadn’t yet been consummated. This period could last for a year.
Next you have the wedding feast which starts off with the bridegroom coming for his bride. The bridegroom would have a procession that went out before him, his groomsmen playing tambourines (Jer 7:34) while the waiting brides-maids would help light the way for his arrival. Maybe they would both leave their homes and meet at a set place, maybe not, but there would have been a return to the already prepared groom’s home (Matt 22:2) and a party that would go on for many days—at least seven (Gen 29:27; Judges 14:12). Also, according to the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, the consummation of the marriage usually happened on the first night (Gen 28:23) and “the stained linen would be retained as evidence of the bride’s virginity.”
The Long-Expected Marriage: Christ and His People
Many of these details come up in the Bible to illustrate the perfect marriage. The Groomsmen rejoice with the groom while he’s still here (Mark 2:19-20). We have to be vigilant and wait for the coming of the bridegroom who could come at any moment lest we find ourselves like the foolish virgins who didn’t prepare for a long delay to the groom’s procession (Matt 25:1-13). He goes to prepare the place but then returns (John 14:1-6). It is then, that the bride is even presented without blemish (Eph. 5:27).
The ultimate depiction of this picture is that there is a marriage supper where the bride has made herself ready (Rev 19:7). The bride is clothed in fine white linen and the cleanliness of her clothing is the righteous acts of the saints. This marriage supper’s boundaries are that everyone who gets to be there is blessed and it draws John to worship. It’s in this state that in Revelation 21-22, we see how awesome the blessedness is.
One of the seven angels in Rev 21:9 says “Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb” and then the scene that is unveiled is a glorious city, billed on the apostle sand the twelve tribes of Israel, with no need for the sun or moon because she is constantly illuminated by the glory of God with the lamp of the lamb. The city is secure and holy, and the inhabitants are those whose names are written in the book of life. Through the city flows the rivers of the water of life and in the midst of the city is the tree of life—just like in Eden in the beginning of Scripture. There’s no curse and no tears and the saints that dwell there have the name of the lamb written on their foreheads.
Okay, it’s a picture, sure, but it’s one of those real pictures that tells us that what Paul was seeing in Genesis 2:24 will ultimately be fulfilled in Christ with his church. That perfect union is the best picture of marriage and it culminates in an eternal union with his bride.
I remember reading something in Tim Keller where he reflected on our own marriage vows. Maybe it was the Meaning of Marriage, but I don’t remember. We say things like “Till death do us part”. The words used to mean “this marriage is as permanent as our earthly lives. Death is the only thing that will break this relationship.” The words then began to mean something like “this is what you say in a wedding to mean that you’re committed to one another.” The amazing thing about Christ’s vow to the church is not that he says, “Till death do we part.” Rather he dies, gets up, then promises “You will be with me always.”
It’s no wonder then that when Jesus is asked about the future of marriage, he rightly points out that after the resurrection of the dead, individuals won’t marry or be given in marriage. In that respect these individuals will be like the angels in heaven. It’s because they’re already corporately joined in the ultimate marriage. The picture found its fulfillment so there was no need for the picture to keep going
( TL; DR ) The ultimate marriage is Christ’s own marriage with his bride the church. It doesn’t end by death. It begins through death and the union is permanent. There is no jumping from this marriage to another. There is no weird admixture of other elements into the marriage. It is perfect and culminated for all eternity.
Why Marriages Fall Apart and Break Down
We can’t figure out how to put broken pieces together if we don’t know what the whole looks like. So far, it’s taken some four thousand words to sketch, along the edges, of what true marriage is. Now we have to look at how Jesus proceeds to answer the question on divorce.(tl;dr)
The questioners have asked him if a divorce on any grounds was allowed. Jesus’ answer, as above, was to say that this isn’t the model of marriage. The first created marriage was both qualitatively different and designed with the ultimate purpose of being a perfect picture of a future reality. It acknowledged God as the originator and initiator of this newly joined creature. As to reflect on any marriage, in this God-formed union, no human has the right to separate the joined elements.
Though this bears some further investigation when it comes to the issue of remarriage, the importance here shouldn’t be downplayed. Jesus, speaking to Jews who know the Law and didn’t believe Him as the Christ, looked back to the original marriage as being good and lacking divorce, then overlaid that model on any marriage that came afterwards. Each member of a marriage is yoked together by God so that they’re both to be depicting the original goodness and must not undo God’s model. No matter if they believe him or not.
