Divorce and Remarriage
The Bible not only presents divine ideals but also sin-caused realities. In the Old Testament, divorce and remarriage were permitted under specific regulations. The question is whether or not any of these guidelines are applicable today within the context of the New Testament. Two instances demonstrate that divorce can, under certain conditions, be considered scriptural today.
1. When One Partner Develops a Pattern of Sexual Immorality
Christ said, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, (fornication) and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
Several observations should be noted:
(1) A spouse who divorces his/her partner and marries another, commits adultery. Christ, however, indicates there is one exception to this general rule, namely, where fornication has been committed.
(2) Christ in this verse uses two distinct words for immorality. The first is often translated “fornication” and the second is translated “adultery.” Many explanations have been given for this distinction.
a. Some have said fornication refers to premarital sex.
b. Others believe that the word has a particular meaning for Jews only. If a couple were engaged (betrothed), this engagement could be broken if one member was discovered to be living in immorality. This immorality while engaged would be fornication.
c. It is also held that it refers to a marriage to a close relative. This would be considered fornication and grounds for annulment.
However, the meaning of the word “fornication” must be understood by the way it is used in Scripture and the Greek literature of the day. There is no evidence that it refers exclusively to premarital sex as opposed to unfaithfulness within marriage. In fact, the word has a much broader meaning: adultery may refer to a single act of unfaithfulness, but fornication includes prostitution, LGBT sexuality, and every sort of unrestrained sexual indulgence. For example, we read in 1 Corinthians 6:16-18, “Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her?… flee immorality (fornication).” In Numbers 25:1-2, the Israelites are recorded as having committed sexual sin with the daughters of Moab. Paul quotes this and says, “Nor let us act immorally (fornication) as some of them did and twenty-three thousand fell in one day” (1 Corinthians 10:8). Surely we would not believe that these thousands of people were engaged in simply premarital sex. No doubt many were married and therefore committing adultery. The word fornication covers all sexual sins.
The word fornication is used more than thirty times in the New Testament for sexual immorality without any hint that it is to be limited to sex during the engagement period or marrying a close relative. Some occurrences are: Matthew 19:9; John 8:41; Acts 15:20; Romans 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13, 18; 10:8; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Jude 7; Revelation 2:12, 21; 14:8; 17:2-4; 18:3, 9; 19:2.
The New American Standard translation captures the meaning of fornication by translating it as immorality. Because of the spiritual (as well as physical) nature of the sex act, immorality is a breach of covenant, which can be grounds for divorce.
This does not mean that a couple must divorce when immorality has occurred. Indeed, we as a pastoral staff are committed to saving marriages; we are committed to reconciliation even where immorality has occurred. But we also believe that a repeated lifestyle of such unfaithfulness is grounds for divorce and remarriage.
2. When an Unbeliever Deserts a Marriage
There is a second instance where divorce might be an option. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul continues Christ’s teaching. He discusses two kinds of situations. One involves Christians, and in such a relationship there is to be no divorce. However, Paul realizes that some Christians will not get along regardless of Christ’s power in their lives. He concedes that if the wife does leave (divorce) “she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband” (v.11). Sometimes couples may separate and eventually be brought back together because of the work of God in their hearts, thus while there may be separation, (and even divorce) remarriage is not permitted. To divorce and remarry on non-Scriptural grounds is to commit adultery since the marriage bond was never broken.
The second situation that Paul speaks about is a marriage where one partner is a non-Christian. Naturally, believers would ask whether a wife should leave her unsaved husband to be free from negative influences. Paul’s answer is no! If the husband consents to live with his wife who has become a Christian, she should gladly maintain the relationship, “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14).
But in some instances an unbeliever may wish to take the initiative to divorce the believer. Paul’s response is, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (v.15). Again, the word “leave” is another technical term for divorce. Paul is saying that if the unbeliever divorces, the brother or sister is not under bondage. The bondage referred to is that of the marriage bond. (Compare Romans 7:1-6 where Paul says that death breaks the marriage bond which brings release from the marriage vows). The idea is that the believing partner has been released from the marriage bond and is therefore free to enter a new marriage relationship. Thus, once a biblically permissible divorce is completed, remarriage is a possibility, but it must be approached with caution and counsel. Reconciliation, if viable, should be the believer’s first desire.