There are a couple of challenges that make preaching on divorce and remarriage especially difficult. One challenge is that there are so many legitimate approaches I could take with this sermon.
I could make the sermon a warning: “Marriage is sacred. Remember your vows. Jesus never encouraged divorce. So don’t do it.” I could legitimately preach this way because the weight of the New Testament falls on the side of warning against divorce.
But I could also use the sermon to talk about God’s compassion for those who have been hurt in marriage, or those left behind in marriage, or those sinned against in marriage.
I could take the sermon in a different direction and encourage those who have sinned in divorce or sinned in remarriage to repent and receive God’s merciful forgiveness. I could also take more of a theological approach and try to explain the acceptable grounds for divorce and remarriage, asking questions like: Are there any justifiable reasons for divorce? If so, what are they? And if you may get divorced under certain circumstances, what about remarriage?
I wish I had time to go deep pastorally and theologically in all these way, but I just can’t in one sermon.
There are as many scenarios as there are couples in the world. How do we know what’s right in each situation, especially when so many of the scenarios have no parallel in Scripture? The simple thing is to turn a blind eye to divorce in the church. Just pretend it doesn’t happen. Don’t ask people about it. Don’t bring it up. Don’t say anything during a membership interview. The hard thing is to take a few biblical principles about marriage, divorce and remarriage and then try to apply them prayerfully and wisely to a thousand different situations.
Let me give you seven biblical principles on divorce and remarriage.
1. Marriage is the sacred union between one man and one woman and God’s intention is for marriage to last a lifetime.
Look at Mark 10:1-12:
And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
This was a trap. The Pharisees were not genuinely inquiring of Jesus’ position. They wanted to test him and make him look bad. Everyone in Judaism agreed that divorce was permissible. You can read all the same scholarly stuff I’ve been reading and the same Jewish documents and see that people on all sides of the divorce issue agree first century Judaism allowed for divorce, even required it in some situations. The Pharisees certainly allowed for divorce, and as we’ll see in a moment, probably for a lot of reasons. But they have a suspicion that Jesus will be stricter. Maybe they heard his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe they just assume he will be strict. Maybe they want to get him in trouble with Herod, who already killed John the Baptist for objecting to his divorce. Whatever the reason, they are setting a trap.
Like a good teacher, Jesus answers their question with a question. “What did Moses say?” “Well,” they answer, “Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife.” They’re thinking of Deuteronomy 24, which we’ll come back to in a minute. Jesus doesn’t reject Moses’ teaching, but he recasts it. “Yes, Moses allowed for divorce. But this was a concession to human sin. Certainly not a requirement. The law was making the best of a bad situation.” Then Jesus takes them back to the very beginning. “Deuteronomy gives Moses a concession, but Genesis gives God’s intention. Marriage is one man and one woman. The two become one flesh. They leave their family behind and this new family takes priority over all other allegiances except to God. Marriage is a sacred union. God himself joins the couple together. And what God puts together, no one should separate.”
The main thing Jesus wants to say about divorce is this: don’t do it. It’s not God’s intention for marriage. It’s not what you promised before God and a room full of witnesses. In fact, Jesus says pretty flatly in verses 11-12, anyone who divorces husband or wife and remarries someone else commits adultery. Why? Because the divorce shouldn’t have happened in the first place. There’s no reason this man and woman shouldn’t still be married. So for them to be married to someone else, presumably having sex with someone else, is like committing adultery. You may be sleeping with someone who is your husband or wife, but you aren’t sleeping with the person who still should be your husband or wife.
Before we see anything else about divorce and remarriage we have to feel the weight of what Jesus is saying. The Pharisees want to talk about acceptable reasons for a divorce. Jesus wants to talk about the sanctity of marriage. They want to talk about when a marriage can be broken. He wants to talk about why marriages shouldn’t be broken. If all you hear are the reasons a marriage covenant might be broken, it’s like learning to fly by practicing your crash landings or training for battle by practicing your retreats. Whatever exceptions there might be, the main thing is that marriage is supposed to be permanent.
