Divorce and remarriage
My question is two-part:
Does PBC have a doctrinal statement about re-marriage between two Christians.
Does scripture support re-marriage between two Christians?
(I could not find anything in the archives, thanks so much)
I have not seen any specific information on
marriage/divorce/remarriage on the PBC web site except for a few
sermons. These are all very good, and relevant,:
Answers on Divorce by Ray Stedman,
Commitment in Marriage by Doug Goins,
What About Divorce, by Ray Stedman,
Husbands and Wives, by Ray Stedman,
Life Without Marriage, by Ray Stedman,
I am hoping some of the other members of our Paraclete Team can join
in here and tell us about their own counseling experience and wisdom
I don't think one can give simple yes/no answers, but each proposed
remarriage needs to be considered according to the history and
experience of each party, and according to Scriptural guidelines.
Thanks so much for your quick response, I am reading all these. I think
this is a very important issue for all Bible-based churches. It does seem
to me and a few other brothers and sisters in Christ I've talked to that
except for death of the ex-spouses, scripture is very clear that re-marriage
is not an option, and even that our abysmal (evangelical) divorce rate comes
from an almost secular viewpoint towards divorce and remarriage; i.e. if
remarriage were not an option, there would be lots fewer divorces...
I too hope others weigh in, and thanks again!
I'll add a few comments of my own , but mostly I hope to hear from
others on the team.
1. If a person is divorced and then becomes a Christian later, and
begins a whole new life in Christ then I would imagine that person
could marry again to a Christian spouse. 2 Cor. 5:17 "Therefore, if
any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away,
behold, the new has come."
2. Some people are not able to easily avoid immorality. 1Cor. 7:2
"But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have
his own wife and each woman her own husband. " If such a person were
to divorce then either God must help them remain single and celibate,
or I would think there could conceivably be some cases where a new
marriage might be better than a life of uncontrollable sexual
desires. I would assume God can and does gift divorced persons who do
not remarry with celibacy, so the first assumption sounds more like
the ways things are supposed to be than my second option.
3. Divorce is always injurious and sometimes it is grievous sin. But
all sin can be forgiven. So I would think we should not be legalistic
in punishing a person because of a disastrous marriage which failed
years earlier (for whatever reasons). Some people will remarry later
whether it is advisable or not and we will eventually have to accept
these people into our fellowship if they now have a new, godly
marriage in spite of all that has gone on before.
4. We have to help some very broken people start over and move in in
life no matter what their track record was in years past.
5. I would think (as a single person) that most marriages fail
because one or both parties treat covenant oaths as a light matter,
do not want the hard work necessary to make a marriage work, or wish
to get out of a difficult marriage and not stay and honor God by
enduring. In any case it has to do with treating lightly something
that God takes very seriously.
6. Ezra is very severe in dealing with mixed marriages in Israel
during the time after the captivity in Babylon--Ezra 10. I wonder how
many Christians marry in the first place when one partner is really
and truly not a believer and will later default on the marriage?
7. The divorce rate in the U.S. in 1960 was 0.9%. This began to
change for the worse when the culture moved to a "new" philosophy:
"my own personal happiness is more important than that of anyone
else, my spouse and children included." And, "children aren't really
hurt by a divorce, in fact they are better off if their parents
divorce because they are unhappy together." Forty years later the
entire nation is reaping the terrible consequences of these
8. George Barna's survey showed recently that the divorce rate for
"professing Christians" was the same as for people who were secular
and not religious. However in the sub-group of professing Christians
a minority who said they took the Bible seriously and considered the
Bible very important to their daily lives, the divorce rate was very
low. I think this latter group is probably the "believing remnant"
perhaps and the larger group has many people who are not really
Christians at all.
9. In the Bay Area I believe about 60% of couples who live together
these days are not married, and marriage is not taken seriously at
all by many in the younger generations. Of course a good part of this
is that younger people often have no models around them of what a
good marriage is like.
Thank you so very much for your great comments which are more on the
side of grace than mine, a person, who divorced these 5 years from an
unbeliever who left and has remarried (I was also an unbeliever at
the time), is rather trying to find black and white answers to
Let me, if you would not mind, reply point by point with some of my
> 1. If a person is divorced and then becomes a Christian later, and
> begins a whole new life in Christ then I would imagine that person
> could marry again to a Christian spouse. 2 Cor. 5:17 "Therefore, if
> any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away,
> behold, the new has come."
This is good, but the question I have with regard to this is 1
Cor.7:17 through about 28. ....In other words, if one was single
when one was called, should one then remain single?
> 2. Some people are not able to easily avoid immorality. 1Cor. 7:2
> "But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have
> his own wife and each woman her own husband. " If such a person were
> to divorce then either God must help them remain single and celibate,
> or I would think there could conceivably be some cases where a new
> marriage might be better than a life of uncontrollable sexual
> desires. I would assume God can and does gift divorced persons who do
> not remarry with celibacy, so the first assumption sounds more like
> the ways things are supposed to be than my second option.
Yes, but I fear that all too many couples who are attracted sexually
to each other, immediately say, no matter what the circumstances are,
say they "burn" and that means they should get married, possibly
encouraging other married Christians to leave their discouraging
marriages and find a Christian they are attracted to. It also
disregards one of the wonderful fruits of the spirit, self-control.
> 3. Divorce is always injurious and sometimes it is grievous sin. But
> all sin can be forgiven. So I would think we should not be legalistic
> in punishing a person because of a disastrous marriage which failed
> years earlier (for whatever reasons). Some people will remarry later
> whether it is advisable or not and we will eventually have to accept
> these people into our fellowship if they now have a new, godly
> marriage in spite of all that has gone on before.
