Divorce, Remarriage, Legalism and Grace

If you want to explore a topic that is controversial on many levels within the Christian church, just bring up the topic of divorce and remarriage in the bible and what God allows and doesn’t allow. Having been through this experience firsthand, I will tell you that I’ve studied the issue extensively from all of the major biblical perspectives.

I have written about this topic before. And I’ve come to an understanding of the issue that is not exactly the common understanding in the church regarding divorce and remarriage. But I believe my position is both biblical and freeing – it is not legalistic, but centered in God’s grace and mercy, with his compassion for all who are facing this issue as a reality in their lives.

Most popular positions on divorce and remarriage are just messed up.

That, quite simply, is my take on much of what the modern Christian church believes about divorce and remarriage. And I came to this conclusion because lived through it, having been counselled by people from different perspectives on the issue. They all mean well. But they see the biblical texts differently.

I know they meant well. But I can see now that most of them were wrong.

You might disqualify my views because I am twice divorced. You shouldn’t. If you knew my story, you just might pay all the more attention.

I have travelled a very difficult road, making decisions that I believe were in the will of God. And this, even though they were not easy at the time, and even though I was often greatly misunderstood. Having done so, I have been accused of changing my theology to suit my situation. (I understand that we can have a tendency to do that sometimes.)

I have been on both sides of the “left behind” problem. Once, my wife left the marriage emotionally and gave her heart to another. The other time, I was the one who decided I must leave the marriage I was in.

Quite honestly, until you’ve been through the struggles of an excruciatingly difficult marriage, you may not even know. You don’t know what the questions are that need to be asked regarding God’s heart on divorce and remarriage.

I remember times I was given what people thought were biblical positions on divorce and remarriage. Their views from the scriptures were not simple, but in their minds, they were clear. Even though I might not have liked what the bible said, they insisted they knew what it meant by the verses they stuck in my face. I must obey God.

It seemed that when I asked them difficult questions about their “biblical” positions, they couldn’t answer my questions. But they still “knew” they were right and I was wrong.

Ever been there?

The hard reality is that there are a number of distinctly different ways of understanding what the scriptures teach about divorce and remarriage. I studied this issue for literally many, many hundreds of hours. Then, I looked at church history and what the founding fathers said about it.

And for what it’s worth, I have acquired at least 20 books about it. My library shelf on the issue, written by authors speaking from all the major positions on the issue.

No position is without it’s problems.

Having considered this issue at great length, doing Hebrew and Greek word studies, considering the cultural aspects of the scriptures as well as the difficult questions that each of the positions uses to challenge the falseness of the others, and having actually left a second marriage thinking it was adulterous with the idea of waiting to return to the first one, I have learned much.

None of the biblical positions is without problems that must be addressed. But it helps to understand what the different schools of thought are on divorce and remarriage.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the biblical positions here. Others have done that. My goal is more to point you to a resource on the best biblical position. And then I will tell you where I finally landed theologically. I will show you where to find the best resource to show you why I think this is “the one” and how you can find freedom there.

There are at least 6 distinct positions on divorce and remarriage.

There are some variations on these themes. But essentially, this breakdown of these various positions give you the range of thinking on the issue, from the most strict through to the most liberal.

– No divorce ever allowed, ever. If you’re remarried, it is adultery. You must undo the adulterous marriage and return to the first. Otherwise it’s ongoing adultery.

This is a position advocated by some as “the position of the early church.” It is also essentially the position of the Roman Catholic church. There are no grounds for divorce. Therefore if you have remarried after a divorce but your former spouse is still alive, you are living in a perpetual state of adultery.

And if that is the case, this position says you should divorce the “illegitimate spouse” and try to return to the first one. Many would say that if you don’t, you are living in adultery. And since adulterators do not inherit the kingdom of heaven, you will go to hell for unrepentant sin.

– No divorce ever allowed, ever. If you’re remarried, it is adultery. But you must stay in it anyway.

