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(This is Part Two of a post on Marriage and Divorce. If you haven’t already, please read the post on Marriage as this informs the teaching on divorce.)

The Bible’s teaching on divorce can be tough to grasp or accept. Uncertainty and apprehension exist inside and outside the church concerning it.

No one gets married believing he or she will one day get divorced. Divorce is a difficult and often traumatic life event. And how should one live afterwards? The Bible presents a clear teaching on divorce and its consequences.

(Note: the terms lawful and unlawful used herein refer to whether God permits divorce or not according to the Bible’s teachings.)

To start, what happens when a man and woman get divorced? What is its foundational meaning?

As we saw in the previous post on Marriage, marriage is the holding fast to one another, the unbroken union where man and woman rejoin/unite to become one flesh, where God’s design for man and woman finds its ultimate and proper functioning order. In marriage both man and God play a part: man and woman commit to one another, and God joins them together to make one flesh.

Divorce is when one or both spouses by their will or actions break this union. It is where the two, who were one flesh, separate from one another in a kind of destruction of the one-flesh order they once yearned for and achieved in marriage. It is a decision not to participate anymore in the one-flesh design. It is a breaking of the marriage covenant.

Consider Jesus’ answer to the religious leaders of the day, as this is the foundational teaching on divorce in the New Testament:

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so….” (Matt 19:3-8)

The Pharisees were testing Jesus concerning their own interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 about what are the lawful grounds for divorce. Jesus answers by saying man is not to separate what God has joined together. So his answer goes even deeper than the root of their question. He told them that God did not permit divorce from the beginning of the creation of man and woman. By God’s design, marriage and the one-flesh union are to be for life. Man is not to destroy marriage and the one-flesh union, because it is God who joined it together. God allowed divorce as a concession due to the hard hearts of those to whom the Law of Moses came.

Jesus, continuing on to the Pharisees (picking up from the quote above), said,

… 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality,1 and marries another, commits adultery.”2 (Matt 19:9)

The foundational meaning of lawful divorce is the dissolution of the one-flesh union in both its physical and spiritual components (man’s part and God’s part). Any teaching on divorce in the Bible has its basis on this foundation.

When Jesus gives this teaching, he is pulling back the concession God gave the Israelites through Moses (Deut 24:1-4) and is bringing it back more to how it was when God first created man and woman. Jesus reintroduces the stricter teaching. Before, it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for basically any reason and marry someone else. This means that God honored such a divorce and disunited the one-flesh union—“what God has joined together.” But now, it is unlawful to do this, except due to one spouse’s sexual immorality3; otherwise, it is adultery.

The reason why it is adultery for a spouse to divorce on terms other than sexual immorality and then marry another is because God still holds their marriage as in tact on a spiritual level, as the two are still one flesh. God joined it, and man is not to separate it. In fact, man cannot separate it. Only the one who joined it can do the separating. And God will separate the one flesh union only on the grounds of sexual immorality. God no longer honors divorce for other reasons.

The tough teaching here that Jesus’ disciples gasped at when they heard it (Matt 19:10-12) and that we gasp at today is that if one spouse divorces his or her spouse for any reason other than that spouse’s sexual immorality, then that person can never lawfully marry again. If he or she does, then it is adultery, because the two are still in a one-flesh union in God’s judgment regardless of what legal or other actions they have taken to separate from one another.4

So how does this play out? According to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, there is no dissolving the one-flesh union except for sexual immorality. So, if a married couple no longer wants to be married for whatever reason other than sexual immorality, and they get a legal divorce, they have only severed their marriage covenant and separated their lives—not their one-flesh union (God’s doing). They are still married/one flesh according to Jesus and in God’s judgment. If they have sex after this with someone else, they commit adultery on a per case basis. If they marry someone else, they are giving themselves to adultery on a permanent basis.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt 5:31-32)

Jesus here gives a nuance to his basic teaching, extending out the implications. If one spouse did not want to be divorced and the other spouse did, if the divorce is not on the ground of sexual immorality, then the innocent spouse cannot marry anyone either, as he/she is still one flesh with the other spouse. And if someone marries an unlawfully divorced person, that person commits adultery because he/she is marrying someone who is still married in God’s judgment. 

