Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Luke 16:18
The question of divorce and remarriage is one of the toughest issues that faces the Christian church in our time. It is harder and harder to find couples who affirm the words, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder” – couples who believe that marriage means faithfulness between one man and one woman until death parts them (Matt. 19:6).
A marriage bond may break, but it can never be dissolved.
The majority of Christians today believe that divorce and remarriage are morally and biblically permissible. They argue that though God hates divorce, he allows it as a concession to our sinful condition. Because of our hardness of heart, they explain, marriages can “die” or dissolve. In other words, God recognizes our frailty and accepts the fact that in a fallen world the ideal cannot always be realized. Through God’s forgiveness, one can always start again, even if in a new marriage.
But what about the bond that is promised between two and made – whether knowingly or unknowingly – before God? Does God’s forgiveness ever mean we can deny it? Does he ever allow unfaithfulness? Just as the unity of the church is eternal and unchangeable, so true marriage reflects this unity and is indissoluble. Like the early Christians, I believe that as long as both spouses are living, there can be no remarriage after divorce. What God has joined together in the unity of the Spirit is joined together until death parts a couple. Unfaithfulness, whether by one or by both partners, cannot change this. No Christian has the freedom to marry someone else as long as his or her spouse is still living. The bond of unity is at stake.
Jesus is clear that it was because of hard-heartedness that Moses, under the law, allowed divorce (Matt. 19:8). However, among his disciples – those born of the Spirit – hard-heartedness is no longer a valid excuse. Moses said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus said, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31–32). The disciples understood this decisive word of Jesus clearly: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Moses gave allowance to divorce out of sheer necessity, but this hardly changes the fact that from the beginning marriage was meant to be indissoluble. A marriage cannot be dissolved (even if it is broken), neither by the husband who abandons his adulterous wife, nor by the wife who abandons her adulterous husband. God’s order cannot be abolished that easily or lightly.1
Paul writes with the same clarity to the Corinthians:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife (1 Cor. 7:10–11).
He also writes, “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” (1 Cor. 7:39). And in Romans he says, “So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man” (Rom. 7:3).
Because adultery is a betrayal of the mysterious union between one man and one woman who become one flesh, it is one of the worst forms of deceit. Adultery must always be squarely confronted by the church, and the adulterer must be called to repentance and disciplined (1 Cor. 5:1–5).
The answer to a broken bond is faithfulness and love.
Even if Jesus allows divorce for reasons of sexual immorality or adultery, it should never be the inevitable result or an excuse to remarry. Jesus’ love reconciles and forgives. Those who seek a divorce will always be left with the stain of bitterness on their conscience. No matter how much emotional pain an unfaithful spouse causes, the wounded partner must be willing to forgive. Only when we forgive can we ever hope to receive the forgiveness of God for ourselves (Matt. 6:14–15). Faithful love, to our spouse but especially to Christ, is the only answer to a broken bond.
Kent and Amy, who minister together in the same church in Colorado, were once divorced from each other. Their situation was as desperate as a marriage could get. Yet because they kept the door open to Christ they found each other again. Kent shares:
From day one, our marriage had gigantic problems, and we began a three-year downward spiral into utter confusion. I thought marriage was just a matter of hanging out with my wife and doing fun things together. I had no idea what hard work it involved. Eventually I became a shell of a person and even despised life at times. I tried doing all the “spiritual” things I was supposed to do: reading the Bible, praying, and talking with others. But it all seemed so futile. Amy and I came from completely opposite back-grounds and, hard as we tried, we couldn’t communicate.
The pain grew so great that we decided to separate and to begin divorce proceedings. This was absolutely against my church upbringing, but I felt hopelessly trapped and had to get out. Yet even after we decided to divorce, the pain remained constant. I became so emotionally drained that there were mornings when I couldn’t even button my shirt. Unable to cope, I stepped down from my pastoral position. All during this time Amy was utterly devastated. I knew she wanted things to be different, but it was all too overwhelming for me. Despite our commitments to Christ and to each other, we were both completely lost.
To deal with my pain, I resorted to work. I knew that I would get into big time trouble if I allowed myself to become idle or to become involved in another relationship. So I worked and worked – and worked. Subconsciously I think both Amy and I tried to trust God, but daily I swore to myself that I would never get back together with her. Every time we tried to talk things out, we ended up fighting. It was hopeless.
