Biblical Divorce And Re-Marriage
by Frank L. Caw, Jr.
During Bible times, the Jewish Law recognized several basic moral justifications for divorce or nullification of a marriage covenant or contract between a man and his wife. Those Old Testament justifications were ordained by God Himself because they were based on the scriptural passages quoted below, and they generally involved the moral failure of either spouse to perform their duty in the provision of food, clothing, reasonable marital obligations and sexual fidelity. (See Biblical Divorce And Remarriage by Rev. Dr. David Instone Brewer.) Moreover, common sense logic and other biblical scriptures obviously require us to add violence and health-or-life-threatening abuse to our list of moral justifications because such evil activities are always prohibited for everyone, regardless of their marital status in life.
10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money. (KJV)
1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. (KJV)
Exodus 20:14, 17
14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
17 Thou shalt not covet.... thy neighbour's wife.... (KJV)
The first scriptural passage, quoted above, addresses an archaic social situation that does not even apply to our society today, but we can derive general moral principles from its text because God is a God of logical consistency. However, to understand Exodus 21:10-11 properly, we must view this passage in its immediate scriptural context, i.e., Exodus 21:7-11. Accordingly, if a Jewish man sold his daughter to be a servant, she did not become a free person even if she became the wife of her new owner. But, if the owner/husband decided he did not care for her, then she could be redeemed by her family; otherwise, she remained his wife. Nor under any circumstances could she be sold to Gentiles. (Ex. 21:7-8). Likewise, if she was betrothed to her master's son, she was to be dealt with as if she was his own daughter; and she could not be sold. (Ex. 21:9).
Furthermore, if the owner/husband took another wife, he remained obligated to his slave-wife in terms of material support and marriage duties. (Ex. 21:10). But, if he refused to honor such obligations, then she was to be set free immediately without any need for her family to redeem her with money. (Ex. 21:11). Thus, even slave wives, in ancient Jewish society, were protected in their marriages against extreme spousal neglect so far as their material and sexual needs were concerned. Therefore, God's Moral Law permits divorce if either the husband or the wife fails to honor the marriage covenant in matters pertaining to food, clothing (and shelter), reasonable sexual relations, marital faithfulness and non-violent treatment.
Unfortunately, by the time in which Jesus lived, two major schools of thought among the teachers of the religious law, i.e., the Pharisees, had developed and coalesced around differing interpretations for the word "uncleanness" in Deuteronomy 24:1. One line of thought maintained that the scriptural passage pertained strictly to matters of sexual impurity, whereas the opposing school of thought insisted on expanding the meaning of impurity to include virtually anything a man might find displeasing about his wife in any aspect of their lives together.
However, the word translated as "uncleanness" in Deuteronomy 24:1 comes from the Hebrew word `ervah (er-vaw'), which means "nudity, literally (especially the pudenda) or figuratively (disgrace, blemish)." It is translated as "nakedness" or "shame" or "unclean(ness)" in the King James Version of the Bible. Furthermore, it is based on the Hebrew word 'arah, which means "to make bare; empty; destitute; discover; make naked; uncover." So, apparently the thought behind this passage involves discovering or uncovering something about the wife that previously was not known by the husband. But, exactly what kind of "uncleanness" is meant here is not known although judging from the Hebrew dictionary definitions given above, it would allude to something discovered that was shameful, and disappointing, and extremely dislikeable. We do know, however, that if the word "uncleanness" is a reference to the moral sin of adultery, as in Deuteronomy 22:13-24, then the Law demanded the death penalty.
Evidently, Moses realized that if the letter of the Law was always enforced in such matters, there would be excessive numbers of executions due to the extremely lax moral standards which prevailed among the Israelites at that time. For that reason, he may have decided to modify the Law by permitting a wife to clear herself with a solemn oath in some cases (Num. 5:11-31), and in other instances, by allowing the husband to divorce his wife, privately, without subjecting her to a trial. (Deut. 24:1-4; Matt. 1:19). Nevertheless, as noted previously, many of the Pharisees in ancient Jewish society taught that the only necessary requirement for obtaining a divorce, according to Mosaic Law, was a legal certificate of divorce; otherwise, they believed a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.
In actuality, Moses permitted (not commanded) such lax rules regarding divorce because although God hates divorce, God was forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in a sinful society in order to maximize the amount of good possible under the circumstances when no other viable option was available. That is the real reason He instructed Moses to issue such a decree. Thus, by allowing this decree to exist, God accomplished two very important objectives. First, sinful men were discouraged from leading illicit lifestyles in an attempt to avoid marriages from which they could not escape legally. Likewise, it also protected women against retribution, or even murder, from resentful and dissatisfied husbands who might want a divorce for any number of flimsy reasons.
