Divorce And The Bible

Book Review – Divorce And The Bible – Colin Hamer

I want first to say that Colin Hamer`s book, “Divorce and the Bible” is a book I highly recommend, even though I don`t agree with all of the conclusions in the book. 

It’s not the first time I’ve recommended books I don’t agree with completely. It seems that a book can be good for a number of reasons, only ONE of which is whether or not all the conclusions it draws are entirely accurate. For a book to be ‘good,’ it should make you THINK; it should communicate clearly, state it’s opinion fairly, at least try to give recognition to the issues that people of different persuasions would have with the position. The author should also say “don`t know” when he or she doesn’t know.

“Divorce and the bible” is a worthwhile read because it presents a position not typical in Evangelical Christian circles, but that needs to be considered by those who hold tenaciously to the “2 reasons only” position so often reflected by evangelicals and fundamentalists, such as John MacArthur.

I believe the normal “2-reasons only position” on divorce and remarriage comes up short.

My opinion, by the way, is that this “2 positions only” take on the issue is the easiest one to see by citing simple proof-texts from the scriptures; but that this position only really holds up until the arguments for the position are challenged with issues from the Greek of the New Testament, issues from first century Jewish history and the like. It is also required reading as a reasoned response to some prominent evangelical Christian positions, such as John Piper and Voddie Baucham and their position on the “permanence view” of marriage, such as Daryl Wingerd – Divorce and Remarriage: : A Permanence View.

I have seen, over the years, so many people wounded by the church by other well-meaning Christians who insist that a woman who is in an abusive relationship is not allowed the privilege of entering into a meaningful committed relationship with anyone else, even if divorced, because it is “adultery,” as defined by Jesus (supposedly) in Matthew 5, Matthew 19, Mark 10 and the like. Our understanding on this issue is that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, and speaking in such irony that it would make the Pharisees furious with him; but these reasons are not clear simply from examining 21st century translations of the Greek texts, and without understanding of the 1st century Jewish culture into which Jesus spoke.

“Divorce and the Bible” is laid out in a series of chapters; each chapter gives a summary of the salient points at the end of the chapter. Then, at the end of the book, are 5 appendices, each dealing with a particular passage of scripture which causes confusion in the discussion.

The salient principles of interpretation of the bible on the issue, as the author sees it:

  • no one passage is the whole teaching on the subject
  • unclear verses must be interpreted by the more clear ones
  • some passages may well have other ideas implied in them because those ideas are clear in other passages
  • where the NT is silent on an issue, it cannot be assumed that the OT can be ignored on the issue
  • nothing can be ruled “out” or “in” based on teaching of any early church fathers or reformers

Good principles.

Salient doctrinal conclusions worth considering (and/or different than the “2 positions” camp)

  • marriage is a covenant with gender-based roles (and different rules apply to men vs women¨)
  • sex without a covenant is NOT marriage
  • marriage is NOT a sacrament, NOT a mystical union
  • Jesus only emphasizes PRINCIPLES, and ONLY answers SPECIFIC QUESTIONS ASKED
  • divorce is NOT necessarily, in and of itself, sinful
  • the rules for grounds for divorce are DIFFERENT for men than for women
  • (in the opinion of the author) a woman may divorce for any number of reasons
  • Jesus did NOT cancel the OT rules on divorce; He ONLY clarified the ones he was ASKED about
  • divorce means both parties are free to remarry, if the divorce is for legitimate reasons
  • remarriage without “grounds” is “adulterous” (violates covenant) but is forgivable

Again, I don’t agree with all the conclusions in the book; but it does make you think. It brings points to the discussion that need to be made – rules are different for men and for women.

Ultimately, I believe that there are two other well-written and well-researched books which need to be considered carefully as helpful background in processing what the bible says to come to a proper conclusion about the issue. These books are..

And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament


Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context

As well as Brewer’s less technical and more practically-oriented

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities

Both of these books are worthy opponents to the “2 reasons only” position on divorce and remarriage, and they need to be considered in the mix, because they bring other cultural considerations into the conversation; Brewer’s book, especially, touches on much of the cultural considerations and hypocrisy in the first century that need to be understood to grasp the full picture, and to understand how so much of what Jesus said was challenging (scathing) remarks to the Pharisees of his day, and not necessarily blanket statements on divorce and remarriage.

But ‘Divorce and the Bible’ by Colin Hamer is a worthwhile read because of its own internal consistency; because of its fair presentation of how it fits into the panorama of five or six major positions on the issue of divorce and remarriage; because of the fact that it is well-written, makes you think, answers well how this position answers objections about it raised by the ‘2 positions only’ crowd. People who hold that position, such as John MacArthur and Jay Adams, need to consider these issues raised in the book. Those who hold to the ‘permanence view’ of divorce and remarriage (Voddie Baucham and John Piper, for instance) need to wrestle with some of the issues raised in this book.

