Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.
Among Christians, there are several views on divorce and remarriage. Some Christians believe the Bible forbids divorce and remarriage altogether; others believe the Bible allows divorce when adultery is committed; and there are others who believe there can be many reasons for divorce.
In this article, we will examine several passages from the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the New Testament to discover what the Bible really says about marriage.
Given that several views on divorce and remarriage exist, perhaps this article will at least help us reconsider the biblical reason for our own beliefs.
Divorce and Remarriage in Deuteronomy 24:1
Moses allows men to divorce their wives if they have committed uncleanness. Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance indicates that ‘ervah, the Hebrew word translated as uncleanness, can also mean nakedness, indecency, and improper behavior. Consistent with Strong’s, the English Standard Version translates it indecency; the New International Version, something indecent; and Young’s Literal Translation, nakedness. The biblical ground for divorce then is a sexual yet unspecified sin.
If we compare Deuteronomy 24:1 to other passages in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), we can conclude that the grounds for divorce is not adultery (na’aph), since adultery was punished with the death penalty, not with divorce (Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22). Nor is the grounds for divorce unfaithfulness during betrothal (the months after the husband-to-be and the wife-to-be were promised to each other in marriage), because this sin was also punished with death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Neither can uncleanness in Deuteronomy 24:1 refer to fornication prior to marriage because a man and a woman who committed fornication with each other were instructed to marry (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); and if the woman had committed fornication with another man (prior to betrothal and marriage) and not disclosed this to her husband, she would be sentenced to death when (and if) her husband found out (Deuteronomy 22:21).
What then is ‘ervah? As the translation nakedness implies, ‘ervah in Deuteronomy 24:1 may refer to public nudity, dressing immodestly, and maybe even overly sexual behavior. The standards were high.
Divorce and Remarriage in Deuteronomy 24:2-4
Having pronounced the grounds for divorce, Moses then instructs men who would divorce their wives on the legal process they must follow. First, the husband must write a letter of divorce for his wife; then he must hand her the letter; and last he must send her out of his house. The letter not only made the divorce legal, but it also served the woman as proof that she was lawfully divorced and free to marry another man.
Moses also instructed that after the woman has been defiled (tame’, made unclean or impure) by a succeeding husband, she may not return to her first husband, whether her second husband divorces her or dies. Doing so is an abomination (tow‘ebah, disgusting) to the Lord. Moses, however, does not forbid succeeding marriages.
Divorce and Remarriage in Matthew 5:31-32
In Matthew 5:31-32, our Lord Jesus Christ makes reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-2 to teach about divorce and remarriage; but unlike Moses, the Lord's emphasis is not on the process of divorce, but on the grounds for divorce.
It appears the Lord's audience thought a letter of divorce effectively dissolved a marriage any time. Nevertheless, the Lord taught them that (regardless of what society may think) God esteems a marriage dissolved only if the letter of divorce is given because the woman has committed fornication.
The King James Dictionary tells us that the word fornication in the King James Version means sexual immorality, not sex between unmarried participants. Strong’s Exhaustive Bible Concordance also tells us that the Greek word porneia, translated fornication in the King James Version, can also be translated as sexual immorality. The New King James Version, the New International Version, and the English Standard Version all translate porneia in Matthew 5:32 as sexual immorality.
Thus, according to the Lord, a man who divorces his wife for grounds other than sexual immorality is guilty before God for causing her to commit adultery (if she marries another man); and any man who marries her is guilty of committing adultery because God considers her first marriage as still binding. Thus, both men are responsible before God for their choices.
Divorce and Remarriage in Matthew 19:3-8
It appears the grounds for divorce was a topic of some controversy in the times of our Lord Jesus Christ, for Pharisees approached him with a question about it: does God’s Law (the Law given by Moses) allow men to divorce their wives for any reason?
The Lord’s answer to their question was based on Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God created men and women, and He decreed that men should live with their wives as one. Since this is God’s plan, human beings should not divorce each other.
