Please note : This material was presented in the context of a series of Sunday Evening Seminars at Eastside Baptist Church, by Pastor Joachim Rieck
Ø Some say that the Bible gives no grounds for divorce or remarriage at all.
Ø Others suggest that the Bible allows for divorce under some circumstances but does not allow for remarriage.
Ø Some say that if a divorce is justified, so is the possibility of remarriage.
Ø Still others say that God's primary concern is our happiness, so we mustn’t be too worried about these issues.
How can we know which is the right interpretation? As is the case so very often in these matters , there are some truths in all these views, and yet we must not come to the conclusion that all of these suggestions are equally true.
Our task is to consider what the Bible teaches in totality. Only then can we come to some sensible conclusions. This is easier said than done, since mixed signals appear to be found even in the Bible. To illustrate :
- the prophet Malachi declares, that God “hates divorce" (Mal. 2:16) yet God Himself gives a certificate of divorce to “faithless Israel, sending her away because of all her adulteries “ (Jer. 3:8).
- On one occasion, the prophet Ezra insisted that the men of Israel divorce the pagan wives they had married (Ezra 10:10-17).
- Later, Jesus said that sexual immorality is the only grounds for divorce (Mt. 19:9).
- The apostle Paul teaches that divorce is permissible for a Christian spouse, if their non-Christian spouse chooses to leave them. (1 Cor. 7:15).
Does the Bible then contradict itself about this matter of divorce? No! The Bible is actually very clear on what God’s will is concerning marriage. The fact that divorce is talked about in the Bible simply affirms the complexity which now surrounds the institution of marriage in a fallen world . Sin never leaves us with easy solutions.
Mixed signals also come from the painful experiences of life. During many years as a pastor, I have been involved with a number of divorce situations. I continue to maintain a conservative view on divorce. I won’t counsel people for divorce, because I am not a lawyer. I am a healer. I always remain uncomfortable giving advice on divorce or remarriage. Repentance and changed lives are always preferable to divorce action which will cause further hurt and divide children, friends, and family assets. Therefore I work very hard with such couples, praying to see them reconciled. I admit that I do not have a high “success rate “ in seeing couples from outside our church reconciled, mostly because they come to late for counselling. The sin and the hurt has heaped up to much.
However, I am delighted to say that I have seen very few divorces in our congregation over 25 years. I attribute that mainly to the preventative work that is going on through the preaching of God’s word.
Our deliberations on this subject must begin with clear biblical principles. We must move from the clear to the less clear .
THE RULING PRINCIPLE: “Marriage is for life - Divorce is not God’s will !”
In the beginning God did not create marriage with ‘escape clauses ‘. Marriage is in its very essence covenantal, which means that the vows taken are binding for as long as both partners are alive. On this basis , Paul says to the Corinthians : “ A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 7:39)
In the Bible, marriage is much more than a man and woman getting together to form a family . It portrays very deep theological themes. In Scripture, marriage is a picture of God and His commitment/covenant to His chosen people, the bride of His Son. Hosea’s prophecy in the OT and Ephesians 5:21-33 in the NT confirm that.
Marriage is a picture of the relationship between God and His people. There is a deep, intimate, loving covenantal bond between the Creator and His people. That covenant is unbreakable from God’s perspective.
The same is not always true for the people which He has created. Israel was called to be God’s chosen nation through a covenant which God made with Abraham, and repeated with Isaac and Jacob. Israel however as a covenant nation continually drifted from her relationship with her God. Frequently Israel’s behaviour is likened to a prostitute . In Hosea God says, “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” (Hosea 1:2). This unfaithfulness (both in covenant relationship to God and in actual marriage) is also very clearly described in Malachi 2:10-16. It is in that context that God says: “I hate divorce “, because in the beginning God had designed marriage to be unbreakable. The Lord Jesus affirms this principle in Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:1-10 and Lk 16:18. Here He responds to questions asked of Him by the Pharisees concerning divorce. In response He goes back to Genesis 2 and affirms the permanence of the marriage bond and adds these weighty words which are repeated by the Christian marriage officer at every wedding: ”Therefore what God has joined together let no man separate “ (Matt 19:6; Mk 10:9).
This is the clear principle. God means it.
