Malachi 2:16 – “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce…”
I did not originally plan to have divorce as part of this series on basic Christian living. However, questions about divorce are among the most frequent I receive and given the fact the divorce rate is not much less in Christianity than in the world, I think it is appropriate to include. Given that marriage is so fundamental to daily life, divorce certainly qualifies as one of the basic things Christians should have a Biblical understanding about.
I am frustrated, but not surprised, over the confusion and lack of understanding concerning Biblical teaching on divorce. Scripture is pretty straightforward about the topic but sound teaching is beaten down by a culture that has not only accepted divorce for just about any reason but wants to treat divorce as not really all that big a deal. Predictably, this is exactly opposite of God’s instruction on divorce. In this lesson I want to present a straightforward and simple explanation of what God says about divorce and remarriage.
Like any sensitive cultural or religious hot topic, you can go out and find any number of churches and Bible teachers who will tell you what you want to hear. Do you want permission or approval for divorce? There are plenty of Christian preachers, authorities and writers who can explain away the clear Word of God and leave the door wide open for divorce on whatever grounds suits your need. You’ll find all sorts of definitions for “adultery” and all manners of Biblical interpretation that give just about anyone permission to divorce (or remarry). You’ll find teaching that is the equivalent of “God does not want you to be unhappy, go ahead and get divorced and if it’s wrong, God will forgive you”. You’ll find religious authorities who will tell you there are a long list of behaviors and circumstances that are tantamount to breaking the marriage covenant therefore qualify for divorce.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find those who are cold and hard about divorce for any reason and apply an extreme legalistic (often hypocritical) standard to marriage and remarriage. Of course the most common response to divorce in Christianity is simply that it is ignored either because “it’s none of my business” or “the problem is so big we cannot do anything about it anyway”. Divorce is seen as culturally acceptable and something the church should simply not be all that concerned about. You could extend this towards the complacent and casual attitude towards sin in general.
Let’s look at a straightforward and clear presentation of what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage. Your choice is either to take the Bible at face value, or entertain endless interpretations and personal opinion that fit cultural norms and personal preferences.
God Hates Divorce
It is paramount to establish up front God’s opinion of divorce. Unlike humans who throw the word “hate” around casually, we must understand that when God says he hates something it means the Creator of the universe despises it so much that he wishes it did not exist (and won’t in eternity).
Malachi 2:16 – “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously.” (NKJV)
God hates divorce because it does violence to the relationships in the sacred institution of marriage which is the foundation of humanity. Marriage brings stability, security, structure, and health and is the means by which mankind continues and increases its existence. Divorce destroys the very bedrock of what the Creator has designed. Besides the question of sexual sin, this is also the greatest argument against the proponents of homosexual unions. God hates divorce and God hates anything that destroys or corrupts the most basic and primary relationship he established for his creation.
It is clear from Jesus own words that God only allows divorce because of man’s sinfulness and the hardness of our hearts:
Matthew 19:8 – He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (NKJV)
It is only because there are certain situations and consequences that arise from sinful choices that God allows divorce – even though he hates it. The clear and simple teaching of Scripture is there are only two reasons God allows us to divorce: adultery and abandonment.
Divorce on the Grounds of Adultery
We hear great debate and long discussions concerning the definition of “adultery.” However, I think this is much like hearing former Pres. Bill Clinton ask “what is the definition of ‘is'”? Unless we are looking to complicate the issue or to explain it away, we are compelled to except the definition in its simplicity. Adultery is a married person having sex with someone other than their own spouse. That always brings up a bunch of “yeah, but’s…” and I am only going to cover one of them since it is commonly presented as grounds for divorce.
“Yeah, but didn’t Jesus say that even lusting after another woman is adultery?” Yes he did, but this is within the context of speaking about purity and his standard of morality. If divorce was allowed by God each time a married person is guilty of lust, at some point every marriage would be eligible for dissolution. I would venture to say that there is probably no one who has ever gone their entire married life and never lusted once, even if just slightly and for a single moment. So obviously Jesus is not saying that lust (which in terms of sin is equivalent to adultery) is grounds for divorce. The physical act of adultery is. Great discernment is needed and wise counsel should be sought in cases where a spouse’s unfaithfulness involves pornography or an intimate emotional/romantic relationship with someone else. Consider the simple clarity of these verses:
Matthew 19:9 – And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (NKJV)
Matthew 5:32 – But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (NKJV)
Divorce on the Grounds of Abandonment
The second biblical allowance for divorce is when a non-Christian spouse abandons the marriage.