So, it was not surprising that, early in His ministry, Jesus expressed His opinion regarding this one particular aspect of the divorce laws, i.e., the controversy that surrounded the word "uncleanness." Thus, His New Covenant proclamation decreed that only fornication, i.e., spiritual and/or sexual immorality, was justification for a divorce, thereby implying that mere displeasure over trivial matters of life were not. However, please note in the following scriptural passage that Jesus never questioned or challenged the continued validity of other Old Testament moral justifications for divorce. Instead, He simply addressed the singular issue of what the word "uncleanness" in Deuteronomy 24:1 truly meant in its application.
31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (KJV)
Since Jesus did not take issue with the other moral grounds for divorce which God previously had decreed, we may conclude they remain in force today because they are moral laws which reflect God's eternal, unchanging moral character, not mere ceremonial laws lacking innate moral value in and of themselves. That is why the New Covenant, personified in Christ Jesus, reaffirmed and sometimes even expanded on the moral commandments that had been given in the Old Covenant, but did not include any of its ceremonial and symbolic laws. As confirmation, the apostle Paul later affirmed this entire matter in a more positive manner when he elaborated on the duties and obligations that are inherent within all Christian marriages. (I Corinthians 7) (Ephesians 5:23-33). As even further confirmation, later we will analyze how the biblical principle of Objective Moral Relativism sheds additional insight on why there are moral justifications for obtaining a biblical divorce, in extreme situations, that go beyond any specific scriptural instruction.
Naturally, the religious critics and hypocrites did not wait very long before asking Jesus to clarify and defend His proclamation in Matthew 5:32 regarding the true meaning for "uncleanness" or "impurity."
3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. (KJV)
Compare the following parallel passages:
2 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.
3 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?
4 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.
5 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.
7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.
11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. (KJV)
18 Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery. (KJV)
14 Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.
15 And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
16 For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously. (KJV)
Now the question arises as to how the word "fornication" should be defined. According to the Christian Bible, fornication means:
(1) Any sexually-intimate relationship or activity except for those which occur between a man and his wife. (Matt. 5:32; Matt. 19:9; Luke 16:18; Mark 10:2-12; I Cor. 7:2; I Cor. 10:8; I Thess. 4:3; Rev. 9:21; Deut. 27:20-23; Lev. 20:10-21; Lev. 18:6-23; Exodus 22:16.)
(2) Incest. (I Cor. 5:1; I Cor. 10:8; Lev. 18:6-23.)
(3) Idolatry and adultery in honor of idol gods. (II Chron. 21:11; Isa. 23:17; Ezek. 16:15, 26, 29; Acts 15:20, 29; Acts 21:25; Rev. 2:14-21; Rev. 14:8; Rev. 17:2-4; Rev. 18:3-9; Rev. 19:2.)
(4) Natural harlotry. (John 8:41; I Cor. 6:13-18.)
(5) Spiritual harlotry or unfaithfulness. (Ezek. 16:15, 26, 29; Rev. 17:2-4; Rev. 18:3-9; Rev. 19:2.)
(6) Sodomy, homosexuality, bestiality and male prostitution. (I Cor. 6:9-11; Heb. 12:16; Jude 6-7; Romans 1:24-29; II Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5. See also: Gen. 19:5-8; Exodus 22:19; Lev. 18:22-23; Lev. 20:13-16; Deut. 23:17; Deut. 27:21; Judges 19:22; I Kings 14:24; I Kings 15:12; I Kings 22:46; II Kings 23:7.)
Therefore, fornication can be defined as any type of sexual or spiritual unlawfulness or unfaithfulness. This means, according to Matthew 5:31-32, that any such behavior is biblical grounds for divorce.
Sometimes Matthew 5:31-32 is taken out of context and interpreted to mean that if a man arbitrarily divorces his wife without just biblical cause, i.e., fornication, then she the innocent victim is guilty of committing adultery (if she marries again, according to a parallel scripture in Matthew 19:9). However, we should analyze this passage more carefully by balancing it against everything else the Bible teaches regarding God's moral laws because, quite often, one scriptural passage will clarify the meaning of another passage by giving us additional insight. Accordingly, in this instance, we should note that the Bible teaches we will reap what we sow, and that we will be rewarded or punished according to what we have done in this lifetime. Therefore, God never condemns a person (male or female; Galatians 3:28) for the sins and wrongdoing of another person; each of us is responsible solely for our own deeds and misdeeds. Moreover, words often can be a cumbersome tool for expressing ideas with complete accuracy and precision especially if contextual and cultural and language translation issues are not accounted for properly.
