It’s filled with more grace than you may think.
In our world, this has become a complex and tangled issue that is not so easy to untangle. There are feelings and emotions and issues of abuse that make it nearly impossible to give everyone a one-size-fits all rule. But the thing is, the Bible wrote about this to people who were every bit as tangled up in these issues as we are. In fact, when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about marriage and divorce, he was writing to people living in a city that would make Las Vegas look like the buckle of the Bible belt. So I think Scripture does have some things to say that really do help untangling these issues. And it starts with a couple of principles.
Back in the Old Testament, Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute. He did, but she left him for prostitution again. And naturally God told Hosea to go take her back as his wife again. Crazy, but all of this represented God’s relationship with Israel and God’s patience with Israel. Skipping over to the New Testament, Ephesians 5 says our marriages represent God’s relationship to the Church. So in both the Old and New Testaments, God compared His relationship with us, to our relationship with our spouse. Why not look at God’s example? He would be the perfect husband so to speak. What did God do? Well, just as you’d probably expect, He fought for the relationship! He did not, and does not, give up easily. Time and again, He forgave Israel and time and again, He is patient with us. God asked Hosea to forgive his wife of her immorality. And God commands us to forgive each other as Christ forgave us. (Which is a lot!) Applying God’s example to marriage, we should fight for and not give up on our marriages easily. Forgiveness and reconciliation should be our goal.
I’m not saying we should forgive and pretend nothing has happened when a spouse refuses to be faithful. That would often be an impossibly cruel thing to ask someone to do. Any time a sin has been committed against the other person, the one who sinned must have a real commitment to turn away from that sin and leave it in the past. But with real repentance, marriages have a shot at real reconciliation. God can and does heal wounds, give strength, and bring marriages back together. He absolutely knows and understands what it’s like when someone fails you. And he knows what it’s like when a relationship gets put back together. He doesn’t give up easily, and following His example, neither should we.
IT’S NOT DIVORCE, IT’S THE REMARRIAGE THAT’S THE PROBLEM
Now it gets harder. Here’s Jesus in Matthew 19:
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” –Matthew 19:9
Jesus, in Matthew 5 or 19, did not single out divorce by itself as a sin. The sin Jesus talked about was marrying someone else after divorcing, specifically after divorcing for reasons other than “marital unfaithfulness.” (Literally speaking to sexual unfaithfulness) In keeping with that, I Corinthians 7:10-11 instructs Christian couples that if they do divorce; they must remain unmarried or be reconciled. God looks upon a marriage as something so important, and so valuable, that simply because we have a piece of paper that says we are divorced, doesn’t mean God views it that way.
Again, God doesn’t look upon these relationships as something that we should easily break up. Jesus explains that except when “marital unfaithfulness” is involved, divorcing and remarrying is the same as committing adultery.
WHY THE EXCEPTION?
As you know, many marriages include this phrase in their ceremonies: “Until death do us part.” Or as the Bible says in Romans: “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.”
And I think the reason Jesus gave us the exception of marital unfaithfulness is related to that. You see, in the Old Testament, committing adultery against your spouse was punishable by death. And if a husband or wife was put to death for adultery, then their spouse was free to remarry. However, what if they weren’t judged with death? God often showed mercy to people in the Old Testament and did not judge them with death after committing adultery. King David is one of those examples. So the exception to allow remarriage to someone whose spouse left them for someone else, is a mercy to the person who was sinned against. Otherwise, God’s mercy to the adulterer, would be a punishment to the person who was sinned against -for they would not be allowed to remarry otherwise.
MUST I ALWAYS REMAIN UNMARRIED, IF I WAS DIVORCED FOR THE WRONG REASONS?
This is the big question in our day because there is so much divorce, that a great many people have probably been divorced for reasons other than “marital unfaithfulness.” Sometimes, people seek a divorce because of abuse, and other times people don’t want a divorce, but their spouse leaves anyway. What can you do?
