The Ethics of Divorce and Remarriage


Dennis McCallum

Adapted from Spiritual Love

Any divorce poses a serious challenge to further marital success. Statistically, the divorce rate for marriages in which either or both partners have been divorced before is almost double that for first-time marriages.1 This is a very imposing statistic, because it means the vast majority of second attempts at marriage will fail. Those who have cohabited for some time also experience increased failure in marriage, as we have seen. Their figures are similar to divorcees' figures. In the church it is not uncommon to see cases of successful second marriages, especially when the first marriage was in a non Christian context. However, failures are also common, which should suggest the need for caution.

Most pastors and counselors know all too well the reasons for this high failure rate.

In the first place, people usually learn little or nothing from a failed marriage. Divorcees usually blame their ex-spouses for the problems that led to divorce, with little understanding of the role they played in the failure. But marital problems are virtually never strictly the result of one partner's sin. Underlying the divorcees' blame perspective is the thought that if only they had married someone else, all would have been well. Such thinking is antithetical to our argument all along, which is that the key is not just to find the right person for marriage, but to become the right person for marriage. As long as divorcees remain unable to see where they (not their ex-spouses) went wrong, the chances of a repeat performance are excellent.

Once divorcees gain some understanding of what was wrong with their own way of relating, the first brick is in place. But it's not enough. They still need to make progress in changing those patterns. After articulating what your problems were in the failed marriage, you can work toward resolving those problems in the context of non-marital relationships, provided you have built such relationships. Any hope that merely marrying a different spouse will correct the problem is usually forlorn.

Especially if your divorce involved children, it becomes doubly important to relate to your ex-spouse in an amicable way for the sake of the children, who will benefit from having parents who are cooperative, and to maximize your ability to leave the old marriage behind emotionally.

Another reason for repeated failure is that divorcees tend to repeat their own bad choices of who to marry. Divorcees often choose a new mate externally different than their ex-spouse, but beneath the externals, we can see the same criteria for choice at work.

Finally, in some cases it might not be ethical to re-marry after a divorce unless it is with the estranged spouse. Christians need to determine where they stand with regard to the ethical principles given in the gospels and in 1 Corinthians 7 before moving into another marriage. There are several ways of understanding these passages, including ways that would permit remarriage after most divorce situations.2

These passages are written to normal lay believers, not just Bible experts. Therefore, you should be able to enter into a study of the passages with help from study aids, and reach your own conclusions. You may also need to check with your church leadership on how they understand the passages, especially if you expect them to perform the marriage. Until both partners feel comfortable with the correctness of marriage in their situation based on study of God's Word, they cannot go ahead with confidence.

For another perspective on 1 Cor. 7, see the following teaching notes by Gary DeLashmutt.

There is a bewildering variety of factors pertaining to divorce and remarriage. Christians whose marriages are in trouble often want a proof-text to justify their chosen course of action, or a simple verse which tells them what to do. But it doesn't work that way. Neither this passage nor any other biblical passage gives us a case-by-case catalogue on what to do. Rather, God gives us a framework on this subject, and then expects us to prayerfully apply this framework to our own situations—taking full responsibility for our decisions.God's framework consists of these main truths:

God's provision for sexual union is marriage. Unless we have been gifted with celibacy (or no one will marry us), marriage is God's provision for our sexual expression (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 7:8-9).

God designed marriage to be permanent (Genesis 2:24). He hates divorce because it violates his design (Malachi 2:16). Jesus emphasized this in Matthew 19:4-6.

God recognizes that divorce is sometimes the lesser of two evils. He recognizes that because of hardness of heart (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew19:7,8).

Any position which does not apply all of these truths is not fully biblical. Let's see how Paul applies them in answering the Corinthians' questions...

Christian Married Couples (vs 10-11)

Read vs 10-11. From the following context (vs 12), it is clear Paul is addressing Christian married couples—both husband and wife have personally received Christ.

It is also clear that some of these couples were having serious marital problems! What? Marital problems in Christian marriages? Nothing has changed in this area!! Christians are no more immune to marital problems than non-Christians (DAMAGE; SELFISHNESS)!

In spite of this, Paul is clear (he also refers to Jesus' statement in Matt.19) that Christians should not cut out on the marriage when problems arise (vs 10b-11b).Instead, they should stay put to work on their marriages. Building a successful and satisfying marriage takes commitment and hard work. Here, we are called to stand in direct opposition to our culture which has destroyed the sanctity of marriage, and provides us with convenient excuses to quit when things get tough. Consider these modern myths about divorce:

“Acknowledging the likelihood of divorce will help rather than hurt our marriage.” (PRE-NUPTIAL AGREEMENTS) This attitude is often fatal to marriage. It allows us to enter into marriage lightly, and it justifies impatience when problems emerge. Christians should enter marriage carefully and be fully committed to make it work. "Divorce" should not be in our vocabulary as we get married.

"I married the wrong person; we are incompatible. By getting a divorce, I am simply correcting an earlier problem instead of prolonging it." People are not incompatible by nature. They choose to be incompatible because of selfishness and hard-heartedness against God's conviction. This is why those who divorce with this mentality and remarry usually get divorced again. Instead, we should focus on becoming the right person.