Yes. I totally and absolutely agree with you with all my heart!
Especially since we are all sinners, sinning every day. But, on the
other hand, should not some of those mentioned above repent within
their marriages and receive forgiveness and go on, as they have
sinned in so marrying?
> 4. We have to help some very broken people start over and move in in
> life no matter what their track record was in years past.
Absolutely! But in looking at the future, I think we must be careful
in now marrying people without careful investigation that it will be
scriptural. I think, alas, even the most Christ-centered pastors are
pressured to perform marriages which are not.
> 5. I would think (as a single person) that most marriages fail
> because one or both parties treat covenant oaths as a light matter,
> do not want the hard work necessary to make a marriage work, or wish
> to get out of a difficult marriage and not stay and honor God by
> enduring. In any case it has to do with treating lightly something
> that God takes very seriously.
I think so too (also as a single person).
> 6. Ezra is very severe in dealing with mixed marriages in Israel
> during the time after the captivity in Babylon--Ezra 10. I wonder how
> many Christians marry in the first place when one partner is really
> and truly not a believer and will later default on the marriage?
All too many, I fear.
> 8. George Barna's survey showed recently that the divorce rate for
> "professing Christians" was the same as for people who were secular
> and not religious. However in the sub-group of professing Christians
> a minority who said they took the Bible seriously and considered the
> Bible very important to their daily lives, the divorce rate was very
> low. I think this latter group is probably the "believing remnant"
> perhaps and the larger group has many people who are not really
> Christians at all.
Thank you, that is good news.
> 9. In the Bay Area I believe about 60% of couples who live together
> these days are not married, and marriage is not taken seriously at
> all by many in the younger generations. Of course a good part of this
> is that younger people often have no models around them of what a
> good marriage is like.
Then there are all of Paul's exhortations for everyone to remain
single, including the amusing one at the end of 1Cor.7, where the
couple just stays engaged forever! which of course brings us to
Paul's desire that, the main thing is that the main thing is the main
thing: In what configuration do we serve God best!
Thanks again, and I look forward to more discussion as I try to form
a 'doctrinal statement' in my own mind.
I'm a member of the e-mail team, and I thought I'd throw my two-cents
in. The topic of divorce can be an emotional and complex one. To me, there
are three basic issues: (1) are there reasons to divorce someone--in other
words, are there scriptural grounds for me to divorce my spouse? (2) what
kind of consequences can I expect? (3) what about the issue of remarriage?
Regarding (1), it's a tough one on which not all will agree. The civil laws
in places like California are obviously not Biblically based. Laws
regarding marriage (e.g., Deut. 22:13-39) are pretty severe, as are statutes
regarding "illegitimate" children (e.g., Deut. 23:2) and other related
topics. We know for certain that marriage is instituted by God, Himself
(Mark 10:6-9), and that he hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). When questioned
about divorce by some lawyers who were trying to trap Him into a
misstatement of the Law, Jesus responded by defining marriage. They asked
Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to
put her away?" His response: "Moses, because of the hardness of your
hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was
not so." He then goes on to state that the only grounds were sexual
immorality (infidelity, fornication, adultery...).
Once I heard Alistair Begg speak about a man who came into a pastor's office
and inquired if it would be permitted for him to divorce his wife because he
didn't love her anymore and he couldn't stand living with her another day.
The pastor asked him, "If she moved next door, would you love her then?" He
answered, "No, of course not." The pastor said, "Well, Jesus said to love
your neighbor as yourself!" Then the pastor asked, "Do you hate her so much
she's like your personal enemy?" The man thought for a moment, and said,
"Yes. It's been years since we've even been friends." The pastor said,
"Well, you're out of luck again because Jesus said to love your enemies."
Divorce is clearly permitted, and if you are a follower of Jesus, then you
have only one reason. Paul writes quite detailed instructions in 1 Cor. 7,
even if your spouse is an unbeliever. He gives his qualified opinion, and
he invokes the LORD.
I'm always suspicious when it appears people are looking for ways out of
commitment, loopholes in the marriage contract. The marriage vows are for
life. Another pastor said that even Christians today are saying "For better
or worse, richer or poorer, but not for long." The earlier respons is very correct in
pointing out that, as a culture, the institution of marriage is under clear
assault, not just by people who want to redefine it according to an
extremely liberal view of "the family." As believers, we certainly cannot
condone same-sex "unions" and a lot of the other stuff.
But, we cannot condone wife beating (and the reverse, husband beating) and
the kind of violence that goes on in homes. There is some real nasty stuff
happening in our communities, and to hold a person to a strictly legalistic
interpretation of laws and statutes regarding divorce may be to doom them to
a life of violence, fear, hatred, and pain, perhaps even to death. The way
out was clearly provided because of the hardness of our hearts. We are not
to assume, on the other hand, that we can divorce someone just because "the
thrill is gone" (as B.B. King would say), or because we've found someone
else who excites us and drives our lusts. Then we are the ones guilty of
the sexual immorality.
(2) The consequences of divorce will vary. A psychologist friend of mine
(I agree fully with him on this) has said that all children will be damaged
by divorce; it's a matter of how much and for how long. It devastates
younger children. Their entire concept of reality is shattered; the people
that they love and discover life with have changed profoundly.
In some recent studies, some psychologists speak of children as "theorists"
(the theory theory). They discover the universe one item at a time and form
theories about cause and effect, origins of life, Truth, love, and so on.
For instance, the "object permanence" game is where parents hide something
under a blanket or behind an object and ask, "Where'd it go?" "All gone."
