by Phil Enlow

The subject of divorce and remarriage is one that is both controversial and also very relevant to many real-life situations in which Christians find themselves. Opinions on the subject are all over the map and sincere Bible-believers strongly disagree. One thing is certain: anyone who takes the Bible seriously must reckon with the statements made by Jesus on the subject. Here are some of them.

One is found in Matt. 5:31-32: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” This occurs during the famous Sermon on the Mount.

Another occurs in Matt. 19:3-9: “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

“‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’

“‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’

“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.’”

Yet another is found in Luke 16:16-18: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

On the face of it these passages sound like God’s last word on the subject, an uncompromising, unequivocal law that answers all objections and covers all circumstances. But is that the case? Was that what Jesus had in mind in saying what He did?

Two Approaches
I have read a number of different treatments of this subject and most of them tend to take one of two approaches to these scriptures. The first approach is the one that sees the words of Jesus as the end of the discussion. His words are taken at face value and every other scripture that bears on the subject is forced to harmonize with them. No matter what the circumstances are in the real world Jesus’ words are lifted up as absolute law, no discussion necessary.

The other approach I have seen taken by several writers is to dissect the Greek and contend that Jesus didn’t actually say what it sounds like. They would say that Jesus was actually talking about separation — “putting away” — and not legal divorce or something along that general line. These writers don’t see the issue of divorce as quite so “black and white” as the first group and therefore believe that there are some circumstances that scripturally allow both divorce and remarriage.

Real Life Situations
As I mentioned at the beginning, there are all kinds of situations in which Christian believers find themselves. Brother Thomas, in writing on this subject many years ago, used the following example. Two young women are converted to Christ in their early twenties. One of them has lived a very immoral life with numerous boyfriends although she has never actually been married. The other has lived a very moral life but unwisely entered into a brief unfortunate marriage during her teen years and is now divorced.

Both find themselves in a legalistic church — one that takes the “hard line” approach to the subject. As a result, although both young women are received as new believers and told that their sins have been forgiven, the one that was briefly married is told that as a consequence she must remain single or become an adulteress. The other, although she has lived a wicked life, is free to marry. Is that what Jesus had in mind?

Another all too common situation is one in which someone is converted to Christ and their spouse remains an unbeliever. In process of time the unbeliever rejects the claims of Christ, divorces the new believer, and then marries someone else. The believer is then told that he or she must remain single and never marry again — unless, of course, their former mate should happen to die.

These are just two examples of real-life problems confronted by Christian ministers and teachers in trying to shepherd the flock of God. And such spiritual leaders have a great responsibility, both to God and man. On the one hand we desire to be faithful to God and His Word. On the other we want to lead people aright with love and compassion and not impose unnecessary burdens upon them.

What About the Words of Jesus?
Something doesn’t feel quite right about the hard-line approach. It just doesn’t seem to fit the gospel of grace to impose such an arbitrary “one-size-fits-all” law on God’s people. Is that really God’s will and plan? And yet, there are the words of Jesus! What do we do?

Personally, I haven’t found the attempts to explain away Jesus’ words very convincing. While it is no doubt true that modern readers would not be aware of every nuance of meaning understood by those first-century hearers, still, it seems a bit of a stretch to basically empty His words of their apparent meaning. Surely everyone would agree that divorce was not part of God’s original plan, but rather something that has come about as a result of the entrance of sin.

How, then, can we reckon honestly with what Jesus plainly said and yet avoid what I believe are modern legalistic errors? Here are some questions that must be considered: to whom was Jesus speaking? For what purpose did He say these things? In other words, we must carefully consider the context of these scriptures, and not just the contexts of the individual passages, but also the general context of Christ’s earthly ministry. It was a unique time. Words are not uttered in a vacuum. It is their context that gives them meaning. Therefore, let us examine that context and see what bearing it may have on the meaning and purpose of the things Jesus said.