Moses Allowed Divorce for a Reason—and It Isn’t Adultery
In the Law, and in their context, the Jewish leaders saw that they could divorce, and it didn’t come with an injunction that they must-not divorce. So why could they divorce?
Do not be confused: according to the Law, Jews could divorce (Deut. 24). The Jews were told they could divorce but adultery was never stated as the reason. Under the Law, adultery wasn’t handled with divorce but rather death (Lev 20:10) for both parties. It’s why the event (in John 7:53 – 8:11, known as the Pericopae Adulterae —likely not part of John but might be historical) is so telling in that the accusers only brought the woman caught in the act but didn’t bring the man. They sidestepped the law.
In Matthew 19, Christ’s answer gets to the core of the question of why Moses allowed divorce: it’s not about law but evidence of man’s sinfulness. Divorce isn’t a necessity because the Law allows it. Divorce isn’t even a necessity if the situation calls for it. Divorce was an allowance in light of the hardness of human hearts—and this needs some exploration.
Sinfulness, the Hardened Heart, and the Root of Divorced Marriages
The heart in scripture is not merely where we feel love or hate. We read “hardness of heart” and we immediately apply our romantic categories—but that’s not it at all. The heart is the very seat of our being. The heart can refer to the place where God operates (Jeremiah 31:33), the place where our decisions come from (Deut. 8:2), the source of our morals (Psalm 58:2), our enablement to think (Proverbs 16:1), and our ability to feel (Prov. 14:10).
This is more than emotions (which we all can understand)—being angry, being bitter, being jealous. We know it when we’re feeling those things even if we don’t want to admit it. Rather, the heart in Scripture is unknowable to humans and only understood by God. So, Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure—who can understand it? The immediate response is that God examines the heart and then acts accordingly.
A hardened heart then is when the totality of the person embraces a position that is not pliant to God’s goodness and desire. So, Nebuchadnezzar’s being was arrogant and hardened with pride (Dan 5:20) or Pharaoh, when hearing the Lord’s commands, hardened his heart (Ex 8:32) in rebellion against the Lord. Or when the Israelites made their entirety as hard as flint (Zechariah 7:12) whereby they would not listen to the law or the words that the Lord spoke through the prophets. This situation is so bad that God sometimes locks individuals into their embraced position thus hardening their hearts (Exodus 9:34-35; Josh 11:19-20).
When Christ speaks about the allowance in the law, it is because of the hardness of the very being of sinful humans. That hardness of heart was not in the beginning, but it was available after the beginning. The hardness of heart bears testimony to where man has fallen, not testimony that the ideal should now be changed. That being the case, God through Moses made an allowance whereby there would be provision that governed and protected what could be done in a divorce when people, in their hardness, broke the marriage bond.
When marriages end it isn’t that people have grown apart. It isn’t even that the situation has gotten so bad that there are no other options. Rather it is that the hardness of human hearts has set in. The fact that God historically figured out a way to protect the societally weaker party doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to get a divorce but rather a testimony of God dealing with human heart-hardness.
And here again (Matt 19:8), Jesus reinforces the model.
But it was not this way from the beginning.
(TL; DR) Marriages fail because of the hardness of the human heart. Marriages do not fail because there is some allowance for the marriage to fail. People looking for a way out have to first ask why they’re so eager to get out anyway. As Jesus says, it wasn’t the case in the beginning that you had the option to divorce. God instituted the first marriage and the pair just stuck together.
When Must A Marriage End in Divorce?
All the following is clear: (1) marriage was instituted by God, (2) people should not break it, (3) the Law had an allowance for divorce, and (4) that allowance was there because of the hardness of the hearts of people.
I’m not sure how often the Jews (even in the Old Testament) carried out the death penalty on adultery. I know they were commanded to do so in Leviticus 20:10 but the large amounts of warnings seems to indicate that it was an unaddressed problem that came with shame (Prov 5:9-14), addiction (Prov 5:22-23), self-destruction (Prov 6:32), and jealous wrath of a spurned husband (Prov 6:34). Even so, the Jews aren’t asking about divorce on grounds of adultery—technically they can’t because they know the answer, even if perhaps they’re not practicing what they preach. The Jewish teachers are asking about other grounds for divorce and Jesus is the one who brings up immorality. (tl;dr)
Deciphering the Divorce Exception Clause of Matthew 19:9
In Matthew 19:9, Christ says:
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery
We’ll get to the topic of remarriage down below, but for now it’s important simply to focus on the exception here: immorality. What is the exception doing here? Is it giving grounds for a justified remarriage? Is it supplying grounds for a justified divorce? Both?