It seems so unfortunate that so many well-meaning people want to put other Christians in straight-jackets of theology that God never intended others to wear. This book does a valiant job of bringing worthy points to the discussion, allowing some freedom for believers to see that not everyone believes those straight-jackets need to be worn.

Last updated 2016-01-25

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Divorce and 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.

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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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God Allows Divorce For Cruelty

For Those Who Think Divorce Is Only For Adultery

Most evangelical Christians today think that divorce and remarriage are allowed for adultery and desertion of the marriage by the unbeliever, and not for any other reason, such as abuse. There are many different positions on divorce and remarriage in the church, though the one mentioned above is certainly the most prominent one. But if divorce is allowed only for adultery, then there are some very hard questions which need to be answered responsibly; or we may be keeping people in a bondage God never intended for them to have to endure.

Questions For Those Who Believe That Divorce And Remarriage Are Only Allowed For Adultery And Desertion

Having studied this issue for literally hundreds of hours now over the years, I’ve come to the solid conclusion that there are extenuating circumstances and situations that create scenarios where God, in His mercy, allows divorce to correct certain injustices; and when the marriage is ended for grounds that are justifiable, then remarriage is permitted. God allows remarriage after abuse.

The “Two-Reasons Only” Position Is Easy To Show, But It Falls Down Fast When Examined From The Other Positions

For those who hold to the position that God allows divorce for adultery and not, for example, for abuse, there seem to be some practical questions that need to be asked about this theological position.

Have You Ever Given This Much Thought?

  1. How does this position show the redemptive nature of God? If “hanging in” through abuse is the greatest reflection of God’s nature of forgiveness / second chances, then how does an exception for adultery do that? And if the exception of adultery does not violate this picture, then why does divorce for abuse do so?
  2. Why is a woman whose husband committed adultery against her allowed the privilege of a meaningful relationship with another man in marriage, but a woman whose husband has broken her nose, her arm, or her face is not?
  3. If the bible allows an exception for remarriage when a wife has an unbelieving husband who leaves the marriage, then how “unbelieving” does a “believing” husband have to act, and for how long, for a woman to be allowed to consider her spouse to be an “unbelieving husband” who left the marriage so she can remarry?
  4. If the situation of remarriage is adultery if not for biblical grounds, what does repentance look like? Should the “adulterer” stay in the adulterous marriage? What do you do with the passages of scripture that says adulterers will not enter the kingdom of heaven? Did you know that the passage where Jesus describes this as adultery refers to the adultery as a continuous, ongoing activity, and not just a one-time act? If so, then why is repentance not leaving the marriage if it continues to be adulterous?
  5. Does the woman have to prove that there was adultery before she can remarry? Who must see the proof and what proof is required? Who gets to decide? What evidence needs to be presented? Who has to make this determination? Was Joseph doing the wrong thing when he decided to put Mary away quietly and not subject her to public disgrace? Who had to make that decision besides him? Do we have a duty to drag our spouse through the mud to save our own name so people will not sit in judgement on us if we feel we have grounds to divorce?

God, In His Mercy, Allows Remarriage After Abuse Ends The Marriage

I believe a good marriage serves as a great illustration of the realities of Christ and His church; but that is in a perfect world, with perfect marriages. The bible that declares the picture of the husband and wife to be reflective of Christ and His church is the same bible that allows for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. The fact that God allows divorce in some situations does not change the reality that marriage, when it is working, is reflective of Christ and His church. Though some would offer this argument against allowing divorce and remarriage in the case of abuse, versus a mere separation and waiting forever for the abuser to “change,” the same argument can be posed for the adultery exception. If it works in one case, it still works in the other.

The “Two-Reasons Only”

I pose the questions above to provoke thought. This is a huge issue in the church. Many feel condemned to being alone forever, and in part, I believe it is because of bad teaching in the church. I pose the above questions for the sake of getting people to think about this and to see where they have freedom to move into a meaningful marriage relationship, even though many in the church may well think otherwise.

You know, this one is going to take some more posts to develop this well, and with fairness to what Jesus was really saying in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Because it seems like many Christians, with good intention, keep other Christians in bondage to marriages that have long since ceased to be covenants as they were when they started out.

And I know I’m going to get flack for this. So go ahead. Let me have it. But please keep checking back. Because there were times when some very religious people did some very wrong things in the name of what they thought God was telling them to do (1 Cor. 2:8). I don’t want to be one of them.

But then again, you don’t want to be one of them either, do you?

If you’re interested….

I’ve documented in another post (HERE) what I think the best position is regarding this issue and the best resource I have seen to articulate it.

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