This is part 8 of 8 in a series on what the bible says concerning divorce and remarriage. For the other posts see here:
We’ve gone down a rather long road of examining the significant biblical passages concerning how a Christian should think about divorce and remarriage. Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 tell us that the fundamental design of humanity is to enact God’s rule and authority through a unified community. The building block of human community is the marital relationship between husband and wife, who are to be completely unified – “one flesh” – in every aspect of life. The relationship is hardly mystical but rather to be nurtured, developed, and protected. Exodus 21:10-11 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4 are provisions within the Law of Moses concerning divorce that are regulatory for marital relationships and assume the possibility of relational breakdown. Thus the Law is good (Rom. 7:12) but doesn’t redeem humanity. In the gospels we find that Jesus comes to demand a righteousness higher than the Law, to which the Law pointed (Matthew 5). In stark contrast to the Jewish leaders who operated from the framework of what the Law permitted, Jesus demanded perfection, harkening back to the perfect creation order of the beginning. At the same time, demand is not case law and Jesus did not address the “what-ifs” of everyday life in this broken world. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul applies Jesus’ demands to a church whose clamoring for personal status within the church affected their marital relationships and draws inferences to address specific concerns. In Romans Paul uses general principles of marriage to demonstrate God’s immeasurable grace in Christ Jesus and in 1 Timothy and Titus he insists upon a measure of faithfulness among leaders in the church.
What we have found is that in the post death-and-resurrection-of-Jesus era in which Christians live, we live by a standard to which the Law provides a guide (Rom. 15:4) but is not the final arbiter in every circumstance. Rather, the Holy Spirit is our ultimate guide, showing us how to act within the fallen structures of this world while living out Jesus’ extreme demands. We are to strive to gain knowledge and wisdom to seek and discern God’s will in every situation (Rom. 12:2, Phil. 1: 9-11, Col. 1:9-11).
So, in the practical world, is it acceptable to divorce your spouse if he/she has cheated on you? Perhaps. Just because it’s “allowed” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable solution in every instance. We often read it as if it’s merely our choice rather than being required. That’s precisely the type of thinking Jesus condemns. What if it’s an only instance and the spouse genuinely repents and seeks forgiveness and restoration? There may be a circumstance where automatic divorce is not the right thing to do even if “allowed” by Scripture. Despite the pain, suffering, and distrust caused, there may exist a future complete reconciliation that would make the marriage that much stronger and healthier, creating a higher good than what could have been thought possible - God can do that. That may only be the very rare occasion though. An ounce of discernment given a certain set of circumstances may determine that divorce is simply the best alternative. In all cases, prayer is necessary.
What about abandonment? In most cases the obvious thing to do is to formally divorce, especially to avoid legal repercussions that are exigent today that weren’t in Jesus’ day. But maybe not, given a certain set of circumstances. In all cases, prayer is necessary.
What about neglect or abuse? What about physical abuse versus mental or emotional abuse? I think a guiding principle in all considerations of divorce is to what degree the marital relationship or covenant has been severed by a spouse’s action. Where there should exist some degree of love, instead becomes an outlet of hatred and anger[i]. Often destructive tendencies need to be halted by divorce, which indeed may be the loving thing to do to prevent a spouse’s abusive tendencies from destroying him or herself or the spouse being abused. Sometimes it’s best to consider how abusive behavior affects or distorts the children’s understanding of what is acceptable behavior and what sort of repercussions may be had in each child’s life by having abusive role models. There may be many other considerations. As always, prayer is necessary.
And remarriage after divorce? My exploration of all the relevant biblical passages shows that there is little warrant, generally speaking, for restrictions on remarriage after a justified divorce has taken place (in fact 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 & 15 positively indicate otherwise). This is not withstanding practical cautionary considerations and the realization that God enables anyone whom he wills to be single. Again, sensitivity and discernment (and prayer) are required for the individual circumstances. But sadly many today feel that while divorce may be acceptable at times, remarriage crosses an unforgivable line. This oftentimes results in unnecessary hurt and negligence of those who have been unfairly wronged by divorce in their past or rightly escaped abuse by divorce and are seeking, or simply find themselves in a new relationship – one in which they can be loved and edified, enabling them to function as God intended for them.
[i] An excellent analysis of mental and emotional abuse can be found here: http://eaandfaith.blogspot.com/2005/02/silent-killer-of-christian-marriages.html.
[ii] As mentioned in the first post, I speak only for American churches and culture.