SBC Life Articles

Divorce: An Interpretive Maze

For the most part, evangelical Christians have little difficulty reconciling their views on such social issues as abortion, homosexuality, and even genetic research, but agreement is much harder to attain when the discussion turns to divorce.

Whether it's because so many people, Christian or not, have had to face the ugly backwash of divorce or simply because Scripture seems to leave a little wiggle-room for interpreting God's will on the subject — there is only general agreement on divorce.

It is Not God's Ideal

Christians do agree, ethicist Norman Geisler writes in his book, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues, that divorce is not God's ideal, citing Malachi 2:16, where God says, "I hate divorce."

Most Christians also agree the reasons for divorce are not unlimited, Geisler reports, and that divorce brings with it a host of difficult problems that typically involve more than simply the marriage partners.

Yet, it is at this point that attempts at consensus fail and Christians' views of the biblical teaching on divorce broadly diverge. A primary point of contention is whether divorce is morally acceptable in the case of "proven and reconciled adultery;" and for those who accept such immoral behavior as grounds for divorce, is the marriage then totally dissolved?

Ethicist Charles Feinberg says, "The question is not whether it is permissible to break the bond but whether it is possible?" Ascertaining a biblical view of divorce should not be as simple as selecting which interpretation feels most comfortable, but only by sound exegesis of Scripture can a believer ascertain for himself God's view of divorce and remarriage.

No Divorce/No Remarriage

The most rigid stance on divorce can be summarized as "no divorce and no remarriage." This view holds that marriage is "permanent unto death," says J. Carl Laney, Biblical literature professor at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.

The flesh bond of the first marriage is enduring, proponents of this view argue. Jesus oft-cited exception clause in Matthew 19 addresses matters unique to Semitic practice. Even adultery does not justify dissolving the marital bond.

Moses never commanded divorce, Laney says; the New Testament's mention of divorce in the Old Testament indicates it was only the hard-heartedness of the people that brought couples to divorce. Even though divorce was practiced, the Mosaic Law did not provide for the dissolution of a marriage, states theologian Charles Ryrie. "As marriage was originally planned there was no provision for ending it except by death."

Remarriage to another believer is allowed for a widow or widower; remarriage after divorce in any other case is tantamount to adultery. This view goes so far as to suggest that an innocent party marrying a divorced person also commits adultery. Laney says when a divorce occurs there are only two scriptural options: reconciliation between the couples or the single life.

Limited Divorce/No Remarriage

A second view affirms that God's intent is that marriage be a "lifelong relationship," notes William Heth, New Testament and Greek professor at Taylor University, Upland, IN.

Married couples should not divorce, but in cases where divorce or separation occurs, the individuals must reconcile or remain single. There is no option for remarriage, Heth says.

"As a creation ordinance, marriage is binding on all humankind, Christian and non-Christian alike," Heth believes, noting that Paul never intended believers to remarry after being deserted by a non-believer, while acknowledging the innocent believer bears no responsibility for the divorce.

Heth admits that this is a hard teaching in which God's grace is given to those who "desire to be faithful to their Lord's teachings, no matter how difficult they seem to be." This view embraces the hope that the "erring" mate will be driven to repent and return to his/her mate. In only one instance is remarriage permitted says Heth, citing Romans 7:2-3, "Paul plainly states that remarriage before the death of one's spouse is adultery."

Limited Divorce/Remarriage Okay

A third view, called the "standard Protestant view" by its proponents, permits divorce in the cases of adultery or desertion. Thomas Edgar says the more rigid views are built on two misconceptions: that scripture clearly allows for no divorce and remarriage; and "the idea that marriage is unbreakable or indissoluble."

"The Bible specifically states that God intended for marriage to be maintained," says Edgar, New Testament professor at Capital Bible Seminary, Lanham, MD. "Just as specifically, Jesus states that there is only one valid reason for which a person may properly divorce the other and subsequently marry someone else — adultery on the part of the spouse."

There is no clear reason to reject this teaching or the teaching that Scripture allows a spouse deserted by a non-believer to divorce, Edgar insists. Remarriage is permissible in both of these instances, according to this view.

Divorce Okay/Remarriage Okay

Those advocating the widest bounds for permitting divorce within a biblical context question if God's hatred of divorce, as uttered by Malachi, has been properly interpreted. They suggest that in Malachi's day, as is still the case today, men were deserting the "wives of their youth" to marry younger, more attractive women.

A more correct interpretation of Malachi 2:16 would then be that God hates the divorce that involves the narcissistic rejection of a faithful spouse, argue those who find Scripture allowing divorce and remarriage under a wide variety of circumstances.

They note hard-heartedness may be manifested in numerous ways: abuse, adultery and even emotional and spiritual abandonment of the relationship. Advocates of this more liberal reading of Scripture explain that this hard-heartedness so destroys the marriage bond that divorce is then clearly the best option.

Under this view, those who divorce for any reason have the right to remarry. Critics note that under this interpretation of Scripture, adultery can be so broadly defined to excuse divorce for nearly any malfeasance committed by the other partner.

Feinberg says that whatever view is advocated, it should never be thought that divorce or remarriage are morally obligatory. "Reconciliation is the preferable response."

Even following divorce, it's God's desire that "forgiveness and reconciliation of the original marriage partners always be available," states Joseph Kniskern, author of When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce. Few would agree that divorce is good, Kniskern writes. "God always calls each of us to use spiritual judgment in prayerfully working out our problems. In doing so, we need to wrestle with some of these Scriptures rather than ignore them."

Materials for this article was drawn, in part, from Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, H. Wayne House (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1990)



The Unfortunate Facts

Religion apparently plays a minor role in the entire divorce process. While most adults retain the religious beliefs they had prior to divorce, they are less likely to practice their religion after the divorce, George Barna writes in The Future of the American Family.

Barna's statistics leave one question begging, what were the spiritual habits of those survey respondents before their divorced? As an example, of the divorced individuals in the sample, did only 43% of them read their Bible before they were divorced?

If so, then contrary to Barna's assertion, it appears a lack of Bible reading may predispose a marital breakup. If prior to divorce, Barna is suggesting that the divorced group's reading habits mirrored the still-married group's 62%, then we can accept Barna's inference. In addition, divorced "respondents have indicated that they cling to their beliefs as a source of strength but were surprised to find that their fellow believers were quick to judge and slow to support them during the course of their marital problems."

Marriages | Divorce

    About the Author

  • Dwayne Hastings