In addressing the controversial subject of divorce taking place among Christians, for which this essay is most specifically written, I was blessed with the leading to search out the scriptures for God’s revelation regarding marriage. For it is only within the context of a solid understanding of God’s purpose for marriage that we may understand the reasoning for His dispensation for divorce in the Old Testament; and, of course, it is only through an understanding of the God’s view of marriage and His purpose in the concession of divorce, that we may understand the Biblical perspective of re-marriage.
Marriage between man and woman is part of the Created order and a manifestation of God’s Glory, not a concession to sinful desires.
In any attempt to fully elevate marriage to its rightful place in discourse, we must first recognize that marriage was directly created by God, specifically as His preferred relational bond between Adam and Eve, the first man and the first woman. Therefore, marriage, just as the rest of creation, was created as a direct manifestation of God’s Glory. Just as we, the created, were made into the image of God to reflect His Glory, God established marriage between man and woman as an image and reflection of the Glory of His communion with us.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27 NIV
“So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man."
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Genesis 2:21-25 NIV
Clearly, the Lord established marriage prior to the introduction of sin into the perfectly “good” world that He had created; which refutes any perspective which would align marriage as a concession to offset our sinful desires or simply an additional blessing of His Grace.
Marriage was the foundational relationship between man and woman in God’s created order.
Marriage between man and woman is the model of God’s relationship with His Chosen People.
While there are many relational analogies which are used by God to reveal the nature of His connection with His People and the children of His Promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob including paternal, monarchical and even agricultural/husbandry; it seems very revealing that, through His prophets, the most common relational model used to illustrate Israel and Judah’s sin, and subsequent separation from God, is that of marriage. Perhaps the most vivid evidence of this model was the prophet Hosea:
“When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD." Hosea 1:2 NIV
And following a thorough rebuke of Israel for its national adultery, the Lord promises restoration for Israel with these words:
“There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
"In that day," declares the LORD, "you will call me 'my husband'; you will no longer call me 'my master.'” Hosea 2:15-16 NIV
“I will take you to be My wife forever. I will take you to be My wife in righteousness, justice, love, and compassion. I will take you to be My wife in faithfulness, and you will know the LORD.” Hosea 2:19-20 HCSB
Marriage between man and woman is a temporal demonstration of our eternal destiny.
In Luke 20:27-39, the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, attempted to trap Jesus by posing a question regarding the Law:
"Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"
To which Jesus responded:
"The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive."
While Jesus' comment may be somewhat confusing from the perspective of the value which God has revealed that He places on marriage, when reviewed in light of the following passage from Revelation, it makes perfect sense:
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
Then the angel said to me, "Write: 'Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!' “ And he added, "These are the true words of God." Revelation 19:6-9
In this passage we may also note that those that are invited (believers) to the wedding actually become part of the bride (the church), becoming one with Christ for eternity.
Therefore, our present marriage was designed lovingly by God as a temporal demonstration of our eternal marriage to come; that we might find joy in the taste of the fulfillment of our ultimate marriage to come in Christ.
So, to summarize God created marriage as a manifestation of His Glory; God's relationship to His Chosen people is modeled throughout the Old Testament as a marriage; and our present marriages are a reflection of our ultimate marriage, as a church body, to Jesus Christ. What began a God glorifying union and bond between a man and a woman will, in God's timing, culminate in a God glorifying bond and union with Jesus Christ for eternity.
Divorce in the Old Testament
With an understanding of God's purpose for marriage, and an acknowledgement of marriage as a reflection of God's glorious design for us instituted at creation, we are better equipped to look at God's dispensation and concession of divorce in the Old Testament.
In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul makes clear that when sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, it corrupted all of Creation. Since we acknowledge that marriage was instituted at Creation, then it would follow that sin would corrupt it as well. If we take that knowledge and apply it to the following verse:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:19-22
Then it would be appropriate to infer that marriage has been subject to bondage and decay as well, and from the Patriarchs through the Judges and Kings of Israel and Judah (and certainly beyond even to the return of the exiles from Babylon and the time of Christ's earthly ministry), marriage has certainly suffered from the bondage of sinful desires which obscure the revelation of God's character through marriage, and the decay which continually erodes marriage's integrity as the relational foundations of our community of God.