This position is a little more pragmatic on the issue than the first one. It says there is no legitimate grounds for divorce in the new testament, and so any divorce is wrong. Remarrying after such a divorce is adultery.

But they say that the adultery is “an act” of adultery, and not a continuous state of adultery. So, while “repentance” is necessary, this is what “repentance” looks like. You admit you committed a sin by remarrying but cannot unscramble the egg. So, they say you must remain in the new marriage, because after repentance, it is somehow alright even though it was adulterous.

This view is sometimes referred to as “the permanence view” of marriage, and is taught by pastors such as Voddie Baucham.

I’m glad to say I’m not the only one who sees the many problems with this view.

– Divorce is allowed but only for 2 conditions – adultery or “desertion by an unbeliever.” If you’re remarried, you need to undo the adulterous marriage. Otherwise it’s adultery.

This is the most common position in the evangelical church of today. The position is easy to “prove” from the scriptures (provided you ignore some difficulties that the position causes by glossing over the differences in the text and ignore context).

There are some churches that will tell you if you divorced for other reasons than adultery (or desertion of the unbelieving spouse) that you are in adultery. And they say you need to seriously consider whether or not, in God’s eyes, you are in fact still married to the previous spouse.

(I will say that I am, in fact, involved currently with a church that believes this. I disagree with their position regarding what qualifies as “legitimate grounds” for divorce; but I admire their willingness to probe into the history of the situation to see if, in fact, in God’s eyes, the current “marriage” isn’t really a marriage…)

But I digress. Back to the list.

– Divorce is allowed but only for 2 conditions – adultery or “desertion by an unbeliever.” If you’re remarried, you need stay in the second marriage.

This is a common position today.

Most of the people who hold this position would agree with those who would say there is no legitimate justification for remarriage in the new covenant; but if you’ve already remarried, you need to stay in the new marriage, repent of your sin (by being contrite for the fact that you remarried without grounds and therefore are “in adultery”).

I would say that most “two positions only churches” would teach that you must stay in the new marriage. The churches that teach divorce is allowed, but without “proper grounds,” the second marriage must be undone to restore the first one are rare.

– Divorce is allowed for other reasons besides adultery and desertion. These reasons include abuse, neglect and cruelty, among others.

I will say now that this is the position I have come to see as the most biblically sound and reliable one of any I have considered and “lived with” for any length of time.

And I will say that even though this position is not the easiest to prove with simple “chapter and verse” citations, it seems to have the most substance to it, and to most represent the heart of God regarding the matter.

– Divorce is allowed for other pretty much any reason. If you are divorced, you are free to remarry.

Believe it or not, this was a position that (if I’m not mistaken, and if I am, please correct me, but) even Martin Luther held to.

In some of his writings, he was known to say that there are any number of reasons God would allow a divorce, including desertion and infidelity, but certainly not limited to it. He argued that impotence of a marriage partner, for instance, was grounds for divorce. I don’t know how that was fair to the spirit of a marriage. But there were others throughout history that felt the same way.

In fact Jesus was confronted regarding this very issue, and in His day, many of the rabbis taught this very thing – that a divorce was allowed for any reason at all.

If you’re struggling through this issue because you’re in a difficult spot, you’re not alone.

If I went to great lengths to chart my history with dealing with this issue, what you would see is that I often had to change my views on the subject because I was confronted with realities in the biblical texts that caused me to have to acknowledge that the position I held at certain times didn’t square with the bible.

And the first one I had to reject (in my personal history) was the “two positions only” view of divorce and remarriage. I didn’t wrestle with that because of my situation, but because of that of another, and I was confronted with arguments for “the permanence view” of divorce and remarriage.

And as it turns out, that position I held was full of holes; but because I wasn’t living at the time with the pain of a difficult relationship, I didn’t have to wrestle with the reality of the frailness of that position.

But the fact of the matter is….

The most popular position – the “two reasons only” position – is the easiest to show with “proof texts.” But it’s also the one that falls down the fastest when asked hard questions.