Thus, a plausible explanation for the passage in Matthew 5:31-32 could be that women who do not object to an unjust divorce by their husbands would be willing participants in the divorce action, so they would be equally guilty of adultery under the Moral Law of God if they ever remarried. Conversely, however, if a woman objects to an unbiblical divorce action by her husband, then she must be held blameless for something her husband does against her will. Under such circumstances, then, she would be free to remarry because divorce by its very nature, i.e., termination of the marriage covenant or contract, makes that marriage contract null and void.
Please bear in mind that the word "contract" is just another name for the word "covenant," and for a contract or covenant to be valid and morally-enforceable, it must willingly be agreed to by both parties to the contract. If either party to the contract or covenant violates any of the terms contained within the contract, or even outright abolishes the contract, then, of course, the other party is no longer obligated to the contract, either, because the contract no longer exists. For example, the Old Covenant was superceded and replaced by the New Covenant personified in Christ Jesus. God's eternal covenant with Abraham was conditioned on his continued obedience to God during his lifetime. God's covenant with the nation of Israel was conditioned on their continued obedience which helps to explain God's complex dealings with Israel during these "last days." Moreover, God's covenant with the nation of Israel will be superceded by a new and better covenant during the future Millennial Reign of Christ on the earth, etc., etc..
Likewise, sometimes it is argued that both Luke 16:18 and Matthew 5:31-32 do not condemn a man if he divorces his wife for just cause and then marries again, but that nothing is said about a woman having the same equal right. Or they might argue that the "rules" are different for men and women because the man is the "head" of the wife. But, such arguments are refuted by the following scriptural passage:
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (KJV)
In other words, there is no distinction made between men and women in matters involving God's moral laws because everyone is judged on an absolutely equal basis! Therefore, moral instructions in the Bible generally apply equally to both men and women except for those which define the different, respective roles or functions of men and women within the family structure. That concept explains why Jesus appeared to repeat Himself in the following passage; He wanted to make it perfectly clear that His teaching concerning divorce and remarriage applied equally to both genders:
11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. (KJV)
Sometimes it is said that a marriage covenant can never be terminated because of the following passage:
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (KJV)
But, it is possible for someone to tear apart whom God has joined together. Otherwise, it would have been pointless for God to say "let no man tear them apart." (Compare Matt. 19:6-8.) In actuality, the above scriptural passage simply declares the moral ideal which God intended for all marriages; unfortunately, the sinful reality can be different. So, if the reality is that a married couple have been torn apart, i.e., divorced, then the marriage covenant, by definition, is null and void. Therefore, the victim, i.e., the offended party, is single and free to remarry because how could God hold the unwilling victim of an unjust divorce action responsible for what has happened? It would make far more sense for God to hold the offending party responsible for the sin that occurred, rather than punishing or blaming the offended party by condemning that innocent person to a lifetime of loneliness and incompleteness as a single person.
18 Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery. (KJV)
At first glance, this passage might seem to indicate that if a man divorces his wife for any reason at all and then remarries, he is automatically guilty of adultery. But in order to achieve a proper perspective, we must consider other parallel scriptural passages which deal with this same issue, and then balance them against the above scripture to achieve a complete and balanced viewpoint. By doing so, it becomes apparent that fornication by a person's spouse is sufficient biblical justification for divorce and remarriage.
However, we should observe that Scripture does not insist on a person divorcing their unfaithful spouse; only that they are justified, morally, if they wish to do so. Although we should forgive the marital betrayal by releasing any feelings of hatred or anger or resentment or revenge for both scriptural and health reasons, continuation of the marriage union is not commanded in the Bible under such circumstances. Instead, it is a matter for free-will individuals to decide for themselves.
Sometimes people will ask if "mental adultery" by their spouses provides them with sufficient grounds for a biblical divorce, so here is what Jesus had to say about the matter:
27 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (KJV)
Because God is logically consistent, His moral laws encompass the entirety of human experience in both the material and spiritual realms of existence. Therefore, we are guilty of adultery whether it is an accomplished physical act of infidelity or an adulterous fantasy indulged in for sexual pleasure. Of course, the consequences resulting from physical acts of adultery generally are more severe and noticeable than immoral sexual fantasies, but nevertheless, both are wrong to one degree or another.
However, one very important point to keep in mind is that we are not guilty of sin merely because Satan tempts us with evil thoughts. The sin occurs if, and when, we give in to the temptation by dwelling on the evil thought and deriving pleasure from it. The right thing to do in such moments is quickly to dismiss the evil thoughts when they occur and to have nothing to do with them. As Christians, we must not forget that Satan truly is our adversary, walking about as a lion seeking to devour its prey:
1 Peter 5:8
8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: (KJV)
So, is mental adultery or immoral sexual fantasy sufficient biblical grounds for a divorce? In my view, this is something which must be considered very carefully and judiciously. It is not always so easy to ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt that a mental transgression of this type really has occurred. Besides, we all know that the physical act of adultery requires a greater willingness to sin than does an indulgence in adulterous sexual fantasy and that has to count for something in the balance scales of justice. Furthermore, we always have the option of reconciliation after we forgive the betrayal by releasing any feelings of hatred or anger or resentment or revenge. It is always an option because the Bible does not command or mandate divorce necessarily in cases of adultery.
