DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE
BELIEF 2: DIVORCE IS OK; REMARRIAGE IS NOT
Variety of Bible-based beliefs:
We are faced with a dilemma:
||Various Christian groups -- conservative Protestants, liberal
Protestants and Roman Catholics have reached different beliefs about under
which conditions the Bible permits divorce, if any.
||Even those groups who interpret the Bible as permitting divorce may or may not allow remarriage.
||Each of the authors and webmasters who has written on these topics
seem to conclude that their belief alone is the correct interpretation of
The main positions are:
- Neither divorce nor remarriage are allowed. (A
conservative Protestant view)
Divorce is OK, but remarriage is forbidden -- described below. (A second conservative Protestant
- Divorce is OK in cases of adultery or desertion; remarriage is OK.
(A conservative/mainline Protestant view)
- Divorce is OK for many reasons; remarriage is OK. (A mainline/liberal
- Divorce is impossible, unless the marriage never existed. (Roman
- Divorce is OK in cases of marriage breakdown; remarriage is OK.
(Religious liberal and secular view.)
This essay describes the second position: that the Bible allows
divorce, but forbids divorced people to marry again. A divorced person is
expected to remain celibate and
without a partner for the rest of their life, or until their former spouse
dies -- whichever occurs first.
This view has been well argued by author William A. Heth. 1,2
His position is that in Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus recognized three ages in
Hebrew and Christian history during which different rules were in place regarding divorce
||During the time before the Mosaic law was given, marriage was regarded as permanent.
||After the Mosaic Law was given, divorce and remarriage was permitted but
not approved of by God.
||During the interval which started with Jesus' ministry on earth, and
today, marriage once more is recognized as permanent. Remarriage is not
permitted, except after the death of one spouse.
Although divorce is permitted, neither party is free to
remarry. Only if one dies may the other ex-spouse marry. As far as this view
of the Bible is concerned, a married couple can separate. They can even
obtain a divorce from the courts. But God considers that the bonds
of the original marriage contract continue. Thus, any remarriage would be
Key passages from the Hebrew Scriptures:
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages
relating to divorce and remarriage:
||Genesis 2:24: Marriage is permanent: "Therefore shall a man leave
his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they
shall be one flesh." The key words in this verse are "leave,"
"cleave," and "one flesh." Leave and cleave are terms which
are often used elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures when referring to covenants between
persons or between one person and God. One essential feature of a covenant
is its permanence. It is intended to be honored for all time. In addition,
the term "one
flesh" defines marriage as a permanent kinship relationship. One
permanently inherits a whole group of in-laws to add to their families of
Leviticus 18:6-18: Prohibition of sexual intercourse within a
lengthy passage forbids sexual activity among near-family members. Its language
talks about a person
approaching a "near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness." This is a
euphemism for sexual intercourse. Specific forbidden kin relationships include
one's parents, step parents, siblings, step-siblings, son or daughter, step-child,
aunt, uncle, etc. The act of marriage, in effect, makes one
spouse's parents and siblings become the parents and siblings of one's
spouse...and vice versa. "Extended relationships come into being through the
marriage of two formerly unrelated people." 4 This passage
"does view the circle of relationships established by marriage to endure
beyond the death of the person who forms a link in the relationship...It follows
that those relationships are not invalidated by divorce either." 5
Thus, a husband and wife's unique relationship continues forever, is not
terminated by a divorce.
||Deuteronomy 24:1-2 Permission to divorce and remarry, but only for ancient
times: "When a man hath taken a wife, and
married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes,
because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a
bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his
house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be
another man's wife." This passage allowed a man to divorce his wife
(or wives). She could then remarry another man. However, it did not allow a woman to divorce her husband.
It is unclear what the term "uncleanness" means. Presumably it does not
mean that she had committed adultery, because then she would have been
executed by stoning.
The passage does not approve of divorce. It merely accepted it as a
practice that had been imported by the ancient Hebrews from adjacent
cultures, where it was a universal custom. Heth quotes C.J.H. Wright who
pointed out that Israel "...did not live in a hermetically sealed
isolation from the rest of humanity..." 6 They
picked up customs from their neighbors and made them their own. Because it
violated other passages in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it
does not reflect the will of God.
||Ezra 9:1-2: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in
mixed-marriages to separate: "...The people of Israel, and the
priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of
the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites,
the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites,
the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their
sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of
those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in
this trespass." Ezra was a scribe who had led a small group of Jews
from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. He found that many Jews had
entered into inter-faith marriages with women from nearby Pagan countries.
