Marriage, Divorce, and Re-Marriage

What follows below is the product of one person's Bible study. It does not necessarily represent the opinions or doctrine of any particular eldership or churches of Christ at large, though it might.

In this discussion, "divorce" as it will be used will always refer to scriptural divorce, for one cause and one cause only--the proven fornication of the other mate. This discussion, for the Biblical reasons that will follow, will treat many of the hasty divorces of today as separations and not divorces. Our legal system grants "divorces" at the drop of a hat. But in a scriptural divorce, there is always a guilty party and an innocent party. The innocent party always has the right to re-marry, most advisedly in the Lord (II Corinthians 6: 14- 7: 1); the guilty party has ruined one home and has no right to go mess up another.

Because of the widespread problems encountered about divorce and re-marriage, this is a topic that many would wish to avoid. Opportunities abound for bruised relationships and charges of "judging" (Matthew 7: 1, 2) whenever the topic is broached. But marriage, divorce, and re-marriage are part of the Bible and part of life.

Divorce and re-marriage are part of lives, and part of peoples' sexual lives. It is within marriage that sexual gratification happens, if it is to occur within the framework of God's will. God declared marriage to be pure and holy in Hebrews 13: 4--"Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge." In fact, if one lists the ten sexual sins of the Bible, looking for a common denominator across all of those, the lack of the marriage relationship between people having sex is what defines sexual immorality: adultery (Matthew 5: 27-32), fornication (I Corinthians 6: 9-11), homosexuality (ibid), lasciviousness (Galatians 5: 19 ff) , lust (Matthew 5: 28 -32), incest (I Corinthians 5th chapter), bestiality (Leviticus 20: 15-16) , voyeurism (Leviticus 20: 17-21), prostitution (Deuteronomy 23: 17), and transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5). [Rape is being treated here as a crime of violence, but it is also analyzable as fornication for the person forcibly committing it.] In no place in the Bible are any particular sexual techniques forbidden; it is the lack of the marriage relationship between the two people involved that defines the sin.

Sex is so much a part of the Bible that it is difficult to find any four pages of the Bible in sequence that do not make some mention of it. It is a powerful force, safe only within the confines of marriage, which God has made for the enjoyment of marriage and procreation of mankind. Some of the strongest emotions experienced by mankind are experienced in sexual relationships. Those relationships were intended to bond and to cement a husband and wife together in a way that excludes all others. The sexual drive is so strong that I Corinthians 7: 1-7 says that a married person really does not own his own body, but his spouse does. And if his spouse needs it for sex, it is wrong to deny that, unless the married person is about to enter into prayer at that moment.

It is because of the protections and sanctity of marriage that God-fearing people seek it. Short of gratification that might be physically dangerous (I Corinthians 6: 19, 20), all's fair in terms of sexual techniques as long as both spouses can approach it in faith (Romans 14: 23). People contemplating marriage need to be made aware through pre-marital counseling that their prospective spouse may have a "standard" list of activities that might not look just like what they think the "standard" list of foreplay options might be. Communication within the marriage once it begins is a must. No one should be forced to do things that are clearly outside of his or her conscience. But neither should they hold out on their partner just because something is just a little new or different.

What is the Biblical plan for marriage? Two New Testament passages are key to our understanding to this: Matthew 19: 3-12 and Mark 10: 2-12. These likely are two recordings of the same incident as Christ answered the Pharisees. "But for your hardness of heart . . . " Jesus hauled them up short to what God's standard was: One man for one woman for life. The Israelites had fallen into a pattern of allowing divorce for nearly any cause, but this was never God's plan. In fact God hates divorce (Malachi 2: 16). After a man and a woman have become so intimate that God considers them one flesh, to have to give that person up because his or her affections have changed is a torture that God never intended for any of His children to have to go through. Those who engage in covenant-breaking top the list of those who won't be going to heaven (Galatians 5: 19). This is an area where all need to be very careful: those who contemplate anything that could disqualify him from continuing in a marriage; those who advise others, and those might be innocent parties. And the divorce rate in this country has passed the 50% mark outside the church. There's too much of it inside the church, also.

