A Current Issue - Divorce and Remarriage in the Church.
In 1974, while attending a fundamentalist Baptist church in Nova Scotia, I had my first encounter
with the issue of divorce and remarriage in the church. The woman who wanted to divorce her
husband was been physically abused by him. During a crisis time, she made a first-time
commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The pastor and elders of the church counseled her to return to her husband. When she pointed
out the abuse and harm he caused by his beating her, they suggested that it was not relevant.
Divorce, they said, was never an option for a believer.
The woman asked my opinion, even though as a young believer I was not as familiar with the
Scriptures as my church leadership. I advised her that while what the leadership said sounded
right, according to what I knew then, I could not believe that God would have her return to an
ungodly man who abused her.
It is more than twenty years later. I have read books that present many sides of this difficult
issue. My advice to that woman today would not be different than it was.
In Exodus 20:14 (cf. Duet 5:18) God declares, "Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery". The Lord
Jesus, in Matthew 19:9 declares, "whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, and marries
another commits adultery". (The second part of that verse, concerning marrying a divorced
woman, is not found in some of the original manuscripts. It may not have been part of the
The only cause Jesus gives which permits divorce among believers is that of adultery.
So what is adultery? I have been able to find thirty-three examples of the Hebrew and Greek
words translated adultery. Of these, eleven times allow only the usage of sexual relations
outside of marriage.
Interestingly enough, the majority of the usages and meaning can suggest a greater meaning than
that of physical adultery.
The Old Testament word used is a primitive root, which actually means (in a figurative sense) to
apostatize. It is used in such places as Jeremiah 3:8,9 and Ezekiel 23:37 to refer to idolatry. The
New Testament uses two words. Moichaw, used in Matthew 19:9 and 5 other places, refers to
the physical act. Moicheuw, used in Matthew 19:18 and in thirteen other verses can be used for
either the physical act or for spiritual adultery (idolatry).
Even the word porneia, translated fornication and used 22 times, can be either spiritual or
physical in it's intent, depending on the content and context of the verse.
I believe that it is because of his understanding of those intentions of the words that Paul, in
writing in 1Corinthians 7:10-15, addresses the issue of marriage. This passage has given many a
difficult time, in particular verse 15, where Paul states that if an unbelieving partner leaves (the
suggestion is that of divorce) then the believer is free.
What is adultery, as an allowable cause for divorce? I believe that it can encompass both
physical and spiritual immorality. Just as fornication can be either physical or spiritual in intent,
adultery can be backsliding (Jer. 3:8), idolatry (Ezek. 23:37), or physical (Proverbs 6:32).
Let me suggest a couple of situations to illustrate this. John and Mary, both believers, were
married young. Everything continued well for a few years. After the birth of their second child,
Mary began to gain weight. John, a dominant personality, was disgusted with the difference in
Mary's appearance. Finding sympathy with a co-worker, John becomes enticed into her bed. He
leaves Mary and divorces her a year later.
Susan is a sweet young girl from a good home. She met a young fellow at Youth Group that she
eventually fell in love with and they were married. Within a very short space of time, she
discovered that her husband was involved with the occult. Confronting him, he admits he has
been an active participant for years and refuses to give it up. Disappointed and heartbroken,
Susan leaves her husband. After many tries at reconciliation, all of which at Susan's instance
would require counseling, the marriage ends in divorce.
In both cases above, I suggest that the cause of divorce was adultery. Susan, determined to serve
the Lord and remain pure is confronted by the spiritual adultery of her husband. Mary is
confronted by the more conventional sense of adultery in her husband. Susan chose to leave her
husband, Mary's husband chose to leave her.
The church's response in both cases ought to be to help the women with the tough decisions. By
providing counseling, prayer and encouragement, it is possible in both cases that the marriages
might be restored. It is also possible that both of these ladies might remarry...which I believe is
permissible for them to do.
I believe the key here is the intent. As Paul said, "But God has called us to peace".(1Cor 7:15).
When an adulterous spouse chooses to remain in that state, or even to attempt to draw their
partner in with them (for example, with the occult), I perceive the intent as no different than
enticing to sin. We are to flee such temptations.
There is one area that I have not touched on. Physical, emotional or spiritual abuse. Abuse is, I
believe, a form of idolatry! An abuser sets himself or herself against the commands of God and
lifts them into a place where they are their own „God‟. A Christian husband who abuses his wife
is, in effect, giving himself permission to ignore the direct command of God that husbands love
their wives as Christ loves the church. It is an attempt, often successful, at having total control
over another person. That is a place reserved for the Lord Jesus. In other words, an abuser is
trying to set himself or herself up as a „god‟ over the abused by exercising the power of life and
death over them. Not always does this involve physical life and death. A person can die inside
every day and never feel a blow.
What is my conclusion? It is that divorce, while a last option, is an option where adultery exists.
It is that the divorced person is not morally bound to the former partner any longer in such cases.
Am I certain? Mostly. If I were to try and be dogmatic on this, I would fail. The balance in my
ministry is that every marriage still together is worth trying to save; every divorce does not mean
an end to the possibility of saving the relationship; every person who remarries after a divorce is
not always right to do so. But divorce is not, “never an option for a believer”, as my friends
suggested to me twenty years ago. It is a last option.