So one of the most challenging places the Church is called upon to exercise wisdom and judgment is in the matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. The stakes really are high here, and bone-headed laxity on the one hand or severe legalisms on the other do no one any favors and can only add to our current cultural Babel.
If we wish to speak with authority into the pansexual orgy taking place in our world, we must be resolute, wise, and cheerful on the issues surrounding the biblical marriage covenant and when (if ever) it may be dissolved and when (if ever) a previously divorced person may marry again. In what follows, I am expressing my own views in my own words, but they represent broadly the views of the session I serve.
First, the Bible teaches that ordinarily anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. Full stop (Lk. 16:18). The man who divorces his wife breaks covenant and covers his garments with violence (Mal. 2:14-16). Jesus said it this way, and the Church must clearly and unapologetically teach this. In a time when the world has lost sight of what a covenant is or means, the Church must labor to name the world rightly in this regard. We must speak the truth in love and with compassion, but we must not blunt the truth with spiritual cotton candy. This means that pastors and Christian counselors labor to call men and women to keep their vows, and this means incidentally learning the grace of forgiveness and repentance.
Because the gospel of Jesus is true, there is no marriage so dark, no covenant so trashed that it is beyond the hope of the gospel to heal and rise from the dead. What? Is your marriage mangled? Is it disfigured beyond all recognition? You mean like what they did to our Savior before they drove spikes into His hands and feet? Is your marriage cold and dead, like a corpse in a grave? Like the body of our Jesus that first Holy Saturday? You mean hours before He began to live again? There is always hope for healing, restoration, and reconciliation, and Christian counsel believes in the power of the Holy Spirit to raise dead men and dead women from the grave.
At the same time, pastors must not be naive, and all appropriate accountability must be called upon as necessary. But if God calls a man and woman together, He does not do so as a cruel joke. The old covenant died and rose again, and many of our human covenants are offered the same amazing grace. To divorce your spouse because it is just too hard is to proclaim an impotent gospel. To move on and marry another is to commit adultery, as though our Lord would tire of our sins and move on to another bride.
Second, and nevertheless, human covenants can be broken, and depending on many particulars, the wisest, most peace-loving, grace-loving, God-loving path may be divorce. Jesus explicitly noted this fact also. He said that everyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery (Mt. 5:32 ). While neither spouse is required to divorce even when there has been sexual infidelity, Jesus clearly notes that it is a lawful ground for divorce.
Sexual infidelity is not necessarily limited to outright adultery. Porneas is the term that Jesus uses, and it refers to sexual immorality of many kinds, including prostitution, adultery, pre-marriage immorality, etc. This can also apply to certain forms of extreme pornography use and sexual abuse. It should still be noted here that one of the glories of the new covenant is Jesus coming as the Bridegroom to marry His harlot bride. Israel broke covenant and slept with all the nations of the world. And all sons and daughters of Adam have followed suit, serving our own lusts and passions.
All have sinned and sold God’s love for cheap thrills and the illusion of self-fulfillment through rebellion. We are the woman at the well; we are Mary Magdalene; we are the woman caught in adultery. And Jesus is our Great Boaz who doesn’t care, who bears our sins, who pays our debts, who heals our diseases, who casts out our demons, who drives away our accusers, and He has done all of this through the blood of His cross, which is still in the inextricable process of making His bride, the Christian Church, spotless, clean, and pure.
This means that there is a particular gospel blessing in the forgiveness of sexual infidelity. When a man or woman looks into the eyes of their spouse, knowing his/her unfaithfulness, and proclaims forgiveness, this is a supernatural and powerful testimony to the grace of God. To be clear: forgiveness is always required of Christians, but reconciliation is not. Sometimes a godly spouse may forgive sexual sin and still file for divorce. Here, I’m merely pointing out that when reconciliation accompanies forgiveness, it adds to the glory of the gospel. But as Jesus Himself notes, sometimes reconciliation is not possible. In those cases, remarriage would not constitute an act of adultery.
Third, the Bible also admits divorce in cases where an unbeliever is not pleased to continue living with a believer (1 Cor. 7:12-15). This may occur when one spouse becomes a Christian or when a previously professing Christian leaves the faith and/or is excommunicated.
Once again, the first instinct of a Christian in these situations ought to be towards displaying the glory of the gospel. Paul himself encourages this thinking: “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 Cor. 7:16). Christians are called to gospel hope toward unbelieving spouses. And even apart from conversion, Christians should not underestimate the power of their faith in their home. Paul says that the unbelieving spouse and children are made “holy” by the believing spouse (1 Cor. 7:14). Nevertheless, if the unbeliever separates from the believer, let them go. In those cases, the believer is not bound for God calls His people to peace (1 Cor. 7:15). Under those circumstances, if the believer is not “bound” to the unbeliever if he/she departs, then I believe that “unbound” spouse is free to remarry in the Lord.
Fourth, in the same passage, Paul makes it clear that he is not abandoning the Lord’s teaching on divorce or softening what He taught (1 Cor. 7:10). Husbands and wives must not divorce one another, and if either of them files for divorce for unbiblical grounds, they are to remain unmarried. The reason for this is that their divorce is not lawful, and repentance ought to include their reconciliation. This seems to be what Jesus refers to when He says that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardness of Israelite hearts (Mk. 10:5).
