On Divorce and Remarriage
by Neil Ginsberg
On Divorce and Remarriage
by Neil Ginsberg

    The topic of divorce is one that is close to my own heart. My own situation has caused me to take a closer look at the subject, and -- far from being the final word on the matter -- I have some thoughts I'd like to share.

    First, one must consider the Biblical perspective on the matter, without necessarily trying to meld it into our own framework of understanding. That is, just because we think something should be a certain way, or the world says something should be a certain way, doesn't mean that it should be that way.

    We need to take what the Bible says and apply it to our lives, even if it is perhaps more challenging than we realize (I speak to myself above all in that regard). Many times we find ourselves in situations that we eagerly and zealously got into, only to discover that what God requires of us is more than we expected.

    Yet we still need to persevere, looking to God to give us the grace to perform His will in any circumstances. In no cases, though, do we have the liberty to either disregard or modify what the Word of God says to conform it to our situation. Our situation needs to conform to God's Word!

    The Bible needs to be our guide and our final authority in any situation. It is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psa. 119:105), without which (by implication) we are in darkness.

    Thus, I believe it is important to take a clear look at the scriptures. I don't expect all to agree with the conclusions I've drawn here. But what I present I believe to be correct. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to come to terms with what they believe the Word of God says, and act accordingly.

    Jesus taught that "whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). This is pretty straightforward; remarriage is adultery.

    The fact that remarriage is an act of adultery indicates that God considers the people married, even if they are divorced. In other words, just because someone has a piece of paper that says, "I'm no longer married to you," doesn't mean it's so in God's eyes.

    Why is that? Because there is a spiritual reality that goes beyond the thoughts and ideas of man. The scripture is clear that "they are no longer two, but one flesh" (Matt 19:6), and this does not end when one person says "I'm no longer one flesh."

    When does it end? When one person or the other violates the "one-flesh" relationship by committing adultery with another person. In this case, they have physically joined themselves to another person, and the one-flesh relationship has been severed. In no other cases is it.

    This is why adultery is a ground for divorce -- the basis of the marriage (the two being one flesh) has been severed by the act of adultery. It is also why there are no other grounds for divorce -- a person's actions, apart from joining themselves to someone else, does not break the spiritual reality of what God has joined together.

    I found it interesting that Jesus never said, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another causes his wife to commit adultery." He didn't say that because it wouldn't be true. If someone were to remarry, they would be breaking the spiritual union with their spouse, and the other person would not be committing adultery by remarrying.

    But Jesus did say, "Whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery." Note the subtle difference. If the husband divorces his wife and that's all, the wife commits adultery (implication is through another relationship), even though she's not the one who got divorced. Why? Because they are still one flesh. The one-flesh relationship didn't change because man said it did. Though it was her husband's fault for divorcing her, she was still guilty of adultery. In God's eyes they were still one flesh.

    We need to realize this spiritual truth and look beyond our human thinking, saying, "Why shouldn't I be able to do this," or, "Why shouldn't I be able to do that." We need to realize that there are going to be things beyond our natural perception, and accept God's Word at face value.

    If the marriage covenant were a business contract or other kind of agreement, one might find grounds for terminating it, based on dissatisfaction with the results of the relationship. But the fact that there is a spiritual reality beyond what we think or feel -- that God has joined two people together, and they are not to be separated -- shows that it is not like an agreement that can be terminated because of dissatisfaction. The spiritual reality does not change.

    To the world -- and to our natural perception -- there is nothing wrong (apart from the pain involved) with ending a relationship and beginning another. But God calls this "adultery."

    And if we, in our human wisdom, follow suit, how are we different than the world? Or how is one who is married, say, for five or six years, and then divorces and remarries -- how are they different from someone who just lives with someone for five or six years and then goes on to someone else? Are "good intentions" enough?

    After all, didn't Jesus say, "Not everyone who calls me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who have good intentions"? No, He didn't. But He did say that only those who did His will would enter in (Matt. 7:21).

    As we seek to enter the kingdom, let us align ourselves as closely as possible with God's Word. God's Word states that divorce and remarriage for any ground apart from immorality is adultery.

