Divorce and Remarriage Issues – towards a solution

One of the most troubling issues facing anyone who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ is the issue of how to understand the will of God when it comes to divorce and remarriage. In this article, I am seeking to provide a commonsense answer to many of these issues which provides hope to those whose lives have been affected by a bad marriage situation. There are many in bad marriages now, there are many who want to get out, and there are also many who have gotten out for good or bad reasons, and have sought to establish a new life in a relationship with another marriage partner. What does Jesus say about all this?  I want to minister grace and hope in the spirit of truth – that is, without seeking to ignore what Jesus said on the subject of divorce and remarriage.

Why is this important? It is important because the eternal salvation of people may depend on correctly understanding the will of God. It is unwise for people to adopt the idea that doing what God wants is basically optional for those seeking to be Christ’s forever. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father in Heaven” (Matthew 7:21). So on the one hand, Jesus is known for saying some things that are tough – especially on human rebellion. So maybe Jesus is being ultra-tough on those divorced! On the other hand, we need to also keep in mind what God has provided in Christ (redemption through His blood) for those who have failed – and that includes ALL of us – in one form or another. In my understanding, the critical issue is whether so many kinds of remarriage situations constitute a kind of state of continual adultery. If they do, there is little hope for wrongly remarried couples except to break up their marriages. After all, the Bible is clear that if we continue in sin wilfully, with no repentance, we cannot expect acceptance with God after we die. But I hope to show that in the issue of divorce and remarriage, even wrong remarriage, it is not generally the case that the new marriage relationship constitutes an ongoing rebellion against the will of God.

The gospels record just a few words of the Lord Jesus Christ on this subject, and yet, If this issue was theologically easy, there would not be scores of books written by pastors and teachers – each with hundreds of pages exploring the nuances of the Greek, the cultural context, and trying to define exactly what Jesus did and did not mean.

If merely being a Greek Scholar would solve the problem, it would have been clearly solved by now. But it isn’t. And if Greek scholars can’t agree, what chance does the average disciple maker or pastor have,  who doesn’t have all these erudite resources at hand? Can they minister confidently in the difficult issues of marital breakdown and restoration?

I want to make a personal disclosure here. At the time of writing, I have been married to my wife Marilena for almost 23 years. She is my only wife ever, and as far as I am concerned, is the only one for me forever. I love her. So I am not trying to create an interpretation that would make me feel justified about my own murky situation – because it isn’t murky. By the grace of God, my wife and I have a very good marriage, and neither of us have complicated baggage. We also made a commitment to each other never to divorce, and that has helped us at times when we’ve not always got on well. I believe the Scriptures are plain enough that marriage is a serious covenant before God, and that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:13-16). There are a lot of instructions for us on how to maintain and improve a marriage situation. Because my wife and I have been learning to obey these, we have been blessed by God’s grace. I am not seeking to “go soft” on this issue in order to make it possible to live with myself.

The Words of Jesus on the Subject of Divorce and Remarriage

Luke 16:18 Passage:

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

Mark 10:2-12 Passage

2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’[a] 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8 and the two will become one flesh.’[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Matthew 5:31,32 – First Passage

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:3-11 Passage

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

What Does Jesus Seem to Say about Divorce?

These passages, taken together, seem to say that you shouldn’t initiate a divorce. The Matthew passages seem to say that it might be alright to divorce if the other party has committed sexual immorality in some form. The Greek word here is ‘porneia’. It is different to the word for adultery also used a bit later in Matthew – ‘moicheia’. This leads to disagreements amongst scholars and pastors about exactly what might give someone grounds for divorce. Some argue it basically means you can only divorce if you find out after the marriage commitment that your spouse was sexually immoral before marriage. How would that apply in the west, where so many people lose their virginity at a young age? I think once the other partner is in a regular sexual relationship with another person, a person is free to divorce and remarry. But the basic message is this: don’t divorce. What God has joined together (in marriage), don’t separate. Don’t kill any marriage which has a chance to survive.