This exception occurs in other passages as well. Matt 5:32 says
“…but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of immorality, makes her commit adultery…”
Again, ignoring the issue of remarriage for now, is the exception justifying the divorce or is it modifying the grounds of being made an adulteress? In Matt 5:32 it does seem to be that if a person divorces his wife for a reason other than immorality, he forces her to commit adultery. But, if she was unchaste, she made herself commit adultery.
Matthew 19 is different.
Interpretations of Divorce in Cases of Immorality
Some think this is different than pure adultery. For example, they’ll say this refers to a specific group of sexual sins like incest (for example 1 Cor 6 a man marrying his step-mother 6). It’s an abhorrent sexual behavior which, this position would say, is grounds for divorce. D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew asks why would any Jew think of incest as an actual marriage at all? Even Paul, when dealing with this sort of situation in 1 Corinthians 6 doesn’t tell the couple to get a divorce but rather to stop doing what they’re doing.
Others think this is actually just another way of saying adultery so that the exception is only in cases of adultery, even if it uses a different word. They would say that this porneia (fornication/immorality/prostitution) is actually interchangeable with mochatai (adultery). So, this position would take it that Jesus is introducing a change from the Old Testament punishment for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) by allowing divorce. The struggle here though is that Matthew recording Jesus’ words does show a differentiation between adultery and immorality in the same book (Matt 15:19).
Some take it then that was is spoken about here is not really marriage at all. This is evidence of sexual activity that occurs during the betrothal (pre-marriage) timeframe with someone other than the betrothed. The betrothed discovers his bride-to-be is sexually active—in this case, he can “divorce” her. Carson says that this would technically make the exception not a real exception to divorce. It would explain why Mark or Luke don’t include the exception at all (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). It also would explain why Joseph is thinking of getting a divorce when he’s not even really married to Mary (Matt 1:19)
And yet others think that this sexual activity is any sexual activity during an actual marriage, not limited to adultery, which would constitute grounds for a divorce. In Deuteronomy 24:1 it says that the man has found some indecency in his wife and because of that indecency he hands her a certificate of divorce. Maybe Jesus’ use of the word porneia is a way of covering all these types of indecencies.
Marriage and the Divorce Exception Contextualized
To get to the answer one should try to make sense of two near-context verses: (1) Matthew 19:8, where Christ shows the grounds of divorce is rooted in the hardness of human hearts while simultaneously stating that this was not part of the original model; (2) Matthew 19:10 and the disciples’ response.
The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”
This isn’t necessarily a statement of surprise (like in Matthew 19:25). Are they seeking to find any excuse to divorce? Are they concerned about being married to only one woman?
Remember, these words occur in a specific theological context. Yes, the Law made allowance, but that same Old Testament depicts God as hating divorce (Malachi 2:14-16) because of the violence it causes. The general teaching of the Law, says Paul, is that the wife is bound to her husband until death (Romans 7:2-3) and they can only be free from one another if one of them dies (1 Cor 7:39). Theologically, the disciples’ context was already pointed against divorce—something that Jesus had already emphasized (Matt 5).
Historically, Mark 10:10 is helpful.
In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again.
Even in light of the theological context, the historical context of the statement in Matthew 19:10 might not be immediately tied to the conversation with the Jewish teachers in Matthew 19. Historically, Matt 19:10 might be spurred by Jesus’ further discussions where he makes the adulterous ramifications of divorce-and-remarriage apply equally to men and women. Historically, this part of the occurs in the privacy of a home.
Textually, Matthew structured his material so that the readers after the resurrection can feel the force of the argument. The disciples’ reaction is contextually important. In the context of the original, perfect, and God-mandated order, Jesus keeps repeating that point: no matter the question, no matter the allowance, the original pattern is still what should impact our thinking and approach.
The exception therefore is also structured in the context of the original pattern. There is no mandate here that the innocent party must divorce. Rather, this is a non-compulsory exception using a word that implies all sexual immorality and, in their cultural context, can even apply to a legally-binding betrothal. In other words, even if the legally-betrothed-or-spouse is doing all sorts of immorality that includes sexual intercourse with another person, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the offended party must pursue a divorce. The fact that marriage belongs to God, that there is an original pattern, and our words matter (Matt 5:37) still holds.
