Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

Divorce and Remarriage

On the 4th of June, 2006, I was licensed as a Southern Baptist Preacher, a bona fide member of the clergy. Of course, I've been doing supply preaching for a couple of years now, and occasionally going down to Dallas to preach at a mission there, but it's all been as a lay preacher. Being licensed should open more doors for me, much the way Paul's pharisaical credentials opened doors for him. 

On the other hand, the only real difference is that now I can legally marry people. This is ironic because one of the first requests I received was from a very dear friend of mine, a man I have known for many years, to marry him and his new fiancé, and I had to turn him down. Understand that it broke my heart to turn him down at what should have been, and I presume was, an incredibly joyous time in his life.

But my friend is divorced, as is his fiancé. As a Christian I do not accept that divorce is ever a good solution, to any problem, but that is a separate matter. More importantly, to remarry after divorce is to commit adultery. As a preacher I simply can not be party to such an act. There are certainly preachers who will, and civil justices too, but I won't.

Nonetheless, it disturbed me greatly to turn down such a dear friend. And, since I have repeatedly admonished others not to simply accept their own beliefs as valid, but to test them in the light of scripture, I decided that it was time to take my own advice and revisit the whole subject.

It is no surprise that there are diverse opinions about divorce and remarriage. This is largely due to the fact that men can be so creative when trying to rationalize and justify their desires. But even scripture can seem (especially to a rationalizing mind) conflicted on the subject. In one place it seems to say clearly that divorce is acceptable, and in another place that it is not. But if the Word is true, and if we are sincere in our desire to know the truth, then we must concern ourselves to know what scripture actually says, not just what we think it says, or what we think it should say, or even more so what we want it to say. We must take care to study the Word and accept what it says without subjecting it, as so many do, to our own sensibilities and desires.

We are told to rightly, not wrongly, divide the word of truth, (II Timothy 2: 15; See also The Commandments of Men and Mind the Little Things). So let's consider scripture as it pertains to divorce and remarriage, but let's be careful to read what it actually says, no more and no less. What we will find is that divorce is not acceptable, it is not okay and it is never justified. Moreover, we will find that to remarry another after being divorced is adultery, always. But we will see that God, in His loving grace, has paid the price for all our sin, even adultery, and He will forgive us.

Let's begin in Deuteronomy, chapter 24.

Deuteronomy 24: 1 - 4  1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. 3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

This is the first passage in scripture that deals with divorce as we think of it today, dissolving the marital bond. There are a couple of earlier passages, one in Exodus and an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, which deal with canceling a marriage to a betrothed and a war bride, but that is not what we mean when we talk about divorce today.

And on that subject there is no ambiguity in this passage. It explicitly allows a married man to divorce his wife. And once divorced the wife is explicitly allowed to remarry. But let's look a bit closer than just the cursory glance.

First I would point out that the Law takes steps to discourage divorce, to minimize the occurrence of divorce if you will. Specifically, the Law places three prerequisites on divorce, and then it adds a penalty for the act of remarriage. The three prerequisites of divorce are, 1) cause, 2) preparation of a legal writ or instrument, and 3) due service of the same. And the penalty for remarriage (to another) is that never again, regardless of any other circumstance, is the couple allowed to reconcile.

Consider the first prerequisite of divorce. There must be a just cause for seeking divorce, namely that "he hath found some uncleanness in her." There are some who think this should be interpreted to mean adultery only, but I disagree. First, if the Law meant adultery and nothing else, it would have stipulated adultery. The word was both known but used. Yet in this case the Law does not stipulate "adultery," but the more ambiguous "uncleanness." Moreover, it would make absolutely no sense for the word "uncleanness" to mean adultery only. In the case of adultery there was no need for a divorce. The penalty for adultery was death, which would tend to make divorce rather superfluous. Nonetheless, the term "uncleanness" did mean some moral unrighteousness.

As for the remaining prerequisites, note that they served to ensure that one could not affect a divorce on a whim, without both deliberation and purpose of action. One had to prepare a legal document, "... write her a bill of divorcement," and dutifully provide legal service of the same to the person being divorced, "and give it in her hand," before the divorce could be accomplished, "and send her out of his house."

So in total it seems clear that divorce is allowed, but that it is not held in high esteem. It is not regarded as something righteous. To the contrary, divorce is treated as something to be limited to the extent possible.

So now that we've looked at what the Law says about divorce and remarriage, let's consider what Jesus had to say on the subject.

Matthew 5: 31, 32    31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Matthew 19: 3 - 9    3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Mark 10: 2 - 12   2 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. 3 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? 4 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. 5 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. 7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. 11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. 12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Luke 16: 18   Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

Look immediately at the passage from Matthew 19, and pay particular attention to verse 7. Notice that the Pharisees claimed that Moses commanded them to write a bill of divorcement and to put away their wives. But this is a lie. Go back and read the passage from Deuteronomy 24 again. It clearly states "...: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, ...," (emphasis added). The law does not state, "...: then shall he write her a bill of divorcement, ...."

