Help in Finding the Correct Bible Interpretation
A Serious Look at a Serious Issue
Although divorce and remarriage is such a contentious issue
that it divides Christians, my goal is to serve you
with a webpage that all Christians agree with.
I passionately long to comfort you and yet I dare not downplay the fearful gravity of this matter. Jesus (and the apostle Paul – Romans 7:3) kept equating wrong divorce with the sin of adultery. Let’s not allow worldly immorality to desensitize us to what a grave offense this is. Under the Old Testament – still in force when Jesus uttered the words – adultery incurred the death penalty. No wonder Jesus’ teaching on divorce sent such a chill down the disciples’ spines that in horror they responded that it is better never to marry (Matthew 19:10)! And let’s not suppose we can get away with this under the New Covenant:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral . . . nor adulterers . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.
That does not render the sin unforgivable, but just as a fireman cannot save a person who refuses to leave a burning building, so Jesus cannot save people who refuse to leave their sin. We cannot save ourselves but we must be willing to let Jesus drag us from the sin we love, or we will die in our sin.
I agonize over the possibility that most Christians who sincerely believe they know the morality of divorce and remarriage are completely unaware that their understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject is dangerously shallow. Although we tend to drastically oversimplify the biblical and moral dilemmas of divorce and remarriage, it does not necessarily mean we have reached the wrong conclusion. It drastically increases the chance of such a mistake, however; thus exposing us to the grave danger of sinning against God or of being responsible before God for directly or indirectly influencing others to sin.
“You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” writes Paul (Romans 2:22), implying that one can commit the sin and be quite unaware of it.
Your church and favorite Bible teachers might be excellent and have far deeper understanding than me, but does that make them infallible? I doubt if anyone on the planet has a one hundred percent correct interpretation of every aspect of the entire Bible. How then can you be certain that that fraction of a percent where your church or Bible teacher is incorrect does not include teaching about divorce?
So why should I be any less fallible? I’m not. So I will not presume to tell you the correct view. What I hope to do, however, is provide a checklist of things that should be prayerfully considered before concluding you have God’s mind on the critical issue of divorce and/or remarriage. You will discover that some points seem pro-divorce and some seem anti-divorce. That’s because I’m not pushing my own views, but seeking to assist you to personally discover God’s will for your situation.
Pondering seemingly conflicting points will initially seem confusing but it’s a vital stage in the journey to truth. In addition to the obvious, it eradicates false confidence and drives us to plunge into the heart of God, where both you and I will find all we need.
After the checklist we will look at how to find answers.
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Since Christians have vastly different views on this matter, let’s start by considering whether one’s sincere beliefs about the morality of divorce will influence God’s judgment of us if we go ahead and do it. Suppose two Christians in identical circumstances each remarry. One sincerely believes that he has God’s blessing on the new marriage. The other believes that by remarrying he is committing a gross sin. Will God judge them differently? In most countries, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Is this how God judges?
In two long passages of Scripture, Paul explains that some things become sin merely because a person believes them to be sin (Romans 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13). It is most important to realize, however, that Paul was referring to acts that are not of themselves sinful. He is not saying that if someone believes “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery” are moral, then they suddenly become acceptable. On the contrary, these belong to the list of which Paul declares, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 19-21). Elsewhere he says the same about adultery (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
To understand what Paul was saying, consider this: if you knew that someone believed he was deliberately poisoning your child, you would be extremely upset by his action, even if it turned out that he was mistaken and the substance was harmless. His belief about his action is enough to highly offend you. On the other hand, if someone carelessly poisoned your child, believing the substance to be harmless, you would also be upset. A person’s belief can turn something harmless into sin, but it cannot turn sin into something harmless.
If Jane believes something that is innocent is adultery, then if she chooses to do it, she is guilty of adultery in the eyes of the One who sees her heart. If, however, she does something that in God’s eyes is adultery, then she is committing adultery even though she sincerely believes that what she is doing is innocent. If Jane’s ignorance is genuine, God will be lenient, but she will still be held accountable.
Luke 12:47-48 That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows.
There is greater leniency for one, but both are punished.
Ignorance is not bliss.
Proverbs 16:25 There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
If your “belief” that something sinful is acceptable is merely because you have schemed to silence your conscience or to fool God by trying to convince yourself that it has God’s approval, then such “belief” will not even buy you leniency.