This is the tangled situation Paul was dealing with in the city a Corinth. A place where archaeological records indicate some people had up to 25 divorces! A very detailed explanation of the Scripture that deals with what to do regarding divorce in remarriage in various circumstances, has been done by John MacArthur. I can’t do any better than he did with it, so here’s a link to what he said.
You really should take the time and read what he said.
Here’s my much shorter version:
In I Corinthians 7, the Bible writes about different categories of people:
…1Corinthians 7:8 Now to the unmarried and the widows…
Speaking to the church, we’re talking believers who are not married now, although they may have been previously, and to widows.
…1Corinthians 7:10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): ….
Again, since he’s writing to the church, this would be believers who are married to each other.
…1Corinthians 7:25 Now about virgins:…
Believers in the church who had never been married obviously
…1Corinthians 7:12 To the rest I say this
In context this seemed to be directed at people who had spouses who were not believers in Jesus.
Let’s briefly take each case.
BELIEVERS WHO ARE NOT MARRIED NOW, BUT MAY HAVE BEEN PREVIOUSLY
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. -I Corinthians 7:8-9
You may ask, well how is remarriage possible for someone who has been married before? Wouldn’t that be adultery? And many will conclude that this passage MUST be talking about virgins, -but if that’s true, the Bible could have just said virgins. It didn’t. It says virgins in verse 25, but here it simply used the world for “unmarried” which applies to anyone who is not currently married. Verse 34 seems to confirm this by saying “An unmarried woman or virgin…” Here again you notice Paul isn’t simply talking about virgins when he says “unmarried.” Therefore the word “unmarried” sensibly would refer to singles who had been previously married AND virgins. Both were “unmarried.”
So is it ok to remarry? Does this contradict what Jesus said?
I don’t think so. Jesus was talking to people under the Law in the nation of Israel. Here, Paul is talking to Christians. And I think what we see here is that many of these people came from a sordid lifestyle in Corinth, with a lot of marriages and divorces, and when they came to put their faith in Jesus, it was a chance to start over. After all, the Bible says when we come to Christ, we are a “new creation, the old has gone.” It also says our “old self” was crucified with Christ. This wasn’t the case yet for the people Jesus was speaking to, but it IS the case for anyone who believes in Jesus, repents, turns to God and is baptized.
So I believe that Paul was saying that whatever happened in the past, before you became a Christian, no longer counts against you now that you are a believer. And if you aren’t married, it’s better to get married than to burn with passion. For people in Corinth who may have had 20 divorces before becoming a Christian, this second chance would be a blessing indeed.
BELIEVERS WHO ARE MARRIED TO EACH OTHER
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.
-I Corinthians 7:10-11
Speaking to believers who are married now. This isn’t about marriages in the past, but a current marriage, and here Paul writes two things: First, don’t get a divorce. And second, even if you do split up, remain unmarried or else be reconciled. Now we are back to God’s principle of not giving up on a marriage, and back to what Jesus said about remarriage being wrong.
See, Paul didn’t contradict Jesus earlier, he was just speaking of people who may have had divorces and remarriages before they became a Christian. But here, speaking to believers who are married, the command is to remain married, and even if you do get a divorce, do not remarry? Why? Because as Jesus said, that would be committing adultery. The only exception to this, is the one Jesus gave about marital unfaithfulness.
Here the question of abuse comes up. What about abuse? Shouldn’t that be an exception too? Honestly, if I was writing the rules, I’d include it, but the Bible doesn’t. So what do we do? First, I think as the verse above indicates, sometimes people do separate and get a divorce. Sometimes they need to because of situations like abuse. It’s not the divorce that is the problem, it’s the remarriage. So here the Bible says, “if” you do divorce, remain unmarried.
