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From a biblical point of view

by Jacob Ninan

How different Christians address this issue has a lot to do with what we consider as the guidelines for interpreting the Bible. If all Christians interpreted the Bible in the same way, then surely all Christians would have come to the same conclusion about what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage.

If the Bible was written by God as a text book, everything would have been clear and placed in an orderly manner, subject by subject! But we can see easily that it is not so! We have to glean parts of truths from here and there, and only when we put them all together can we get the big picture and see what God is telling us. As a result of this, before we can figure out God’s ideas about divorce and remarriage, we will have to go through the whole of the Bible. We may get mistaken if we latch on some verse(s) here or there and base our interpretation entirely on that.

“For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel” (Mal.2:16) should be a good starting point. This should make it clear that divorce is not something God has prescribed for man, or something that He tolerates or overlooks. It means that we people should also have the same attitude towards divorce. If at all God gives certain provisions for divorce, we should look at divorce as something to be maximally avoided and not automatically think of divorce as a quick way out when we face challenges in marriage.

Jesus attested to this view when He told the disciples that the Father’s plan from the beginning was that two people who were joined together in marriage ought never to separate. “They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way’” (Matt.19:7,8).

At the same time we must remember that there can be difficulties in marriage that we did not anticipate, or that we are unable to deal with. We may have made a wrong choice in marriage, or we may find it practically impossible to deal with the challenges we find from one another which we had not bargained for before the wedding. There may be an ongoing infidelity or physical and other forms of abuse tending towards dangerous levels. Is it possible that God does not care at all about the misery we go through but He has determined that once we are married to someone we are stuck with that relationship till death no matter what?

Jesus gave insight into this situation with the explanation He gave to the disciples when they wondered if such an irretrievable position would be hard to live with. He said, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt.19:11,12). If we summarise this in simple words it could be said, “This is the standard God desires for everyone. But He knows that some people may not be able to reach that level.”

He illustrated this by giving an exception for adultery in the marriage (v.9). He was not saying that in case of ‘sexual sin’ (the actual meaning of the word used there) the victimised spouse must go for divorce. He was on the way to bringing the new covenant of grace where there was place for repentance and forgiveness leading to restoration. But His implication was that in case the erring spouse did not repent there was an option for the other spouse to seek divorce. Even under the old covenant where the husband was given an option of putting away his wife (Deut.24:1), there was no compulsion that he had to put away his wife.

Writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul referred to the possibility of a believer who was married to an unbeliever. Even though this was not God’s plan for believers (2Cor.6:14), once the wedding had taken place he recognised the marriage and wanted the believer to continue in that relationship for the possible benefit of the unbelieving spouse and the children (1Cor.7:10-16). However, he noted that the marriage could be dissolved if the unbelieving spouse chose to leave (v.16). Here is scripture giving another example of possible divorce.

Another example of divorce we see is when God asks Abraham to send away his wife Hagar when Ishmael started troubling Isaac (Gen.21:12). Earlier, before Isaac was born, when Sarah had sent off Hagar God had asked Hagar to go back and submit to Sarah (16:9). But the tension had now risen to the level that God considered to be unmanageable. We must not think that Hagar was only Abraham’s concubine because Sarah had given her to Abraham as his ‘wife’ (v.3). We see later that when Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel had given their maids Zilpah and Bilhah as ‘wives’ to Jacob (vv.4,9) who bore children who, along with the children of Leah and Rachel, were the children of Israel! Hagar’s case illustrates a situation of abuse in a marriage where a divorce may become an inevitable way out which God Himself would suggest.

For those who think that divorce is not permitted at any cost at all because they say that marriage is a covenant that cannot be broken, the answer is to see that God Himself divorced Israel with whom He had made a covenant (Jer.3:8). We understand that while two people make the covenant of marriage with each other it is not meant to be broken, but we must also understand that sometimes it might actually be a better or a less evil option to go for a divorce than to continue with ‘hell on earth’.

There could be other situations that are not covered above that might call for divorce. But our position should be to strive to the maximum to repair and maintain the relationship and to consider divorce only when it becomes unavoidable. We could also say that this decision is best taken not directly by the couple but only after consultations with more mature people.

With the background of this understanding we can look at some statements Jesus has made about divorce that are difficult to understand. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery” (Lk.16:18 See also Matt.19:19;Mk.10:11,12). Matthew 5:32 says, “I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery.” It is obvious that divorce itself is not adultery but it looks as if remarriage after divorce might be adultery. Many Christians believe from this that remarriage after divorce would be adultery since the divorced spouses still have a covenant relationship with each other. But when Jesus gave permission for divorce in the case of sexual sin did He not also give permission to remarry after such a divorce? If remarriage is permitted after divorce in the case of sexual sin, why wouldn't it be permitted in other cases?