Even by the time of the Exodus, the bondage and decay of sin on marriage was apparent in man's sinful pursuit of polygamy, sexual immorality and abuse.
In respect to polygamy, while the Law of Moses permitted the practice of having multiple wives, the allowance provided multiple examples of dysfunctional and contentious relationships which were not God-honoring. The practice of multiple wives within the culture was eventually addressed in Deuteronomy, but only to the point of prohibiting favoritism between heirs based on the husbands relationship with one wife over another (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). While monogamy was actually the norm for most of the early patriarchs, Biblical characters such as Jacob and Solomon provide clear examples of the strife that results when God's design for marriage between one man and one woman is rejected.
Yet, even in this circumstance, divorce was not invoked as a remedy. However, in an earlier, and perhaps more egregious, abuse of God's purpose for creating marriage, female captives of military campaigns were being sexually abused and sold as merchandise under a twisted pretense of marriage, and release from the “marriage” for the woman at the husband's discretion was permissible (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).
In the circumstance of captive women, it appears that the release of the wife (without being sold as chattel), rather than being a dispensation of divorce rights and permission to further defile God's creation, was an act of compassion and mercy by God on behalf of the captives. The capture, sexual abuse and sexual slave trade of females by sinful men bearing the banner of the One True God was certainly not reflective of His glory, compassion and mercy. Therefore, it could be inferred that the concession for release from marriage (divorce) was likely a dispensation for the oppressed victims of sin rather than the sinful oppressors.
When the practice of divorce is first codified in Deuteronomy 24, it appears that it is, again, set in a backdrop of oppression; as attested to by Jesus:
"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” Matthew 19:7-8
To obtain a more complete understanding of the existing customs in Moses time, and to a lesser degree, first century Palestine, I offer this description from “Manners & Customs of Bible Lands” by Fred H. Wight, Copyright 1953, Moody Bible Institute:
For centuries it has been possible for a husband in Arab lands, to divorce his wife by a spoken word. The wife thus divorced is entitled to all her wearing apparel, and the husband cannot take from her anything she has upon her own person. For this reason, coins on the headgear, and rings and necklaces, became important wealth in the hour of the divorced woman's great need. This is one reason why there is so much interest in the bride's personal adornment in Eastern countries. Such customs of divorce were no doubt prevalent in Gentile lands in Old Testament times. It was for this reason that the law of Moses limited the power of the husband it divorce his wife, by requiring that he must give her a written bill of divorcement. (p.125)
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NIV
In this context, the written bill of divorcement provided a regulatory constraint rather than imbuing a given right to sin against God's creation of marriage by dissolving the bond and unity by unjust fiat. Therefore, it may also be inferred that divorce regulations He provided through Moses were acts of compassion for the victims of treacherous and unjust treatment at the hands of a sinful spouse, while never proposing that divorce was truly an acceptable, justified option. God opinion of divorce is made perfectly clear through the prophet Malachi:
“"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself (his wife) with violence as well as with his garment," says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” Malachi 2:16
Furthermore, while the text of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 certainly commands the certificate of divorce the text specifically addresses the rights of a husband to remarry a woman after she has married another and become widowed (fairly complex dynamic to be sure, but it must have been an issue). I believe it was the sinful hearts of the interpreters of the Law which twisted it into a caveat and right of divorce, rather than specific guidance applied to a specific scenario.
So, to summarize, the dispensation of divorce in the Old Testament served to limit the power of husbands to act treacherously and unjustly against their wives, and as an act of compassion on behalf of the oppressed. God's hatred for divorce is clear as is His hatred for sin, therefore divorce as the dissolving of the marital bond clearly represents a rejection of His purpose for creating marriage.
If marriage is a manifestation of God's Glory, then divorce is a manifestation of sins corruption.
If marriage is a model of God's relationship with His Chosen People, then divorce is a representation of their rejection of His precepts, a clear act of rebellion.
If marriage is a temporal demonstration of our eternal destiny, then divorce is a demonstration of our rejection of that destiny, or of Christ himself.
Although, this probably seems harsh, the truths that I gleaned from the Word appear to be very clear on this. There clearly are no exceptions to the rule in the Old Testament, divorce is never acceptable or permissible, but only restrained, by God through Moses.
