As I came to the end of a class I am taking for my ordination, I had to write a final paper and the topic I received was about divorce. Since divorce is wide spread and many are affected by it, my hope in sharing this paper with you to encourage you in the way you form your views on divorce and to encourage you in how you respond to the topic. This paper is not the “final authority” on the topic at all – it brushes many of the core aspects of divorce and remarriage from a Biblical perspective. Feel free to share your comments and your thoughts about what I wrote. And please know I write this paper from the position of love and respect. Each person in my biological family (mother, father, sister and brother) have all had divorce in their lives & marriages – and obviously, some of them came from a family where their parents were divorced too. So I come at this seeking answers and seeking to understand more clearly what the Bible truly says about divorce and remarriage.

I received an e-mail from a lady in my church asking me about Christians who divorce. Specifically, she wanted to know if she had biblical grounds, be in God’s blessing, if she remarried a Godly man. She has been married and divorced now twice. Her first marriage she ended after years of physical and mental abuse. Her second marriage was ended by her husband, but there was no abuse or known infidelity. Her first husband has since died; her second husband has been remarried. And, she has been single now for 24 years. She even understands some basic principles about marriage and divorce. She understands what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:31-32, taken from Deuteronomy, that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. She also said she understand that Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 7:39-40 and throughout Chapter 7 principles as well about divorce. Her main question then was, is this clear cut or not? Can Christians who divorce get married again and be in God’s will. The quandary she finds herself in is all too familiar for many people today, whether they are Christians or not. 

Whether in the church or not, divorce is widespread. Most people have come to accept divorce and remarriage and this growing acceptance of divorce has taken away the sting and shame associated with it and thus, has made divorce all the more tempting. And this truth has become more and more real throughout our culture, and especially within the church culture. God’s plan for marriage is that it would be a life-long commitment, a union between a man and woman. Yet, from the books of Moses to the teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul, divorce has been a topic of discussion throughout the Word of God. Divorce was an issue then, just as it is now. So perhaps this is why many throughout history have sought the same peace about Christians who divorce as the woman who wrote me. Divorce is everywhere. You do not have to search very far within any one family before you find someone in that family who has been divorced and even remarried. Obviously, we have strayed from God’s plan for marriage when a divorce has been sought out. However, the tension for many people is the fact that divorce has been a means to end a marriage for such a long time – why should it be different now, especially for Christians.

Many Christians struggle with even accepting Jesus’ teaching on divorce and they struggle with taking it so literally – after all, Jesus does quote what was taught in Deuteronomy, by first supporting divorce for sexual immorality but then takes it a step further, but saying those who divorce for any other reason commit adultery. That is a hard truth to wrestle with and own, especially for many Christians who have experienced the pain of divorce for a variety of reasons other than sexual immorality. Jesus links divorce to adultery and just prior to His teaching about divorce in Matthew 5, he speaks about adultery itself, and how one who “looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) So obviously the issue of divorce and Christians who divorce can be a really tough subject. No wonder the person who wrote me is struggling to understand what is Biblical – for what she desires is to be married. After all, God created us with those desires to be in relationship with others. Yet, because of her past and because of the divorce issue in her life she is left in a quandary. And sadly, many Christians are in the exact same place.

Within in our current culture divorce is wide spread. The statistics that say 40-50% of marriages will end in divorce is a projection based on our current culture of divorce in America. According to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri, she says that 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. Yet, according to the EnrichmentJournal  the divorce rate in America for first marriage is 41%, for a second marriage is 60% and the divorce rate in America for a third marriage is 73%.[1] So although there are great statistics out there about our current culture and divorce, and many are similar, there can be a wide variation in statistics by at least 10%. The Barna Group, out of Ventura, CA has found that “four out of every five adults (78%) have been married at least once. Among adults who have been married, the study discovered that one-third (33%) have experienced at least one divorce. The study showed that the percentage of adults who have been married and divorced varies from segment to segment. For instance, the groups with the most prolific experience of marriage ending in divorce are downscale adults (39%), Baby Boomers (38%), those aligned with a non-Christian faith (38%), African-Americans (36%), and people who consider themselves to be liberal on social and political matters (37%).”[2]

So although there is a variety of research and although those statistics vary from research group to research group, many have identified similar reasons for divorce. These reasons are just as true within the church and Christianity, as they are among non-believers. “Nineteenth-century author Leo Tolstoy observed, ‘What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.’”[3] Areas of incompatibility and how you deal with them are the driving force behind divorce. Areas of incompatibility are: differences in priorities and expectations, addictions, issues with raising and disciplining children, spiritual and culture issues, boredom within their marriage, sexuality compatibility and infertility, finances, physical/psychological/emotional abuse, breakdown/poor communication, and infidelity. [4] There are many compatibility issues that have lead people to divorce. And for many Christians, the Biblical view on divorce is even more narrow and specific than what most would consider compatibility issues. For even Tolstoy understood this – he understood that a happy marriage is not just made by ones compatibility, but rather how differences are met, understood and worked through in a marriage. Many Christians struggle with the issue of divorce. Many churches and denominations have had to develop strong standards for leaders and pastors when it comes to this issue because of how widespread it is within our culture. And many churches and denominations have had to address various aspects of divorce that are more about a social response to a negative aspect, rather than a strict Biblical perspective on divorce.

