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.
Therefore, the one-flesh principle has no exceptions in scripture. Once two people become one-flesh, Jesus said 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. Whatever else we hold to be true about marriage and divorce, we may not take a position that contradicts the one-flesh principle of marriage that Jesus gave His Church.
Consequently, divorce is a sin in most circumstances because God's word demands life-long faithfulness to a marriage. Though some exceptions exist in scripture, the overarching principle of scripture remains that 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 even pursue a legal separation or divorce), they remain one-flesh in God's eyes, and therefore remarriage by either person would constitute an act of adultery. 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 some possible exceptions. First, scripture teaches that a widow or widower may freely remarry without sin (assuming their new spouse is not a divorcee). This exception is consistent with the one-flesh principle, because the new marriage is formed only after the first one-flesh bond has been broken naturally through death
So widows and widowers are free to remarry.
Secondly, Jesus refers in passing to another exception in Matthew 5:32 & 19:8. Jesus taught that a man or woman may divorce in the case of "immorality" (proneia in Greek). The specific meaning of Jesus' brief exception is often debated and in recent times has given rise to a liberal view in the Church that Jesus was allowing divorce and remarriage in the case of an act of infidelity (e.g., adultery), but this interpretation fails the "one-flesh" test Jesus gave His Church.
To understand Jesus' words properly, we must pay close attention to the Greek word translated as "immorality." Jesus used the Greek word porneia, which refers in general to any immoral act, but especially to acts of immorality commit outside of marriage (i.e., fornication). It's noteworthy that Jesus didn't use the common Greek word for infidelity after marriage (i.e., moichao) which means adultery. We believe Jesus' choice of words here is both significant and deterministic in our application.
Jesus was speaking of a specific kind of infidelity that can only occur prior to the forming of a one-flesh relationship. In Jesus' day, a marriage was formed when a couple was betrothed (or as we would say, engaged). During the betrothal period, a couple was legally married even though they had not yet participated in a wedding ceremony nor consummated the marriage sexually. The engagement period could last a year or longer, and if during this time one of the engaged partners was unfaithful (i.e., engaged in fornication), then the engagement would end in a divorce.
We can see this practice reflected 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 prepared to "send her away." The Greek word for "send away" is apuluo, which is a euphemism for divorce.
So Joseph was applying Jesus' exception. He was choosing to "divorce" Mary for her apparent infidelity during the betrothal period. We know that Joseph and Mary had yet to have sexual relations since the Scriptures testify that Mary was a virgin, so they had not yet established a one-flesh relationship. Therefore, Joseph could divorce Mary without sinning because he was not violating a one-flesh bond. As we know, Joseph didn't divorce Mary once he learned the true nature of her pregnancy.
Therefore, we come to understand that Jesus' exception was not speaking of infidelity after marriage but of infidelity after betrothal. This is why He specifically chose to use the Greek word for immorality prior to marriage (porneia) rather than the Greek word for adultery (moicha). Crucially, this interpretation is consistent with the Bible's one-flesh principle, which says that once a one-flesh relationship is formed, it cannot end except by death.
After a marriage is consummated, however, Jesus' exception no longer applies because a one-flesh relationship now exists. Consequently, we must conclude that this unique scenario is the only circumstance in which Jesus permitted divorce.
Obviously, this exception is largely irrelevant for the modern church, since we lack the concept of betrothal. Today, an engagement is not considered a legal marriage, so a couple can break off an engagement without the need to pursue a divorce. Therefore, this exception generally doesn't apply to the church today.
Regrettably, the church in many places has adopted a more liberal view of this exception by teaching that Jesus was permitting divorce following an act of infidelity during marriage (i.e., adultery), thus freeing both partners to remarry. Despite the popularity of this view in the church today, this interpretation finds no support in scripture. The Bible never states explicitly that adultery (moicheuo) is cause for divorce.
As we explained above, Jesus uses the Greek word porneia in both passages, yet the specific Greek word for adultery is moicheuo. In the New Testament, this Greek word appears 14 times and is always translated in English as “adultery" (in the NASB), while the Greek word porneia appear 26 times in the New Testament, and it is typically translated fornication or immorality.
Notably, the word porneia is never translated as adultery in English, which makes sense since porneia is not the Greek the word commonly used to mean adultery. Though porneia can describe any act of immorality, in practice Greek favors the use of moicheuo when speaking specifically about an act of infidelity following marriage (i.e., adultery). For acts of immorality committed prior to marriage, the Greek language favors porneia.
So it is significant that as Jesus spoke on the topic of marriage in Matthew 5 and 19, He used porneia not moicheuo in both passages. Had Jesus been thinking of infidelity after marriage, why didn’t He use the Greek word for adultery? By choosing to use the Greek word describing immorality prior to marriage, Jesus was clearly speaking of unfaithfulness during a betrothal period – something possible in Jesus day but very uncommon in the way marriage is practiced today.
Therefore, a fair interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and 19 must conclude that Jesus was not speaking of adultery, and therefore His words were not permission to divorce and remarry following adultery. He was speaking of immorality during a betrothal period only. Furthermore, since adultery always takes place after a one-flesh relationship has been established in marriage, adultery cannot be reason to divorce and remarriage, since it violates the one-flesh principle.
Remember, any interpretation of Jesus words on marriage must account both for Jesus' choice of Greek words and His unequivocal statement that two becoming one-flesh may never be separated except by death. Our interpretation is consistent with both the meaning of the Greek words and scripture's unchanging, inviolate one-flesh principle. Simply put, there can be no exceptions to this principle, or else the principle stated in Genesis 2 becomes meaningless.
While the more liberal, modern interpretation of Jesus' words to mean divorce in cases of adultery is popular in the church today, it cannot meet this test. Moreover, it introduces new problems.
For example, if adultery by one partner dissolves the one-flesh marriage bond, then it must (by logical necessity) permit both partners to remarry. Such an interpretation would then lead to rewarding an unfaithful spouse for his or her sinful behavior. He or she would gain the opportunity to remarry by their act of adultery, which is greater mercy than Jesus grants to a faithful spouse who has been abandoned or abused, since that person would still be required to honor the bad marriage.
Clearly, such an interpretation is unjust and therefore incorrect., and it exposes the fatal flaw in the modern, liberal interpretation. Allowing remarriage in cases of adultery not only violates the one-flesh principle of Scripture, it rewards infidelity. Those who wish to escape a bad marriage and seek a new marriage need only commit adultery to secure a divorce. How can we conclude that Jesus intended that one sin (i.e., adultery) would become a legitimate cause to engage in another sin (i.e., divorce and remarriage)?
Such an unjust and illogical conclusion argues strongly against such an interpretation, as Isaiah said:
Finally, the liberal interpretation of divorce in cases of adultery runs counter to the spiritual symbology of marriage given in Scripture.
The Bible teaches that our covenant relationship in marriage is a picture of our covenant relationship with Christ In Ephesians 5 and Romans 7, the Church's covenant relationship with Christ is equated to the relationship between a bride and her groom, and therefore what is true for one relationship must follow for the other. So if we believe Jesus taught that unfaithfulness during marriage invalidates 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 earthly marriage is intended to operation in all ways consistent with our relationship with Christ. Both relationships result in bonds which cannot be broken. If we hold that infidelity after marriage is just cause to end the relationship, then we would be testifying that our relationship with Christ is equally tenuous. We are suggesting that Christ will end His relationship with us should we show infidelity toward 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 a 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.