Sex and Sexuality #14: Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage
Throughout the first three weeks of our Sex and Sexuality sermon series at Everyday Church, we have touched on what Jesus teaches about divorce and remarriage. I drew people’s attention to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19 in the first message in the series, then Andrew Bunt did the same in the third message in the series. It therefore feels necessary for us to try to unpack a little bit more about what Jesus actually teaches here. The following questions and answers are a summary of a recent discussion between myself and the other pastors of Everyday Church. We hope that you find them helpful. If you have further questions, we’re running Q&A panels at Everyday Church across the next couple of weeks, so we would love to carry on the discussion with you further.
If you are divorced and remarried, I’m not trying to make your life difficult here. As I point out in one of my answers, God describes himself as a victim of divorce in Isaiah 50:1. I’m simply trying to serve you by attempting to summarise what the Bible teaches about your situation. If you are willing to accept it, Jesus promises that the truth the Bible teaches will set you free.
What does Jesus actually teach about marriage?
Jesus takes us “back to beginning” in Matthew 19. He refers us back to the first two chapters of the Bible and calls his followers to in one of two ways. We can be single (which means we remain unmarried and do not have sexual relations) or we can be married (which means committing exclusively to one person of the opposite sex until separated by death, and only having sex within that one relationship). In other words, he offers his followers a choice between celibacy and monogamy.
At first glance, our culture seems to offer something preferable – a multiplicity of choices. It doesn’t take much insight, however, to see that this has been at great cost to all of us. We live in a culture that has greatly devalued the importance of marriage. Ephesians 5:22-33 tells us that God created marriage to point to something greater: Jesus’ unconditional covenant to love and cherish us no matter what we do. That’s why it is so tragic that our culture has reduced marriage to a conditional contract (‘I’ll do this if you do that’) instead of an unconditional covenant (‘I’ll do this whatever happens’). The marriage ceremony includes the words “until death us do part” because the writers of the marriage ceremony understood that Jesus commands his followers to view marriage as highly as he does.
The Bible teaches that marriage is a covenant involving four parties, rather than just two. A man and a woman make their marriage covenant before God and in the sight of their community. That’s why it is still illegal under English law to get married in secret, and it is also why the government has no right to divorce people unless God declares it lawful.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24).
Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. (Mark 10:9).
The Bible also teaches Christians that they should only marry Christians. Paul uses the illustration of two oxen yoked together to plough a field, pointing out that a Christian cannot live their whole life with God’s glory as their number one priority whilst being yoked to an unbeliever who is living life for a very different aim.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39).
That’s why we wouldn’t normally marry a Christian and a non-Christian at Everyday Church. If a Christian arrives at the church already married to a non-Christian, however, we would support them in that marriage as Paul clarifies:
I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:12-17).
So how does God feel about divorce?
He hates it (Malachi 2:16). So do most people who have been divorced, because they know first-hand how much pain is involved. God tells us in Isaiah 50:1 that he himself has been through divorce, having suffered continual neglect and abandonment by his People. Understanding this helps us grasp six helpful insights:
- God’s hatred of divorce is borne out of painful personal experience.
- When God speaks about marriage and divorce he knows what he is talking about.
- God hates divorce but not divorcees, since he himself is one.
- It is possible to be the innocent victim of divorce. God himself is.
- Since Jesus personally carried the pain of divorce, the forgiveness which comes through his cross is greater than the sin and guilt which often accompanies divorce.
- Importantly, although God is a divorcee, he does not look for a new marriage partner. He seeks and eventually achieves reconciliation with his adulterous ex-wife.
What does Jesus say about divorce in the New Testament?
First-century Jewish and Roman cultures both had a lax attitude towards divorce, rather like our culture today. Jesus confronted their wrong thinking head-on. His most detailed teaching can be found in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, which both record the same conversation.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. ‘But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’ (Mark 10:2-9)
The Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about divorce but he answers by focusing them on the importance of marriage. He takes them back to Moses’ Law which permitted divorce in certain circumstances, but then he tells them that this permission was only granted because of people’s hard hearts. Were it not for sinfulness, marriage covenants would all be kept, and divorce would never happen. Divorce is permitted because, if only one side keeps the covenant, then things are not so straightforward.
As he so often does in the gospels, Jesus raises the standard of godliness that was set in Moses’ Law. You think adultery’s wrong? Don’t even lust. You think murder’s a problem? You’ve already done it if you hate your brother. You reckon you can divorce people for certain reasons? What God has joined together, let man not separate. So, essentially, Jesus is ruling out divorce as a godly option in this passage.
What about the rest of the New Testament?
The main other passage that deals with divorce is 1 Corinthians 7, and Paul makes it clear by saying “not I, but the Lord” that he is giving us a more detailed exegesis of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 and Mark 10.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Paul explains that Jesus’ teaching means that instigating divorce is not an option for a Christian husband or wife. They shouldn’t even separate, but if the sin on one side becomes intolerable then they may separate so long as this means working towards reconciliation rather than divorce and re-marriage.