I want to emphasize another theme we also see in Scripture. All of the book of Hosea is caught up with the fact that God is going after faithless Israel drawing her back even though she repeatedly commits spiritual adultery. Even if God himself uses the picture of divorce to say that he has handed Israel a certificate of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8) because he saw all of her unfaithfulness and spiritual adultery, he draws her back by calling Israel to return to him (Jeremiah 3:14).
Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.
If contextually all readers are being called to mimic God’s original created model, then the disciples reaction makes sense. The exception, in this context, could be understood more like an allowance to cast the first stone if one has no sin. Hearing this, the disciples understandably (and possibly cynically) say “well, if someone has to be in this sort of situation and always trying to model marriage as created, then it’s better not to marry.”
This sort of commitment to marriage is otherworldly. Getting a divorce if you fall out of love is pretty common. Even the worst people think it’s okay to divorce if one’s spouse went and had an affair. But what about a Christian who is so committed to living so properly and uprightly that they focus on doing it in front of the whole world (Romans 12:17; 2 Cor 8:21) even through the worst of sins? What if they committed to the marriage through the darkest night of the relationship so that no one could find fault with any of their ministry (2 Cor 6:3)?
( TL; DR ) Three things I can see here then. First, if there is a marriage pact between a man and a woman, it should be a fully committed no-exits planned binding. Second, because of the hardness of human hearts, there is allowance for divorce on the basis of sexual immorality. Third, none of this sexual immorality makes a divorce mandatory but rather gives opportunity for having a will for the betterment of the other person. A marriage doesn’t have to end in divorce, not even because of sexual immorality, but the exception exists for the extreme cases. Not as a rule or by necessity, but as an exception that doesn’t need to be acted upon.
What About Remarriage After a Divorce?
That all said, the way the sentence reads in Matthew 19 is important. If a man divorces his wife and marries another woman, it is adultery. If a man divorces his wife for any reason and marries another woman, he commits adultery. But, if he divorces his wife for fornication and marries another woman, does he still commit adultery? And what about his wife? What if she marries the person she’s committing adultery with? Is that okay? (tl;dr)
Mark 10 is remarkable in the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage. The discussion is in private with his disciples who are asking Jesus further questions about marriage and divorce. It is historically the same event as in Matthew 19 above. Mark 10:11 says
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her
No exception. The action is adultery against his divorced wife. Further:
…and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.”
Again, no exception and now applied to the wife. In both cases, the person who divorces and marries another person finds that they are committing adultery.
Luke’s (Lk 16:18) recording of this type of teaching doesn’t only make the person divorces and remarries culpable, it even makes the person who is marrying the divorced person culpable.
… and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.
Again, no exception here: the act of marrying a divorcee is tantamount to adultery. Here it isn’t even the person who divorced from another, it is the person who isn’t yet married that is committing adultery once he marries the divorcee.
I touched on Matthew 5:32 above where we saw that if a man divorces his wife, he causes her to commit adultery. There’s no explanation on how he causes her to commit adultery, but we might assume that in that society, the man is essentially forcing her to try to find another husband. As I said, there is no explicit mention of why. All that is there is an exception by which the man doesn’t cause her to commit adultery because she herself has been unchaste: she caused herself to commit adultery. But that’s not the interesting part of this verse for the question of remarriage.
…and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Once again, there is no exception here. Marrying a divorced woman makes a person culpable of adultery just as either party is culpable of adultery in Luke 16.
We dove deep into Matthew 19:9 above but in this context, the remarriage outside of the exception clause comes with the charge of committing adultery. If a person divorces his wife and marries another woman, this person therefore commits adultery. Here, the act of marrying another woman is the action of committing of adultery—which is the voluntary act of sexual intercourse between a married person and someone who is not their spouse.
In Deuteronomy 24:2 we see the divorced woman becoming another man’s wife and then the possibility of this later husband also turning against her or dying. On the one hand, the Law seemed to make allowance for her to remarry but on the other it doesn’t allow her original husband to remarry her (Deut. 24:4) saying that she has been defiled. God differentiating his people by hammering home the necessity of holiness.
This is especially the case in the marriage of priests (Lev 21) who were not to marry a woman who is a prostitute or divorced. In the case of the high priest (Lev 21:10-15), he is not to marry a prostitute, a divorced woman, a widow, or any woman who has already had sex. Not that sex is wrong but there is difference in how the marriage bond is being treated.