Having said that, it may surprise us that there are provisions made in the Scripture for divorce. There are three specific texts which we now need to consider, and according to which divorce is permitted.
· Deuteronomy 24:1-4
· Matthew 19:7-10
· 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
We will study each passage, taking into consideration the historical situation, the permission given, and the restriction imposed.
[24:1] “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house,  and if she goes and becomes another man's wife,  and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife,  then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV)
This passage asserts that after a man had divorced his wife because he had found "something indecent / displeasing “ in her, and they both had remarried , they could not dissolve the new marriages and marry each other a second time. It appears that at this time in the history of Israel men were divorcing their wives for "some indecency”, and getting remarried to other spouses, getting divorced again from those , and then wanted to return to their first spouses .
Divorce had become a fact among God’s covenant people , and the matter was clearly getting out of hand, and when Moses came by God’s appointment to restore order in Israel it was a very unfortunate matter that now needed to be regulated. Please note – this was not designed by Moses ; these were emergency issues to curb the damage that was being done in Israelite society.
Jesus, some 1,500 years later, makes reference to this text in Deuteronomy in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, when He told a group of Jewish leaders as to why divorce has become permissible , said to them : "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Mt. 19:8 ; Mk 10: 5).
The historical background:
At the time of Moses and throughout the Old Testament era, a man became the master of the woman he married. This was true in all the cultures of the time, even among the Israelites. Jewish law did not permit a woman to initiate a divorce. She could remarry only if given a certificate of divorce. God however did not permit men unlimited power over their wives. The certificate of divorce when given, freed her from his rule.
Under what circumstances was this divorce to be granted in these OT times? The law permitted such action if a man found some indecency in his wife. The exact meaning of the term "indecency” (lit. ‘the nakedness of a thing ‘) is not clear. It may refer to aspects of sexual immorality - hence the translation ‘uncleanness’ (KJV). Keep in mind that this stipulation was granted because of the "hardness of heart”, and not because of God’s will. It was simply a permission granted.
The permission granted may have been mainly for the benefit of the wife who would have been subject to possible abuses and neglect by a hard hearted husband. Therefore the law allowed for her to be freed rather than to be subject to abuse.
We know that Moses was not allowing such divorces only in instances of adultery, because adultery in itself was an offence punishable by death (Deut. 22:22). The "uncleanness/indecency” issue probably did not relate to adultery, but to conduct on the part of the wife that the husband deemed shameful or offensive. We have no knowledge of how this was interpreted during Israel's early history.
At the time of Christ, some Jewish rabbis began to dispute about what Moses meant by the expression "some indecency." Rabbi Shammai limited this term to some kind of sexual impropriety (not necessarily adultery). Rabbi Hillel (who had a majority following on this matter) gave it almost unlimited latitude, even making minor offences like ‘not being a good cook’ a legitimate basis for divorce!
The Restriction Imposed.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 has the following restriction: Once the divorced pair had remarried, they could never marry each other again.
In summary, while we have no record of the occasion when Moses made it possible for the men in Israel to divorce their wives, Jesus confirms in Matthew 19:8/ Mark 10 :5 that it happened "because of the hardness of your hearts" (Mt. 19:8). He thereby in no way endorsed this . It was a sinful act. It was hardheartedness . This permission was given because of the sinfulness of man. Hard -hearted husbands would perpetrate greater evils against wives who were despised in their eyes if divorce were not an option. Remember that women had no right to divorce. And a hard-hearted man could find many ways to make life difficult for a wife whom he no longer loved and supported. He could abuse her mentally and physically. Remember, that God’s intention for a man and woman in marriage is to provide companionship  and so to defeat loneliness (Gen 2:18). What shall a woman do, when she is lonely and married to an ungodly man, who despises her? We shall continue this line of thought, when we consider Matthew 19 and 1 Cor 7.
2. Matthew 19:1-10 & Mark 10: 1-12
These are Jesus key statements on the matter of divorce. It expresses His teaching on this subject more fully than any other Gospel passage.
Matthew 19 : 1-10
[19:1] Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.  And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?”  He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,  and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”  They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”  He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality (Gr. porneia) , and marries another, commits adultery.”
 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:1-10 ESV)
Mark 10: 1-12
[10:1] And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.