So the overall view of the New Testament is extremely anti-divorce. God hates it because it breaks a covenant made before him, because it hurts the people he loves, and because it blasphemes his name by desecrating his great picture of the unbreakable covenant between Christ and the Church.
There is a really useful benchmark in Matthew 19:10 for whether or not we have properly understood the New Testament teaching on divorce and re-marriage. It functions in the same way as Paul’s statement in Romans 6:1 that anyone who has truly understood the Gospel is bound to exclaim something like “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” We read that the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching and exclaimed that
If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry. (Matthew 19:10)
Jesus emphasises that marriage is a very good thing, but that it is such a good thing that we need to view it as holy, just as God does. A proper understanding of the New Testament’s teaching on marriage, divorce and re-marriage will give us a similar, awestruck view as the disciples of the sanctity of marriage and the painful trauma of divorce.
Are there any situations in which divorce is acceptable to God?
Yes and no. It is never the ideal, and the Bible promises that God will give Christians the strength and help they need to honour the lifelong covenant they made before him. The problem posed in Mark 10:5 is overcome by Ezekiel 36:26 so that we can fulfil Matthew 5:20! If you are considering divorce right now, then you need to know that the whole force of heaven is lined up behind you to help you to fight to save your marriage.
However, because one spouse may be very godly but greatly wronged by their ungodly spouse, the Bible does permit divorce in some situations. The Lord himself divorces Israel for her unfaithfulness in Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8. Joseph is described as a righteous man for wanting to divorce Mary quietly for perceived adultery in Matthew 1:19.
There are therefore three biblical grounds for divorce. We just need to make sure that we don’t try and shoehorn every situation into one of them.
- Being the victim of sustained abuse within the context of the marriage
This is not specifically reiterated in the New Testament and comes from a very foreign context where people owned slaves and took multiple wives. However, as pastors of Everyday Church, we believe that this Old Testament command contains a principle which still applies today:
If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free. (Exodus 21:10-11).
We would interpret “food, clothing and marital rights” to refer to very serious and repeated action which jeopardises a spouse or their children’s well-being and physical safety. We would want the victim to talk to us as pastors for wisdom and support before making a decision that what they are experiencing constitutes this kind of abuse. But if it’s genuine abuse, we would want to help you to find a place of safety fast.
- Being the victim of sexual unfaithfulness
Jesus uses the Greek word porneia when he gives an exception to his blanket ban on divorce.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
The normal Greek word for adultery is moicheia, so it appears that Jesus uses this more general word for ‘sexual immorality’ in order to broaden the exception to include undisclosed sexual unfaithfulness before marriage (as in Matthew 1:19). It may also have been in order to bypass the “Bill Clinton” argument that some types of sexual relations do not constitute adultery. We would therefore not limit porneia to mean intercourse alone – there are various other sexual relationships that would probably be included under this term.
Remember, however. We are trying to follow Jesus’ own example in this. He had grounds to divorce his unfaithful people, but he didn’t then look for another bride instead. He did all he could, and eventually succeeded, in pursuing reconciliation. Therefore even after sexual immorality has been committed, we would encourage you not to pursue divorce as a knee-jerk reaction. If we are your pastors then we would want to help you to discern how the Lord is leading you to respond to being sinned against so severely.
- Being the victim of desertion
The issue gets even more complicated here, so we would encourage you to speak to your pastors if you believe that this is you. Different situations have many different issues involved; one person may feel they are a victim, while the other may see things the opposite way round. As always, we ask people to be accountable to their spiritual leaders.
The grounds for divorce following desertion are, again, found in 1 Corinthians 7:
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
Even in this passage, which allows for separation under very specific circumstances, you can still see Scripture’s very high view of marriage; divorce is still a last resort, and should not be pursued if the couple can possibly stay together. However, Paul does allow that there are times when one spouse leaves the marriage, and that when this happens there is very little the victim can do about it.
Obviously a lot hinges here on what makes someone an ‘unbeliever’. If the person has never repented and become a Christian, then they clearly fall into that category. If the person claims to follow Jesus but leaves anyway, then things are less clear. So, although there may be situations where we are left with no choice but to treat the deserting partner as an unbeliever, we would never do this without carefully investigating the situation. Once again, although divorce may be permissible, it is never desirable, so we as pastors would always look to achieve reconciliation before getting involved with divorce proceedings.
What if my partner and I are simply incompatible?
God does not see this as valid grounds for a divorce. The word is never used of couples in Scripture – in some ways, every couple is incompatible! We are fallen people, living in a fallen world, and there is no marriage in history that has not had periods of time when personalities, interests, sexual cycles and the like appear ‘incompatible’. But that doesn’t mean we can get divorced. Marriage is a covenant. It means sticking to your promises, whatever happens. What is more, we are convinced that any marriage – any marriage – will survive if both partners keep their covenant. So incompatibility (or similar words for the same thing) is simply not a biblical basis for divorce.
