Divorce and Remarriage: A Spectrum of Christian Positions

A 2008 Barna survey suggests that 26% of evangelical marriages end in divorce.1 If this survey represents all evangelical marriages, Christians do well to form a biblical position on divorce and remarriage and understand each other’s respective positions. To clarify, all positions surveyed below agree that a widow or widower may remarry in the event of a spouse’s death (1 Cor 7:39; cf. Rom 7:1–4). With respect to remarriage, this essay surveys the positions as to whether or not an individual may divorce and marry someone other than the original spouse while the original spouse is still living.

No Divorce, No Remarriage

A minority position among Christians today is that believers may neither divorce nor remarry. In the event that a spouse sinfully insists on divorce, the innocent spouse should not remarry but remain single in hope for reunion to the original spouse. 

This position understands that God’s original and ongoing design for marriage is “one man, one woman, for one lifetime,” no exceptions (Gen 2:24). God regulated but did not approve divorce (Deut 24:1–4), and His threats to divorce Israel were hypothetical (Jer 3:8; Hos 1:9). The oft-quoted translation of Mal 2:16 sums it all. God states, “I hate divorce” (NASB). The major texts Mark 10:2–12, Luke 16:18, and 1 Cor 7:10–11 affirm that neither the husband nor the wife may divorce one another. If divorce occurred nonetheless, the man and woman must remain unmarried or remarry only each other. The “exception clause” of Matt 19:9 (“except for immorality”) clarifies that an unmarried couple could be separated in one of two possible ways. Either sexual sin during betrothal allows the dissolution of a marriage-to-be, or the discovery of an incestuous marriage would call for an annulment of an illegitimate marriage (cf. Lev 18:6–18). Either way, a legitimate marriage is not broken. If a divorce ended a legitimate marriage, consequent remarriage would be adultery. 1 Cor 7:12–16 provides a situation in which an unbeliever abandons a believing spouse. The believer may allow the unbeliever to leave (the “Pauline privilege”). Peace is maintained between the two, and the believer should apply 1 Cor 7:10–11 by remaining single and hoping for reunion with the original spouse.

Divorce, No Remarriage

The second position finds voice among a minority of modern Christians and the majority of church fathers. Divorce is permissible in certain instances, but remarriage is not.

Gen 2:24 sets the ideal for marriage. A spouse should forgive and not enforce divorce for immorality (Deut 24:1–4). If divorce does occur, as God loved adulterous Israel (Ezekiel 16) and as Hosea loved his wayward wife (Hosea 1–3), so also should a believing spouse hope for reunion by not remarrying anyone but the original spouse. Jesus appealed to Gen 2:24 in Matt 19:3–9 and thereby shocked the disciples in Matt 19:10; divorce led to celibacy because remarriage was not an option (cf. 19:11–12). Matt 5:32 and Matt 19:9 allow for divorce but not remarriage. Mark 10:2–12 and Luke 16:18 forbid divorce and remarriage. Paul forbade believers to divorce (1 Cor 7:10–11). A believer married to an unbelieving spouse could exercise the “Pauline privilege”  and allow an unbelieving spouse to leave the marriage (1 Cor 7:15), but the believer should not remarry and instead hope to restore the marriage.

Divorce, Remarriage

A third view sees biblical warrant for both divorce and remarriage in certain situations, though disagreement exists as to the extent of this warrant. The majority of modern Christians hold this view in one form or another.

Genesis 2:24 is the ideal for marriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:10–11), though the marriage covenant could be broken. Divorce is permissible in the case of immorality and must be formalized (Deut 24:1–4). God’s approval of divorce is shown by His divorce of adulterous Israel (Jer 3:8; cf. Hos 1:9). Mal 2:16 does not quote God as hating all divorce but describes His hatred for the sinful divorce in which a husband unreasonably abandons his wife for another woman.2 Jesus identifies unreasonable divorce and subsequent remarriage as adultery (Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18), but divorce is allowed when a spouse is immoral (Matt 5:32). If immorality takes place, reconciliation should be sought (Matt 19:3–8; cf. Gen 2:24) instead of defaulting to divorce, a surprising concept to the thinking of Jesus’ day (cf. Matt 19:10–12). Remarriage after divorce from an immoral spouse is permissible (Matt 19:9).

The believer left by an unbelieving spouse (1 Cor 7:15) was no longer bound and could remarry, just as a believing widow could remarry (1 Cor 7:39; cf. Rom 7:1–3). Some would say that desertion of the marriage in 1 Cor 7:15 extends in principle to any persistent and major breach of the marriage covenant. In such a case, the believer is privileged to formalize the broken marriage through divorce and may remarry as well (cf. 1 Cor 7:15, 39).

Conclusion

Though these positions differ in significant ways, the Christians who hold these positions may at least agree that God’s ideal is marriage for life. May God give grace to Christians as they seek to uphold this ideal, and may Christians give grace to each other as they vary in ministering to marriages that are less than ideal.

For Further Reading

(1) Davis, John J. Evangelical Ethics. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004.

(2) House, H. Wayne, ed. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

(3) Köstenberger, Andreas J. and David W. Jones. God Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. 2d ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010.

 

 

  1. The Barna Group, “New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released,” n.p. [cited 4 June 2011]. Online: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-stati. Of the 3,792 adults that were surveyed, 339 professed to be evangelical Christians. 26% of these individuals had been divorced. []
  2. The ESV reflects this understanding: “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 2:16). []

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