 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”  And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.  But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,  and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
(Mark 10:1-12 ESV)
The Historical Situation:
As noted earlier, the religious leaders among the Jews disagreed sharply on the divorce issue. The followers of Rabbi Shammai were far stricter than the followers of Rabbi Hillel. The enemies of Jesus asked Him, "Can a man divorce his wife for any reason?" (The position of Rabbi Hillel). They were hoping that they could trap Him into giving an answer that would put Him at odds with one group or the other.
Jesus didn't fall into their trap, and typically He did not answer according to their expectation. Instead He corrected their statement that Moses commanded (as if by law) men to divorce their wives, by reminding them that Moses allowed divorce. He did not command divorce! Divorce happened not because the law wanted it, but because the hard hearts of man wanted it. To seal this fact Jesus reminded them of God’s true will in the beginning (Matt 19: 4-6 ; Mk 10:6-9) before making a pronouncement that did not agree with either the teaching of the prominent rabbinical schools.
The Permission Given: What then did Jesus teach?
1. Jesus teaches in the first place that divorce is not part of God’s original design in Genesis 2.
2. Jesus recognises with Moses that man no longer lives in a sinless state. Part of the manifestations of sin is the fact that marriages do break up. This is not God’s problem, but man’s problem. God does not break marriages up, but man does. Sin clouds man’s judgement. It makes people selfish and unfeeling towards their partners. One of the most devastating strains on any marriage is sexual immorality.
3. The ‘exception clause’ relating to adultery in Matt 19:9 (not mentioned in Mark 10:1-12 ! ) is a grace concession -primarily for the benefit of the offended party. The grace concession is for spouses whose partners have been sexually immoral and unfaithful. The Greek word He uses here for ‘sexual immorality’ is “porneia”, a term covering a wide range of sexual sins, not only adultery.
At this point we need to understand the depth of sexual sin. Sexual sin goes very deep. It strikes at the heart of the marriage covenant and destroys one of the deepest signs of marital unity – the physical intimacy of man and wife. Becoming one with another person breaks that exclusive bond between husband and wife. The fact of the matter is that as long as you live you will never forget this. It has therefore very complex consequences and emotional bondages. Many partners can simply not live with such a thought. In our day, the reality of HIV/AIDS contributes to the reticence of, say, a wife wanting to be reconciled to her adulterous husband. She would sign her death warrant by having sexual relations with her if he had become HIV positive by sleeping around.
The wife is, off course, free to forgive and go on in the marriage relationship, particularly if the husband is repentant and if the marriage holds future promise, and commitment to live in dependence on God and His word .
But most often, the adulterer/ess does not appear to be a Christian, and is not willing to repent and move on. What then? In such an instance the offended spouse is permitted to let him /her go. There can be no marriage if the commitment to companionship is not fulfilled. You cannot be married to a person that does not want to be married. In our next passage (1 Corinthians 7) we will consider what happens if the unbeliever chooses to leave the believing partner .
Note then, that in sanctioning divorce for sexual immorality, Jesus also permits remarriage for people divorced under such circumstance. A careful study of the Bible passages dealing with divorce makes clear a principle that we can apply: Whenever a divorce occurs on grounds that God has declared valid, that divorce carries with it the right of remarriage.
Let us re-examine the passages which we have covered so far, again:
First, let's place ourselves in the shoes of the people to whom Jesus spoke. The Jews, whether they were followers of Rabbi’s Hillel or Shammai, agreed that legally divorced people had the right to re-marry.
The liberal school of Hillel obviously had more grounds for divorce than the conservative school of Shammai. But, as far as we know, no Jewish teachers of that time differed on this point.
The divorce regulations mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 completely dissolved prior marital commitments. The only prohibition in that text (as we saw) was that a divorced couple should not remarry each other after having married and divorced new partners.
The second basis for our conviction that a God-permitted divorce carries with it the right to remarry is found in the very words recorded in Matthew 19:9: "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery."
We conclude, therefore, that Jesus permitted divorce on grounds of sexual immorality, and that this divorce assumed the right of remarriage for the innocent partner.
However, let us continually remember that the offended spouse and the sinning spouse are always free to forgive each other and to rebuild their marriage on the solid rock who is Christ.