See also Romans 7: 1-3. Here Paul is using an allegory to speak about the Old Law and the New. But in the process he repeats the principle of "one man, one woman, one marriage, for life-'til death do you part." Let us never forget that this model is the ideal that God had in mind. Whatever is done needs to approximate that as nearly as possible. Now, the questions.

May a spouse divorce his/her spouse when he or she knows clearly that fornication has occurred? Clearly he or she has that right (Matthew 19, Mark 10).

Must a spouse divorce the other spouse when this infraction has occurred? No. The innocent spouse, following Matthew 18: 21, 22, may choose to forgive and begin again. It's totally his/her call. The spirit of Christ in dealing with forgiven persons dictates that if the innocent spouse says that he will forgive the wayward one, the matter is settled and should not be brought up again. We are to be like God, who when He forgives, He forgets.

Okay, so if the innocent spouse has decided to forgive the guilty one, how many more times does he or she have to go through this before he "pulls the plug?" The guilty spouse is already living on grace. The "plug" could have been pulled the very first time, or the second, or the tenth. The innocent one had full authority to terminate the marriage as of the very first proven time of unfaithfulness.

What about the situation where someone who lived some of his life outside the Lord, and who did not have a scriptural reason for divorcing a first marriage, has remarried and now has heard the Gospel, and wants to come to the Lord? Must he leave the second wife and children?

This is a situation that we in the Prison Ministry come across increasingly more often. In the eyes of the inmate who wants to follow Christ but who is counting the cost, the question is: Is it possible for me to become a Christian?

Jesus said to count the cost (Luke 14: 28) before following Him. A person in this condition will have to pay a very high price to follow Jesus. His disciples complained that this would be a difficult command for some to do (Matthew 19: 10). It is true that "The way of the transgressor is hard" (Proverbs 13: 15). There was a reason why the Hebrews left their foreign wives, as accounted for at the end of Ezra 10 (17-44). They valued their relationship with God more than their relationships with their ill-gotten wives.

The sixth chapter of Romans, with the plaintive cry of Paul ("How can we who died to sin live any longer therein?"), would lead one to say that the person who wants to follow Jesus must live a celibate life thereafter. What about the obligations that this husband has to providing for not only the material but also spiritual and emotional lives of his wife and children? He or she will still have them. But the penitent parent can send money to provide for the physical needs of his children without living in the same house and continuing in sexual sin.

This view would be regarded as conservative by some, perhaps many. There is another argument, the "in whatsoever state ye were called" argument from I Corinthians 7: 20. It may be that the Lord in the Last Day will say that the person who became a Christian while in a second or third marriage has been forgiven of all of those sins and that His grace will allow for this. Final judgment belongs to the Lord. But for a person who can avoid a marriage/divorce/remarriage scenario--which is a whole lot more of us than is usually admitted--the best advice is: Stick with your marriage; pray for it, read your Bible; get good marriage counseling from Godly elders or preachers. Don't look for an easy way out. The weight of scripture is greatly in the direction of marrying once and making that marriage work. To have a good mate, be a good mate.

When we meet the "gold standard" of Mark 10 and Matthew 19--one husband, one wife, for life--we know we are right. Maybe meeting the "silver standard" under "whatsoever state ye were called" will be all right at the judgement. Maybe not. The stakes couldn't be any higher. Be careful how you wed.

A variety of scenarios is possible; we've heard a lot of them in the Prison Ministry. But the best yardstick is to come back to God's original plan: One man, and one woman, together for life, in sweetness and innocence (Genesis 2: 24, 25). The best plan is that for prevention . . . Don't live life in such a way that elders and preachers alike will someday become reluctant to utter any words of advice, for fear they might be wrong. Don't let your married life become too complicated, and this issue can remain a mostly hypothetical one. Keep it simple.

Sid Womack

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