Perhaps Jesus was not talking about divorce here, as we understand it. The Matthew 19 passage was an answer in the context of the Jews being required to give a certificate of divorce if they sent their wives away. If that certificate was given, the wife was allowed to marry again. Is it possible that Jesus was talking here only about ‘sending the wife away’ and not about a full divorce? This can be cleared if we realise that there is a much more logical explanation than what is generally known. There are different possible meanings to the Greek verse used for ‘divorce’. Strong's lexicon gives the meanings as “to free fully, that is, (literally) relieve, release, dismiss (reflexively depart), or (figuratively) let die, pardon, or (specifically) divorce: – (let) depart, dismiss, divorce, forgive, let go, loose, put (send) away, release, set at liberty.” So Jesus could have meant here either ‘to free fully’ (divorce as we understand it) or ‘send away’. Just see what it would mean like this – “And I say to you, whoever sends away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” This means that if there has been only separation and no complete divorce, to marry another would result in adultery. On the other hand, when someone is fully ‘divorced’ – freed fully from all ties, obligations and responsibilities from the earlier spouse, when there is no longer a covenant between them – they are not ‘married’ any more. Can there be adultery if they marry another? Also, I imagine God will not be fooled if a spouse wants to marry someone else and divorces their spouse for that. This would be adultery in effect even though it looks legal.

Some people think that once two people get married, they are tied to each other for life. They misquote verses (1Cor.7:39;Rom.7:2) to understand even after a ‘divorce’, as long as the ex-spouse is alive they would be committing adultery if they get married to someone new. But what we need to remember is the fact that once the divorce is complete, they are no longer ‘married’ and they do not have any more connection with each other. The above verses are referring only to married people getting married to someone else!

Remarriage itself is not abominable to God. God freely allows remarriage in the case of death of one of the partners (1Co.7:39). In the case of young widows (and widowers?) remarriage is in fact encouraged (1Cor.7:9;1Ti.5:14). We must keep in mind the principle that while staying single is advisable for those who would like to serve the Lord without distraction (1Co.7:34,35), it is better to remarry than to burn with desire (1Co.7:9) or to become a nuisance to others (1Ti.5:13,14). The decision depends on one's ability to manage a single life (1Co.7:7) which is a gift God gives to some people.

We can take it that when a proper divorce has already taken place, the marriage covenant has been annulled, and that they are no longer ‘married’. Then they would be free to marry again. God’s suggestion is that they remain single or get reconciled to their ex-spouses. But He recognises that some will not be able to manage that (1Co.7:8,9).

“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned" (1Cor.7:27,28). Look at the portion in italics! Because these sentences are split into two verses, many do not connect them together in meaning. What Paul says here is that it is not a sin at all for those who have been divorced (released) to marry again!

I think everyone would agree that if one of the spouses had his/her eye on another person, got divorced from the present marriage and married the other person it would be adultery in God’s eyes. But what about a person who got divorced, not because of any desire to marry someone else but because he/she could not manage to live in that relationship? My opinion is that if the divorce is complete in every way and much time has passed since then to consider all possible options, such persons can consider remarriage after proper consultation with mature people. Remember, it is not good for men or women to remain alone, and it is better to remarry than to burn! Just because someone made one mistake in their life, we must not confine them to suffer for the rest of their life.

If two people have got divorced and remarried without proper considerations, are they living in adultery? Getting remarried like that was a sin if the divorce was carried out in order to marry another one. Or it could have been done as a mistake because of weakness or ignorace. But once they are married, they have to be recognised as a married couple and treated accordingly. It would be wrong to ask them to separate or go back to their first marriage (De.24:1-14). Remember how Jesus accepted the woman from Samaria. At the same time, the couple should recognise that they may have sinned or made a mistake before God, repent and receive forgiveness. The act of divorce and remarriage in such cases may have been wrong, but living together now as husband and wife if they are now legally husband and wife and have set things right before God. When David slept with Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, it was adultery. But after the sin was confessed to God and forgiven, their subsequent life as husband and wife was acceptable to God. But Herod living with Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, was not right.

These are subjects that involve a lot of emotion for those who are involved in them. As counsellors or others who seek to help them it would be good for us to take the approach Jesus took towards the woman caught in adultery.

-- Presented at the National Conference of the Association of Christian Counsellors, Chennai, September 2018

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