Divorce and Remarriage

A Bible Study


Over the last generation, the percentage of marriages that result in divorce has sky-rocketed. It seems that today's marriages are as likely to end in divorce as they are to last a life time. The results of this are creeping into the church. Few Christians would doubt that it is unacceptable for two people who are already Christians to divorce and remarry. However, just about every other situation seems up for debate. There is a critical need for believers in general and church leaders in particular to understand the Bible's teaching on this matter.

It is best to examine the Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage before we are confronted with the issue. By doing so, we free ourselves from the potential for personal bias (i.e. building a doctrine based on whether we personally like or dislike the people involved). In any case, it is not like or dislike of an individual that should determine our doctrine, but a burning desire to understand the Lord's mind in this matter.

Needless to say, this is a very complicated issue. It is important that we understand this issue thoroughly. It is also important that we do not accuse fellow believers of a want of righteousness or an excess of legalism because they disagree with us in this matter. Nevertheless, we must develop some official stand on this issue. This article is designed to examine the Bible's teaching on this matter, and to forward the position that adultery is not sufficient cause for divorce and remarriage. Some will accuse the author of taking a "hard line" stand on this issue. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The author wishes he could in good conscience allow every believer to enjoy the happiness of a good marriage. But even in taking a stand against divorce and remarriage, the author is still not taking a "hard line" stand, for he believes that obedience to the Scripture will produce a greater blessing in the believer's life than any blessing that could be obtained by divorce and remarriage.

Shawn Abigail
October 1997

A Guiding Principle

When is it acceptable to do that which God hates? Only when He gives permission. I fear that many are playing fast and loose with the teaching of Scripture on this issue. God hates divorce, and so we should only allow divorce (or remarriage) where God explicitly allows it. In the absence of Divine command, or in the case of our understanding being unsure, the only sensible position is to forbid divorce and remarriage.

What Constitutes Adultery?

We shall start by examining some Scriptures. All quotations are taken from the New International Version of the Bible.

To review, here are the parts of these verses that are relevant to the question of what constitutes adultery:

Now let us examine the verses:

Note that while Malachi 2:16 gives the blanket statement that God hates divorce, the New Testament makes it clear that remarriage after divorce is adultery, both for the person who was previously married and the person who marries that person.

The Exception Clause in Matthew

To this point, we have seen that divorce is undesirable in the eyes of God. But are there any circumstances under which divorce is acceptable, or at least allowed? In Matthew 19 (and Matthew 5) we read of the famous "exception clause". The Lord Jesus declared "that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Toward the beginning of this article, I stated that it is only acceptable to do that which God hates, when He Himself gives permission. Here we see such permission given. A man who divorces a wife who has committed "marital unfaithfulness" and remarries is not to be considered an adulterer. But of course, now we must ask the question, "what did the Lord Jesus mean by marital unfaithfulness?"

Some might jump to the immediate conclusion that "marital unfaithfulness" (as the NIV translates it) is adultery. But since we are dealing with such an important issue, we must study and think about this carefully. The word translated "marital unfaithfulness" is the Greek word "porneia", which is translated as "fornication" in the KJV. This is NOT the same Greek word that means adultery (moicheuo, moichao or moichalis). It is also clear that Jesus did not intend to give the word "porneia" (which was a general word for sexual immorality), the specific meaning of adultery. How do we know this? Consider the response of the disciples! "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." Whatever the Lord Jesus meant by "except for porneia", it shocked the disciples by how restrictive it was. Now at this time, the rabbis were divided by the issue of divorce. Followers of Shammai believed that divorce has only acceptable in the case of adultery, while followers of Hillel believed divorce was justified for almost any reason. If Jesus had meant that divorce was acceptable in the case of adultery, His teaching would not have shocked the disciples, since He would simply have been agreeing with one of the two rabbinic camps. Instead, His teaching shocked them by how much more restrictive it was than what the other rabbis were teaching. Clearly, the Lord Jesus did not intend adultery to be an acceptable cause for divorce.

So what did He mean by "porneia?" To say that since porneia can hold the general meaning of any sort of sexual immorality, then any sort of sexual immorality is grounds for divorce is illogical. To state that Jesus's teaching was more restrictive than that of Shammai, and yet to think that divorce would be acceptable for types of sexual immorality less serious than adultery is self-contradictory and illogical.