In those cases, Moses was not going liberal, and in those situations, the man and woman ought to remain unmarried. If they were to remarry under those circumstances they cause one another to commit adultery, just as Jesus said. This is one of those places where pastors and Christian counselors need to be prepared to stand their ground when somebody shows up asking to be (re)married. Just because somebody filed for divorce does not mean they may lawfully be remarried. Here is one of those places where the Church must double down if we are to have any credibility with the world on so-called “homosexual marriage.” If we are not faithful to God’s word here, why should they listen to us there? And remember that authority is not derived from popularity but from the truth.
Fifth, there is one final exception to the no divorce and remarriage rule, the most explicit reference for which is in Exodus where Moses required that a man who took a second wife not be allowed to diminish his first wife’s food, clothing, or marital rights, otherwise the first wife was free to leave the marriage without penalty (Ex. 21:10-11). As in the case of the believer whose spouse files for divorce leaving the brother or sister “unbound,” I understand the same status to apply to this effectively “deserted” spouse, which is to say the woman who may go out “free” is free to find another husband who will provide adequate food, clothing, and sexual intimacy.
This regulation would serve to limit polygamy, but it also establishes the basic duties of the marriage covenant. And here in the law, God says that at a certain point of neglect and/or abuse, it may be determined that a woman (in most cases) is free to leave a marriage with no penalty because of the severity of the conditions the man has created. Regardless of whether this law applied to a concubine or a full-status wife, the point stands. Paul restates this basic covenant keeping responsibility of the husband in Ephesians 5:29 using the words “nourish” and “cherish” — literally “feeding” and “keeping warm.”
This establishes at least one other biblical ground for divorce, namely, various forms of abandonment or desertion or sustained patterns of abuse, which amount to a gross failure to keep covenant obligations. We recognize that this final ground for divorce is the most difficult and perhaps the most open to exploitation. Nevertheless, God expects His people to grow up into maturity and wisdom, and this means that the Church must learn to make judgments about particular situations.
There will be some situations that are very difficult which the Church determines must nevertheless be worked at (cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-6), and there will be some which the Church determines that the covenant of marriage has been broken and one of the parties is free to go if they so desire. Once again, while we note this exception, we still proclaim the power of the gospel and the glory of grace that covers, heals, and restores even the most damaged marriages.
Finally, a note about what occurs when an unlawful remarriage occurs. Jesus says that an unlawful remarriage constitutes adultery, and so it most certainly does. The question however is whether this is an ongoing state which must presumably be repented of by “divorce” which suggests that the second marriage is not really a marriage at all or whether the act of unlawful remarriage is an act of adultery but thereafter constitutes a true marriage to be honored and preserved despite its illicit beginning. For an analogous scenario, we might refer to the child conceived in an act of fornication. While the act of fornication is itself sinful, the resultant child is not a sin nor an ongoing state of sin for the mother or father.
The mother and father of that illegitimate child do not repent by aborting the child. That would be to compound the guilt of the parents. No, repentance means confessing the act of fornication, the lies, the lust, the selfishness, but importantly also includes receiving the resultant child with joy and faith. In the same way, an unlawful remarriage is a sinful act, but the new union created by that marriage is a true one-flesh union, that ought not be aborted. Repentance should include confession of whatever sins may have led to that unlawful remarriage, but then it also includes receiving the new marriage with joy and faith.
The primary textual defense for this is found in the law in Deuteronomy where the Lord prohibits a woman from returning to a previous husband after being remarried (Dt. 24:1-4). Moses says that this would be an abomination before the Lord. Therefore, we conclude that a man or woman who is divorced and remarries is under no obligation to return to the previous spouse even if the divorce was illegitimate. Remarriage, however unlawful or unwise, does constitute a true marriage, a new reality is brought into the world which is holy to God and ought to be honored by all men (Heb. 13:4).
All of this really is glorious and wonderful. In some ways it’s a bit like reading a surgeon’s manual, and it is admittedly a bit bloody and messy. But this is because this sinful world is messy. The great temptations on either side are either to refuse to allow messes or throw up our hands and give up trying. Some want a simple manual and take the strictest reading of what Jesus says and then cram all the other passages into their narrow reading.
This effectively limits the sorts of cases they will deal with. The attraction is the simplicity and lack of broken bones. The downside is all the broken people who find themselves out of luck. On the flip side, those who refuse to take Jesus’s words seriously at all, are like physicians who encourage drinking and driving and wonder why the ER is always so full of mangled bodies. Can’t quite figure it out.
But the Bible really is God’s wisdom for a broken and hurting world. It proclaims the grace of covenant keeping, the grace of forgiveness and repentance, but it also proclaims the grace of freedom, the grace of peace, and where sin has done its worst, God gives new life.
God loves the marriage covenant. He loves how our marriage covenants mimic His covenant with us. He loves how imperfect marital love mimics His perfect and everlasting love for us. The creation design for this covenant is one man, one woman, one time.
But because of sin and death, there is brokenness in the world, and none of our human marriage covenants fully reflect God’s covenant love for us. All of our marriage covenants fall short of His glory. But the good news of the gospel is that wherever we are, if we turn to Him with humble hearts there is always hope. It is never too late. There is always a way toward Him. And Jesus is that way. He comes to us wherever we are and He comes with healing in His wings.