On the other hand, it can be quite devastating to learn that a beloved spouse is harboring thoughts of infidelity and sexual fantasies about someone else. Especially if they are ongoing and habitual in nature. In fact, marital betrayal and infidelity can be so heart-breaking and psychologically shattering that it is one of the reasons why God will permit a divorce in such instances even though, generally, He hates divorce.
Accordingly, each case has to be judged on its own individual merits and unique set of circumstances. People will have to decide for themselves the truth of the matter on a number of issues relevant to this question. For instance, did your spouse really betray you sexually in their thoughts? Is your mate truly repentant for what they have done, and can they be deemed trustworthy in the future? How much moral character and integrity does your spouse exhibit? Can you put the hurt and pang behind you, and focus on healing your marriage? I do not believe God necessarily wants us to look at divorce as a first response to marital problems like this. But, if the mental betrayal by your spouse is sufficiently severe or habitual, and they are not repentant, and your feelings of hurt and pang over this matter are substantial, then perhaps divorce is a viable biblical solution.
1 Corinthians 7:2
2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. (KJV)
1 Corinthians 7:10-11
10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband:
11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. (KJV)
According to this passage, if both husband and wife are true Christian believers, and one of them leaves the other, then both of them are commanded to remain in a "separated" condition unless they decide to reconcile and reunite. Under such circumstances, neither believer has the biblical right to seek a divorce from the other believer unless extreme conditions such as fornication or abuse are involved. Instead, they should try their very best to heal their marital relationship through Godly prayer, love, tolerance, kindness, marriage counseling and marital negotiations between the two of them in an attempt to find good solutions or compromises to problems in their relationship.
Obviously the above scriptural admonition emphasizes the truth that God wants true Christians to avoid the appearance of immoral lifestyles which merely mimic that of non-believers. If Christian couples were always getting divorces from each other for flimsy reasons, that would reflect very badly on the Christian faith in the eyes of many non-believers. For that reason, God generally forbids divorce for married Christian couples, and that prohibition should not be violated unless extreme conditions such as fornication or abuse are involved. Furthermore, the above scriptural admonition clearly corroborates the statements made by Jesus that only an extreme situation such as fornication provides a sufficient moral basis for divorce; trivial and flimsy reasons do not.
However, if a Christian believer decides to disobey God anyway by getting a divorce that is not morally justified, then the marriage covenant would no longer be in effect. Accordingly, the offended marriage partner who has been divorced against their will, without just biblical cause, would not be under any further obligation to their now-defunct marriage contract, and they would be single and free to remarry.
So as to make the meaning of the above passage even more clear, we should note that the word "reconciled" in 1 Corinthians 7:11 is derived from the Greek word "katallassw," and it was utilized in Greek marriage contracts to indicate reconciliation between separated couples who were still married. Thus, the apostle Paul was saying that even though ancient Roman Law considered married couples to be divorced as soon as they separated for any reason, as far as God's Moral Law was concerned, Christian couples who separated were still married, and should reconcile and reunite with each other if at all possible unless extreme conditions such as fornication or abuse were involved.
Likewise, sometimes it is argued that Christian marriage partners who separate should always forgive and reconcile and reunite with each other, regardless of the circumstances involved. But, "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" and "reunion" are three different things. It is very possible for a person to forgive their spouse and feel no ill will or anger towards them, but still not wish to reconcile or reunite with them for a variety of valid reasons. If that is the case, then generally the scriptural passage above commands them to remain separated until if and when they reconcile and reunite unless, of course, extreme circumstances we will discuss later are involved.
1 Corinthians 7:12-15
12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.
15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. (KJV)
In this passage, Paul teaches that if an unbelieving spouse is content to remain in the marriage with the believing spouse, then the believing spouse should not leave the unbelieving spouse. However, if the unbelieving spouse leaves the Christian believer, then the Christian believer no longer is under bondage to the marriage vows. Hence, the marriage covenant under such circumstances is broken, and the believer is free to remarry whenever the divorce is finalized. Of course, under Roman Law, as we saw earlier, divorce went into effect immediately upon the mere act of desertion; in our modern society, however, desertion is only grounds for a divorce, so a legal divorce would still have to be obtained.
