An outline of the bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage

Divorce and remarriage


One of the struggles many of us have on considering Christ or becoming a Christian, is that some of his teachings can be particularly hard to take. As we progress in the Christian life and become more and more convinced of the wisdom and goodness of Jesus, we start to see that these struggles result not from any fault in him, but from a lack of appreciation for the reasons behind his teachings, or particular cultural expectations that we have because of the time we live in. And this is very much the case when it comes to divorce and remarriage.


We don’t have space for a detailed discussion of this subject, which has been hugely debated by Christian thinkers over the years. Nor can we portray things with the compassionate feel and sensitivity that we would in conversation. Indeed, it is one thing to outline the Bible’s teaching as below, but another to apply it. Every situation needs to be considered in its own right, so if these things affect you, do please get on touch to talk.


The big picture

Scripture begins with the most wonderful picture of what marriage is in the mutual delight of Adam and Eve. It is the combining of one man and one woman as one flesh, in exclusive, faithful, lifelong companionship (Gen 2v24). So, at its heart are two things: First, a covenant commitment before God to hold fast to one another come what may (Mal 2v14). Second, a spiritual bond bound to sex in which the couple are like one person (Eph 5v28-31).


The rest of the Bible enables us to see that in this marriage has two particular purposes: First, to image God by displaying his exclusive, faithful and never-giving-up love for his people. So, the Bible ends with a picture of marriage between Christ and his church, and this is to be the model for the husband and wife (Eph 5v24-25). Second, to serve God by having and raising children who would be godly, in knowing and honouring him (Mal 2v15).


What this means, is that in God’s laws given to Israel through Moses, divorce is never approved of. However, it is accepted as an inevitable reality in a sinful world, in which people would divorce their spouses for seemingly inconsequential reasons (Deut 24v1). The focus of legislation was therefore on protecting the wife as she would have been very vulnerable in the ancient world (Ex 21v7-11). This reminds us of the need of the church to be caring for those who are hurt by divorce, rather than coming to the subject with a judgmental spirit. It also implies that a society’s marriage laws should not be so strict as to lock the vulnerable into abusive relationships.


Here then, we see two things from the start:

1.     Maintaining one’s marriage when it is hard is supremely important first, to ensure stability for the flourishing of any children or grandchildren, and of each other, second, to display God’s own gracious and forgiving love to them and to any others who look on.

2.     Dissolving one’s marriage when it is hard is especially serious first, because it is to undo a commitment made before almighty God, abandoning a relationship he has brought together, second, because it is to tear apart a bond of oneness causing inevitable emotional and psychological trauma for ones spouse and any children.


We should add that every marriage takes place in community. So, where it is persevered with, those looking on in the church and world are encouraged to persevere with theirs. And when it is left, others are tempted to leave theirs. God’s concern that the commitments of marriage are kept are therefore broader than their benefit to the couple and their children.


The teaching of Jesus: Remarriage is permissible when a spouse has committed adultery, or after divorce they enter into another sexual relationship.


Jesus, however, goes a step beyond this by clarifying the true realty of divorce and remarriage. He is asked for an opinion on a debate between two Rabbis in his day with respect to the Old Testament law: Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt 19v3). Jesus responds as follows:


“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matt 19v4-9)


Here, Jesus says a number of things which support what we’ve already learned:

1.     He affirms the words of Genesis 2 as God’s words and so giving the definitive truth about marriage.

2.     He affirms the oneness and inseparability of the couple because of their commitment and bond before God.

3.     He affirms that the law of Moses allowed divorce because peoples hearts were hard towards obeying God, but didn’t actually approve of it.


Adultery and marriage.

Most controversial, however, is his conclusion in verse 9. It states that to remarry after divorce is effectively to commit adultery. Of course, we must wonder why. And it is because of the nature of marriage. We’ve seen it is the exclusive, faithful, lifelong oneness between a man and a woman, sealed with a covenant commitment and spiritual bond. And because, as Jesus says, “man” cannot separate this, that oneness remains even after divorce. So, if one party then remarries, they are committing adultery.


Now, we need to note that Jesus isn’t saying couples in our day know they are doing that. But he is saying that this is what remarriage logically means because of the nature of marriage.


Of course, Jesus does add one exemption: sexual immorality. Some have argued that in Jesus’ culture where sex before marriage was unthinkable, sex with another during betrothal was in mind. And that would certainly be included. But the word refers to all sexual immorality forbidden in old testament passages like Leviticus 18. So, the wider idea of adultery is also present.


The reason this makes divorce and remarriage permissible is that the one stipulation of the covenant of marriage is to “hold fast” to the other in exclusive, lifelong, faithfulness. So, when this is not done, the marriage covenant can be legitimately dissolved, freeing the innocent party up to remarry. And in the case of sexual immorality, a remarriage would not be adulterous as the guilty party would have already broken the spiritual bond by bonding themselves sexually with another.[1]


We should note that this seems to imply that if someone divorced for another reason, but their previous spouse then entered into a sexual relationship with someone else, that would effectively break the original bond too, making remarriage permissible in that instance as well.


