"But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery." (Matt. 5:32)
"If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple...So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple." (Luke 14:26, 33)
There are many bible people who say that divorce is approved of God in almost any or all situations and others who say that all divorce is sinful and thus all divorce is condemned by God. Well, what does Jesus say, for that is really all that matters for those who are his disciples.
What is Marriage?
Marriage is an institution created by God (Gen. 2:18-25), wherein a man and a woman come together for the purpose of lifelong companionship for each other, with the primary purpose of knowing their Father and doing what His Son says. Marriage is a covenant of companionship. The "coming together" of the man and woman is comprised of two elements. First, the commitment of relationship (lifelong faithfulness) to each other, in the roles God has called each to - husband as the loving leader, wife as the submissive follower (link to The Role of Women Disciples of Jesus). Second, the sexual union whereby the two become one flesh. The "one flesh" refers to both the intimate and unique union that a husband and wife experience in the sexual union, as well as the offspring of that union, children. The husband and wife (two) produce children (one flesh). Sexual relations are NOT the primary purpose of the marriage, nor do they make "marriage", but rather a blessing bestowed and a privilege granted in the marriage relationship. Once again, God's intent for the marriage relationship is that it be a permanent relational commitment that is to last as long as each spouse lives (Matt. 19:6, 8-9).
How Does One Enter Into the Marriage Relationship?
Contrary to the traditions of men, the marriage relationship is entered into when a man and a woman commit themselves to each other as husband and wife and consummate that commitment by the sexual union. Jesus (nor even the new testament) offers NO precepts or guidelines for "marriage ceremonies". The New Testament contains accounts of marriage customs which should not be interpreted as approved examples. There is NO command nor precept from Jesus (nor even in the whole bible) that says that some man ("clergy") is to "marry" the couple. No man can marry a couple because it is the Lord who created and ordains the marriage relationship, and He gives no command in the entire bible whereby He calls for a man to serve as the agent of approving the marriage. The couple is to be married before the Lord first and foremost.
It might be wise to have others as witnesses to the commitment, as well as to share in the joy of a public commitment, but this is not commanded by the Lord. If the couple lives in a country where laws exist that require the marriage be "registered" in the government's eyes in some manner, they should submit to those laws as long as obeying that law does not interfere with obeying Jesus. There is also new testament support for the practice of a betrothal period before the man and the woman commit to the marriage relationship. Although the support for the betrothal period (somewhat like the current custom of engagement, except moral purity is observed) is from the ceremonial law in the Old Covenant (and thus utterly unbinding upon a disciple of Jesus), yet there is wisdom in waiting and proving one another, that each other's faith is real.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about divorce is that Jesus clearly addresses it in his teachings.
As bad as divorce can be, and as much as it can bring pain and suffering, there is nonetheless some circumstances where Jesus allows for divorce. All divorce is brought about by sin of some kind by at least one of the parties, but not all divorces are sinful. This author believes this principle is supported in Jesus' teachings as we shall see a bit further on in this article.
There are two clear exceptions given by Jesus, whereby a spouse is allowed to divorce his/her spouse. However, more important is the principle of mercy and forgiveness. But before looking at those portions of Jesus' teachings, it must be said that in the case of two disciples of Messiah Jesus (husband and wife), there should be no occasion for them to divorce. Even if there is sin on the part of their spouse, there is always forgiveness available, by the mercy of the Father, to allow for love wash away the pain of the sins. We will look at this issue in a bit more detail as we move on.
First Exception scripture
Luke 14:26, 33, "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple...So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.
See also Matt. 12:47-50, Matt. 10:34-38, Matt. 19:27-30
This teachings of Jesus covers all issues in this life, including marriage to a spouse. If a man or woman becomes born from above and thus follows Jesus; and after some period of time their spouse does not repent and become a disciple; AND the spouse that rejects Jesus seeks to hinder the disciple of Jesus from following Jesus (obeying God), then separation and/or divorce would be acceptable. Loving God above all else is the greatest command, and if any person insists you disobey that command, then you are free to leave them, no matter what relationship you have with them. Of course that decision should not be made hastily, but after much effort and prayer, perhaps years.
What also needs to be said is that normally, the unbeliever will be the one who leaves the disciple, for they can't stand the Light (John 3:19-21). However, for a woman disciple married to a man who is an unbeliever, that man might seek to forcibly stop his wife from following Jesus, and in that case, the wife can leave if she cannot endure the persecution. Also, if an unbelieving husband seeks to force his wife to sin, she would also be free to leave him.
Second Exception scripture
Matt. 5:32, "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery".