The Covenant of Law
According to His own words in Matthew 15:24, Jesus was sent “to the lost sheep of Israel.” In spite of the general spiritual condition of Israel they were still, of all peoples on earth, God’s covenant people. The law of Moses was not given to the Egyptians, the Romans, or the Chinese, but to Israel. They had entered into a covenant with God to be His people and to keep His laws.

In particular, the religious leaders, mostly scribes and Pharisees, were full of pride and boasting when it came to Moses’ law. To them, righteousness before God was to be obtained by scrupulously obeying that law. The problem, however, was that they had actually perverted the true intent of the law, substituting their own very convenient traditional interpretations instead. Thus, as Jesus so clearly pointed out, they could appear outwardly to be very righteous and yet their hearts were full of wickedness. See Matthew, chapter 23.

The Purpose of the Law
But what was the purpose of the law? After all, it was part of the old covenant and had no power to save. No one could become righteous through the law. Even the Old Testament speaks of a new covenant to come (Jeremiah 31:31-34), one not like the old covenant. In the new one God would write his laws in the heart. Why, then, the law?

In the words of Paul: (Gal. 3:19) “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” The seed, of course, was Jesus Christ. Notice the word “until.” That tells us that the law was temporary.

In I Timothy 1:9-11 Paul says, “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” Thus, one reason for the imposition of law was to restrain evil.

However, there was another much more important reason. In Gal. 3:24 Paul said, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” KJV. The word “schoolmaster” implies two roles for the law. One has to do with rule and authority and the other has to do with teaching.

The law of Moses definitely filled the role of authority. Transgression carried terrible consequences. Israel was often in rebellion against God and His law but they never got away with that rebellion. Sooner or later they suffered terrible judgments. God meant business!

But God also meant to teach His people. The law spelled out God’s righteous and holy character as it applied to every aspect of their lives. And as the people were made aware of God’s holiness, their own sinfulness became apparent. That is surely the most important purpose of the law: it taught man that he was a sinner in need of salvation. In other words, it was meant to prepare people to receive Christ when He came to offer Himself for their sins as God’s sacrificial lamb.

No lesson could be more critical to salvation. If men are not made thoroughly aware of their sinfulness before a holy God they will feel no need for a Savior. That is why Paul said in Rom. 3:19-20, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

Magnifying the Law
In Isaiah 42:21 the prophet had said of Christ, “The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.” KJV. And “magnify” the law is just what Jesus did!

That is why Jesus taught as He did. It was important that people really understood God’s original intent in the law and not merely its letter. That’s why Jesus so vigorously condemned the so-called righteousness of the Pharisees. The devil had used them to “gut” the law, to reduce it to a bunch of external “rules” that produced nothing but self-righteous hypocrisy. For the law to do its job, Jesus had to shine a true light upon it.

That is why, for instance, several times during the Sermon on the Mount Jesus would say something like, “You have heard that it was said...but I say to you.” On issue after issue — including divorce — He would first refer to the traditions people had been taught and then show them how God actually viewed each issue and thus, how short they came from attaining to true righteousness.

For example, in Matt. 5:27-28 He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In this way He went far beyond the simple outward commandment concerning the sin of adultery and showed the people their sinful hearts. And as Jesus shined a brilliant light on the holiness of God expressed in the law I have no doubt that God’s Spirit was at work convicting people of their sinfulness.

It was in this vein that Jesus dealt with the subject of divorce. Particularly when He talked with the Pharisees about it He made every effort to show them just how far they were from God’s intent in creation. It was as though He was saying to them, “You think you are so holy and righteous because you keep your traditions. Let me give it to you straight. If you really want to be righteous by your own efforts here is what it takes!”

Jesus was magnifying the law, showing them God’s righteous standard in all its purity. His purpose was to expose their sin, not to establish the original creation ideal as an absolute law covering all situations in a sinful world. Even God Himself didn’t hold people under the law to that standard. His faithful servant, Moses, established laws regarding divorce and remarriage. He did this, as Jesus pointed out, because of the hardness of their hearts. I believe He also did it to retain at least some sense of the sanctity of marriage. Without these provisions the whole institution of marriage as God intended it would pretty much have fallen apart and people would have just entered into relationships as they pleased.

