We’ve seen the first valid reason for divorce in scripture – when an unbeliever leaves a believer because they reject Christ.
The second valid reason for divorce is adultery, however there are lots of variations and these can make the issue complex in some circumstances.
I’ll try and cut this as straight as I can, but bear in mind that God judges based on the heart, not based on what happens, so there may be situations where some of these principles are less clear in the context than others.
Lets start in Matt 5:31-32 where Jesus refers to the old testament to clarify God’s standpoint on divorce. He says “You have heard it said” – Jesus starts by referring to the word of God. Specifically he is referring to “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce”. Apparently the Jews of the day used this passage of the old testament to justify divorce. In addition, there were two schools of thought in the days of Jesus. One was liberal, teaching a man could divorce his wife for any reason, the other said that only in the case of adultery could someone divorce their wife.
Jesus here spells out not only the correct viewpoint of God, but also the consequences of disobedience. As far as Christ is concerned the only valid grounds for divorce is adultery. If divorce takes place, it is also assumed that the woman (in particular) will remarry, and in so doing, she commits adultery. In this sense divorce forced the woman to commit adultery by remarrying (as often a woman’s only means of income in the Jewish culture was to be married). Likewise, marrying a divorced woman also constitutes adultery.
We see the same thing in Matt 19:9 where sexual immorality is given as the only valid reason for divorce.
The other point to take from these passages is that remarriage after a divorce due to adultery is not condemned, and does not constitute adultery on the part of the innocent spouse..
These passages both refer back to Deut 24:1-4 which outlines laws concerning divorce. However if we analyze this passage, we find that the point the Lord makes through Moses is not regarding divorce, but regarding remarriage.
Firstly the passage is based on a scenario – two marriages and a remarriage. Secondly the first marriage ends on the grounds of indecency which should be read to mean adultery. Finally, the end of the second marriage is not specific – the husband could hate her or he dies – meaning the point is not how the second marriage ends, but that it ends. In this scenario, the lesson is that the original husband cannot remarry his former wife “after she has been defiled” – i.e. she has committed adultery by marrying a second time – and what choice did she have? Without a husband or family, life was very hard for a woman.
This helps us understand what Jesus was saying in Matt 19:8-9 when he said that divorce was only given because of the hardness of the Jewish heart. What did this mean? Simply that in the case of adultery the first thought on the part of the innocent husband (or wife) should not be to divorce their unfaithful spouse, but to forgive their unfaithful spouse. It was because they were (and we are) hard hearted that God allowed them to divorce. So divorce in the case of adultery is not ideal, but it is allowed.
The passage in Deut 24:1-4 does teach us clearly that remarrying a previous wife after she has been married is wrong. This is called an abomination. Something that is an abomination to the Lord is something that is extremely disgusting, loathed or hated by the Lord.
Comparing other abominations to remarrying a former spouse after she has been married helps us understand the evil of doing this. In the book of Deuteronomy alone the following are called an abomination:
- Coveting silver and gold that coats an idol (Deut 7:25)
- Following other gods (Deut 13:14)
- Sacrificing a defective animal (Deut 17:1)
- Activities related to occultism and and child sacrifice (Deut 18:10-12)
- Cross dressing (Deut 22:5)
- Giving a prostitutes fees to the Lord (Deut 23:18)
- Having dishonest business practices (Deut 25:16)
- Idols (Deut 27:15)
Thus, remarrying a former spouse who has remarried, is in the same league as these depravities.
In a clean cut way, that is the principle in scripture. However things are not so clear cut in the real world. For instance what about the case in which a husband (or wife) commits adultery, is repentant of their sin and returns and is forgiven, but then does it again? Questions about the sincerity of their repentance, and their commitment to marriage. In this case should the believing and innocent party should probably forgive again, but what about the case where the guilty party is not so repentant, and is still lusting after others, should that grieved spouse continue to forgive when there is no repentance or effort to reform?
What about remarriage? In many cases an adulterous spouse will leave their spouse for the illegitimate relationship and in such cases show themselves to not be a believer. This may sound extreme, however, based on passages such as 1 Cor 6:9-10 and 1 John 2:19, it is probably fair to say that they have proved their unbelief. Thus when this happens it is OK for the innocent party to remarry. This is the only time in which remarriage after divorce is not condemned by God.
However, it is possible for an erring believer to also commit these sins, in which case there is a process to follow to deal with the believer (see Matt 18:15-17), and the goal of this process is to restore them by bringing them to repentance. In the case that they are unrepentant, we are to regard them as an unbeliever.
To summarize, while God allows divorce due to adultery, this is not the ideal. The ideal is to forgive, which is the pattern of the new testament (Matt 18:21-22, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3, Col 3:13). In the case that divorce does happen as a result of adultery, the circumstances can be hard to judge and require great discernment. Remarriage after a divorce due to adultery is not condemned for the innocent spouse – obviously the guilty spouse has already committed adultery and in the case that they are unrepentant have proven themselves to be unbelieving as far as the church is concerned before Christ.
Divorce is a tricky subject to deal with clearly. The word is clear about what is and is not alright regarding divorce, but the issues come down to the hearts of the people involved which is difficult for us humans to discern at times. Hopefully this study helps clear up some uncertainty, although I’m sure it will still remain a difficulty in some circumstances.