His command here is general and applies to all people. Jesus is providing an exception for a marriage between two people, where a spouse may divorce his/her spouse and not be sinning in doing so. That exception is "except sexual immorality". The Greek word behind that phrase is "porneia" which is usually translated either sexual immorality or fornication. The Greek word for adultery, "moikeia", is NOT used in this passage. Thus, this author believes this exception is best understood in the context of Deut. 22:13-21, which the Jewish gospel writer, Matthew might have understood Jesus referring to when giving Matt. 5:32. In this case, the exception to divorce a spouse would be if the woman whom a man married, lied to her husband in assuring him she was a virgin when in fact she was not. Thus, upon the first sexual union and discovering his wife was not a virgin, when she told him she was, would be grounds for him to divorce her. Again, lying is a sin, and if confessed by the one who lied, and repented from, there is no reason forgiveness could not be granted. However, in this case, it is allowable and legitimate before God for a husband who was lied to by his wife-to-be regarding her virginity, to divorce his wife.
Some interpret Matt. 5:32 to include adultery. This author would modify that to say it would have to be unrepentant adultery, in which case Matt. 5:32 would not be the primary verse of guidance, but rather John 14:15. If a disciple of Jesus who is married, goes into an adulterous relationship and does not repent after going through Family discipline as given in Matt. 18:15-17, then they are to be considered an unbeliever. If a disciple gets caught in the flesh and stumbles and transgresses, but repents when confronted (Matt. 18:15-17), then there should be restoration and forgiveness granted to that spouse (Matt. 18:21-22; Luke 17:3-4). Truly, forgiveness is the key to walking after Messiah Jesus, for His forgiveness towards us is infinitely more than we'll ever be called upon to grant to others, including a temporarily unfaithful spouse (Matt. 18:21-35). It is the mistake of those with a self righteous heart to place an unforgiving spirit above mercy (Matt. 23:23).
Matt. 5:32, "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery".
So, what about those who divorce for reasons other than sexual immorality? Jesus says that in those circumstances, the man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery; and the man who marries a woman who was divorced commits adultery. He doesn't leave any room for justifying a divorce with these words, and thus the only way to be reconciled with God is through repentance. Specifically, if a man divorces his wife for a reason other than her adultery, then he needs to ask for forgiveness for that sin from both his ex-wife and God. If possible (if it would not cause more sin against others), it would be best to remarry her as well, as this would indicate true repentance on his part.
For the man who marries a divorced woman, he should repent as well and ask for forgiveness from his spouse and from God. The repentance in this situation would be to never divorce again, for Jesus explicitly says that the sin of adultery is caused by the act of marrying, while marriage is consummated by the initial sexual union i.e. "whoever marries a woman who is divorced". Thus, he should repent of marrying multiple times and never divorce again, nor never marry a divorced woman again.
Some insist that the new marriage must be dissolved because every time the new husband and wife come together sexually, they are committing adultery. But this is clearly NOT what Jesus says. Jesus explicitly says the act of adultery is the initial consummating which comprises "the marriage", not sexual unions after that. Listen again, "...whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery" ("commits adultery", not 'becomes an adulterer'). It is the act of marrying in view here, not primarily the sexual union, although the two are related. If Jesus intended to say that any man who marries a divorced woman will be in a constant state of sin every time they come together sexually, then he would have said something like, 'and whomever marries a divorced woman will be an adulterer', or, 'whomever marries a divorced woman, that sin cannot be forgiven unless they separate'. But Jesus does not say that. In fact, he says elsewhere, "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people..."
If the man who married a divorced woman and his current spouse are disciples, then in most instances divorcing each other is not the way to repent, as that would be just more sin, especially if they have children. Breaking up a natural family whose parents are disciples and taking them away from their children with the justification "God requires that in order to grant forgiveness" is a position of the self-righteous who don't understand Jesus' teachings on God's mercy. The repentance from the original consummating act of "marrying" (don't marry again by leaving your present wife and consummating another marriage with another woman) would make both spouses clean again in God's eyes.
The teachings of Jesus are that divorce is not to be an option for disciples of Jesus who are husband and wife. Every effort to overcome sin, by the love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, should be made to maintain and grow a marriage between two disciples of Jesus. However, there are two exceptions given by God wherein a believer may legitimately divorce his or her spouse without sinning in doing so. The first is when a disciple is married to a non-disciple and that unbeliever does not repent and consistently tries to hinder the disciple from obeying Jesus. The second exception is for sexual immorality, either before the marriage and lied about thereby deceiving their future spouse on the issue of virginity; or after marriage by unrepentant adultery thus proving that the unrepentant adulterer is not a disciple of Jesus.
