On Divorce & Remarriage
Sunday, October 22nd, 2023
Christ Covenant Church – Centralia, WA
1 Corinthians 7:8-24
8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. 10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. 12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. 16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? 17 But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. 18 Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. 20 Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. 21 Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. 22 For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. 23 Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. 24 Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.
Father, we thank you for your patience with our slowness to understand. We thank you all the more for your mercy in forgiving us when we disobey what we do understand. And now as we consider these difficult doctrines of divorce and remarriage, we ask for Your divine light to give us understanding, and we ask for Your divine love, to move us to obedience. We ask all this in the name of Jesus, Amen.
Last week we studied Jesus’ teaching on adultery and divorce, and because divorce is so common in our society, I wanted to dedicate a second sermon to this topic and address some of the common questions that arise in the aftermath of adultery and divorce. There are two questions I want to answer in this sermon that flow from Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, and they are:
- What is a Christian to do when their spouse divorces them?
- Under what conditions is a Christian allowed to remarry?
Laying the Groundwork
Before we answer these difficult questions, we need to review and remind ourselves what marriage is, and what divorce is. So, let’s briefly define our terms according to Scripture.
What is marriage?
- According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:4-9 and Mark 10:1-12, we can say that a lawful marriage is a divinely instituted one-flesh union between one man and one woman for life.”
- Jesus says in Mark 10:6-9, “But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. [quoting Gen. 1:27] 7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8 And they two shall be one flesh: so then they are no more two, but one flesh. [quoting Gen. 2:24] 9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
- So a lawful marriage is God joining together one man and one woman into a lifelong covenantal bond. And this marital covenant is the analogy that God uses for His special relationship to His people in both old and new testaments.
- We find elsewhere in Scripture what the duties of marriage are, and who can lawfully swear those marital vows, but for our intents and purposes we will set those questions aside since that is an entire sermon series in itself.
- For our purposes, what we need to know is what constitutes a biblically lawful marriage, and then anything that deviates from that pattern falls into various categories of either improper, or unlawful, or adulterous marriages.
- This is further complicated by the fact there are different civil laws that govern and define marriage (depending on where and when you live), and when sorting through the baggage, this needs to be factored in as well. But again, for our purposes, we will set that discussion aside.
- There is another important distinction we should make here, and that is between what constitutes a biblically lawful marriage for unbelievers, versus a lawful marriage for Christians.
- Marriage is a creational ordinance, not an exclusively Christian institution, and therefore an unbeliever can lawfully and truly marry another unbeliever. And when two unbelievers marry, God really unites them and the two become one flesh. There’s nothing inherently adulterous or unlawful about two unbelievers marrying.Christians on the other hand, are only allowed to marry “in the Lord” (as Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:39), and therefore it would be unlawful for us to marry “outside the Lord,” that is, to marry an unbeliever. As Christians we have this additional regulation.
So for Christians, a marriage is only biblically lawful when we marry a fellow brother or sister in Christ. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”Summary: What is marriage? Marriage is a divinely instituted one-flesh union between one man and one woman for life.”
- When Christians disobey in this regard, it creates all kinds of very serious problems, because although sinful and contrary to God’s law, to marry an unbeliever is still to really marry. Intermarriage with unbelievers is forbidden because it is a joining together into a one-flesh union what ought not be united. Scriptures gives us numerous cautionary tales to warn us of intermarrying with unbelievers (Deut. 7:3-4, Ezra 9-10, the example of Solomon, etc.).
- If that is marriage, what then is divorce?
What is divorce?
- Divorce is the dissolution of the marriage covenant and one-flesh union that God has instituted. Divorce we could say is a kind of covenantal death.
- Furthermore, a divorce can be either lawful or unlawful, depending upon the grounds for which the divorce was sued out.
- According to Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9, there is only one lawful ground for divorce, and that is fornication (porneia). And in this context, fornication is any sexual sin that breaks the one-flesh union by being physically joined to another (this would include the crimes of adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, etc.).
- Matthew 19:9 says, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery…”
- All other divorces that do not have fornication as their grounds, is considered an unlawful and adulterous divorce. And that goes for believers and unbelievers alike.
- With all that fresh in our mind, let us proceed to answer our first question.
#1 – What is a Christian to do when their spouse divorces them?
To answer this, we must consider our text of 1 Corinthians 7.
- In our passage, Paul addresses three different categories or situations:
- In verses 8-9, he addresses the unmarried and widows.
- In verses 10-11, he addresses the believer who is married to a fellow believer.
- In verses 12-24, he addresses the believer who is married to an unbeliever.
- And so in this chapter, we have instructions for just about any situation that a believer might find themselves in.
- So what is a Christian to do when their spouse divorces them?
- We’ll consider this under two scenarios, first when a believe is divorced by a fellow believer (Scenario A), and second, when a believer is divorced by an unbeliever (Scenario B).
Verses 10-11 – Scenario A (An Unlawful Divorce Between Believers)
10 And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: 11 But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.
- First, we should note that when Paul says, that this is something “I command, yet not I, but the Lord,” he is emphasizing that what he commands here is nothing else than what the Lord Jesus taught in the gospels. So everything here in verses 10-11 is not new, it is just applying what we heard from Jesus in Mark 10:1-12.