How often do we do this very thing? We insist that scripture says what we want it to say instead of wanting to know what it actually says. As Jesus pointed out in the passages from Matthew 19 and Mark 10, the law allows divorce, which is to say it suffers or tolerates divorce, and even then only due to the hardness of our hearts. It does not require divorce, or even condone it for that matter.

Similarly, there is another point to be made here, precisely because we read scripture to mean what we want. Invariably, once anyone is of a mind to get divorced (and remarried), they turn to the passages in Matthew chapters 5 and 19. There they glom onto the phrases where Jesus articulates the famous "fornication" exemptions. Most want to believe that it's somehow okay if they get divorced for the cause of infidelity. But there's a problem with this interpretation, and it begins when people ignore that "fornication" and "adultery" are two different words that mean two different things.

"Adultery" is 4!1 (naaph) in Hebrew and :@4P,4" (meeheea) in Greek. "Fornication" is %1' (zanah) in Hebrew and B@D<,4" (porneea) in Greek. In both Hebrew and Greek, throughout all of scripture, they are two different words with two different meanings. Fornication is sexual impurity, but it is exclusively and explicitly premarital, not extramarital. Adultery, on the other hand, is a violation of the marriage covenant. It may not be popular to accept this truth today, but this is nonetheless a distinction that is made and maintained throughout all of scripture. They are not interchangeable words.

What, then, was Jesus talking about? Why would He bring up fornication in the context of divorce? Under Jewish law at the time, marriage was preceded by a time of betrothal (See A Jewish Wedding for the Bride of Christ). During this time the man and woman were legally bound to one another, though they were not yet married. Since they had not consummated the marriage, since they were not yet one flesh, there was no issue of rending what God had joined. Even so, if one or the other of them decided to call off the marriage, legally they needed a divorce.

To more fully understand Jesus' remarks, it's important to understand that by this time the Jews had so rationalized the Law to accommodate their own desires that they had taken the word "uncleanness" (from Deuteronomy 24: 1) to mean anything at all, even something as trivial as poor cooking or unpleasant conversation. By their own rationalization they had subverted the first and principle prerequisite by which the Law sought to limit the occurrence of divorce. It really had become their equivalent of our contemporary "irreconcilable differences." This is reflected in the question with which the Pharisees sought to trap Jesus when they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (Matthew 19: 3b). By stipulating "fornication," and not "adultery," Jesus was emphasizing to the Pharisees that once two people are married, once the twain are one flesh, there is no way to divorce and remarry without sinning.

And there, at last, is the 600 pound gorilla in the back of the room. Read all that Christ said, in the passages above, from Matthew, Mark and Luke, and one theme is prominent throughout. One theme is incessant every time Jesus speaks on the matter. If anyone divorces and remarries, or if anyone marries a divorcee, then they commit adultery. This is plain and unambiguous.

In contrast to Deuteronomy 24: 1 - 4 this may seem like a contradiction, but only at first glance. Note that nowhere in any of these passages does Jesus say that divorce is not allowed, only that it is wrong, and that it is only tolerated because of the hardness of our hearts. Likewise, nowhere in Deuteronomy do we find that the Law says divorce and remarriage is ever righteous, only that it is allowed under certain restrictive conditions. This is an incredibly important point. the Law, the passage in Deuteronomy, does not say that either divorce or remarriage is righteous, only that they are allowed. There is, in fact, no contradiction.

Now consider Paul's words to the Corinthians on the subject.

I Corinthians 7: 10 - 15   10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. 12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.

Okay, first let's clear up one point. I've heard too many people ask if Paul's qualifications about what the Lord commanded as opposed to what he commanded implies that one carries more weight than the other. No it doesn't. It's all scripture; it's all the Word of God. All Paul is saying is that the first part, the part he stipulates as being the Lord's command, is what Jesus taught when He was still on the Earth. It's sort of like he's citing Jesus. In other words Paul is saying that verses 10 and 11 are what Jesus taught when He was still here, and then he goes on to say that verses 12 through 15 are something new that he's adding for clarification.

So what is Paul saying about Jesus' teachings? He says that Jesus taught that people shouldn't get divorced, and that if they did they should remain single or be reconciled but that they should not get remarried. Note that this is not inconsistent with either Deuteronomy 24: 4, which only proscribes reconciliation to those who get remarried. In point of fact, this is a pretty good synopsis of everything we just read, which is all that scripture records of Jesus speaking on the subject. Don't get divorced, and if you do get divorced don't remarry.

Paul then goes on to say that even if one is unequally yoked, don't get a divorce. He does say that if an unbelieving spouse divorces a believer that the believer shouldn't contest the matter, that we are called to peace, not bondage. But he does not say that it is then okay for the believer to remarry. To the contrary, Christ made plain that to do so would be adultery.