He felt that if these marriages continued, the Jewish people would quickly lose their national identity and start
to worship other Gods. Noting that the Mosaic law forbade
inter-faith marriages between a Jew and a
Pagan, he probably looked upon these marriages as illicit and unlawful. He
was in effect, nullifying the marriages as if they had never been
contracted. The normal Hebrew word "to marry" is laqah (Ezra 2:61).
But when Ezra refers to these inter-faith marriages, he used terms like "to
take" (nasa in Exra 9:2) and "gave a dwelling to" (yasab as in Ezra 10:2).
Nothing in the passage indicates that the Hebrew men remarried.
||Malachi 2:10: Religious intolerance -- requiring couples in
mixed-marriages to separate: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and
an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath
profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the
daughter of a strange god." Malachi is faced with the same problem as
Ezra, described above. Jewish males were marrying foreign women who
followed different religions. "Daughter of a strange god" refers to
a foreign woman who worshiped a Pagan deity or deities rather than Yahweh.
In Verse 12, he predicted that God would "cut off" (that is,
murder) any man who remained in a mixed marriage. Malachi probably viewed
these marriages as illicit and invalid. He may have called on the husbands
to simply separate from their wives. There is no indication that divorce
or remarriage took place.
||Malachi 2:14-16: Divorce is treacherous behavior: "... the LORD hath been witness between thee
and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet
is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant....let none deal
treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of
Israel, saith that he hateth putting away..." Malachi is
condemning Hebrew men for abandoning their wives after many years of
marriage, presumably so that he could marry a different woman. Here, marriage is
referred to as a covenant between God, the husband and wife. One property
of a covenant is that it is permanent. Another covenant was the contract between God and the
ancient Hebrews at Sinai. See Numbers 30:2,
Ecclesiastes 5:4-6, and Psalm 15:4. He quotes God as saying that he hates
divorce (putting away).
Key passages from the Christian Scriptures:
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) includes the following passages
relating to divorce and remarriage:
||Matthew 5:31-32: No divorce allowed: "It
hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a
writing of divorcement. But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away
his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit
adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth
adultery." Divorcing one's wife, in most cases, would cause her to
seek a second husband. By remarrying, she would be committing adultery.
Her former husband would be responsible for "making his wife and her
second husband commit adultery against him." 7
However, if he divorced her because she had committed fornication in the
past, then she would have already been an adulteress. Her husband's action
would not drive her into adultery because she has already committed the
sin. Since marriage is forever, a man who married a divorced wife also
||Matthew 19:4-9: No divorce allowed: "...Have ye not read, that he which made
them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause
shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and
they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one
flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of
divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the
hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the
beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his
wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth
adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." The Pharisees were challenging Jesus'
beliefs about divorce. They asked him to interpret the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-2
which allowed a husband to divorce his wife if he "found some
uncleanness in her." Jesus delivers the sentence that is heard
near the end of most Christian marriage ceremonies: "What therefore God
hath joined together, let not man put asunder." It is absolute and
unambiguous. Then, Jesus states that at the time of
the world's creation, prior to God delivering the Mosaic Law, divorce was not allowed. However, God permitted the Hebrews in
Moses' time (and later) to divorce their wives, perhaps because they could
not have accepted a prohibition on divorce at that time. Jesus then
delivers a new law which over-rides the Mosaic Law. Marriage is to be
considered permanent and is only broken by the death of a spouse. Jesus'
final statement is essentially a repeat of Matthew 5:31-32. |
||Mark 10:2-12: No divorce, on any grounds: "And the
Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away
his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses
command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement,
and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the
hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning
of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man
leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall
be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What
therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the
house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto
them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth
adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be
married to another, she committeth adultery." This passage refers
to the same incident as was described in Matthew 19. However, this time,
Jesus states that remarriage is not permitted under any
circumstances -- even if the wife committed adultery. |
The sentence about a woman divorcing her husband is curious. Jesus, an
observant Jew, was answering a question posed by a group of Pharisees, in
the presence of his followers -- all of whom were observant Jews. Yet he
discusses a practice common among Pagan Gentiles and forbidden among Jews:
a woman divorcing her husband.
||Many liberal theologians believe that this sentence was invented by
the author of the Gospel of Mark, and was not actually stated by Jesus.
||Many conservative Christians suggest that Jesus made this statement, but
that the author of Matthew left it out, since he was directing his Gospel
to fellow Jews.
||Luke 16:18: No divorce, on any grounds: "Whosoever putteth
away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever
marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery."