- What does the Lord Jesus command?
- First, the Lord Jesus commands that believers must not divorce one another. The one exception is when fornication has occurred, and even then, divorce is merely permitted not required.
- Paul says, “Let not the wife depart from her husband…and let not the husband put away his wife.”
- And I should note here that some translations say, “let not a wife separate from her husband,” and that word separate/depart (χωρίζω),is not talking about our modern concept of a legal separation distinct from divorce, separation in this context is itself divorce.
- So that’s the first command: believers are not to divorce one another (with the one exception being that it is permitted on the grounds of fornication).
- However, God knows that Christians are going to disobey this command and that there will be unlawful divorces amongst believers, and so he tells us what is required when a believer is unlawfully divorced, it says in verse 11, “let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband.”
- In the event that a believer unlawfully divorces another believer, both husband and wife are required to remain unmarried or be reconciled to one another. Neither party is free to remarry someone else because that would be to commit adultery (as Jesus says in Matt. 5:32, Luke 16:18, etc.).
- So although they are really divorced (and we must not say things like “they’re still married in God’s eyes,” no, they are truly divorced), because the grounds of the divorce was unlawful, believers are duty bound to remain unmarried or be reconciled to one another. Those are their only two options.
- The duty of the offending spouse is to confess, repent, and seek reconciliation.
- The duty of the offended spouse is to forgive and go through the reconciliation process. As Paul will say later in verse 15, “God hath called us to peace.”
- So to summarize: when an unlawful divorce occurs between believers, both husband and wife, are required to remain unmarried or seek reconciliation, anything else is adultery.
The Problem of The Unrepentant Believing Spouse
Now what if you are a believer, and your spouse unlawfully divorces you, and refuses to repent, they are unwilling to be reconciled, what then?
- This is where the church must be involved and discipline the unrepentant person, (and in a godly society so also the civil magistrate). In an ideal situation that discipline would bring about one of two outcomes. Either:
- 1) The person repents and is restored (eventually remarried) to their husband/wife. Or…
- 2) The person is excommunicated from the church, declared an unbeliever, and the innocent party (the believing spouse), is then free to remarry.
- What makes these situations so difficult is that many churches have no membership and no church discipline. So an unrepentant spouse might just switch churches or hideout in a church that will never discipline them, and continue to claim to be a believer (this really happens!). And then the innocent party is stuck, or worse, left to their own judgment to know “am I free to remarry or not? Or would I be committing adultery to do so?” Great danger and great sin (adultery!) can result from churches/pastors/elders failing to exercise discipline here.
- This is sadly far too frequent of an occurrence, and therefore calls for great wisdom amongst the churches who do exercise discipline.
- As an aside, this is one of the reasons why church membership is commanded by God and assumed in the New Testament. Because without it, there is no real accountability. There is no way to formally adjudicate or excommunicate someone who was never actually a member of a local church.
- So in the case where believers unlawfully divorce, and then one of the parties apostatizes and is excommunicated, the innocent party is no longer bound, and is free to remarry. Their situation would fall under the rules Paul gives in the next section, verses 12-24. And we’ll talk more about this when we answer Question 2.
- What about Scenario B, when a believer is divorced by an unbeliever, what is a Christian to do?
Verses 12-15 – Scenario B (A Believer Is Divorced By An Unbeliever)
12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. 15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.
- Paul begins by saying that unlike verses 10-11 which are things the Lord Jesus commanded in the gospels, here is a situation that Jesus never publicly addressed. And so Paul speaks with divine authority as to what God commands. This is by no means a lessening of divine authority for Paul to say, “to the rest speak I, not the Lord.” He’s referring to the Lord Jesus in his earthly ministry.
- The situation here is that of a spiritually mixed marriage. Perhaps two unbelievers got married, one of them gets converted, but the otheris still an unbeliever. Since that is now an “unequal yoke,” the Corinthians want to know, should the believer divorce their unbelieving spouse? In the context here it appears the Corinthian were thinking perhaps they should get divorced for the sake of the children.
- As pious as such a divorce might seem, Paul’s answer to this question is a resounding “No!”
- “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. 13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.”
- In cases of mixed marriages, the condition is, so long as the unbeliever is willing to live with the believer in matrimony, a believer must not divorce their unbelieving spouse.
- Paul says further that we should not be worried that the unbelieving spouse might make our children unclean (lit. unwashed/unbaptized), but that children of just one believing parent are considered holy. That is, they are included in God’s covenant because God sanctifies the unbelieving spouse for the child’s sake, “now they are holy.”
- Moreover, he states that God might use you as the instrument by which your unbelieving spouse is saved. And there are many who can attest to God doing this in the life, converting them through the influence of their spouse.
- So as long as our unbelieving spouse is willing to live with us, we are forbidden to divorce them and should rather be praying and seeking to win them by our holy, loving, and respectful conduct.
- And if that applies for marriages with unbelievers, how much more should be we holy, loving, and respectful towards our believing spouse!?
- Continuing in verse 15, Paul then answers our original question about divorce when he says, “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.”