I don’t know if you’re here because you’ve wrestled with these different positions before, or if this is all new to you. And I don’t know if you are looking into this because it is affecting you or someone you love.

But one question that I am frequently asked by people struggling in difficult marriages is:

What about divorce for cruelty or abuse?

I can’t tell you the number of times I have been hit with this question.

It really does seem strange (now, especially, from this side of my journey regarding this issue) that God would have what feel, at times, to be some pretty capricious and arbitrary rules about this issue. But if you hold to the idea that God allows for divorce in the case of adultery but not for cruelty or neglect, then this issue has to make you do a double-take.

If you hold this position, this position shows the absurdity of it. To illustrate, consider two different types of scenarios.

In the first, a woman is married to a man who goes off to Las Vegas for a convention, and in a single night of drunken indiscretion, ends up sleeping with a prostitute.

In the second scenario, a woman is married to a man who repeatedly punches her, beats her, swears at her and goes off on her constantly in all kinds of rage.

If you hold the “two positions only” theology, you are compelled to insist that the first woman is free to divorce and then to later remarry if she so chooses. But the second woman is not. And that’s because in the second case, there’s no adultery.

See how simple that was? (See how odd it sounds?)

Many of the popular speakers on divorce and remarriage will tell you things in private that they will never say at a conference.

Ever heard of Mark Gungor? He’s a popular speaker in the “marriage seminar” circles. According to Mark Gungor, divorce is NEVER an option.

And yet, when speaking to a woman privately, after the conference (who was in a difficult marriage, and who subsequently divorced and is now my wife) he said to her that “sometimes, divorce is inevitable.”

I had a marriage counselor ask me once why I thought it was that pastors never suggest divorce but will often refer the “hard cases” to the counsellors (who will often help the couple to determine that they do, in fact, need to divorce).

He said to me that he thinks they don’t really deal with the realities of the marriage and what it entails. They will talk to a couple, try to throw some bible verses at them to get them to try to see what God’s perspective is on it, but when that doesn’t work, they don’t have answers.

The reality is that sometimes, the answer is one their theology does not allow them to give. But perhaps it should.

Here is the problem I see with how our theological positions on divorce and remarriage come to be perpetuated in the church.

Most of the positions are developed with a theology based on a lack of cultural understanding of the language and culture.

Unfortunately, our bible colleges typically perpetuate the problem. We send young men and women to bible colleges who often do not have a strong theological framework, but are required to agree with the bible school’s doctrinal statement.

Then, they are taught theology in English, from English translations of the bible. And then later, in graduate schools, they might learn Hebrew and Greek. But they have a 21st-century English slant that affects what they can or cannot even appreciate about the subtleties of the original languages, let alone the cultural perspectives that affect how those passages need to be understood.

Once I started from the opposite direction, it became clear to me that most of the church has it wrong.

There is ONE book I recommend on the subject. It is a book which takes a very “non-standard” approach to understanding what the bible says about divorce. The book is called, “Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context.” It is written by a British biblical scholar by the name of David Instone-Brewer.

When I say it is a non-standard approach, don’t take that to mean “non-biblical.” It’s very biblical.

But David’s approach is different for sure. Most books dive into the verses in the bible that deal with divorce and remarriage – Deuteronomy 24, Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7 and the like. But this scholar starts at an entirely different spot.

Dr. Brewer starts by examining all kinds of divorce decrees and marriage contracts. He looks at Cuniform documents, ancient Hebrew and Arabic wedding contracts, wedding vows and customs. Also, he examines divorce decrees.

He also takes a lot of time developing a healthy understanding of what the first century church took for granted regarding the standards for marriage, divorce and remarriage. In doing so, he shows what Jesus’ audience would and would not have heard in His words. He does the same with the cultural context in Rome and Greece in Jesus’ day. This helps to understand what Paul’s hearers would have gotten from what he said in his writings.

