Divorce and Remarriage

What does the Bible teach about divorce and remarriage? There are a number of conflicting views on this subject being taught by those who agree on most other things Biblically. This article will show what the Bible actually teaches on this subject and how it applies to the Born-again Believer in Jesus Christ. This is a complicated issue which requires examination of all of the Bible. The Principle of First Mention applies here, in that the Bible's teaching on marriage has not changed from the Old Covenant to the New; although Paul and Peter did expand on the topic, the essence is the same.

First, here are some relevant Scripture portions dealing with the subject:

Matthew 19:1-11

C  The Pharisees also came to him, tempting him; and saying to him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any accusation?” And he answered and said to them, “Have you not read, that he who made them at the beginning made them male and female? And he said, ‘For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife; and they two shall be one flesh.’ Therefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.”

C  They say to him, “Then why did Moses command to give a writing of divorce, and to put her away?” He says to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whosoever shall divorce his wife, unless it is for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and whoso marries her which is divorced commits adultery.”

U  His disciples say to him, “If the case of the man is so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” But he said to them, “All men cannot receive this saying, except they to whom it is given: for there are some eunuchs, who were born this way from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs, who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”

1 Corinthians 7:10-17

U  But I speak this by permission, and not of Scriptural command: for I wish that all men were single even as I myself. But every man has his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.

C  Therefore I say to the unmarried and widows: it is good for them if they remain single even as I; but if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn with lust.

C  And to the married I command (yet not I, but the Lord): let not the wife depart from her husband; but in case she does depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband divorce his wife.

O  But to the rest I speak (not the Lord): if any brother has a wife that does not believe, and she is pleased to dwell with him, let him not divorce her. And the woman who has an husband that does not believe, and if he is pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him: for the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children were unclean; but now they are holy.

O  But if the unbelieving spouse leaves, let him leave. A Christian brother or a sister is not under bondage in such situations; but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O Christian wife, whether you shall save your husband? Or how do you know, O Christian man, whether you shall save your wife? But as God has distributed to every man, as the Lord has called every one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all Assemblies.

2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

O  Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what agreement has Christ with Belial? Or what part has he that believes with an infidel? And what agreement has the Temple of God with idols?

O  For all of you are a Temple of the Living God. As God has said, “‘I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God; and they shall be my people.”

C  “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord; ‘and touch not the unclean thing.

C  And I will receive you, and will be a Father to you; and you shall be my sons and daughters,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

U  Therefore having these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit; perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

Ezra 9:1-4

O  Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, “The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites: for they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands; moreover, the hand of the princes and rulers has been chief in this trespass.”

O  And when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished. Then everyone that trembled at the words of the God of Israel were assembled to me, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.

Ezra 10:1-5

O  Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the House of God, a very great congregation of men and women and children assembled to him out of Israel: for the people wept grievously. And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said to Ezra, “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken Gentile wives of the people of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the Commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the Law. Arise: for this matter belongs to you; we will also be with you; be of good courage, and do it.” Then Ezra arose, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they would do according to this word. And they swore.

Romans 7:1-3

U  Do you not know, brethren (for I speak to them that know the Law), how that the Law rules over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has a husband is bound by the Law to her husband as long as he lives; but if the husband is dead, she is released from the Law of her husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband is dead, she is free from that Law, so that she is no adulteress, although she is married to another man.

Now to those unfamiliar with the Bible, these probably seem somewhat contradictory and confusing. But there is an answer that brings together all of the Word of God for a consistent interpretation, if we take the Bible at face value and allow it to be our teacher.

Let's start by focusing on what Jesus said, "What God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matthew 19:6).

  • Let's take an extreme example, just to make the point: let's say there are two Satan worshipers, a man and a woman, who meet and decide to get married. Let's remember that these are open and hostile enemies of God, who hate the God of the Bible and want nothing to do with Him. Do the words of Jesus Christ apply in this situation? Did God "join together" these two enemies of Himself, who hate Him? Clearly, I think no reasonable person could conclude that God had anything to do with this marriage of two of His enemies, so there you have at least one situation where the words of Jesus do not apply.

