Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

By

Errol Hale

Divorce and remarriage, even after unbiblical divorce, is rampant in the church of Jesus Christ.  It is due first of all to sin in the lives of individuals and marriages.  It is also due, in part, to the failure of the church.  As long as the church condones unbiblical marriages, and looks the other way when an unbiblical divorce occurs, not only will marriages and families suffer and the church remain weak, but God will not receive the glory He is due.

      If we would give more thought to the biblical concept that marriage is a one-way street—no turning back, and not allow divorce to be so easy, maybe fewer people would marry without being committed to marriage for life “for better or for worse.”  Maybe people would be more cautious about entering into a marriage that allows no easy escape hatch.  Maybe there would be fewer divorces, especially unbiblical divorces.

I.    MARRIAGE

A.    In general

1.     Marriage is not man-made, but ordained by God (Genesis 2).  It is therefore not merely a legal relationship, but a spiritual relationship.  It is not "just a piece of paper."  It is not just between two people and the state, but between two people, the state, and God.

2.     Marriage is a foundational institution in society, ordained by God before either government or the church (Genesis 2).

3.     God ordained marriage as the means by which He answered creation’s only flaw.  God's commentary on creation, including man: VERY GOOD  (Genesis 1:29). God's commentary on man's loneliness:  NOT GOOD (Genesis 2:18).  God ordained marriage to meet man’s need for special companionship. 

4.     One of the chief reasons for marriage is to have and raise godly offspring (Malachi 2:15).

5.     Marriage is not meant to legitimize sex.  It is God's plan that sexual relations only take place within marriage.  Marriage is necessary to make sexual relations right before God.

B.    What marriage is all about

1.     While some are called to singleness, most are not (Matthew 19:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:7).

2.     First obligation of marriage:  LEAVE singleness and CLEAVE to spouse and marriage covenant (Genesis 2:24).

3.     Marriage is a COVENANT  (Proverbs 2:17;  Malachi 2:14). 

a.     A covenant is like a contract in that it implies obligation and privilege on/for both parties. 

b.     A covenant is unlike a contract in that a covenant is sacred as opposed to being merely legal.  It is legal, but also sacred, holy and binding before God.

4.     Believers are forbidden to enter into a marriage covenant with anyone who is not a committed Christian.  No exceptions. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)

5      Biblical engagement differs from engagement today.

a.     Then:  Binding like marriage, broken only by death or divorce (Deuteronomy 22:23; Matthew 1:16-24).

b.     Now:  It is a trial period.

6      Marriage is to be the closest, most intimate of all human relationships (1 Corinthians 6:16-17).  The covenant is to become one body, one flesh, one spirit.

7      Marriage is for life. 

Genesis 2:24 To cleave is to be joined inseparably

Matthew 19:4-6 God joins, not to be divided

1 Corinthians 7:39 To be dissolved by death or divorce

 

II.   DIVORCE

A.    What is divorce? 

Breaking a legal contract and a sacred covenant.

B.    In general

1.     Divorce is biblical.  It is not desirable, but it is allowed as regulated by scripture.  That God regulates it doesn't mean He likes it. 

2.     God hates divorce.  (Malachi 2:16)  God hates the sin that is involved in even biblical divorce.

3.     God Himself became involved with divorce proceedings with Israel (Jeremiah 3:8).

4.     While marriage was instituted by God, divorce was instituted by man.  God only stepped in to regulate it.  God doesn't promote divorce, but rather allows it because of man's hardness of heart (Matthew 19:8).  God regulates divorce to keep us from doing more damage in divorce than we did in marriage.

5.     Because divorce is biblical, we must not condemn all divorce or shun divorced people.

C.    The process under the law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

1.     Write a bill of divorcement.  It was a legal matter that had to be documented for legal (estate) purposes.

2.     The bill had to state charges.

3.     Divorce was a formal public document signed by witnesses.

4.     The bill had to be given personally into the hand of the other party.

5.     The person divorced was to be sent away.  The live-in relationship was to be severed.

6.     Divorce dissolved the marriage covenant.

D.    The result

1.     Divorced couples were not to live together—sexual privileges were lost.

2.     Depending on the circumstances, one or both parties could be free to remarry.

E.     For Christians

1.     Divorce is never desirable.

2.     Divorce is never inevitable.  Every legitimate avenue for reconciliation should be pursued.

3.     Reconciliation is always possible if both parties will agree and submit to the Lord.

4.     While permitted in cases of sexual sin, divorce is not required.

F.     Biblical grounds for divorce?

1.     Biblical grounds for divorce permit, but do not require, divorce.

2.     One should not look for biblical grounds as a loophole for divorce motivated by other issues.

3.     Before God, biblical grounds for divorce are just as important for non-believers as believers.

4.     Divorce without grounds may be legally proper, but it is still sinful and therefore while binding as a legal divorce, it does not release either party from the sacred covenant.