Given all this, we might ask why Jesus doesn’t mention the exception in Mark 10v11-12 and Luke 16v18, giving the impression that remarriage is never permissible. Most likely, this is because all agreed divorce and remarriage was permissible in the case of “sexual immorality,” and so Jesus didn’t always see the need to mention it. The debate in his day was about whether it was permissible “for any cause,” and on this, his words were clear: Remarrying after divorce for any reason is not permissible, because the previous marriage remains. Nevertheless, in stating that Moses allowed it because of people’s “hardness of heart” Jesus does imply that within a secular society like our own, broader grounds for remarriage might be allowed. His point is rather that Christians, as the people of God’s Kingdom, should live to a higher standard in this as in everything.



Development by Paul: Remarriage is permissible when a spouse has deserted the marriage, or so endangered their partner that they cannot remain.


Of course, this is incredibly hard to consider for those stuck in difficult marriages. And here, the apostle Paul gives more help in 1 Corinthians 7, when writing to a church. For the sake of space, we will list the relevant points, but encourage you to read the whole chapter:


An important thread through it all, is that singleness is preferable as the Christian can focus on pleasing Christ rather than being caught up with all the anxieties that go with marriage (v32-35). This is not easy to accept. But it is important to realise if divorced. We must reject our culture’s assumption that singleness is somehow to be unfulfilled, and so our greatest concern if our marriage breaks down should be whether we can remarry.


To the “unmarried” Paul, however, does say that if they can’t exercise sexual self-control, they should marry (v8-9). It is quite possible, this category includes those who have been divorced for whatever reason and then become Christians, as he distinguishes them in the wider passage from widows, Christians who separate from their spouses, and the betrothed or young virgins. If so, he may be saying that divorce for whatever reason before becoming a Christian, makes marriage when a Christian possible (as long as it is to another Christian, as verse 39). However, we should not assume that is because Jesus’ teaching above doesn’t apply. It may simply be that it is presumed their previous partner has since entered another sexual relationship, making this possible.


To Christians who are “married,” Paul is clear. They should not separate from their spouses. But if things are so bad that it is the only way forward, they should remain unmarried or be reconciled to them at some future point (v10-11). This is entirely consistent with what Jesus has taught. The marriage bond remains, so marrying another cannot be an option. Rather, because of their marriage vow, the Christian will display God’s own faithful and gracious commitment to us in our sin, by their readiness to bear with their spouse and seek healing for the marriage if they can. This can be an incredibly powerful testimony to any children.


To those married to non-Christians, however, Paul has another word. The Christian spouse should stay with them. But if the non-Christian partner wants to separate, the Christian should let them go (v12-16). Now, we should note that Paul is not saying if your spouse walks out you can happily divorce them. His wider teaching implies the Christian would want to see if reconciliation can be found. No, Paul’s point is that if they want to divorce you, your commitment to the marriage for Christ’s sake shouldn’t mean you must endlessly fight for it, because “God has called you to peace” (v15).


In short, like Jesus, Paul is teaching that the Christian should never abandon their marriage, whilst recognizing that because of their spouse, sometimes separation or divorce may be inevitable.


Of course, if during a period of separation with a difficult Christian spouse or with a non-Christian who wants to go, that individual enters another sexual relationship, then the marriage covenant is broken, and remarriage for the Christian would be an option. However, even in cases of adultery reconciliation can be sought. And if it doesn’t occur, Paul commends singleness as preferable to remarriage. There is certainly wisdom in this for children, as remarriage often complicates their relationship with their parents causing much strife and hurt.


Desertion and marriage.

Just as we consider the exemption clause with Jesus, here we have another clause to chew on. When the unbelieving spouse leaves we are told the believing spouse “is not enslaved” (v15).


Some think this simply means they are no longer bound to seek reconciliation.[2] If that were the case, if the Christian is deserted, they should still regard themselves as married to their spouse and so unable to remarry, unless of course, their partner dies or enters another sexual relationship. One practical consequence of this is that it keeps the Christian from any hasty action when there is separation, still allowing for the possibility of reconciliation.


However, Paul is more likely teaching that the deserted partner is actually free to remarry. Structurally, he is saying 1/ v8-11 where there is separation/divorce in a Christian marriage – they should remain unmarried and seek reconciliation. 2/ v12-16 where there is separation/divorce in a mixed marriage – the Christians is “not enslaved.” The parallel here imply “not enslaved” contrasts having to remain unmarried as well as having to seek reconciliation. So, yes, they are no longer enslaved to the individual and can let them go, but they are also free to remarry. Indeed, it is hard to see how one can be said to be no longer enslaved if they are still limited by their previous marriage.