As for situations where the unbeliever does leave the believer, I should hasten to add that the unbeliever should be leaving the believer because of the believer's Christian faith, not because of sin and wrongdoing in the life of the believer. If the believer is guilty of any misbehavior that is threatening to destroy the marriage, then every reasonable attempt at forgiveness and reconciliation should be tried in order to save the marriage if at all possible.
Someone might argue that 1 Corinthians 7:12 clearly states that this passage of Scripture reflects the apostle Paul's opinion, and not God's. But Paul, generally, was speaking under the authority and inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit while writing his letter to the Corinthians, even though, in this instance, he was not expressing a direct commandment from God Himself. However, he was exercising the personal judgment and knowledge and insight with which God had blessed him on a specific issue of great interest. So, in fact, this passage is not a false representation of God's Will as some might claim, but a valid part of Scripture as confirmed by Christian councils and translators down through the centuries of time since the inception of Christianity.
Sometimes it is said that 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 does not say that a Christian believer may remarry if they are deserted or divorced by their unbelieving spouse. But, in 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul said that, "if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases..." Obviously the phrase, "not under bondage," can only mean that the believing spouse no longer is under bondage to the marriage covenant because it is invalidated by the unbelieving spouse when they leave the believing marriage partner. Therefore, in such instances, a believer no longer is bound to the marriage covenant, and is free to remarry once the divorce has been finalized.
The author of the book of Romans also briefly addresses the issue of marriage and remarriage:
1 Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
2 For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
3 So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. (KJV)
Compare the following parallel passage:
1 Corinthians 7:39
39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord. (KJV)
In other words, if the spouse of the Christian believer dies, then the Christian is free to remarry. This is all the preceding scriptural passages are saying; nothing more. So, they do not mean that if a person is victimized by their spouse through an unjust divorce, they can never remarry so long as their spouse who divorced them, without cause, remains alive. Instead, we must apply everything the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage to the above scriptural passages in order to ascertain the highest level of understanding possible regarding God's truth on this matter.
Then finally, one major ongoing issue we have encountered throughout our analysis centers on the biblical right of believers to get a divorce in extreme circumstances involving things such as fornication, abuse, violence, life-threatening neglect, permanent desertion by a believing spouse, permanent and malicious denial of reasonable sexual duties, and so on. For instance, in the matter concerning Old Testament justifications for divorce, Jesus actually addressed only one aspect of those divorce laws: the controversy that surrounded the word "uncleanness." Thus, His New Covenant proclamation decreed that only fornication, i.e., spiritual and/or sexual immorality, justified divorce, thereby implying that trivial reasons did not. However, the apostle Paul later affirmed the validity of the other Old Testament justifications for divorce in a more positive manner when he elaborated on the duties and obligations that are inherent within all Christian marriages. (I Corinthians 7) (Ephesians 5:23-33).
But, in the final analysis, the biblical principle of Objective Moral Relativism provides absolute, iron-clad justification for a biblical divorce, in extreme circumstances, that go beyond any specific scriptural instructions. Because the Bible clearly demonstrates the truth that a hierarchy of Divine moral values exist which should govern all of our moral decisions in life. Thus, no moral principle is completely autonomous to itself. That is why God is a God of love and mercy, but also a God of justice and judgment. Therefore, complexity, not contradiction, is involved in such instances.
Accordingly, whenever moral laws and principles come into direct and unavoidable conflict with each other, and due to circumstances, it is impossible to comply with both of them or all of them, then it is our moral duty and obligation to choose the highest level of good possible. For example, if telling a lie was the only way possible to save an innocent life from death, then obviously you should do so because the higher law (preservation of innocent life) should take precedence over the lower law (truth), as the following biblical scripture demonstrates:
3 And the king of Jericho sent unto Rahab, saying, Bring forth the men that are come to thee, which are entered into thine house: for they be come to search out all the country.
4 And the woman took the two men, and hid them, and said thus, There came men unto me, but I wist not whence they were: (KJV)
31 By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. (KJV)
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (KJV)
The preceding scriptures portray an instance whereby God accounted an individual as righteous when they were forced to tell a lie in order to save the lives of innocent human beings. Now compare this example with the following one:
15 And the king of Egypt spake to the Hebrew midwives, of which the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah:
16 And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live.
17 But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.
18 And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said unto them, Why have ye done this thing, and have saved the men children alive?
19 And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and are delivered ere the midwives come in unto them.
20 Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty.