The Pharisees might have thought the Lord’s answer contradicted Deuteronomy 24:1, so they asked the Lord why Moses gave instructions concerning the proper process for divorce. The Lord answered them by saying that Moses gave those instructions “because of the hardness of your hearts.”
If we look throughout the Bible, we will find several places where hardened hearts represent a human being’s disobedience to God’s will (Exodus 9:12, Ezekiel 36:26, Ephesians 4:18, and Hebrews 3:8). Essentially, the Lord is saying that God’s Law allows for divorce because sin makes it at times necessary. A man or a woman may find it necessary to divorce if their spouse chooses to live in rebellion against God.
Then, in Matthew 19:9, the Lord affirms the Pharisees of the relevance of Deuteronomy 24:1.
It is important for us to understand how the Lord is interpreting the Bible (particularly, the Mosaic Law). He is telling us that Genesis 1 and 2, which happened prior to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, record God’s perfect plan for marriage (a heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong, harmonious, intimate, and fruitful kind of marriage) since sin and death had not yet entered the world.
The commandments given to Moses, on the other hand, do not represent God’s perfect plan for marriage and the rest of human life. They have been given to teach Israel how to live for God in a world permeated by sin. Therefore, divorce should only happen in response to sin (sexual immorality).
Divorce, Remarriage, and Women in Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18
The Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:31-32 presents a basic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and of the role women play in a divorce. The woman commits sexual immorality while married, is given a letter of divorce, and (if the divorce was not justified before God) is forced by her husband to commit adultery when she marries another man.
But in Matthew 19:9, the one who commits adultery is the husband who unjustly divorces his wife to marry another woman, and the man who marries the divorced woman. Luke 16:18 says the same.
Mark 10:11-12, on the other hand, presents the woman as having equal status with the man: the woman also can initiate the divorce, and the man is also guilty of adultery if the divorce is not justifiable before God.
The different ways in which the woman’s role in a divorce is presented in the Gospels points to flexibility in the way Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was applied to life. Although Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was written to protect wives living in a culture where husbands had the final word, some fifteen hundred years later people had realized that husbands also need to be defended from wives that would divorce unjustly. Thus, it is not only important to read what a particular commandment says, but also to discover the principle behind the commandment.
Adultery and Forgiveness in John 8:1-11
A group of Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to the Lord and said she had been caught in the act of adultery. John tells us that they were testing the Lord to find some reason to accuse him.
The religious leaders reminded the Lord that Moses had commanded adulterers to be stoned to death, and then they asked him what they should do with the woman.
The Lord’s answer was simple, but it had a supernatural effect in the consciences of these men. He told them that whoever among them was without sin should throw the first rock at her, but instead they left the scene.
There was a great fault on their part. The Mosaic Law not only required the adulteress to be put to death, but also the adulterer (see Deuteronomy 22:22-24). Where then was the adulterer? What had they done with him? Were they protecting him? Why had they not brought him with her?
The Mosaic Law also required the presence of the witnesses since they were the ones who should cast the first stone (see Deuteronomy 17:7). Where were the witnesses? Why were they not there? And if the Scribes and Pharisees were themselves the witnesses, where then was the adulterer?
There was also the possibility that they were lying to him, that they were simply trying to entrap him. If that was the case, their very own lives were at risk because they were acting as false witnesses. (see Deuteronomy 19:16-19).
Nevertheless, the most important aspect of this account to the topic at hand is that after they were gone, the Lord said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). The Lord knew she had somehow sinned, but He chose to forgive her instead of sentencing her to death.
This degree of forgiveness is not without precedent. A few hundred years before the Lord, God the Father had chosen to forgive King David’s life, even though David had committed both adultery and homicide (2 Samuel 12:13).
Divorce and Remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, the Apostle Paul instructs wives not to depart (chorizo) from their husbands, and he instructs husbands to not put away (aphiemi) their wives. Is Paul revoking the grounds for divorce allowed by Moses and the Lord Jesus Christ?