Jesus on Divorce
While certain aspects of Jesus' (and therefore God's) perspective on divorce have already been shared, there are several statement He makes which, taken out of context, may lend itself to a false assumptions regarding the permissibility of divorce, or exceptions to the clear prohibition stated in Malachi.
To address this false assumption, it must be presented that Jesus is clear in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke where he addresses the Pharisees on the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”:
"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' 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'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." Matthew 19:4-6 NIV
Clearly, Jesus reaffirms the value and gravity of the marriage bond created and purposed by God between one man and one woman. The Gospel of Matthew however includes an extra point made by Jesus, that must be addressed as it might be misconstrued out of context as an exception:
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." Matthew 19:9 NIV
While on the surface, this may appear to open a whole new door to possible permissibility of divorce, the verbiage does not imply that it is okay to get a divorce on those grounds, but that any other grounds of divorce and then remarriage (and subsequent sexual relations) convicts the remarried individual of the sin of adultery. He does not ever state that divorce is permissible, only that, unless porneia was the grounds, then adultery is the specific sin committed.
It is also important to note that Jesus addresses the same subject and consequent sin earlier in Matthew:
“It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But 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 5:31-32 NIV
The underlying teaching here is not a reaffirmation of a given exception to God's hatred for divorce but simply the ancillary to Matthew 19:9. In this circumstance, if the wife is unfaithful, se is already guilty of adultery under the law; however, Jesus is saying that the mere act of divorce makes the woman an adulteress if she remarries, but the guilt of her adultery and the adultery of whomever she may remarry belongs to the husband who divorced her.
In addressing the two possible “exceptions” listed in Matthew, it is also critical to point out that adultery under the Law of Moses, was a very specific sin, with a very specific consequence. The consequence was never divorce, as has often been misread as a possible exception to God's hatred for divorce (wherein God detests adultery more than divorce and therefore can abide with either sin for the sake of the other).
"'If a man commits adultery with another man's wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” Leviticus 20:10 NIV
If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. Deuteronomy 22:22 NIV
The Law regarding the penalty for adultery was very clear, and even used in an effort to trap Jesus in the instance of the adulteress in the Gospel of John, Chapter 8. The trap being set was that the Law required stoning, but the Romans did not allow for executions by the Jews, Jesus avoided the trap by affirming both the Law, and forcing the accusers to break Roman law to enforce it. Note that Jesus never once gave her or her husband permission to divorce, only that she should “go and sin no more”.
Therefore, stating that in the context of Roman sovereignty it was generally accepted that a divorce was an appropriate substitute for stoning is not supported Biblically.
In summary, Jesus reaffirmed unequivocally God's injunction against divorce, even to the point of consistently affirming his identity as the bridegroom and commonly using wedding ceremonies to illustrate His relationship to believers and disciples.
The New Creation
In detailing my research into what the Bible has revealed to me about marriage and divorce, the truth that I am continually convicted of is God's uncompromising disdain for sin and how he detests the corruption and stain which sin leaves on every element of His creation. It is a hard truth for many as Jesus attests:
Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” Matthew 19:11 NIV
God's uncompromising hatred of sin seems even more rigid as it is applied to those sins which fundamentally twist and corrupt our relationship and communion with Him. Marriage is His glorious creation which transcends mere behavioral norms and models the His very will and purpose for us in fellowship with each other and communion with Him. Faithful marriage even extends its blessings to sanctify the offspring of a God-honoring union.
Therefore, the only conclusion that I can draw from scripture is that divorce, or thoughts of divorce for that matter when taking into account Jesus’ “higher standard” (Matthew 5) for believers, is sin. And the consequent wage of sin is death.
But then Jesus, through His atoning sacrifice on the cross, paid for that sin and by God’s grace alone we are justified through Him. And through the power of the Holy Spirit we become new creations by our confession of Christ as Lord. Jesus made the way for us to re-establish, permanently, our purpose for God’s glory.
The power of Christ releases us from the chains of sins corrupting influence. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to see the sins which enslaved us and turn from them, not just to become better people, but to become a new creation, different and set apart, for God’s purpose. We are no longer compelled, by our own power and intellect, to define the magnitude or degree of sin which corrupts us, but to rely on the power of Christ’s work and the Spirit which indwells us to empty ourselves of ourselves and die to those sins.