Fulfillment of the Law
In Matt. 5:17-18 Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

What did He mean? How is it that we are not under the law today if Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law? What does “fulfill” mean? I’m glad you asked!

First of all, as we have pointed out, Jesus was helping to fulfill the purpose of the law as a tool to establish the guilt of man before God. That is why He continually went beyond the letter of the law to its original intent. For those under the law every transgression had to be faced honestly. Every stroke of the law had to be upheld.

He also fulfilled the law in the sense that He alone, out of all men in history, perfectly kept it, living up to its holy and righteous standard. The use of spotless lambs as sin offerings under the law was meant to foreshadow the coming of a sinless Savior, the ultimate spotless lamb, the sin offering to end all sin offerings. If Jesus had not fulfilled the law in this sense there would have been no salvation and we would have had no hope.

And His becoming that sacrifice for sin was the ultimate fulfillment of the law. All of the wrath for all of the guilt of all of the transgression of the law fell once and for all upon the precious Lamb of God. There is no more offering needed for sin. He willingly bore all of our sin and guilt. The law that condemns us has been fully satisfied.

Listen to Heb. 7:23-27: “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

“Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”

When anyone comes to God in true repentance and faith the law is done away. It has done its job. The righteousness to which we could never attain under the law is freely given to those who believe. Romans 4:4-5. Then as God begins to write His laws in our hearts the righteousness of the law — not merely its letter, but the true righteousness behind the letter — is fulfilled in us as we walk no longer according to the desires of our flesh but by the Spirit. Romans 8:4, Hebrews 8:10-11.

This is a process; it does not happen all at once. At any given time God’s children in the world are in all stages of spiritual development and have need of divine grace and the cleansing of the blood. Our destiny is to be fully conformed to the image of Christ but we are not there yet. Romans 8:28-29. I John 3:2.

John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” At the heart of our consideration of the subject of divorce and remarriage is the fundamental change that came about through our Lord and Savior. He brought us under the economy of grace.

Grace is divine favor shown to the undeserving. It is favor no man could ever earn. It is not extended to the “righteous” but to sinners in need. It is the hand of Almighty God reaching all the way down to the darkest prison house of sin and rescuing those who would otherwise be without hope.

And it is a rescue — a rescue that fully takes into account all of our sinful inability. It is not the thunderings of Mount Sinai threatening men into a vain attempt to walk the “straight and narrow.” Rather, it offers the mighty power of the cross and the precious blood of a Savior Who bore the full wrath of the law in our place.

Purified From All Sin
1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” Verse 9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

This is a critical point: does the blood of Christ purify us from all sin or not? Going all the way back to my Sunday School days I remember hearing that “justification” means “just as if I’d never sinned.” What a glorious truth? How wonderful it is that our sins can be blotted out, not because they have been excused, but because the just penalty has been exacted upon another! It is not that God feels sorry for us and overlooks our sins; rather, in Christ, He has given us a solid legal foundation for forgiveness and cleansing. In the Father’s eyes, His Son became the sinner and was punished in our place. Thank God, our sins do not have to be paid for twice!

Yet somehow, in some places, “just as if I’d never sinned” doesn’t seem to apply to sins involving divorce. As in our earlier example I simply cannot see how the blood of Christ can cleanse from all manner of sexual promiscuity but not divorce! How can you tell the one young woman that Christ has given her a clean slate, a fresh start and then tell the other one that her particular sin has made her in effect a “second-class” citizen of the kingdom and she can never marry? What kind of gospel is that?

Does that mean that because we are under grace and not law that God doesn’t care about the issue, that people are more or less free to divorce and remarry as they will? Certainly not! But grace does start with real sinners and all kinds of real life needs and situations. Let’s see how Paul dealt with the issues involved in I Corinthians 7.

