the Bible Teaches About Divorce and Remarriage
John J. Hughes, Former Pastor
March 1998, I received a call from a dear friend, twenty-two years old,
whose marriage was falling apart. He was seeing a Christian marriage
counselor (fictitiously called "Bill Jones" below) who at the
outset of their counseling asked him to make a vow not to remarry should
his wife (fictitiously called "Jane") divorce him but to remain
celibate and faithful to her for the rest of his days. My friend, also a
Christian and a person of his word, was uncomfortable making such a vow.
He called me and asked for my advice. The following is what I wrote him,
after first showing it to three mature, trusted Christian friends, all of
whom are teachers of the Word (two of them have taught for years at the
The Bible Alone Is the Ultimate Standard of Truth
clearly taught that the Bible is ultimate and only standard of truth and
of right and wrong. Jesus said that we are to live by "every word
that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4 = Deut. 8:3) and by no
other words. In John 17:17 Jesus prays to his heavenly Father:
"Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." Jesus did not
say: "Your word is true" (Gk. adj. alethinos
Instead he used the Greek noun aletheia
("truth") to say that God's Word is truth itself. Thus the Bible
does not conform to a higher standard of truth but rather is truth itself,
the very expression of the nature, character, and will of God because it
is the very words of God (2 Tim. 3:15-17). What the Bible says, God says.
So the Bible is the measuring stick by which every other claim to
truthfulness is to be measured. Teachings that conform to Scripture are
true; those that do not are false. Truth is what God says, not what men
think (Col. 2:20-23).
condemned the Pharisees for teaching their own opinions and laws as if
they were God's (Matt. 15:9). He called their teaching "heavy
loads," which they tied up and put on men's shoulders (Matt. 23:4),
thereby unduly burdening them. Those who accepted such extra-biblical laws
were considered to be under the yoke of the Pharisee’s teaching and
thereby their disciples (Acts 15:5, 10). Those who try to impose such a
yoke are said to "test God" (Acts 15:10). Therefore Jesus
invites all people who labor under the yoke of extra-biblical rules and
regulations to come to him so he can give them two things: rest and a new
yoke—his way of discipleship—which is easy and light because the rest
he provides is the supernatural, divine rest of intimacy with him that
refreshes (cf. Jer. 6:16) and strengthens (Matt. 11:28-30) those who like
Jesus approach God with meek and humble hearts. Jesus' words "I will
give you rest" echo the words "My Presence will go with you, and
I will give you rest" in Exodus 33:14.
what we need to do is find out what the Bible teaches about divorce and
remarriage. Are there biblical grounds for divorce? If so, what are they?
Does the Bible permit divorced people to remarry? If so, under what
conditions? These are the pertinent questions.
Are There Biblical Grounds for Divorce?
to Jesus, God's intention is for a marriage to last until, as we would
say, "death do you part." Divorce is not part of God's original
plan for marriages (Matt. 19:3-8). Jesus narrowed the Old Testament
grounds for divorce from petty fault finding (Deut. 24:1-4) to a single
condition (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:7-9).
to Jesus, the one and the only legitimate ground for divorce is physical
marital unfaithfulness, that is, any sort of physical sexual immorality,
including but not restricted to adultery (Matt. 5:32). I say
"physical" to distinguish what Jesus is saying from the sort of
sexual immorality we can commit in our hearts. Sinning in our hearts is
not a biblical ground for divorce. According to Jesus, for a man to
divorce his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality (for example,
incompatibility, "falling out of love") makes her an adulteress
and her new husband an adulterer (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). The assumption behind
these words is that the divorced wife will remarry and have sexual
relations with her new husband, even though in God's eyes she is not
legitimately divorced from her first husband.
what is called his famous "exception clause" here (Matt. 19:9).
What is the meaning of porneia (NIV
"marital unfaithfulness"; KJV "fornication")? Some
relate it to incest. Others have argued that it refers to premarital
unchastity: if a man discovers his bride is not a virgin, he may divorce
her. Still others hold that it means "adultery" here, no more
and no less. Yet in Greek the normal word for adultery is moicheia.
Matthew has already used moicheia
and porneia in the same context
(15:19), suggesting some distinction between the words.