(This is not to mention weird Uncle Harold pulling a quarter out of a kid's
ear.) Peek-a-boo games are in the same vein. Children establish theories
about objects through these games. They also learn to put all objects,
animals, and people into categories (e.g., doggies, kitties, dangerous
things, nice people...). Most linguists think that the word-families (dogs
> mammals > animals) reflect objective reality, and that we are all born with
these categories in our heads and in our languages. (Do you remember the
first time that you heard that a tomato was a fruit?)
The same goes with relationships and trust. Mommy and Daddy are the rocks
upon which our theories of permanence in relationships are established
(also, hierarchical structures within various relationships). When that
goes, the theory goes. It is an open question whether or not that kind of
thing can come back once it is destroyed. This must be one reason why our
sins are visited to our children and our children's children, and why
divorced people so often have divorced parents, and why so many of our
offspring are terrified of marriage. Sex is fun, living together is fun
(according to the TV), but marriage...
It's also true that divorce only postpones personal problems; it may even
exacerbate the problems because it becomes easier to run to new distractions
and the comforts of sin. Odds of divorce go up in the 2nd and 3rd
marriages. Why do so many people give up on marriage entirely? 60% of the
Bay Area couples don't bother. I'm not surprised. I don't imagine So Cal
is much different.
(3) Jesus frames remarriage in the same kind of light. If I leave my wife
and marry another, I'm committing adultery. Pretty plain. So, divorce is
not an option. Remarriage is a moot point in that context. Nevertheless,
if my wife leaves me, then the Law kicks in again to protect me. In Deut.
24:3-4 (the laws of Divorcement), it spells out what happens if my (former)
spouse marries another. It would be an abomination for me to remarry her if
she is divorced from that guy. I can only assume that at that point, I'm
free of the Law regarding marriage to that woman. Of course, the pain of
being abandoned by someone I love and have committed my life to may remain.
(Some psychologists estimate one year of grieving for each year of
marriage--so, a ten-year marriage basically dominates a person's life for 20
For me to leave my wife and know what the consequences to her would be is
mean-spirited, hateful, and callused. I still cannot see a justification
for doing anything like that. I have been saved by God's amazing grace. I
was a filthy rotten sinner and still am. Jesus has taught us that
forgiveness is reciprocal. We will receive mercy and forgiveness according
to the amounts and kinds we give mercy and forgiveness. If I think that I
am capable of sexual immorality, then I should be absolutely willing to
forgive my wife for that. I would be deeply hurt, for sure, but that kind
of pain can be washed away by the blood of Jesus, the washing of His Word,
and by the Holy Spirit (the Comforter). Seventy-times seven I should expect
to forgive my brother; this I think is also the a significant part of the
nature of marriage, to forgive and be forgiven.
If I ever got into pre-marriage counseling I would ask each individual if
they love that other person enough to forgive them if they were unfaithful.
They should also understand the pain they would cause if they were in fact
unfaithful. Nevertheless, we are all unfaithful to God. What kind of love
do we receive from Him? He always is there to forgive. We should always be
there to forgive, too. We drift and slide every moment of every day. We
don't always do the right thing, and we often do the wrong thing (Rom.
7:15-25). In God's mercy (because of the hardness of our hearts), there is
a way out of a marriage gone bad, one characterized by infidelity and
violence. God's love and grace are still bigger, infinitely so. From day
one, each member of this holy union needs to draw closer to the fountain of
strength, and learn to walk in the Spirit, individually and together. Then,
we won't fulfill the lusts of the flesh and one of its fruits, divorce.
Love, in Jesus,
Chuck Colson article
BreakPoint with Charles Colson
Commentary #021227 - 12/27/2002
Symphonies to Sorrow
Songs about Divorce
When rocker Aaron Lewis of the band called Staind was thirteen years
old, his parents divorced. In a song called "For You," Lewis sings:
"Tot's your daughter/Are my screams loud enough fo my mother, to my
father/It's your son or ir you to hear me?/Should I turn it up for
Chad Kroeger, singer/songwriter for the band Nickelback, describes
the pain of his father's abandonment with lyrics like these: "You
left without saying goodbye/Although I'm sure you tried/You call and
ask from time to time/To make sure we're still alive/But you weren't
there right when I'm needing you most."
Whenever he sings that song, Kroeger told the Washington Times, fans
begin to cry, telling the rocker they've been through the same
And then there's a song called "Broken Home" by Jacoby Shaddix of
Papa Roach. Shaddix describes how he felt when his father walked out
when he was only seven years old: "My wounds are not healing/I'm
stuck in between my parents/I wish I had someone to talk to /Someone
to confide in."
These musical laments are a far cry from what the so-called experts
tell divorcing parents to expect. As Maggie Gallagher writes in her
book, The Abolition of Marriage, one of the driving ideas of the
postmarital culture "is that the happiness of adults is so crucial to
their success as parents that divorce will make them even better
parents." The notion that "divorce is better for kids than staying in
a troubled marriage is now the conventional wisdom," so writes
But are most kids really better off when their parents divorce? Does
divorce actually lead to less hostility between parents?
According to Gallagher, all too often, parents fight even more after
divorcing than they did while married. In fact, she notes, "Children
whose parents were divorced, separated, or remarried [are] twice as
likely to need psychological help as children whose parents [stay] in
marriage with minor or moderate conflicts." And that's not counting
all the other problems that afflict children of divorced parents in
higher numbers: teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, drug use, and poor
health. Children who do worst of all, Gallagher says, are those from
"high-conflict divorced families."
Now, of course, divorce can sometimes benefit kids-but only when
there is a long-term, high-level of hostility or violence-and most
marriages don't fall into that category.