As long as remarriage doesn’t happen, reconciliation is possible. (More on that in a moment) And perhaps whatever caused the divorce or separation can be healed and restored? It’s happened for many people before, and again, this fits God’s principle of not giving up. However, is there ever a moment when a person can move on?
Yes, I think there are. Lets get to them:
WHEN A NON-BELIEVER LEAVES A BELIEVER
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…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. -I Corinthians 7:12-13 & 15
It’s important to note here that Jesus said it’s not those who merely claim to be believers who are saved, but those who do the will of God. As we all know, there are people who claim to be Christians, but in reality have not repented or turned to God in obedience. As God said in the Old Testament, they “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
So here, the Bible says do not divorce your spouse if they aren’t a believer, BUT if they leave, you aren’t bound. Listen to the reason: “God has called us to live in peace.” I believe that principle also comes into play when there is abuse. A separation for safety sake, for the kid’s sake, for the sake of peace may be needed. God has called us to live in peace. You can still fight for that marriage without putting yourself in harms way. As the Bible said earlier, there sometimes is the need to separate, and to remain unmarried while hoping and working for eventual reconciliation.
But here, regarding unbelievers leaving the marriage (and I include people who live for the world and reject God with their actions, not just words) that when it says, “a believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” it means… well, they aren’t bound in such circumstances. In other words, if this is your situation and a non-believer has divorced you, then you should remain unmarried, but if you cannot control yourself, you should go ahead and get married, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion -but whoever you marry “must belong to the Lord.” -I Corinthians 7:39.
RECONCILIATION IS NOT ALWAYS POSSIBLE
There comes a time however, in any divorce no matter what the reason, that reconciliation is impossible. The person may die. God allows remarriage when someone dies. Or they may remarry. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the Lord says after divorcing your spouse, marrying another, and divorcing THAT spouse, (still with me?) that going back to the original spouse is a sin. God calls this detestable and that can’t be good.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. -Deuteronomy 24:1-4
Now obviously, if a person leaves their spouse and marries another, that is adultery according to Jesus, which allows the person who was sinned against to move on. But unlike an instance of adultery, or an affair, remarrying is more permanent. When there is an affair, it’s possible the person who did the wrong will repent, and a married couple may try to work past and rebuild their relationship. However, leaving your spouse and actually marrying someone else, according to the Scripture above, means you can no longer go back to the first marriage -not without it being a sin.
So there are times when you can’t go back, according to the Old Testament. And if you have been left by your spouse, and you have remained unmarried, what happens if they remarry? It seems to me that if these are your circumstances and since you can no longer reconcile, it would better for you to remain unmarried, but if you cannot control yourself, then you should get married for it is better to marry than to burn with passion -but whoever you marry “must belong to the Lord.” -I Corinthians 7:39.
Notice the pattern?
So finally, you should do everything you can to keep your marriage together until there’s no going back. That’s what God does with us, and I think that’s what God wants from us. If your wife or husband has left you for an unbiblical reason you should fight to save the marriage regardless. (unless your spouse is an unbeliever since Bible said to let them go if they wish. We are called to live in peace.) In general however, if you can’t save the marriage … then I believe there does usually come a time when God allows you the grace to move on yourself.
WHAT IF I’VE ALREADY MESSED THIS UP?
If you’ve committed adultery by remarrying, I do not believe God allows another divorce to fix the first one. Deuteronomy 24 calls divorcing, and going back to a previous marriage, “detestable.” However, God does forgive sins for those who will recognize and admit their sin before Him. Even if you’ve committed something detestable in the past.
Many people could look at what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage and say… “I didn’t do the right thing. Now what?” Well, you aren’t the only sinner. No matter how much you’ve messed up in the past, God can forgive you now if you will repent of your sin, and turn to Him. After all, Jesus died for your sins, and He’s in the business of taking sinners and changing them into new creations. Guess what? He can make you pure again in His sight.
May God extend His grace to me if I said something wrong, but I think that is consistent with the whole of the Bible, -not just part of it.