It must be
admitted that the word porneia
itself is very broad. Occasionally it can refer to a specific kind of
sexual sin, but only because the specific sexual sin belongs to the larger
category of sexual immorality. Porneia covers the entire range of sexual
sins and should not be restricted unless the context requires it.
what Jesus seems to be saying is that divorce and remarriage always
involve evil; but as Moses permitted it because of the hardness of human
hearts, so also does he—but now on the sole grounds of porneia
(sexual sin of any sort). Admittedly, Jesus would appear to be abrogating
something of the Mosaic prescription; for whatever the general
"something indecent" refers to in Deut. 24:1, it can hardly
refer to adultery, for which the prescribed punishment was death. But porneia includes adultery as a sexual sin, even if not restricted to
it. Jesus' judgments on the matter are therefore both lighter (no capital
punishment for adultery) and heavier (the sole exception being some form
of sexual sin) than Moses. [From the NIV
Bible Commentary, eds. Kenneth Barker and John Kohlenberger III (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)]
Jesus permits but does not require divorce in the case of adultery. In the
case of adultery, it is not wrong for the offended party to divorce the
offending party (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:9). But forgiveness, reconciliation,
and continuing love are a higher and better way to resolve the problem—a
way that mirrors the Lord's own faithfulness to us despite the untold ways
we are unfaithful to him (see 1 Cor. 13:4-8a).
1 Corinthians 7:10-16 Paul presents a second ground for divorce, one that
has to do with mixed marriages. If an unbelieving spouse
"leaves" (vs. 15, NIV) a believing spouse, the believer is
"not bound in such circumstances" (vs. 15). What do
"leaves" and "not bound" mean? "Leaves"
refers to willful desertion or abandonment that cannot result in
reconciliation because of the wishes of the deserting party. According to
Paul, like adultery, this also breaks the marriage contract. In the case
of desertion, the believer is not putting away the unbeliever, which would
be a breach of Matt. 19:3-9, but is being deserted by the unbeliever. For
the meaning of "not bound," see below under "Does the Bible
Permit Divorced People to Remarry?"
there will sometimes be relationships in which one partner or the other
will not respond to love and will reject commitment to the other. In such
cases, in which heart commitment to covenant love is consistently
rejected, a legal divorce may follow. In such cases it is not the divorce
that is the sin, but the sin that necessitates the divorce. God, then, has
provided divorce for those whose marriages have already been destroyed by
the hardness of a human heart....The inability to give and receive
love—something that may be imposed by a loveless childhood home—is
probably the greatest destroyer of marriages today. [From the article
"Divorce and Remarriage" in The
Expository Dictionary of Bible Words by Lawrence O. Richards (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1991)]
Does the Bible Permit Divorced People to Remarry?
Bible counsels younger widows "to marry, to have children, to manage
their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander" (1 Tim.
5:14). Thus in the case of widows (and one assumes by analogy, widowers),
remarriage not only is permitted, it is encouraged.
regarding widows, Paul said: "It is good for them to stay unmarried,
as I am" (1 Cor. 7:8). He said this because there was a "present
crisis" (1 Cor. 7:26)—perhaps a pending persecution and
accompanying curtailment of freedom to witness—because he wanted to
spare people suffering by encouraging singleness (1 Cor. 7:28), because
"the time [for doing the Lord's work] is short" (1 Cor. 7:29),
because the present form of the world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31), and
because he wanted them to be free from cares so they could focus on
pleasing the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32). Unmarried people can concentrate with
undivided interest on pleasing the Lord, rather than their marriage
partner, and devote themselves to the Lord in body and spirit (1 Cor.
7:32-35). However in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does not forbid widows to
remarry. Although for the sake of doing God's work it is good for them not
to remarry, Paul does not say it is wrong for them to remarry. In fact he
says if their sexual urge is uncontrollable, they should marry, "for
it is better to marry than to burn with passion" (1 Cor. 7:9). Both
Jesus (Matt. 19:11-12) and Paul (1 Cor. 7:7) note that celibacy is a
divine gift, not a requirement. Like celibacy, marriage also is a gift (1
Cor. 7:7). God gifts different individuals in different ways (Rom. 12:6).
it is permissible for widows to remarry, what about divorcees? Some people
have argued that Mark 10:11-12 (cf. Luke 16:18) forbids remarriage after
divorce on the grounds that such remarriage is adultery: "Anyone who
divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits
adultery." Some have taken these verses to mean that unlike Matthew's
quotation of Jesus in Matthew 19:9, Mark quotes Jesus in such a way as to
prohibit remarriage after divorce for any reason. But Mark's reporting of
Jesus words about divorce draws attention to something unique in the
annals of Jewish teaching. Unlike the Old Testament or the Rabbis, Jesus
taught that a man could commit adultery against his wife.
rabbinic Judaism a woman by infidelity could commit adultery against her
husband; and a man, by having sexual relations with another man's wife,
could commit adultery against that other man. But a man could never commit
adultery against his wife. Jesus, by putting the husband under the same
moral obligation as the wife, raised the status and dignity of women.
