As we continue in our study of the book of 1 Corinthians we move from one uncomfortable subject (singleness, marriage, and intimacy) to another: the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage.
This is a subject that is fraught with difficulty. It is difficult to interpret some of the Biblical data and it is more difficult because almost all of us have experience with someone who has gone through a divorce. It is hard not to be defensive. Our natural tendency is to justify our actions. We will try to look at these issues seeking God’s instruction and wisdom.
In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul answers a second question. There was a difficult situation in the Corinthian church. These former pagans had now put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. This created tensions at home. Some marriages were now “mixed” between a Christian and a non-Christian. The question is: should we divorce our non-Christian spouse?
GOD’S VIEW OF MARRIAGE
Before we can talk about divorce and remarriage we need to define marriage, according to the Lord. In Matthew 19 Jesus said,
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
From this simple text we see God’s intention for marriage: It is a committed relationship between one man and one woman that unifies them permanently until death in a way that is sanctioned and ordained by God.
Nowhere in the Bible do we ever get the idea that marriage is easy. The Bible exhorts us to commitment and giving ourselves to and for our mates. In a marriage ceremony we promise to be committed in times of riches or poverty, good times and bad, in sickness and in health. Vows often promise that we will “forsake all others” and give ourselves only to that one person. That’s the kind of relationship God intended: a commitment that remains firm no matter the crisis. Anything short of this standard is sin.
The Bible also tells us that a Christian marriage is one that takes place between fellow believers. In 2 Corinthians 6:14 we read,
14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”
The argument is pretty simple: a believer and an unbeliever do not share the same priorities or value system!
Paul reiterates the same point in verse 39 of our text when he says to widows, “39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” The command is clear: those who are believers and choose to marry someone who is not a believer is acting contrary to the Word of God.
Most likely the people in Corinth were married before they were converted. In some cases, one of the partners became a believer while the other rejected the gospel. This certainly created tension at home. Life was harder for the believer as well as for the unbeliever. The question was an honest one: would I be a better follower of Christ if I divorced my non-Christian spouse?
THE SCRIPTURAL APPROACH TO DIVORCE
Since we are sinful people, marriage often doesn’t go the way it was intended by God. In addressing the reality of divorce Paul writes clearly and to the point in verses 10-11.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Paul claims the Lord’s authority when he says marriage is to be permanent. He says that a woman who separates from her husband should remain unmarried (to keep open the possibility of reconciliation). The same guideline is given to the husband. This is the clear teaching of Jesus. Jesus does give one possible exception in Matthew 5
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
Jesus’ words are strong. He said that the only reason one might possibly divorce their spouse (this is not a requirement) would be in the case of adultery. In such a case the offending spouse has so destroyed the marriage covenant and trust that the relationship cannot continue. HOWEVER, if a couple can work their way through such a violation to the relationship, they have chosen the better course. I believe God honors couples that work hard to rebuild after the trauma of infidelity.
Jesus says a divorce for any other reason is invalid. In fact, if one divorces their spouse and they get married to someone else they are actually committing adultery because in God’s eyes they are still married!
Having said this, Paul addressed the specific question at hand,
12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
There is a great deal of discussion about the parenthesis (I, not the Lord). I think Paul is saying, “In this situation, on which the Lord doesn’t speak directly, I will tell you what I believe God wants you to do.”
There are many situations in our lives that the Bible doesn’t address. It doesn’t speak about the Internet, watching TV, or playing football on Sunday. The Bible doesn’t speak directly to how we drive our car or whether we should play video games or whether it is appropriate to go to “R” rated movies. As times change different questions emerge. We must look for Biblical principles and apply them to the new situation. I believe this is what Paul is doing.
Paul tells the Christian in this “mixed relationship” that if their non-Christian spouse is still willing to live with them (if they don’t want a divorce) they should stay in the marriage. Paul says that by staying in the marriage they bring a blessing to their non-Christian spouse and to their children. Many families have been brought to faith because of the faithfulness of a lone but faithful family member.
The believer is not to water down their commitment so that they can keep their spouse. If the non-Christian spouse is willing to live with the practicing believer, the relationship should remain intact.
However, says Paul,
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
In these words Paul seems to add another condition in which divorce is acceptable. If the non-Christian spouse demands a divorce, the Christian should let that person go. Paul said the Christian is “no longer bound” in that situation. Most scholars believe this means that the person is freed from their marriage commitment at this point.
This passage leaves us with some unanswered questions. Jesus said the only reason a divorce will be accepted by God is in the case of adultery. Then Paul added what seems to be another condition when divorce is acceptable. So we ask: are there additional situations when a divorce would be accepted by God?
In Matthew 19 Jesus was asked about divorce regulations in Deuteronomy 25 Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Should we view divorce the same way today? Is it something that happens because we are still struggling with the sin nature?
We all know that divorce has become too easy in our society. As God’s people we need to proclaim loudly that God intends for marriage to be permanent. God wants us to work through the hard times. He doesn’t want us to simply throw up our hands because our relationship is hard. He certainly condemns the notion that “I’ve grown tired of this person and have found another soul-mate”. That nonsense makes God sick. If you have separated and are divorcing one person so that you can marry someone else . . . you are in sin!