It is important to recognize that Paul is not addressing the same issues as Moses and the Lord. Moses had written on divorce and remarriage to protect women whose husbands would divorce them for any reason, and the Lord had taught on divorce and remarriage to settle a controversy over the biblical and lawful grounds for divorce. Paul, on the other hand, is addressing believers who would be single to dedicate themselves to serving God.
Paul’s point is that it is acceptable for a single man and a single woman to not marry so they can dedicate their lives to God, but it is not acceptable for a married man and a married woman to divorce so they can dedicate themselves to God.
Paul even instructs women who walk away from their marriages to remain unmarried so they do not commit adultery, or to be reconciled with their husbands, whom they have no biblical grounds to divorce. These women do not fit at all in the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 scenario, so they do not have the right to walk away from their marriages.
Thus, Paul’s instructions do not contradict Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Instead, they reinforce the Lord’s teaching, that God intends marriage to be between one man and one woman for one lifetime (Genesis 2:24).
In support of this view, the reader should consider that throughout the New Testament, Paul speaks of marriage in general as being governed by the Mosaic Law.
“The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:39, KJV)
“For the woman which hath and husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed form the law of her husband.” (Romans 7:2, KJV)
Moreover, Paul himself will shortly give us additional instructions for separation and divorce.
Divorcing Unbelieving Spouses in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15
Paul proceeds to instruct Christian men to not put away their non-Christian wives, and Christian women to not leave their non-Christian husbands. Those non-Christian (unbelieving) spouses are sanctified by the Christian (believing) spouses, just as their children also are sanctified.
Moreover, there is also great value in preserving the marriage because the Christian spouse may save the non-Christian spouse (that is, the Christian spouse may persuade the non-Christian spouse to believe in Jesus Christ).
Paul then explains to the Christians that if the non-Christian spouse leaves them, they should let that spouse leave, for believers are not in bondage (douloo). This word douloo is not the same word that Paul uses to describe the relationship between the wife and the husband under the law in Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 (deo). Paul then is not saying that the Law does not apply to their marriage, but instead he seems to be saying that believers are not slaves of their unbelieving spouses, so they can choose to pursue God's peace for their lives apart from their unbelieving spouses (there seems to be a biblical precedent in Ezra 10:19 for believers under the Law to divorce their unbelieving spouses).
I see then a relationship between this new instruction by Paul on the grounds for divorce and Moses’ old instruction on the grounds for divorce. Paul has just told us that the unbelieving spouse is sanctified by the believing spouse. The Greek word for to sanctify, hagiazo, means to separate, to consecrate, to dedicate, to cleanse,and to purify. Without the blood of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life, I see no other way in which the unbelieving spouse can be sanctified than by influence.
The way in which the unbelieving spouse must be sanctified is through the believing spouse’s influence. The family abstains from certain activities because the believing spouse is influencing them to do what is right. When the family does those things that are right, then they are being consecrated from the world unto God, for Him to speak to their hearts. It is my opinion, then, that the husband and the children of the believer are not being sanctified by the believer’s mere presence in their lives, but by the believer’s influence on them to do good.
If this is the case, then the reason why the unbelieving spouse would wish to depart from the believing spouse is that the unbeliever’s life is heading in a direction from which the believer is holding him back. He may very well be seeking to lead a lifestyle of porneia and ‘ervah, and if he is seeking a lifestyle of porneia and 'ervah, the believer will be right to divorce him lest his own life be hindered. Until then, the believer should focus on pursuing God's peace for his or her life..
We can see, then, that there is consistency between Paul’s doctrine on divorce and remarriage and the doctrines of Moses and the Lord on divorce and remarriage. Paul has carefully phrased his instructions so that they do not contradict but complement previous biblical instruction.
In summary, it appears that the Bible allows for divorce when a spouse has committed sexual immorality and when an unbelieving spouse abandons the Christian spouse to pursue a lifestyle characterized by sin.
God wants his children to lead lives characterized by devotion to Him. When a spouse's sexual immorality interrupts the believer's ability to live for God, biblical grounds for divorce exist.
© 2017 Marcelo Carcach
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 17, 2017:
Thanks for posting this study which is very well presented. Intend to re-read.