As he does this, the irony is that you come to understand that his conclusions about what the biblical texts are saying are sometimes almost entirely opposite to what most bible interpreters seem to think they say.

But his arguments are hard to refute once you understand the context of the culture as he presents it for the reader.

The marriage covenant has a number of components. They are all part of the wedding vows. Keeping all of them is what the covenant is. Breaking any of them is grounds for divorce (if necessary).

But Dr. Brewer is also careful to show how the grace of God is bigger than the rules that may have been broken. There is hope for restoration.

There is also a place for remarriage if a marriage has come apart. He shows how God is not mechanical in His decrees regarding marriage.

The book presents hope and light. The church needs this. Perhaps you need it yourself.

If you thought you are stuck in a marriage because well-meaning people have told you that God doesn’t allow you to divorce, it’s possible they are right.

But this book is a welcome challenge to the rules-based theology that all too often has people binding others to marriages that God is not opposed to being taken apart.

And in the end, it is God’s will we want to do, and not what others may be incorrectly telling us to do.

If you’ve read this far, you might also be interested in some resources that could help you save your marriage.

While I believe in biblical counsel, I think it is important to keep some things in mind.

First of all, your pastor may or may not be the person qualified to give you advice or direction regarding your marriage. Some have been trained in counselling and some have not.

Also, my advice would be to deal with a counselor who recognizes the biblical reality that divorce is a real provision from God.

To be sure, God hates divorce. But sometimes there are things He hates more.

But let’s be real here. Sometimes counselling is not possible. It is costly and not everyone can afford it. Also, counselling isn’t really a viable option unless both parties in the marriage are willing to talk to a counsellor. So what if you’re in this situation? What if you’re all alone in your desire to save your marriage? Or, what if you’re facing the inevitable?

You might want to consider some of these resources for processing the very real issues that arise in a difficult marriage.

“Save My Marriage”

Save My Marriage Today” is a resource that may be just the thing to help you sort out what YOU can do as one half of the relationship to make it work. Andrew Rusbatch and Amy Waterman have co-authored a book and a support system to help you look at the real “people issues” you need to see to move your marriage back to golden. From the website:

Why Your Spouse Is Lying To You About The Reasons They Want A Divorce…Here’s How To Discover The Truth, Cut Through The Lies And Pain, Stop Divorce Dead In Its Tracks, And Rebuild The Strong, Intimate Marriage You’ve Always Wanted… Even If Your Spouse Doesn’t Want To!

Now, that is some pretty strong language. And until you’ve been through it, you might not even be open to the idea that your spouse is lying to you. But they do. And if things are difficult in your marriage, you can bet you need to expect it, work through it and learn some real techniques for finding hope and help.

Check out their resources by going HERE.

Jodi Harman’s “Marriage Makeover”

Because divorce is just plain awful. Some things were never meant to be taken apart, no matter how difficult the union. Sometimes they need to be taken apart anyway.

But if you’re still hopeful, you might want to consider this resource from Jodi called “Marriage Makeover.” You may have even seen her on TV. She’s pretty famous and if you click on the link, you can hear her tell you why she decided not to get divorced, and how you may well be able to save your marriage.

If it cannot be helped, there is divorce advice specifically for women.

Divorce Advice For Women” and “The Divorce Survival Guide For Women” are two resources that are worth a good look. The bible is our standard by which we measure our decisions regarding a topic like this. Christians agree on this topic.

But the bible doesn’t prepare you with specific advice on property settlements, attorney fees and custody arrangements. It also doesn’t outline all the specific steps you need to take to protect yourself and your financial arrangements.

These resources are very attainable and very helpful. Definitely worth a look.

Whether or not you are able to restore the marriage, God is for you. He loves you. And divorce is NOT a life sentence to singleness.

One step at a time, of course. If you can save it, that is awesome. God’s heart is for the family and for marriage. But He knows your future, even when it feels there is no hope.

Trust Him and lean on Him. He will walk you through it.

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