Paul Writes About Marriage
Clearly, Paul had his hands full with the church at Corinth. They were not long out of heathen darkness and it showed. On issue after issue Paul patiently sought to teach them the ways of God and to help them grow up in the Lord.

In 1 Cor. 7:1-2 Paul begins, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” Obviously the Corinthian believers had written to Paul asking some questions about marriage. They knew that Paul wasn’t married and that he saw the value to his ministry in not being married. Some of them apparently had gotten the idea that marriage wasn’t a good thing and that they therefore ought not to marry.

And so Paul did acknowledge that not marrying was a good thing, yet, knowing that “each man has his own gift from God” (verse 7) and that immorality was a serious problem he instructed each man to have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (That, by the way, is a difficult instruction to follow if some are to be denied marriage!) In verse 9 he says that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

Divorce in the Church
Now Paul begins to touch on the issue of divorce. In verses10-11 he says, “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.”

It ought to be obvious here that Paul wasn’t instructing the heathen but rather Christian believers in the Corinthian church. He was addressing marriages in which both partners were genuine believers. His instruction to them fully honors the original principles of marriage to which Jesus referred. In fact, by saying, “not I, but the Lord,” he was directly referring to the things that Jesus had taught on the subject. He was saying that Jesus had already given specific instruction in this area and he was merely passing on that instruction.

And that is the way it should be. Real Christians should have a different standard from the world. We need to do everything in our power to help God’s people in this area through prayer and godly counsel to lay hold of the grace of God to overcome the difficulties that arise in marriage. It is the work of Satan to divide and separate. God invented marriage! Where two people are willing to seek and desire God’s help then Satan’s efforts can be overcome and they can reap the blessings God intended through marriage.

Unequal Yoke Marriages
Now we come to a controversial passage. 1 Cor. 7:12-16 says, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

“But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”

Now we have a different set of circumstances: one partner is a believer and the other is not. Paul doesn’t specify how this unequal yoke has come about but one obvious way occurs when two people are already married and one of them is converted to Christ and the other is not. What then?

Here is a critical point to consider. Paul begins by saying, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord).” What is the significance of this? Does this mean that Paul was simply giving his own uninspired opinion on the subject? Should we pay attention to what he said since it was “not the Lord”? What did he mean?

Paul was most definitely giving inspired instruction. What he WAS saying, however, was that the instruction given by Jesus on the subject that he had just applied to marriages between believers DIDN’T APPLY to “the rest.” That is, in what Jesus said, He didn’t have “unequal yoke” marriages in mind. Somehow, those who try to apply the words of Jesus to any and everything called “marriage” seem to miss the significance of Paul saying, “I, not the Lord.”

If that isn’t what he meant, pray tell what did he mean? If Jesus’ words had applied to this other group then why didn’t Paul simply refer to them? That’s what a lot of legalistic people do.

Godly Wisdom Needed
What he says in verse 12 is similar to what he says in verse 25: “I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” There are a lot of folks who want their religion in simple black and white. They want clear unequivocal “rules to live by.” Those kinds of people are the ones most inclined to legalism. They are the kind of people who would tend to just take the words of Jesus as “universal law” and ignore or twist and explain away the rest of scripture. They insist upon a “proof-text” faith.

I can just hear some of them reacting to Paul! “What do you mean you don’t have a command from the Lord about believers married to unbelievers! They’re married aren’t they? That’s all we need to know.” But I believe Paul had a better understanding of Christian faith. He knew that as a Christian minister he was called upon to deal with many real life situations that weren’t necessarily covered directly and specifically in the Word. He knew that He needed the Author of that Word to give him wisdom to handle those situations in a way that honored both the Spirit of God and also the principles of the Word.

I really believe that there are many professing Christians who don’t need God at all! Their religion is all down in black and white, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed, every question answered. They don’t need to seek God about things. They just look in their little book of ready-made answers. That, by the way, perfectly describes the religion of the Pharisees who scrupulously followed their traditions regarding the law but had completely lost touch with its Author.