Understanding what the Bible says about divorce is important. But more important than that understanding is actually applying those truths to our lives and then being submitted to living them out in obedience. As a Christian, we have a responsibility to respond to what God’s Word says about divorce and thus, remarriage. God’s Holy Word does specifically address divorce – both in the historical context of when it was written and the audience it was written for, as well for our current culture. Malachi 2:16 says, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” And God’s heart toward divorce has not changed from then until now for in the next chapter of Malachi it says, “I the Lord do not change.” (Malachi 3:6) What we need to understand about God’s heart towards divorce is that in Malachi, when God expresses his hatred of divorce, He does not differentiate between certain circumstances for divorce being Godly or not. Regardless of circumstances or the condition of the divorce, God hates it. That does not mean that the Lord cannot redeem us from a divorce and that His grace and forgiveness does not apply to those who do divorce. Hate, in Malachi 2, is not towards the person, but the action. The action of divorce is what God hated. And, that hate towards divorce will probably have implications towards those who have justified divorce as a means for a solution to their marital problems. God did not say His hate for divorce excluded adultery or abuse. He hates it. He hates it now. He will always hate divorce. And this is an important Biblical truth for us to understand. It should help to shape our heart towards such a big social issue within our culture. And it should guide us in our desire to seek redemption for those marriages that are struggling, regardless of the circumstances. So although divorce is opposite of God’s heart for marriage and can limit His redemptive work in a person’s life, the Bible does address a Biblical means for divorce & remarriage.

In the Word of God many feel there is a guideline for a Biblical divorce. And although God hates divorce, many feel that God did establish for His followers parameters for divorce that are Biblical and Christ honoring. The distinction between justifications for divorce is of the upmost of importance but it does not take away from God’s heart towards divorce. Ultimately our attitude should always be one of forgiveness. After all, Hosea was told to marry a woman who was a prostitute, an adulterous and scandalous woman. And then God said that Hosea was to continue to forgive her for all of the various acts of prostitution she willfully committed. Hosea was faithful to extend forgiveness to her and finally God redeemed their marriage. This Biblical example calls into question those who feel that there is a guideline for Biblical divorce.

Many would say what happened to Hosea was an illustration for others to understand God’s commitment to His people. God keeps cleansing and forgiving His church, His bride, no matter how sinful we are. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. 1 John 1:9 says that “He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. And specifically then when addressing the marriage relationship, we are told in Ephesians 5:25-27 that “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” That is strong message of forgiveness and redemption. One that would not happen if God would not have looked passed our sin, our “prostitution” of our souls to Satan and the ways of this world.

Yet many Christians look past the aspect of forgiveness “no matter the cost, no matter problem, or the indiscretion” to other parts of Scripture as a Biblical guideline for divorce. For example, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:31-32 where Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 24 about the law governing the Israelites in regards to divorce is where Jesus takes that law and goes a step further by clearly saying that if divorce does happen, and it is for any other reason than “marital unfaithfulness” than that is wrong. At this point, he does not address whether or not they are Christians – he does not distinguish between any other factors such as abuse.  He very simply said, “you have heard this, but I tell you this now.” In Matthew 19, we are told that the Pharisees come to test Jesus and they specifically ask if a man can divorce his wife for any reason. The Law of Moses says he must issue her a certificate, ending the marriage bond. However, and because divorce was just as prevalent in their culture as it is ours today, Jesus responds in a similar way as He did in Matthew 5. He gives a clear response to why God created marriage and how there is a specific allowance for a marriage to end – not because one’s heart cannot work through a ‘difference compatibility’ – but because of sexual immorality. This must mean then, there is a difference between what God allows and what God commands, and we must distinguish between the two. 

We know from Malachi 2 that God hates divorce. God hates divorce because it destroys a pivotal and foundational marker within society, the family. All sorts of evil can break out with, when a family breaks up because of divorce. God hates divorce because of the hurt that it causes an entire family. And, God hates divorce because of the cycle is breeds into a family – and example that extends to children and then their children. Sometimes the cycle of hurt and anger that divorce can create can be endless. God never encourages divorce. Nor should we. Ever. God allows it under certain circumstances and Jesus clearly paints the picture of what that allowance might be – when a marriage bond is broken by sexual unfaithfulness and the marriage cannot be redeemed. And those wishing God’s blessing on remarriage must ensure that their divorce was covered by God’s allowances for such a thing. And in 1 Corinthians 7 we learn more about what God allows in marriage, and thus grounds for remarriage, through the Apostle Paul. Verse 13 of chapter 7 gives us a command for marriage that “if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” Then a few verses later the allowance for a divorce is given in verse 15: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” God allows divorce when one spouse deserts the other because he or she does not want to live with a Christian. It is through this lens of Scripture that we get a Biblical understanding of what God is telling those who follow Him what grounds they have for divorce and the parameters for remarriage is as well.

To those wanting to know whether or not they have Biblical grounds to divorce, and as a follower of Christ, you must earnestly and carefully pray about that decision to pursue a divorce and you must be open to God’s leadership in this aspect of your life. Remember, God’s hates divorce and He longs for the redemptive work of Christ in any marriage. God is bigger than the fault and we cannot limit His redemptive work in our lives. However, there are grounds for which God allows divorce and when that criteria is met, and much counseling and prayer have been done, then only then should one be open to it. And, when a marriage ends in divorce and it meets God’s allowance for it, then and only then can remarriage be blessed by God and be an honoring union before the Lord. Churches and Christians today will say that abuse in marriage is a Biblical allowance for divorce. Not because abuse in any form as specifically addressed in Scripture, but because the Word of God does command those who follow God to live in obedience to the laws that govern our society – and abuse is in our society today is unlawful. Many Christians struggle with the issue of divorce. And the Word of God speaks clearly about the issue. Yet many will seek to justify their desires for divorce over God’s command for marriage and divorce – and this must change within our culture and within the church.  

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