The Restriction Imposed.
So we see then that the words of Jesus, "except for sexual immorality/ marital unfaithfulness," express a restriction as well as permission. Therefore, if a person obtains a divorce on grounds other than sexual immorality and then remarries, he/she commits adultery. The Lord's use of the word “moicheia” (adultery) focuses on the broken marriage covenant.
When two people whose divorces were not valid in God's sight, get married and they have sexual relations, they become adulterers. That brings them into trouble with God, for now they break their former marriage covenant by this adultery.
God considers two people as married when they have met the civil requirements (based on the oath sworn before Him). This is true even when their divorces were not valid in God's sight. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she had five husbands before her present one (Jn. 4:17-18). It is unlikely that she was widowed five times. We can therefore assume that at least a number of her marriages followed a divorce. Jesus still recognized each man she married as a husband. This leads us to the conclusion that when two people marry after a divorce on grounds other than specified by Jesus, they sin against the covenant they made in the previous marriage.
3. 1 Corinthians 7:10-16
 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband  (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.  To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.  But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.  For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:10-16 ESV)
Apart from a passing comment in Romans 7:13, in which Paul confirms that “death releases one from the law of marriage “(see also 1 Cor 7:39) , these few verses contain everything Paul wrote about divorce. Some critics say that in the process he contradicted Jesus' stipulation that the only grounds for divorce were sexual immorality or adultery. But a careful consideration of the historical circumstances makes it clear that Paul was faithful to Jesus' words on this matter.
The Historical Situation.
When Jesus made His statements about divorce, He addressed Jewish people living under the Mosaic Law. He was speaking to people of the covenant, who knew God’s law. By contrast, the apostle Paul spoke to people in a Greek-pagan society in Corinth. Granted, the people whom he addresses had become believers, and they were drawn from both – of Jewish and pagan background. But the historical situation of the people of
steeped in the law of God. The society of Corinth
was morally decadent. Like most seaports, Corinth was prosperous and immoral –
so much so that the Greeks had a word for leading a life of debauchery - “korinthiazein” – “to live like a Corinthian “. Dominating the city was the “Acrocorinth”- a hill about 600 metres high,
on which stood a large temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It was a cult dedicated to the glorification
of sex. 1000 priestesses called ‘sacred prostitutes ‘came down into the city at
night and plied their trade in the streets. This cult dominated the city and
formed its prevailing ethos. Society is most depraved when sex becomes its goal. Corinth
The people that became Christians were therefore drawn from this background. (1 Cor 1:26). Culture does not die easy, and so, those people that were converted from this background often had to be reminded of God's moral standards.
Then too, some of those who had become believers were living with a spouse who wasn’t a Christian. Some of the non-Christian spouses opted to remain married to their Christian spouses. Other non- believing spouses however wanted their spouse either to renounce Christ or to end the marriage.
Now, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul is very much concerned about all this adultery and sexual promiscuity (since it invites the wrath of God ) . Paul was concerned that fellow believers should be as free from sin as possible.
But then there is another issue: Paul strongly encouraged unmarried people to stay single. He wanted many single people to be as he was (1Cor 7:8); he wanted them to be as unencumbered as possible from the normal cares of life so they could serve Christ freely in the difficult days that were ahead. He therefore gives inspired advice and instruction about singleness, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. (7:10)
We will consider only the verses that deal directly with the matters of divorce and remarriage.
The Permission for divorce given (10-16)
Paul advised single people to remain single, and married people to remain with their present spouse. The following scenarios now emerge:
(i) vv.10 – 11: A Christian wife in principle is not encouraged to separate from her husband (because of God’s law) . In v.11 it then envisages that she does wish to separate ( but not on grounds of adultery ) but perhaps on grounds of , say, domestic violence . The rule from the Lord in this case is that if she divorces on this ground then she must stay unmarried, since she is not divorcing on grounds of adultery. She may however be reconciled to her husband.