I came to a point where I couldn’t even turn to God anymore. Everything became so pointless, so dead: What did it all matter? Why was I working so hard anyway? Who was I trying to fool? Why try to do God’s will if nothing good ever came from it?
But late one night, as I left work, the moon and the stars caught my eye. Something grabbed my heart, and I felt anew God’s majesty and mercy. In a matter of seconds I was reduced to tears. In all my pain and despair I began to feel, perhaps for the first time, both my true need and God’s unconditional love. Although I had become unfaithful to my promises to God and to my wife, God assured me that he was still faithful to me and that he had not given up on me. That night was a real turning point. By the miracle of God’s grace, something inside me began to change.
I wish I could say that there were a lot of miraculous events that brought Amy and me back together again. But there weren’t. We found each other through a lot of hard work. There was no instant reunion; it took two years. We had to do a lot of talking and a lot of forgiving. But as we shared, a lot of the pain and the emotion that was there before disappeared. In the end, it was God who rescued us. It was he who helped us keep the door open to him and to each other – in spite of ourselves. It was he who spared us the lie that one’s problems are best solved by getting involved with some other, more suitable person.
Our marriage still goes through rough patches. Perhaps it always will. We are still very different from each other. And if I dwell too much on my weaknesses or Amy’s, it is tempting to try and find a way out. But God’s faithfulness binds us together and preserves our love for each other. And it is this faithfulness that keeps me focused and committed.
Of course, not every marital struggle ends as happily as Kent and Amy’s. In my church it has happened several times that a husband or wife leaves the church, becomes unfaithful, divorces his or her spouse, and remarries. Almost every time, the one left behind has decided to remain in our church, faithful to Christ and to his or her marriage vows. Though this is naturally a painful choice – and doubly so when there are children involved – it is part of the cost of discipleship. If we turn to God, he will give us the strength to hold fast.
When I marry a couple, I always ask them the following question, which was formulated by my grandfather, a dissident pastor in Nazi Germany:
My brother, will you never follow your wife – and my sister, will you never follow your husband – in what is wrong? If one of you should turn away from the way of Jesus and want to forsake his church, will you always place faith in our Master, Jesus of Nazareth, and unity in his Holy Spirit above your marriage, also when confronted by government authorities? I ask you this in the knowledge that a marriage is built on sand unless it is built on the rock of faith, faith in Jesus, the Christ.
As pertinent today as in its original context, there is deep wisdom in this question. In a sense, it is simply a reminder of the choice set before each of us who claim to be disciples: are we ready to follow Jesus at all costs? Didn’t he himself warn us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26)?
If a couple takes this warning seriously, it may bring about separation, but the sanctity of their marriage covenant will actually be protected. The issue here is not only marriage as such, but the deeper bond of unity between two people united in Christ and his Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 7:15–16). Whenever a man or woman remains loyal to his or her spouse – no matter how unfaithful that partner may be – it is a witness to this unity. The eternal faithfulness of God and his church can always engender new commitment and hope. I have seen more than once how the faithfulness of a believing partner can lead an unbelieving spouse back to Jesus, back to the church, and back to a strong marriage.
Ann and her husband, Howard (whose story I shared in chapter 16), are an example of this. Even when Howard fell back into sin, Ann never wavered from her commitment to Christ and the church. Yet though she refused to go along with Howard’s deceit, she did not judge him. Instead, she quietly led him in the struggle for repentance and a fresh start. Largely as a result of Ann’s steadfastness, both their marriage and Howard’s faith were restored.
True faithfulness is not merely the absence of adultery.
Though God hates divorce, he will also judge every unloving or dead marriage, and this should be a warning to each of us. How many of us have been cold-hearted or loveless to our spouses at one time or another? How many thousands of couples, rather than loving each other, merely coexist? True faithfulness is not simply the absence of adultery.
It must be a commitment of heart and soul. Whenever husband and wife lack commitment to each other, live parallel lives, or become estranged, separation and divorce lurk around the corner.
It is the task of every church to fight the spirit of adultery wherever it raises its head. Here I am not only speaking of adultery as a physical act; in a sense, anything inside a marriage that weakens love, unity, and purity, or hinders the spirit of mutual reverence, is adultery, because it feeds the spirit of adultery. That is why God speaks of the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel as adultery (Mal. 2:10–16).