So from all of scripture we have learned that it is not good to divorce, and if one remarries after divorce it is an act of adultery, a violating of one's marriage bond. Still, because of the hardness of our hearts, God allows divorce and remarriage. But what does that mean, that He allows these things? And what does He mean when He says that it's because of the hardness of our hearts?

Does this mean that God gives us permission to sin, a sort of divine wink and nod as He looks the other way? Of course not! God never said it was okay to commit adultery. He never gave us permission to sin.

To answer these questions, let's conduct a thought experiment. Let's assume, hypothetically for a moment, that God did not allow divorce and remarriage. Do you believe that would stop anyone from getting a divorce and remarrying? I doubt it would. We already know that divorce is wrong, and that remarrying is adultery, but people still do it every day. Now suppose that God decreed that He would not recognize divorce. Suppose that God said that as far as He was concerned, once you're married you're married until death, no matter what. And then suppose that your friend got divorced and remarried anyway. Now every time he goes to bed with his new wife he is committing adultery again. His second marriage would be a continuous state of adultery.

But to be forgiven, we must repent. We must turn away from our sin. But as long as this hypothetical friend continues in a state of adultery, as long as he stays married to his new wife, he would remain, by definition, unrepentant. That means that God would not be able to forgive your friend.

This is what is meant by the phrase, "God allows divorce." It means that even though it displeases Him to do so, God recognizes divorce as severing what He has joined. And make no mistake, for no other reason than the selfish hardness of their own lustful hearts, if God did not allow divorce, the world would be filled with unpardonable people. Nonetheless, just because God chooses to recognize divorce, that in no way mitigates the fact that divorce is wrong and that remarriage is an act of adultery. In God's eyes it is the severance, the final violation, of one's marriage bond. And that is adultery.

So in that way of looking at it, yes, God allows us to sin. And not just in matters of divorce and remarriage. In all manner of things going all the way back to the Garden, God allows us to sin. God allowed us to sin when Adam ate the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And God allows us to sin every day that we draw corporeal breath. Or did you believe that you live without sin? We all sin every day, and God allows every bit of it, lest it wouldn't happen. But that God allows us to sin does not mean that He gave us permission to sin.

Moreover, that God allows us to sin is not the salient point. What we should note, indeed celebrate, is not that God allows us to sin, but that he paid the price, and forgave us, for our sin. To be sure, God is perfectly loving, but He is also perfectly just. It would be heretical to suggest that God just said that since we were going to sin anyway that it was okay. His justice demands that the price be paid. And knowing this, knowing full well that we would sin, He became the propitiation for, and He forgave us, our sin.

So if you are divorced and remarried, you committed adultery. And if you're not divorced and/or remarried you've probably committed adultery too. I would remind everyone that according to Jesus, anyone who looks at another with lust in their heart has committed adultery. Rather than concerning ourselves with our brethren's sin, let's instead be concerned that they're repentant, and that they're forgiven.

For this there is real cause to be concerned, especially in matters of divorce. Scripture tells us that, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," (Matthew 6: 14, 15). The problem comes in that divorce is so often a contentious, emotionally charged ordeal that leaves all parties concerned angry, and with hurt feelings. Nonetheless, if a divorcee refuses to forgive their ex-spouse, then God will not forgive them. On the other hand, if you do forgive those who sin against you, then God will also forgive you, even for adultery. All you need do is repent.

But I would be remiss if I ended this article here. The truth is that there are many who are married and contemplating divorce as I type (or as you read). There are many fellow Christians who are trying to justify divorce, and possibly remarriage, right now. Nothing I have written, and nothing written in scripture, should be construed by anyone to imply that it's ever okay to get divorced. Divorce is not okay, not for any reason, and not from either your first or any marriage.

"But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: .... What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid," (Romans 5: 20b; Romans 6: 1, 2a). 

If you are truly born again, if you love the Lord, then you will keep His commandments (John 14: 15). If you are truly born again, do not harden your heart to God. Don't try to say that you love the Lord if you're going to rationalize His Word to mean whatever you need it to mean in order to satisfy the lust of your flesh. Don't say that you love the Lord if you're going to defy His Word, just so you can have your way (I John 2: 4). Never say that you love the Lord if you're just going to use His grace as a license to sin. Don't try and say that you love the Lord if you're more interested in the fact that He will recognize your divorce and remarriage, that He will forgive your sin, than the fact that it's adultery. To you I would say go back up a couple of paragraphs and read Matthew 6: 14, 15 again, and this time in prayer.

On the other hand, God's Word clearly says that He does allow,which is to say recognize, divorce and remarriage. Though I can not, will not, be party to an act of adultery, neither will I tell my friend, or his new bride, or any other that has divorced and remarried, that they are unwelcome. It would simply be a lie. To the contrary, I will welcome with open arms my friend and his new bride as brother and sister in Christ Jesus.

II Timothy 2: 15   Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

John 14: 15   If ye love me, keep my commandments.

I John 2: 4   He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.