G.    What are biblical grounds for divorce?

1.     There are only two actually named in the Bible:

a.     Sexual sin (Matthew 19:3-12).

b.     Abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

2.     Christians have come up with others that are not explicitly taught in the Bible. 

a.     Examples include: abandonment, failure to keep the marriage covenant, and committing any crime that called for the death penalty in the Old Testament Law (since in God’s eyes the person is dead, thereby freeing the spouse to remarry.)

b.     There are two problems with these kinds of ideas:

i.      They are nebulous and difficult to define and therefore provide all sorts of loopholes that are subject to interpretation.

ii.      They are not in the Bible.

H.    Why NOT exercise the option to divorce even when there are biblical grounds:

1.     To seek divorce is to withhold forgiveness.

2.     While Christians are commanded to forgive, we are not expected to reconcile relationships with those who will not repent or seek reconciliation.  (Repentance is more than admitting guilt.  It is turning from the wrong and taking steps to insure that it doesn't happen again.  Reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust.)

3.     Those who will not repent and work toward reconciliation should not expect reconciliation to take place.

4.     If the party who has committed adultery has repented, and if the other party is willing to forgive, forgiveness must be complete.  (If you cannot forgive, do not welcome the person back into the marriage if you are not going to live like married people.)

I.      Divorce and church discipline

1.     The church must not adopt a hands-off attitude that either refuses to deal with divorce, or deals with divorce only after it has happened.  The church must take a proactive approach, offering counsel to couples in trouble, helping them understand the biblical teaching on the subject, and the ramifications for not following biblical principles.

2.     When a Christian or a Christian couple will not repentant of the sin of seeking to divorce without biblical grounds, church discipline should to come into the picture (Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians 4:1-13). 

3.     If a Christian persists in sin and is placed under the discipline of the church, and if he/she refuses to repent and be reconciled, the believing spouse is free to marry another since the one who is being treated "as an unbeliever" has broken the marriage covenant.  (See II.K.2.)

4.     Most churches are failing to carry out their God–ordained responsibilities regarding church discipline.  Few churches exercise church discipline or respect the discipline of other churches.  The result is that divorcing Christians just run to another church.

J.     Life after divorce

1.     Divorce does not automatically free a divorcee to marry someone else.

2.     If two people divorce without biblical grounds, they must remain single or be reconciled to each other.

3.     The person who is divorced without biblical grounds, and remarries, is committing adultery, NOT  because he/she is still married to the former mate, but because he/she is obligated to reconcile with, and remarry the former mate, or remain single and celibate.

4.     Sexual sin and/or abandonment by an unbelieving spouse not only permits divorce, the one who was wronged and chooses to divorce is also free to remarry.

5.     Does divorce (with or without remarriage) disqualify a person from ministry?  Each case of marriage, divorce (and remarriage) is different.  Therefore, there is not a blanket answer to the question.  What can be said, depending on the circumstances of a divorce, is one is not axiomatically disqualified from serving in leadership capacities in the church.  While repentance brings forgiveness, our actions still carry consequences with them, and so, in some cases, a person may be excluded from some aspects of ministry.

K.    Various Scenarios

1.     Christian married to a Christian:

a.     Don't divorce.

b.     If you divorce without biblical grounds, do not marry someone else, it will only deepen the trouble.  You must remain single or be reconciled (1 Corinthians 7:11).

c.     You may remarry your former spouse, as long as neither of you have been married to anyone else in the interim (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).  If you do not remarry your former spouse, you must not live together, or have sexual relationships.  If you do, it is no different from any two people living together in sin outside of marriage.

d.     If your partner commits adultery and you cannot forgive, you may divorce, having biblical grounds.  You are free to marry someone else.

e.     After committing adultery and being divorced by your spouse, you may reconcile with your former spouse and remarry him or her.

f.      After committing adultery and being divorced by your spouse, if your former mate has remarried, and if you are truly repentant, you may marry another.  (You had better use great caution here.  Be sure that you are not presuming on God's grace.  See III., D.)

2.     A Christian married to a non-Christian: (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)

a.     If the non-believer wants to continue being married and there are no other biblical grounds for divorce, the believer is to remain faithful to the marriage.

b.     If the non-believer terminates the marriage covenant, the believing spouse is free and can marry another person.

c.     If the non-believing spouse does not initiate official divorce proceedings, but by his/her actions is demonstrating an unwillingness to be married (e.g., physical abuse, substance abuse, abandonment) he or she needs to be confronted by the believing spouse (and a pastor or elder if possible).  After receiving a fair ultimatum, if the behavior that violates the marriage covenant is not changed, the believer may proceed with separation or divorce proceedings, based on the principle that if the non-believer terminates the marriage, the believer is free to divorce and marry another person.

