In my ministry, I have performed a number of weddings, and those have involved a number of remarriages. In one case, a woman came to our church when she was married to her first husband, and our church was her support network when that man decided to divorce her. Later, I performed her wedding when she got remarried. However, that marriage failed, and a few years later, I then had the privilege of officiating at her third wedding.
To some pastors, my willingness to endorse a remarriage and my further willingness to do it again proves that I’m unqualified to address this issue, but I have strong Biblical grounds for why I have taken my position, and I hope by writing it here, I might provide some encouragement to those who have been misled or even wounded by alternate positions.
To be frank, there are some positions taken by pastors and church people that appear biblically sound on the surface but are deeply flawed underneath. The people of God and specifically the people who study the Word of God have been doing this for thousands of years… since the days the Word of God was first written down. Aaron’s sons misunderstood (or ignored) the instructions of God regarding the incense in the tabernacle, and God struck them down. Aaron, when he made the golden calf, told the people it was a valid way to worship the God of the burning bush. He referred to the golden calf as Yahweh! We see this again in the time of the prophets, and it becomes obviously evident in the interactions between the Pharisees and Jesus.
The bottom line is that people use the Word of God to hurt people, or they misunderstand the Word of God and thereby hurt themselves. We must be wary of both errors.
In the discussion of marriage and remarriage and fornication and adultery and all that, there are a number of Bible passages that are quoted frequently, and there are a few that are generally ignored. However, there actually aren’t many of them, and so we can effectively deal with all of them here. In the following verses, I will be using the NIV because it is the most common translation, but I will make reference to the Greek or Hebrew if it is ever relevant.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Genesis 2:23-25 NIV
When Jesus talks about marriage, he refers back to this passage directly by quoting from it, so let’s admit that it is the most important passage about marriage.
There are three things to note:
- There is a responsibility placed on the man to embrace his wife as his new family. He “leaves” his father and mother. Now, we understand that the same “leaving” wasn’t mentioned about the wife because the ancient audience of this text would have already assumed that. Her departure from her family was a given. However, when Moses wrote these words, he was making the case that the man likewise needed to leave his family identity as he began to form a new identity with his wife.
- The man and the wife are “united” into “one flesh.” This perhaps is the most important concept of all biblical concepts regarding marriage. These words encompass all the other concepts regarding marriage. Since the man is “united” to the wife and since they are “one flesh,” the ideas of them ever separating or of ever adding a third person into the mix, both fall outside this basic definition of marriage. The only way to divide “one flesh” is death. Similarly, a union with one person precludes a union with another person. Finally, the “one flesh” imagery clearly also contains the concept of sexual union.
- The word “marriage” is not contained in this passage nor is the concept of a wedding. This is important because the original marriage was a physical and spiritual covenant of “identity” more than any governmentally enforced contract. The man takes the woman as his wife not by going through some ceremony but by making the social statement that he is no longer aligned to his mom and dad, by making the relational commitment to be united with this woman for life with total vulnerability, and by consummating the “one flesh” arrangement through sexual exclusivity.
Now, centuries later, we have embraced a wide variety of additional rules and regulations about marriage. There are laws of the state, there are family rules, and there are social expectations, but these three principles are the fundamental principles. In fact, I will summarize these principles in one formula for what the Bible means when it talks about what it means to be married:
One man, one wife, united for life.
This is our fundamental definition. Everything begins with that. Biblical marriage isn’t primarily about uniting two families because the man must leave his family of origin. It’s not primarily about the man becoming the dominator in the home because the two are fully united. It’s not about creating an environment for children. It’s not a foundation of social order. It’s not even about a governmentally endorsed relationship or covenant. Biblical marriage is simply this: One man, one wife, united for life.
However, if this is the definition of marriage, we need to realize that any deviation from this concept creates something that isn’t marriage.
If you change the word “man” to “woman” or “wife” to “husband” you no longer have a marriage.
If you change the word “united” to “in love” or “compatible” or “happy,” you no longer have the definition of marriage. It doesn’t mean that a marriage can’t be happy or filled with feelings of love, but that’s not the biblical definition.
Finally, if you change the phrase “for life” to “for a long time” or “until the kids grow up” or “as long as you treat me right,” then you also don’t have a biblical marriage.