Furthermore, Jesus went on to recognize the right of a woman to divorce
her husband (v. 12), a right not recognized in Judaism. Matthew, writing
for Jews, omits v. 12; but Mark, writing for Romans, includes it."
unlike Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12 does not reflect on the legal situation
created by adultery but on the abrogation of the Mosaic provision for
divorce (Deut. 24:1ff) and the practice of divorce among Jews and
people have argued that Paul declares any remarriage after divorce to be
adultery, and therefore wrong, citing Romans 7:3a as proof: "So then,
if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called
an adulteress." This is a misinterpretation of this text. To
establish the pivot point for his analogy about Christians' relation to
the law (Rom. 7:4ff.), Paul states that women in Jewish society were bound
by law to remain married to their husbands, for women in this society had
no legal right to divorce (Rom. 7:2). The only way out of a marriage for a
woman in Jewish society was through the death of her husband (Rom. 7:2,
3b). Thus when Paul says: "If she marries another man while her
husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress" (Rom. 7:3a) he
does not imply that a divorce has taken place, since the wife could not
divorce her husband. He is simply saying that if a married Jewish wife
marries another man while her undivorced husband is alive, she is
committing adultery because she still is married to her first husband.
we have seen, Jesus' words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 permit divorce for the
cause of adultery. For a husband to divorce his wife for any reason other
than adultery makes her an adulteress should she remarry (idem), and vice
versa should the wife divorce the husband for adultery (Mark 10:12). The
clear inference is that to divorce because of adultery does not make the
other partner an adulteress or adulterer should he or she remarry because
the original marriage relation has legitimately been dissolved in God's
eyes. In such a situation both the divorced husband and the divorced wife
are free to remarry, regardless of who committed adultery. The same logic
applies to Matthew 19:9.
1 Corinthians 7:15a Paul says: "But if the unbeliever leaves, let him
do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances."
In this verse "leaves" means willfully deserts—abandons, and
"not bound" means the partner who is left no longer is legally
obligated to the marriage contract. Thus God sanctions divorce in cases
where an unbelieving partner leaves the believer. And in these cases, Paul
does not prohibit the unbeliever who has left or the believer who has been
left from remarrying. And what God does not prohibit, he permits.
the sharp contrast between 1 Cor. 7:12, where no divorce is allowed, and
vs. 15 strongly suggests that in the case of desertion, the believing
partner is free to remarry.
in 1 Cor. 7:27-28 Paul says (ASV): "Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek
not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife. But
shouldest thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry, she
hath not sinned." Paul's guiding principle in this section (1 Cor.
7:25-28) is stated in verse 26: "Because of the present crisis, I
think that it is good for you to remain as you are." In other words,
because of the situation Christians in Corinth were facing, Paul thought
it best for them not to make any life-altering changes in their marriage
relationships (see the second paragraph in this section for more detail).
The NIV translation of 1 Cor. 7:27-28 does not preserve the double use of
the Greek luo—"loosed"—as
the ASV does. What Paul is encouraging, not commanding, is that if you are
married ("bound," Gk. deo),
do not seek to be "loosed" (Gk. luo),
that is, divorced.
he says if you are "loosed" (Gk. luo),
that is, divorced, don't seek to be married. But "shouldest thou
marry, thou hast not sinned." In other words, if you choose not to
follow his suggestions, you have not sinned. The "thou" in this
verse (vs. 28) clearly refers to divorced people. Paul is saying divorced
people can remarry, presumably if they meet the biblical requirements for
having a legitimate divorce (see above).
Death dissolves the marriage contract and leaves the remaining partner
free to remarry.
Sexual immorality by one partner gives the other partner a legal right,
but not an obligation, in God's eyes to divorce the unfaithful partner.
Both partners then are free to remarry.
If an unbelieving marriage partner deserts the believing partner and
refuses to be reconciled, the believing partner is free to divorce. Then
both partners are free to remarry.
