An occasional paper by Rod Benson, 2006 [statistics revised 2014]
Up to half of all marriages in Australia will end in divorce, and most divorcees remarry. For people facing the prospect or the reality of divorce and remarriage today, including many Christians, the Bible appears to offer conflicting or irrelevant advice, while the church may seem outdated, legalistic and lacking in appropriate pastoral responses to changing social attitudes and behaviours. What does the Bible teach, and how should the church respond?
In 2013, the crude marriage rate was 5.1 per 1,000 population and the crude divorce rate was 2.2. In the same year 47,638 divorces were granted. There has been a slow but steady rise in the divorce rate over the past century. This is partly attributable to social and economic change. But the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975, which came into operation on 5 January 1976, is the most significant factor affecting divorce rates in Australia over the past century, as the following figure shows.
The Act allows only one ground for divorce: irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, indicated by the separation of the spouses for at least one year. Only a minority of those who divorce remain single; others enter de facto relationships and many remarry. For people facing the prospect or the reality of divorce and remarriage today, including many Christians, the Bible may appear to offer conflicting or irrelevant advice; and the institutional church may seem outdated, legalistic and lacking in appropriate pastoral responses to changing social attitudes and behaviours.
The Bible and divorce
God’s ideal for cohabitation is an exclusive lifelong commitment between a man and a woman (see Gen 2:24 and many other passages). By the time of Moses the people of Israel had introduced divorce for various reasons including unfaithfulness and neglect of food, clothing and affection (Ex 21:10f; Dt 24:1f). The meaning of the term “something objectionable” (Dt 24:1) probably refers to various offences since adultery was already punishable by death (Lev 20:10). Divorce was prohibited in two situations (Dt 22:19, 29). In Ezra 9-10, the Israelites view intermarriage with foreign wives as racial and spiritual defilement, and divorce them. In Malachi 2:10-16, the prophet rebukes the Israelites for apostasy, exemplified by “faithless” conduct toward the wives of their youth, and declares that God hates divorce.
In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul teach on divorce. Jesus’ teaching is found in his response to a question by the Pharisees (Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-12), and in a short saying in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:31f; Lk 16:18). In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause? ” In reply, Jesus teaches about marriage, arguing that Moses only allowed divorce because the people were so “hardhearted.” Then he indicates that divorce should only be sought in cases of marital “unchastity” (or “indecency”), and not for “any cause” or “any matter.”
In Matthew 5, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 24:1, and says, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The term translated “unchastity” is porneia, referring to many kinds of sexual impropriety.
Paul’s teaching on divorce is in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, 39, where he responds to those who wish to place limits on marital sex and to advocate the divorce of non-Christian partners. Paul teaches that married couples should not separate or divorce (1 Cor 7:10-14); that, if separation (probably a reference to the practice of divorce-by-separation) has occurred, the marriage has effectively ended (v 15); and that there are valid grounds for divorce (such as desertion, v 15). Paul may have allowed other grounds for divorce, such as adultery; he certainly affirmed conjugal and material obligations within marriage (1 Cor 7:3-5; 33-34; Eph 5:21-33).
The Bible and remarriage
The biblical teaching on remarriage after divorce is contested. Deuteronomy 24:1-2 appears to imply that a divorced person may remarry even though the grounds for divorce were not adultery.
Three Gospel texts have Jesus disapproving of remarriage for a divorced person (Mt 5:32; Mk 10:10-12; Lk 16:18); indeed, Matthew 5:32 has been called the antithesis to Deuteronomy 24:1. But some argue that Matthew 19:9, which parallels Mark 10:10-12, implies that the divorced person who has not committed adultery is free to remarry.
Some who oppose remarriage after divorce argue that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:6, citing Genesis 2:24, compares the marriage relationship to the kinship bond between parents and biological children. Others point out that general principles need to be qualified (cf Mt 12:2 4), and that four of the six New Testament texts explicitly addressing the issue qualify it.
Four texts in Paul’s letters inform debate about remarriage. First, in 1 Corinthians 7:10f, Paul qualifies Jesus’ teaching (forbidding a marriage partner who “leaves” from remarrying) to allow the remaining partner to remarry (vv 12-16).
Second, in 1 Corinthians 7:17-28, Paul appears to allow divorced persons to remarry in the same way that virgins married.
Third, in Romans 7:1-4, Paul uses marriage as a metaphor: a Jewish convert wants to marry Christ but remains married to the Law; their only hope of freedom is death, and the Law will not die. But Christ’s death ends their bondage to the Law and grants them freedom to marry Christ. Opponents of remarriage after divorce argue that this passage teaches that only death ends a marriage; advocates argue that death is one of several legitimate ways in which a marriage may end.
Fourth, in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul teaches that a church leader should be “married only once.” Some opponents of remarriage after divorce claim that this excludes those who remarry while the first partner is still living; advocates usually argue that the phrase excludes from leadership those who were unfaithful to their marriage partner.
The Bible teaches that marriage should be characterised by a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. As I understand it, Scripture also acknowledges the effects of sin in human relationships and recognises or affirms the practice of divorce, and subsequent remarriage, in certain situations.
The church and divorced people
Does God require two people to live together in a destructive or abusive relationship? Can there be worse wrongs than adultery in a marriage? Is there ever a completely innocent party in a divorce? Does God expect a man or woman to live alone and celibate after divorce? If it is “better to marry than to be aflame with [sexual] passion” (1 Cor 7:9), what should divorced people do? These and other questions deserve thoughtful answers. Christians should interpret the Bible’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in its cultural and theological context. Equally important is the need to offer pastorally sensitive support, encouragement and affirmation to people experiencing such life transitions, and to any children who may be involved.
Christians should be known for love and acceptance rather than legalism and prejudice. Australian barrister Ken Crispin observes that:
Most of the divorced and separated people in our churches are among the ranks of the hurt and ashamed. They do not need intemperate diatribes to bring home to them a consciousness of guilt; they are racked by it. To come to Christ with their hurt and their guilt should be a liberating experience. Jesus came to heal the broken-hearted. We have been entrusted with his great commission to proclaim the good news that all may be forgiven and reconciled to their Father. Yet like the Pharisees we so often bind heavy burdens on their shoulders which we make little effort to help them bear.
This advice applies also to those beyond our churches. Yet, as Donald Hagner writes, “conceding the hard realities of our continuing fallenness and the reality of forgiveness for those who fail must not allow us to weaken our commitment to continue to strive after the ideal.”
- Has your view of divorce and/or remarriage changed in response to a new biblical understanding or experience? If so, in what way? If not, is there any situation that might reasonably lead you to change your view?
- Is there always a “guilty party” and an “innocent party” in a marital breakdown?
- When a Christian repents and seeks forgiveness for sins leading to divorce, is he or she still accountable for them?
- In your church, is remarriage possible after divorce? If so, is there a way for the new couple to express the sinfulness of breaking former marriage vows?
- Is your church the kind of place where divorced and remarried people feel supported, encouraged and affirmed?
- Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).
- William Heth & Gordon Wenham, Jesus and Divorce (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997).
- H. Wayne House (ed.), Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 1990).
- David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
- Craig S. Keener, …And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendricksen, 1991).
- B. Ward Powers, Marriage and Divorce: The New Testament Teaching (Concord, NSW: Family Life Movement of Australia, 1987).
 http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/fpl/fpl2.html, accessed 9 Dec 2014.
 Ken Crispin, Divorce: The Unforgivable Sin? (Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988) 294.
 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (Dallas: Word, 1993) 126.