Grounds for Biblical Divorce

Grounds for Biblical Divorce

Grounds for Biblical Divorce

Richard Hollerman

The subject of divorce is one of the most contested and controversial subjects found in the Scriptures.  It is one that has consumed the attention, the study, and the tears of many Bible interpreters and common but sincere people.

On the one hand, a common view is that God allows no divorce under any circumstances (although some who hold this view do allow for separation under dire extenuating situations). According to this view, those who would violate God’s will in this matter are thereby guilty of adultery. On the other hand, many today hold a much more liberal view, believing that regardless of the reasons for a given divorce, God will accept any subsequent remarriage and not consider it adultery. He simply wipes the past away regardless of the grounds for the divorce or the number of divorces, and He starts over anew with a clean slate.

I can see the strength in the first view above and do confess that this would be the simpler “solution” to a very messy and painful situation. Although the consequences to accepting this view could be extremely difficult, we can see that some would want to do anything necessary to assure that they are not living in adultery. Yet, at present, I am slow to accept this view—totally. There is enough doubt on the subject, especially in light of Matthew 19:9, that I personally must make some allowance for certain divorces under the very restrictive conditions mentioned by our Lord in Matthew.

Let’s briefly note the basic verses dealing with divorce and remarriage for this seems to be a matter of life and death, of heaven and hell, and we would do well to approach the matter with the seriousness that it deserves. The reasons why we say that it is a question of heaven and hell are found in various places. For instance, those guilty of adultery will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Further, God will “judge” those guilty of both fornication and adultery (Hebrews 13:4). Further still, since fornication (Greek: porneia) is a broad term that generally includes all sexual sin, including adultery, we can see that all of the passages that warn us of committing fornication are also warnings against adultery (see Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5-7; Colossians 3:5-7; Revelation 21:8; etc.). This is why the question we are discussing is so vital.

Grounds for Biblical Divorce

As for several of the basic divorce and remarriage passages, let’s go to Mark 10:11-12: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” This shows that remarriage after divorce results in adultery. We’ve already seen the serious and eternal results of the sin of adultery. Further, what is true of the husband is also true of the wife.

Next, let’s go to Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” The first part of this verse is similar to the one we’ve seen in Mark 10. The last half adds to this. Here we see that to marry a woman who has been divorced from a husband (or presumably one who has divorced her husband), is to commit adultery. She would not be an eligible mate. To marry a woman such as this is to enter an adulterous relationship.

We now go to Romans 7:2-3. Although this is speaking about the situation under the Law of Moses, perhaps there is some word for us here as well. “The married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.” Here a woman may be remarried if her husband dies; otherwise, she commits adultery to be married to another man.

Somewhat of a questionable passage is the next one that we’ll notice. Here is Matthew 5:31-32: “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity [porneia] makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

Jesus quotes the Law of Moses here (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), but Jesus then adds something new. If a man divorces his wife for any reason other than her fornication/adultery, he makes her commit adultery. The reason for this is not stated, but presumably the woman would usually subsequently remarry and this remarriage would bring her into an adulterous state. On the other hand, if the husband divorces his wife on the ground of her adultery, he doesn’t “make her commit adultery” for she would already (at that point) be guilty of adultery. Continuing our Lord’s comments, He says that to marry a divorced woman is to commit adultery.

Let’s now go to a final verse in which the Lord Jesus declares, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality [porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). Without the “exception” clause, Jesus would be saying what we have seen elsewhere: that one who divorces his wife and remarries a different woman is guilty of adultery. This suggests that if one does divorce his wife on the ground of her immorality (in this case, adultery), then he does not commit adultery to marry another person. We realize that this is only a derived consideration, thus I would be slow to encourage a person to remarry after a previous marriage even if the divorce was based on the grounds of the wife’s adultery. Yet the verse does seem to allow this, at least it does to many interpreters. And we wouldn’t want to be guilty of one false teaching only to fall into another one. True often requires a delicate balance between two extremes.

While there are many variations between these different passages (Matthew 5:31-23; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3), there is general agreement that if one divorces and remarries, he commits adultery with the second wife against the first wife. Some interpreters would add to this and suggest that what is true of the man (the husband) is also true of the woman (wife).

All of this leads us to conclude that the Lord Jesus looks on this matter with a lot more gravity that nearly everyone today does. Divorce and remarriage is a common occurrence and most people don’t really consider the consequences of such a step. Further, we find it amazing that even pastors, preachers, and teachers seem to have a careless attitude toward the matter of divorce and remarriage. It would seem that in the name of “tolerance” and “compassion” and “love” that most people just think that God will accept one who remarries after an illegitimate divorce. The matter of adultery is seldom even considered—even when we remember that unrepentant adultery will prevent one from entering God’s kingdom!

Some may just say that a remarriage has occurred in the past and that God forgives the sin. Yes, thankfully, God does forgive sin—but only if we repent of it (Acts 8:22) and confess it (1 John 1:9). The sin of divorce may be forgiven, but the sin of remarriage is much more problematic. Even this sin (of wrongful remarriage) may be forgiven, but if one truly repents, he must not fall into the adulterous relationship again. All sex (adulterous sex) must cease and the remarriage should be repented of if one seeks God’s gracious forgiveness.

This is not a pleasant subject to think about, study about, read about, write about, discuss, or consider in any way. Especially if one is in a grievous marriage, the subject of divorce, remarriage, and adultery is difficult to consider. Particularly if a person is in an adulterous remarriage relationship already, the subject is disturbing and painful to consider. Yet, we know that the will of God is always to be sought if we love Him (John 14:15, 21-24; 1 John 5:2-3). God will always help the sincere soul who wants to follow the perfect will of God, however difficult that may be. May the Lord bless and help you, my sincere reader…


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