2. Divorce is not always sinful.
Is every divorce the product of sin? Yes. Is every divorce therefore sinful? No. That’s why it’s not always a fair comparison to say, “Look, you Christians are so worked up about homosexuality, but you don’t do anything about divorce.” Certainly, Christians have too often turned a blind eye to divorce, but the situations are different because divorce, unlike homosexuality, is not always wrong.
Think of the Christmas story. When Joseph, who was engaged to Mary, found that she was with child, the text says that “Because Joseph was a righteous man he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” The first thing we notice is that Joseph had to divorce Mary even though they were only engaged. Jewish betrothals were legally binding in the first century. Leaving that aside, we also see that Joseph was considered righteous for divorcing her quietly. He is commended for the quietness mostly, but the divorce didn’t seem to reflect badly on Joseph. Mary, it was thought, had committed sexual immorality, and so Joseph was considered righteous for divorcing her quietly.
We also see in some Old Testament texts that the Lord divorced his people. For example, Jeremiah 3:8 says, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.” God’s people were spiritual adulterers and so the Lord, after putting up with them for generations, finally said, “Enough, you’ve broken the covenant for the last time. Here’s your certificate of divorce. Be gone.” Now, the love story is that God still woos his wayward bride back to himself, welcoming her home when she turns and repents. But if the Lord can divorce his adulterous spouse, then divorce must not always be wrong.
One other thing to note is that marriage is not indissoluble. This means marriage really can end. Now, usually they shouldn’t. But they can. The covenant can be severed. When Jesus says, “What God has joined together, let no man separate” he implies that the couple can be separated. I mention this because sometimes people will argue against remarriage, saying “She’s still married in God’s eyes.” I don’t think that’s the right way to talk about the situation. Divorced couples are divorced. They are not married in God’s eyes. The question is whether they should still be married and hence, they ought not to be with another man or woman.
3. Divorce is permitted, but not required, on the ground of sexual immorality.
We need to look at a few different passages, starting with Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
The key phrase is in verse 1: “something indecent” (erwath dabar). It’s a very ambiguous phrase, and the Jews argued about it constantly. The phrase is actually used in a chapter earlier in Deuteronomy 23:12-14:
You shall have a place outside the camp, and you shall go out to it. And you shall have a trowel with your tools, and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.
You can see that erwath dabar means in general something repulsive, something indecent. It’s not a precise phrase. Because of this ambiguity, two different rabbinical schools emerged. On one side was the more conservative Shammai school, and on the other, the more liberal Hillel school, both well known around the time of Jesus. The Mishna records:
The School of Shammai says: A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything. And the School of Hillel says: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.
They referred to the same verse, but Shammai emphasized “indecency” and Hillel emphasized “anything.” Jesus is going to side squarely with the more conservative school. Turn to Matthew 19. This is the same incident we read about earlier in Mark. The Pharisees have come to test Jesus. They specifically ask him about the grounds for divorce and what Moses commanded in Deuteronomy 24. But notice Jesus’ words here are a bit different. They include an exception in verse 9: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness [porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery [moichaomai].” Divorce is not allowed for any reason whatsoever (like Hillel said), only for marital unfaithfulness (like Shammai said). Sexual sin breaks the marriage covenant because sex is the oath signing of the covenant. Having sexual experiences with someone other than your spouse is like trying to sign on someone else’s dotted line. That breaks the covenant and is a ground for divorce. Divorce is still not required, but it is allowed.
Of course, all this raises the question: why does Matthew include the exception clause when Mark doesn’t? Some people have argued that Matthew’s gospel isn’t talking about sex during marriage, but sex before marriage. In first century Judaism a betrothal was legally binding. That’s why Joseph was going to divorce Mary after he found out she was with child. They were only engaged at the time, but even breaking off an engagement required a divorce. So the theory is that Matthew records these words so his readers will be clear that Joseph wasn’t doing anything wrong when he planned to divorce Mary for what seemed to be fornication.
Some Christians I really respect hold to this view, but I don’t think it will work. For starters, the question from the Pharisees revolves around Deuteronomy 24, which was not about betrothal. Second, the word porneia is a broad word that includes all kinds of sexual sin, not just sex before marriage while engaged. And besides, Matthew 1 never uses the word porneia to describe Mary’s supposed sin, and nothing in Matthew 19 explicitly ties the situation back to Mary and Joseph.
