by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.
Summary: Does God permit divorce? If so, does He then allow remarriage after divorcing? How about in cases of marital infidelity? Or the case of a believing Christian divorced by an unbelieving spouse? Christian leaders and church pastors hold a variety of views concerning Christian divorce and remarriage. My intent in this bible study is to offer some Scriptural answers. In brief, what does the bible say about marriage, divorce, and remarriage after divorce?
Divorce and remarriage have been much-debated issues for literally thousands of years. This bible study cannot resolve every issue or cover every situation. My hope is to discover those clear and definite guidelines on this subject that are laid down in the Scriptures.
Any discussion on marriage, divorce, and remarriage should begin with God’s initial pronouncements on marriage itself:
Genesis 2:18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Genesis 2:24, KJV Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Genesis 1:28a God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”
This biblical account records God’s intentions for marriage as He established it “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). Additional Scriptures reveal a fuller picture of God’s outlook on marriage, as well as on divorce and remarriage.
As a starting point, the following Scriptures give us a distinct revelation of God’s general, overall view of marriage, divorce, and remarriage:
Genesis 2:24, KJV Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Mark 10:6-9 But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. (See also Matthew 19:4-6)
In these verses we see Jesus Christ quoting from Genesis. He emphasized that from the beginning God intended the husband and wife “not [to] separate” from one another. In other words, Jesus affirmed God’s prevailing desire for the indissolubility of marriage.
Jesus (and also the inspired apostle Paul) taught that marriage was intended to be permanent. Consider the following biblical declarations on the subject:
Mark 10:11-12 [Jesus] answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Luke 16:18 Jesus is quoted again, saying, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Romans 7:2-3 The apostle Paul taught that “...by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.”
1 Corinthians 7:10-13, 27, 39 The apostle Paul’s teaching continues: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him ...  Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife ...  A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”
These portions of Scripture would seem to support those who categorically oppose divorce and remarriage after divorce. And, indeed, God’s best plan for every married couple is that they remain married, and happily so.
But in a small number of very specific instances in both the New Testament and the Old, the Scriptures do give biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Honestly handling the Scriptures requires that we regard not just the general statements on the sanctity of marriage, but also the God-inspired exceptions to the general rule — that is, the small number of biblically permissible reasons for divorce.
The Bible itself requires that two or three witnesses be provided in order to establish certain things as truth. This is seen in the Old Testament Law (Deuteronomy 17:6), as well as in the writings of the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 13:1). So we are looking for at least two, if not more, places in the Bible where God gives exceptions to His prevailing rule against divorce and remarriage.
I will quote seven such passages in the discussion that follows, showing these two unique cases in which God permits divorce and remarriage for Christian believers:
1. If a Christian husband or wife discovers that his/her mate has been sexually unfaithful, the spouse who is innocent of the marital infidelity is permitted to divorce the offending spouse and to remarry after divorce for that specific cause.
2. If a Christian’s unbelieving spouse leaves the Christian (not vice versa!), then the Christian who has been divorced in this way is free to remarry. The former marriage has been dissolved.
Let’s look at the specific biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage after divorce mentioned in these two situations, bearing in mind that, as mentioned before, numerous statements in the Bible confirm the prevailing sanctity of the marriage bond. But God in His Word has given some very specific, concrete exceptions to the indissolubility of marriage, and Christians are allowed to exercise these exceptions. But nothing beyond these specific biblical reasons for divorce is permitted by God.
Let’s first examine the Old Testament divorce-and-remarriage Scriptures:
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife....  After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.
This portion of the Mosaic Law permits an Israelite to divorce a wife he had taken from a captive nation simply because he was “not pleased with her” (vs. 14). This might seem like a rather loose permission. But note well that, for that biblical era, this was God’s Word! God cannot be shown in the Bible to be 100 percent against divorce in all circumstances. However, be assured: I am not remotely implying that God is permissive concerning divorce! To the contrary, Malachi 2:16 declares: “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the LORD God of Israel.”
Let’s look at another of Moses’ writings in the Law:
Deuteronomy 24:1-4, KJV 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. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. 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; 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.
Under the Law of Moses, if a man’s wife found “no favour in his eyes ... some uncleanness in her”, God permitted divorce, which in the Hebrew means “a cutting off.” It was not simple separation, but a complete severing and annulling of the marriage bond.