  • What about a Born-again Christian and a Satan worshiper (to use another extreme example)? If these two individuals decide to get married, can it be said that God "joined" them together? Look at 2 Corinthians 6:14: "DO NOT be unequally yoked together with unbelievers..." Remember that all of the Bible is the Word of God, and Paul here is using extremely forceful grammar under Divine Inspiration to make his point: "DO NOT Be/Be not" (Greek imperative mood): in other words, it is a direct command of God to a Born-again Christian to be married to an unbeliever. So, how can God "join together" two people whom He has COMMANDED not to marry? These two things cannot be reconciled to each other. God doesn't disagree with Himself, and God cannot bless what He has forbidden. Two individuals, one of whom is a Born-again Believer in Jesus Christ, and the other a Lost person (one who is not Born-again by faith in Jesus Christ), are forbidden by God to marry under any circumstances. There is no "wiggle room" in the Bible in this matter. I used the example of a Satan worshiper, but (using the words of 2 Corinthians 6:14 - 7:1), the same facts apply to any "unbeliever" in Jesus Christ and a Born-again Believer: marriage is forbidden.

  • Now what about the situation where a person accepts Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, and their marriage partner does not receive Christ (assuming they were already married)? The same Scriptures apply: the Born-again person is now in a state of disobedience to God with regard to his/her Lost marriage partner, and therefore divorce is the only option, except when I Corinthians 7:10 -17 (see above) applies: if the unbelieving spouse does not leave the marriage (i.e. everything is still going well and they want to stay), then divorce is not the will of God in that situation. But the reality is that a child of God and a child of the devil (the lost person) cannot coexist in peace. There may be some measure of peace for a time, but inevitably the two spouses will either divorce or live separately or the Christian spouse will compromise the Word of God and end up trying to please their "child of the devil" spouse. The situation is similar to yoking together an ox and a donkey to plow a field. The ox and the donkey will never work together and will end up fighting with each other; and the same is true of a Believer and an unbeliever in marriage: either there will be peace because the Believer gives in to a life of sin to make their partner happy, or there will be war because the Believer wants to live for God and the lost spouse does not. Both situations are displeasing to God and unacceptable in His eyes, which is why He has commanded them not to be unequally yoked.

What then should a Believer do in the situation just described (they just got saved, but their marriage partner did not)? According to I Corinthians 7:10- 17, they should remain in the marriage as long as possible and try to win their spouse to Jesus Christ. If, however, over time it becomes clear that the spouse hardens their heart and refuses to repent and receive Christ AND the marriage becomes a war zone, then it is time to divorce IN THE WILL OF GOD.

See the text quoted from Ezra (Ezra 9 - 10). In this situation, many of the Jewish men had married unbelieving women from other nations. Remember that God's prohibition to the Jews not to marry people of other nationalities had nothing to do with race or skin color, but with the fact that people of other nations did not worship the true God as the Jews did (under the Old Covenant), and therefore God commanded them not to marry outside of the nation of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, yet she became a convert to the true God Jehovah and Old Covenant Judaism, and so was allowed to marry Boaz in the will of God; and God blessed their marriage with king David as one of their descendants.

Ezra was a man of God, and a scholar of the Old Covenant Law; and he understood very well what God had commmanded, and therefore he ordered these Jewish men to divorce their wives. This is completely consistent with 2 Corinthians 6:14 - 7:1 where Paul spells out clearly God prohibition on marriage between a Lost person and a Believer in Jesus Christ. Paul's directions concerning this situation are more nuanced than Ezra's to be sure, because he says that the marriage should be allowed to work if possible; but the underlying reasoning and the end result is the same: either the Lost spouse must receive Christ as their Savior and the marriage is saved, or the Lost spouse must inevitably leave the marriage. Marriage between a Believer and an Unbeliever is incompatible with the will of God. You cannot have peace with God and be in disobedience to God at the same time. Being married to an Unbeliever is disobedience to God, so in order to have peace with God, the only option is to win the Unbelieving spouse to Christ, or divorce them.

The same reasoning applies in the situation where a Believer marries an unbeliever in ignorance. In other words, the unbeliever professes to be saved, but is not saved, in fact. The Believer was acting on the belief that the unbeliever was truthful, when the reality was that the unbeliever was merely deceived or possibly lying, so once the real situation is discovered, if the unbelieving spouse will not repent and turn to Christ and the marriage becomes a war zone, then the Believing spouse would be justified in divorcing their unbelieving spouse. No matter what the reason for the initial marriage (even if the Believer knows they are marrying an unbeliever), it is a sinful, ungodly situation that can only be resolved by the repentance and salvation of the unbeliever, or divorce.

So now what about the Believer who has divorced his/her unbelieving spouse? Paul is clear: "But if the unbelieving spouse leaves [the marriage], let him leave. A Christian brother or a sister is not under bondage in such situations; but God has called us to peace." (I Corinthians 7:15). But what does that mean exactly? Let's compare Scripture with Scripture to get the answer:

Romans 7:1-3

U  Do you not know, brethren (for I speak to them that know the Law), how that the Law rules over a man as long as he lives? For the woman which has a husband is bound by the Law to her husband as long as he lives; but if the husband is dead, she is released from the Law of her husband. So then if, while her husband is living, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband is dead, she is free from that Law, so that she is no adulteress, although she is married to another man.