The only concept of the Bible according to Genesis 2 is this one, and unless some place later in the Bible redefines marriage, this is the definition we should hold onto for the rest of the teaching on marriage.
However, as we will see, the Bible never will redefine marriage although there will be many places where this definition is strained. As just one example, consider this event from the life of Abraham:
(1) Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; (2) so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. (3) So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. (4) He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. (5) Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”
(6) “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
(7) The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. (8) And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
(9) Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” (10) The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
Genesis 16:1-10 NIV
I bring this up because two things are incredibly important to notice:
First, immediately in the context of Abram sleeping with Hagar, she is referred to as his “wife.” However, the whole rest of the passage refers to her as Sarai’s slave. Clearly, the writer of this text is trying to communicate that sex implies marriage or that sex is only appropriate between a man and his wife, or at the very least that by sleeping with Hagar, Abram was violating his unity covenant with Sarai. This behavior along with all other acts of polygamy in the Bible is never endorsed or even spoken of positively.
Secondly, and this is the more important of the two, this passage illustrates how God himself is on the side of the woman who has been sexually exploited. Even though Abram is the recipient of the covenant, even though Sarai is the one who will bear the promised child (eventually), God goes out of his way to find Hagar and comfort her. Furthermore, this is the first occurrence in the Bible of the being called the “angel of the LORD” who is by most scholarly accounts Jesus, the Son of God himself, making a pre-incarnate appearance as the personal, visible presence of the God of grace and mercy.
Therefore, even though this passage puts a strain on our definition of marriage, it also actually confirms the definition we have already seen and it adds the nuance that where the definition is strained, God will take the side of the victimized person.
There are many other stories I could turn to in the interest of confirming this point, but we have many more passages to consider, so let’s move onward.
Instructions on Marriage and Divorce
Let’s turn our attention to the instructions given by Moses to the people of Israel.
First, in Leviticus, we get a number of instructions about sexuality in general, and Leviticus 19-20 are the main instructions often quoted. Now, I will look at these verses at the end of this article when I address the topic of punishment for adultery, but for the moment, I want to highlight just a few aspects of this instruction to bolster my claim about the definition of marriage.
First, take note of the framework for the sexuality commands, the instructions that come before them in Leviticus 19:
(13) “ ‘Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.
“ ‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
(14) “ ‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.
(15) “ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
(16) “ ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“ ‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the LORD.
(17) “ ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
(18) “ ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:13-18 NIV
Clearly, these social commands are all about upholding a social order of dignity to all people and consideration of one another. Verse 18 is in fact the verse Jesus quoted when he was describing the second greatest commandment.
It’s in this vein that we get the commands about sexuality later in the chapter. The commands about sexuality fall under the context of loving your neighbor as yourself and giving other people honor instead of taking advantage of them. Here’s just one of the commands:
(11) “ ‘If a man has sexual relations with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.
Leviticus 20:11 NIV
Note that the reason this kind of sexuality is prohibited is that it brings dishonor to someone. The specific act of sex isn’t what is condemned here. Rather, the condemnation falls on the fact that this sexual encounter has brought dishonor to the man who was rightfully married to that woman. This sexual encounter is prohibited because of the social and relational impact of it and because it has violated the central tenet of marriage:
One man, one wife, united for life.
Moving into Deuteronomy, we find additional instructions about sexuality that inform our understanding of marriage. Consider this one:
(28) If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, (29) he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.
Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV
Although much is made about the Old Testament commands to kill adulterers, this instruction does not require killing. Why? Well, make note of the fact that this woman was not already committed to another. Therefore, since these people weren’t already married, this act of sex was not “adultery” properly defined, and therefore, the rules about adultery don’t apply. Rather, a different set of rules apply.
First, because the woman was not married to this man, the act of sex is called “rape.” We do ourselves a disservice to think of this in modern terms as if our definition of rape is the only one. However, we must also recognize that all sexual activity without the covering of a lifelong commitment is a kind of violence in itself. In this case, by sleeping with this woman, the man has “violated her.” He has caused her to be sexually tainted, and in that society, no one would want her after that.
Secondly, the required “punishment” placed on the man is that he pay the bride price to her family, he must marry her (officially take her into his own household), and to never divorce her.