If a biblical divorce and remarriage did occur under these Scriptural conditions of (1) some uncleanness being found in the wife and (2) a “bill of divorcement” having been given her by her husband, notice that the word of God labels this man as “her former husband.” Thus God seems to recognize his right to remarry after divorce, if the divorce leading up to the remarriage was for biblical reasons. Below is another Scripture portion showing divorcing that was consistent with the Law.
Ezra 10:2-3 Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.”
Israel’s men had taken Gentile wives and were under conviction to divorce them. The Scripture says that they were careful to “put away” (KJV) those wives “according to the law” of God.
Now let us look at some New Testament passages on this subject. The fact has now been established by Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and is yet to be proven further, that biblical divorce dissolves the marriage and permits remarriage after divorce. We will look at the New Testament divorce and remarriage Scriptures in their order of appearance.
Matthew 5:31-32 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
The Greek word apoluo, translated as “divorce(s)(d)” three times in this passage, means to let loose from, let go free, according to W.E. Vine’s “An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.” This is in line with Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and it implies a dissolving of the bond of marriage. It is important to see that the main emphasis here is against divorce. But an exception is given.
The passage from Matthew above conveys this message: If you divorce your wife and she remarries, you have placed both her and her new mate into a position of adultery, for before God she is still your wife, unless you divorced her “for marital unfaithfulness.” The phrase “marital unfaithfulness” here is a translation of the Greek word “porneia,” which the Amplified New Testament translates as “sexual immorality, unfaithfulness.”
Jesus’ teaching on divorcing for marital infidelity (and remarriage after divorce in such cases) is given at greater length in the following verses:
Matthew 19:3-9 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Remember that Moses’ Law indicated that a biblical divorce (“putting away” in KJV) dissolved the marriage. Jesus quoted Moses and used the same Greek word for biblically divorcing, or putting away, the spouse. However, it is important to note carefully that Jesus strictly limited Moses’ permission to divorce to cases of marital infidelity. It was not a widespread permission by Jesus, but a very narrow one, focused on the essential need for faithfulness between the spouses in a marriage.
It is obvious from verse 3 of the passage above that at least some of the Pharisees interpreted Moses as permitting divorce (and remarriage after divorce), as they said, “for any and every reason” — a very libertine interpretation that Jesus immediately rejected. Jesus’ answer was quite specific: to divorce your wife — “for any and every reason” — is adultery. Period. And for another man to marry a women so divorced commits adultery with her.
Jesus did not recognize the validity of divorce and remarriage “for every cause” (KJV). He canceled the fairly broad permission to divorce that was given to Israel by Moses “because [their] hearts were hard” (vs. 8).
But Jesus did leave one exception — “except for marital unfaithfulness,” which again is the Greek word porneia. One whose spouse is unfaithful may divorce and remarry, for the unfaithfulness has destroyed the one-flesh marriage bond in the eyes of God.
This exception in Jesus’ final statement in this passage shows that divorce (and remarriage after divorce) by the innocent spouse are allowed under the circumstances of marital infidelity. Simply putting away one’s wife in no way can be construed as committing adultery. It is the putting away and remarrying that becomes adultery — unless the cause of the divorce was adultery already committed by the spouse being put away. In this latter case — that is, divorcing one’s spouse for that person’s adultery — the one-flesh relationship has been tragically violated, and the marriage bond is dissolved in this specific instance of biblical divorce. The innocent one is permitted (although certainly not obligated) to enter into another marriage.
In using the word porneia in the two passages quoted here from the book of Matthew, Jesus was speaking clearly in context about married people. The word in both passages can be understood correctly as “sexual unfaithfulness of married people,” rather than the modern connotation of single persons’ sexual immorality that might be misunderstood from the King James’s use of the word “fornication” here. The root word is still porneia, which speaks of a broad range of sexual immorality — single, married, or even incestuous.
The word porneia is used in two other New Testament phrases referring specifically to the unfaithfulness of married persons: (1) in 1 Corinthians 5:1 porneia is said to have been committed with another man’s “wife”; and (2) 1 Corinthians 10:8 refers to 23,000 Israelites committing “fornication” (KJV). It would be absurd to assume that all of them were unmarried.