As new beings, new creations in Christ, we reclaim the inheritance and promise which sin, in its corruption, stole. We become as Adam and Eve again, new creations unashamed in our joy at communion with God and fulfillment of His purpose. The blinders of sin removed, we see the revealed purposes of marriage, and are witnesses to God’s glory manifest through it.
We see its illumination of God’s desired fellowship with His Chosen People, and we testify to our joy and anticipation of our coming marriage union, as the Body of Christ, to the Lamb.
We see with new eyes that as God, in His faithfulness and love for us, would never seek divorce or separation from us as we remain in Christ; just as Jesus would never seek divorce from His church, His Body, for which He died to be reconciled to. In Christ, we renew our vows daily in anticipation of every new moment of our eternity together.
Paul on Marriage and Divorce
It appears to be through the lens of this new creation that we have become, and this new covenant and betrothal to the Lamb that we enter through our submission to Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, that Paul seems to approach the church at Corinth in its relationship to marriage, divorce and remarriage. While steeped in the tradition of the Law of Moses, His application of Scripture and Spirit-led counsel to the Corinthians appears to be that of equality before God as new creations.
Much of the 1st Epistle to the church in Corinth seems to reveal a sense of surprise and concern that the Holy Spirit which indwells them, and has transformed them into new creations in Christ, is being ignored as they subject themselves once again to the bondage of sin from which they were released. Even to the point of reminding them of their new identity in Christ rather than as slaves to sin:
“For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” 1 Corinthians 6:16b-17 NIV
In Paul’s writing, he admonish all believers in Corinth to seek out God’s will for themselves as new creations from the starting point of where Christ found them. If they are married, even to unbelievers, they are to pursue the opportunity that God has presented to them to be witnesses and blessings for their own household. If they are unmarried or widows, they should remain in that state to focus their attention on their upcoming marriage to the Lamb and not allow the temptations of sex or cultural norms to present obstacles to their single minded pursuit and service to God. If they are married, remain married in a new covenant and as new creations for the service of God, using their new, changed marriage as a witness to God’s glory and desire for communion with His creation. It is from the point of transformation that Paul encourages the saints in Corinth to be single minded and faithful in their pursuit of, and service to, the Lord in whatever circumstance he has placed them.
To Paul, it seems, the single minded focus on Christ and joy in God’s purpose for their lives regardless of their station in life is only goal that matters. Even in his concessions to the young that it is better they are married that burn with desire, the echo of his desire that they should find the full joy of union with Christ, and in Christ, resounds. He even points out in 1st Timothy to be wary of demonic influences in teaching against God’s created order which would forbid marriage and teach abstinence from foods, both of which God created to be accepted with gratitude (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
Even contemporaries of Paul, like the author of Hebrews, reaffirmed the worth and sanctity of marriage:
“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” Hebrews 13:4 NIV
In light of this new creation that we have become through Christ and my research into scripture, I am hard pressed to find clear Biblical leadings on the question of remarriage. Though many have implied that remarriage is often assumed for the widow or the divorced in the context of 1st century culture, I did not find any Biblical support for the idea that re-marriage God-honoring, though scripture is very clear on the possible consequences of sexual relations following divorce within or outside the context of marriage.
Therefore, since no clear direction appears, my assumption is that a man or a woman with a clear leading to remarry by the Spirit will make the decision in prayer and an earnest willingness to follow God’s response regardless of their personal preferences.
In conclusion, perhaps it is best as the Body to take a strictly scriptural position on the subject of marriage, that being, as new creations in Christ marriage is a completely natural and God-ordained manifestation of His Glory which provides those called with a wonderful opportunity to display that glory and experience a temporal version of our eternal destiny. Our focus should remain on keeping Christ in the center as our true eventual bridegroom; and, further, avoid even thoughts of divorce which can provide us with only further separation from whom God has joined us with and God himself who has placed us as witnesses to the world of the coming marriage of the Lamb.
To those that have experienced divorce, or have returned to the bondage of sin and sexual immorality from which they were released by Christ’s victory on the cross, confess those sins, repent and turn to Christ as He is faithful to forgive and eager to reconcile you to Himself.
We serve an awesome God, let’s serve Him as new creations which testify to His glory, in marriage or out, as all of Creation did at the beginning before the corruption of sin twisted all that God had made good.