"Getting a divorce is no big deal. I'll get over it soon and there will be no lasting consequences." What a lie! The fact is that divorce always brings great pain to both spouses, and when there are children involved, they will pay a price. It is always preferable to work the marriage out if at all possible.

There is another reason why Christians should stay put and work on their marriages. The same God who calls us to do this provides us with the resources to succeed. With God's Word to inform us, with his Spirit to empower us, and with his people to assist us, we have all we need to eventually transform a nasty marriage into one that is rich and deeply satisfying! Marriage can be excruciating, but as long as both people are committed to following God's ways and depending on his resources, there is no marriage so messed up that God can't heal it.

So don't take the attractive "escape hatch" that leads to further misery—hang in there with the Lord and with your spouse and discover his transforming power!

But Paul knows that even Christians can choose not to trust God's provision. One Christian spouse can choose to harden his/her heart against God's will, and turn a marriage into a living hell (DRUG ABUSE; VIOLENCE; SEXUAL INFIDELITY). So Paul qualifies his insistence that Christians stay put by saying, "but if she does leave."

The language (chorizoo and aphiemi) could mean either separation or divorce. My own view is that Paul is referring to separation.Sometimes, when one spouse is severely hard-hearted, a separation may be needed in order to get the other person's attention. When this is the case, Paul warns the spouse who initiates the separation for this reason to be careful: be intent on reconciliation and don't get involved with someone else.

I don't think Paul is laying down a permanent restriction. If the other spouse refuses to work on the marriage and it ends, Paul seems to indicate that the divorcee is free to remarry (vs. 8-9—"unmarried" is general; vs. 27-28—"released from a wife" is different from single/virgin). However, like all Christians they should marry another Christian (vs 39; 2 Corinthians 6:14).

SUMMARIZE the three truths...

Christians Married To Non-Christians (vs 12-16)

Next, Paul addresses their question about mixed marriages. There are two ways this can happen: one spouse becomes a Christian, or a Christian (wrongly) marries a non-Christian. Read vs 12-14. Although Paul cannot quote Jesus on this situation, he can still apply God's revealed truth (and does so under inspiration).

Paul anticipates that the Corinthians in such marriages would get divorced because they believed such a sexual union would defile the Lord (6:16). Instead, he says such marriages are valid because God gave marriage to all people (Christian or non-Christian), so they should remain married. Furthermore, this union does not defile the Christian; instead it "sanctifies" the non-Christian spouse and children.

Of course, this doesn't mean that they are somehow saved. The Bible consistently insists that we must each individually choose to receive Christ in order to be saved (John 1:12; 3:16).

Rather, he means that they are "set apart" for special spiritual influence through the Christian spouse—influence that may well result in their salvation.When a spouse (or any family member) receives Christ and faithfully walks with him, the non-Christian family members are convicted of their need for Christ in a powerful way. This is why we often see family members come to Christ.

But the Christian must be faithful to Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through him/her. This is implied by "consents." Paul assumes the Christian spouse will be allowing the Lord to change his behavior and attitudes (FORGIVE SPOUSE; REPENT & ASK FORGIVENESS FOR SINS; INITIATE LOVE; MODEL CHRIST'S WAY OF LIFE). He also assumes that the Christian spouse will be firm in his commitment to spiritual growth (means of growth) and sharing Christ with family members instead of compromising these areas to "keep the peace." It is in such a life that the sanctifying influence is strongest, and the non-Christian spouse is often attracted to Christ.

However, Paul recognizes that mixed marriages sometimes don't work out. However faithful the Christian spouse is, the non-Christian spouse has free will and may be adamant in his/her refusal of Christ and even want out of the marriage. This can be quite overt, but it can also be more subtle (refusing to allow the Christian spouse to influence the children or go to fellowship). In such cases, Paul says to let the marriage end.

Don't feel that their salvation is dependent on the continuation of the marriage (vs. 16). By fighting their desire to leave, you may only promote continual and destructive strife because of their hardness of heart—but "God has called us to peace."

Virtually all commentators understand vs. 15b ("the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases") as Paul reminding the Christian spouse that he/she is free to remarry in such cases (see again vs. 8-9; vs. 27-28).


1 "One of the most clear-cut findings from the 1970 divorce data is the high likelihood of divorce for persons who have been married more than once..." Divorces and Divorce Rates, (Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare; Public Health Service, National Center for Health Statistics, 1980). Put differently, the average duration of marriage before divorce is only half as long for the second marriage and one-third as long for third marriages. Duration of Marriage Before Divorce: United States, (Hyattsville, MD.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service, Office of Health Research, Statistics, and Technology, National Center for Health Statistics, 1981) p.12ff.

2 From a lenient point of view, see James M. Efird, Marriage and Divorce: What the Bible Says, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985). For a more technical survey of various views and of exegetical and linguistic issues see Donald W. Shaner, A Christian View of Divorce According to the New Testament, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969). For a mixed view, see John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: I Corinthians, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984) pp.153-186.