This far context is what in the Gospels makes Jesus’ words so hard to swallow. In Mark 10 it’s pretty clear that the further discussion addresses both men and women (either are culpable of adultery by remarrying) but in Matthew 19 it makes even remarriage difficult in light of not necessarily having to pursue divorce even for sexual immorality. In other words, the disciples are realizing that this could mean that they’re being tasked to continue staying with their immoral spouse with no intention of leaving; and even if they do leave, they’re barred from looking for someone else.
This is where Matthew 5:38-40 start to really be applied in a person’s day-to-day. It’s easy to only hear a concept like “if you get slapped, turn the other cheek” and grapple with the concept of a metaphor but if the metaphor’s reality is one’s marriage, what does that look like? For the disciples it looked so difficult that they (maybe sarcastically) asked “then why get married at all? Why not just stay single?” (Matt 19:10).
( TL; DR) In all honesty, this question on remarriage after divorce weighs heavily on any reader’s mind. The fact that Jesus repeatedly taught the wrongness of remarriage after divorce is a tough pill to swallow in today’s self-aggrandizing culture. “Who are you to say what I can or cannot do?” is one of the most heard cries in today’s world. This picture of marriage isn’t ours to do as we want.
The Pauline Privilege: Does Paul Make an Exception for Divorce and Remarriage?
The Husband’s Body Belongs to His Wife; And Vice Versa
Paul discusses several issues related to sexual activity. He broaches the subject apparently answering a question regarding how married Christians should function. Paul points out that singleness isn’t a bad thing and that Biblical marriage is the proper boundary for any sexual activity. So much so, that within the marriage, neither partner belongs to themselves. The way Paul puts this is impressive.
The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
They are duty bound to each other and in 1 Corinthians 7:4 Paul says that the wife has no authority over her body nor the husband over his own body: that authority belongs to the other. This means that quite explicitly, neither spouse has the right to go off and have sexual activity elsewhere. This also means that neither spouse has the right to neglect the other from sexual activity. The only time they can “deprive one another” is in the case that they both agree to devote time to prayer—but after that, they should have sex!
Marriage Isn’t A Sin but Sexual Self-Control is the Better Option
Paul would rather everyone had his power of self-control by serving the Lord while being single (1 Cor 7:7, 32-34) but also knows that singleness (like being married) is a gift from God given to some and not others (Peter was married 1 Cor 9:4). That being the case, Paul would tell people not to copy him on their own power but instead just get married.
Marriage, he explains isn’t a sin (1 Cor 7:2). There are distressing times (1 Cor 7:29), there are troubles (1 Cor 7:28), there are present distress (1 Cor 7:26), and there are marital duties (1 Cor 7:33-34) and these things are all valid concerns. All of this has to be kept in mind when actually deciding to marry. It’s not just an issue of scratching a sexual itch but should be done in a way that is always pleasing to the Lord.
Marriage is Until Death Do You Part
It is in this context that Paul speaks about divorce. In 1 Cor 7:39 he states quite clearly that:
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives…
It is also clear that though she (or a widowed man, surely) is free to remarry after death of the spouse—but marrying a believer.
but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
Even earlier on in the chapter Paul explicitly quotes the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 7:10) in regard to divorce
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband
Paul then (1 Cor 7:11) offers a situation where even separation isn’t grounds for remarriage. This is interesting because he’s telling the Christian wife that she should not leave her husband but then imagines her leaving.
There’s no statement here as to why she left—this isn’t the later situation in verses 12-16. Neither does Paul make an equal statement to the husband. Instead, he tells the husband not to divorce his wife. I can imagine several situations in that day and age which would have been understandable for a woman to leave. Indeed, I can imagine situations even today. She left and Paul describes her state, after this separation, as unmarried.
…but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.
In this case, if she leaves, Paul says that she should either remain as unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. There are no other options here. Her state of being unmarried is apparently different from the unmarried and widows in 1 Cor 7:8-9 and 25. Those unmarried could marry if they couldn’t help it, but these women are in specific situations in which they aim at “remaining unmarried” or reconciling to their husbands.
All of this, Paul sees as the Lord’s words presumably during his earthly ministry. This is interesting because Paul is arguing very strongly against divorce.
Abandoned Because of Confessing Christ
Paul then broaches a unique situation where there is a couple and one of them has become a believer. There is no call for the Christian to remove themselves from the marriage union. Whatever the reason for leaving above, the issue of being married to an unbeliever does not fall under that rubric.