All Christians who have been properly divorced, that is, for one of the
two biblical reasons, are free to remarry. Also see: Jay E. Adams, Marriage,
Divorce, and Remarriage (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed
Pub. Co., 1980): 86.
Something we have not discussed in this note but that nevertheless should
be stated is that Christians are only to marry other Christians. A
Christian is not to marry a non-Christian. 1 Cor. 7:39; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14ff.
God values love, mercy, and forgiveness in us far above the dissolution of
relationships, especially marriage, and the legalistic exacting of
1 Cor. 13:4-7: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it
does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not
self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always
protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Matt. 9:13: "But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not
sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
Matt. 18:21-22: "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, `Lord, how many
times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven
times?' Jesus answered, `I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven
James 2:12-13: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by
the law that gives freedom,  because judgment without mercy will be
shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over
Prov. 19:11: "A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory
to overlook an offense."
1 Pet. 4:8: "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers
over a multitude of sins."
Col. 3:12-14: "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly
loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness
and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances
you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 
And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in
Back to the Original Request Bill Jones Made to You
the forgoing analysis of what the Bible teaches about divorce and
remarriage is correct, then for anyone to ask you to vow before God that
you will remain faithful to Jane forever, no matter what she does, is
asking more of you than God does. To ask more of someone than God does is
a manifestation of legalism. Jesus came to set us free from many
things—e.g., the power of sin (Rom. 6:6ff.), the fear of death (Heb.
2:15)—including legalism (Gal. 5:1ff.).
has chosen to provide three conditions when people who have been married
can remarry: (1) when one partner dies, (2) when divorce takes place
because of sexual immorality, and (3) when an unbelieving partner
definitively deserts the believing partner. If God has graciously chosen
to allow us to remarry under these conditions, we should be thankful for
his mercy, kindness, and grace and not subject ourselves to a legalistic
yoke that creates a heavy burden few could bear.
is not "more spiritual" to demand more of ourselves than God
does; it is just proud, misguided legalism. It's exactly what the
Pharisees did. A vow that would require you to remain chaste, celibate,
and unmarried should Jane divorce you is a false asceticism; and
asceticism is a variety of legalism. Paul vehemently attacked false
asceticism in Colossians 2:20-23, which I commend you to read. Any form of
legalism involves putting confidence in our flesh (Phil. 3:3) and thereby
making ourselves enemies of the cross (Phil. 3:18). God resists pride in
any and every form, but he gives grace to the humble and exalts them in
due time (1 Pet. 5:5-7; cf. Prov. 16:5; Isa. 57:15; 66:1-2). In your
situation, what God greatly values is humbling yourself, throwing yourself
completely on his mercy and grace, and casting all your anxiety on him (1
Pet. 5:5-7), not making a heaven-shaking vow.
can never right a wrong or prevent a sin by taking an oath. Only God can
bring good from evil (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28) and protect us in the future
(John 17:11-12, 15; 2 Thess. 3:3). We need to place our trust in God's
ability to change us, not in our ability to make commitments. Every day we
should pray that God will perfect that good work he began in us (Phil.
1:6) and conform us to the image of Jesus (Gal. 4:19; Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor.
3:18), realizing that it is God who personally and mysteriously and
supernaturally is at work in our hearts, souls, and minds, wooing us to
will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) because of his mighty
love for us that "surpasses knowledge" (Eph. 3:19).
is not impressed with nor does he reward us according to macho spiritual
acts. God is impressed with brokenness, humility, and meekness (Isa.
57:15; 66:1-2), and he freely and graciously bestows his blessings on
us—"He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us
all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all
things?" (Rom. 8:32). Our mighty spiritual deeds and awesome vows
will never impress an omnipotent God who spoke the worlds into being (Gen.
1:1ff.; Ps. 33:6). 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 clearly proves that. No matter how
earth shaking the spiritual feat we accomplish, if we do it without loving
the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves,
then God regards us as nothing more than an irritating, ear-splitting,
booming gong and clashing cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1). In fact he regards us as
less than that; he regards such people as nothing (1 Cor. 13:2, 3). What
impresses God, what pleases God, what gets God's attention, and what gets
his blessing and anointing presence is being loving, compassionate, kind,
humble, meek, gentle, patient, merciful, and forgiving (Col. 3:12ff.).