21 And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses. (KJV)
Here is yet another situation where God looked very favorably upon individuals who lied in order to save innocent human life. The midwives, in this instance, very courageously lied to the Pharaoh because it was the only practical way of saving the innocent Hebrew babies from being slaughtered. Likewise, the following scripture illustrates the morality of being forced to kill a thief who is in the process of robbing you and possibly even threatening your life:
1 If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.
2 If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. (KJV)
The following passage actually portrays God instructing an innocent individual to lie so he would not be killed unfairly and unjustly. Some people might argue that God did not really tell Samuel to lie because when Samuel told anyone that he was there to make a sacrifice to the Lord (as God instructed him to do if anyone should inquire as to why he was going to Bethlehem), he was telling the truth. But truth-telling, in its fullest, complete sense of the meaning, is not necessarily limited to the strict semantic sense of the words employed by a person, but rather, it is the impression or message which a person intends for his audience to receive when he or she is communicating ideas through words and gestures and overall demeanor. That is why in our judicial system, a person promises to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. A seemingly redundant pledge of this type is necessary because it is very possible to deceive people by giving only completely truthful statements while still withholding vital information which prevents the audience from understanding the entire situation correctly. But, sometimes, making truthful statements in order to deceive someone about the whole truth of a matter, as in the following example, is morally justifiable because they involve situations where one is forced by circumstances to choose between two evil actions or consequences in an effort to choose the highest level of good possible when no completely good options exist:
1 Samuel 16:1-5
1 And the LORD said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.
2 And Samuel said, How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me. And the LORD said, Take an heifer with thee, and say, I am come to sacrifice to the LORD.
3 And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will shew thee what thou shalt do: and thou shalt anoint unto me him whom I name unto thee.
4 And Samuel did that which the LORD spake, and came to Bethlehem. And the elders of the town trembled at his coming, and said, Comest thou peaceably?
5 And he said, Peaceably: I am come to sacrifice unto the LORD: sanctify yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice. And he sanctified Jesse and his sons, and called them to the sacrifice. (KJV)
The following scriptures illustrate the truth that there is a hierarchy of moral values because some moral laws are more important than other moral laws:
11 Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin. (KJV)
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (KJV)
6 Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (KJV)
29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. (KJV)
17 Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (KJV)
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, (KJV)
Compare the following scriptures which state that Jesus was sinless and without blemish:
15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (KJV)
I John 3:4
4 Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (KJV)
2 Corinthians 5:21
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (KJV)
1 Peter 1:19
19 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: (KJV)
Now compare the preceding scriptures, which say that Jesus was sinless, with the following passage which portrays Jesus as disobedient and unresponsive to His parents' wishes when they conflicted with God's wishes:
44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.
45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business? (KJV)
So, I think we have established beyond any reasonable doubt that there does exist a hierarchy of Divine moral values which should govern all of our moral decisions in life. Accordingly, in those instances where our health or life truly is threatened by physical or psychological violence from our spouse, the moral laws of self-preservation and self-defense rights which are derived from the very right to life itself supercede the moral law of marriage, and we should get a divorce from our abusive and violent spouse as quickly as possible. (Compare: Matthew 10:23; Exodus 21:26-27; etc.) This very same moral principle also explains why Old Testament Law permitted divorce in extreme marital situations which involved neglect by a spouse in matters pertaining to food, clothing, shelter, and reasonable sexual obligations. Therefore, even though God places a very high value on the institution of marriage, it is possible for extreme circumstances involving fornication, adultery, violence, abuse, life-threatening neglect, and permanent spousal desertion to justify a biblical divorce action.
However, the Bible does not always say precisely what we should do in a wide variety of extreme situations because it would be almost impossible to write a book that would give such detailed, explicit moral instructions for every possible contingency in life. Instead, the Bible gives us basic moral principles to weigh and balance against each other, carefully and honestly, in order to determine what we should do in a given situation. In other words, biblical moral principles are intended simply to serve as general guidelines, only; it is up to us to apply them properly and diligently in a rational and honest and ethical manner. For that reason, here are some of the moral laws we should consider when making our decision about whether or not a divorce is biblically justified:
(1) God hates divorce, i.e., the violation or breaking of one's wedding vows;
(2) The Bible specifically states that adultery, fornication, desertion by a non-believer, non-support, and a lack of reasonable spousal sexual rights all are legitimate reasons for divorce;
(3) The Bible clearly teaches we should violate a lower moral law if that is the only way possible (within reason) to comply with a higher moral law because no good options are available to us. In other words, for example, we are obligated morally to tell a lie if that is the only way possible to save an innocent person from being killed.
(4) We have the God-given right to life, and that precious gift from God obviously includes the right to protect and defend our lives against danger and harm. Naturally, we always should utilize the lowest level of force or flight necessary to eliminate any threat which might be arrayed against us.