This appears to be a third version of the same incident with the
Pharisees. Here, Jesus does not specifically condemn divorce. But he forbids remarriage.
||1 Corinthians 7:10-12: No divorce, on any grounds: "And unto
the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart
from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be
reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
Paul wrote this passage in response to questions raised by the church at
Corinth about divorce and remarriage. He says that God does not allow
divorce. If a couple divorces against the will of God, then their only
options are to remain single, or to reconcile and restore their marriage.|
||1 Corinthians 7:10-15: Special case where an unbeliever wants a
divorce: "But to the rest speak I, not the
Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to
dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an
husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let
her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife,
and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your
children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart,
let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases:
but God hath called us to peace." This is a continuation of the above
passage. It covers the situation where a believer is married to a
non-Christian, and the non-Christian insists on a divorce. Some
theologians interpret this as Paul exercising his "pastoral privilege"
by changing the teachings of Jesus to allow divorce in this one case.
However, it is unlikely that this is his intent because it would negate
what Paul has just written in verses 10 to 12. It is more likely that Paul
means that if the unbelieving spouse demands a divorce, that the Christian
is not required to resort to legal means to preserve the marriage; he or
she is to leave the unbeliever at peace, by not contesting the divorce.
Although the possibility of remarriage is not specifically mentioned here,
one can conclude from other writings by Paul and from other biblical
passages, that remarriage is not allowed.|
Indicators from the early Christian movement:
During the first five centuries of Christianity, the modern concept of
divorce followed by remarriage was unheard of. However, in the Pagan and
Jewish cultures which surrounded the Christians, both were allowed, and
happened frequently. Even Origen (circa 182-251 CE) and
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) who wondered how
serious a sin that remarriage was, still wrote against it. It was only
Erasmus (1466-1536 CE), a Roman Catholic scholar, who
advocated that couples be allowed to divorce and remarry in the case of
adultery or desertion. This belief was accepted by Martin Luther (1483 -
1546 CE), and became embedded in the Westminster
Confession of Faith in 1648.
One might infer that the strong and near universal stand in the early
church against remarriage after divorce goes back to the teachings of Jesus.
The message of the Bible is consistent:
Genesis 2:24 implies that marriage is permanent.
Divorce and remarriage was permitted from the time that the
Mosaic Law was given until Jesus ministry. However, it was against God's will
and intent for marriage.
Ezra and Malachi apparently did cause couples in inter-faith
marriages to at least separate. Some feel that this was a form of annulment -- a
recognition that a real marriage never existed in fact. Others point out
that the couples may have been forced to divorce, but that there is no
indication that they were allowed to divorce or remarry.
Jesus statement, quoted in Matthew and Mark: "What therefore
God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" indicates that God is a
third party to each marriage contract. Thus, humans cannot, on their own, break
the contract through remarriage.
Paul instructed the members of the church at Corinth that the
only two options open to a separated or divorced couple are to seek
reconciliation or to remain celibate.
Couples may decide to separate, and even obtain a civil divorce.
However their original marriage covenant remains in force. They must either
reconcile or remain separate and celibate until one dies.
Interpreting the Bible for today's society:
With the possible exception of couples in an illicit
relationship, God seems to prohibit all remarriages.
Even though remarriage is forbidden for almost
everyone, marital separation is not. Separation and celibacy may be the only option available
to a conservative Christian who wishes to follow this particular interpretation
of the Bible.
W.A. Heth & G.J. Wenham, "Jesus and divorce: The Problem
With the Evangelical Consensus," Hoddder &
Stoughton, (1984). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian
views," InterVarsity Press, (1990), Page 25. Read
reviews or order this book
Ibid, William A. Heth, Page 76.
Ibid, Page 80.
Ibid, Page 82.
C.J.H. Wright, "An eye for an eye: The place of Old Testament
ethics today," InterVarsity, (1983), Page 174.
Op Cit, House/William A. Heth, Page 93.
Ibid, Page 95.
Copyright © 2002, by Ontario Consultants on
Originally written: 2002-APR-16
Latest update: 2002-APR-17
Author: B.A. Robinson