If you have a shadow of doubt over the legitimacy of something, you must avoid it.
Romans 14:23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
This Scripture is talking about eating because it applies to minor things, not major matters like adultery. Feeling certain that whatever you do has God’s approval is an essential starting point. To avoid what God regards as adultery, however, in addition to believing that it is right, it must be right.
A divorced woman told me:
I have friends who say I should consider remarriage, but I don’t dare, because I do not want to rationalize that remarriage is permissible if it’s not – and for centuries the understanding of the church was that it was not permissible.
Is it mere coincidence that over the last decades, as the world has grown increasingly accepting of divorce, so has much of the church?
To discover how addicted to change this world has made us, look back to an era when most people were farmers working the same plot of land as their father’s father, or craftsmen engaged in the same work in the same place, not just all their lives, but for generations. Look at an era where one’s mode of transport or plow puller was not a heartless machine to be traded in next year for the new improved model, but an animal that inspired affection and loyalty and whose death was mourned. Our era stands out from the past as one that exalts self pleasure over duty, personal “advancement” over loyalty, and change over stability. (Note how even the words duty, loyalty, and stability seem old-fashioned.) Wherever we look in modern society we find stressors and mindsets driving us to trade in our partner for a new improved model promising higher status or excitement.
Of course, just because certain Christians lived in another era does not make them right. The issue to beg God to search your heart over, however, is this: Are you, and the Christians who influence you, being led by the Spirit of God or unknowingly led by the spirit of the world?
Divine forgiveness is perhaps life’s most wondrously liberating experience. We must understand, however, that total forgiveness of our past mistakes does not make us free to keep sinning or to keep enjoying the benefits of past sin. For example, if you stole a million dollars, forgiveness does not make it acceptable for you to continue to live off your ill-gotten gains. Scripture is clear that you must return all the money you stole.
Forgiveness does not mean God ceases to be holy and lowers his standards of honesty and faithfulness. If I broke my marriage vows, forgiveness would remove my past guilt, but not my continued moral obligations to the woman I promised myself to.
Suppose marrying a particular person was an act of rebellion against God. You might now despise that person but if in God’s sight you are still married to him/her, forgiveness does not mean you are free to commit adultery. A man who is unfaithful to his wife can find forgiveness, but not a divine license to keep committing adultery. To confuse forgiveness with a license to sin is a grave offense against God.
So regardless of how deeply forgiven you are, before marrying anyone else you would need to be certain that you are not, in God’s view of marital commitment, still being married to your former partner, because that would make re-marriage adultery in his eyes, no matter what divorce documents you can produce and how much your past offenses are forgiven.
Jesus gives an exception to the general rule. “Except for fornication” is how the King James Version puts it. That’s rather mysterious. Why didn’t he say, “except for adultery”? Exactly what Jesus meant is not immediately obvious. Some think Jesus was referring to any form of sexual infidelity, perhaps even including deliberate and continual adulterous thoughts or an addiction to porn or to masturbation. Some go to the other extreme and think that because Jesus did not say “except for adultery,” he was referring solely to premarital infidelity discovered after marriage, such as discovering on the wedding night that the bride is not a virgin.
Jesus does not say that the person initiating the divorce commits adultery. What he says is much more puzzling. He says the man divorcing a woman causes her – “the innocent party” – to commit adultery.
Matthew 5:32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife . . . causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
I will not give my opinion of the following interpretation, but before proceeding with divorce one needs to be certain that it is incorrect. (For ease of reading I refer to “Mary” and Joe” but the genders could just as easily have been reversed.)
Mary is a good, faithful wife who longs to remain married to Joe, but he divorces her. As far as the divorce is concerned, Mary is utterly innocent. If Joe remains celibate for life, he has not committed adultery. Nevertheless, Joe’s decision to end the marriage exposes Mary to the strong temptation to eventually re-marry. Of course Mary is responsible for her response to the temptation, but by initiating the divorce, Joe is as guilty as the devil in causing Mary to suffer the strong temptation to “commit adultery,” that is, to re-marry. To be the cause of temptation is a grave offense:
Luke 17:2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
But why would Jesus imply the innocent party commits adultery if she remarries? Because, according to this interpretation, in God’s sight a marital union can be dissolved only by death, regardless of how innocent one party is or how guilty the other one is.