A Word of Warning To the Quick to Condemn
At this point I must pause and address those who condemn all divorce as sinful, evil, an abomination, and worse. Surely this tendency exists due to, in most cases, self-righteousness. It seems those the quickest to condemn have, of course, never been divorced. They are the ones who boast of being married for 30 years or more. Sadly, it won't make any difference to them the teachings of Jesus pointed out in this article, for their hearts are seemingly locked into self-righteous condemnation on this issue. There are two truths regarding our personal sin. First, our sin always looks worse when committed by others [link to Ignoring the One You Love?]. And second, if I haven't sinned in a particular area, then those who have, are so bad they must certainly be headed for hell. On this issue of divorce or remarriage, particularly, it seems God's mercy just doesn't apply in these men's or women's hearts.
For those who see the bible as "God's Word", here is an amazing biblical truth for the 'all divorce is wrong' self-righteous folks to ponder. In all the lists of sins in the New Testament - Mark 7:21-22; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rev. 21:8; Rev. 22:15, as a sampling - guess which "sin" is missing? Yes, divorce! None of the lists list "divorce" or "remarriage". Some will say, 'But those lists contain adultery and sexual immorality'. Yes they do, and for the illegitimately AND unrepentant divorcee, the warnings of adultery apply. But don't miss the distinction between "divorce" and "adultery", as has been documented in this article.
The quick-to-condemn moral majority types understanding of God's mercy is truly lacking. They are the god-fearers railing against the sin of the unsaved, instead of preaching the gospel to them [link to Are God Fearer's Believers?]. They are quick to look at the lists of sins in the New Testament and try to group all divorce under "the same group" as the adulterer or murderer. They fail to take a hard look at the other sins listed with adulterer and murderer, such as "covetous, drunkard, reviler, lewd, hatred, contentious, jealous, those with selfish ambition, dissenters, and the envious". Both 1 Cor. 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21 include these people. How quick are you, reader, who holds all of the bible to be God's Word, to CONDEMN as "under the Lord's wrath", and heading for "hell", those brethren who might stumble in committing one of those sins? After all, those sins ARE IN THE SAME LISTS. Please tell me, how is a legitimately divorced person who is remarried and faithful to their new spouse, an "adulterer" or "sexually immoral"? In fact, they are not, and thus beware of the quick to condemn all divorce and remarriage types, who are more than likely stuck in one of the worst sin's - self-righteousness.
Ponder Jesus' teachings on this matter: "The Pharisee stood and prayed within himself in this way: God, I thank You that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice on the Sabbath, I give tithes of all that I possess. And standing afar off, the tax-collector would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but struck on his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted." (Luke 18:11-14)
"But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."? (Matt. 5:28) Jesus, in this verse, explains sin to us, and explains how that the heart produces the sin that the person carries out. Jesus plainly says that to lust after a woman in one's heart is the same as "committing adultery" with her. So, are those who condemn all divorce or remarriage as "adultery" consistent in their condemnation of men who lust after women? Are they telling the believing men who struggle with this sin, that they are heading for hell, as they do all divorced and remarried brethren? If they are not, then they are both inconsistent, and hypocritical in their judgment. Of course most would also deny that they have ever lusted after a woman, so they would also be liars.
This author understands the concern of the remnant believing communities regarding divorce. Surely, the counterfeit church approves of divorce for essentially any reason, and thus many claiming to be 'born again believers' are divorcing freely and sadly in great error. It is not uncommon for someone claiming to be born again, to be on their second or third "marriage" while believing that their former spouses were also born again believers. The error practiced among bible believers and christians should give disciples of Jesus reason to pause and to look at those teachings that are being disobeyed and abused by those folks. Certainly marriage, divorce and remarriage are important concepts which disciples need to understand and obey. But like any other issue, we must seek to understand and obey ALL of Jesus' Words, and not the opinions of men.
The classic error of "throwing the baby out with the bath water" is often made regarding "divorce". As it was said before, All divorce is brought about by sin of some kind, but not all divorces are sinful. And divorce or remarriage are not the unforgiveable sins, but rather blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is. Just because the world and most christians accepts all or many reasons for divorce does not mean that God did not approve of divorce in certain circumstances. As we have seen, He has in fact approved of divorce in two circumstances.
This brings us to the issue of remarriage. If we have clarity of what the Word Jesus says regarding marriage and divorce, sin and forgiveness, then we will have no problem arriving at the right conclusion regarding remarriage.