        (Extreme caution must be exercised here!  This must only be done when the non-believing spouse is truly violating the marriage covenant and thereby demonstrating an unwillingness to remain married.  The believer must not look at this option as a loophole to get out of the marriage while blaming the non-believer.)

3.     Persons who have been married and divorced before they were Christians.

a.     While sin is heinous, God's grace is greater than sin—any sin.  As new creatures in Christ, the sins from our lives before we are Christians do not preclude carrying on with a new life in Christ.

b.     People must understand that their past lives, even before they were Christians, often present serious challenges that must not be taken lightly.  Past marriages and divorces (especially if children are involved) present challenges to future marriages, even if the person(s) is in Christ and forgiven.

c.     Depending on how long ago the divorce took place, and what has happened since, those who have been married and divorced before they were saved, should consider reconciliation with former spouse if possible and only if the former spouse is also a believer.

4.     Christians married and divorced as Christians before they knew the Biblical principles.

Ignorance is no excuse before God's Law.  While the past cannot be undone, the person is responsible to follow the biblical principles from the time they are aware of them—no matter how painful that may be.

L.     Separation while married.

1.     When experiencing marital difficulties, couples should not separate while working on the marriage.  These "trial separations" tend to lead straight to divorce.  The best way to work on the marriage is by living together and working on it.

2.     A court-appointed Legal Separation

a.     A court-granted Legal Separation grants the petitioner all the legal protection of a divorce, but demonstrates that the petitioning spouse is keeping the door open for reconciliation without remarriage. 

b.     Legally separated couples should not engage in intimate relations until the marriage is reconciled. 

c.     Legal separation may be sought in the following situations:

i.      When a Christian is giving an ultimatum to a mate who is engaging in behavior or a life-style that is destructive or dangerous to the spouse or family (e.g., physical abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, gambling or other financially devastating behavior.)

ii.      When a spouse is under the discipline of the church for a marriage-related cause, is unwilling to repent, and is therefore being treated "as an un-believer."

III.  REMARRIAGE

A.     Death terminates the marriage covenant and frees the surviving spouse to marry again.  (Romans 7:3)

B.     The one who divorces an unfaithful spouse with biblical grounds is free to marry another person.

C.    Christians divorced by an un-believer are free to marry another person.

D.    Those who have divorced without biblical grounds can become free to remarry if truly repentant and if they have taken all the necessary steps to right any wrongs done through the unbiblical divorce as follows:

1.     Has the person sought forgiveness not only from God, but also from former spouse, children, relatives, and the church?

2.     Has the person made every effort at reconciliation?

3.     Has the person made every effort to right all wrongs (so far as possible)?  This may include repayment of any unfairly obtained monies, rights etc. in the divorce proceedings.  It means assuming obligations for child-support and possibly spousal-support.

4.     Divorce is not the unpardonable sin.  God never withholds forgiveness from the truly repentant.  We should not either.

IV.  SUMMARY

A.    Marriage is

1.     a divinely-ordained institution

2.     the first and most fundamental institution

3.     covenantal and binding

4.     a covenant of companionship

5.     the only place for true intimacy

6.     to conform to the model of Christ and His church

B.    Divorce

1.     always stems from sin

2.     is not necessarily sinful

3.     always breaks the marriage covenant

4.     is never necessary among believers

5.     is legitimate on the grounds of sexual sin

6.     is legitimate when an unbeliever wishes to divorce a believer

7.     is forgivable even when sinful

C.    Remarriage

1.     in general is desirable

2.     is possible for a divorced person

3.     is possible for a sinfully-divorced person through forgiveness

4.     is possible only when all biblical obligations have been met

5.     is possible only when parties are prepared for marriage

V.   COUNSELING

Questions to ask to discern how to counsel people concerning divorce and remarriage:

1.         Are all, one or none of the parties Christians?

2.         Who wants the divorce?

3.         On what grounds?

4.         Does this party really want a divorce, or only a change in the situation?

5.         Has 1 Corinthians 6 been violated?

6.         Has sexual sin been a factor in this marriage and/or divorce?

7.         Is there any acceptable evidence for such sin or only hearsay and/or supposition?

8.         Has church discipline been applied?

9.         If so, what was the outcome?

10.       Is there repentance/forgiveness?

11.       Is reconciliation required?

12.       Does an unbeliever want the marriage to continue?

13.       Has a former spouse remarried another person?

14.       Did any church fail to handle a divorce/remarriage properly?

15.       If so, how?  What can be done to set this error straight?

16.       Is the believer in a position that the church may declare him/her free from all obligations and, therefore, free to marry another person?

17.       If not, what more needs to be done to bring this condition about?