Whoever Mary marries is likely to be doubly innocent regarding the divorce and yet this person is committing adultery, because despite a divorce certificate and subsequent marriage, in God’s sight Mary is still bound to her former partner, even though he no longer wants her.
Jesus gives an exception to the above – one that applies if Mary were not innocent. Suppose Mary were committing adultery before Joe even considered divorce. Since she is so hell-bent on committing adultery that not even marriage keeps her faithful, it could not be said that by divorcing her, Joe was causing her to commit adultery. She would commit adultery even if he didn’t divorce her. Nevertheless, Joe would himself be committing adultery if he remarried, because marriage is binding for life no matter what either party do.
Mark 10:11 Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
I repeat that I make no claim about the correctness of this interpretation, but to honor God, one should be certain it is wrong before proceeding with divorce or re-marriage.
Could there be situations where God actually requires divorce – or at least separation? We see an Old Testament instance of this in Ezra chapter ten, where those guilty of marrying pagan wives were compelled to divorce. This must be read in the light of 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, which seems to take a very different approach. Nevertheless, here is a case where divorce was not merely permitted but was mandatory.
Now let’s move to the New Testament. It speaks of the importance of separating from those who claim to be believers but are engaged in blatant, repeated, unrepentant sin. We read, for instance:
1 Corinthians 5:11 . . . you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Suppose, you are married to someone who considers the ideal is to “enjoy” both sexual unfaithfulness and the benefits of being married to you. If you knowingly allow your spouse to pursue this, does that make you a partner in his/her sin? Of course you cannot prevent your partner from being unfaithful, but if you are aware of what is happening, it is your decision as to whether your partner can enjoy marital privileges with you while pursuing extramarital sin. In theory, you could give the ultimatum: “Either be completely faithful or the marriage is over.” What if giving this ultimatum is the one thing that would keep your partner from sin? If you give and maintain the ultimatum and your partner disregards it, no one could say you have made it easy for him/her to sin.
Imagine for a moment if in God’s eyes marriage is dissoluble only by death. Would that mean that if Jan is married to a divorced man, every day that she remains married to him she is continuing to commit adultery? Does this mean that in order to stop sinning she must separate from him? Does it mean that if for these reasons she divorces him, she is free to remarry, since her first marriage was not a marriage in God’s sight but an adulterous affair?
One might suppose that remarrying someone you had previously divorced would be a godly way of correcting a past mistake. However, our Lord revealed in the Old Testament that, at least in some instances, this could be highly offensive to God. It says that if a man divorced his wife and she married someone else who then dies or divorces her, it is a gross sin for the first husband to remarry his former wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). This should be treated with extreme seriousness, given the fact that it is found in the same Testament that permits divorce. The precise situation it describes, however, might be critical. Without David divorcing his wife, her father had her married off to someone else. David took her back again (2 Samuel 3:13-16), presumably because although she had been remarried, there was no divorce of the first marriage. This suggests that each condition of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 must be fulfilled before God considers remarrying the same person an abomination. An example of a scenario not specifically mentioned is if the divorcee did not marry someone else.
God’s commands are not always blanket statements divinely intended to cover every rare and unlikely scenario. For instance, of all the Gospels, only Matthew says “except for fornication” when forbidding divorce. Presumably Mark and Luke regarded this as an intended exception that they felt no compulsion to spell out. Could there be other exceptions to the general ban on divorce that Scripture does not bother to enumerate?
For an example on the other side of the ledger, the Ten Commandments forbid the coveting of a neighbor’s wife, but say nothing about a woman coveting a neighbor’s husband. Clearly this is a law not intended to include every possible scenario. It is an obvious instance of the Lord expecting his people to draw principles from general laws and under his inspiration and guidance – not our whims – apply them to specific situations.
Jesus said, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions” (Luke 6:3-6). Jesus seems to regard this as acceptable, even though such an exception is not spelt out in the law.
There are grave dangers with pursuing this line of thought but the next point demonstrates that the other extreme is not without its dangers.
It is possible to offend God by being too strict in interpreting his commands. Many devout Jews felt they were honoring the Almighty by insisting that Jesus not heal on the Sabbath. This seems reasonable; after all there were six other days in which one could heal. Nevertheless, their strict interpretation was wrong and drew Jesus’ wrath because it showed lack of compassion.
