Can a believer divorce and enter into a new marriage?
Let's begin by establishing a few basic truths from scripture.
Jesus states in all three synoptic Gospels (e.g., Matt 19, Mark 10 & Luke 16) that once a man and woman marry, they have become "one flesh" and that "no man" can separate this bond. Should the couple divorce and then either remarry or have sexual relations with another, they commit adultery because they violate that one-flesh relationship. Furthermore, anyone who marries a divorcee is likewise committing adultery by violating the existing one-flesh relationship.
In Matthew Jesus says:
Understanding the "one-flesh" principle Jesus teaches in this passage is critical to gaining a proper interpretation of the Bible's teaching on marriage and divorce. The one-flesh principle originates in the Creation account of Man and Woman, where the two were literally made from the same flesh (see Gen 2). Jesus quotes from Genesis 2 in Matthew 19:5 stating that every marriage results in an equally inseparable union. A married couple has become one flesh in God's sight.
And Jesus says that the one-flesh principle has no exceptions in scripture. Once two people become one-flesh, Jesus says unequivocally that "no man" can separate them. Jesus statement in Matthew 19 has the same force as His words in John 10 when speaking of our salvation:
Just as there are no exceptions to the "no one" of John 10:28, there can be no exceptions to the "no man" of Matthew 19:6. Therefore, whatever one believes concerning marriage and divorce, Jesus' words in Matthew 19:6 preclude us from adopting the view that the one-flesh relationship of marriage can be ended.
For that reason, Jesus also says that divorce is a sin, because God's word demands life-long faithfulness to a marriage. The overarching principle of scripture is clear: when two people enter into the covenant of marriage, they are establishing a lifelong, unbreakable bond.
Even if a married couple should choose to live apart or pursue a legal separation or divorce, nevertheless they remain one-flesh in God's eyes, and therefore remarriage by either person constitutes an act of adultery, as Jesus declares in Matthew 19:9. For more information on the relationship between marriage and the one-flesh bond, please read this article.
Having established the principle of one-flesh, let's consider the implications and associated Scripture. First, Paul teaches in Romans that death ends a covenant, and therefore the death of a spouse ends the one-flesh relationships. Consequently, a widow or widower may freely remarry without sin (assuming their new spouse is not a divorcee). This situation is consistent with the one-flesh principle, because the new marriage is formed only after the first marriage bond has ended naturally through death:
Secondly, Jesus refers in passing to an exception in Matthew 5:32 and in Matthew 19:8. Jesus says that a man or woman who remarries after a divorce in the case of "immorality" (porneia in Greek) is not committing adultery on the first spouse. The specific application of Jesus' brief exception is often debated and is often viewed as allowing remarriage in any situation in which a spouse has engaged been unfaithful or engaged in immoral behavior. This liberal view in the Church is inappropriate broad, ignores the biblical context and is contrary to the "one-flesh" test Jesus gave His Church.
Obviously, we know Jesus wasn't contradicting Himself when He made an exception to the one-flesh rule having already stated that "no man" can break it. To understand Jesus' exception properly, we must seek for an interpretation that doesn't violate one-flesh, and we find such our answer by paying close attention to the Greek word translated as "immorality" and by an understanding the Jewish marriage practices of Jesus' day.
First, Jesus used the Greek word porneia, which refers in general to any immoral act, but especially to acts of immorality committed before of marriage (i.e., fornication). It's noteworthy that Jesus didn't use the more common Greek word for infidelity in marriage (i.e., moichao), which translates as adultery. We believe Jesus' choice of words here is both significant and deterministic in the proper interpretation.
By choosing to use the word porneia rather than moichao, Jesus was referring to a specific kind of marital infidelity unique to ancient Jewish wedding practices which may occur prior to the formation of a one-flesh relationship. In Jesus' day, marriages formed through two stages, which were spearated over a long period of time. First, a couple entered into a period of betrothal. During the betrothal period, a couple was considered legally married. Promises are made and a price is paid by the groom's family for the bride. Though the couple has not yet conducted a formal wedding ceremony nor have they consummated the marriage, nonetheless the betrothal binds the couple in a covenant of marriage.
The betrothal period could last a year or longer, and if during this time one of the partners was unfaithful (i.e., engaged in immorality), then the engagement could be terminated by divorce. Jesus permitted divorce in this one, unique situation because the couple had not yet formed a one-flesh relationship through consummation of the marriage. A divorce under these limited circumstances would not violate the one-flesh relationship of Scripture.