God has fixed it to where there must always be a balance between Word and Spirit. Our walk is always one of faith and, as the old hymn says, “I need Thee every hour.” God will give wisdom to those who honestly desire it from their hearts. And that is what He gave Paul as he sought to answer the questions raised by the Corinthians. Let’s consider some of the implications of what Paul said.

Are All Marriages the Same?
One of the very plain implications has to do with how God sees different kinds of marriages. The question could be raised: does God regard all marriages the same? It is evident from Paul’s words that He does not.

Paul says that the unbelieving mate is “sanctified” by the believer. Sanctified means “set apart.” Thus God recognizes marriages where at least one partner is a believer in a way He does not where only unbelievers are involved. This recognition is reflected in how He sees the children: “unclean” versus “holy,” or “set apart.” There is a grace extended by God to the children of believers. It is a great privilege—and a great responsibility—to have believing parents.

I have both read and heard preachers who lay great stress on the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:6, “...what God has joined together let not man separate.” They seem to believe that this applies to anything society recognizes as “marriage.” Does it? We have even begun to see certain segments of society recognize homosexual “marriage.” Did God bring such together? Is God the Author of everything called marriage?

Based on Paul’s words would we not be forced to conclude that in God’s eyes most marriages are “unsanctified”? Are they not simply earthly arrangements entered into by unbelievers with little or no recognition of God? The fact is that nothing about an unbeliever is “righteous” in God’s eyes. Single, married, divorced, immoral, and outwardly moral alike need the same cleansing and forgiveness that comes from repentance and faith. The blood of Christ has the power to cleanse from all sin. Of course, when a couple are converted together, they then need, with God’s help, to honor His principles in their marriage.

Forbidden Marriage
There is, in fact, one kind of marriage that is specifically forbidden in scripture: when a believer marries an unbeliever. 2 Cor. 6:14-15 says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?”

This principle is clearly seen in the history of Israel. They, as God’s covenant people, were forbidden to intermarry with the surrounding heathen nations. For example, Deut. 7:3-4 says, “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

Psalm 106:34-36 speaks of their disobedience in this area: “They did not destroy the peoples as the LORD had commanded them, but they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs. They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them.”

Both Ezra and Nehemiah had to contend with this problem during the return from the Babylonian exile. Many Israelites had married foreign wives in spite of what God had said and in spite of the terrible judgment that had befallen the nation. See Ezra, chapter 9, for example.

In fact, in Ezra 10 we see those who had married foreign wives instructed to put them away, children and all! Here is one instance in scripture where divorce was actually the right thing to do! The problem here was not their “foreign-ness” as such but their “heathen-ness.” Such alliances were a corruption of a nation God had set apart for Himself. The lesson for us is that for God’s children to marry unbelievers today is likewise a corruption of God’s holy nation, the Church.

There were, however, other examples of foreign women, like Ruth and Rahab, who married Israelites with God’s blessing, becoming part of the covenant people. In these cases Ruth and Rahab became believers and willingly served the God of Israel.

It is easy to see throughout the scriptures just how much of a premium God places on the purity and separation of His people from the world. Surely no one would contend that God is the author of “unequal-yoke” marriages. At best, He may become a redeemer of them.

Paul’s Counsel
So now we see Paul trying to give sound spiritual counsel to people who found themselves in these types of marriages. Although he does not say, it is likely that in most cases the unequal yoke resulted, as we have said, from one partner in an existing marriage being converted to Christ and the other not. What to do?

First of all we should note that the believing partner is basically instructed to do his or her part to uphold God’s principles in marriage. Simply finding one’s self married to an unbeliever is not by itself a basis for divorce. In fact, Paul treats it rather as an opportunity to win the unbeliever to the Lord. But even where that does not happen the Christian is to endeavor to honor the Lord in the marriage.