If, through too strict an interpretation of Scripture, you influenced a woman not to leave her abusive husband, could God hold you guilty of pressuring her to be molested or tormented by her husband? Or could you cause an abandoned partner to fall into sexual sin because you have convinced that person that re-marriage is forbidden?
We must avoid being like those experts in Jewish law whom Jesus accused of loading people down with burdens (Matthew 13:4). Even the apostle Paul, whose personal preference was that every Christian remain unmarried, recognized that in our sex-crazed world, celibacy is an impractical and excessive burden to lay on most people (1 Corinthians 7:1-9 – note, however, the next verse).
Let’s not forget that God allowed divorce in the Old Testament because of people’s “hard hearts.” Does this mean that Jesus was describing the ideal – what we should all aspire to – but the Old Testament was describing God’s understanding of practical reality in a fallen world?
I won’t presume to explain what he meant by it but Jesus himself said about his teaching on divorce, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. . . .” (Matthew 19:11).
And even if you have a soft heart, your partner may not.
On the other hand, even in the Old Testament, the Lord says he hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), so one would think that at least one partner in a divorce – but not necessarily both – would be grieving God’s heart.
If you are hurting over the way your partner is treating you, it breaks God’s heart, as it did for him to see his Son being tortured to death. Our amazing Lord would rather suffer himself than see you suffer. Nevertheless, the undeniable reality of God’s extreme compassion does not of itself indicate whether cruelty is sufficient grounds for divorce or even separation. We must weigh up the fact that the following clearly applies to women with less than godly husbands:
1 Peter 3:1 Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word . . .
Moreover, this Scripture is found in the very letter that repeatedly speaks of the importance of physically suffering for Christ, and tells slaves to submit even to harsh masters.
Just as with Jesus’ suffering, there are times when more eternal good is achieved by our short term suffering than by us having an easier life.
Do you know of someone divorced and remarried who seems greatly blessed of God and powerfully used by him? You have probably also heard of men of God whom the Lord seemed to treat that way despite them being repeatedly involved in secret sex outside marriage. Is their sin a license for others to act that way? Who knows what devastation such people will experience when they stand naked before their Judge? Despite all the mighty things they have done in Jesus’ name, will they receive an “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:22-23)? God temporarily withholding his wrath – as he did even with Sodom and Gomorrah for years – is no foundation on which to build moral conclusions.
Scripture stresses the supreme importance of “swearing to one’s hurt” (Psalms 15:4) – keeping one’s word even when unforeseen circumstances make fulfilling the promise devastatingly painful and costly (Scriptures).
When marrying, it is the norm to vow to remain committed to one’s partner “till death do us part” or “for as long as we both shall live.” I haven’t come across marriage vows that allow the option “until my partner commits adultery” or “until my partner marries someone else.” Perhaps the vows should have been worded differently. Nevertheless, the vows you made – not the ones you wish you had made – are the ones you have committed yourself to.
Does this mean that even if God would have allowed you to remarry, the very vows you voluntarily made have cancelled that permission? Have you, because of your vow, obligated yourself before God to remain faithful to your partner “for as long as you both shall live,” regardless of what he or she does?
“. . . what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). But who exactly is it that “God has joined together”? It cannot be only those who have had a church wedding because in Bible times there was no such thing as a church wedding. Scripture applies this Bible truth of two becoming one flesh principle even to a fleeting, sin-ridden encounter with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:15-16). It might be that “what God has joined” [or what God declares to be one flesh] applies to every sexual encounter, no matter how contrary to God’s will that relationship is.
Might it be similar to Joshua and his nation, who were tricked into making a covenant with people whom God had declared should be destroyed? The Israelites had been conned, they regretted it, and it was completely contrary to God’s will, but merely because they had made a covenant, it was so binding in God’s eyes that he insisted that they, (Joshua 9) and even subsequent generations (2 Samuel 21:1-9,14), must keep that covenant in its entirety. Other nations were so furious with these people for selling out to the Israelites that they massed their armies to destroy them. This seemed an ideal opportunity for the Israelites to have their past mistake eradicated. Without lifting a finger against these con artists, the Israelites could let heathens wipe them out, as God had originally intended. But instead, the Lord insisted that they fight to protect those they had made the covenant with. And to assist, the Almighty even made the sun stand still (Joshua 10:1-15). There is biblical evidence that God regards sex as entering into a binding covenant.