Accordingly, in situations that involve physical or mental abuse, or the threat thereof, an absolutely honest and realistic assessment of all relevant circumstances is necessary in order to determine if we truly are confronted with a realistic threat to our health or life. This means, for instance, that angry disagreements between marriage partners, and other such things, are not sufficient reason for seeking a divorce. God does not want Christians getting divorces for trivial reasons. Instead, both parties should strive sincerely and honestly to work out their differences through negotiations with each other, and perhaps through Christian marriage counseling with an experienced minister, and through Godly prayer, love, tolerance, kindness, and so on. Because most marriages encounter problems, sooner or later, but since everyone promises to marry "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health," divorce should not be viewed as a first option as soon as there is any sign of unhappiness or discontent in the marriage. Therefore, hurt feelings or feelings of frustration are not sufficient grounds for a biblical divorce.
But, on the other hand, realistic threats to our health or life, such as physical beatings or systematic patterns of mental torture designed to destroy or incapacitate us, are legitimate reasons for leaving a spouse and subsequently seeking a divorce from them. Of course, only the victims of psychological abuse can decide, honestly, if the constant barrage of invective and hatred by their spouse rises to a level of mental cruelty that seriously jeopardizes their emotional and physical health. Because it is one thing to engage in heated arguments or disputes with your spouse occasionally, but quite another matter if your spouse attacks you verbally unmercifully, continually so that you always are near your breaking point. In such instances, a divorce is biblically justified because the higher moral/biblical values of survival and self-defense take priority over the lower moral/biblical value that prohibits divorce. Hence, biblical divorces are not limited to just cases of spousal fornication, including adultery; they also are justified in clear, obvious cases involving a dangerous level of psychological and/or physical abuse! However, the victim of such abuse may also want to consult with two or three reputable, experienced Christian counselors or ministers who can advise them regarding their situation. For as the Bible says, there is safety in a multitude of counselors or advisors:
14 Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. (KJV)
22 Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established. (KJV)
6 For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety. (KJV)
Furthermore, after the victim of the abuse has obtained their biblically-justified divorce, they become a single person once again in God's eyes, so they are free to remarry if they wish to do so. But, please keep in mind that God knows our every thought and emotion; nothing is hidden from Him. So, if you decide that divorce is a biblically permissible solution in a given marital situation, especially in highly-subjective situations involving alleged mental torture, you should make certain, in your own mind, that you truly believe your life or health, physically or emotionally, is seriously and realistically threatened by your spouse.
Sometimes people say in such instances that the offended party simply should get a separation, not a divorce. However, aside from the fact the Bible does not teach such a thing, the stark reality in life is that violent, abusive people seldom, if ever, suddenly reform their behavior unless they receive a miraculous transformation through the saving grace of Christ Jesus, our Lord God and Saviour. Therefore, it is not fair to condemn the victim of abuse to a lifetime of constant fear, threats, danger, loneliness, and frustration simply because they had the misfortune or poor judgment to marry such an evil, violent person. For God has not called us to be pitiful, abused doormats, but to life, and life abundantly. (John 10:10).
This scriptural point is completely harmonious with the teaching in the epistles that just as Christ is head of the church, so likewise should the husband be the head (i.e., spiritual leader) of his wife (Eph. 5:23) while respecting her right to free will and equal value and dignity as a human being (Gal. 3:28). Moreover, the husband should love and cherish his wife and family just as Christ loves and cherishes the church body of believers. (Ephesians 5:23). Accordingly, a proper biblical view of marriage precludes the violent, abusive relationship that so many modern marriages endure. (Compare: Matthew 10:23; Exodus 21:26-27; etc.) Although God hates divorce (Jeremiah 3:1; Malachi 2:14-16; Mark 10:2-12), it is morally and scripturally justified under certain adverse conditions because a higher moral law always supercedes a lower moral law whenever it is impossible to comply with both of them.
Earlier, we observed in 1 Corinthians 7:2, 10-11 that if a husband and his wife are true Christian believers, and one of them leaves the other, then both of them are commanded to remain in a "separated" condition unless they decide to reconcile and reunite. Moreover, that under such circumstances, neither one of them has the biblical right to seek a divorce from the other. But this scriptural passage, like all other passages in the Bible, must be balanced against everything else the Bible teaches concerning God's moral laws. Consequently, even in the above situation where both parties to the marriage are true believers, other biblical scriptures state that divorce is still justified if fornication or neglect are involved.
However, the biblical principle of Objective Moral Relativism not only provides additional scriptural justification for divorce in such marriages if fornication or neglect are involved, but it also justifies divorce in many other harmful and extreme circumstances as well. On that basis then, we can say that divorce is morally justifiable for a number of extreme situations, including fornication, adultery, violence, dangerous levels of abuse, life-threatening neglect, long-term and malicious denial of reasonable sexual obligations, desertion by a non-believing spouse, and even permanent desertion by a believing spouse if numerous attempts at reconciliation and reunion have failed over a very long period of time. In every such instance, the higher moral law of survival and self-defense supercedes the lower moral value that prohibits divorce.