As the songs of modern rockers indicate, children continue to feel
pain from their parents' divorce even many years later. This is one
of the reasons God condemns divorce so strongly. That's something to
think about in a culture that says if parents are happy, then
children will be happy, too. More often than not, it just isn't true.
Just ask the real experts on divorce: the kids who have gone through
it and who are now writing rock-and-roll symphonies to sorrow.
Tom DeLonge of the group Blink 182 wrote this about his parents'
divorce in a song titled "Stay Together for the Kids": "Rather than
fix the problems, they never solve them/it makes no sense at all/I
see them every day/We get along, so why can't they?"-good question.
Copyright (c) 2002 Prison Fellowship Ministries
Thank you for the items on divorce. I agree. When my husband left
me for a younger woman after 23 years of marriage, in the Christmas
of '97, we had the most equitable, pleasantest divorce that I have
heard of. Though he was the one that accomplished the mechanics of
leaving and would have left anyway, even had I been a Christian and a
good wife, --- I contributed at least half of why he left.
Nevertheless, my ex- may have been fine, marrying soon after, but we
were wrecked. And our 3 girls were older, too, the youngest being a
sophomore in high school. The pain is still there, perhaps stronger
than ever in the 4 of us; causing us to be hard on those we love even
now, though through it 3 of us joined the youngest in receiving
It was just my thought that if Christians saw that remarriage were
not scripturally possible, period., would they be so quick to
divorce? I wonder. One would suppose that in the current situation,
us singles, because of the enormous divorce rate discussed here,
should then be the largest group in the church today, to Paul's (were
he present today) explicit delight. They aren't. They immediately
remarry. Should our Bible-based churches be aiding this remarrying?
I think the synthesis from all the Stedman/Goins messages and your
own thoughts are that there are 3 situations in "His permissive
will," allowing divorce (they are death, adultery and an unbelieving
spouse leaving), and that if divorce is thus scripturally allowed
then the innocent party is "no longer bound," and that remarriage is
thus allowed. Two summaries from the web that fit well are found at
and the two views of Keener and Heth at
Keener has the more liberal view above while Heth says that the "way
out" is actually blocked by deeper investigations of the Mathew 19:9
and 5:32 texts ("not bound") that the original writings actually do
have Jesus' additional statement "And whoever marries a divorced
woman commits adultery," that therefore remarriage is never ever
I also know that we as sinners, given the slightest opening will push
and pull with all our might to make each of our situations
scripturally fit our desires.
Thanks for the additional references and comments.
For your information (since we seem to be writing a virtual book),
here is what William Barclay says.
JEWISH MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
Matt. 19:1-9 When Jesus had finished these words, he left Galilee,
and came into the districts of Judaea which are on the far side of
the Jordan. Many crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Pharisees came to him, trying to test him. "It is lawful," they said,
"for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you
not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and
female, and he said, `For this cause a man shall leave his father and
his mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become
one flesh'? They are therefore no longer two, but one flesh. What,
then, God has joined together, let no man separate." They said to
him, "Why, then, did Moses lay it down to give her a big of
divorcement, and to divorce her?" He said to them, "It was to meet
the hardness of your heart that Moses allowed you to divorce your
wives; but in the beginning that was not the state of things which
was intended. I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except on
the ground of fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and
he who marries her who has been divorced commits adultery."
Here Jesus is dealing with what was in his day, as it is in our own,
a vexed and burning question. Divorce was something about which there
was no unanimity among the Jews; and the Pharisees were deliberately
trying to involve Jesus in controversy.
No nation has ever had a higher view of marriage than the Jews.
Marriage was a sacred duty. To remain unmarried after the age of
twenty, except in order to concentrate upon the study of the Law, was
to break a positive commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." He who
had no children "slew his own posterity," and "lessened the image of
God upon earth." "When husband and wife are worthy, the glory of God
is with them."
Marriage was not to be entered into carelessly or lightly. Josephus
outlines the Jewish approach to marriage, based on the Mosaic
teaching (Antiquities of the Jews 4. 8. 23). A man must marry a
virgin of good parentage. He must never corrupt another man's wife;
and he must not marry a woman who had been a slave or a harlot. If a
man accused his wife of not being a virgin when he married her, he
must bring proofs of his accusation. Her father or brother must
defend her. If the girl was vindicated he must take her in marriage,
and could never again put her away, except for the most flagrant sin.
If the accusation was proved to have been reckless and malicious, the
man who made it must be beaten with forty stripes save one, and must
pay fifty shekels to the girl's father. But if the charge was proved
and the girl found guilty, if she was one of the ordinary people, the
law was that she must be stoned to death, and if she was the daughter
of a priest, she must be burned alive.
If a man seduced a girl who was espoused to be married, and the
seduction took place with her consent, both he and she must be put to
death. If in a lonely place or where there was no help present, the
man forced the girl into sin, the man alone was put to death. If a
man seduced an unespoused girl, he must marry her, or, if her father
was unwilling for him to marry her, he must pay the father fifty
The Jewish laws of marriage and of purity aimed very high. Ideally
divorce was hated. God had said, "I hate divorce" (Mal.2:16). It was
said that the very altar wept tears when a man divorced the wife of
But ideal and actuality did not go hand in hand. In the situation
there were two dangerous and damaging elements.
First, in the eyes of Jewish law a woman was a thing. She was the
possession of her father, or of her husband as the case might be;
and, therefore, she had, technically, no legal rights at all. Most
Jewish marriages were arranged either by the parents or by
professional match-makers. A girl might be engaged to be married in
childhood, and was often engaged to be married to a man whom she had
never seen. There was this safeguard--when she came to the age of
twelve she could repudiate her father's choice of husband. But in
matters of divorce, the general law was that the initiative must lie
with the husband. The law ran: "A woman may be divorced with or
without her consent, but a man can be divorced only with his
consent." The woman could never initiate the process of divorce; she
could not divorce, she had to be divorced.