Now, this is important. To our modern ears, this sounds like the law requires the woman to live with her rapist. We recoil at that notion with proper horror. However, the original intent of this law was something completely different. This law requires this woman to be taken care of for the rest of her life. This law is a requirement that the man who violated this woman will be financially responsible for her forever. A modern translation of the principle might be that any man who sleeps with a woman not his wife must pay her living expenses for the rest of her life. If such a law were on the books, what would that do to the rates of extramarital sexual activity in our society!?
Still, this passage reaffirms what we noticed at the beginning of this study. When it comes to marriage, the ceremony is insignificant. Rather, the one-flesh relationship is the determining factor. If sex happens with a person who is your spouse, that’s under the umbrella of marriage. If sex happens with a person who is someone else’s spouse, that’s adultery and is subject to a wide range of punishments. If sex happens with a person who isn’t already married, that act of sex initiates a lifelong covenant of responsibility and care.
Sexual activity either initiates, continues or violates a marriage.
This next passage confirms the point:
(13) If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her (14) and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” (15) then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. (16) Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. (17) Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, (18) and the elders shall take the man and punish him. (19) They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.
Deuteronomy 22:13-19 NIV
In this case, the man has slept with a woman but for whatever reason doesn’t think she’s a virgin when they come together. Based on the context, we can assume it has something to do with the presence or absence of her hymen and the evidence of the blood that is collected whenever the hymen was broken. We don’t know all the details of their cultural customs regarding proving virginity, but we do know this: If a man somehow causes a woman to be sexually dishonored, whether by “violating her” sexually or by slandering her in relation to her sexuality, then he must pay for such acts of violation. In this case, as before, he is obligated to continue to financially support her for the rest of her life.
Both of the previous passages addressed divorce. Specifically, they gave us two cases when divorce was entirely prohibited for the people of God. However, these instructions imply something else. They both imply that in the majority of cases, divorce was permitted for the people of God. Why would that be? Well, we will have to wait for Jesus’ commentary on it to know the real answer, but for the time being, we can just observe that human beings are fickle. We regularly make commitments that we come later to regret, and the marriage commitment is no exception. As a result, through Moses, God also gave instructions for how to handle divorce. Take a look at these instructions in Deuteronomy:
(1) 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, (2) and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, (3) 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, (4) 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. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NIV
This passage presumes that the idea of “writing a certificate of divorce” was a well-known practice. Moses never gives instructions regarding how to write such a certificate or what it needs to say, but one thing is clear. The process of divorce involved the man giving the woman written proof of her freedom.
This is important. Remember this comes in the context of a society where women had no material rights. They didn’t have the ability to own property, they didn’t have the ability to engage in commerce, and therefore, they were completely cut off from the economics of the day. If a man didn’t want his wife anymore, and if he kicked her out of his home, he was issuing her a death sentence. She couldn’t go home, because her parents wouldn’t want to be accused of harboring a runaway wife. She couldn’t take up with another man because that man wouldn’t want to be accused of taking another man’s wife. No, her only hope is if she had an actual document written by her husband declaring that he was relinquishing his claim to her.
Let’s be frank. The whole point of a divorce certificate was to give the woman her dignity back. The whole point was to make it possible for her to go on living in that society. With such a certificate, she could safely return home to her parents and/or be taken in by another man. The whole point of a divorce was to care for the woman, to de-victimize her.
However, this instruction from Moses also makes another interesting point. If a man divorces a woman, he must reconcile with her before she finds a home with another man or else he must never reunite with her again. He had his chance. He disgraced her, defiled her, and he didn’t resolve the situation with her. Once again, this instruction is to provide dignity to the abused woman.
However, these instructions about divorce also seem to indicate that our definition of marriage should be expanded a bit.
Based on these instructions, we might conclude that the biblical definition of marriage goes like this:
One man, one wife, united until death or divorce. (?)
Let’s see if that definition gets reconfirmed in the rest of the Bible. Hint: when we get to Jesus, he will say clearly that we need to keep the original definition, but we’ll come to that in a bit.
There are a number of other references to divorce in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are three.
In Isaiah, we read this:
(1) This is what the LORD says:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce
with which I sent her away?
Or to which of my creditors
did I sell you?
Because of your sins you were sold;
because of your transgressions your mother was sent away.
(2) When I came, why was there no one?