But of course we know that marriage involves two people. Just because the believer does what is right is no guarantee that the unbeliever will. Paul seems to recognize two types of negative situations that can occur. He begins by saying, “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.” Then he applies the same principle to a woman with an unbelieving husband.

The word that is translated “willing” in the NIV is rendered “pleased” in the King James. Strong’s Concordance gives the following meanings for the original Greek word: “to think well of in common, i.e. assent to, feel gratified with.” As the word is used in the New Testament, Strong’s gives the following meanings: “allow, assent, be pleased, have pleasure.”

It seems evident that the relationship Paul is referring to can reasonably be described as a “marriage.” In spite of the spiritual divide that exists the unsaved partner at least desires to continue the marriage relationship. They are willing and even pleased to do so.

What About Abuse?
But what if an unsaved husband beats his wife, for instance? Do you think that would qualify as his being “willing” and “pleased”? Does God require a wife under such circumstances to simply submit to being a “punching bag”? Surely not.

What if the husband wanted her to go to work as a prostitute? or to join him in robbing banks? or forced her to submit to deviant sexual practices? or to do something else that violated her Christian conscience? I certainly don’t believe Paul had anything of the sort in mind when he spoke of the husband as being “willing” to dwell with her.

I have known women who exhibited great faith and patience in difficult marriages, trusting God to watch over them and praying for their husbands. I admire and am blessed by such faith and I believe the Lord is pleased. I would not discourage a woman with that kind of faith in the least, but I could never, in good conscience, insist that a Christian wife remain in a place of personal danger.

The statement, “she must not divorce him” is preceded by an “if.” That seems to imply that there may be relationships that are so broken, that are such a violation of all that God intended in marriage that the only option is to end them. Surely the Spirit of Christ would be first to prayerfully exhaust every reasonable possibility, to do nothing in undue haste and to seek prayer support and godly counsel, but the partner may in spite of all that be so under the control of Satan that the situation is beyond remedy.

The other negative situation is much more obvious: the unbeliever says, “I’ve had enough,” and simply abandons the believing partner. They seek a divorce and often take up with someone else. Even though the believing partner has done his or her part to honor the Lord the action of the unbeliever ends the marriage and they are left alone. What now?

Here is where I feel that many legalistic teachers fail to recognize the difference in the way God sees these two kinds of marriages. Paul does NOT apply the words of Jesus to the unequal yoke marriage, but they DO. Even though the abandoned partner has tried to do right they are nevertheless in effect held responsible for the sin and unbelief of the departing spouse and told that God will not allow them to marry again.

Paul says, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so.” That’s plain enough. Do all you reasonably can to make the marriage work but if, in the end, the unbeliever insists on leaving, accept it. Let them go. Ask God to help you to keep a good spirit. Entrust your future into His faithful hands, one day at a time.

Not Bound
Paul goes on to say, “A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” What does that mean, not being bound? Does it merely mean, as some teach, that they are not under an obligation to try to preserve the relationship? That is how many legalists handle this verse. But is that all?

It seems rather obvious that the Lord wouldn’t expect them to chase after a departing spouse and try to force them to continue a relationship they were determined to leave! Surely, “not bound” means “free.” What kind of “freedom” is it to tell someone whose mate has abandoned and divorced them that they can never marry? It sounds to me as if they are still pretty “bound.” Is that what God intended? Did he intend them to remain “bound” to a marriage that has ceased to exist?

I believe that they are indeed free, including being free to marry, in the Lord, of course. We shall see in a moment further confirmation of this.

I believe that there are two principal reasons for the believer in such a marriage to do as Paul instructs. The first is implied by the context, by what is said of a marriage between believers. Believers are to do their part to uphold the principles of marriage as God intended it.

But the other reason is directly stated: “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” The most important consideration here is not merely preserving earthly marriages but rather the possibility of eternal salvation for the lost partner. A godly spouse can be a powerful witness to an unbeliever, one God can use to draw them to Himself and redeem, not only the marriage but also a soul. I Peter 3:1-6 gives some wonderful principles as to the proper way for a wife to seek to win her lost husband to Christ.