This is true even when a believing spouse makes it quite clear that they are separating from you, permanently, despite numerous and honest and sincere attempts on your part at reconciliation and reunion over a very long period of time. Otherwise, an innocent believer would be condemned very unfairly to a lifetime of loneliness and frustration and incompleteness and involuntary celibacy. Thus, married Christian couples can be divorced whenever extreme conditions are involved, but not when only trivial and flimsy reasons are.
Before closing, sometimes it is said that a newly-converted Christian or a re-converted Christian should divorce their current spouse if they ever committed adultery or fornication before they married, presumably either to live the remainder of their life as a single person or to remarry a former spouse they divorced without just biblical cause. However, even if someone committed terrible sins, including adultery, sometime in their past, they always get a new start in life through the forgiving power and grace of Christ Jesus. That is what Christian salvation is all about. Therefore, once you have repented of your sins, and have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, you should begin to live your life everyday in compliance with His commandments to the very best of your ability. On the practical level, this means that whatever your life circumstances are at the moment of your conversion or reconversion to Christ Jesus, that is the point from which you begin to conform your activities and thoughts and lifestyle to His commandments. That is why the apostle Paul wrote the following passage of scripture:
I Corinthians 7:20
20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. (KJV)
Accordingly, in matters pertaining to adultery and divorce and remarriage, whatever your marital status happens to be at the time of your conversion or reconversion to Christ Jesus, that marks the point in time during which you begin to conform your thoughts and actions to His commandments. So, if you are single when you begin a new life in Christ, you are free to marry or remarry if you wish to do so. Nor is it scripturally necessary for you to remarry a former spouse if you have ever been divorced, regardless of the reason for the divorce. There is no biblical reason to atone for past mistakes such as adultery or unjustified divorces; atonement was accomplished by the substitutionary, propitiatory finished-work of the Lord Jesus Christ Who paid the penalty of sin for all by His death on the cross at Calvary. Consequently, I do not believe God demands that divorced people who have been forgiven for their sin of adultery must remain single and alone for the rest of their natural lives. Instead, if they truly have repented of their past failures, and are determined and resolute about not committing that type of sin again, I believe they are free to remarry as forgiven sinners under the grace of God.
However, as the book of Romans argues, God's grace and forgiveness is not something we should take advantage of just because God always stands ready to forgive us if we sincerely repent of our moral failures. Rather, we always should strive to do our very best not to repeat any sinful mistake; most certainly we should not act in a cavalier manner, committing the same sin over and over again, knowing full-well we can always take refuge in God's willingness to forgive us. Therefore, even though we live under God's grace and forgiveness, we do have a moral obligation to do our very best not to commit the same horrendous sin again.
In like manner, if you are remarried at the time of your conversion or reconversion, then you should remain married to your current spouse. You should not divorce your current spouse to remarry a former spouse in a misguided attempt to achieve atonement or "restitution." That is one of the reasons why the apostle Paul also said we should put our past sins and mistakes behind us, and press on toward the future in Christ Jesus:
13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (KJV)
Moreover, here is what Jesus had to say when confronted with a person who had just committed adultery:
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (KJV)
Thus, whenever a person sincerely accepts Christ Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, they become a new creature in Christ with a clean moral slate (since they have been forgiven). But after that person has been forgiven, God expects them to make a "good-faith" effort, through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to obey the commandments of Jesus to the best of their ability. That is why Jesus said: "Go, and sin no more." So, it is clear that a new Christian or a reconverted Christian should remain married to their current spouse if they are married at the time of their conversion or reconversion, but that they are free to marry or remarry if they are single at the moment of their conversion or reconversion. Moreover, all of this is true regardless of any previous moral failures.
Therefore, in conclusion, the Bible teaches that divorce is biblically permissible whenever one or more of the following extreme and dangerous conditions apply to your marriage:
(1) Your spouse is guilty of any type of fornication, including adultery;
(2) Your spouse is guilty of life-threatening neglect by not providing reasonable and essential necessities such as food, clothing and shelter;
(3) Your spouse is guilty of long-term and malicious denial of reasonable sexual obligations;
(4) Your spouse is guilty of physical or mental abuse and violence that truly threatens your life or health;
(5) Your non-believing spouse leaves you because of your Christian faith and value-system;
(6) Your believing spouse makes it quite clear that they are separating from you, permanently, despite numerous and honest and sincere attempts on your part at reconciliation and reunion over a very long period of time.
Frank L. Caw, Jr.
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