    Now, many people I've heard -- in person or on the radio -- have postulated ideas which, as I see, attempt to get around this clear teaching of scripture.

    One of the most common I've heard is that Jesus gave his teachings on divorce to the people of His day who were casually divorcing and remarrying to avoid having it appear as adultery. Jesus confronted these people, the view goes, by telling them that their divorce and remarriage was actually adultery. Thus, this teaching states that Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage applied only to casual divorce -- not all divorce.

    Apart from the fact that there are no direct scriptural grounds for taking this position (i.e., neither Jesus nor the apostles ever made any reference to "casual divorcing" in the context of their teachings, nor did the authors of scripture even allude to it), there are numerous reasons why this is not the case.

    First, Jesus showed that His teaching was not based on the current situation, but on an eternal principle: "From the beginning, He said, "It [divorce] was not so." God's purpose from the creation of man was that "the two become one flesh," and, "What God has joined together, let no one separate."

    Second, Jesus showed that those who get divorced have hardened hearts. "Moses allowed you to divorce because of the hardness of your hearts," Jesus said, "but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8). What were the peoples' hearts hard to? The truth of God that a man and wife are one flesh and are not to be separated -- ever.

    Third, Jesus' teachings on divorce are not just limited to the gospels. They are echoed in the writings to the churches (1 Cor. 7, Rom. 7, etc.). If the teachings were only meant for one people, then they seem to apply very well to all peoples.

    Another view I've heard is that Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage was meant to be sort of an "absolute standard" -- God's ideal -- like "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48), but that Jesus didn't really expect people to live up to it.

    To this I would say that if the scriptures are not to be taken literally, then a sort of absurdity comes into the picture when we look at Jesus' and Paul's teachings on divorce. For example, when Jesus said, "Whoever divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery," what did He mean if He didn't mean just that?

    Additionally, we can find the answer of how to interpret this teaching by going back to the original setting. When Jesus said to His disciples, "Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9), they took Him very seriously -- and very literally. They responded, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry" (Matt. 19:10).

    Now, at this point, Jesus could have corrected His disciples, as He had on many other occasions (see, for example, Mark 8:16-21, John 11:11-14, etc.). He could have said something like, "You don't understand; this is just a standard. Of course you can get divorced and remarried. In an absolute sense it would be adultery. But really, it's OK."

But He didn't.

    Rather, He actually affirmed what they said by responding with a statement that there are many eunuchs who could not get married; and that not everyone could accept what they said, but that he who could accept it should (Matt. 19:11-12). Nowhere does He show that their literal interpretation of His teaching on divorce is wrong; rather, He affirms it by supporting their conclusion on how seriously marriage should be taken.

    We should follow suit with the disciples in how we view Jesus' words. He made a literal statement, and it should be taken literally.

    I find it interesting that in both Matthew's and Mark's gospel the teaching on divorce is followed by Jesus' teaching on being as little children (Matt. 19, Mark 10). It seems as though the authors were implying that we need to become like little children in how we view Christ's teaching on divorce -- trusting, accepting, obeying -- not looking to our own ways, but trusting the Father and His ways.

    Other views I've heard come down to the behavior of the spouse in one way or another. To this I would just say that nowhere in scripture do we see any ground for divorce except immorality. Furthermore, scripture exhorts spouses to stay with unbelieving mates (1 Pet. 3:1-2, etc.). Their behavior certainly cannot be expected to come up to Christian principles.

    Behavior of the spouse -- though possibly a ground for separation -- clearly is not a ground for divorce.

    Another view, which I actually heard one person say, was that if a person divorces and remarries, they are committing adultery, but then God forgives that sin and they can go on!

    God's forgiveness certainly is great. But it should seem clear to us that willingly entering into a sinful situation looking for God's ultimate "forgiveness" is a dangerous thing to do, and is an indication of our not taking God's principles seriously.

    In the early church, adulterers were excommunicated, and those who had "put away" their spouse could not remarry. It seems that they took Jesus' teachings on adultery and remarriage seriously. Do we?

    In these and other views, it seems that the issue is whether or not we are going to take God's Word at face value. If it says that a man and wife should not be separated, and that remarriage apart from immorality is adultery, then it seems that that's exactly what it means.