There were certain safeguards. If a man divorced his wife on any
other grounds than those of flagrant immorality, he must return her
dowry; and this must have been a barrier to irresponsible divorce.
The courts might put pressure on a man to divorce his wife, in the
case, for instance, of refusal to consummate the marriage, of
impotence, or of proved inability to support her properly. A wife
could force her husband to divorce her, if he contracted a loathsome
disease, such as leprosy, or if he was a tanner, which involved the
gathering of dog's dung, or if he proposed to make her leave the Holy
Land. But, by and large, the law was that the woman had no legal
rights, and the right to divorce lay entirely with the husband.
Second, the process of divorce was fatally easy. That process was
founded on the passage in the Mosaic Law to which Jesus' questioners
referred: "When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds
no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and
he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her
out of his house..." (Deut.24:1). The bill of divorcement was a
simple, one-sentence statement that the husband dismissed his wife.
Josephus writes, "He that desires to be divorced from his wife for
any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men) let him,
in writing, give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any
more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another
husband." The one safeguard against the dangerous ease of the divorce
process was the fact that, unless the woman was a notorious sinner,
her dowry must be returned.
JEWISH GROUNDS OF DIVORCE
Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)
One of the great problems of Jewish divorce lies within the Mosaic
enactment. That enactment states that a man may divorce his wife, "if
she finds no favour in his eyes, because he has found some indecency
in her." The question is--how is the phrase some indecency to be
On this point the Jewish Rabbis were violently divided, and it was
here that Jesus' questioners wished to involve him. The school of
Shammai were quite clear that a matter of indecency meant
fornication, and fornication alone, and that for no other cause could
a wife by put away. Let a woman be as mischievous as Jezebel, so long
as she did not commit adultery she could not be put away. On the
other hand, the school of Hillel interpreted this matter of indecency
in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could
divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, if she spun, or went with
unbound hair, or spoke to men in the streets, if she spoke
disrespectfully of his parents in his presence, if she was a brawling
woman whose voice could be heard in the next house. Rabbi Akiba even
went the length of saying that the phrase if she finds no favour in
his eyes meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman
whom he liked better and considered more beautiful.
The tragedy was that, as was to be expected, it was the school of
Hillel whose teachings prevailed; the marriage bond was often lightly
held, and divorce on the most trivial ground was sadly common.
To complete the picture certain further facts must be added. It is
relevant to note that under Rabbinic law divorce was compulsory for
two reasons. It was compulsory for adultery. "A woman who has
committed adultery must be divorced." Second, divorce was compulsory
for sterility. The object of marriage was the procreation of
children; and if after ten years a couple were still childless
divorce was compulsory. In this case the woman might remarry, but the
same regulation governed the second marriage.
Two further interesting Jewish regulations in regard to divorce must
be added. First, desertion was never a cause for divorce. If there
was desertion, death must be proved. The only relaxation was that,
whereas all other facts needed the corroboration of two witnesses in
Jewish law, one witness was enough to prove the death of a partner in
marriage who had vanished and not come back.
Secondly, strangely enough, insanity was not a ground of divorce. If
the wife became insane, the husband could not divorce her, for, if
she was divorced, she would have no protector in her helplessness.
There is a certain poignant mercy in that regulation. If the husband
became insane, divorce was impossible, for in that case he was
incapable of writing a bill of divorcement, and without such a bill,
initiated by him, there could be no divorce.
When Jesus was asked this question, at the back of it was a situation
which was vexed and troubled. He was to answer it in a way which came
as a staggering surprise to both parties in the dispute, and which
suggested a radical change in the whole situation.
THE ANSWER OF JESUS
Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)
In effect, the Pharisees were asking Jesus whether he favoured the
strict view of Shammai or the laxer view of Hillel; and thereby
seeking to involve him in controversy.
Jesus' answer was to take things back to the very beginning, back to
the ideal of creation. In the beginning, he said, God created Adam
and Eve, man and woman. Inevitably, in the very circumstances of the
creation story, Adam and Eve were created for each other and for no
one else; their union was necessarily complete and unbreakable. Now,
says Jesus, these two are the pattern and the symbol of all who were
to come. As A. H. McNeile puts it, "Each married couple is a
reproduction of Adam and Eve, and their union is therefore no less
The argument is quite clear. In the case of Adam and Eve divorce was
not only inadvisable; it was not only wrong; it was completely
impossible, for the very simple reason that there was no one else
whom either of them could possibly marry. Therefore Jesus was laying
down the principle that an divorce is wrong. Thus early we must note
that it is not a law; it is a principle, which is a very different
Here, at once, the Pharisees saw a point of attack. Moses (Deut.24:1)
had said that, if a man wished to divorce his wife because she had
found no favour in his eyes, and because of some matter of indecency
in her, he could give her a bill of divorce and the marriage was
dissolved. Here was the very chance the Pharisees wanted. They could
now say to Jesus, "Are you saying Moses was wrong? Are you seeking to
abrogate the divine law which was given to Moses? Are you setting
yourself above Moses as a law-giver?"
Jesus' answer was that what Moses said was not in fact a law, but
nothing more than a concession. Moses did not command divorce; at the
best he only permitted it in order to regulate a situation which
would have become chaotically promiscuous. The Mosaic regulation was
only a concession to fallen human nature. In Gen.2:23-24, we have the
ideal which God intended, the ideal that two people who marry should
become so indissolubly one that they are one flesh. Jesus' answer
was: "True, Moses permitted divorce; but that was a concession in
view of a lost ideal. The ideal of marriage is to be found in the
unbreakable, perfect union of Adam and Eve. That is what God meant
marriage to be."
