A Discussion of Divorce and Remarriage
Several of you have asked recently for our thoughts on what the Bible says about a divorced person remarrying. This is a HUGE issue for abuse victims/survivors for reasons that you already know. Christians want to obey Christ, no matter how hard that might be. This zeal and love for the Lord is often used by abusers to keep their victims in bondage — “You know that the Bible says you can’t divorce me.” You all know how that goes, I am sure.
On top of the abuser’s deceptions, victims also have to deal with the advice of “well-meaning-Christian” friends. What I find incredible is how quickly Christians can be to pronounce judgment upon a divorced and/or remarried person when even a brief survey of books and sermons on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage evidences an obvious disparity of opinion among Christians.
- Some churches exercise church discipline if a member violates their no-divorce-for-any-reason position, and pronounce as adulterous those who remarry.
- Many others insist that divorce is not permitted by God for abuse, but only for adultery and literal desertion.
- Some of them also would even ex-communicate an abuse victim who divorces their abuser, and if they were to remarry, they would again be viewed as guilty of adultery.
This is doing cruel harm to victims of abuse who often are sincere Christians, doing their best to know God’s will and obey it.
In this article, I am just going to state some basic conclusions I have come to, giving what I believe to be the biblical support for those positions. However, if anyone is going to have a clear conscience and come to a sound decision on what God says about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, you are going to need to do some study of Scripture yourself and see it for yourself.
You can get some help in such a study and I would recommend that you begin by getting a copy of Barbara Roberts’ book Not Under Bondage [*affiliate link]. You can find it on her website notunderbondage.com or at any book retailer. The value of this book is that not only does it examine the pertinent Scriptures, but it does so through the lens of abuse, Barbara being a survivor of abuse herself. So I recommend that you start there.
David Instone-Brewer’s book, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities [*affiliate link] has also helped a number of victims that I know.
Does God permit divorce for abuse?
My Answer: Yes. Most assuredly, yes. Now, please understand that we are defining abuse as the habitual, evil quest for power and control over another human being, characterized by a profound sense of entitlement to possession of that power, and by a virtually conscienceless rationale of justification for using whatever means are necessary to maintain that power and control. We say this lest critics claim we teach people they can divorce for virtually any sin on the part of their spouse.
But God does permit divorce for abuse. Why? Because abuse is a violation of the terms (vows) of the marriage covenant. Marriage is a covenant –
Proverbs 2:16-17 So you will be delivered from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the companion of her youth and forgets the covenant of her God
Ezekiel 16:8 When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine. [Here, God compares His covenant with Israel to a marriage, indicating that marriage is a covenant].
Malachi 2:14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
[By the way, did you know that in verse 16 in the ESV, as in several other translations, a “favorite” phrase used to support the no-divorce-for-abuse position is missing?]
So marriage is a covenant. Covenants have terms, just like our contracts today have terms. Covenants can be broken. In fact, there is only one covenant that cannot be broken: the New Covenant established by Christ for His Church. That covenant is unbreakable because Christ has met all of the terms for us AND He effects a heart-change in His people so that they love Him and obey Him (See Jeremiah 31:31ff; Hebrews 8).
When Israel broke her covenant with the Lord, the Lord divorced her —
Jeremiah 3:7-8 And I thought, “After she has done all this she will return to me,” but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore.
God then remarried. In Christ, He established the New Covenant with the true Israel, His Church. Is it going too far then to maintain that God is divorced and remarried? I don’t think so. The Israel He married in the New Covenant is not the physical nation of Israel that broke the Old Covenant. Oh, I know that the woodenly literal hermeneutics of much of contemporary evangelicalism will disagree. But this is one reason reformed theology has helped me and many others so much. God does not have two peoples and two plans of salvation for each. He has one people, His Church — and that Bride is the true Israel, set to inhabit the New Heavens and the New Earth, the real Promised Land. So God did not turn right around and re-marry the same wife when He effected the New Covenant in Christ.
Galatians 4:24-26 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.
Romans 2:28-29 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
In my opinion then, once we understand that marriage is a covenant, and the vows taken by the husband and wife are the terms of that covenant, things begin to fall into place. This means that a marriage covenant can be destroyed by the ongoing, unrepentant violation of the vows.
It means that the offended party has a right to sue for divorce, which is nothing more than asking the civil authorities to recognize that the marriage has been destroyed by the guilty party.
So then, what are the vows?
The terms of this “deal” or contract? Are they only that neither spouse will commit adultery? “I promise in the presence of God and these witnesses that I will not chase after other women/men. As long as I don’t do that, you are stuck with me for life”? No, it seems that we recall some other promises in the vows. Things like love, honor, cherish. Does the abuser keep those vows? Of course not. Abuse is precisely the opposite of what was promised. Abuse smashes the terms of the covenant. The innocent party is not under bondage of that covenant any longer, and they can divorce, if they so choose.
What about re-marriage then after divorce?
Some Christians teach and believe that once divorced, a person can never marry again, at least as long as their ex-spouse is still alive. Many abuse victims have been pronounced guilty of adultery when they remarried.
I like what a member of our Wednesday Bible study said recently: “We make the abuse victim wear the scarlet ‘A,’ but we should be making the abuser wear this label —’A’ — (abuser).”
God does not prohibit remarriage absolutely. He condemns remarriage by the guilty party following a treacherous divorce (Roberts’ term). Even in such a case as a treacherous divorce, however, I do not believe we should make widespread pronouncements that sentence even the guilty party to lifetime celibacy. What, for example, if that guilty spouse truly repents later? Emphasis on truly. Are we going to tell him/her that God would never let them marry again?
In other words, it is an error to take Jesus’ words in isolation and make them an all-inclusive, absolute law for all situations —
Luke 16:18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Far too many Christians and pastors and writers come along, see a verse like this, and BOOM! — it’s their answer for every situation. No divorce, no remarriage. But other Scriptures indicate otherwise. God did re-marry after divorce.
I am sure that some of you can provide even more insight — this is only a bare beginning. But let me conclude my comments by encouraging you to remember this: Whenever our interpretation and application of Scripture results in putting innocent people under a heavy load of cruel bondage. it is time for us to go back and re-examine how we have handled Scripture. Because something has gone wrong.
God does not do this to people —
Matthew 23:4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
In contrast, this is Jesus’ way —
Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Following Christ is tough. It can be incredibly difficult. But in the kind of labor and difficulty He calls us to, there is this “rest” in our souls.
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