We find confirmation of this interpretation in the story of Mary and Joseph. Matthew tells us that after Joseph was betrothed to Mary, he learned she was pregnant. Naturally, Joseph assumed Mary had been unfaithful to him (i.e., that she had engaged in porneia, to use Jesus' word), so he was preparing to "send her away." The Greek word for "send away" in Matthew 1:19 is apuluo, which is a euphemism for divorce.
Joseph was following Jesus' exception, choosing to "divorce" Mary for her apparent infidelity during the betrothal period. The Bible says Joseph and Mary had not yet engaged in sexual relations (Matthew 1:25), so they had not established a one-flesh relationship. Therefore, Joseph could divorce Mary without sinning because he was not breaking a one-flesh bond. Of course, Joseph didn't divorce Mary once he learned the true nature of her pregnancy.
Therefore, Jesus' exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:8 was not speaking of infidelity after marriage but of infidelity after betrothal. Jesus specifically chose to use the Greek word for immorality prior to marriage (porneia) rather than the Greek word for adultery (moicha) to indicate the specific nature of this exception. Crucially, this interpretation does not arrive at a violation of the one-flesh principle, which Jesus says "no man" may break. More liberal interpretations of Jesus' exception do not pass this test.
Consequently, we must conclude that this unique scenario is the only circumstance in which divorce may take place, which means this exception is largely irrelevant for the modern church, since modern marriage lacks a betrothal period (and engagement is not the equivalent because engagement does not necessitate a divorce decree). Regrettably, the church in many places has adopted a liberal view of this exception that creates a contradiction with Jesus' one-flesh teaching. By teaching that Jesus permitted divorce for any act of infidelity in marriage (e.g., adultery), we encourage believers to sin.
Liberal interpretations permitting divorce and remarriage in the church simply may be more popular in the church today (not surprisingly), but they also give believers license to sin and create new problems.
For example, allowing remarriage in cases of adultery rewards infidelity. Taking the liberal interpretation to its logical end, those wishing to escape a bad marriage or seeking a new marriage need only commit adultery to secure a biblically-permissible divorce (or so this interpretation would teach). Obviously, this is ridiculous. How can we say that an act of adultery makes divorce permissible? How can one sin make another sin permissible?
As Isaiah said:
Secondly, a liberal interpretation allowing divorce in cases of adultery runs counter to the spiritual symbology of marriage found in Scripture. The Bible teaches in Ephesians 5 and Romans 7 that our covenant relationship in marriage is a picture of our covenant relationship with Christ. The Church's covenant relationship with Christ pictures the relationship between a bride and her groom, and therefore what is generally true in one relationship should follow for the other. So if we hold that unfaithfulness during marriage dissovles a marriage covenant, then we must also conclude that spiritual unfaithfulness to Christ dissolves our covenant with Him.
Thankfully, Scripture says this is not true. Our union with Christ endures even if we are unfaithful to Him, as Paul says:
Therefore, we must conclude that Christ intended earthly marriage to operate in ways consistent with our covenant with Christ. Both relationships result in bonds which cannot be broken. If we hold that infidelity is just cause to end a marriage relationship, then we are teaching that a relationship with Christ is equally tenuous and that Christ may end His relationship with us in the event we are faithless to Him. Praise the Lord that this is not true, for if it were so, who could be secure in Christ?
Beyond the exception Jesus gave, some see other reasons for divorce and remarriage in Scripture, but do these possible exceptions pass the test of the one-flesh principle?
For example, some maintain that Paul taught an exception in 1Corinthians 7 when he says the Lord releases a believer from working to preserve a marriage with an unbeliever should the unbelieving spouse abandoned the relationship (1Cor 7:15).
Paul says the believer is not obligated to pursue the unbeliever but instead can be "at peace" with the separation. While Paul is clearly compassionate toward the abandoned believer, his statement in 1Cor 7:15 is not permission to remarry.
To be "at peace" and not "under bondage" doesn't mean (nor even implies) that the abandoned spouse has permission to remarry. Given the overall context of 1Corinthian 7, the proper interpretation of Paul's words would be that a believer may be at peace with the situation of living a single life and is not under bondage to preserve the marriage relationship. Nevertheless, this has no bearing on the one-flesh relationship, therefore remarriage is not possible. This interpretation is also consistent with Paul's earlier statement in the same letter to remain as we are (1Cor 7:17).
In summary, Scripture consistently teaches that married couples should remain forever committed to their marriages, and divorce is not acceptable to God. The Bible only permits remarriage in circumstances where a spouse has died or when infidelity occurs before the consummation of the marriage.