When I called, why was there no one to answer?
Was my arm too short to deliver you?
Do I lack the strength to rescue you?
By a mere rebuke I dry up the sea,
I turn rivers into a desert;
their fish rot for lack of water
and die of thirst.
Isaiah 50:1-2 NIV
This is an interesting passage where God is complaining that his people have not desired a relationship with him. He called them and they didn’t answer. Was it because they didn’t think he could save them? Did they not know about all his power? The bottom line is that since they wouldn’t stay in relationship with God, he divorced them and sent them away. In other words, God is using the metaphor of divorce to describe his own behavior toward the people of Israel. Because of their unfaithfulness, he is justified in cancelling his covenant with them. For our purposes, we should recognize that God himself endorses divorce as the proper response to persistent unfaithfulness.
We see this same idea confirmed in the words of Jeremiah:
(8) I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery.
Jeremiah 3:8 NIV
Jeremiah is using the word “adultery” in a metaphorical way here. Certainly, there was adultery in the land of Israel and in Judah, but the context makes it clear that the adultery Jeremiah is talking about is their unfaithfulness to God.
Regarding unfaithfulness, Malachi also addresses divorce:
(13) Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. (14) You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
(15) Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.
(16) “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty.
So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.
Malachi 2:13-16 NIV
I want to take a few moments on this passage, because it’s one of the passages that has been misused by many in the Christian world. And this misuse has been augmented by a translation issue. Consider verse 16 in some other translations:
(16) For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
Malachi 2:16 NASB
(16) “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
Malachi 2:16 NIV84
This translation is based on the old King James Version:
(16) For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
Malachi 2:16 KJV
Here “putting away” is the word we translate in modern times by the word “divorce.” From these translations, we can get the idea that divorce is the thing God hates. The party line goes like this:
God hates divorce, so avoid it at all costs, because if you allow divorce to be part of your society God will no longer pay attention to your prayers and cries for mercy.
Based on this understanding, churches and Christians continue today to act as if divorce itself is the thing God hates.
However, this understanding of the passage is wrong in two ways.
First, the translation of the old King James was wrong. The problem isn’t that God hates divorce. The problem is that the man hates his wife. Consider that the current revision of the NIV agrees with the widely respected ESV and other translations that reflect more up to date scholarship:
(16) “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
Malachi 2:16 ESV
(16) “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the LORD Almighty.
So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.
Malachi 2:13-16 NIV
The better translations based on better scholarship understand that the hatred is from the man toward his wife, not from God toward divorce. But the translation issue isn’t the only thing wrong with the party line. The second issue has to do with the context of the passage.
Take special note that the last line of verse 16 is the admonition to “not be unfaithful.” What’s important is that the entirety of chapter 2 is God’s accusation against the people for “breaking faith.”
(10) Do we not all have one Father ? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?
(11) Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. (12) As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD remove him from the tents of Jacob —even though he brings an offering to the LORD Almighty.
Malachi 2:10-12 NIV
Here, the people of God are being accused of faithlessness. They were unfaithful to each other (10), but they were also unfaithful to God because they had brought the worship of foreign gods into their own homes. Note that in this case, the act of getting married was the act of faithlessness.
Then, when you come to verse 14, the accusation is that the men have been unfaithful in another way. They have divorced the wives of their youth. In other words, their unfaithfulness to God is represented both by their marriage to women who bring foreign gods into their home, and also by their divorces from the women who came from among their own people.
The point is not the marriage or the divorce. In all these cases, the point is all about the faithfulness.
Once again, the best way to understand this passage isn’t that God hates divorce. Perhaps he wanted the men who married foreign women to divorce those women (something that the people of Ezra’s day actually do). The best way to understand this passage is that God hates unfaithfulness and violence. He hates it when someone makes a promise and then breaks it. He hates it when people claim to follow him, but don’t live that way. He hates it when a person makes a promise to another person and then violates that promise.
Let’s be clear. It’s not that God hates divorce. He hates unfaithfulness, and he hates it when one person does an act of hate or violence against another. Reading the passage in context makes that point abundantly clear.
Teaching of Jesus
At this point, we are finally able to enter the New Testament to address the teaching on divorce and remarriage found there.
Let’s begin with Matthew 1:19.
