What the Bible Says about
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

John Coblentz

How do people justify divorce today?
Pages 23 - 33

1. People justify divorce today by misinterpreting God's grace.

A very common line of reasoning used nowadays by people trying to justify divorce is that we live in an age of grace. Apparently, to such, this means that God overlooks disobedience more now than He did under the Law. He isn't quite as strict as He used to be, and therefore, even though He may not want people to divorce, He will kindly look the other way.

This surely represents a misunderstanding of grace. The New Testament does teach grace, and grace surely is the basis for our forgiveness. The Apostle Paul writes, "Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Romans 5:20), assuring us that God's grace is greater, broader, deeper than our sin, and we can rest in His forgiveness.

Such assurances, however, are not intended to make us careless or bold to sin, for Paul hastens to ask, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Romans 6:1, 2). God's grace is sufficient to forgive us our sins and to get us out of sin, but it is not intended to give us freedom to continue in sin.

To presume so upon the grace of God today is worse than to presume upon the Law of Moses. "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:28-31).

Is not this passage very clear? Those who presumptuously disregard what Jesus the Son of God says are worse off than those who disregarded what Moses said. Jesus said clearly, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mark 10:9). People who get a divorce are not magnifying the grace of God by their willful disobedience to Jesus' teaching. They are despising that grace. They are, as Jude wrote, "turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness [shameless immorality]" (Jude 4). Grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts (Titus 2:12).

2. People justify divorce today by following popular practice.

So many today are divorcing their partners that it seems increasingly justifiable on the basis of common practice alone. Furthermore, there are church members and ministers in nearly all denominations who are involved in divorce. With so many people, so many professing Christians, and so many among our own acquaintances involved in divorce, there is tremendous pressure to conform to popular thinking about this issue. To follow what Jesus taught means taking a very unpopular position. It means exposure to pressure, misunderstanding, accusation, and ridicule.

The bottom line for what is right or wrong, however, is not what others are doing, but what God has said. God has said clearly that divorce is wrong. Therefore, marriage for life is right no matter if nobody does it, and divorce is wrong no matter if everybody does it.

3. People justify divorce today by reasoning that they are victims.

Most people end up saying, "I didn't want a divorce, but . . . I had no other choice." To be sympathetic and understanding here, we must recognize that marriage problems can be very complex and extremely painful. There are no easy answers to these problems. When marriage problems multiply, divorce often looks like the only way out, like an answer that normally wouldn't be considered but has to be under the circumstances.

Hard as this may sound, such thinking is the reasoning of the flesh. It is the reasoning of the serpent in the garden of Eden. Disobedience to God should not be considered a valid option for resolving man's problems. Saul tried "victim reasoning" when he was caught offering a sacrifice -- a work only the priests were to do. He said, "Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together . . . I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering" (I Samuel 13:11, 12). He tried it again when he disobeyed God's directions concerning Amalek. Samuel replied, "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry" (I Samuel 15:22, 23).

Because God has clearly forbidden divorce as a means of solving marriage problems, we must not consider it as a valid option, no matter who does it. There are other options for those who are willing to look in faith to God. Furthermore, we serve a God who can part the seas, who can calm the storm, who can raise up and cast down, who holds the power of life and death, and who takes the cause of the meek, the poor, and the needy as His very own. "All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee, which deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him? . . . For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul" (Psalm 35:10; 109:31).

Those who divorce because they believe they have no other choice are not acting in faith. Like Saul, they are saying, "I had no choice, God, but to disobey You." Unfortunately, they are shutting their lives off from the blessing and help of heaven and turning instead to the ways and methods of man.

4. People justify divorce by listening to popular, humanistic psychology.

We are taught by humanistic thinking today that personal satisfaction is everyone's right. Everybody deserves the privilege of living as happily and as free from trouble as possible, and everybody deserves the chance to develop his own inherent potential to the full. Where a bad marriage, a miserable partner, or "traditional values" stand in the way of personal happiness and fulfillment, these things are considered evil, and people are led to believe they are justified in removing them. Nobody should have to live with a scoundrel the rest of his life just because of a hasty, immature decision.

We could wish that Christians would not succumb to such thinking. In reality, however, some unwitting persons buy it in full, and others are influenced by it far too much.

Again, as Christians we must be understanding. Some people make horrendous mistakes in choosing a marriage partner. To remain in their marriage for life means they may suffer. Things will never be as they might have been. But those who obey Jesus can walk through their pain and deprivation with One who is intimately acquainted with human sorrows. Jesus can bear the yoke with them. And He can turn their wrecked lives into powerful messages of His grace and goodness.