It is now that we are face to face with one of the most real and most
acute difficulties in the New Testament. What did Jesus mean? There
is even a prior question--what did Jesus say? The difficulty is--and
there is no escaping it--that Mark and Matthew report the words of
I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and
marries another commits adultery (Matt. 19:9).
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery
against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery (Mk.10:11-12).
Luke has still another version of this saying:
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits
adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her
husband commits adultery. (Lk.16:18).
There is the comparatively small difficulty that Mark implies that a
woman can divorce her husband, a process which, as we have seen, was
not possible under Jewish law. But the explanation is that Jesus must
have well known that under Gentile law a woman could divorce her
husband and in that particular clause he was looking beyond the
Jewish world. The great difficulty is that both Mark and Luke make
the prohibition of divorce absolute; with them there are no
exceptions whatsoever. But Matthew has one saving clause--divorce is
permitted on the ground of adultery. In this case there is no real
escape from a decision. The only possible way out would be to say
that in point of fact, under Jewish law, divorce for adultery was in
any event compulsory, as we have seen, and that therefore Mark and
Luke did not think that they need mention it; but then so was divorce
In the last analysis we must choose between Matthew's version of this
saying and that of Mark and Luke. We think there is little doubt that
the version of Mark and Luke is right. There are two reasons. Only
the absolute prohibition of separation will satisfy the ideal of the
Adam and Eve symbolic complete union. And the staggered words of the
disciples imply this absolute prohibition, for, in effect, they say
(Matt. 19:10) that if marriage is as binding as that, it is safer not
to marry at all. There is little doubt that here we have Jesus laying
down the principle--mark again, not, the law--that the ideal of
marriage is a union which cannot be broken. There is much more to be
said--but here the ideal, as God meant it, is laid down, and
Matthew's saving clause is a later interpretation inserted in the
light of the practice of the Church when he wrote.
THE HIGH IDEAL
Matt. 19:1-9 (continued)
Let us now go on to see the high ideal of the married state which
Jesus sets before those who are willing to accept his commands. We
will see that the Jewish ideal gives us the basis of the Christian
ideal. The Jewish term for marriage was Kiddushin. Kiddushin meant
sanctification or consecration. It was used to describe something
which was dedicated to God as his exclusive and peculiar possession.
Anything totally surrendered to God was kiddushin. This meant that in
marriage the husband was consecrated to the wife, and the wife to the
husband. The one became the exclusive possession of the other, as
much as an offering became the exclusive possession of God. That is
what Jesus meant when he said that for the sake of marriage a man
would leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife; and
that is what he meant when he said that man and wife became so
totally one that they could be called one flesh.
That was God's ideal of marriage as the old Genesis story saw it
(Gen.2:24), and that is the ideal which Jesus restated. Clearly that
idea has certain consequences.
(i) This total unity means that marriage is not given for one act in
life, however important that act may be, but for all. That is to say
that, while sex is a supremely important part of marriage, it is not
the whole of it. Any marriage entered into simply because an
imperious physical desire can be satisfied in no other way is
foredoomed to failure. Marriage is given, not that two people should
do one thing together, but that they should do all things together.
(ii) Another way to put this is to say that marriage is the total
union of two personalities. Two people can exist together in a
variety of ways. One can be the dominant partner to such an extent
that nothing matters but his wishes and his convenience and his aims
in life, while the other is totally subservient and exists only to
serve the desires and the needs of the other. Again, two people can
exist in a kind of armed neutrality, where there is continuous
tension and continuous opposition, and continuous collision between
their wishes. Life can be one long argument, and the relationship is
based at best on an uneasy compromise. Again, two people can base
their relationship on a more or less resigned acceptance of each
other. To all intents and purposes, while they live together, each
goes his or her own way, and each has his or her own life. They share
the same house but it would be an exaggeration to say that they share
the same home.
Clearly none of these relationships is the ideal. The ideal is that
in the marriage state two people find the completing of their
personalities. Plato had a strange idea. He has a kind of legend that
originally human beings were double what they are now. Because their
size and strength made them arrogant, the gods cut them in halves;
and real happiness comes when the two halves find each other again,
and marry, and so complete each other.
Marriage should not narrow life; it should complete it. For both
partners it must bring a new fulness, a new satisfaction, a new
contentment into life. It is the union of two personalities in which
the two complete each other. That does not mean that adjustments, and
even sacrifices, have not to be made; but it does mean that the final
relationship is fuller, more joyous, more satisfying than any life in
singleness could be.
(iii) We may put this even more practically--marriage must be a
sharing of all the circumstances of life. There is a certain danger
in the delightful time of courtship. In such days it is almost
inevitable that the two people will see each other at their best.
These are days of glamour. They see each other in their best clothes;
usually they are bent on some pleasure together; often money has not
yet become a problem. But in marriage two people must see each other
when they are not at their best; when they are tired and weary; when
children bring the upset to a house and home that children must
bring; when money is tight, and food and clothes and bills become a
problem; when moonlight and roses become the kitchen sink and walking
the floor at night with a crying baby. Unless two people are prepared
to face the routine of life as well as the glamour of life together,
marriage must be a failure.
(iv) From that there follows one thing, which is not universally
true, but which is much more likely than not to be true. Marriage is
most likely to be successful after a fairly long acquaintanceship,
when the two people involved really know each other's background.