- So if you are a believer, and your unbelieving spouse is unwilling to live with you, God says, then let them divorce you. Consent to the divorce. Don’t try to stop them.
- In such cases, you are no longer bound to remain unmarried or seek to be reconciled (as in Scenario A) because they are not a believer.
So those are the two scenarios Paul gives us to answer our first question, What is a Christian to do when their spouse divorces them? We proceed now to our second question which is…
#2 – Under what conditions is a Christian allowed to remarry?
- We’ve already touched on this a little bit, but let’s walk through a few possible scenarios a Christian might find themselves in. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ve chosen four of the more common scenarios people find themselves in. We’ll start with the easiest scenario and proceed to the more difficult ones.
Scenario 1 – When Our Spouse Has Died
The easiest scenario is that in which our spouse has died (I will speak here in the first common plural “we/our” for sake of communication). Paul addresses this in verses 8-9, and also in verse 39 of this same chapter.
8 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 9 But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn…39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.
- The principle here is that if you are an older widow or widower, and have the gift of sexual continence (you aren’t burning with desire), then it’s good to remain in that unmarried state and serve the Lord.
- However, if you are a younger widow, or don’t have the gift of sexual contentment, then the best option for you is to remarry.
- Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:14, “I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.”
- So the death of a spouse frees us to be remarried (only in the Lord), but we must wisely consider factors like our own age and stage of life, our sexual continence and desires, and also the signs of the times. In some seasons of great persecution such as the Corinthians were living through (he speak of a “present distress” in 1 Cor. 7:26), marriage could be the cause of many earthly troubles, and Paul would spare them that.
- Whatever the case, the death of spouse is the end of the marriage covenant, and believers are free to remarry a fellow believer after that.
- A second scenario that is also somewhat easy to answer is…
Scenario 2 – When Our Spouse Divorces Us and Remarries Someone Else
- Christians are free to remarry when our spouse has divorced us and remarried someone else. This rule applies whether the divorce was lawful or unlawful, and it falls under the law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which we studied last week.
- I will not read again that whole text, but to summarize, it states that a divorced woman who remarries another man, is not allowed to remarry her first husband, even if her second husband dies. God says, “that is an abomination before the Lord.”
- So once there has been a second marriage by our divorced former spouse, the Christian is free to remarry in the Lord. Any hope or obligation for reconciliation is removed, and the prohibition of Deuteronomy 24 now applies.
Scenario 3 – When Our Spouse Has Committed Adultery and We Lawfully Divorce Them
- Here, things get more difficult because a lot depends upon the spiritual state of the spouse who committed adultery. In principle, a lawful divorce means a Christian is free to remarry someone else in the Lord.
- However, just because something is lawful, does not make it wise. And therefore, in these situations, the elders should provide wise counsel as to how to proceed. If there is any hope of the adulterous spouse repenting, then in most cases it would be best to wait in that unmarried state and prayerfully pursue reconciliation (or not get a divorce in the first place).
- But if the adulterous spouse remains unrepentant, or altogether untrustworthy and unsuitable to ever be a faithful husband/wife again, then it is no sin to remarry someone else. But great wisdom and prudence is needed here, you should talk to the elders and get their advice.
Scenario 4 – When Our Spouse Has Abandoned Us but Still Professes Faith
- Finally, we come to our last and most difficult scenario (at least of the ones we have time to cover), and that is when our spouse has either unlawfully divorced us, or has simply abandoned us without a divorce, and still professes to be a believer. This is akin to that scenario that we discussed earlier, and which Paul addresses in verses 10-11, where two believers are unlawfully divorced and must remain unmarried or be reconciled.
- In this case, the offended/innocent party is only allowed to remarry after an orderly process of church discipline has taken place (per Matthew 18), and the church has declared you free to remarry.
- The principle here is to be patient and prayerful, and to allow the process of church discipline to play out. The hope should be that the professing believer truly repents and returns to the marriage. But in the sad cases where that does not happen, and with the consent and judgment of the church, the innocent party may be granted the freedom to divorce and remarry according to God’s law.
I hope you can see (if you didn’t already) that sin always makes life complicated. And that Jesus’ words are true that divorces only ever happen because of someone’s hardness of heart. At the same time, we should take heart that adultery does not have to be the end of our marriage, especially amongst believers. Although fornication is a lawful ground for believers to divorce, it is by no means required, and should only ever be a last resort after every effort to reconcile has failed.
And when divorce does happen, that does not mean the end of our happiness. We serve a God who raises the dead, who can resurrect and renew dead relationships, and therefore we can trust him to be faithful even when we have been faithless, for as it says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “He cannot deny Himself.”
- The story of Scripture is that of God marrying a people, they commit adultery, he divorces them, and then he dies to forgive their sins.
- Christ died to make an adulterous and divorced people into a holy and spotless bride. And if Christ has done this for you, he can certainly work for good whatever sinful situation you are entangled in.
- Jesus is the only hope for our marriages, and he is the only hope for those who are divorced, or widowed, or unmarried.
- Jesus is the God of hope. As Paul says in Romans 15:13, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” To that we say, “Amen and Amen.” Let us pray.