Such concepts are beyond the realm of the humanistic psychologists. They are understood only by the obedient followers of Jesus. They are for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness more than any earthly pleasure or satisfaction, for those who desire holiness and the knowledge of God more than life itself.

5. People justify divorce today by misinterpreting the "exception clause."

Matthew records Jesus as saying, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (Matthew 5:32). And again, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" (Matthew 19:9).

Both verses have a similar exception -- "saving for the cause of fornication" and "except it be for fornication." This exception has been made the center of much controversy, particularly by people who have tried to find justification for divorce and remarriage. In recognition of the many wars that have been waged on this small plot of Scripture and the marriages which could be preserved if people indeed followed Jesus' words, we will spend some time discussing this exception clause. Even so, we will need to summarize and simplify the mass of artillery and technical weaponry which scholars have unleashed over these few words.

Consider the following points:

  1. The exception refers to the putting away. Note its placement in both verses. The order of the phrases is the same in the Greek as in the English -- the "if not for fornication" (literal rendering) is an adverbial phrase modifying the preceding verb apoluo -- "put away." Does this mean a person may put away an unfaithful marriage partner? We will return to this question after we have noted more about these verses.

  2. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 vary in what they say after the exception.

    -- 5:32 ". . . causeth her to commit adultery." A divorced woman commits adultery if she begins another relationship, but her husband is guilty of causing this sin by putting her away.

    -- 19:9 ". . . and shall marry another committeth adultery." Any new relationship following a putting away is adulterous.

  3. Mark and Luke include no exception. "Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (Mark 10:11, 12). "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery" (Luke 16:18). Notice that in Mark the prohibition against divorce and remarriage is given to the woman as well as to the man.

  4. Paul forbade departing from a marriage partner, forbade remarriage, and encouraged reconciliation if separation did occur. What is significant about this point is that this writing may well have been the earliest New Testament writing on the subject. The date for the earliest Gospels (Matthew and Mark) is commonly set in the middle or late 50s (or early 60s); Paul wrote I Corinthians around 55 A.D. But whether Paul was the first to record Jesus' teaching on marriage or second or third, he obviously knew Jesus' teaching well.

    "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife" (I Corinthians 7:10, 11). In verse 11 he implies that separation may at times occur. Some feel this refers to the exception Jesus gave. In any case, Paul is clear that if there is separation, there is to be no remarriage while one's partner is living, but reconciliation if possible.

  5. Jesus' teaching shows that marriage is indissoluble. The marriage bond cannot be broken by "putting away." This is unmistakable because Jesus referred to any subsequent relationship, either for the one put away or for the one who puts away, as adultery. This was new to the Jews. They understood divorce to completely sever the marriage bond. "And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife" (Deuteronomy 24:2). The "writing of divorcement" stated clearly that the wife was "free at thy own disposal, to marry whomsoever thou pleasest, without hindrance from anyone, from this day for ever." 1   For Jesus to call such remarriage adultery was startling to them. Even the disciples responded, "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matthew 19:10). If there is no backing out of the marriage bond, in other words, maybe it's better never to marry.

  6. Paul records the same understanding that death and death only severs the marriage bond. Any other relationship during this marriage is adultery. "The woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man" (Romans 7:2, 3).

  7. Jesus' teaching shows that man's laws are at times at variance with God's laws. What man does to divide a marriage does not sever the bond in God's sight. What man calls remarriage, in God's eyes is adultery if the true partner is still living.

  8. The early church leaders understood Jesus to teach that remarriage was adultery. Jerome, for example, wrote, "A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband, and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another." 2
The innocent party idea came from Erasmus, a humanist theologian at the time of the Reformation. Luther and Calvin, as well as other Reformation leaders, swallowed Erasmus's ideas kernel and hull. They were perhaps susceptible to the false idea because their Catholic opponents claimed the historic position -- lifetime faithfulness in marriage, no remarriage -- but the handling of marriage affairs by Catholic authorities was rife with abuses.

As we have shown, the exception qualifies Jesus' statement on putting away. It was not understood by the Apostles or the early church leaders to give permission to remarry. Although the Old Testament writing of divorce did include the freedom to remarry, Jesus said that from the beginning it was not so. He restored God's original order, declaring that remarriage while one's partner is still living is adultery.

But now again, does the exception permit divorce for marital unfaithfulness?


  1. W. W. Davies, "Divorce in O.T.," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956). Return

  2. Jerome, Letter LV, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 6, tr. Philip Schaff, p. 110. Return

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