So how do we understand this—Matthew includes the exception, while Mark and Luke don’t? Remember these are parallel accounts. They are describing the same event. You could say that Matthew added something to Jesus’ words, but isn’t is easier to assume Mark and Luke left something out? And why would they leave the exception out? Because they wanted the saying to be more memorable? Perhaps. But I think the basic reason they left out the exception is because it was already a given. No one in Judaism disagreed that divorce was acceptable on grounds of sexual immorality. Mark and Luke didn’t have to include Jesus’ exception because they figured it was a given. It’s like when Jesus said, “If your brother has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled first” (Matt. 5:23-24). We naturally assume Jesus means “If your brother has something legitimate against you,” because Jesus didn’t go tracking down everyone who was upset with him. In the same way, when Mark records “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” the implied assumption is “Whoever divorces his wife without cause…” I believe Jesus spoke the exception clause. Matthew included it to be clear, while Mark and Luke left it out because they thought it was already a given.
4. Divorce is permitted, but not required, on the ground of desertion by an unbelieving spouse.
Turn to 1 Corinthians 7. Let’s pick things up at verse 8.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Paul would like everyone to stay as they are (cf. 17, 20), but if they have to marry, then go ahead and marry. That’s what he says to the singles and widows. This is what he says to the married.
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband.
Paul is saying, “This is not my own rule. I got this from Jesus.” (But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband) and the husband should not divorce his wife.
So if someone does get wrongly divorced, they should try to be reconciled with their spouse or stay single. They should not remarry after an illegitimate divorce.
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord):
He means, “This command is not from the lips of Jesus himself, but it’s still a command you need to follow.”
...that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Here’s the second ground for a divorce: desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Now, we should try to live at peace with an unbelieving spouse. After all, God may save your spouse through you. Reconciliation is still the ideal. But if the unbeliever refuses to live with you and leaves, let him do so. You are not bound to be married when your unbelieving spouse deserts you.
The traditional Protestant position—the position written down in the Westminster Confession and held by most evangelicals—is that divorce is permissible on two grounds: sexual immorality and desertion. In both case the marriage covenant is severed. In one case, because sexual intimacy has taken place with another. And in the second case, because the spouse just plain isn’t there.
Let me just add that I am sympathetic to and yet extremely cautious about finding other grounds for divorce. On the one hand, I think it’s possible that God did not mean to give us every possible grounds for divorce in the New Testament. Jesus gave one and Paul (admittedly, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit)mentioned another one relevant to the Corinthian situation. So might there be one or two other grounds for divorce? Perhaps. And yet, if you say that you open up a Pandora’s box of trouble. People will argue that psychological abuse is a ground and emotional neglect is a ground and maybe terrible unhappiness is a ground for divorce. I think it is safer biblically to maintain that there are two acceptable grounds for divorce. But having said that, I could envision in extreme situations the elders might conclude: “This man (or woman) has not completely disappeared but his life is tantamount to desertion.” If a guy is strung out on drugs, gambling all their worldly possessions and has repeatedly beaten his wife, might that count as desertion at some point?
This is why each case needs to be dealt with individually. It’s also why we need biblical principles, so we have something to apply in these gut-wrenching, difficult sinful scenarios.
5. When the divorce was not permissible, any subsequent remarriage (to someone other than the original spouse) results in adultery.
We’ve already seen Jesus make this point in Mark 10. If you are illegitimately divorced, then the remarriage is also illegitimate. This doesn’t mean you aren’t really divorced and you aren’t really remarried. It means you shouldn’t have been divorced. The covenant hadn’t been broken and shouldn’t have been severed. Consequently, you shouldn’t be married to someone other than your original spouse. And that means if you are remarried that new sexual relationship is sinful. So what do you do if you are already in a sinful second marriage? I’ll come back to that in the last point.