I am already divorced. Can I get re-married?
The short answer here is: it depends. Because there are different reasons for divorce – and because some divorces are legitimate in God’s sight and others are not – we cannot answer this question with a blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We would ask you to come and discuss your situation with your pastors, and to explain in detail what has happened. We will then work through Scripture with you to help you find what God’s Word says about your situation.
What are the biblical grounds for re-marriage?
There are different ways of answering this question. If you read widely enough, you will be able to find somebody to represent every conceivable view, from ‘no re-marriages at all’ through to ‘re-marriages for any reason’. There are many different opinions, but only one of them is God’s. The challenge is to understand which one it is!
If you are part of Everyday Church, then what we have done as your pastors is to wrestle with the issue over a period of years, trying to understand what God’s Word says and how to apply it. Collectively, we believe Scripture says that there are only two grounds for re-marriage – and we ask people at Everyday Church to trust us in our application of these principles.
The first biblical basis for re-marriage is the death of a spouse. Scripture permits and even encourages re-marriage in this situation in passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:39 and 1 Timothy 5:14-15.
The second biblical basis for re-marriage is legitimate divorce for one of the three reasons given above, where reconciliation is no longer possible. In other words, if your partner (a) persistently abused you, (b) was sexually unfaithful towards you, or (c) deserted you and refused your attempts at reconciliation, then there are biblical grounds for you to believe you are free to re-marry. However, we would expect you to talk through your situation with us as your pastors before proposing to someone, announcing a wedding, or anything else. We want to help you to discern God’s will for you, as a follower of Jesus.
Both Jesus and Paul state that, in the absence of these two biblical bases for re-marriage, God views re-marriage after divorce as adultery:
Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
The wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband). (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Can the abuser, adulterer or the deserter re-marry?
Jesus was speaking of this sort of person in Luke 16:18, when he said that ‘everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery’. We therefore believe that people in this situation need to pursue forgiveness and reconciliation rather than re-marriage.
What if I got wrongly divorced before I was a Christian? Can I re-marry now?
If you are part of Everyday Church, then we would want to talk to you as your pastors. Because you are now a new creation in Christ, and have been forgiven for your sins, we believe there may be situations when someone who was divorced illegitimately as an unbeliever can get re-married. However, we have seen people become Christians, get re-married and see a second marriage fail because the fundamental issues exposed by the first marriage were not resolved. Worryingly, 66% of all re-marriages end in divorce – a far higher statistic than for first-time marriages – which suggests that people who make mistakes in one marriage will often carry them through into the next one. So we would always want to talk things through with you, find out what went wrong the first time round, and help you put foundations in place to ensure any subsequent relationships are conducted on a godly basis. We really want to help you to build strong foundations for your future. We would want to talk to you about:
- Forgiveness – From God and from the other people involved
- Reconciliation – How to pursue it if it is possible and appropriate
- Continuing responsibilities – Especially towards any children, which must be fulfilled in a God-honouring way
- Re-marriage – Would this honour the God before whom you would make a fresh marriage covenant? Are you ready to make such a life-long commitment again?
What if my partner and I got re-married somewhere else, but illegitimately? Would we be able to join Everyday Church?
We recognise that there are churches who would differ from us in their interpretation of Scripture. We also know that it is possible to get married at a registry office without any biblical constraints at all. So, realistically, we know that some people will come to Everyday Church who have been divorced and re-married for reasons that Scripture does not allow. In these cases, we would not expect you to reverse your marriage, nor to separate. Paul’s counsel to those at Corinth who were wondering about confused marital situations like yours was that:
Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. (1 Corinthians 7:20).
However, we would want to speak to both of you together, to find out the circumstances, and to ensure that each of you have worked through the fall-out of your first marriage, both towards God and towards any other people involved.
We recognize that in a fallen world, people can end up in very complicated situations. Our culture has a very low view of marriage – often it is simply a convenience, or a wedding, or a tax break – and this has knock-on effects for everyone. In each situation, of course, we will seek to show grace and love to the individuals involved.
But at the same time, we are passionately convinced that God has an extremely high view of marriage, because it is a picture of Christ and the Church, and reflects his covenant love for his people. So although there is often pressure from within our culture to loosen our line on these things, we are committed to obeying God’s Word, come what may. In this area, that means wrestling with what the Bible says, teaching it, and applying it, for the glory of God. We encourage you to join us in this, living as a sincere disciple of Jesus in this area.
This coming Sunday, Andrew Bunt will be returning to Everyday Church to help us to grapple with what the Bible teaches about Transgender. If you’re in London, join us at one of our congregations across South London. If you’re not in London, or if you’re already part of another church, feel free to visit our online church to share in the series with us.