Indeed, the Christian is called towards commitment and sexual fidelity. In that context, the very presence of the believing spouse is working some sort of sanctification within the family (1 Cor 7:14). This sanctification is so powerful, that it might be the very means that God is using to affect salvation in the unbelieving family (1 Cor 7:16). The now-believer, who has an unbelieving spouse who is committed to staying in the relationship, must not divorce their unbelieving spouse.
she must not send her husband away. (1 Cor 7:13)
…he must not divorce her (1 Cor 7:12)
What if the unbelieving spouse is not consenting about their now-believing spouse (1 Cor 7:15)? What if, in light of this dramatic change, the unbelieving spouse finds that it is too much, and they decide to leave? Paul’s answer is to let the unbelieving spouse leave.
The usual way the Pauline privilege is explained is this: (1) If one of a married pair becomes a believer by being baptized and (2) the unbeliever decides to abandon the believer because of that belief then (3) the believer is not under bondage to the marriage: they are (4) free to divorce and (5) free to remarry.
Here’s a quote from the Roman Catholic canon law
Can. 1143 (1) In virtue of the Pauline privilege, a marriage entered into by two unbaptised persons is dissolved in favour of the faith of the party who received baptism, by the very fact that a new marriage is contracted by that same party, provided the unbaptised party departs. (2) The unbaptised party is considered to depart if he or she is unwilling to live with the baptised party, or to live peacefully without offence to the Creator, unless the baptised party has, after the reception of baptism, given the other just cause to depart.
It’s only later in Canon Law 1146, after some legal issues, does the Roman Catholic Church then say it’s okay for the Christian to remarry.
The Protestant Westminster Confession of Faith makes allowance for remarriage only in the context of adultery and what the framers called “willful desertion”.
( V. ) Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract, (Mat 1:18-20). In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, (Mat 5:31-32): and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead, (Mat 19:9; Rom 7:2-3). (VI.) Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage, (Mat 19:8-9; 1Co 7:15; Mat 19:6): wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case, (Deut 24:1-4).
Note, Paul doesn’t outright say that the believer is free to divorce and free to remarry. Nor does he say that the departure is a divorce. Instead he says in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that if the unbeliever separates, let him/her separate: the brother or the sister is not a bond-servant/slave in such a case.
The word for separate is the same as in 1 Cor 7:11 which has above placed the believer in an unmarried state. The question is if the unmarried state of the separated believing spouse is the same as in 1 Cor 7:11 (separated but waiting to reconcile) or 1 Cor 7:8-9 (single and able to marry).
The rest of the verse is also difficult because often that bit that says “bond-servant/slave” is (rightly) translated bondage but then conflated in English with what Paul later says in 1 Cor 7:27
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.
In 1 Cor 7:27, the word for bound is not related to bond-servants/slaves but is the word for being tied. The passage could also be read:
Have you been tied to a woman? Do not seek to be loosened. Have you been loosed from a woman? Don’t seek a woman.
1 Cor 7:27 makes it quite clear that within a marriage-tie, one remains within the marriage-tie but when released from the tie you don’t seek to be tied. This same word is used in Romans 7:2 where a woman is tied to her husband until death. This doesn’t seem to be a statement about the specific situation Paul is dealing with in 1 Cor 7:15. Because the Christian is not seeking to be loosened from his or her spouse; rather the situation is happening to them. This separation is the unbeliever in effect acting out “because of your Christianity, I am done with you”.
Indeed, I don’t think this “bondage” refers to the marriage bond at all. I agree with Fee who finds it odd that Paul would argue so strongly against divorce and remarriage with a single Greek word.
That said, one of the hallmarks of 1 Corinthians 7 is the interplay between remaining in the state in which one find themselves, on the one hand, and wisely dealing with the situation in which one finds themselves on the other. So, although now, their unmarried state might be closer to that of 1 Cor 7:11—one who is unmarried, remains single, and only reconciles with her husband—this person is not under bondage. In other words, it really depends on a case-by-case basis and people have to make morally informed and biblically grounded decisions.
Nowhere is this interplay more clearly evidenced than in Paul’s argument for singleness. He would rather people remain single since they could be wholly devoted to the Lord, it would be better if they remained single due to temporal situations, but, if they seek to marry, it’s not a problem. Frankly, he says, it’s better to marry than to be in a state of lusting or burning. This interplay is not a situational ethic but rather a grown-up application of the already foundational principles.
Tentatively, I think this is the case for the individual whose spouse has departed because of the individual’s faith. This individual doesn’t have a hard rule on what they should be doing. Do they wait to reconcile? Do they fully serve the Lord? The answer to all of these might be yes. It also might be the case that, after some time, a friendship heats up in such a way that long after the departed spouse has left, it might be wiser to just remarry.