To put it bluntly, marriage after a divorce that is not based on the ground of sexual immorality is adultery and/or sexual immorality in God’s judgment for everyone involved. God will not violate his own command to honor an adulterous commitment and join them together to become one flesh.

That is a hard teaching.

But we are not finished yet.

The Apostle Paul furthers the very clear teaching Jesus laid out by adding a nuance and an exception.

Paul confirms what Jesus taught and adds a nuance:

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:10-11)

We must understand Paul’s instruction here in its Greco-Roman context where either the man or woman could divorce by separating from his or her spouse. This is different from Jesus’ cultural context where the man had to write the certificate of divorce and made the decision whether to end the marriage. The term Paul uses here, “separate,” is a synonym of divorce, here and in verse 15 below as well. To “separate” is not a distinct category apart from divorce. Our modern day concept of a married couple getting a “separation” finds no biblical basis here.5

Paul says there should be no divorce (except on the lawful ground, which he does not rehash, but it must be assumed because of what Jesus taught, as it is apparently Jesus giving this teaching through Paul). But Paul reveals a nuance here that Jesus did not previously address in the gospels. Can a spouse divorce for unlawful reasons (any reason other than sexual immorality) and avoid being in a permanent, offensive state toward God if he/she never marries or has sex again? Paul seems to be affirming this, or he would have never admitted as much—this is why he says, “but if she does, she should remain unmarried.” The act of divorce would be sin, but the celibate life after would not. While it goes against the teaching of Jesus and the design of the one-flesh union, it is possible for a married couple to have a legal divorce and not live together anymore and avoid any other sin by staying celibate. Are they truly divorced in God’s eyes? No, as they are still one flesh as we have already seen in depth above, and is why Paul says, “she should remain unmarried.” They have ended their marriage covenant with one another but God has not dissolved their one-flesh union.

Paul next gives instructions for marriages where one spouse is a believer and the other is not, and presents an exception:

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?  (1 Cor 7:12-16)

Paul does not want Christians divorcing their unbelieving spouses. However, if the unbelieving spouse divorces, Paul says, “let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.” Enslaved to what? Enslaved to a one-flesh union with an unbeliever who no longer wants to be married. This is an exception to lawful divorce in God’s judgment and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. In this case God dissolves their one-flesh union.

Paul finally says,

39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Cor 7:39)

This corresponds with what he says in another place:

2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Rom 7:2-3)

Paul confirms that the one-flesh union of marriage ends at the death of a spouse, which then allows the remaining spouse to marry again lawfully. But “only in the Lord” (if he/she is a Christian).

In summary, the biblical teaching on divorce stands on the foundation of the concept of the one-flesh union which has both physical and spiritual components. This foundation clarifies the various teachings and provides reasonings for what seem to be very strict teachings. Marriage is the Creator’s design, and it is why we have such stern warnings to avoid divorce and that which leads to it:

 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4)

(Many critical questions remain. See the follow-up post Divorce: Follow-up Questions and Concerns)

1 Sexual relations outside of marriage.
2 Sexual relations between a married person and a person who is not his/her spouse.
3 Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:1-12 record a similar and parallel account though they both lack the exception of sexual immorality found in Matthew’s gospel. These teachings that lack the exception are not in contradiction with Matthew; they simply lack the exception clause for uncertain reasons.
4 It is important to note that divorce as permitted and defined by the State/government is not the same thing nor has the same jurisdiction as that which is permitted and defined by God. A married couple can become divorced legally in the eyes of the State but this does not mean they are divorced in the eyes of God.
5 The types of legal Separation are Trial, Permanent, and Legal Separation. They pertain to legal matters such as legal status, property ownership, debt, and assets, and are under the jurisdiction of the State/government via court order. The modern day concept of legal Separation has no biblical basis, nor does it harmonize with the Bible’s teaching on marriage and divorce.

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