A reader from Washington asks: “What can you say about New Testament teaching concerning divorce and remarriage?”
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It is easy, when discussing this sensitive subject, to confuse two very distinct questions. One might inquire, “What is God’s will concerning marriage and divorce?” Or one might ask, “May the person who has transgressed God’s command and come short of his will, then be forgiven and go forward to do his will in the future?”
To the first inquiry, I think, Christians of all denominations are essentially agreed. God’s original plan and permanent ideal is for one man to be joined to one woman in faithful, monogamous, life-long union, patterned after the union of Christ and the church (Matt. 19:2-6; Eph. 5:21-32). God hates divorce, said the last writing prophet of the Old Testament (Mal. 2:16), and Jesus’ prohibition of divorce indicates that God thinks no more highly of it today (Matt. 5:32; 19:6, 9).
The so-called “exception clause” in Matthew 19:9 is really no exception to God’s ideal at all, as if Jesus were here saying that there is one circumstance under which a person who divorces a spouse does a good thing. The Lord here refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, in which the reason given for divorce (literally “an uncleanness”) is actually rather unclear, but the fundamental prohibition is absolutely clear — the woman divorced by a husband and remarried to another man is forbidden to return to the first husband, even if the second husband also divorces her. Jesus cuts through all the rabbinic rationalizations of his day to call his disciples back to God’s original purpose for marriage.
Is divorce the “unforgiveable sin”? Certainly not in Scripture. Is a person, once divorced, still married? Obviously not. May unmarried people (whether never-married or formerly married) marry and attempt to live according to God’s original and continuing ideal? Of course, and who would dare say otherwise? The Apostle Paul thus advises: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you should marry, you have not sinned” (1 Cor. 7:27-28).
This is a thorny topic about which godly and well-informed Christian teachers often differ. The believer for whom these are present, practical questions must therefore study the Bible carefully, pray long and hard for divine insight and understanding, then live according to his or her own conscience as taught by the Holy Spirit. Only by such a course may one avoid both the libertine spirit of our age on the one hand, and the legalisms to which even well-meaning religious people are sometimes prone on the other.