In the Old Testament, the prophets use faithfulness in marriage as a picture of God’s commitment to Israel, his chosen people – his bride (Hos. 3:1). In a similar way, the Apostle Paul compares marriage to the relationship of unity between Christ, the bridegroom, and his church, the bride. Only in the spirit of these biblical images can we clearly consider the question of divorce and remarriage.
When a church fails to nurture the marriages of its own members, how can it claim innocence when these marriages fall apart? When it shies away from testifying that “what God has joined together, no one should put asunder,” how can it expect its married members to remain committed for life?
In considering these questions, there are two pitfalls we must avoid. First, we can never agree to divorce; second, we must never treat those who suffer its need and pain with legalism or rigidity. In rejecting divorce, we cannot reject the divorced person, even if remarried. We must always remember that though Jesus speaks very sharply against sin, he never lacks compassion. But because he longs to redeem and heal every sinner, he requires repentance for every sin. This is also true for every broken marriage.
Clearly, we must never judge. At the same time, however, we must be faithful to Christ above everything else. We must embrace his whole truth – not just those parts of it that seem to fit our needs (Matt. 23:23–24). That is why my church will not marry divorced members (at least as long as a former spouse is still living) and why we cannot accept divorced and remarried couples as members, as long as they continue to live together as husband and wife. Remarriage compounds the sin of divorce and precludes the possibility of reconciliation with one’s first spouse. We stand for life-long fidelity in marriage. No other stand is consistent with real love and truthfulness.
The significance of the marriage commitment needs to be rediscovered. We are only beginning to confront the harm that divorce does to our children. For children, let alone for adults, divorce is something you don’t just “get over.” Study after study shows that the majority of children whose parents divorce are worried, underachieving, and self-deprecating. Even ten years after their parents break up, they still suffer from such emotional problems as fear and depression, and display antisocial behavior.
Stepfamilies do not provide the answer. The original family structure cannot be restored, however hard one tries to simulate it. In fact, children living with stepparents often show more insecurity than children in single-parent homes.2 A generation of children is growing up without parents who act as true role models – and many children do not have real parents at all. As well-intentioned as many of today’s young people are, where can they find support when it is time to marry and start a family?
With God, all things are possible.
Naturally, if divorce is to be avoided, the church must offer its members guidance and practical support long before their marriages collapse (Heb. 10:24; 12:15). As soon as there are indications that a marriage is at risk, it is best to be honest and open about it. Once a couple drifts too far apart, it may take space as well as time for them to find each other’s hearts again. In a situation like this, as in one where a spouse has become abusive, temporary separation may be necessary. Especially when this is the case, the church must find concrete ways to help both spouses – first in seeking repentance and then in finding the mutual trust and forgiveness necessary to restore the marriage.
It is sad that in today’s society, faithfulness is so rare that it has come to be seen as a “heroic” virtue. Shouldn’t it be taken for granted as the bedrock of our faith? (Gal. 5:22) As followers of Christ, shouldn’t each of us be willing to hold firm through thick and thin until death, to Christ, to his church, and to our husband or wife? Only with this resolve can we hope to remain faithful to our marriage vows.
The way of discipleship is a narrow way, but through the cross anyone who hears the words of Jesus can put them into practice (Matt. 7:24). If Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is hard, it is only because so many in our day no longer believe in the power of repentance and forgiveness. It is because we no longer believe that what God joins together can, by his grace, be held together; and that, as Jesus says, “With God, all things are possible.”
Nothing should be too hard for us when it is a requirement of the gospel (Matt. 11:28–30). If we look at Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in this faith, we will see that it is one of great promise, hope, and strength. It is a teaching whose righteousness is much greater than that of the moralists and philosophers. It is the righteousness of the kingdom, and it is based on the reality of resurrection and new life.
1. If divorce and remarriage are never justified, then why does Jesus allow marital unfaithfulness as an exception? (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) Without going into great detail, two things can be said. First, in Jesus’ day a husband was required, by Jewish law, to divorce an adulterous wife (e.g. Matt. 1:19). Thus, in Matt. 5:32, Jesus is saying that a man who divorces his unfaithful wife (which the law required he do) is not responsible, by this action, for her adultery. In any other kind of divorce, however, he is the culpable one, the adulterer. This does not mean that divorce is ever justifiable or required. When we come later to Matt. 19:9, then, the exception of marital unfaithfulness should be read to apply to divorce only and not to remarriage.
2. Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011).