By Peter Amsterdam
December 10, 2019
The biblical foundation of marriage is found in the first chapter of Genesis, where we read that God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”1 In chapter two, God stated:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.2
The biblical view of marriage is that when a man and a woman enter into marriage, they pledge that the union is a lifelong commitment, “until death do us part.” As such, only the death of a spouse ends the marriage. The fact that the apostle Paul wrote that widows could remarry3 affirms that the marriage commitment was only until the death of their spouse.
While marriage is understood to be an unbreakable union between husband and wife for as long as both live, sadly, all marriages—including Christian ones—don’t turn out that way.
In the Old Testament, the few verses that speak of divorce do not clearly state the legitimate grounds for it, nor offer specific details as to when divorce is morally justified. They do, however, illustrate that divorce did occur and that although God didn’t command divorce in any specific circumstances, He tolerated it, and to some degree regulated it. For example:
They [the priests] shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God.4
This indicates that those who were not priests could marry a divorced person. Other Old Testament verses which refer to divorce follow:
Any vow or obligation taken by a widow or divorced woman will be binding on her.5
If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.6
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.7
While these verses show that divorce was allowed in certain cases within the Old Testament, they don’t give specific details regarding when divorce is morally justified.
In the New Testament, Jesus referred to divorce twice in the Gospel of Matthew and once in both Mark and Luke. The focus here will be on the Gospel of Matthew, as it parallels what is said in the Gospel of Mark while containing additional points, whereas the Gospel of Luke addresses the issue with only one verse.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we read:
Pharisees came up to [Jesus] and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”8
In response to the Pharisees’ question regarding divorce, Jesus quoted from the book of Genesis—that the man and woman become “one flesh,” and since it is God who joins them together, they aren’t to separate, except if one partner commits adultery. Jesus’ position contradicted the viewpoints taught by some Jewish rabbinic schools, that a man could divorce his wife even if she spoiled a dish for him. … even if he found another fairer than she.9
Jesus’ view of divorce and remarriage differed from the Old Testament view in that He only allowed remarriage after divorce if the reason for the divorce was sexual immorality, meaning adultery. In such cases, the innocent person would be morally allowed to remarry. Jesus implied that divorce for any reason other than adultery was not legitimate, and therefore such a divorce did not actually dissolve the marriage. This means that anyone who has wrongly divorced their spouse has not received a legitimate divorce and is still married to their original spouse. Therefore, if they marry someone else, they are both committing adultery.
In stating that whoever divorces his wife—except for sexual immorality—and marries another sins, Jesus implied that both divorce and remarriage are allowed in the case of sexual immorality. In other words, if a married person divorces their spouse because their spouse is guilty of infidelity, they are free to remarry. Jesus wasn’t saying that in a situation where adultery has happened, the couple is required to divorce; only that it is a morally legitimate reason to divorce. In many cases, reconciliation and forgiveness allow the wounds to heal and the marriage to stay intact.
In saying that divorce because of adultery was permissible, Jesus broke from the Old Testament law, which stated that the penalty for adultery was death.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.10
If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.11
While Jesus limited the reason for legitimate divorce to adultery, the apostle Paul added a second reason.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.12
When Paul added in the qualifiers (not I, but the Lord) and later (I, not the Lord), he was differentiating between Jesus’ specific teachings about marriage and matters in which Jesus didn’t leave any specific teaching. Paul was faced with a situation which Jesus had not addressed—a Christian married to a non-Christian. In Israel, Jewish people only married other Jews, so there were no religious differences between spouses. However, in Corinth there were marriages between Christians and non-Christians. Paul stated that in such cases they should remain married if the non-Christian spouse was willing to. He then went on to say that if the unbelieving partner separated—through abandonment or desertion or divorce—the implication was that the Christian partner was free to marry someone else.
From the combined teachings of Jesus and Paul, Protestant Christianity generally agrees that adultery or desertion, when there is no possibility for reconciliation, are legitimate grounds for divorce and allow the innocent spouse to remarry. However, there is debate among Christian ethicists as to whether there are also other legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage.
Many Christian ethicists interpret these scriptures to mean that repeated instances of physical abuse provide legitimate grounds for divorce. Four reasons are given: (1) the abuser has “separated” from the marriage—not physically left the home, but separated relationally, and therefore divorce is allowed according to Paul’s teaching (above); (2) while the abuse is not sexual immorality in the sense of adultery (the usual definition), it is another kind of immoral conduct that also destroys the marriage covenant that is essential to a marriage; (3) by specifying two conditions that so deeply damage a marriage that divorce is allowed, Jesus and Paul imply that there might be other conditions (such as repeated physical abuse) that would damage the marriage so deeply as to justify divorce in those cases as well; and (4) physical abuse is such a serious violation of a spouse’s responsibility to care for and protect the other that it breaks the marriage covenant.13
Other ethicists agree that in the case of physical abuse, action must be taken to prevent the abused spouse from further suffering, including police intervention, a court order, or intervention by church members, family members, and friends. They agree that permanent separation is a solution for a spouse in such a situation, but they do not believe that getting a divorce for these causes is in alignment with Scripture, because it falls outside of the two reasons for allowing divorce as presented by Jesus and the apostle Paul.
Regardless of the differences, both of these approaches affirm that spousal abuse is unacceptable, and a spouse should not be expected to continue to suffer in an environment of physical abuse. Whether the ultimate outcome is divorce or permanent separation, depending on the ethical approach one adopts, the understanding is that spousal abuse is a legitimate cause for permanent separation.
In light of Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching, what is the status of someone who has divorced and remarried for reasons other than what the New Testament explicitly allows? Theologian Wayne Grudem wrote:
When Jesus says, “and marries another” … he implies that the second marriage is a true marriage. … Therefore, once a second marriage has occurred, it would be further sin to break it up, for it would be destroying another marriage. This means that the second marriage should not be thought of as a man and a woman living in continual adultery, for they are now married to each other, not to anyone else. Yes, Jesus teaches that the marriage began with adultery, but his words also indicate that these two people are now married. The responsibility of the husband and wife in such a case is to ask God for his forgiveness for their previous sin, and also for his blessing on their current marriage. Then they should strive to make the current marriage a good and lasting one.14
God’s intent for marriage is that it be between a man and a woman and that it continue for as long as they both live. In light of humanity’s sinful nature, God does permit divorce (and sometimes remarriage) under certain circumstances. However, the ideal is for couples to work through their differences, to seek marriage counseling if necessary, and to do all they can to keep the marriage strong and healthy.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Genesis 1:27–8.
2 Genesis 2:24.
3 1 Corinthians 7:8–9.
4 Leviticus 21:7.
5 Numbers 30:9 NIV.
6 Deuteronomy 22:28–29.
7 Deuteronomy 24:1–4.
8 Matthew 19:3–9.
9 Mishna, Gittin 9:10.
10 Leviticus 20:10.
11 Deuteronomy 22:22.
12 1 Corinthians 7:10–15.
13 Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 815.
14 Grudem, Christian Ethics, 823–824.