None of this negates Jesus’ words. None of this negates Paul’s own arguments. None of this is contradictory. Paul says the believer in this situation is not under bondage and called to peace. The bondage would be the freedom from a hard rule and this peace is what is situational. In some circumstance of a departing unbelieving spouse it looks like waiting for them to be saved. In other times it might look like remaining in that state of being unmarried that they have found themselves in. Yet at other times it means trying to decide to stop a friendship or to place any further behavior within the proper boundaries of marriage.
It’s a tough situation. It’s one that Christians should also avoid getting into. It could be the reason why Paul generalizes his words in 2 Cor 2:14 when he says, “do not be yoked together with unbelievers”. The yoke is something applied to a pair of working animals. In the context of 2 Cor 2, the unequal yoke could be a business relationship. It could be a social relationship (tied back to the whole business of idolatry and temples from 1 Cor 8-10). It could also apply to marriages. Christians shouldn’t actively pursue a union with people who are not Christians because of these exact situations. For Christians, Paul would say that it is better that the couple marries than keep burning in passion, but we should always consider Jesus’ drastic measures for dealing with sin (Matt 5:27-30).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Concluding thoughts on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage
I haven’t dealt with singleness except touching on the outside edges. I haven’t even explicitly touched anything from Song of Solomon nor from Proverbs regarding the goodness of marriage and the wickedness of adultery. Frankly, I think I can write another twenty pages with all the things that mentally come up, but I think for now this is enough to giving a fuller answer to these sorts of questions.
As I said above, people will mess marriage up. There will be people that marry when it would have been better if they stayed single. There are people who divorce when they had no cause or divorce with cause by wallowing in the hardness of their own heart. And there are people that flirt and date when they should remarry then proceed to remarry when they shouldn’t. In each of these cases, they haven’t committed the unforgivable sin. There is still grace.
That said, there might be consequences.
Former child molesters can’t teach Sunday School. Former embezzlers can’t be treasurers. It is not that they’re unforgiven, it’s that the nature of their sin has resulted in a broken situation whereby the Lord no longer would have them function in that position—for the good of the children, or the good of the finances, and for their own good. They will have other ministries surely, but some are barred to them.
In a similar (though not the same) way, a man who has been divorced and remarried after his salvation (he spiritually knows better) can’t be an elder (1 Timothy 3:2) and I’m not even sure about it if he had a string of women and marriages before his salvation either. It has nothing to do with the sins being unforgivable, but rather the ramifications of these acts barring them from that sort of responsibility. He is forgiven, but there are consequences. The circumstances of that original divorce and remarriage mark him as likely not beyond approach. The idea that one-woman-man means “dedicated to the woman he is with” ignores the way we can historically mess up marriages (is it okay for him to be an elder or deacon if he’s been divorced five times but he’s loyal to his current wife? What about four?)
And yet, even in light of forgiveness, I don’t think we should ever find ourselves weighing sin as a viable option. Paul’s inspired words must be remembered “Shall we sin so that grace may about? God forbid!” (Romans 6:1). There is forgiveness, but this is shameful behavior. In so doing, we have joined that horrible rank of people that slanderously put words into Christian’s mouths “Let’s do evil so that good may result!” If their condemnation is just, our shame even more so.
The questions on marriage, divorce, and remarriage must be answered with sensitivity, with grace, and following our Lord’s pattern. Any issue of marriage must be seen first in the light of God’s glorious pattern, purpose, and ultimate revelation in the marriage supper of Christ and His church. I won’t summarize the points I’ve listed above, but I will list some references while reserving the right to expand this article on a later date.
- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Carson, D. (1984). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
- Field, D. (1983). Talking Points: The Divorce Debate—Where Are We Now? Themelios, 8(3), 28.
- Hagner, D. A. (1995). Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14–28. Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
- Hughes, R. K. (2015). The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide to Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.
- Junior, J. M. (1996). Different By Design.
- Keener, C. (2009). The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Keller, T., & Keller, K. (2013). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York: Riverhead Books.
- Luz, U. (2007). Hermeneia Commentary Matthew 1–7: a commentary on Matthew 1–7. (H. Koester, Ed.) (Rev. ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Morris, L. (1992). Pillar Commentary: The Gospel according to Matthew . Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press.
- Nolland, J. (2005). NIGTC: The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text. Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press.
- Piper, J., & Grudem, W. A. (Crossway Books). Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A response to Evangelical feminism. Wheaton, Ill: 1991.