(18) This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. (19) Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Matthew 1:18-19 NIV
I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but it’s important to note two things. Because Mary is found to be pregnant, Joseph concludes that she has violated the rules of marriage and adultery. However, if he issues her a certificate of divorce, then she won’t be engaged when word of her pregnancy comes out, and therefore, her action won’t be labeled “adultery.” By giving her such a certificate, he will be saving her life. Alternatively, since in his mind, she has committed a violation of their marriage, the proper response from him is to do what God did with the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Issue a divorce. Whichever rationale was more prominent in Joseph’s mind, we know one thing. Divorce, according to the text, was the righteous thing for him to do.
The lessons get a bit harder to deal with when we get to the actual teaching of Jesus, though.
(31) “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ (32) But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 5:31-32 NIV
This lesson from the sermon on the mount is effectively Jesus’ manifesto on what marriage really is. We will get more detail later, but this by itself is enough for us to learn something really important.
For clarity, let’s see it in another translation too:
(31) “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; (32) but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 5:31-32 NASB
Jesus says that if a man divorces his wife, he causes her to become an adulteress. (The NIV interprets this to mean “the victim of adultery.”) Now, that’s a weird statement. It feels backwards because we think of “becoming an adulteress” as what happens when a woman sleeps with a man who isn’t her husband. But according to Jesus’ words, she doesn’t become an adulteress when she marries another. She becomes an adulteress when the divorce takes place. Why is that?
Honestly, it doesn’t make sense unless we go all the way back to our original definition of marriage.
One man, one wife, united for life. (!)
I made the claim earlier on that if you change any of those words, you no longer have a biblical marriage. What if Jesus is working from this original definition? Well, let’s consider the scenario he lays out. The man divorces his wife. At the moment of their divorce, the marriage is declared to be over. That means the woman is no longer his wife and they are no longer united. But it also means you have to redefine what they had up until the divorce. It means you have to re-interpret what relational context they were living in when they were sexually active with each other. For the couple in this scenario, the context they were living in must be re-interpreted with this definition:
One man, one wife, united until divorce.
This definition doesn’t match the original definition of marriage. Therefore, if Jesus is embracing that original definition, their sexual relationship wasn’t a marriage regardless of whatever people thought about before the divorce. If it didn’t survive until death, it wasn’t ever a marriage at all. And finally, since their sexual relationship wasn’t in the context of a biblical marriage, their entire relationship is best defined by the word “adultery.”
The woman didn’t “commit adultery” in the sense that she slept with another man while she was married, but the act of the divorce re-interpreted the entire relationship they had before and invalidated it as a marriage meaning she is retroactively an adulteress. The husband’s act of divorce “makes her commit adultery.” And that’s why the second marriage will also be labeled as adultery; the second marriage will also not meet the definition of marriage, since it adds a second man into the narrative.
In other words, Jesus’ teaching doesn’t make sense unless you go back to the original definition of marriage, but when you do go back that far, his teaching makes perfect sense.
By saying what he said, Jesus is confirming that the original definition of marriage is the right one, not the re-defined version that allowed for divorce, but Jesus also mentions an exception, and some people have taken that exception to be a redefinition of its own. Jesus said, “except for sexual immorality,” and many people use Jesus’ words to offer a new definition of marriage that goes like this:
One man, one wife, united until death or an affair.
Other Christians will make a different definition by playing off the Greek word translated “sexual immorality” in the NIV. That Greek word is “porneia.” It is the root word for our word “pornography” and it also is sometimes translated “fornication” and carries connotations of all kinds of sexual deviance. Those Christians will then say that a marriage can end with any number of other sexually-related behaviors including the abuse of pornography or other things. At the extremes, they will even attempt to make lists of what kinds of behaviors fall into the category of porneia and therefore which kinds of behaviors allow you to divorce your spouse.
However, those redefinitions miss the point. We don’t need any new definitions because as long as we hold to the original definition, everything else falls into place. If Jesus’ definition of marriage is one man, one wife, united for life, then the introduction of any other person, a second man, a second woman, or any one-flesh “union” of any sort with someone outside that marriage umbrella, violates, or more precisely, invalidates that marriage. Furthermore, at the moment such a violation happens, the present situation is no longer a biblical marriage. Something changed to make the present situation not fit the biblical definition, and therefore the present situation is better named “adultery.”