Marriage means constantly living together. It is perfectly possible
for ingrained habits, unconscious mannerisms, ways of upbringing to
collide. The fuller the knowledge people have of each other before
they decide indissolubly to link their lives together the better.
This is not to deny that there can be such a thing as love at first
sight, and that love can conquer all things, but the fact is that the
greater mutual knowledge people have of each other the more likely
they are to succeed in making their marriage what it ought to be.
(v) All this leads us to a final practical conclusion--the basis of
marriage is togetherness, and the basis of togetherness is nothing
other than considerateness. If marriage is to succeed, the partners
must always be thinking more of each other than of themselves.
Selfishness is the murderer of any personal relationship; and that is
truest of all when two people are bound together in marriage.
Somerset Maughan tells of his mother. She was lovely and charming and
beloved by all. His father was not by any means handsome, and had few
social and surface gifts and graces. Someone once said to his mother,
"When everyone is in love with you, and when you could have anyone
you liked, how can you remain faithful to that ugly little man you
married?" She answered simply: "He never hurts my feelings." There
could be no finer tribute.
The true basis of marriage is not complicated and recondite--it is
simply the love which thinks more of the happiness of others than it
thinks of its own, the love which is proud to serve, which is able to
understand, and therefore always able to forgive. That is to say, it
is the Christlike love, which knows that in forgetting self it will
find self, and that in losing itself it will complete itself
THE REALIZATION OF THE IDEAL
His disciples said to him, "If the only reason for divorce between a
man and his wife stands thus, it is not expedient to marry." He said
to them, "Not all can receive this saying, but only those to whom it
has been granted to do so. There are eunuchs who were born so from
their mothers' womb; and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs
by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for
the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him who is able to receive
this saying, receive it."
Here we come to the necessary amplification of what has gone before.
When the disciples heard the ideal of marriage which Jesus set before
them, they were daunted. Many a rabbinic saying would come into the
mind of the disciples. The Rabbis had many sayings about unhappy
marriages. "Among those who will never behold the face of Gehinnom is
he who has had a bad wife." Such a man is saved from hell because he
has expiated his sins on earth! "Among those whose life is not life
is the man who is ruled by his wife." "A bad wife is like leprosy to
her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of
his leprosy." It was even laid down: "If a man has a bad wife, it is
a religious duty to divorce her."
To men who had been brought up to listen to sayings like that the
uncompromising demand of Jesus was an almost frightening thing. Their
reaction was that, if marriage is so final and binding a relationship
and if divorce is forbidden, it is better not to marry at all, for
there is no escape route as they understood it--from an evil
situation. Jesus gives two answers.
(i) He says quite clearly that not everyone can in fact accept this
situation but only those to whom it has been granted to do so. In
other words, only the Christian can accept the Christian ethic. Only
the man who has the continual help of Jesus Christ and the continual
guidance of the Holy Spirit can build up the personal relationship
which the ideal of marriage demands. Only by the help of Jesus Christ
can he develop the sympathy, the understanding, the forgiving spirit,
the considerate love, which true marriage requires. Without that help
these things are impossible. The Christian ideal of marriage involves
the prerequisite that the partners are Christian.
Here is a truth which goes far beyond this particular application of
it. We continually hear people say, "We accept the ethics of the
Sermon on the Mount; but why bother about the divinity of Jesus, and
his Resurrection, and his risen presence, and his Holy Spirit, and
all that kind of thing? We accept that he was a good man, and that
his teaching is the highest teaching ever given. Why not leave it at
that, and get on with the living out of that teaching and never mind
the theology?" The answer is quite simple. No one can live out Jesus
Christ's teaching without Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was only a great
and good man, even if he was the greatest and the best of men, then
at most he is only a great example. His teaching becomes possible
only in the conviction that he is not dead but present here to help
us to carry it out. The teaching of Christ demands the presence of
Christ; otherwise it is only an impossible--and a torturing--ideal.
So, then, we have to face the fact that Christian marriage is
possible only for Christians.
(ii) The passage finishes with a very puzzling verse about eunuchs.
It is quite possible that Jesus said this on some other occasion, and
that Matthew puts it here because he is collecting Jesus' teaching on
marriage, for it was always Matthew's custom to gather together
teaching on a particular subject.
A eunuch is a man who is unsexed. Jesus distinguishes three classes
of people. There are those who, through some physical imperfection or
deformity, can never be capable of sexual intercourse. There are
those who have been made eunuchs by men. This represents customs
which are strange to western civilization. Quite frequently in royal
palaces servants, especially those who had to do with the royal
harem, were deliberately castrated. Also, quite frequently priests
who served in temples were castrated; this, for instance, is true of
the priests who served in the Temple of Diana in Ephesus.
Then Jesus talks about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the
sake of the Kingdom of God. We must be quite clear that this is not
to be taken literally. One of the tragedies of the early Church was
the case of Origen. When he was young he took this text quite
literally and castrated himself, although he came to see that he was
in error. Clement of Alexandria comes nearer it. He says, "The true
eunuch is not he who cannot, but he who will not indulge in fleshly
pleasures." By this phrase Jesus meant those who for the sake of the
Kingdom deliberately bade farewell to marriage and to parenthood and
to human physical love.
How can that be? It can happen that a man has to choose between some
call to which he is challenged and human love. It has been said, "He
travels the fastest who travels alone." A man may feel that he can do
the work of some terrible slum parish only by living in circumstances
in which marriage and a home are impossible. He may feel that he must
accept some missionary call to a place where he cannot in conscience
take a wife and beget children. He may even find that he is in love
and then is offered an exacting task which the person he loves
refuses to share. Then he must choose between human love and the task
to which Christ calls him.
