Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Divorce and Remarriage, Part 1: Intro

Divorce, as often noted, is one of the biggest issues in churches[i] today owing to its being so ubiquitous compared to previous generations. Though there’s no consensus about the actual rate of occurrence[ii], one only has to “live in this world” to know that very few are untouched by it and that for many it is commonplace. It also holds no small place in the western church with some areas of the church, by popular account, seeing similar rates of divorce.

So with its frequency, many Christians today come face to face with key questions again and again. Is divorce ever acceptable? Is it okay as long as both people agree? Is acceptable when the marriage is “on the rocks” and no reconciliation seems possible? What if one of the partners sleeps with someone else? Or one abandons the other? Is it a necessary evil in only the gravest of circumstances or is it possible there are situations where it is a relatively good thing to do given a set of possible circumstances? What about abuse? Physical? Emotional? Can they remarry? Are there times when divorce is okay but remarriage isn’t? Is that person in a perpetual state of sin for remarrying?

While some answers to these are straightforward for many Christians, some aren’t and many think the answers are straightforward but conflicting opinions abound. Within any given denomination, there can be a number of different opinions and within biblical scholarship there is certainly no unanimity[iii] with answers across the spectrum from “traditional” to “not-so-traditional” to quite “progressive”. Most within the church (naturally) claim biblical support. Some seek support from the almost unanimous position, so claimed, of the early church fathers – no remarriage if divorce ever happens. Others see little biblical support for this and find the “traditional” answers to have little pastoral sensitivity.

These issues have struck home to me again and again as I was raised in a multi-divorce home and have seen good friends personally impacted by divorce tragedy. And while many Christian biblical scholars of any position tend to show grace to the wounded, the church at large has too often not shown grace and many times been the lemon juice in the wound. My prayer is that there are some who, upon careful reflection of the relevant biblical passages I explore in these upcoming posts, find a place more of graciousness than condemnation and of healing rather than unwarranted guilt.

In the posts that follow I hope to explore the biblical passages relevant for a Christian trying to explore the issues of divorce and remarriage and lay a foundation for how a Christian should properly think through these issues. The starting point is naturally the opening chapters of Genesis as we need to understand what marriage is before considering when, if ever, it is proper to break it and whether someone could ever re-marry within the bounds of God’s Word. Then I’ll look at the divorce and remarriage perspective of the rest of the Pentateuch and consider the perspective of the Law given to Moses. This sets the groundwork for looking at what Jesus has to say in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which will be followed by a detailed look at 1 Corinthians 7 and a short glance at what Paul says in Romans 7 and 1 Timothy/Titus. Only then will we be able to consider an overall biblical framework on divorce and remarriage. For those who might be interested, I’ll share some thoughts on various books regarding this topic by Christian authors. Personal time and writing medium do not permit exploring and interacting with different viewpoints at every intersection, though I’ll have to say some disagreeing remarks at times. Also, it’s almost impossible to write responsibly and intelligently about such things in a blog post and appease every lay-person and critic so I’ll try to shoot middle-of-the-road and place more technical stuff in footnotes on a limited basis.

Before I get started I’ll be up front: the perspective I’ve found to be the most faithful and sensitive to the biblical texts is that there is no comprehensive set of rules for Christian boundaries for divorce and remarriage. Though there are many today who wrongly want to (self-) justify divorce, there are permissible grounds for divorce under extenuating circumstances according to biblical ethics that even extend beyond is “explicit” in Scripture. Moreover, remarriage is a given after any legitimate divorce. This stands quite comfortably alongside the fact that, per the Bible, divorce is to be the “last resort” and that the Christian’s highest calling in this world is “reconciliation” at every level. The sad reality is that in this fallen world many relationships fail for a complex variety of reasons and the deepest, most intimate relationships fail in the highest degree when they do fail. Sometimes it is simply the best (least worse) thing to do to just break the relationship and the pieces that are left should be left to heal without somehow being anchored to the brokenness of the previous relationship. Christians need to live under Christ where grace is always higher than demand.

For the other posts, see here: 

[i] I make claims only for American churches, Christianity, and Christian biblical scholarship.
[ii] See the interesting NY Times article claiming that the 50% divorce rate is based on flawed research.
[iii] While there is a general consensus for American Christian scholars on some basic divorce issues, there is considerable diversity of opinion. This contrasts with the UK where there is still a broad consensus that there is very little if any valid reason for divorce and smaller still valid reason for remarriage.


  1. There are as many types of divorces as there are types of families, and each family creates their own little theater in which the divorce is acted out. For some families, divorce emanates from the adults not being able to get along, solve problems or communicate effectively. In other families, the divorce is the recognition that things are not working for the good of everyone involved.

  2. I definitely wouldn't want to deny those points. Are you saying that the way things are are the way things should be?

  3. Given that 75% of abusive marriages will break up, and that 25% to 33% of women(Christian or otherwise)have experience abuse in a marriage relationship, we shouldn't be surprised that the divorce rate is as high as it is.

    Christian leaders used to quote marriages in other cultures as being superior for their lower divorce rates, but we know that in many of those cultures, domestic abuse is rife and women are not able to leave without exposing themselves to a lot of danger.

    In my mother's family, every one of her siblings are in violent marriages. They don't believe in breaking up their families, so they are all still together. The dysfunctional patterns, unbroken, are passed down to their children and my female cousins are married to abusive, disrespectful men and my male cousins who are married are mostly violent. A couple are not married and don't seem to be able to relate in healthy ways.

    I was always taught that divorce was caused by sin. If by this, one means the sin of one person being perpetrated on another, then getting away from that sin is not a bad thing. How in the world am I supposed to obey Ps 101:3-5 ("I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar. I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them. I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil. I will not tolerate people who slander their neighbors, I will not endure conceit and pride") without divorcing a perpetrator of abuse?

    Granted, some may divorce for trivial reasons, but I certainly have not come across any. Every person whom I know divorced too late because they didn't believe in it, and unfortunately has to pick up the far-reaching damage of exposing their children to a disordered parent.

    1. It is a good point that in this (American) culture and certain others that abuse, both physical and mental/emotional, is notably rampant and practically makes higher divorce rates almost necessary. I know of other cultures where their approach to marriage is much better, placing much higher value on commitment and honor, and abuse is indeed less. But I definitely agree that there are other cultures where lack of divorce is more because of fear of bad repercussions so the women take the abuse.

      I've personally seen many different divorce types, including abuse, abandonment, and "drifting apart". It's certainly rather common in many parts of American culture (not sure where you're writing from) for people to divorce for very trivial reasons and excuses abound. I think it's just part of being so self-centered.

      Thank you for mentioning the point always worth bringing up in discussion about divorce: the sin of abuse can often be so serious that the marriage is effectively no longer a marriage and divorce is the right thing to do. I posted my last post just now, which explores this a little bit. Also, see the excellent blog article on emotional abuse that I linked in note 1.

      My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your family members who are struggling with oppression in marriage.


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