When I was ordained to the ministry in 1988, I had to write a paper stating my views on a number of areas of theology—Scripture, God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Man, Salvation, Church, Future Things, Angels & Demons, Spiritual Gifts—as well as several current issues—Marriage & Divorce, Homosexuality, Abortion, Social Drinking, and the Role of Women in the Church. When I transferred my ordination to the Evangelical Free Church in 2005, I had to rewrite the paper. Since people periodically ask me questions about these areas, I think it is time to restate my convictions about what Scripture says on these issues.
Here are my convictions about what Scripture says about Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage
We live in a culture where the institution of marriage is under attack. Marriage is not valued and divorce is prevalent. As a pastor, I feel a responsibility and a burden to help people understand what Scripture says on this topic. The goal is not to heap guilt on those who have experienced the pain of divorce. Rather, I want to help affirm the sanctity and permanence of marriage so as to help build strong marriages and prevent future divorces.
The institution of marriage was created by God in order to display his glory to the world and to provide joy for his creatures. It provides a glimpse of the covenantal love of God for his creation. The roles and responsibilities of husbands and wives reveal the relationship of Christ with the church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
Marriage was divinely instituted by God from the very beginning. According to Genesis 2:24-25, a marriage exists in God’s sight when a man leaves his parents, cleaves to his wife, and becomes one flesh with her.
The marriage union is exclusive (“a man . . . his wife . . .”), publicly recognized (“leaves his parents”), permanent (“cleaves to his wife”), consummated by sexual intercourse (“become one flesh”) and leads to intimacy (“naked … not ashamed”). It is a covenant relationship between a husband and wife and between the couple and God.
In principle, marriage is a permanent, lifelong union. Because God is the one who joins a man and wife together, no one should attempt to tear them apart (Mark 10:9).
Because God instituted marriage, he considers divorce a breach of covenant, an act of “treachery,” and something which he “hates” (Malachi 2:16).
Divorce is a violent act that tears people, families, and communities apart. Since marriage is designed to reveal God’s goodness, glory, and faithfulness, anything that disrupts a marriage—division, discord, divorce—should be taken very seriously and avoided.
Before discussing the possible situations when divorce might be allowed, it should be noted that divorce is nowhere commanded nor even encouraged in Scripture. While divorce was allowed, it was not prescribed or commanded. Since divorce was present in the Old Testament, Moses provided guidelines for how to handle divorce in order to protect the “innocent” party (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
In Matthew 19:8, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 24. He explains that Moses permitted, but did not command or require divorce. Divorce was merely a concession necessitated by individuals whose hearts were hard. Rather than seeking a divorce as the easy solution, repentance and reconciliation are always the best options. Even when divorce is possible in some cases, working towards reconciliation within the context of a faith community is always preferable.
Regardless of the symptoms of marital strife, the root cause is always sin and pride. It is always one or both spouses’ rebellion against God. Both spouses must respond to the gospel by faith and repentance. Thankfully, God has provided reconciliation with us through the person of his son, Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:1 speak of this reconciliation.
Since marriage brings together two imperfect people, it is a challenging endeavor that must have Jesus Christ at the center of the union. It requires the constant practice of love, mercy, forgiveness, grace, and humility that were displayed in the person and work of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins in order to reconcile us to God.
As stated previously, divorce is never the best option. However, Scripture indicates that there are two circumstances in which divorce is permissible after all attempts at reconciliation have been exhausted.
First, an innocent person may divorce his/her partner if the latter has been guilty of sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31-32).
The term for “sexual immorality” is a broad one that includes things such as adultery, homosexuality, incest, and bestiality. In the case of adultery, the offended spouse is encouraged to offer forgiveness and restoration (though it might be a difficult and slow process). In the event that reconciliation is not possible, the offended party has the freedom to be released from the marriage.
Secondly, in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, Paul discusses a situation where a believer is married to an unbeliever. The guiding principle is that the believer should not initiate the divorce if the unbeliever is willing to stay in the marriage. However, if the unbeliever refuses to remain in the relationship and chooses to desert the marriage, the believer is therefore free.
In the case of unrepentant and continued abuse, the abused is encouraged to immediately separate for the sake of safety and is also expected to inform the elders of First Central Bible Church. The elders will attempt to work with both parties in the hope of bringing about repentance and reconciliation. While we might counsel separation, we would not counsel divorce as it does not meet the criteria for a biblical divorce.
For all divorces which have occurred for reasons other than sexual immorality or an unbeliever deserting the marriage, the expectation for both parties is to pursue reconciliation. Until reconciliation with the former spouse occurs, both spouses are to remain unmarried as indicated by 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.
Where Scripture permits divorce, it presupposes the right to remarry. In addition to remarriage being allowed in the two situations mentioned above, a partner may remarry when their mate has died (1 Corinthians 7:39).
As a pastor, my responsibility is not to be preoccupied with divorce and its grounds, but rather with marriage and its institution. Because God’s purpose is marriage, not divorce, my teaching on marriage must begin with God’s plan for the permanence of the marriage relationship. However, when an individual has gone through a divorce, whether for biblical or unbiblical reasons, I must minister to them at their point of need. In such a case, the shepherding of the individual is essential, with the hope that the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation would take root. Even when the marriage covenant is broken, it should not lead automatically or necessarily to divorce, but rather be an occasion for caring instruction on the duty and way of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation. Ultimately, my counsel must start and finish with the understanding that the foundation of a healthy marriage is a right relationship with God, with Jesus Christ at the center.