Could it be that a major factor behind God being so strict as to who one has sex with is that he views sex as joining people together in a bond that should never be broken, no matter how much God may wish it had never happened?
One of the themes threading through Scripture is that God is moved to treat us like we treat others. In Luke 6:37-38 Jesus lines up one example after another:
* Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
* Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
* Give, and it will be given to you. . . .
* Do not judge, and you will not be judged.
* Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
* Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
* Give, and it will be given to you. . . .
Here are some other examples:
Psalm 18:25 To the faithful you show yourself faithful . . .
Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Galatians 6:7 . . . God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Galatians 6:7 . . . God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
In addition to the above, we know that Scripture sees a close similarity or link between marriage and our relationship with God. Let’s team up these two truths and see where they lead.
No matter how unlikely it seems to me, it is not impossible that I could at some time fall into a delusion or become so infatuated with sin that I turn my back on my Savior and, as it were, divorce him. I need a God who, if I were stupid enough to do this, would remain free to be joined to me again, should I later come to my senses. I would not want God to become so attached to someone else that he is no longer able to take me back. If I had a wife who was unfaithful to me and divorced me against my will, dare I remarry – thus permanently cutting myself off from the woman I had committed myself to – when it would be the worse thing in my universe for God to treat me the same way?
Under Old Testament law, a number of sins incurred the death penalty, including rejection of the true God (eg Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:2,27; 24:16) and certain sexual sins – proven adultery, homosexual acts, bestiality, incest (eg Leviticus 20:10ff).
We all know that the death of one’s partner frees one to remarry:
Romans 7:2-3 For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.
Of course, the death penalty no longer applies to these sins, but does it reveal a divine principle that if one partner continues to remain unrepentant of such gross sin and is dead to God, the innocent one is free to remarry as he/she would be had the partner died? Or is Old Testament practice irrelevant, since the person in still physically alive?
Even if divorce in certain circumstances were acceptable to God, that of itself might not mean that re-marriage is acceptable. For instance, one must consider this:
1 Corinthians 7: 10-11 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. . . .”
In wedding vows one promises to love. This is a beautiful, highly Christian concept that is too often ruined by confusing it with the worldly love of romantic fiction. Romantic love can never be promised. It is fickle, fleeting and selfish. It is not a virtue and the only predictable thing about it is that it will fizzle. In contrast, the love that can be promised is noble. It inspires all heaven to applaud you. It is a virtue of eternal worth.
Ideally, we should marry not for our own pleasure but for God’s glory. Similarly, our decision about divorce should be based not on our ease but on what will maximize God’s glory in a difficult situation. Are we driven by what will make us more like Christ, or by what will make us more like a bit part in a soap opera?
Just because romantic love vanishes does not make it time for divorce; on the contrary, it is your chance to start gaining eternal glory.
Resolving the Issues
If you are facing divorce or the prospect of loneliness, I long to comfort you. So it hurts me that after reading this webpage you could initially feel more confused than ever. I felt the need to write what I did, lest you reach a decision with life-shattering implications before prayerfully considering all the spiritual issues involved. Moreover, we will discover that, as unlikely as it seems, confusion is the ideal launching pad to fire us to the answers we need.
Perhaps the discrepancy between the ideal and God’s response to practical reality explains some of the seeming contradictions in the checklist we have just looked at. Another possibility is that some apparent contradictions could be due to misinterpreting what God is really saying in certain Scriptures. Could some sticking points, however, be because of us not recognizing the cost of doing right; forgetting that we are called to follow the One who was tortured to death?
I suggest deferring all critical decisions until you feel confident that what you believe God has revealed to be his will for you can be reconciled with the full truth about every item on the above checklist. As you seek God, you might not be given all the answers as to how what you believe to be God’s will fits every point on the checklist, but I suggest you need to keep seeking until you at least feel peace that such answers exist and that in God’s eyes your decision gels perfectly with every part of the Bible.
For clarity, you particularly need the final section of this study:
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 2004, 2006. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net These writings may be freely copied provided this entire paragraph is included and it is not placed in a webpage, nor in anything that is sold. For use outside these limits, written permission is required. Freely you have received, freely give.