But what about
- A marriage where the spouse or the children are being physically abused?
- A marriage where a spouse wants you to be involved in criminal activity?
- A spouse that has a serious mental problem and threatens the spouse?
- A spouse who is an addict and spends all the family’s resources on their addiction?
- A spouse who is a hardcore gambler and has gambled the family into deep debt?
What would Jesus or Paul say about these specific situations? Perhaps they would say the same thing as Paul in 1 Corinthians 7: “If at all possible work to save the relationship (perhaps by getting the partner help). However, if the partner will not be helped, you are no longer bound.
I must tell you that I feel like I am on very thin ice here. I am asking honest questions for which I do not have definitive answers. I think God may allow divorce in the above situation if every effort has been made to save the relationship. I cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that God wants us to pursue permanence in our marriage relationships. The sad fact is that too many people give up on their marriage because they are lazy.
REMARRIAGE AFTER DIVORCE
All of this raises another difficult question: Is the Bible saying that a person who is divorced can never remarry? There are some people who take that position.
I believe if you were married and divorced before you ever became a follower of Christ, (and if there are no outstanding problems) you are free to remarry. You are now a new creature, the old has past away and the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17) You have a new beginning as a believer.
I also believe that when Jesus allowed someone to divorce (in the case of adultery), there is also the implication that the person could also be remarried. I believe in the case of marital infidelity, the faithful spouse should be allowed to remarry but only if marrying another believer. Consequently, if God would allow a divorce in some of these other circumstances, then I believe He would also allow remarriage.
But what about the spouse who committed adultery, or engaged in the abuse, or possessed the addiction? This person must address his/her sin and give evidence of true repentance before remarriage should even be allowed. What I mean is that the adulterer must admit their sin and stop living an immoral life. The abuser must get help. The gambler must beat the addiction. The criminal must make restitution. The person with the mental problem must show that they have been cured. If we do not insist on these things we are merely encouraging another bad marriage!
I respect churches and Pastors that will not marry those who have been divorced. I respect their desire to be faithful to the word of God in a very literal sense. I commend them for their courage and their stand. I will not criticize them for their position. I choose to embrace the fact that Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. If divorce is not un-pardonable, then it seems to follow that it is pardonable. Forgiveness requires an admission of wrongdoing (confession) and a desire to move in a new direction (repentance). We are told, “If you confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) People who get divorced must recognize that divorce is not the plan of God. They must confess this failure before God and mourn over it. They must accept whatever responsibility they have for the failure of the relationship. The person who truly confesses is fully forgiven. If they are fully forgiven, I believe they can begin again.
One commentator wrote,
We have Jesus’ high view of marriage and low view of divorce recorded in the Gospels. Jesus proclaimed new life—full forgiveness and restoration—to all who would come to God in repentance and faith. Spiritual discernment is essential here, but the gospel—God’s promise of wholeness and full healing—includes the sacred bond of marriage. Thus, it seems right for churches to allow a repentant, formerly married person to marry another believer.
Let me wrap this up with some concluding statements:
First, we should make every effort to save our marriage rather than look for loopholes to get out of the marriage. We live in a time of easy divorce. Christians should not get divorced because the marriage is hard. They should not get divorced because they believe they have found someone better. Marriage is a commitment and it requires hard work and at times, great sacrifice. We need to change the way we think.
I encourage you to remove the word divorce from your vocabulary. Couples who are having trouble are too quick to begin talking about divorce. We need to be talking about how we can solve problems rather than how we can run away from them. Instead of threatening divorce, pursue resolution. Instead of suggesting divorce to our friends, encourage them to pray for God to help them persevere.
Second, if you have been through a divorce you must search your heart and confess your own sin. We must recognize our responsibility in a divorce situation and seek where possible to make things right. You may need to talk to your former mate and sincerely confess your sin and seek forgiveness. It is a desperately hard thing to do . . . but it is required by God. You may need to meet with your children and instead of justifying your actions, confess that what you did is wrong, and then ask their forgiveness for the hurt which your actions caused to them (be specific so they know that you understand what you have done.) For some of you, your divorce may have happened 25-30 or more years ago. If you have not sought forgiveness from those you hurt you must do so . . .even now. You may not be able to undo the past, but you can begin the process of true healing by addressing the bitterness and resentment that likely has been simmering for years.
Third, we must remember that most people who go through a divorce need healing not abuse. I have said before that most people who go through a divorce hate divorce just like God does. Divorce is a painful and devastating event in a family (all the more so when children are involved). Though some people are callous toward divorce (and those people should not get remarried!) most people are broken and scarred by divorce. They feel like second class people and sometimes believe everyone is staring at them, condemning them, or laughing at them. Because of the devastating nature of divorce, people who have gone through a divorce need love and support. We must not minimize sin or diminish the tragedy of divorce, but we should be quick to extend grace. I believe the church should be a place where divorced people can find support rather than judgment.
The issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage will continue to be controversial. People will probably disagree until the Lord returns and clears up our confusion. In the meantime, may God help us to be fervently committed to our marriages; compassionate to those who are wounded; firm, but loving with those who need to repent; and may He continually grant us wisdom as we seek to be faithful to His Word.