To understand the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, we should begin with an overview of marriage. God instituted marriage, we are told in Genesis 2:18, when he made a wife for Adam. He instructed that a man ought to leave the guardianship of his parents and cleave to his wife and become one flesh with her (Genesis 2:24). Of course, the wife should do the same. The married man and woman were then to start a new family.
God’s will is for marriage to last for life – with each partner loving, honoring, caring for and cleaving to the other – just as Christ loves and cares for his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). The Bible teaches the sacredness of marital vows. "I hate divorce," the prophet says, speaking God’s words (Malachi 2:16). Of course, God hates all sin, including hate, violence and pride. In that sense, divorce is no different from any other sin, because it is sin that leads to divorce.
In an ideal world where human beings followed God’s ways perfectly, made perfect choices in choosing their marriage partner, understood what marriage was and faithfully kept their vows, there would be no need for divorce. But we live in an imperfect world beset by human weakness, unfaithfulness, irresponsibility, people marrying the wrong person and for the wrong reasons – and all such things. People sin, and they make mistakes when picking a mate. Millions of people have been divorced.
Divorce is a fact of life in human society. (Even God divorced his bride Israel, because she persistently strayed into sin – Jeremiah 3:8.) What does a person do if he or she has been divorced? Must that person stay single and not marry? The answer is no.
Divorce is like any other sinful action. In fact, the sin is really in those conditions that created a situation in which reconciliation seemed impossible and divorce the only option. This informs us that we should not focus on the divorce itself as if this were the only sin. Rather, we should see divorce more as the final consequence of a string of sinful and mistaken behaviors that destroyed a relationship.
However, when a person repents and is converted, all his or her past sins and mistakes are forgiven (Acts 2:38; Psalm 103:1-3, 10-12). Any past sins that led to the divorce and the divorce itself would be included. The person would then be free to marry again. There is no sin in the new marriage and the sin of a past divorce is not a continuing one.
What of those who are Christian believers? Paul wrote about divorce and remarriage among Christians. He did so in the form of wise opinion based on biblical understanding regarding situations that are difficult and confused (1 Corinthians 7:12). This is important to remember.
Paul stated that those who have been divorced ("loosed") from an unbelieving mate do not sin if they marry (verses 27-28). Paul does not advocate divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 – or anywhere else for that matter! However, Paul does write that in his view a believer who remarries after being "loosed" from an unbelieving mate does not sin (verses 27-28). Paul shows that two ways of being "loosed" are by the departure of an unbelieving mate or by the death of one of the partners (verse 39).
Paul admonished the church that a converted person should not leave or divorce a mate who is pleased to continue the marriage (verses 10-13). Those who belong to Christ should obey him, not only in refraining from divorce but also in using all their resources to build a truly loving relationship (Ephesians 5:22-31; 1 Peter 3:1-7). Our earthly marriages ought to picture the great love relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32).
However, the reality of life is that converted people also sin and create situations that lead to divorce. Or sometimes converted people made mistakes in picking a husband or wife. At other times, mates claim they want to remain married but abuse the marriage and their spouses. By their actions they demonstrate a lack of love and faithfulness. The point is that divorce, while far from God’s intention or desire for humans – especially among Christian believers – does sometimes happen because of the destruction of the marriage by a mate who acts like an unbeliever.
As is true after any tragedy and dislocation of life, we must pick up the pieces and go on. For some divorced people that will mean becoming married again. Is it a sin if they remarry? The answer must be, no. True, it’s not what God intended from the beginning. (He didn’t intend for people to murder, steal or covet either. But they do.) True, divorce creates confusion – and so can remarriage. It can lead to children that are "hers, his and ours." But human life is that way because of our spiritually fallen and sinful condition.
Having said all this in general about divorce and remarriage, how do we understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32? There, Jesus said: "Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulterous, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." Obviously, we cannot apply Jesus’ words in a literal manner because then the apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 would contradict Jesus.
We also wouldn’t want to take literally many of Jesus’ words in the other sayings in this section. We wouldn’t, for example, gouge out our right eye if we lust when we see a woman (verse 29).
We should also be cautioned that not everything Jesus commanded people are timeless laws. For example, during his earthly ministry Jesus told the disciples to preach only to "the lost sheep of Israel," and not the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:6; 15:24). But after his resurrection he told them to go to Samaria and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). During his ministry Jesus told people to offer the sacrifices specified in the Mosaic Law (Matthew 8:4). But it’s clear that after his death and resurrection – and the coming in of the new covenant – such religious regulations are not commanded. The book of Hebrews, for example, makes this clear.
This leads to a conclusion that we can see Jesus’ teaching first in the context of his time and the people to whom he was talking. We should also understand that during his life Jesus lived as a Jew within his culture and spoke to those who were under the old covenant law.
We should note that Jesus was addressing a male-dominated society so he spoke his words from a man’s point of view about divorce. We don’t know how rampant divorce was in the Jewish society of Jesus’ time, but it must have been a problem of large proportions among some groups.
That’s why he had to address the divorce issue in Matthew 19:3-12 as well. Here Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, said that divorce was permissible under the old covenant "because your hearts were hard" (19:8). Jesus made the point that this violated God’s real purpose. "It was not this way from the beginning," Jesus insisted (verse 8). But it was legal and allowed.
Jesus’ strong words must be seen against the backdrop of the way many Jews treated women and marriage. William Barclay says the following in his Daily Study Bible Series commentary on Matthew, page 151:
Ideally the Jew abhorred divorce. . . .The tragedy was that the practice fell so far short of the ideal. One thing vitiated the whole marriage relationship. The woman in the eyes of the law was a thing. She was at the absolute disposal of her father or of her husband. She had virtually no legal rights at all. To all intents and purposes a woman could not divorce her husband for any reason, and a man could divorce his wife for any cause at all. "A woman," said the Rabbinic law, "may be divorced with or without her will; but a man only with his will". . .