Question: My spouse is messaging his high-school ex-girlfriend. She has sent him lewds. Can I divorce him?
I want to start answering these sorts of questions the right way and by looking at the picture of marriage and what it means. and why.
Question: Is divorce for any reason allowed?
No. There is only one exception that is also evidence of sin: during the case of sexual immorality because of the hardness of hearts which refuse to forgive the infraction.
Question: Is divorce and remarriage always sin?
Yes, it was not this way in the beginning and divorce is evidence of the hardness of the heart of humans.
Question: Is an unequally yoked marriage, a divorce, or remarriage an unforgivable sin?
No, the only unforgivable sin is the sin of unrepentant rejection of the revealed truth of God. In the case of the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the sin is so heinous that the perpetrators might be hardened in that position. Unequally yoked marriage, divorce, or remarriage are just as forgivable as any sin.
Question: What therefore are the allowances for divorce?
There is one. Divorce is allowed when one of the participants has committed adultery. They have defiled the marriage bed and God has made allowance (because of the hardness of a human’s heart) to divorce. That said, it is a right that does not need to be enforced. It is optional. The other allowance is not that the Christian is called to divorce but rather if the unbeliever has, because of the Gospel, causing the separation. They have abandoned the believer because they have an issue with the Gospel. In this case, the Christian is not under bondage.
Question: What about remarriage after divorce?
A complicated answer but do note that the Lord says that marrying a person who has been divorced is in effect committing adultery. It is a sin, surely, but perhaps a sin that stands over against another sin. For example, if the choice is between sexual immorality and remarriage, remarriage is always the better option. The undefiled marriage bed is the only authorized place for sexual activity to flourish. In either case, this sin can bar people from specific ministries. They stand forgiven and no longer in a state of adultery, but their activity may have rendered them no longer above reproach.
Question: Who are you to tell me what to do?
No one. I am not an authority. Definitely not your authority. I’m not a scholar. I’m a Christian man who sins, who messes up, and by the grace of God I am made able to stand. My wife of (so far) twenty years and my six children can attest to my faults. This article is my own personal study notes which I post online so that you anonymous readers can feel free to sit down over my shoulder and read them as I write. This is why I write it as one long post instead of a series. I’m not trying to convince you; I’m trying to be faithful. I’m not trying to build traffic, I’m just trying to document my studies. If you find it helpful, then I praise the Lord. If it urges you to study the word, then again I praise the Lord. If it pushes you to have a conversation with those who have oversight over you—your elders and pastors—then again, I praise the Lord.
Question: Can I get a divorce if my wife is abusive?
Abuse is dangerous and some types are outright criminal. The scriptures make an allowance not for divorce but for separation. This separation is not for getting another spouse but for either remaining single or reconciling if the situation has changed. As I said, some abuse is criminal and that separation could rightly look like a prison sentence and relocation to protected custody from that individual. The chances of reconciling are unlikely but in that case we’re called to singleness.
Question: This call to singleness is easy when you’re married. Do you really expect some of us to remain single?
I was single for many years. I was a virgin until 25. That doesn’t make me better than anyone, it just means that I understand the weight of the question. There are some people who are born in a state of never having any chance for a sexual union. There are also some people who were made to have no sexual unions by other situations. Some people even choose this route for the sake of God’s reign. That last category, if they’re able to do it, should embrace that calling—that is God’s gift to you. The others should remain in the situation in which they were called. (Matthew 19:12; 1 Cor 7:24)
Question: So are you saying the basis for staying in the marriage is more than love? If so, what is it?
Promise. Keeping the word that was given. The Bible and theologians have a big word for this: covenant.
Question: Can you get a divorce if you find out your spouse used to be the opposite sex? Can you remarry if your first marriage was with the same sex?
These are only a marriage according to the state. Later in life, we may find many other forms of marriage that are legalized. One has to go further to see what constitutes a marriage by the one who constituted the institution.
Question: Doesn’t this make the person who has been cheated against guilty for the sin of the one who performed the action?
No, it only shows that the innocent do suffer in this world of woe. Marriage is a model not merely something we aim to reduce suffering.
Want more about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage? Here’s my outline with quotes and the contents of this post in text only form.
2 replies on “What Should Christians Teach on Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage?”
[…] And since Christians bought into it, no holds were barred. Christians should have been different. […]
[…] have a much longer article on divorce and remarriage, but the point here is that this relationship, especially in that day and age, was so often taken […]