In other words, sexual immorality isn’t the thing that “allows” you to get divorced. Sexual immorality is the thing that transformed the relationship into one of adultery. Jesus says, if you divorce a woman, you cause her to become an adulteress unless your or her previous behavior had already done that.
Now, in light of this, let’s recognize something else Jesus said about adultery just a few verses earlier:
(28) But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Matthew 5:28 NIV
From the perspective of Jesus, adultery abounds. It’s everywhere. Every person who lusts is guilty of adultery. Clearly, that’s because an act of lust violates the concept of being “united” in the definition of marriage. Every marriage that isn’t perfectly and completely in line with the one man, one wife, united for life definition is an expression of adultery.
Therefore, according to the words of Jesus himself…
I am guilty of adultery.
And most likely, so are you.
Before we go any further down this hole, we must fully embrace this teaching. What Jesus says about divorce is exactly the same as what Jesus says about lust. If you are divorced, you are an adulterer. If you have ever lusted, you are an adulterer. Therefore, let me show my hand just a bit by asking a (for the moment) rhetorical question:
Should we bar from marriage anyone who previously in their life had a lustful thought?
I’ll come back to that.
For now, let’s turn to the last thing Jesus had to say about divorce. Both Matthew and Mark record the interaction:
Let’s start with the version found in Mark
(2) Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
(3) “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
(4) They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
(5) “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. (6) “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ (7) ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, (8) and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. (9) Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
(10) When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. (11) He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. (12) And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Mark 10:2-12 NIV
Jesus here is merely confirming what we already suspected. Even though Moses gave rules about divorce, those rules didn’t change the definition of marriage. Jesus confirms that the original definition still holds true. There is one new wrinkle he adds here, though, and we’ll see it along with another new thing in the version recorded by Matthew.
(3) 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?”
(4) “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ (5) 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’ ? (6) So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
(7) “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
(8) Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. (9) I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(10) The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
(11) Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. (12) For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Matthew 19:3-12 NIV
Notice that Matthew reports one thing exactly the same as Mark did. Jesus gives us a reason for the divorce commands in the law of Moses. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” Primarily addressing men, Jesus confirms that the ungodly behavior of men is the motivation behind the commands about divorce. Now, back in that day, divorces had to be initiated by men. Since divorces in our day can be initiated by women, this same principle can apply to women today. Divorce happens when one person in the marriage decides to act in an unfaithful, ungodly, hard hearted way toward another, and the laws about divorce exist to protect the other person in the relationship. The laws exist to stand up for the victimized person in the process.
I’ll say it again. God created the divorce laws to specifically mitigate the damage caused by ungodly, unfaithful, hard-hearted people (especially men).
I’ll say it differently. Divorce exists to protect the victim of an ungodly person.
It’s also important to note that Matthew gives us one other piece of information. It’s a lesson no one else has taught before this moment. Simply put, Jesus says that singleness is honorable. When the disciples said, “it’s better not to marry,” Jesus ends his reply by agreeing with them, “The one who can accept this should accept it.”
At this point, we have everything we need from the Hebrew Scriptures and from the direct teaching of Jesus to understand anything else the New Testament teaches about sexual immorality. To illustrate this, let’s consider the longest teaching in the Bible on the topic of sex, marriage and remarriage. It’s from 1 Corinthians 7, and I’ll add my own comments as we work through it.
(1) Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
We know from history that Corinth was a city of religious and sexual excess. It was a major port city, and it was famously bold about it’s own identity. In parts of the ancient world, a promiscuous person could be called a “Corinthian.” In that context, it seems that the Corinthian believers were nervous about their own sexual behavior and decided maybe it was better to just abstain from sex altogether. They must have made such a commitment and wrote to Paul to get his approval of their plan. He says, “sure, that’s not a bad commitment to make.” But then he continues to give them more guidance.
(2) But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. (3) The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. (4) The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (5) Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (6) I say this as a concession, not as a command. (7) I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Here, Paul describes his alternative and he does so by placing sexuality back into the original context of Genesis 2. He says that since they live in a society filled with sexual immorality, they need to reclaim God’s original plan for sexuality. He implies exactly the same definition we have been working with.
One man, one wife, united for life.