This is also supported by another aspect of structure. Either side of the principle to remain in whatever condition you are in when becoming a Christian, we read 1/ v12-16 the command not to separate/divorce one’s unbelieving partner – with the caveat that if they go you are “not enslaved.” 2/ v20-24 the encouragement not to be concerned if a slave – with the caveat that if you can you should gain your “freedom.” This parallel makes sense of Paul’s language of slavery with respect to the marriage, and underlines the sense of true liberty if deserted. Indeed, ideas of freedom raised with respect to slavery are assumed later in the passage to mean “free” to marry (v22, 27, 39).


On scholar quotes the Jewish legal passage on divorce - Mishnah Gittin 9:3: "Lo, thou art free to marry any man." He adds: "The ancient Jewish marriage contracts we have found agree: in the context of divorce, 'free' meant precisely that the woman was free to remarry, and meant nothing else than this. If Paul meant that remarriage was not permitted, he said precisely the opposite of what he meant. No first-century reader would have derived the meaning that some modern scholars have read into Paul's words..."[3]


Obviously one should be cautious about basing an argument on extra-biblical knowledge that is unavailable outside the realms of modern academic research. Nevertheless, this simply supports what we have seen in Paul himself.


The reason Jesus didn’t mention this exemption may well have been that the Pharisees he engaged on this matter were not themselves faced with desertion by an unbelieving spouse. And we would have to conclude that what makes it an acceptable grounds for remarriage is the same one as adultery: it breaks the covenant by failing to “hold fast” to the other in exclusive, lifelong, faithfulness.


We should add here, that many would disagree with this conclusion. However, even if desertion does not allow the dissolution of the marriage, the partner leaving would almost always enter another sexual relationship soon after, so permitting it anyway.


A final word has to be said about abuse. Given the above, we can see that separation is a possibility – and would have to be a necessity if the believer or their children were in danger. And so the abuser would have effectively deserted the marriage by forcing their partner to leave. This would mean that the innocent party would no longer have to feel that they had to seek reconciliation, and on our understanding, be free to remarry. Moreover, if the abuser (or any who abandon their partner) claimed to be a Christian, at some point it would need to be concluded that they had shown themselves not to be by their lack of repentance, putting them in this same category as an unbeliever who deserts the marriage.





1.     The Christian should never abandon their marriage but always seek to keep their vows by remaining faithful and persevering with difficulty, so displaying a truly God-like love. If things are especially hard, separation is a possibility, but reconciliation should be sought wherever possible. If both in a difficult marriage are Christians who do not fit the circumstances below, then divorce and remarriage isn’t an option as their marriage bond remains. Recognizing this, the church should seek to give special support to such people.

2.     If a Christian’s spouse commits adultery, they have broken the marriage covenant, and the Christian may divorce them and remarry to another believer. However, even here they should consider seeking reconciliation instead, and if that isn’t possible, consider remaining single to maximise their devotion to Christ.

3.     If a Christian’s unbelieving partner seeks separation and divorce for whatever reason and despite the Christian’s attempts to seek a way forward in the marriage, the Christian should let them go. Again, the Christian should then consider remaining single, but are free to remarry if they want to, as long as that person is a believer as well.

4.     In consultation with church leaders, it may be decided that an abusive relationship is effectively one in which desertion has taken place by forcing the innocent party to separate for their own safety or that of the children. In which case divorce and singleness or remarriage would be a possibility.

5.     If a Christian wants to leave or is forcing separation through abuse, and they fail to repent, the church leadership may deem that they are not truly a believer, in which case divorce and singleness or remarriage would be possible for their spouse.

6.     If someone becomes a Christian after being divorced, much wisdom is needed from church leaders regarding the specific circumstances. Reconciliation could be sought, especially if the non-Christian partner has not entered another sexual relationship. But if they have entered another relationship or do not want reconciliation, remarriage is permissible for the Christian – but again, only if they marry a Christian, and after a consideration of the benefits of singleness.


In short, there are two grounds in which divorce and remarriage are permitted because the covenant commitment to “holding fast” in exclusive, lifelong faithfulness has been broken:


1.     Adultery – which includes sex with another during engagement.

2.     Desertion – which includes abuse that forces the innocent party to leave for their safety.


The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches just this:


Adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.” (Chapter 26 VI)

[1] This is supported 1/ by Jeremiah 3v8-9 where God is metaphorically said to divorce Israel for her spiritual adultery with foreign gods, 2/ by Malachi 2v14 where those who break their marriage covenant are said to be “faithless,” 3/ by 1 Corinthians 6v16 which describes sex with a prostitute as becoming one flesh and so one body with her.

[2] The immediate concern is with being at peace and letting the partner go rather than hanging on in the hope they might come to faith. So, it could just mean that they are free from any slave-like experience they may have had to suffer until then. And in v17-24 that idea is present in slaves gaining their freedom. This fits the whole tenor of the passage and Jesus’ teaching, which stresses that the Christians should seek to keep their vows and not initiate divorce.

[3] Keener, Craig S. ...And marries another: Divorce and remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament, (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1991), p.61