If a couple has divorced, then scripture commands they both to remain faithful to their one-flesh bond (i.e., no remarriage or fornication). They either may reconcile (provide neither has remarried), or else they must live a life of singleness. If one partner remarries (or engages in sex outside the marriage), that person commits adultery, but even so the remaining partner must remain faithful to the one-flesh relationship or else they commit adultery as well.
Having stated the Biblical truth clearly, we must also acknowledge that the application of this truth can be difficult in practice. Many tough questions arise and personal circumstances may leave us wondering how best to apply what God says in His word.
Some Christians have suggested that the condition of a person's relationship with Christ (i.e., believer vs. unbeliever) has bearing on how we apply these standards. For example, if an unbeliever divorces but then becomes a believer later, is that person now eligible to remarry, since the Christian has become a "new creature" in Christ (i.e., 2Cor 5:17).
This is not a valid interpretation, since Paul's teaching in 2Cor 5 was that believers enjoy a new spiritual life in Christ. He was not teaching that all the earthly obligations we have made in life "reset" when we come to Christ. A slave who comes to Christ is still a slave (see the letter of Philemon). A debtor who comes to Christ is still required to repay his debts. Likewise, a divorcee who comes to faith in Christ is still required to honor that one-flesh relationship. Remember, the one-flesh relationship of marriage was established in the Garden of Eden, so it applies to all humanity, both believer and unbeliever.
Others teach that if an unbeliever divorces and remarries but later becomes a believer, the believer's new-found faith in Christ obligates them to leave the second marriage and seek reconciliation with the first spouse. The Bible specifically prohibits such a reconciliation.
Still, other Christians question what constitutes a Biblical marriage? For example, is the person who engages in premarital sex with multiple partners prior to marriage (or even chooses to move in with a partner for a period of time) still eligible to marry, or did those earlier sexual encounters constitute earlier marriages (i.e., one-flesh relationships) in God's eyes? Our reading of scripture tells us these relationships do not constitute marriage since they were not accompanied by marriage vows. Such sexual encounters are simply acts of fornication, not marriage.
What about the wife who is physically abused by her husband? Must she stay in that abusive relationship? God's word doesn't require a wife to submit to physical abuse, so under such circumstances physical separation is appropriate. In extreme cases, legal separation may be warranted, but in all cases divorce and remarriage are prohibited.
Is a common-law marriage a valid marriage in God's eyes? If the relationship begins with a public commitment of faithfulness and a consummation of the relationship, the answer is yes. If no vows have been exchanged, then the relationship is merely fornication, which is sin prior to marriage.
But not all our questions will have easy answers. What do we tell the wife whose husband is declared missing in action during war and presumed dead? How long must she wait before she remarries? What if she concludes her husband must have died and so she remarries but then her missing husband unexpectedly returns home? Has she committed adultery?
We could imagine an infinite number of unlikely, hypothetical situations, and therefore it's impossible to address every situation perfectly. Nonetheless, we believe God has provided enough direction and clarity in His word to guide the Church into righteousness concerning conduct in marriage. Moreover, the Spirit will guide us individually in how we respond to our own circumstances. Nevertheless, we must not let our lustful and selfish desires cause us to set aside the truth of Scripture so we may do what is right in our own eyes.
Generally speaking, the safest counsel to any couple contemplating divorce or remarriage is that in all cases divorce and remarriage is sin. When a divorce or separation takes place, the separated partners must continue to honor their one-flesh bond. Therefore, they should continue seeking reconciliation, even if reconciliation seems impossible, impractical or undesired.
Finally, we should also emphasize that divorce and remarriage are not "unforgivable" sins. If a Christian divorces and remarries, the believer commits adultery, but by God's grace he or she is forgiven and that sin is washed clean by the blood of Christ. While this truth may not become license to sin, it does remind us that we (the Church) may not stand in judgment over our brothers and sisters who divorce or remarry, especially since the sin of divorce and remarriage is no greater than our own sins (e.g., Matt 5:28). Therefore, we should show our fellow brothers and sisters grace and mercy and love, recognizing that the Lord paid the price for all sin.
As with all things, we encourage you to pray and wait for the Holy Spirit to answer your specific concerns. We are confident that if you seek Him earnestly, He will be faithful to lay on your heart the correct course of action. Have the confidence and faith to obey the Holy Spirit in the knowledge that He desires to lead you in righteousness.