Thank God it is not often that such a choice comes to a man; but
there are those who have taken upon themselves voluntarily vows of
chastity, celibacy, purity, poverty, abstinence, continence. That
will not be the way for the ordinary man, but the world would be a
poorer place were it not for those who accept the challenge to travel
alone for the sake of the work of Christ.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
Matt. 19:10-12 (continued)
It would be wrong to leave this matter without some attempt to see
what it actually means for the question of divorce at the present
We may at the beginning note this. What Jesus laid down was a
principle and not a law. To turn this saying of Jesus into a law is
gravely to misunderstand it. The Bible does not give us laws; it
gives principles which we must prayerfully and intelligently apply to
any given situation.
Of the Sabbath the Bible says, "In it you shall not do any work"
(Exo.20:10). In point of fact we know that a complete cessation of
work was never possible in any civilization. In an agricultural
civilization cattle had still to be tended and cows had to be milked
no matter what the day was. In a developed civilization certain
public services must go on, or transport will stand still and water,
light, and heat will not be available. In any home, especially where
there are children, there has to be a certain amount of work.
A principle can never be quoted as a final law; a principle must
always be applied to the individual situation. We cannot therefore
settle the question of divorce simply by quoting the words of Jesus.
That would be legalism; we must take the words of Jesus as a
principle to apply to the individual cases as they meet us. That
being so, certain truths emerge.
(i) Beyond all doubt the ideal is that marriage should be an
indissoluble union between two people, and that marriage should be
entered into as a total union of two personalities, not designed to
make one act possible, but designed to make all life a satisfying and
mutually completing fellowship. That is the essential basis on which
we must proceed.
(ii) But life is not, and never can be, a completely tidy and orderly
business. Into life there is bound to come sometimes the element of
the unpredictable. Suppose, then, that two people enter into the
marriage relationship; suppose they do so with the highest hopes and
the highest ideals; and then suppose that something unaccountably
goes wrong, and that the relationship which should be life's greatest
joy becomes hell upon earth. Suppose all available help is called in
to mend this broken and terrible situation. Suppose the doctor is
called in to deal with physical things; the psychiatrist to deal with
psychological things; the priest or the minister to deal with
Suppose the trouble still to be there; suppose one of the partners to
the marriage to be so constituted physically, mentally or spiritually
that marriage is an impossibility, and suppose that discovery could
not have been made until the experiment itself had been made--are
then these two people to be for ever fettered together in a situation
which cannot do other than bring a lifetime of misery to both?
It is extremely difficult to see how such reasoning can be called
Christian; it is extremely hard to see Jesus legalistically
condemning two people to any such situation. This is not to say that
divorce should be made easy, but it is to say that when all the
physical and mental and spiritual resources have been brought to bear
on such a situation, and the situation remains incurable and even
dangerous, then the situation should be ended; and the Church, so far
from regarding people who have been involved in such a situation as
being beyond the pale, should do everything it can in strength and
tenderness to help them. There does not seem any other way than that
in which to bring the real Spirit of Christ to bear.
(iii) But in this matter we are face to face with a most tragic
situation. It often happens that the things which wreck marriage are
in fact the things which the law cannot touch. A man in a moment of
passion and failure of control commits adultery and spends the rest
of his life in shame and in sorrow for what he did. That he should
ever repeat his sin is the least likely thing in the world. Another
man is a model of rectitude in public; to commit adultery is the last
thing he would do; and yet by a day-to-day sadistic cruelty, a
day-to-day selfishness, a day-to-day criticism and sarcasm and mental
cruelty, he makes life a hell for those who live with him; and he
does it with callous deliberation.
We may well remember that the sins which get into the newspapers and
the sins whose consequences are most glaringly obvious need not be in
the sight of God the greatest sins. Many a man and many a woman wreck
the marriage relationship and yet present to the outer world a front
of unimpeachable rectitude.
This whole matter is one to which we might well bring more sympathy
and less condemnation, for of all things the failure of a marriage
must least be approached in legalism and most in love. In such a case
it is not a so-called law that must be conserved; it is human heart
and soul. What is wanted is that there should be prayerful care and
thought before the married state is entered upon; that if a marriage
is in danger of failure every possible medical, psychological and
spiritual resource should be mobilized to save it; but, that if there
is something beyond the mending, the situation should be dealt with
not with rigid legalism, but with understanding love.
I enjoyed your comments. I mean it! Yes I am very interested
("for a moment" or even obsessed) in this subject and one thing about
being a (relatively) new Christian is the astonishing thing that you
can pray and think and research and find that "there is safety in
many counselors," and ask your brothers and sisters and like,....get
answers! Everything was so totally relative in the world before.
yes, I have forgiven my ex- I had to attend a class on divorce
recovery at church to figure out how to do that.
And I have to KEEP forgiving him (and his wife) since we have a
retarded daughter in common so must keep communicating. I have NOT
gotten around to asking him to forgive ME (another thing from the
class), but suffice it to say he had PLENTY of biblical reason to
leave although he did not know it. If I'd been him, I would have
left me too.
I will spend a little more time on the "absolutely no remarriage,"
(as you have spoken you would do if you ran the world) then
feel quite settled about the whole thing...I think Ray Stedman had
Christ in him when he wrote and your other thoughts and feelings
helped to support this approach of grace to the individual situation.
Thank you, brothers, for your care in this matter. (I am not saying
if you have other thoughts, not to send them, of course!) (And,
I've never had so much fun writing a "virtual book" -- LOVED
the Barclay); Your coming alongside is precious to me, and an
affirming example of modeling His church as it should be! There are
many others who will be affected by all we are discussing here.
Love in Christ,