And then Paul describes how that plays out practically for people. He says sex should be exclusive to the marriage relationship, confined entirely to the one husband-one wife dynamic. He says sex should be mutually generous. It’s not about one person demanding anything from the other person but about each person choosing to yield their desires and their body to the other person. Finally, he also says that sex comes in the context of a spiritual union. Sex can take a back seat at times to a temporary focus on the higher priority of a spiritual relationship, but sex is also a gift given to us by God to solidify the one-flesh union that marriage is supposed to be. That’s why Paul instructs them to actually use sex to stave off alternate temptations. Nevertheless, Paul also informs them that marriage and sexual activity are not commanded. For those people content with celibacy, he affirms it as a gift from God. Hopefully you can see that Paul is taking his lessons from Jesus on this topic.
(8) Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. (9) But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
On the heels of verse 7, Paul affirms that singleness is a good thing, but notice also that he clearly declares marriage to be the solution for a person who desires sexual intimacy. Simply put, do you want sexual intimacy? Get married. Can you live a celibate life? Stay single.
(10) To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. (11) But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Here, Paul is directly quoting from the teaching of Jesus, but he’s also doing some interpretation. Recall that Jesus never directly commanded “don’t ever get divorced.” Rather, Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let man not separate.” Furthermore, Jesus never directly said, “If you are divorced, stay unmarried.” What Jesus said was, “If you divorce and marry another, you are guilty of adultery.” Therefore, Paul here is taking Jesus’ warnings about divorce and declaring them to be commands. I trust Paul. I trust that he knows more about what Jesus did and didn’t say than I do, so I’ll roll with that. Simply put, if you are married, consider it a command not to divorce your spouse or if you do separate, then to remain celibate unless you reconcile with your spouse.
(12) 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. (13) 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. (14) 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.
(15) But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (16) How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
In this section, Paul highlights that he is writing based on his own understanding of the principles involved. He doesn’t have a direct command from Jesus on this topic, but he is convinced that the Spirit is leading him so he instructs them regarding divorce. His simple instruction is that if you are married and you become a believer and your spouse is okay with that, great. However, if your unbelieving spouse wants to leave, go ahead and let them go. Because the bottom line is that God wants us to live in peace AND God can use any relationship to bring salvation to someone.
Now, I want to take a moment to just highlight this principle. The principle here isn’t that God wants the marriage to stay intact at any cost, the principle is that God wants peace to be a prominent characteristic of a household. That’s important. If there is peace in the home, keep it up! If the only way to have peace is to separate, do so! I’ll also add that peace is supposed to be a fundamental characteristic of a person of faith: it’s number three in the fruit of the Spirit! Therefore, if the husband or spouse is not a person of peace, perhaps that’s an indication that they aren’t really a believer either.
(17) Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (18) Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. (19) Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. (20) Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
(21) Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (22) For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. (23) You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. (24) Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
(25) Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. (26) Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. (27) Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. (28) But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
It might seem like a digression, but Paul’s thoughts on slaves and circumcision are just a description of a principle he’s applying to marriage and engagement. God meets people where they are. If you were married and sexually active when God found you, go ahead and keep it up unless there are some other reasons why things need to change. If you were a virgin planning to get married when God found you, don’t change your plans.
However, there’s another important point here. Even though Paul’s general principle is that you don’t need to change your marriage plans when you become a Christian, if you do change them, you haven’t done anything wrong.
(29) What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; (30) those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; (31) those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
(32) I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. (33) But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— (34) and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. (35) I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
I had a friend once whose wife told him she was no longer going to have sex with him because she had read this passage and was convinced that God wanted her to “live like she wasn’t married.” He, of course, didn’t like the idea, but he couldn’t do anything because he was trying to be a man of peace. I watched for a couple years as he dealt with the pain of all that.
Paul’s instructions were not meant to be taken that way. Remember that he previously said that the husband and wife needed to “fulfill” their “marital duty” to each other. This passage is not a contradiction of the previous one. Rather, it’s a continuation of that previous one. Recall that marriage is supposed to have a spiritual unity component to it also. In this passage, Paul is merely trying to emphasize that. He’s trying to say that since the time is short, we all need to see all of our circumstances as temporary. Furthermore, since all things now are temporary, if you can live a celibate life you will be blessed by the ability to focus your energies fully on matters of eternal significance. Nevertheless, he doesn’t end with a statement about singleness. Paul will finish his instructions by affirming some fundamental truths about marriage.
