God created marriage and designed spiritual laws that govern marriage, divorce and remarriage. What does the Bible tell us about this important subject?
Marriage was given to mankind at creation. Marriage is a natural union and a divine institution—a lifelong, spiritual covenant before God.
Christians are not required to marry; but when they do, they are bound by God’s spiritual laws that govern marriage. These laws and instructions also govern the dissolution of marriage, which sadly occurs far too frequently. Divorce and remarriage for Christians must, therefore, be viewed in the light of biblical directives.
At creation, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). The biblical instruction is, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (verse 24).
The prophet Malachi addressed rampant disregard for the sanctity of marriage, writing: “The LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
“But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth” (Malachi 2:14-15). The last statement in the New International Version reads, “So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”
In the next verse, God personally relates His view on divorce in general: “The Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence” (Malachi 2:16). The NIV has, “‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect [overwhelms her with cruelty, New Living Translation],’ says the Lord Almighty.”
God, who does not change, looks upon divorce the same way today. He hates it, because of the harm it does to all who are affected by it.
Jesus Christ was asked whether divorce and remarriage was permissible in any situation. He put the question in context by asking, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:5). Next, He stated, “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (verse 6).
The Pharisees worded their question with the deliberate intent of embroiling Christ in a dispute about conflicting views on divorce between the religious authorities of that day. Jesus deflected their argumentative approach by reminding them that God designed marriage to be a lifelong commitment (Matthew 19:3-6).
People should enter a marriage covenant with no intent to ever dissolve the relationship. Men and women entering marriage must realize that the decision to marry is one of the most important and serious choices that they will ever make. God commands husbands to nourish and cherish their wives (Ephesians 5:29); doing so helps guard against divorce. Ideally, divorce and remarriage should never be considered as an option. And as we read in Malachi, marriage without divorce is a key to raising “godly” children. If at all possible, children need to be brought up in a loving home by their parents.
All marriages will have disagreements; however, couples can learn to resolve their differences respectfully. Too often, couples simply give in to the supposed easier path of divorce and marriage to someone else thinking that is a path to happiness. People often carry the same problems from one marriage into another. Instead of happiness, divorce and remarriage often extend heartache.
Divorce and remarriage to someone else could also be spiritually fatal since this act is, in all but a few specific circumstances, considered adultery. Jesus explained, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). Remarriage would be adultery because, in God’s sight, the divorced person would still be bound to his or her spouse.
For a subject as complex and important as marriage, we must study carefully to make sure we are considering all of the instructions contained in Scripture. In fact, Christ had more to say, both during His earthly ministry and later through the apostle Paul.
Allowance for divorce
The Pharisees pressed Christ further by asking about “a certificate of divorce,” a legal dissolution of marriage by which the parties were free to remarry under God’s government through Moses. Although God’s original intent was that marriages would be until death, He understood that divorce and remarriage would occur. God’s intent is seldom man’s practice. Mankind, cut off from God, shuns Him and His instructions. God allowed judgments to be made concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage under the Old Covenant. The “certificate of divorce” to which the Pharisees referred is found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
Jesus explained why divorce had been permitted. “He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery’” (Matthew 19:7-9).
What did Christ mean by “hardness of heart?” It refers to the natural inclination of the human heart (mind) to resist God’s way of life. Without God’s Spirit, men and women simply do not by nature have the heart to fear God and always keep His commandments.
In His Sermon on the Mount (Mathew 5:31-32), Jesus explained that Deuteronomy 24’s instructions meant that the sin of sexual immorality was an allowable cause for divorce. The term He used includes a wide range of sexually deviant behavior. Some sins can break the bond of trust upon which a marriage covenant exists. (That doesn’t mean the wronged partner must divorce. If the sinner truly repents and if the wronged partner is able to extend godly forgiveness, the marriage can be salvaged.)
Sometimes, a person withholds the truth about past grievous sinful behavior from a spouse before marriage. Such deception is also cause for ending a marriage, if the party lied to would not have entered into marriage knowing the full picture. The wronged party must seek an annulment as soon as possible; delaying to do so implies acceptance of the fraud.