Again, for the bible-is-God's-Word folks (See Is the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy Taught by Jesus?), it must be noted that the term "remarriage" does not occur in the bible! The bible does allow for certain people once married to marry again. For example, the scripture teaches in several places that a widow (and by reasonable inference, a widower) can marry again (1 Tim. 5:14; 1 Cor. 7:8-9, 39). In all three passages just cited, the term "remarry" or "remarriage" is never used. The people are simply told (and even commanded in 1 Cor. 9) that they can "marry". This is significant for the following reason. Once a marriage is legitimately dissolved, whether by death or legitimate divorce, then that marriage is considered utterly null in God's eyes. In other words, it is as if the marriage never was.
The concept of "they are still married in God's eyes" is completely unsupported by Jesus' teachings and wrong if it is used towards widows, widowers or legitimately divorced people. Those freed from marriage by the death or legitimate divorce of a spouse are completely free of all scriptural commands towards married people. They are free in the purest sense, of God not holding anything against them, nor of God having any expectations regarding marriage commitments (that no longer exist), nor of God even considering them "once married". They are simply a child of God, period, just like every other true disciple of Jesus. Men take a much higher view of the institution of marriage (not the commitments within a marriage) than God does (Matt. 22:30).
The proper understanding of these verses on "remarriage", as well as the other New Testament teachings regarding mercy and forgiveness, all teach that a legitimately divorced person may marry again with a clear conscience before the Lord. And even further, that the illegitimately divorced person, if truly repentant, will be forgiven.
To sum up, then, the teaching of the Jesus regarding marrying again after a divorce:
In the case of the ILLEGITIMATE divorce between two disciples, those two disciples are commanded NOT to remarry, but to remain unmarried or be reconciled with their spouse (Matt. 5:32, 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).
In the two cases of LEGITIMATE divorce: First, where an unbelieving spouse does not want to live with the believing spouse (this includes the case of unrepentant adultery). Second, where one of the two young believers are deceived by their spouse regarding their virginity - Matt. 5:32. In these two cases, the disciple is free to marry again.
In the case of the sinning/lying spouse, there would need to be submission to Family discipline and subsequent repentance prior to being free to marry again. The spouse who was lied to is free to marry again immediately after the divorce from the prior spouse - of course wisdom would dictate that person wait upon the Lord and make sure to test the faith of the next person they want to take in marriage. Again, it must be emphasized that repentance and forgiveness is obviously the best course of action in this case. Typically this circumstance might arise among two young believers, so immaturity and lack of wisdom might characterize the couple, and sin is not lacking in the spiritually immature.
In the case of the unbeliever not wanting to live with the disciple - the disciple is free to marry again after the divorce, for the believer has not sinned regarding the divorce, and is not in bondage to the unbelieving spouse who does not want to follow Jesus (Luke 14:26). The highest course of action for a person in that situation is not to remarry at all, but rather be single for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 19:11-12).
Summary and Conclusions
Marriage is designed by God to be for life - a covenant of companionship between a man and a woman. The marriage relationship is one in which they love and serve the Lord and each other according to the roles of men and women, husbands and wives as given by Jesus.
The marriage relationship was created by God and divorce is allowed and regulated by Jesus. "Remarriage" is a label of men that seeks to keep people in bondage to their past, in spite of the freedom of conscience the Lord God wants for His children.
A divorce can be illegitimate or legitimate. Most divorces taking place these days among that which calls itself "the church" (and probably for all time) are illegitimate. Jesus, the Word of God, provides for two basic situations for legitimate divorce. First, for the situation of a believer being married to an unbeliever (due to one being born again after they were married) who seeks to prevent the disciple from following Jesus (Luke 14:26). Second, in the case of a false basis of entering into the marriage covenant (Matt. 5:32).
A person whose spouse dies, or who is legitimately divorced as defined by Jesus, is free to marry again.
For all divorced disciples, divorce is NOT the unpardonable sin, as many who lack understanding into the commands of Jesus and the mercy of God, would have you to believe. Jesus plainly says, "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come". (Matthew 12:31-32) Please note that divorce, remarriage or even adultery do not qualify for the unforgivable sin, and thus each person who commits those things can repent and be forgiven even if the divorce or remarriage was illegitimate.
May those people who take divorce lightly, ignore Jesus' teachings and seek to have illegitimate divorces accepted, heed this word of exhortation: repent of your sin and seek to find the strength, by the mercy of God, to make your marriage into something beautiful before the Lord.
May those people who condemn all divorce as sinful, heed this word of exhortation: repent of any pride and self-righteousness which is blinding you to the mercy, compassion, and precious forgiveness that is available from God for the repentant heart. Seek ALL the truth - acknowledge and discern legitimate divorces and truly repentant people - and don't lay yoke's of bondage on those the Lord says are clean, forgiven and free.
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