After dealing with some other issues, Paul, in verses 25-28, talks about whether those who are not married should marry. He speaks about two kinds of unmarried people. The first kind is “virgins.” His advice that they not marry is based on “the present crisis.” He also points out in the second half of verse 28, “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” What he is saying is more “practical advice” than it is “command.”

Verse 27 is a very interesting—and revealing—verse. It says, “Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” The King James Version puts it this way, “Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.”

Here, Paul is talking about a man. In the first instance the man is married (“bound unto a wife”). Paul’s instruction to “seek not to be loosed” is correctly rendered in the NIV as “Do not seek a divorce.” In the second instance Paul is talking to a man who has been “loosed from a wife.” The NIV says, “unmarried” but it should be pointed out that this is not talking about someone who has never been married but rather someone who has been married but is now single following the ending of the marriage. The two instances of the word “loosed” in the King James are from the same Greek root. They are talking about the same thing.

This point seems to be missed by virtually everyone who takes the legalistic “hard line” on the issue of divorce and remarriage. They point to verse 39: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.” They contend that the only way for the man in the second half of verse 27 to be “loosed” from a wife—and be free to remarry—is for the wife to be dead.

But you can’t separate the two halves of verse 27 and say that being loosed means “divorced” in the first half and “dead” in the second! It’s the same word! If the only way a man can be loosed from his wife is through her death then Paul would be saying to the married man, “Are you married? Don’t try to kill your wife”! That would be ridiculous!

No! Paul is talking about divorce in both instances, although, obviously if the wife dies the man would be loosed on that ground as well. But now consider what Paul says next in verse 28: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned;”—and so it will be clear that he is still talking about the divorced man he continues—”and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.” If the divorced man marries he has not sinned AND if the virgin marries she has not sinned—two different cases! Paul would be thrown out of many churches today if he came teaching such things!

But how do you reconcile verses 27 and 28 with verse 39? I believe the answer is clear from the overall context. Verse 39, as is the case with verses 10 and 11, is talking about marriage between two believers in the church. Verses 27 and 28, on the other hand, is dealing with the aftermath of the kind of divorce spoken of in verses 12-16.

Many Real Life Situations
Ministers of the gospel are called upon to deal with all kinds of situations. In this mixed-up, sin-blinded world men and women find themselves divorced for many reasons—even believers. They may have married someone everybody thought was a believer. They may have gotten out of the will of God and made a terrible mess of their lives. They may have thought they were saved but, after their life fell apart, come to the realization that they didn’t really know the Lord. And on and on. What shall we tell them?

The past is past. They can’t go back and undo it. Did Christ not die for every law they broke, for every disobedience of which they are guilty? Or are they to be held accountable for the sin of another if they were abandoned? If they really are guilty of many wrongs, yet genuinely repentant shall we receive them, but as “second-class” citizens of the kingdom? May we not say as Jesus did to the woman taken in adultery in John 8, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more”? (KJV).

One brother whose writings I read said that of course they could be forgiven but the prohibition against remarriage was a “consequence” of their sin. I beg to disagree. There is a great difference between a “natural” consequence and “legal” one.

Suppose there is a law that forbids me to jump off a certain building but I choose to disobey that law and I break my leg. Now my broken leg is a “natural” consequence of my disobedience. The Sheriff may choose to overlook my crime and forgive me but that won’t heal my leg! But if he puts me in jail that is a “legal” consequence, one imposed on me by the law.

There are many natural consequences of divorce as we all know. There are psychological, emotional, and financial problems that can result, not to mention the heartbreaking problems that any children involved can suffer. But forbidding someone to remarry is not a natural consequence; it is a legal one. It is not a natural consequence of divorce but one imposed because of the breaking of God’s law. It is like saying, “I forgive you, but you still have to go to jail!”