(ii) vv. 12 – 14 : A Christian spouse has a non –believing partner (perhaps as a result of having become converted). What is the rule here? Paul says , “don’t divorce him/her, if they are willing to live with you.” The argument in v.14 is simple: The believer brings Christ into the home. The effects of Christ’s sanctifying presence in the spouse are felt in the home – also in the life of the unbelieving spouse and the children. The potential for salvation is there, for the prayer of a righteous wife/husband is powerful and effective (James 5:16b). The believer in covenant with God may yet see their household turned around!
(iii) vv. 15 - 16 these verses now speak of the possibility of a non-believing partner leaving. How must the believer deal with this scenario? The Christian spouse may let them go? Why? Paul’s answer is : “God has called us to live in peace “. Here the Christian rule is , “don’t fight – live at peace as much as it depends on you” (Rom 12:18)! And while we may always press on in hope, we must ultimately know that the matter of salvation is not in our hands. It is ultimately God’s sovereign choice. I have been often been amazed though, how good God is to save a spouse and unbelieving children – even if only after many years.
Let’s get back to the matter of divorce. The fact that Paul made the desertion of a believer by unbeliever valid grounds for divorce, while Jesus gave the only valid reason as "sexual immorality," does not put him into conflict with his Jesus.
Paul was essentially addressing a different situation: a mixed marriage. Jesus, addressing Jews under the law, had in mind marriages between Jews- marriages within the covenant community.
Paul had to deal with the problem of marriages between believers and non-believers.
And so we see that God, through the apostle Paul (7:10) gives a ruling (i.e. this teaching is enforced with divine authority): A wife/husband that wishes to divorce on grounds other than adultery, must not remarry!
In v. 12 the apostle Paul gives us his sanctified opinion (not a clear ruling from God – but based on “Christian common sense “). If a believer wants to leave, the Christian spouse cannot keep them. It may merely lead to frustration and tension. If the unbeliever wants to leave and marry someone else, then he/she commits adultery, which then eventually frees and gives the Christian spouse the right to remarry.
The point is that a believer does not sin by allowing a divorce when the unbeliever wants to leave. A divorce in such circumstances is therefore valid. God sees the marriage as ended, and therefore remarriage may be an option.
From the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 , Mark 10 and from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15, we find only two grounds upon which God sanctions divorce:
(i) sexual immorality
(ii) The desertion of a believer by an unbeliever.
This raises another question, "Is divorce wrong under all other circumstances? “
What about physical abuse? Must a woman continue to live with a man who is beating her, or sexually abusing her? Many pastors go through great emotional and mental turmoil when confronted with such extreme cruelty situations. I know I have. What do you do when, for instance, an abused woman is in grave danger? It seems like vv 10 & 11 make room for this possibility.
I believe that this is a typical “hardness of heart” situation (Matt 19:8). The poor abused woman may not choose to be divorced, but neither can she stay in this abusive situation. This text may therefore be applied for the benefit or for the protection of the abused spouse - e.g. The wife of a hard-hearted man whom she may leave , but then she should remain unmarried . This, I believe is the intention of the Old Testament divorce laws in Deut 24. They were nothing less than a merciful provision in a time when women had very few rights or defence mechanisms.
However, it needs to be understood in this New Testament ruling by God (through Paul) that the divorced spouses must not get remarried – otherwise they would be guilty of adultery. They may however sort out their conflict with their abusive husbands and they may choose to become reconciled and remarry.
- God hates divorce. It is not His desire. Neither must it be ours.
- Since marriage is an agreement between two sinners, even the unfaithfulness of one party can render the marriage fruitless and pointless.
- It is for such reasons, that God has permitted divorce.
- The final outcome is therefore not based on God’s choice, but on man’s choice. God simply chooses not to hold this sin against divorcees, provided that they get divorced within the provided framework.
All these matters bring no gladness.
Divorce ultimately solves very few problems. It always creates new problems. It always cripples families financially; it always causes hurt to children; it always tears up friendship circles and separates people.
But it may be the best solution between two bad choices.
May God give us grace at Eastside Baptist Church to train our married men and women for strong commitment to the principles of biblical marriage.
Above all, we will continue to pray for marriages, as these are one of the major targets for Satan’s attack upon families , the church and the state .
Marriage speaks of the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5: 21ff). So, much is at stake, and Satan works hard to distort God’s good creation and institution of marriage. Let us learn to resist him in our marriages by doing what is right in God’s eyes .