    Does this mean that a person has to stay in intolerable circumstances if such exist? Absolutely not. Even in the best of marriages, couples are separated for periods of time, sometimes indefinitely. (Though I believe that any separation should be for the ultimate purpose of reconciliation.)

    The issue at hand, however, is not whether a person can leave their spouse. Circumstances sometimes dictate thus. The issue is whether a person has a right to divorce their spouse and then remarry, if neither party has been in immorality. The answer, I believe, is unequivocally "No."

    One might take the view that this is cruel -- to have someone possibly spend the rest of their life without a spouse just because they got into a situation that didn't work out.

    To this I would say that we do not base our morals on whether we feel it's humane; we base them (hopefully) on the clear teaching of scripture, trusting that even in things that seem unfair to us, God has our best interests in mind, and would not command us to something that is cruel, but only what is for our good.

    But in examining the issue, we can see that Jesus spoke of people who didn't have a choice. He told His disciples of "eunuchs who were born that way," and "eunuchs who were made that way by men" (Matt. 19:12). These people didn't have a choice of whether or not to get married. The choice was made for them.

    Also, one does not have to imagine very hard to see situations where one might need to spend many years -- possibly even the rest of their life -- without a spouse. What would a person do whose spouse is, say, imprisoned for life for preaching the gospel? Does that person have the right to then divorce them and marry someone else? Is it "cruel" to say that they would need to stay faithful to that person, though it means they may need to spend the rest of their life without a spouse?

    If such a person would need to remain in an unmarried situation; and if certain people (eunuchs) do not even have the choice to get married; how can we say that a person has a right to get remarried, when the Bible calls that adultery? We can't.

    Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

"But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away." (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

    The first thing to note is that it's not God's will for wives or husbands to get divorced. This was a direct revelation Paul received ("not I, but the Lord"), and we should take it seriously -- a lot more seriously than I believe we are taking it.

    But despite the direct revelation Paul received on this matter, he knew that some people would leave their spouses anyway. It seems that some circumstances just wouldn't work out. And so Paul made provision for that as well, stating that they would need to remain unmarried, or else be reconciled.

    How mean! Didn't Paul realize he was being unfair? No, he was being scriptural, which we're not when we say a person has a right to get divorced and remarried for any ground apart from immorality.

    The fact that she is to remain unmarried shows that she is still joined to -- one with -- her husband. Otherwise, why would she need to remain unmarried, if they were not still joined? In God's eyes, they are spiritually still joined, and He considers them married. For her to remarry would be adultery.

    Paul re-emphasizes the point a little later on:

"A wife is bound as long as her husband is alive; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes." (1 Cor. 7:39)

    No qualifications -- just that she is bound as long as her husband is alive. Clearly the couple in this instance is not together, or the wife wouldn't be looking to get remarried. Yet Paul says she is still bound.

    Cruel? Just reality. The two are still one flesh; and any violation of that is adultery. The marriage covenant was not nullified by one person or the other being dissatisfied with the relationship. They may be dissatisfied with it -- and even have good reasons for being so! -- but they are still joined to each other in God's eyes, and bound for life.

    What is the point of this article? Is it just to make people feel bad who may have been in divorce and remarriage situations? No. God alone is the judge, and to Him alone we all stand or fall (Rom. 14:4).

    But I think we all need to consider from where the rampant rise in divorce and remarriage is coming. Did the Bible change, so that fifty years ago divorce was a rare thing, but now it is commonplace? Or did the trends in the world since the 60s -- sexual promiscuity, degradation of traditional family values, and disrespect for authority -- come into the church as well? I think the latter.

    If our views are based on the Word of God, then we are on solid ground and have nothing to worry about. But if, instead, our views are based on current trends in the world, then we need to seriously reconsider any unscriptural views and repent unto God's Word where appropriate.

    As I said, the point of this article is not to bring condemnation to anyone. But I believe it's time to take a hard look at ourselves and the Word of God, and ask ourselves, if we have had a permissive attitude toward divorce, how we can continue to do so. I believe that ultimately where the church stands on other issues will be reflected in where it stands on this one as well.

Neil Ginsberg


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 Web Author:Michael Stevenson Updated: 12/16/2004 7:14PM