Is it acceptable for a Christian to divorce? If so, when? What about remarriage after divorce? If remarriage is permissible, are there any stipulations that must be satisfied?
One of the things we learn in the Pauline corpus is that several issues he addressed in them were things that arose in the church at that time. He did not set out to write a handbook of systematic theology, or manuals instructing his audience on how to deal with issues arising within the church. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul deals with divisions in the church concerning the administration of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper that was meant to be received in an orderly manner was being abused by the wealthy in the Corinthian Church. Paul deals with this situation and then gives a formula that is being used in many churches today. We also see a similar case later in chapter 15, where Paul deals with the issue of resurrection. Some brethren were dubious of the possibility of resurrection, considering that the physical body was considered to be inferior to the spiritual body and a thing to be discarded. Paul tried to address this concern in chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. And I could go on. In the same manner, Paul addresses the problem of divorce and remarriage, which arguably was a problem in the Corinthian church at the time of his writing. This is also the case in Matthew 19, where Jesus was responding to a question from Deuteronomy 24:1 that deals with remarriage, and then goes on to provide guidance on divorce.
Before we begin, I must emphasize that the Bible prohibits divorce. The Lord, speaking through His mouth piece in Malachi 2:16, declares that He hates divorce. But, even before then, He also declares in Genesis 2:26-28, how marriage is a one flesh bond that cannot be broken. Both the Hebrew and Greek words used for the bonding of the man with his wife suggest inseparability. The Hebrew word “dabaq” (to weld, to cleave) utilized in Genesis 2, tends to have more force to it than the Greek “kollao” (to glue, to unite). Jesus in Matthew 19 is reiterating what He had said in Genesis (if we agree that He was the one doing the creative activity in Genesis as is evidenced by Colossians 2:14-16), that divorce can be allowed only on account of fornication (“porneia”) (Matthew 19:9).
So what we have on the subject of divorce are the words of Jesus, Yahweh, and Paul. To guide us in understanding how this delicate issue can be handled, we must refer to what we have learned in biblical hermeneutics (arts and science of biblical interpretation): looking at the historical background, culture, context, how the literature was understood by the initial audience, and then applying the principles to the present. One thing that stands out is that there are some modifications going on here. Yahweh says He hates divorce. Jesus allows it only on account of fornication. Paul says it is okay if the unbelieving spouse seeks to divorce his believing spouse.
Is any of them undermining each other? By no means! When Paul was dealing with divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:18-16, he was quite clear that this was a direct command from the Lord (Mark 10:9; Matthew 19), unlike his suggestion and guidance respecting marriage and remarriage of widows earlier (1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Divorce was never intended by God for his people, and is not intended for His people today. From the time that man was created in God’s image there is something about this one flesh bond that reflects God’s image into the cosmos and back in reverence to God. A breaking of this one flesh bond is dishonoring God, as well as the individual involved. I have witnessed divorce first hand, and I have spoken to numerous people who have. It is a heart wrenching experience.
However, Paul said that if a non-Christian partner wanted to separate, the Christian partner should not resist. Paul modifies Jesus’ teachings (Mark 10:9) not to divorce; but is not, by any means, undermining Jesus’ teachings, as Jesus in no way undermines Malachi 2:16. Paul has applied them in detail to a new situation that Jesus never faced. It is left for us today to decipher what constitutes fornication. Looking at the usage of adultery (“moichao”) and “porneia” (fornication) in the gospel by Jesus, it does seem that these words are used interchangeably for unchastity or immorality. The traditional interpretation that adultery is sexual sin outside of marriage, or a married person with an unmarried person, and that fornication is sexual sin before marriage, could be misleading because the Greek usage of “porneia” includes, but is not limited to, sexual sin. Porneia includes bestiality, homosexuality, or other activities that repudiate the one flesh bond of marriage, and willful desertion. This is why Jesus singles out “fornication,” which is a sexual sin against one flesh bond, as the only grounds allowable for divorce (Matthew 19:9).
It will interest you to know that an act does not only have to be sexual to constitute fornication. I am arguing that fornication includes willful desertion, as well as adultery. This also includes any act that repudiates the marriage vows. For example, if a married person intentionally commits murder and becomes incarcerated for years in prison, he or she is committing fornication against the other spouse even if the incarcerated spouse is living a chaste life in prison. This is because the incarcerated spouse has willfully deserted the other spouse and constitutes allowable grounds for divorce.
In the same manner, if one of a married couple leaves his or her spouse to reside in another country for many years without physical contact with each other for whatever reason, the spouse who left the other spouse to reside overseas is committing fornication against the spouse left behind, even if this spouse is living a life of chastity in that foreign country of residence. I know that this will not sit well with many people, but we are called to do due diligence to the Word of God. On this same issue, the Apostle Paul prohibits separation from one’s spouse except for a short period of time for prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Obviously, divorce is odious to God. Jesus told the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-12) that God’s original plan was for a man and woman to be joined in marriage and made one flesh, which is accomplished through the act of sex. No man is to be able to separate that bond. Even if the man and woman do divorce, they are still joined together because their flesh is joined. In the Old Testament, divorce is defined in two ways: 1.) to send away and 2.) a cutting, as in severing a tie. When Jesus refers to divorce it is defined as “to send away,” as in being fired or let go. When reading about divorce in the Old Testament, it’s almost as if the man can leave if he’s unhappy with his wife and her performance (Deuteronomy 24:1). Jesus gives no such stipulations, only to say that to remarry the same person after a divorce is to commit adultery.
What will surprise you to know is that divorce in itself is not inherently sinful, if it is based on fornication. Yahweh uses it metaphorically to describe his relationship with unfaithful Israel, who “played the harlot” another Hebrew expression for unfaithfulness specifically for idolatry. Yahweh divorces Israel in (Jeremiah 31:31). In Jeremiah 3:8, Yahweh gives Israel a certificate of divorce, which Moses had allowed Israel because of the hardness of their hearts in following the one flesh bond marriage instituted by Yahweh from the beginning:
“Therefore the showers have been withheld, And there has been no spring rain. Yet you had a harlot’s forehead; You refused to be ashamed. Have you not just now called to Me, ‘My Father, You are the friend of my youth? Will He be angry forever? Will He be indignant to the end?’ Behold, you have spoken And have done evil things, And you have had your way. Then the LORD said to me in the days of Josiah the king, ‘Have you seen what faithless Israel did? She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there, I thought, “After she has done all these things she will return to Me”; but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. Because of the lightness of her harlotry, she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees. Yet in spite of all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to Me with all her heart, but rather in deception, declares the LORD.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘Faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.’” (Jeremiah 3:3-11)
We also read in the account of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy that Joseph sought to divorce his wife secretly because of what he thought was marital unfaithfulness on Mary’s part until he was told by the angel not carry on with his plan, because Mary’s pregnancy was a Holy Ghost phenomenon. The present day church who lives in many different situations that were never contemplated by either Jesus, Malachi, or Paul needs wisdom, humility and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to apply their teaching afresh in their own time. My answer is, yes. It is acceptable for a Christian to divorce, but it wasn’t God’s plan from the beginning. The divorced spouse does not have to remain single as some denominations insinuate. He or she is allowed to remarry but only on account of fornication. Be encouraged.
Your brother in the Lord,
Blessing Udoamaka Jacobs.