How can these two Scriptures be reconciled? They cannot, except with the following understanding: A marriage that God has not "joined together" is not a real marriage in the eyes of God. In other words, there are two kingdoms in this universe: the Kingdom of God (which all Born-again Christians enter into the moment they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior [John 3:1-5]), and the kingdom of Satan (Luke 4:5-7). All unbelievers are residents in the kingdom of Satan and are subject to his power and influence over their lives, being children of the devil (I John 3:7-10). All Believers in Christ are residents in the Kingdom of God and are subject to the power and influence of God in their lives, being children of God (John 1:12). A marriage between a child of God and a child of the devil is not a real marriage in the eyes of God, and is absolutely forbidden by God. Therefore, after divorce, a Believer is "not under bondage in such situations" and is entitled to marry another Believer in the will of God, since God never considered the Believer to be truly married in the first situation.

Marriage in the eyes of God and marriage in the eyes of the State can be two completely different things. Two Believers who get married are married in both the eyes of God and the eyes of the State government, but two people (one a Believer and the other an unbeliever, or two unbelievers) who get married are only married in the eyes of the state government, but are not truly married in the eyes of God, because their marriage is something that was done outside of the will of God. This is why a Believer who divorces an unbelieving spouse can get remarried to a Believer without contradicting the Biblical command of Jesus that divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery in the eyes of God. Jesus was referring only to two Believers who get divorced and remarried, since both Believers are in the Kingdom of God, and therefore their marriage is considered "until death do you part" in the eyes of God (Romans 7:1 - 3).

What really makes this subject confusing is how many pastors preach on this subject. Church members only hear exhortations about what Jesus said "What God has joined together, let no man separate", but they rarely ever hear a thorough explanation of all of the nuances associated with this subject in the Bible. In many cases, it is because the pastor himself doesn't understand the subject well, and is merely parroting "speech lines" from sermons he heard from someone else. This kind of preaching does incredible harm to God's people, because they are not being taught the Word of God accurately, and when they run into situations like those described above, they react with a "knee-jerk", rather than a nuanced, Biblical response.

Here are some conclusions that I believe, based upon the above Biblical reasoning:

1) A Born-again Believer who was legally married to an unbeliever and subsequently divorced, may get remarried to a Believer without any sin whatsoever. It doesn't matter whether the marriage occurred before or after their salvation, since an unscriptural marriage is not real marriage in the eyes of God, and falls outside of the words of Jesus Christ: "What God has joined together, let no man separate".

2) A Born-again Believer (there is no other kind) may serve God in any capacity almost without limit (according to God's calling) after remarriage in such situations. I Timothy 3:2: A pastor must be "the husband of only one wife" refers to a "real" wife in the eyes of God, not to an unbelieving wife who the Believer subsequently divorced. Since the previous "marriage" wasn't real in the eyes of God, the man isn't bound by this prohibition in I Timothy 3:2.

I said "almost without limit", because, as I Timothy 3:7 notes, "Also, he must have a good testimony of them that are outside [the Assembly], lest he falls into reproach and the snare of the devil." Anyone who serves the Lord Jesus Christ in the role of a pastor or leadership role in a congregation MUST have a good testimony of those outside the church (Assembly). Divorce, no matter the circumstance or the reasons for it, will always be a negative blot on the testimony of a man after it is done. A pastor is a role model for all Christians, and a divorced pastor is a terrible role model, no matter how you slice it. I think that lay ministry work is perfectly acceptable for divorced people, both men and women, as I can find no prohibition in the Scriptures against it; just not leadership roles such as pastor or deacon. "One wife" in the qualification for these roles means exactly that. The Greek for "one" in this text means "one and only one wife."

