A Question about Divorce and Remarriage

divorce5I received the following comment over at GraceConversation.com, at the post “Proposition One: Doctrinal error can lead to eternal damnation, by Phil Sanders.” For some reason, I’m not getting current notices of comments there, and so this response is a little belated (and I’ve had to delete several months of spam).

For new readers, GraceConversation was a 2009 dialogue among me, Gregory Alan Tidwell (who later became editor of the Gospel Advocate), Phil Sanders (who later became the featured speaker for SearchTV), and Todd Deaver (author of Facing Our Failure). Tidwell had to drop out for unrelated reasons, and Mac Deaver stepped in for him. The discussion centered on what is a “salvation issue”? That is, which errors damn and which do not.

A reader, kgag63, asked,

I was married previously. Got divorced after 4.5 yrs after a terrible marriage. As far as I know there was no sexual adultery involved by my ex. He was a terrible provider, we had a child together, and we lived off several family members. My daughter and I were placed in a roach infested basement with little heat while he slept upstairs in a warm room near his parents.

I remarried. Wonderful husband. 27 years married, members of the church of Christ. Studied hard last two years.

The way we understand the Bible, I shouldn’t have remarried. Now we’re both adulterers in God’s eyes. We divorced to get our lives right with God this last August. Absolutely heartbreaking because we love each other so but know no other way to live right in God’s eyes.

Several elders and our preacher have issues with our decision. No one can give me scripture to make my heart feel all right to stay married. I’m asking your opinion on what Bible teaches in NT for our situation. We were both baptized for 1st time after we were married but I don’t feel it matters. What do you feel the Bible says?

Dear kgag63,

Your story breaks my heart. As you’ve discovered, there are disagreements within the Churches of Christ over this issue. And it’s not just Churches of Christ. Most conservative, Bible-reading denominations struggle with this as well.

However, I’ve been convinced for a very long time that the Bible does not require a divorced and remarried couple to divorce a second time to be pleasing to God. I understand where you’re coming from in your reading of the scriptures, but I think there are several reasons to come to a different conclusion.

First, by way of background,

  • Back in 1967, Pat Harrell published a book Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church demonstrating that the early Christian church never required a divorced and remarried couple to divorce as a condition to baptism. This book is out of print but available from used book resellers. The link will take you Amazon as a possible source.
  • I’ve written a book, available as a free download, that covers the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in considerable detail: But If You Do Marry … . There’s far more material there than I can cover in a single blog post. But unlike most books on the subject written by Church of Christ authors, it takes into account the latest in research, and it cites to other resources that you can refer to.

Let’s talk generally. Big picture. Marriage is a covenant, and like all covenants, made with God. It’s a truly serious commitment, and I believe with all my heart that every word in the Bible about divorce is true and inspired and ought to be obeyed.

However, I believe we’ve misunderstood much of what was written because we unconsciously read into the text our modern ways of approaching these questions. For example, to us, “divorce” means “go to the courthouse, file papers, and ask a judge to dissolve the marriage.” But there was no such process until over 1,000 years after the time of Jesus and Paul. In their worlds, a marriage was ended when one spouse (almost always the husband) declared it ended. In Judaism, the Moses required a certificate of divorce so the ex-wife could prove her right to remarry — but the divorce happened whether or not the certificate was delivered.

Therefore, we tend to blame the person who initiates the legal divorce process as the “guilty” party, when often the other spouse is the one who broke the marriage covenant.

Also, in the days of Jesus and Paul, all the Jewish rabbis considered that a husband had certain duties to his wife, found in —

(Exod. 21:10-11 ESV)  10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights.  11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

David Instone-Brewer in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible demonstrates that Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage assumed that the audience was familiar with this teaching. That is, the Jewish scholars all agreed that divorce and remarriage was permitted if the husband denied his wife food, clothing, or marital rights (including but not limited to sex). The debate was whether to add fornication or any other reason to the list. And the First Century readers would have understood the Gospel accounts this way.

This is hardly obvious to a 21st Century reader, but the Gospels were written to First Century readers who had very different educations and backgrounds from us. And so remarriage would have been allowed in your case by the rabbis — and Jesus never contradicted this teaching. I explain this much better in “But If You Do Marry …

To me, though, the most compelling argument is found in the writings of Paul in 1 Cor 7. Paul was interpreting the words of Jesus (1 Cor 7:10), and he obviously is a better interpreter than you or me. We have to accept his authority — especially since he was speaking to a Christian congregation 20 years after Jesus taught what he taught, while Jesus was speaking to experts on the Law of Moses, interpreting Deu 24:1-4.

Paul wrote,

(KJV 1 Cor 7:27) Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.

(CSBO 1 Cor 7:27) Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

(NAS 1 Cor 7:27) Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

(NET 1 Cor 7:27) The one bound to a wife should not seek divorce. The one released from a wife should not seek marriage.

(YLT 1 Cor 7:27) Hast thou been bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed; hast thou been loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.

