Divorce and remarriage is a monstrous evil and there is a pressing need for some clear teaching on the subject. We must be loyal to the Scriptures and not be carried away by the opinions of men.
When divorce has once taken place, it’s often impossible to undo the damage done. It usually results in such a tangle of complicated situations that no human being can unravel it. We speak with sympathy for those already tangled in a marital disaster, but we write specifically with the hope of helping to prevent the tragedy of divorce from happening to others. The knowledge that the Bible doesn’t permit divorce and remarriage, is a powerful factor in helping people determine that they are going to make their marriages work.
Divorce and remarriage is certainly not a new subject. It is as old as the Scriptures themselves. Divorce was a problem in Noah’s day; Moses had to contend with it; the question was brought to Jesus, nearly two thousand years ago. They said, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” John the Baptist lost his head because of divorce and remarriage. He had told King Herod that the woman he married was not really his wife, but that she was still the wife of Philip, her first husband. And this enraged the woman—and she took revenge!
1. The Scope of the Divorce Evil
Every year thousands of American homes are broken by separation and divorce. In 1887, there was hardly a divorce in the entire United States. In 1913, there were only sixty divorced couples in the entire country of Canada. But divorce has rapidly increased, until today in our country, approximately one marriage out of every three ends in divorce.
There was a time when divorce carried with it a stigma and shame—but no longer. The practice has become so widespread that when a grade-school teacher asked one of her pupils to give his father’s name, he said, “Which one, teacher, I’ve got three fathers.” One minister reports too that he thought it was hardly necessary to ask the two eighteen-year-olds who had come to him for marriage, the usual question, “Have either of you been married before?” (because they were both only eighteen years old)—but he asked anyhow. And he was shocked when the young man answered boldly, “Yes sir, we’ve both been married, but we’re divorced.”
The divorce laws in many states are so loose and so full of loopholes that marriage often becomes little more than a thirty-day free trial. One writer says that in some cases today, the wedding cake lasts longer than the marriage itself! In some states, all one has to do to get a divorce is to declare that the partner spilled gravy on the tablecloth, or that he washed his false teeth in the presence of company—and sometimes it doesn’t take the court as long to grant the divorce as it does to fine a man for speeding on the highway.
2. The Causes of Divorce and Remarriage
One of the causes is related to hasty marriages. Only a miracle can prevent a tragedy in the home when people marry, after they’ve known each other only a few weeks. Too many couples marry first and only then get acquainted.
Marriages between believers and unbelievers and between those of differing nationalities and races, often create problems in the home. One’s best chance for success in marriage occurs when he is a Christian, and he marries another devoted Christian, and when the married partners are of the same race, nationality, and religious faith.
Childless marriages sometimes contribute toward divorce. God wants husbands and wives to become fathers and mothers. And to refuse this great purpose of God (where children are physically possible)—leads to frustration and sometimes to broken homes.
Prayerless marriages are also a factor related to divorce and remarriage. Each married couple should begin a family altar at the very beginning of married life. If a young couple will pray, and ask God to lead them in their marriage (and will keep the family altar going down through the years)—there aren’t enough divorce courts in all the land to put their marriage on the rocks. There is much truth in the slogan, “Families that pray together, stay together.”
3. The Bible Teaching On Divorce and Remarriage
We must forget our sympathies at this point, and what we’ve heard others say, and what we’ve read in books—and listen to God’s Book seeking to discover what it says.
(1) Concerning Separation
The Scriptures say, “And unto the married I command (yet not I, but the Lord), Let not the wife depart from her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:10). The wife is not to leave her husband, and of course the opposite is also true, “Let not the husband put away his wife.” The Christian who has marital problems is to seek to “stick-it-out.” It might mean hardship and testing, but it’s best for the Christian not to leave his companion. However, Paul does say in verse 11 (of the same chapter), “But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.”
While it is best not to separate—if a couple does separate, they are not free to remarry. The channel must always be kept open and clear, so that the relationship can be restored in the event the parties repent and decide to make the marriage work. Paul explains why (in verse 14) the wife should not separate from her partner: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.” In other words, the unsaved husband is set apart into a place where the influence of his good Christian wife may ultimately result in his salvation. As long as the Christian wife continues to live with her husband (and lives a devoted life before him)—she might be able to influence him for God. But if she leaves him and loses contact with him, she cuts off her one great opportunity for ultimately winning him to Christ. However if matters become so difficult that separation does take place (and this can happen)—the channels must be kept open for future restoration. Regardless of how incompatible the partners may seem to be, they are still husband and wife, and that union can only be dissolved by death.
(2) Concerning Divorce
Divorce is not even mentioned in the Bible until 2,500 years after the first marriage. It is true that God permitted divorce to the hard-hearted in Israel, but our conduct must be governed not by the evils which God suffered, but by the laws which He commanded.
Matthew 5:32 records the words of Jesus: “But I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away (that is, divorce) his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery, and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery.” Jesus plainly says that divorce does not dissolve the marriage union as death does—for if it did, it would be unnecessary to say, “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committed adultery.” The Scriptures in a number of places say that death dissolves a marriage, and that then it is not a sin to re-marry. If divorce would dissolve a marriage like death does, then it wouldn’t be adultery to be married to a divorced person. Jesus says that if one marries a person who is divorced, he is committing adultery. Divorce does not dissolve the old marriage.
Jesus also plainly says that one who divorces his partner, causes her to commit adultery—that is, he gives her a license in the eyes of the law to go out and re-marry and commit adultery—and this is another reason why divorce is wrong.