Paul on divorce
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul answered questions that the Corinthian Christians had written to him about marriage. He doesn’t introduce new laws, but rather instructions about applying God’s law in a culture where divorce was common.
Couples who are both practicing Christians are called simply “the married” in verse 10. Consistent with God’s purpose for marriage, Paul tells these couples that they should not divorce. The implication is that, with the help of God’s Spirit, they should resolve their differences and remain married. (Often, counsel with God’s ministers and other competent professionals can help couples find the way.)
In adding, “But even if she does depart” (1 Corinthians 7:11), Paul acknowledges a Christian might choose to separate from a Christian mate. Even for a Christian couple, the conflicts in marriage can be so intense and emotional that it may be necessary to separate for a while to allow for a “cooling off” period. This temporary separation was never intended to become permanent, and they were not to divorce. That is, even if they had “a divorce decree” recognized by Greek or Roman law, it was not recognized under God’s law. They were not free to remarry according to His higher law.
Paul also addressed marriages between “believers” and “unbelievers.” First, we must understand the terms, because they aren’t as evident as they seem. Believers are those who believe and live God’s way of life. (There are millions of people today who believe in a general sense, and yet they do not live by God’s laws.) Unbelievers include those who never believed in God; those who believed in name only, but who did not practice true Christianity; those who once believed only to depart from God’s way of life at some point.
A believer could be married to a believer who becomes an unbeliever, which potentially changes their relationship. Should the believer divorce only because of differing religious beliefs? Is that an allowable divorce, freeing the believer to remarry? No. Christ inspired Paul to say that the believer should remain in the marriage as long as the unbeliever “is willing to dwell” with the believer.
Obviously, if the unbelieving mate divorces the believer, the unbeliever is not “willing to dwell” there. Even if the unbeliever doesn’t formally file for divorce, but deserts the home and marriage, the believer is free to divorce and remarry if he or she chooses to do so.
Circumstances are more complicated if the unbeliever wants to stay married, but shows by attitude or actions that he or she is not “pleased to dwell” with the believer. Examples of unacceptable attitudes or actions include the sexual sin mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 5, habitual misconduct such as criminality, addictive behaviors, abuse and willful failure to provide physical support.
Discerning this latter circumstance can be extremely challenging and stressful for a person who sincerely wants to please God. A defining point is that “God has called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15).
Divorce before conversion
Humans have made wrong choices, often with significant and serious impact on their lives. God, in His mercy, has made provision for the acceptable and satisfactory resolution of man’s sins through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When one becomes a believer, his or her children and unbelieving mate (if the mate remains pleased to dwell with the believer) become sanctified—that is, holy and special in God’s sight (1 Corinthians 7:14).
Baptism, preceded by repentance, brings believers forgiveness and frees believers from past sins. They are not bound to past sins in marriage any more than they are to other sins (Romans 6:1-7). Baptism pictures the death of the old man; therefore, Paul states, “For he who has died has been freed from sin” (verse 7). So those who have divorced and have remarried prior to baptism are not required to leave their current mate. Nor are people who are single because of divorce bound to a previous mate. If they choose to remarry, they have broken no law.
Baptism marks a new beginning. New converts have a fresh start thanks to God who “according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Past sins are forgiven. Therefore, a newly converted person is accepted in his current marital status—single, married, widowed, remarried or single as a result of divorce.
If the mate of a converted person dies, the surviving mate is not obliged to remarry. But if a Christian desires to marry, then it should be to one who is a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:39-40).
Spiritual picture and personal counsel
Marriage is a reflection of the Kingdom of God. While marriage is a temporary covenant until ended by death, it has far greater importance because it is designed to picture the eternal relationship between Christ and the Church. All mankind will eventually be “godly offspring” dwelling forever in God’s family.
Generally speaking, divorce should be the last resort. Sadly, due to the hardness of the heart or deep scars from sin, there will be marriages that will not survive.
When couples have marital problems, the ministry of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, is committed to helping them apply biblical principles to salvage their marriages. For more on this, see the articles “Marriage Problems” and “How to Save Your Marriage.”
If you and your mate are committed to learning and practicing God’s instructions regarding marriage, it is likely that your marriage can survive and thrive! For more information concerning your personal marriage situation, feel free to contact one of our ministers at /contact/.