Did not Christ die for our sins, bearing the full “legal” consequence of our disobedience? Did He only die for certain kinds of disobedience but leave us to bear the legal consequences of some others? Is there no place of forgiveness and cleansing for the genuinely repentant? Is the gospel of the grace of God unable to blot out our sinful past and give us a fresh start at serving God?

I refuse to mix law and grace. I believe that we as ministers of the gospel can and must lift up like a beacon God’s design for Christian marriage while at the same time extending His grace to people in need.

A Load of Guilt
Undoubtedly, there will be readers who can identify all too well with this problem of divorce. They know its pain and sorrow. They know the sense of failure and guilt that often follows. If you are one who is carrying around a load of guilt because of your past I would urge you in the Name of the Lord to bring all your guilt and failure to Him in heart repentance and — based on I John 1:9 — to embrace and BELIEVE HIS PROMISE TO YOU! As the old song says, “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.” It is not God’s plan that His children struggle along under a load of guilt and shame. That is Satan’s business. Thank God, that we can overcome him through the blood of the Lamb! Rev. 12:11.

I spoke earlier about those who desire “rule-based” religion. Clearly, based on what we have learned from how Paul handled the questions the Corinthians raised, we have a great need for divine wisdom and discernment. We must be willing to honestly seek God with a desire to help anyone that truly desires to serve the Lord. God can, in process of time, reveal those things we need to know — facts, motives, needs of all kinds — to be able to give godly wisdom.

Honoring Marriage
We noted that Paul instructed Christians who were married to uphold God’s principles in marriage and that is where we must start if we are to honor God. We certainly cannot take an “oh, well” or an “anything goes” attitude toward divorce. Divorce is unquestionably a tragedy to be avoided if it is possible. Where we are confronted with difficult marriages our number one priority should be to do all in our power to see such marriages redeemed by the grace of God, prayer being the chief weapon.

Our nature is to run from trouble but we know from the scriptures that God uses trouble and difficulty to work in His children. Thank God for grace! Whatever God calls upon us to endure is never beyond the power of that grace to see us through. And exhibiting a genuine Christ-like spirit in the face of difficulty can be a wonderful testimony to a lost mate.

But where, in spite of prayer and loving counsel, one partner insists on destroying a marriage the only thing to do is to trust God and let them go. Whatever may happen here on earth, thank God that He will never forsake or divorce His children. We are married to Him for eternity!

Another critical defense of marriage as God intended it must be at the point where people desire to become married. It is very important for anyone who desires to serve God and to be in His will to seek and desire prayer and godly counsel, waiting upon God and not willfully charging ahead with their intentions.

Whenever people experience the kind of attraction that impels them towards marriage they are in a vulnerable time. Satan is well aware that the seeds of divorce are often sown at this time. Much trouble could be avoided if people were more deliberate in their plans and if the priority was the will of God rather than the desire for the prospective mate. It is a challenging time, one in which God can accomplish much in His children—submission of their wills to His—but also one in which Satan pursues his own destructive agenda.

I believe that these principles are particularly important in cases involving remarriage of someone who finds themselves divorced. There are powerful fleshly desires at work that can drive people to seek another mate on that ground alone. If people are to avoid “jumping from the frying pan into the fire” then much prayer and deliberation are very much in order. There are far worse things than being single and relying on the grace of God!

I have seen a number of cases of godly remarriage but in every case they have occurred only after a great deal of honest prayer, not just by the parties involved but by the Body of Christ. And in every case the time element has not been weeks or months but years. The priority for any true Christian must always be the will of God and not personal gratification. Nothing but trouble lies outside of His perfect and loving will.

Any marriage entered into by a Christian should involve the honest intent to serve and honor Him by honoring His intent in establishing marriage in the first place. Self and its addictive desires can never be at the center.

A godly marriage is a wonderful testimony of God and His grace. It pictures His relationship with the Church and helps to point people to Christ. Let Christian believers do all that they can to promote marriage as God intended it while at the same time not imposing legalistic rules upon people in ways God never intended. We are under grace and it is only through grace that His purposes can be accomplished in us.

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