The process of divorce was extremely simple. The bill of divorcement simply ran: "Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt." All that had to be done was to hand that document to the woman in the presence of two witnesses and she stood divorced.
Let us try to paraphrase the point Jesus may have been making in Matthew 5:32 in regard to such practices. He may have been saying: "You think all you have to do is give a wife you want to get rid of a certificate, and that makes your actions legal even though they are totally unjust. You simply tell her she’s no longer your wife and throw her out of your house. But I tell you there’s only one legitimate reason you can divorce your wife – that is, for marital infidelity. Otherwise, you are nothing but an adulterer and you are causing your wife to be an adulteress."
Jesus was speaking to Jewish men of the time who used the pretext of a "certificate" to get rid of any wife they no longer wanted. That was horribly unjust, and that is what he was concerned with – the unjustness of it all. The same applies to Matthew 19:8-9 – where the Pharisees asked Jesus if the Jewish practice of divorcing their wives for whatever reason they concocted was acceptable to him (verse 3).
This is where a lengthy study of marriage and divorce among Jewish people in the time of Jesus by David Instone-Brewer may throw some light on the issue under consideration. He is senior research fellow in rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, in Cambridge, MA.
We touched on Matthew 5:32 and 19:8-9 above, where Jesus said that the only lawful cause for divorce was marital unfaithfulness. However, in Luke 16:18 Jesus provided no allowance for divorce. Also, in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, the apostle Paul allowed divorce for a believer whose unbelieving spouse left the marriage, something Jesus did not mention. Clearly, either we have to accept a blatant contradiction in Scripture or consider that we are not completely understanding something about when divorce may be allowable, scripturally speaking, from a literal reading of what Jesus said about this matter.
According to Instone-Brewer, we need to read Matthew 19:3 to see what question Jesus was answering in verses 8-9 about divorce and remarriage. Here is their question: "Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus], and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause’" (New Revised Standard Version, italics ours).
According to Instone-Brewer, the Hillelite rabbis had invented a new form of divorce clause a few decades before Jesus, that went by the formal statement "for any cause." The Hillelite rabbis had invented this divorce clause from a single word in Deuteronomy 24:1. They argued that a man could divorce his wife for any cause he came up with, no matter how trivial. Not all rabbis agreed with this position, but the "any cause" divorce had become the popular excuse to get a legal divorce.
This is what the Pharisees were asking of Jesus: Was he in agreement with the "any clause" legal divorce certificate, that is, that a man could divorce his wife for any reason he came up with. Jesus rejected this approach to divorce by correcting the Hillelite’s misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. He was saying that this verse did not say a man could divorce his wife based on this concocted "any cause" stipulation. Rather, according to Jesus, the verse said a man could divorce his wife only for immorality, which was understood to be adultery. The only question Jesus is considering is what does Deuteronomy 24:1 allowed; he was not commenting on what other causes might be legitimate ones for a divorce.
Just because Jesus rejected the "any cause" divorce certificate, does not mean he rejected other grounds for divorce, which were based on the Old Testament. Instone-Brewer points to Exodus 21:10-11, which indicates that a husband has a duty to provide for his wife, and that neglect would break the marriage and allow for a divorce. This meant it was a legal, and thus, legitimate reason for a divorce, which in turn, allowed for remarriage. Here it is clear that even a slave wife had three rights within marriage – food, clothing and "marital rights," which last stipulation was to be understood as love and emotional support. If a wife, and hence a spouse of either gender, was not provided with these rights in a marriage, the aggrieved mate had the right to seek a divorce, and thus would have been eligible to remarry.
Marriage is therefore understood as underpinned by a real contract. If the contract is broken, the marriage can rightfully be made null and void, as can any contract.
Says Instone-Brewer, "These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows… In later Jewish and Christian marriages, the language became more formal, such as ‘love, honor, and keep.’ These vows, together with a vow of sexual faithfulness, have always been the basis for marriage. Thus, the vows we make when we marry correspond directly to the biblical grounds for divorce."
Abuse in marriage was considered an extreme form of neglect, as was abandonment. This is the legal cause for divorce that the apostle Paul deals with in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.
Instone-Brewer explains that if we consider all these factors together, we have "a clear and consistent set of rules for divorce and remarriage. Divorce is allowed for a limited number of grounds that are found in the Old Testament and affirmed in the New Testament." These are: 1) adultery (Deut. 24:1; Matt. 19:3-9), 2) emotional and physical neglect (Ex. 21:10-11; 1 Cor. 7:10-11), 3) abandonment and abuse (1 Cor 7). Any spouse suffering from any of these broken vows had grounds for a divorce, after which that person was free to remarry.
So we come full circle to our main point. The actions that lead to divorce violate God’s purpose for human beings to love and to be loved. So does every other sin, including hate, coveting, killing, lying, stealing, greed – and so on. The fact of the matter is that human beings are less than perfect beings, and tragically can be unloving and unfaithful in their conduct so that they break their marriage vows on a consistent basis, sometimes without remedy being possible. Divorce, then, becomes a possibility and a legal right in the real world.
Therefore, we uphold the sanctity of marriage but also recognize that humans have hardened their hearts. The church discourages divorce, but in most cases permits divorced persons to remarry.
By David Instone-Brewer, "What God Has Joined," Christianity Today, October 2007, p. 29. For a full exposition of his thesis, please see his book Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, June 2002).