While not all translations are true to the Greek, the second clause “Art thou loosed from a wife?” is clearly in the perfect passive indicative. The perfect voice refers to something that has happened and is now over. The perfect passive is generally translated “have been,” that is, “Have you been loosed from a wife?” as in YLT (Young’s Literal Translation). And in this context, “loosed” means “divorced.”

The two perfect tenses employed in the two questions, literally: “hast thou been bound” and “hast thou been released,” refer to present conditions as the result of a past act. Didst thou marry at one time, and art thou thus married now? Wast thou in some way released from the marriage tie at some past time, and art thou still thus released? The questions are direct, personal, and thus stronger than mere conditional clauses would be. Paul addresses men, for he speaks about being bound to a wife or being released from a wife. Yet this is true in the case of women as well as in the case of men. In fact, both the questions and the answers include the women as well as the men, nor could the men possibly be treated as exceptions.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963), 313–314.

“Released from a wife” (NASB; not simply “unmarried”— NIV) can mean “divorced” or “widowed,” and in the immediate passage must at least include the former [divorced] (its meaning in the preceding line).

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 468.

The question Paul asks is, “Have you been divorced from a wife?” And he says in response, “Seek not a wife.” Of course, throughout chapter 7, Paul recommends against anyone marrying due to the “present distress” (7:26), most likely a severe famine or persecution, or to be better able to risk one’s life in service to missionary work (7:32). But this is advice, not a command.

To be certain that no one thinks he’s commanding no remarriage, Paul continues,

(1 Cor. 7:28 ESV)  28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. 

He could not more plainly say that it’s no sin for the divorced Christian to remarry. However, he is not overruling or disagreeing with Jesus. Rather, Paul and Jesus were addressing two different circumstances.

In Jesus’ case, he was speaking of someone who divorced his wife in order to marry a particular new wife. Notice the context —

(Matt. 5:27-32 ESV)  27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.  

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Notice that Jesus is speaking to married men (who else could commit adultery with a woman?) and he’s saying that a married man must not allow himself to desire a woman not his wife. The fact that you delay having sex with your new girlfriend until you divorced your wife doesn’t not protect you from being an adulterer! You committed adultery in your heart (violated your marriage covenant) by desiring the other woman while still married to your first wife.

There’s a old joke told by married men who enjoy looking lustfully at young women. They say, “I may be on a diet, but I can still look at the menu!” Jesus says, “No, you may not.”

But Paul is speaking of a settled state — the divorce is long over and the old marriage is ended.

The man who ‘has been loosed’ (which may mean divorced, that the spouse has died, or that he has never married) should not seek a wife. Both verbs are in the perfect tense and indicate settled states.

Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 115.

I realize I’ve not answered all the questions that come up in this context, but that would require a book — which is why I wrote a book.

To sum up, the reason God hates divorce (Mal 2:16) is the damage it does to the victimized spouse and to their children. But God does not approve of spousal or child abuse, and does not require women and children to remain in a family with a brutal, abusive man.

Neither do two wrongs make a right. We need to try with all our hearts to make our marriages work — but sometimes it’s just not possible. And when a husband breaks his wedding vows by abusing his wife and child, he is the one who violated and broke the marriage covenant — regardless of who files the divorce papers. He’s the sinner; not the wife fleeing abuse.

No one is required to re-enter an abusive relationship to reconcile. That’s not reconciliation. And where reconciliation is not possible (1 Cor 7:11), remarriage is no sin.

This is doubly true for those who divorced and remarried before they became Christians.

Leave a Reply

  1. Every time this topic come up, I’m reminded of how much forgiveness I have received from God and how much forgiveness I owe others. I dream of a time when more people who claim the label, Christian, try harder to forgive than to condemn.

    Love one another the way Jesus loved us and gave his life for us!

  2. This is as simple as , do you believe baptism is for remission of sin. If so, as I understand it you and your new husband were both baptized after you were wed. case closed. You are no longer accountable for past sins. not even divorce. Not only did God forgive sins, he forgot them, you should do the same. Why hold yourself accountable , when God does not. after all if it were a sin, it was a sin against God, not you. God forgave you, now it is up to you to forgive yourself. Only you can do that. God bless.

  3. David, you are so right! It is all about forgiveness. It is my conviction that divorce and remarriage, be it before baptism or after, falls into that wonderful eye and heart opening discussion that Jesus had with his disciples, “How many times should I forgive my brother and sister…seven times?” “No, but seventy times seven”. Now, I realize that to open forgiveness up that much regarding divorce and remarriage puts even the most progressive member of the Church of Christ on his or her guard. But God never put mercy and forgiveness in a bottle with directions for correct dosage to keep us from giving too much.

  4. I sorrow for the lady who doesn’t understand that she is no longer responsible to her first husband and is FREE to remarry and remain married to a second husband. She should be helped to understand God’s LOVE for us, and His desire for us to be not only faithful but also loving to ones who deserve our love.