1 Corinthians 7:12-16 – But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (NKJV)
When a married Christian has been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse and reconciliation is refused, God releases the Christian from the responsibility of that marriage. The unbelieving spouse that has abandoned the marriage is a covenant breaker. However, as long as there is a reasonable chance for reconciliation then the Christian’s responsibility is to pray for the repentance and salvation of their spouse and reconciliation of the relationship. once it becomes obvious that reconciliation is never going to occur (this may happen quickly or may take a while depending on the circumstances) the Christian has grounds for Biblical divorce. The prudent Christian will seek the advice and counsel of mature Believers to help them know when reconciliation is no longer possible.
The Christian and Remarriage
In all cases of Biblical divorce a Christian is only permitted to remarry another Christian. This hardly even needs explanation. The reality of divorce and its subsequent heartache should be enough to teach any Christian they should only consider remarriage to someone who shares their Godly convictions about it. Just in case we need further direction, the Bible is clear:
Mark 10:11 – So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. (NKJV)
1 Corinthians 7:39 – A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (NKJV)
It is obvious when you take the verses that describe the two reasons God allows divorce in context that both of these verses just listed could say “unless you’ve been Biblically divorced” or “if you’ve been Biblically divorced.” A Christian who has been divorced on biblical grounds is free to remarry only another Christian. If the person you’re going to marry has been divorced, they must have been divorced on biblical grounds as well. If either party was on Biblically divorced and the marriage occurs anyway, both are guilty of adultery because in God’s eyes one or both of them is not free to remarry.
Christians who ignore God’s clear word on divorce and remarriage are subject to church discipline as clearly outlined in Matthew 18;15-17. The reality is that today very few churches will ever enact church discipline or even seek to know the details of a divorce or remarriage… but that does not excuse us from being responsible. It is up to the spiritual leaders of each church to guard the sanctity of marriage by proclaiming the clear Word of God on the matter of divorce and remarriage. It is the responsibility of each individual Christian to take God seriously concerning divorce and when contemplating remarriage. For either leaders or individuals to ignore what God says simply because our culture proclaims divorce to be a casual right with minimal consequences, does not remove the consequences of violating God’s word. Don’t be deceived, God is not mocked… whatever we reap we will sow and that includes violating God’s word when it comes to divorce and remarriage.
Divorce and Remarriage Before Becoming a Christian
A foundational principle of Christianity is that we are to live our Christian lives starting at the point we are saved. Whatever circumstance or situation we find ourselves in, we are to live out our Christianity as God’s word becomes known to us.
If you become a Christian and you’re married to an unbeliever, you are not to seek a divorce because your spouse is not saved. As a Christian you are called to live a Christian life and to stay in your marriage as long as you’re unbelieving spouse does not abandon the marriage. By your example and prayer perhaps your spouse may come to know Christ.
If you become a Christian and you have already been unBiblically divorced and remarried, you are not to seek a divorce and try to return to the first marriage as a way to correct your mistake. A second unBiblical divorce is not the answer to fixing the first. The moment you are saved is the moment God holds you responsible to keep his Word. That would apply to whatever marital situation you are in at that time.
If you become a Christian while divorced and are not remarried, then it would seem a reasonable attempt to reconcile the first marriage is in order. If your previous (still unmarried) spouse refuses an honest effort to reconcile this would seem to be equivalent to them abandoning the marriage in which case the Christian would be free to remarry another Christian. If you were unBiblically divorced and your spouse has already remarried, as difficult as it is, it does not appear the Bible allows for your remarriage.
A Word about Biblical Divorce
Remember that God hates divorce. Even if you have Biblical grounds for divorce, you must keep in mind how much God despises it. Even when adultery or abandonment has occurred, our automatic response should NOT be to seek a divorce. There should always be an open door for repentance and reconciliation of the marriage before divorce is sought. The Christian who is secretly hoping for adultery, or is glad it has occurred because it gives them an “out” from the marriage, is not being faithful to God’s viewpoint on divorce. God hates divorce and so should we. If we truly hate divorce, then we will seek it as an honest last resort.
While adultery and abandonment are among the most painful of emotional experiences, we must not forget the power of repentance and reconciliation. God can and often does restore marriages that have been torn apart by adultery or abandonment if both parties truly seek forgiveness and God’s healing.
