Summary: Everyone agrees that divorce is one of the worst tragedies plaguing families today. Sadly, many pastors and church leaders have sometimes made things worst. What does the Bible really teach about this difficult issue?
Divorce & Remarriage
by Scott R. Bayles
Church of Christ
Everyone agrees that divorce is one of the worst tragedies plaguing American families today. Some studies are now showing that for the first time in American history, single parent families now out number families with two parents living in the same house. As Dr. James Dobson has said, “There are no winners when a marriage begins to unravel.” When divorce happens, it leaves in its wake broken hopes, broken hearts and broken homes. Sadly, many pastors and church leaders have sometimes made things worst.
In an attempt to honor the sanctity of marriage we have, at times, made some very unbiblical claims about divorce and remarriage. The most common of which is the often made assertion that Jesus only allows one reason for divorce (adultery), and even then only the “innocent party” may remarry. If anyone divorces for any other reason, they must remain celibate the rest of their lives--otherwise they would be “living in adultery.” Consider this letter from a man whose church actually wants him to get a divorce:
“My wife and I are both divorced. Her ex-husband is still alive; however, my ex-wife has passed away. We are very concerned about the issue of whether or not we are living in adultery, as it seems Jesus teaches... I know members of the Church of Christ who insist that the only way for us to escape living in adultery is to divorce one another and remain unmarried. I realize divorce is a travesty; it hurts children, parents, friends and many others. Please help us understand the truth... Does our divorce and remarriage put us in a class of ‘unforgivable’ people, if we insist on remaining married?”
Is that really what the Bible says? Does God really think you’re “living in adultery” if you’ve been divorced and then marry someone else? Is there ever a good reason to divorce other than adultery? What if you were forced into a divorce and it wasn’t really what you wanted? Can you ever get married again if you’ve been through a divorce?
These are important questions--not just theologically, but personally. The answers to these questions effect all of us. Statistically, nearly half of the people listening to (reading) this have been divorced--and if you haven’t, then someone you love has. But we can take heart, because God has provided answers for all our questions.
While it’s true that Jesus said some things about divorce that may seem difficult, if we are going to understand him properly we first need to understand the Biblical and historical context in which Jesus said them. That means going all the way back to...
I. MOSES’ DOCTRINE ON DIVORCE:
The most often cited Old Testament passage about divorce is found in Deuteronomy 24: “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house” (vs. 1 HCSB).
The Hebrew phrase translated “something improper” is ervat debar. The first word (ervat) literally means nakedness or sexual immorality. The second word (debar) means a thing, cause, or reason. A better translation of the Hebrew here would be “a reason of sexual immorality,” because it fits best with the context as well as the ancient Jewish interpretation that the woman here was guilty of adultery.
Some scholars reject the idea that adultery (or sexual immorality) is in mind here because the Law demanded that an adulterer be put to death. While its true that the Law said “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die” (Deut. 22:22 NIV), this law was not uniformly applied. For example, the Bible tells us that when Mary told Joseph that she was pregnant, “Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19 ESV). Joseph was considered righteous because he did not subject Mary to the death penalty (or to the public disgrace involved in discovering whether or not she had committed adultery). Instead, he planned to divorce her quietly as most Jewish men would have done under the Law of Moses.
It’s also important to notice that in this passage even the woman guilty of sexual immorality was free to marry “another man.” Notice vs. 2: “If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife...” (HCSB). Moses does not in any way condemn the woman for marrying another man, even after being divorced for sexual immorality. The only prohibition was that she could not then go and remarry her first husband: “If her second husband doesn’t love her and divorces her, or if he dies, her first husband is not allowed to marry her again. She has become unclean. This would be disgusting in the Lord’s presence. Don’t pollute with sin the land that the Lord your God is giving you as your property” (vs. 3-4 GW).