Now, before leaving the discussion of Christian divorce and remarriage because of porneia, a word of caution is in order. The one who has secured (or is in the process of securing) a biblical divorce for his or her spouse’s infidelity should exercise much restraint and deliberation before entering into another marriage. Here are three important reasons for this carefulness:
1. This person, although innocent of the actual adultery committed by his/her spouse, may have, through other nonbiblical conduct or characteristics, contributed at least indirectly to the breakdown of the marriage. Such a divorced person should seek counsel from a qualified pastor or church elder to effect biblical change in his or her own life before even considering undertaking another marriage.
2. There is a prevailing biblical exhortation to “forgive one another,” as in Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:13. It is entirely biblical for the offended party to seek God diligently for the grace to forgive the adulterous spouse.
3. Ideally, the optimum solution is reconciliation and restoration of the marriage. In a remarkable passage in Jeremiah 3:8-20, God said that “Israel [had] committed adultery [and God] had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce.” Yet God cried out to Israel to repent and turn back to Him, and declared that He would receive her back. Through prayer and competent counsel, it is possible for at least some marriages shattered by adultery to be brought to a place of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration.
Even by following all three of the above recommendations, the offended spouse may not necessarily see reconciliation occur. For example, the adulterous spouse may have already married someone else. But the innocent spouse, by taking the action above, keeps himself and his life in a biblical framework and may then conscientiously go about to reconstruct his life. And that rebuilding includes the possibility of entering into another marriage with God’s approval. Now let us move on to the second New Testament case for divorce and remarriage.
1 Corinthians 7:10-14 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
Here God states that a Christian should not depart from and divorce his or her mate. God does not allow a Christian to depart from a spouse for any reason other than sexual unfaithfulness, as we established earlier. And the word to those Christians who have already divorced without biblical cause (porneia) is to “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.” However, the inspired writer Paul declared:
1 Corinthians 7:15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.
This is called by some “the Pauline privilege.” Jesus earlier gave one exception to the prevailing indissolubility of marriage. That exception was for infidelity. Here the apostle Paul gives a second exception — if a saved man or woman has an unsaved spouse who leaves the Christian. The Greek word here for “leaves” is chorizo, the same word Jesus used for “put asunder” when speaking of divorce in Matthew 19:6.
What Paul is declaring is this: A Christian brother or sister is “not under bondage” (KJV) when the unbeliever divorces the believer.
The Greek word for “not under bondage” in this passage, according to both “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance” and “The New Englishman’s Greek Concordance,” is from a word that is translated as “bound” in Romans 7:2 (“The woman which hath an husband is bound by the law”) and in 1 Corinthians 7:27 (“bound unto a wife”). It is critically important to see that the seemingly permanent-for-life marriage bond of these latter scriptures is broken — “not under bondage” — when the unbelieving spouse divorces the believer.
The same principles that we have seen in Moses’ Law and in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:3-9 apply — that is, a divorce obtained under biblical conditions dissolves the marriage, and subsequent remarriage is permissible.
Let me repeat the two biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage:
1. Marital infidelity (sexual unfaithfulness) by the spouse. The innocent party may divorce and remarry.
2. A Christian’s unbelieving mate departs from the Christian. The divorced Christian is free to remarry.
In addition, it is my strong personal conviction that any and every divorce from one’s unsaved past is forgiven at the time of salvation.
The Bible says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, KJV). At the time of salvation, all things become new, and such divorced and subsequently saved people are permitted by God to remarry with his blessing. But the new spouse should be a believer (“he must belong to the Lord” — 1 Corinthians 7:39, in a related context). I would perform such a marriage personally if neither partner had been unscripturally divorced since his/her salvation.
But every minister must determine where his own heart is on this last situation, and he must stand before God for his decision with an uncondemned heart. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5, KJV), Paul wrote in a different matter.
It is vital, in treating this topic, not to take license with God’s exceptions and expand them into promiscuous, unscriptural divorces and remarriages. But when God mercifully has made provisions in this area, then we, as God’s children, must stand by God’s word in the face of ecclesiastical traditions which, without mercy, bind people to situations for which God has provided release.
Believe God’s word. Heed Jesus’ warning not to “teach for doctrines the commandments of man ... making the word of God of none effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:7,13). As we have seen, God in His bible lists certain scriptural divorce and remarriage situations. Let’s obey the word of God in this critical area of people’s lives and have the same compassion on God’s people that He Himself has demonstrated.
Struggling marriages can be salvaged and made healthy by applying the biblical principles that I discuss in The Recipe for a Happy Marriage.
©1980, 2005, James H. Feeney. Copyright statement.