Few topics cause as much controversy among Christians as the subject of divorce and remarriage. How does grace apply to the increasingly common experience of failed marriages?
In the world of bad grace, happiness, not obedience, is the standard by which many people gauge their decisions. When it comes to the issue of divorce and remarriage, “What will make me happiest?” rather than, “What will make God happiest?” is the determining factor.
A proper understanding of grace neither raises nor lowers God's standard about marriage and divorce, but instead recognizes two important principles:
- Good grace recognizes that divorce and remarriage are permissible in two situations.
a. Adultery (Matthew 19:3-9)
The whole question about divorce and remarriage is quite simple when you understand God's original design for marriage: one man and one woman joined together in an unbreakable bond for life. Nevertheless, Jesus recognized one instance in which that bond can be broken (Matthew 19:9).
If you divorce your mate and marry another person you are guilty of adultery unless your mate is guilty of "immorality." Throughout history, people have offered varying interpretations of what Jesus meant by "immorality." The traditional interpretation of this passage is probably the correct one: if your mate commits adultery you may divorce him/her and remarry someone else.
While most people agree that divorce is permissible under these circumstances, some question the implied right to remarry. But Jesus is clearly addressing the issue of one who divorces and "marries another," saying that it is wrong to do so except in the case of unfaithfulness. Thus, in the case of "immorality," it is permissible if someone divorces and marries another person.
b. Desertion (1 Corinthians 7:10-16)
The apostle Paul offered a second case in which divorce and remarriage are allowable: desertion. In Corinthians 7, Paul reaffirms Jesus' teaching that marriage is a lifetime commitment.
However, with the rapid spread of Christianity after the resurrection of Christ, some believers were finding themselves in spiritually mixed marriages. One partner might come to faith in Christ while the other remained unconverted. Was the Christian to remain married or divorce her unsaved mate and marry a believer? Paul answers this question by posing three different scenarios.
- What if a Christian finds himself in an unbearable marriage with an unbeliever (or perhaps a believer who acts like an unbeliever)? Paul said that in this case the Christian spouse may divorce her mate but must remain single or be reconciled to her spouse (1 Corinthians 7:11). Remarriage to another person is not an option if there has been no adultery.
- What if a Christian desires to leave his unbelieving wife and marry a believer? Doesn’t God want believers only to marry other Christians? Aren’t divorce and remarriage in this situation an obligation? Paul’s “unequally yoked” principle only applies to those who are unmarried and searching for a mate. It has nothing to do with replacing a mate (1 Corinthians 7:12)!
- What if a Christian is deserted by his non-Christian mate? If your mate chooses to leave you, you cannot stop him or her. In that situation, you are “not under bondage” to your marital vows but are free to be married.
To summarize, both Jesus and Paul taught that God intends for marriage to be a lifetime commitment. Nevertheless, they allowed for the possibility of divorce and remarriage in only two situations. In every other situation, we should remain married. If our marriage is intolerable and we choose to divorce our mate, we must remain single or be reunited with our mate.
- Good grace emphasizes God’s desire for permanence in marriage (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5-6).
The Hebrew word “cleave” in Genesis 2 refers to an unbreakable bond that exists between a man and a woman who come together in marriage. The husband and wife are joined together emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically. Significantly, the word cleave is used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe the bond that exists between God and His people.
Malachi 2:16 says that God hates divorce. But God does not hate divorced people, but He does hate divorce itself because of what it does to the individuals in a marriage. It not only tears apart a marriage, but it also tears apart the people in the marriage.
Good grace acknowledges that in some circumstances divorce is unavoidable.
Good grace never condemns those who divorce and remarry for biblical reasons.
But a proper understanding of grace will always treat divorce as a last resort, not a first resort, in a troubled marriage. It will encourage the innocent spouse to be a dispenser of grace, not justice when sincerely asked.
After all, isn't that what we desire from God?