What Does Jesus Seem to Say about Remarriage?

It seems from these passages that Jesus is forbidding anyone who has been divorced from remarrying – or at least saying that the act of marrying the other person is adultery. Look again at the stark words of Luke 16:18 – where no exception clause is given.

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

Question: would Luke’s gospel in itself, which was written primarily to Gentiles, be misleading if it didn’t also have Matthew’s gospel attached to it?

What Do We Do in Western Culture?

In western cultures like Australia and North America, where divorce is rampant, anyone seeking to pastor a church or make disciples is going to run up against the issue of how to interpret the will of God for people who have been divorced and want to get remarried, and also for those who have already divorced and remarried.

We certainly don’t want to give advice that sends people to hell, no matter how much it would seem to promote human happiness. It is not worth the pleasure of building a large ministry if that is what it takes to do it.

On the other hand, we don’t want to add even one burden or law or guilt-trip on people whose lives, because of a past marriage failure, have already been damaged. Looking at the attitude of Jesus in the gospels, we see that He doesn’t like the work of religious leaders who lay heavy burdens on others. Let us add nothing that God doesn’t put there. Let us be careful not to smuggle our assumptions about marriage and divorce into the pastoral advice we give.

Quite a few Christian leaders and counsellors adopt the approach as follows: “tell people to do whatever they think is right” – after prayer and seeking God, of course. In other words, you can close your Bible if you wish – God might be quite willing to direct you to do the opposite of what the Bible says. Just pray about it. This approach, while convenient, doesn’t set a very good precedent. If this approach is applied to any and all issues of life, then it is basically tantamount to saying that the commands and directives of Jesus Christ and his apostles don’t really matter as far as eternal salvation is concerned. If you believe you’re OK, you’re OK – no matter what you do. Very likely a dangerous position. If you don’t think so – just spend a few hours reading the New Testament itself, without commentaries or preachers to “soften the blows”.  It is powerful when we let God’s word speak for itself. The idea that we can be “believers” in Jesus while rejecting His word every time it contradicts our personal preferences for what we’d like to do is a very dangerous one – and the Bible speaks against it. “Faith” without “corresponding actions” (works) is dead – and cannot save us (James 2:26).

What I Believe

I can’t just throw out the words of Jesus on the subject, but neither do I want to add my own reasonings. The way I see it – it is wrong to marry a divorced person while their former spouse lives, and is single. In so doing, you are absolutely preventing the chance of a reconciliation with the original spouse (which at that stage may or may not be possible).

This is what Paul said:

10 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)


2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. (Romans 7:2-3).

Clearly the death of any spouse finishes the marriage. Remarriage is not an issue after that. Beyond that clear case, what is the Scripture saying?

It is saying, for one thing, to avoid divorce. Work on your marriage as much as possible. God does miracles. Don’t use divorce as an easy escape. It has its own bitter consequences and is not an expression of God’s will. But let’s say you are a woman and being beaten up or seriously abused so it is not safe for you to live with the man you are married to. Then what? I think it is clear that protecting your own life and the life of your children is paramount. You should separate from the violent man. I suppose by the same reasoning a man could separate from a violent woman. After that, the will of God is to pray and wait and hope for a change in that person and a reconciliation. God’s plan is not a quick divorce so you can get on with finding a better person to be happy with.

What if the unbeliever departs?

There is another common situation which the apostle Paul addresses. It occurs where a believer is married to an unbeliever, and the unbeliever is not willing to remain married to the believer. In such cases, Paul said, “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15). What does this mean? Certainly they are not bound to the unbelieving spouse. The marriage is over, and they are not bound. So even if the unbeliever does not divorce them formally, they are free to divorce, if there is no real hope of reconciliation, and then remarry – but only to a believer.