3) A marriage between two Believers is IRON-CLAD in the eyes of God, and cannot be broken until the death of one of the marriage partners. The words of Jesus Christ apply to this situation directly. God will judge any Believer who divorces their Believing spouse and remarries another. The only option in the case of marriage trouble is marriage counselling. Separation may be an option for a time, but God wants reconciliation in this case, and not divorce; and especially not remarriage, which is adultery for this situation. If divorce is the only option, then both partners must remain unmarried or be reconciled. "And to the married I command (yet not I, but the Lord): let not the wife depart from her husband; but in case she does depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband; and let not the husband divorce his wife."(I Corinthians 7:10-11)

Here are some complications that one must beware of in these situations:

1) Whether someone is a Believer or an Unbeliever is difficult to discern in many cases, especially by 3rd parties. Therefore, the legitimacy of any Christian's claim that their previous marriage was not a real marriage in the eyes of God must be carefully examined, especially when a man wants to lead an Assembly as their pastor, or be involved in full-time, financially-supported Christian work of any kind (missionary, Bible teacher, etc). A pastor or other Christian leader needs a blameless reputation (I Timothy 3:2), and their personal history needs to be carefully examined to ensure that the Assembly is not inviting unnecessary criticism and or even scandal with a "less-than-blameless" man as their leader. My only point here is that a previous marriage to an unbelieving woman should not automatically disqualify a man from being a pastor or other Christian leader. So, every situation needs to be looked at carefully by the church leadership to see whether the man who desires a church leadership position is truly blameless or not. An example of a divorced man who might qualify to become a pastor would be a man who was divorced when he was lost and didn't know the Lord Jesus as his Savior; but subsequently accepted Christ, and God called him into full-time ministry. A man who was saved, and then divorced, would likely not qualify for service as a pastor, but might serve the pastor in some active layperson role, such as soul-winning director, bus captain, or Sunday School or Christian school teacher.

2) It is easy for many people to excuse their desire to commit adultery by claiming that their spouse is not a true Christian, and that therefore they are justified in divorcing their spouse and remarrying another. Again, the legitimacy of any such claim must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Simply repeating a "preaching line" will not do in such situations. Biblical counseling over a long period of time is required of a professing Christian couple with a Bible-believing pastor/counselor with much experience in such matters so that these things can be examined and judged in a righteous, Biblical manner.

3) A Believer who is married to an Unbeliever must not rush into divorce proceedings. As Paul (under Divine inspiration) indicates, only when the Unbelieving spouse wants to leave is it legitimate to consider divorce. The Believer cannot just ask for a divorce immediately. The Believer must attempt to win their unbelieving spouse to faith in Jesus Christ by personal witness and church attendance; and only if it comes to the point where the unbelieving spouse becomes so hardened that it is clear that the situation cannot be resolved, should the Believing spouse resort to divorce. Reconciliation and remaining in the marriage is the best option, if possible, according to the Scriptures. The last option should be divorce. Any divorce that occurs in a hasty manner in such situations should be viewed critically and not charitably by other Believers.

4) Are you truly saved, and therefore a true Believer in Jesus Christ, or are you like Judas Iscariot: someone who knows all of the Christian "langauge", but knows nothing of peace with God through the Blood of Christ shed on his cross? God knows the truth about you and your spouse. It will do you no good to make false claims about your spouse just so that you can remarry someone else, because ultimately you will have to give an account to the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 14:11), and then all of the lies will be swept away for good. Make certain that you yourself have been born again by faith in Jesus Christ; then make certain that your spouse is born again by faith in Jesus Christ, and your children, too. Then, and only then, will your marriage be real, and a success in the eyes of God.

5) If there are children from the previous marriage (or otherwise), then obviously you have a moral and legal responsibility to provide for those children until they are adults. Even though your previous marriage may not have been real in the eyes of God (see above), your marriage was definitely real in the eyes of the State government, and therefore you have a moral and legal responsibility toward your ex-spouse as well, to provide for their needs if they are unable to provide for themselves (i.e. Alimony). Our actions have consequences in the real world, and we must deal with all of those consequences in a Biblical, moral way that follows the Golden Rule: "Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them: for this is [the essence of] the Law and the Prophets."  (Matthew 7:12). In short, you cannot "dispose" of a spouse and/or children with the excuse that they are not saved and therefore you have no obligation toward them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Summary: This article is only intended to address the false misconceptions surrounding marriage and divorce for Born-again Christians, and is not intended to provide a "get-out-of-jail-free" card for spouses who are tired of their wives or husbands. Marriage is an extremely serious life agreement between two people that should not be thrown away casually. Even if your spouse is not saved, you are obligated by Scripture to do all in your power to save that marriage; and only if after many months or even years of experience have proven that their heart is hardened and clearly will not turn to the Lord are you given a reason for a divorce. And any children from the relationship, and the ex-spouse as well, require your utmost to provide for them as you are able and needed, regardless of whether you remarry or not. And, if both of you are born-again Believers, then only in the case of fornication/adultery by one partner is the other spouse given an "out" from the marriage by God. Matthew 19:9: "And I say to you: whosoever shall divorce his wife, unless it is for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and whoso marries her which is divorced commits adultery."