So again we ask the question, what did the Lord Jesus mean by "porneia?" Now we must ask ourselves, "what would the Jews of the day have understood it to be?" The Hebrew language also had words for "adultery" and "sexual immorality". The specific sin of adultery was covered by the Hebrew word "na'ap" whereas sexual immorality was covered under the word "erwa", which carries the general idea of nakedness and shame. It is most likely that the Lord Jesus was referring to "erwa" as the exception, or else Matthew would have translated His words by "moichao" (the Greek word for adultery) instead of "porneia". The disciples, well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures would have immediately thought of Leviticus 18 and 20. While adultery was a sin, the Lord was stating that divorce and remarriage was only to be allowed by the innocent partner if the guilty partner had committed "erwa". The sins listed are more foul than simple adultery, and include incest, bestiality and homosexuality. Why were the disciples to shocked? Until Jesus' teaching, they had expected that they had the right to divorce an adulterous wife. Having heard Jesus' teaching that they cannot divorce an adulterous wife, their response was "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."

The fact that the exception clause is only found in Matthew's Gospel is support for this position. Matthew is the Gospel that was written to the Jews. The minds of the Jewish readers would have immediately remembered the teachings of Leviticus. However Luke, who wrote his Gospel to gentiles leaves out the exception clause, because the gentiles, not knowing the Old Testament, would not have immediately thought of the proper context for Jesus' words.

So to summarize what I have presented about the exception clause, I would state that the exception in the case of "porneia" refers to sexual sins of a deeper nature than simple adultery. These sexual sins include incest, bestiality and homosexuality. This view accounts for the shock of the disciples at the restrictive nature of Jesus' teaching, the usage of Greek and Hebrew, the context of the disciples background and understanding, and the fact that the exception clause is only present in the Gospel to the Jews.

The Pauline Exception in 1 Corinthians 7

This is often referred to as the "innocent partner" exception. This centres on the Scripture which says, "But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances;". What is the meaning of this verse? Some Bible teachers have said that the verse means that the innocent partner is not bound by the marriage vow and is free to re-marry. They would teach that the word "bound" refers to being bound by the marriage vow. However, I have pointed out what I believe to be the proper interpretation of the "porneia clause" in Matthew 19, and I do not believe 1 Corinthians 7 could be at odds with Matthew 19.

So what is the meaning of "bound?" The Greek word for "bound" is "douloo". This is the word which is often translated "slave" or "servant". There is another Scripture which speaks of being "bound" in marriage. This is Romans 7:2, which says, "For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage." However, Romans 7:2 uses a completely different word for being bound (deo). This word "deo" holds the meaning of being tied together, and is often used in Acts for Paul's bondage. So while marriage is seen to be a tie between two people, the believer in 1 Corinthians 7 is not under slavery in the situation where the unbeliever departs. So while Romans 7 and 1 Corinthians 7 both use the English word "bound", we cannot say that 1 Corinthians 7 is providing the same release from bondage as found in Romans 7.

I believe the situation described in 1 Corinthians 7 refers to the believer being released from a bad situation, much akin to slavery. If the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is not required to try and force them to stay. If a believer finds himself or herself in this situation, he or she is not required to fight to keep from being separated, nor is he or she to be regarded as having sinned. The believer whose partner has left is still free to remain in the fellowship of the local church. The believer should get on with his or her life and attempt to live at peace.

Finally, we should point out that this Scripture says nothing about re-marriage of the innocent partner. 1 Corinthians 7:16 says, "How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?" Re-marriage of the innocent partner would run completely contrary to the whole of this passage since re-marriage destroys the possibility of reconciliation and the possibility that the believer would once again be in a position to influence his or her partner with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is Marriage and Divorce a Picture Of?

Marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33). But this will immediately cause us to ask the question, "what is divorce a picture of?" If a woman divorces her husband, it is a picture of the church abandoning Christ. Worse still, if a man divorces his wife, it is a picture of Christ abandoning the church! I believe this is the reason why God so emphatically declares His hatred of divorce.

But What About the Case Where...

I have often wondered why the Lord did not give more complete instructions as to how to deal with matters of divorce and remarriage. After all, there are a large number of situations that people can get themselves into.

If we believe the Lord Jesus Christ is omniscient, we must believe that He knew about all the situations people would find themselves in. Furthermore, all the situations present into today's world and today's church were present in the first century. In fact, there were more issues to deal with at that time due to polygamy, concubines and slavery.

So, whatever teaching the Lord gave, it must deal with all the situations that might arise. It is simply a matter of figuring out what category the situation falls into, or taking the case to its logical conclusion.

What about the case where a person was divorced prior to getting saved? Does not the blood of Christ wash away all the sin? Absolutely! A person who is divorced, and then becomes saved is forgiven for his or her sin. As such, that believer can be welcomed into the fellowship of the local church. But does this imply permission to remarry? Such permission is nowhere granted in Scripture. Indeed, our study to this point has shown that remarriage means adultery The verses discussing the cases where remarriage causes adultery give no suggestion that it matters whether a person was remarried before or after salvation. Furthermore, remarriage closes forever the possibility of reconciliation. Also, we must ask, does the forgiveness of sins imply freedom from the consequences of one's actions? Consider these two cases. A young man comes to you and says, "I got saved last month, and I am so excited by my salvation, but I must tell you something. Two years ago I killed someone, and I was never caught. If the blood of Christ covers my sin, should I turn myself in?" Or perhaps this newly saved young man cheated a business partner and ran up large debts. If the blood of Christ covers his sin, should he be required to repay the money? I think most church leaders would counsel this new believer to turn himself in or to repay the debts he incurred. Of course, there is nothing defective about the salvation the Lord provided! But that eternal forgiveness does not absolve a person from living with the consequences of what he or she has done. And yet, many church leaders would counsel the divorced then saved person that he or she is free to remarry. The Lord does not address the issue of whether it is permissible for the divorced then saved person to remarry, because this is no different than any other case. To remarry after divorce is to commit adultery.