God hates divorce. Marriage is something sacred, and holy. The reality is, however, that marriages can be broken AND ENDED. And people – even Christian people – frequently fail to achieve God’s ultimate in saintliness and self-denial. A marriage is a serious covenant before God. God joins people together in it. The Bible says, “What God has joined, let not man separate.” But it doesn’t say – “what God has joined together it is IMPOSSIBLE for man to separate”. If people do separate or break up a marriage, they are doing the wrong thing. But it is not as if the ghost of the marriage lives forever after the marriage is over, as many assume.  It is not that this “ghost of the marriage” makes all future marriages equivalent to the practice of continual unrepented-of adultery. We must not go beyond what is written, because it matters such as this, it can be extremely harmful, and we might find ourselves condemning what God is working with. I believe that after sinful actions of human beings that led to divorce, God can and does often bless their remarriages, especially if they live in the fear of God and seek God’s grace.

The short version of how I see things playing out is this. Divorce is the actual termination of a marriage. The marriage doesn’t exist as a present reality after divorce. The person divorced may be an “ex-husband” or “ex-wife” but they are NOT in some sense “still the real spouse before God”. This means that ongoing remarriages are not ongoing adulteries. If there is a remarriage, it IS a marriage. And sex in marriage is not a sin. Opponents of remarriage cannot have it both ways. If it is that the person “marries another” you cannot then say they haven’t really married. They have. And their ongoing relationship is not ipso facto sinful, in spite of the fact that the act of entering the new marriage MAY have been sinful according to God’s standards as revealed in Scripture.

So the command of Jesus to someone who broke their marriage through adultery is not to remarry. But if you do remarry – perhaps so as to avoid the greater sin of continually burning with lust – your situation is not hopeless while you remain married. God can work with and even bless your present situation. He does cast our past sins into the deepest sea of His forgetfulness. He calls the new situation a MARRIAGE. And God is for marriage, not against marriage. He wants the new marriage to succeed. The only situation where I think this is not the case, is where one party divorced their first partner solely for the intention of marrying someone else they preferred. I believe this is the true intention of the words of Christ where he says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery”. It is adultery because divorce is used merely as an expedient to commit adultery against a marriage partner.

An Example of God Opposing the use of Divorce as an Expedient

It is very interesting that this was exactly what happened in the case of Kathryn Kuhlman, the famous lady evangelist of the 1970s. She had married a man who divorced his wife simply in order to marry Kathryn, and the Holy Spirit required that Kathryn separate, divorce and give this man up (whom she loved greatly) before she could enter properly into the will of God and the fullness of her God-appointed ministry. This was a very difficult thing for Kathryn. To her, it was like she had given up everything in this world when she did this for the Lord. But this example does not apply to other kinds of situations, for example – where a woman has been divorced for some time due to a past marriage failure – and years later gets remarried. Even if this remarriage may not have been the best and highest for that woman Scripturally – God is still willing to work with and bless such a man or a woman greatly. That is the nature of the God we serve. He loves, works with, blesses, forgives and helps people who have fallen short of his ultimate standards, even in matters as serious as marriage. Remarriage is still marriage. Divorce, though not God’s will, really is the end of a marriage.

This Article Doesn’t Solve All the Problems

I realise that this article will be unsatisfactory to many. But it is my honest attempt to be true to the Scriptures, and to the meaning of words. Some will feel that their remarriage while their former spouse lived was definitely something that the Lord led them to do. I am not going to enter into debate about that. If God is blessing your new marriage, I thank God, and am really happy for you. It is certainly not my role to be a judge over those not entrusted to my care. If you would like to tell me that my understanding of the Scriptures on remarriage is wrong, that’s fine – I just hope you can explain to me why they could mean anything at all, and what that meaning might be.

I hope this article has been a blessing to you. I realise it doesn’t answer all questions, or deal with all issues that are important – either theologically or pastorally, I pray that you will be guided by the Lord and by His Word, and receive the best He has for you in life.











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