Marriage and Divorce in the New Testament: some thoughts

Marriage is seen as a lifelong commitment throughout the Bible and divorce is seen as a sinful necessity in some situations. Modern divorce laws and indeed the attitude to divorce in our culture are alien to Biblical thinking. It is at this point that we have to wrestle with many difficult situations in a spirit of love. We must never compromise the biblical standard but on the other hand we cannot erect a wall around ourselves that would prevent us loving the sinner. We find ourselves facing many difficult situations pastorally and we need to respond in grace and love. One added problem is that at times it is difficult to understand the full implications of what is written in Scripture. Biblical Scholars differ among themselves on this issue and we cannot claim that we are sure that we 100% right.

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
4 “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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”(Mt 19:3–12).

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (Mk 10:2–12). .

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Lk 16:18).

In these gospel accounts Jesus in Matthews gospel alone speaks of a reason for divorce and this is given in the context of the call to faithfulness, the one flesh relationship is meant to be lifelong. Mark and Luke do not speak of the reason for divorce but rather spell out the consequence of divorce and remarriage is seen as committing adultery.

The teaching of Jesus should make us reluctant to accept easy divorce and indeed we should be promoting the biblical view of marriage as a covenant of love. Pastors often wrestle with the issue of whether they should remarry divorced people and there are complex questions that need to be answered. Some believe that it is better for those repenting of past failures to marry and try to live out by God’s grace faithfulness in marriage. Other people feel in good conscience that they cannot support any remarriage under any circumstance.

There are pastoral issues like spousal abuse which call into question whether the marriage vows are being kept, in these situations restoration of the marriage relationship should be the priority, but at times that proves impossible and I would personally lean in favour of divorce in these circumstances. The problem comes when considering remarriage because we do not want to disobey the Lord and I find myself unable at this time to provide a coherent answer to the question.

The Apostle Paul also speaks to the problem of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7.

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.
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.
15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister 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?

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.(1 Co 7:10–17).

Paul again makes divorce a hard option but he allows that a person who has been married to an unbeliever will be free if the unbeliever divorces the believer. In the missionary situation sometimes one partner would become a Christian and the other reject the faith, even in that situation the believer is called to maintain the marriage if at all possible, but if it the unbeliever leaves the believer is free. I take this to mean that the believer is free to remarry, but believers should only marry other believers which can be seen from the clear teaching on this throughout the Bible.

This summarises the difficult problem that faces us when considering marriage and divorce, Jesus calls us to faithfulness in marriage, to uphold his high standards but there are situations when marriage is destroyed by one party committing adultery, in this case divorce is permitted. Divorced people who are divorced by an unbeliever because of their faith are also permitted to remarry. But the majority of divorced people in our culture do not fill either of these requirements and this leaves us with some knotty problems that at present I don’t know the answer to.


About pneumaandlogos

David Rollings was born in Luton in1949 and raised by my Christian parents in the Gospel Standard Strict Baptist denomination( Hyper-Calvinistic} in the sixties I rebelled against this background and got involved in left-wing politics. I became a Christian in 1969 and soon started reading Francis Schaeffer's books and came to embrace a Christian Worldview. I had the privilege of being on the staff of L'Abti Fellowship from1975 - 1979. After L'abri I studied at London School of Theology where I gained my BA.(1983) A few years later I studied for my MA by distance learning with The Nazarene Theological College Manchester (1999) For the last 25 years, I have been an elder of Shoreham-by-Sea Baptist Church. I also regularly attend the Christian Doctrine Study Group of the Tyndale Fellowship.
This entry was posted in Discipleship, divorce, God's love, grace, moral decline, Pastor and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Marriage and Divorce in the New Testament: some thoughts

  1. Charles Pocock says:

    Very good David and in the pastoral way, is the way I have always handled such situations. It is better to keep to the letter of the Word but always, as you mentioned, with grace and at times, sorrow when not accepted, causing a separation of fellowship between friends. This has been a rare experience fortunately,

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