Divorce & Remarriage
by Nick Osborne
Several years ago, a Bible college professor told me about a time when the topic of divorce came up in one of his classes. A Christian woman who married, had two children, and divorced while in her early 20’s now had the opportunity to remarry, and approached the professor about officiating the wedding.
“What would you do?” he asked the class.
Many expressed compassion, but one reply jarred the professor. “She can never remarry, because she is divorced. It would be sin.”
“So, you would tell this young woman with decades of life ahead of her that she cannot remarry and live those years with a husband? You would have the young children grow up without a father living at home?”
My first marriage ended when I was in my mid-30’s, and I became the fulltime single parent of five children, ages two-12. However, not only was I a follower of Jesus, I was also a pastor, which put my divorce and eventual remarriage deep under the microscope of examination. The breakdown of my marriage was the deepest, darkest valley I have ever travelled. I have experienced firsthand the horrific pain caused by divorce, and worse, watched my children experience it.
For those of us who have experienced divorce and possibly remarriage, what are we to do? Are we the modern lepers of the Christian community, having to shout “Unclean, unclean” wherever we go? Are we to dismissively think, “No big deal,” and simply move on in life? The answer to both those questions is an emphatic no.
The origin of divorce
When sin, brokenness, and death entered human life in Genesis 3, the first relationship to shatter was between humanity and God. The second was between husband and wife. Later, in order to protect the vulnerable from the hardness of humanity’s heart, Moses legislated restrictions around divorce. Up until then, husbands felt they had the right to divorce their wives for any frivolous or superficial reason, and the situation led to endless suffering for women and children.
Moses stepped in and limited divorce to causes of “indecency,” which meant something filthy or vile (the same word is used to describe human defecation). There were other restrictions as well, but the point of the legislation was to prevent hasty, unjust divorces, and the certificate of divorce stating the cause was indecency (and not adultery, which potentially carried a death sentence) protected the woman from vigilante justice.
However, the rabbis of Jesus’ time took the word “indecent” and interpreted it as anything a man found unsatisfactory about his wife. Loss of attractiveness, speaking disrespectfully to the husband, uncovering arms or legs in public, or even burning dinner all became grounds for divorce.
When Jesus confronted the Pharisees’ teaching, he turned his listeners back to God’s original intention in marriage. Primarily, marriage is not a legal contract or even a union of love. It is two people becoming one flesh, and this new indissoluble entity supersedes every other past, present, or future relationship. For Jesus, the issue is staying in the marriage, not seeking how to escape it.
Yet Jesus did give one legitimate cause for divorce: the sexual unfaithfulness by one party to the marriage.
Why? Because by uniting him or herself to another, the bond of one flesh between husband and wife has disintegrated. In this case, although not commanded, divorce is legitimate.
Yet sometimes people choose divorce for other reasons. If that happens, is remarriage in God’s eyes still possible?
God’s mercy in remarriage
To answer that question, we look at Jesus’ words and God’s mercy. First, whether the reason for divorce was biblically legitimate or not, Jesus assumed that those who divorce will likely remarry. That’s why he says any man who divorces his wife for a reason other than adultery makes her (and the man who marries her) commit adultery. Jesus presupposes the woman will remarry, as marriage was often her sole means of support. The implication is that if this happens, the responsibility is placed not on the woman who remarries, but on the man who first divorced her for reasons other than adultery.
Second, Jesus mentions only one unforgiveable sin, and it’s not a bad divorce. In fact, it’s not even adultery. The betrayal and sin of adultery is terrible, but as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “God forbid that there should be anyone who feels that he or she has sinned himself or herself outside the love of God or outside His Kingdom because of adultery. No; if you truly repent and realize the enormity of your sin and cast yourself on the boundless love and mercy and grace of God, you [will] be forgiven.”
Even though all divorce breaks God’s heart and is the result of sin, not all divorces are “sinful.” Do some divorce for reasons other than adultery? Absolutely. But even in those cases, grace, forgiveness, and new beginnings are available to both parties, for that is the power of the Cross in the lives of broken people.
Nick Osborne is the pastor of Steveston Christian Church in Richmond, BC