What about the case where divorced people are living together, get saved and now wish to be married? The question will be raised, "Is it not better for them to get married rather than to continue to live in sin?" Obviously we would not want them to continue to live in sin, but I believe the wrong question is being asked. The only real question is whether it would be adultery for divorced people to remarry. If it is adultery, then how can we tell the couple living in sin that they should get married and thus commit adultery? The only real solution in this case is for the newly saved couple to separate. Needless to say, this is not a pleasant suggestion, but if the alternative is to commit adultery, then singleness is preferable. Besides, where do we get the idea that a person must marry or must have a sexual relationship? If a relationship is sinful, it is not our place to adjust our theology to make the relationship holy. Our goal should be to interpret the Scriptures as clearly and accurately as possible, and only then, apply the Scriptures to specific situations. Our interpretation of the Scriptures must never be influenced by the application we would like to obtain.

Now we must ask the question, "What about the case where people were divorced, remarried and then saved?" Some might suggest that they should separate with the man continuing to provide for the woman. While this idea has some merit, if we see the remarriage as a real marriage, then adding another separation or divorce will not accomplish anything worthwhile. If people are in this situation and acknowledge that in their ignorance they sinned, then I believe they can be brought into local church fellowship. The husband could not of course serve as a local church elder, being that he is the husband of more than one wife, but other than this, full fellowship can be extended.

Finally. what about the case where people are taught that remarriage is adultery, yet go ahead and get remarried, and then ask to be received into local church fellowship? I believe this is no different than any other case of discipline. If a person sins wilfully, he or she cannot be received back into fellowship until they truly repent of their sins. If the church is convinced the repentance is real, a sinner can be received back into fellowship regardless of the type of sin. If the local church is not convinced the repentance is real, the sinner cannot be received back into fellowship.


I believe that here we see a practical understanding that sometimes separation is necessary. Consider the case of a woman choosing to leave her husband. The ideal is for her to remain in the relationship, but we understand that sometimes it is impossible. Perhaps a woman has a husband who is abusive, and she fears for herself or her children. Or perhaps his behaviour is of such low moral character that she cannot live with him any longer. In this case, she may choose to separate from her husband, but clearly the permission to remarry is withheld. Again, let us stress this point - the woman who chooses to leave her husband is not free to remarry.

For the husband, it is specifically said that he is not to divorce his wife. It is possible that this is just another way of saying that he must not separate from his wife. It is also possible that this is saying that while he may separate, he must not divorce (and since there is no legal divorce, he is to consider himself still financially responsible for his wife). Finally, this restriction may have been part of the laws of the time (i.e. with men being the only ones who could initiate divorce). Which of these three options is the correct interpretation I cannot say at this point, but it is possible that the more restrictive teaching is given to the husband because it is seldom that a man must leave a relationship for fear of abuse. In the absence of fuller understanding, I would adopt the plain sense meaning of the passage and say that while separation is possible for a man, he must not divorce himself from his wife and thus divorce himself from his financial responsibilities for providing for her.

So the teaching is clear that a woman must not separate from her husband, but if she does, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. The teaching for men is less clear, but it seems that a Christian man might possibly separate from his wife but must not seek legal and financial divorce.

Don't You Care?

Some might ask the question, "Don't you care?" Don't you care that a person might be denied the blessings of married life, that children might not have a proper role model, that a person might be condemned to a life of loneliness? The answer is "Yes, I care." I understand what it is to be lonely, but I also understand that single life does not have to be a barren wasteland of loneliness and pain. It can be filled with productive Christian service and the joy of salvation. But even if I thought it had to be a barren wasteland, I can only be motivated by what I believe the Bible to be teaching. I cannot modify my understanding of the Bible by the conclusions I want to come to. If the Bible teaches one thing, and I want to believe the opposite, I cannot twist my understanding of the Scriptures.

In my years as a Christian, I have met quite a few Christians who have been in the difficult situations I have described in this article. My feelings have been only those of Christian compassion and good-will. However when I see my brother, for whom Christ died, sinning, I can only point to the Scriptures and say, "Though it is a difficult teaching, thus saith the Lord."