About UnBiblical Divorce
The forgiveness available through the shed blood of Jesus Christ covers any sin. While we applaud the repentant drug addict, murderer or thief, uncompassionate and legalistic Christianity often looks down their nose towards divorce. This is an understandable yet regrettable backlash to the casual attitude our culture has about divorce.
However, we must never make the mistake of constraining God’s forgiveness for any sin that is truly repented of even if we fear grace may be abused. If a person has been unBiblically divorced, if they repent and genuinely seek forgiveness from God, God will grant it. A true sign of genuine repentance is that reconciliation will be sought if remarriage has not occurred. If remarriage has occurred then repentance over both the unBiblical divorce and the unBiblical remarriage should be present… and the Christian should apply God’s standards to the current marriage. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest or imply that a person should seek to leave a current marriage because the remarriage occurred unBiblically.
It is a very difficult situation to be an unBiblically divorced Christian and realize that remarriage is not an option. There is no denying how hard this can be yet we know that God will honor our faithfulness to his Word. There are those that teach that once a Christian in this situation has either 1) sought reconciliation and been denied or 2) the other spouse has remarried, they now are divorced on the biblical grounds of abandonment. While this may indeed be true in some cases, great caution should be exercised in this situation and spiritual counsel sought from mature and faithful believers. There are many questions to consider and the divorced Christian is in a fragile dilemma where their own heart can easily deceive them. A Christian should never take remarriage lightly and should wisely seek the godly advice and opinion of multiple mature believers and their Christian leadership before considering remarriage to make sure they are not violating God’s word.
In a Nutshell
In summary, the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage is this:
- There are two allowances for biblical divorce and that is 1) adultery and 2) abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.
- Divorce should be a last resort after reconciliation and repentance is sought.
- If a Biblical divorce occurs the Christian is free to remarry another Christian only.
- If salvation and/or genuine repentance occurs after a divorce, reconciliation should be sought if neither are remarried. If remarriage has already occurred, the Christian should not seek to leave their new marriage. If the former spouse is remarried and the Christian is not, then the new Christian is free to remarry if the divorce was on Biblical grounds.
- In all instances of approved remarriage, it can only be with another Christian.
That is the plain and clear teaching of Scripture. The typical response I hear at this point is “it’s plain and clear to YOU, that’s your interpretation.” In reality, this can be the response to ANY interpretation of Scripture so each Christian must read God’s words for themselves and decide whether or not what the Bible simply says, is what the Bible simply says. The Scriptures we find concerning divorce and remarriage are straightforward and not complex. A few simple verses tell us plainly what God thinks about divorce, the reasons he allows divorce and who a Christian may remarry if Biblically divorced.
Sadly, if you want to find a Christian authority who will tell you it’s okay to get divorced or remarried (regardless of your situation), you will easily be able to find one. As well, you can simply get divorced and/or remarried and most likely no other Christian or church will show any concern or question it at all. Even if they do, you can simply move to the church down the street and no one will care. That is a sad commentary on the state of church leadership, Biblical teaching and discipline.
The point is not to run around interrogating everyone about their marriage or even their divorce but if we have absolutely no concern for God’s standards, especially if God has called us to Christian leadership, then why have standards at all? If God gave us clear teaching about divorce and remarriage then it is our responsibility as Christians to hold each other accountable to those teachings. We don’t do it to be legalistic or to stick our nose in other people’s business, we do it because we want God’s best not only for our own marriage but for our community and the Church as a whole.
God’s instructions on divorce and remarriage are not ambiguous, confusing or complex. It is a simple matter of whether or not we want to except God’s standards… or simply do as we please. One the most common and saddest things I hear today is: “well, God doesn’t want me to be unhappy and you don’t understand my situation. I know the Bible says it’s wrong to get divorced in my case but God will forgive me.” This mindset is encouraged by the fact that a person can proceed and simply change churches, or never even be questioned at all by the church they are in (or by any Christians who know them personally). In our era of “personal rights” and “it’s none of your business what I do”, it’s very hard for most people to grasp the idea of any sort of accountability or church discipline. But… that doesn’t change our responsibility to God’s Word.
God can and will forgive anyone truly repentant of sin concerning divorce and remarriage. No question about that. But it does not remove the awful consequences divorce is inflicting on our homes, communities and churches.
What are your questions about divorce and remarriage?