(36) If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. (37) But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. (38) So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
(39) 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. (40) In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
1 Corinthians 7 NIV
If you are in a relationship and you want to get married, go ahead. There’s nothing wrong with that.
If you have decided to live a celibate life, go ahead. There’s great honor in that.
If your spouse dies, you are free to remarry, but if you choose not to, that might be even better.
But when is remarriage okay?
At this point, we have covered almost the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality, marriage, divorce and remarriage, but this last teaching of Paul raised one thing up to the level of “command” that we hadn’t seen before.
Paul taught that if a person gets divorced, that person must remain single and celibate until one of two things happens.
When can a divorced person get remarried?
1. If they get back together with their spouse.
2. If their spouse dies.
From Paul’s perspective, divorce doesn’t actually end a marriage. From his perspective, a marriage never ends until one person is dead. Now, we should think the same thing because that’s the literal definition of marriage we’ve been working with all this time and the definition that Jesus reaffirmed.
One man, one wife, united for life.
Even if a piece of paper says you are divorced, the original definition of marriage says you aren’t.
However, when go back to what Jesus said, I think we can add a bit of nuance to Paul’s instructions. You see, Paul effectively says you are married until the person dies, but Jesus also said another thing invalidates a marriage: sexual behavior outside the marriage. Furthermore, the teaching in Deuteronomy said that if a person gets divorced and sleeps with another, reconciliation with the original spouse is no longer allowed.
Based on that, I think it’s reasonable to add one more thing to the list of when a person can get remarried.
3. If their spouse has sex with (marries) someone else.
The Bible’s teaching on sexuality, marriage, divorce and remarriage is far less extensive than we would like. There are parts that are clear, but must also be understood through the lens of other parts. There are parts that sound like traditional Christian teaching and there are parts that actually seem to go against that traditional teaching.
In this study, I haven’t even addressed the claims of those who affirm same-sex relationships, those who affirm gender and sexual identities not addressed in the Bible, or those who focus on issues of sexuality as if they are the most important issues in the Bible. Rather, I’ve focused on the one through-line of the whole topic. What is the definition of marriage throughout the Bible, and how does that inform our understanding of sexuality, divorce, and remarriage?
Therefore, let me offer a few concluding thoughts about all this.
First, everything begins with a clear understanding of what God intended when he created sexuality from the beginning:
One man, one wife, united for life.
If you want to know if God affirms or opposes something, simply line it up with this phrase and see how well it fits.
Second, anytime a marriage fails to live up to this ideal, the best word for that relationship is adultery no matter who is “at fault.”
Third, nearly everyone is guilty of violating God’s marriage ideal. Adultery is rampant in our hearts even if it has never been expressed by a physical relationship.
Fourth, divorce is a mechanism to protect and provide for the victim of a godless, hard-hearted person.
Fifth, any divorced person whose spouse wants to come back is free to remarry that person.
Sixth, any divorced person whose spouse committed adultery, has died, or has remarried, is free to marry whomever they wish.
Seventh, literally everything we have said so far falls under the larger umbrella of God’s grace and loving our neighbor. Consider these words from both Paul and James.
(9) The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (10) Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Romans 13:9-10 NIV
(8) If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. (9) But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (10) For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (11) For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
(12) Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, (13) because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James 2:8-13 NIV
So, returning to a question from before:
Should we bar from marriage anyone who previously in their life had committed an act of adultery, someone who caused a divorce by their own sinfulness? Well, according to the direct teaching of Jesus, that’s equivalent to asking a different question. Should we bar from marriage anyone who previously in their life had a lustful thought?
Although many in the Christian tradition would want to ban all adulterers from marriage, there is clear guidance in the Bible for when a remarriage is allowed and none of the passages in the Bible make any special provisions or punishments for “previous adulterers.” There is no past sin that disqualifies you from future participation in the life of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, there is great glory for our King when his grace and mercy are applied to one who doesn’t deserve it.
- Where harm has been done, reconciliation can be beautiful.
- Where reconciliation cannot be done, forgiveness is necessary.
- And at all times, we are they who…
(12) Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, (13) because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James 2:12-13 NIV