6. In situations where the divorce was permissible, remarriage is also permissible.
Now what about remarriage? Remarriage is clearly allowed after a spouse dies (Romans 7:3). But what about after a biblically sanctioned divorce? Let me give you a few reasons why I think remarriage is permissible.
First, I think grammatically it is more likely that the exception clause in Matthew 19 modified both verbs. In other words, when Jesus says “except for marital unfaithfulness” that covers “whoever divorces” and “marries another.”
Second, all scholars on every side of this divorce and remarriage debate agree that it was a given for first century Jews that remarriage was a valid option after a valid divorce. To be granted a legal separation meant de facto that you were no longer bound to anyone and thus free to remarry. No one in Jesus audience was thinking that remarriage wouldn’t be an option. If Jesus wanted to teach that remarriage after every divorce was unacceptable, he would have made that new teaching much clearer.
Third, the phrase “is not enslaved” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 probably implies that the spouse who has been deserted is free to marry. This would have been the default Jewish position, and it seems to be the same idea found clearly in v. 39 (“she is free to be married to whom she wishes”). The Greek word is different in verse 15, but they are related words that convey the same idea.
Of course, just because a divorced person may be free to remarry does not mean it is necessarily a good or wise idea. A lot of other considerations come into play. But the general principle is, after a legitimate divorce, there is freedom to remarry.
7. Improperly divorced and remarried Christians should stay as they are, but repent and be forgiven of their past sins and make whatever amends are necessary.
This is where things get really messy. What if you are in a second or third marriage that you now realize is sinful? Should you get a divorce? I don’t think so. The principle in 1 Corinthians 7, repeated in verses 17, 20 and 24, is “remain as you are.” God does not want you to add to the sin of a remarriage the sin of another divorce.
Does this mean those Christians have gotten away with sin? Not at all. We are never better off for having sinned. There are consequences in our relationships. There may be consequences in your spiritual life. And if you look back at your sinful divorce and remarriage and think “Wow, I’m glad I didn’t know all this ten years ago” that is a dreadful sign that something is very wrong in your heart. If the Spirit is at work you will not think “Phew, I really got away with one here.” Instead you will think, “O Lord, I am so sorry. I was ignorant of the Scriptures. I was blind to my own sin. I have broken your law and sullied the name of Christ. Please forgive me. Have mercy on us Lord.” And you’ll not only ask for the Lord’s forgiveness, you’ll make things right with your ex-spouse, with your kids, your parents, your in-laws—you’ll make amends and ask for forgiveness with anyone else you hurt by breaking your marriage vows.
Let me just finish by very briefly addressing three groups of people.
To the married: Stay married. Guard your marriage. Don’t think you are above falling. Don’t think you are above temptation. Pray together. Take walks together. Get away from the kids to be together. There are few things more precious in life than your marriage. Do not take it for granted. And if you are contemplating divorce, please talk to someone. Please don’t give up. If you have biblical grounds for divorce, consider what glory it might be to God to patiently work toward reconciliation. And if you don’t have biblical grounds, consider what offense it will be to God to break the promises you made in his name. Consider the harm to your kids. Stay married.
To the divorced and single: If you had grounds for a divorce, the leaders want to do everything we can to make sure no one looks down on you. If you have been sinned against, we do not want to treat you as the sinner. We do not want you to run from the church, but find grace and fellowship here.
If you are divorced but shouldn’t be, can you find hope in your heart that God might be able to reconcile you and your spouse? It would be a great trophy of his grace to bring you two back together. If that doesn’t happen, don’t get remarried. Don’t think you can always repent later. You never know: the next time you blatantly sin may be the time the Lord gives you over to the hardness of your heart and puts you beyond the pale.
To those who have sinfully divorced, to those whose sin caused the divorce, to those who are now remarried when you shouldn’t be: run to the cross. It is not a light thing to tear asunder what God joined together. It is no small mistake to pursue an adulterous second marriage. But God’s grace is not light, and it is not small. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. There is mercy yet for you. But the contrition must be real, the admission of guilt must be honest, the repentance must be earnest. A broken heart and a contrite spirit the Lord will never deny. Run to God. Plead with God. Know his adopting love. Experience again his justifying free grace. There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.