Even the exception-clause has to do with fornication and not with adultery. Fornication means illicit relations on the part of the unmarried, while adultery means illicit relations on the part of the married. It is true that the Greek word translated “fornication” sometimes widens out to include all kinds of immorality—but in Matthew 5:32 Jesus uses both the words “adultery” and “fornication” in the same sentence. And whenever the two Greek words (adultery and fornication) stand in contrast to each other (in the same setting), the word “fornication” always refers to impurity among the unmarried. And so Jesus did not make an exception for adultery, but for fornication.
Jesus spoke (in Matthew 5:32) not about a marriage divorce, but about an espousal divorce. Among the Orientals, engagement was a bond almost as binding as marriage itself. It took the writing of a bill of divorcement to break it. Even before the marriage takes place, the young woman is called “a wife.” This was true of the virgin Mary. She was called Joseph’s wife (and he her husband) even when she was only espoused to him. And when Joseph learned that she was expecting a child, he was minded to put her away (to divorce her). See Matthew 1:18-19. When Jesus said, “Except it be for fornication”—He was saying that if the young man found that his espoused wife (the girl he was going to marry) had been immoral before their marriage (that is, if she committed fornication), he could return the girl to her father with a paper of divorcement.
God does not approve divorce. There are a number of Scriptural commands and principles which a divorce always violates.
First, there is the command which says, “As much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). If I get a divorce from my wife, I am not doing all I possibly can to live peaceably with her. I’m doing all I can to live peaceably without her, but not with her.
Divorce also violates the command to forgive “until seventy times seven” times. Every divorce (no matter what the cause), demonstrates an unforgiving heart on the part of the person suing for divorce.
Divorce violates the promise to be faithful “for better or for worse.” We don’t hear much about this promise when things go better, but the promise to love and cherish the partner is not only for times when things go better—it is also for times when things don’t go so well. When we pledge (over an open Bible and in the presence of witnesses and before God) to be faithful “until death do us part”—we’re making a promise for life. The Bible says it is better not to vow, than to vow and not pay.
Furthermore, divorce violates the prohibition in the Bible against going to courts of law (see 1 Corinthains 6). One who applies for a divorce must sign a statement which in effect says, “The plaintiff prays that a decree of court may be given to (the married partner) divorcing her from the plaintiff’s society, fellowship, and company—and from the marriage bond, as if she were dead.”
Divorce violates the commands in the Bible to be separate from the world. One who seeks a divorce is following the example of Hollywood, and not the law of God. The whole tenor of the Bible is against divorce. It is unthinkable that the God who teaches us to forgive seventy-times-seven times (without limit)—would then teach that we may divorce our wives and put them away if we can’t get along with them.
(3) Concerning Remarriage
God never intended the remarriage of divorced persons. Jesus says, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, commits adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). Paul says, in Romans 7, “So then if while her husband lives, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.” And in 1 Corinthians 7:39, the Bible says that death is the only thing which can dissolve the marriage vow: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband lives, but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”
The Bible gives no license under any condition for anyone to remarry as long as he or she has a former living companion. And so, to summarize—the Bible teaches that separation is permissible but usually unwise; divorce is always a sin; and remarriage is an additional sin.
(4) The Solution to the Divorce Problem
Persons dealing with the dilemma of divorce often insist that divorce and remarriage is a sin to be regarded and forgiven as any other sin—and indeed so it is. The Lord forgives the sin of divorce and remarriage just the same (and just as willingly) as He forgives any other sin. But remember that God expects the sin to be discontinued. When a drunkard gets right with God the Lord expects him to quit his drinking, and to give up his bottle. And just so, one who is remarried, and thus living in adultery, is expected to quit his living in an adulterous state.
Marriage to a second partner (while the first companion is still living), constitutes a continuous state of adultery. If a murderer accepts the Lord and is received into the Church—and continues to commit murder again—does he give evidence of the new birth? Does God forgive, when the sinner has no real intention of forsaking his sin? Just so one living in the state of adultery stands condemned before God. The only real solution for those already divorced and remarried—is the voluntary separation of the married partners. This is exactly what the Children of Israel did many years ago, during the revival under Ezra’s preaching. They said, “Let us make a covenant with our God, to put away all the wives . . . according to the counsel of those who tremble at the commandment of our God” (Ezra 10:3).
We can never say (of divorced and remarried persons), that there is no way. There is a way. The Church has always received divorced and remarried persons—if they separated and lived chaste lives apart from each other.
Some say, “But what about people who were caught up in divorce and remarriage before they were Christians?” They say, “Surely people should not be penalized for what they didn’t know, or for what they’ve repented of.” And further, “What if people are happily married the second time? Would it be proper to annul that marriage and break up homes?” To answer such questions, we must remember that Jesus made it clear that to follow Him might involve breaks in human relations. He said that even homes would became divided for His sake—and in strong language He said that those not willing to break family ties, are not worthy of Him. Read Matthew 10:37-39. To be separated on earth for a season (from family ties), is nothing, compared to missing eternal union with God. The way of the transgressor is hard.
Marriage is a serious step. The vows are witnessed on earth and they are recorded in Heaven. The Bible teaches that marriage is a lifetime contract, never to be broken except by death. There just isn’t anything about divorce and remarriage that God approves. His plan is marriage for life. Our prayer is that where brokenness and iniquity are evident, God will bring healing and restoration, and that His blessing will be upon children who are the innocent victims of broken homes, and that He will increase love in those homes not yet broken but which are standing on a shaky foundation.
By Harold S. Martin
Used by permission of Bible Helps, P O Box 391, Hanover PA 17331.