I have had a friend ask me recently about divorce. As with polygamy (below), this is rather complex.
Beginning in Genesis, the ideal of God is heterosexual faithful loving monogamous marriage. I have already written on this (Gen 1:26–28; 2:24). In Israel, divorce, except for extreme circumstances decided by the court, was permissible only for a husband who could divorce his wife. Instructions are given in Deut 24:1–4. When a man is displeased with his wife because of some “indecency” he writes a certificate of divorce, places it in her hand, and sends her out of the house. If she marries again and is again divorced, she is not to remarry her former husband. The Hebrew for indecency (ʿěr•wā(h)) suggests sexual infidelity. Later Rabbis debated as to whether this should be strictly interpreted purely in sexual terms (Shammai School), or more generally including such things as childlessness, religious offenses, or even the completion of household tasks such as burning bread (Hillel School). For example, m. Giṭ. 9:9 reads:
A The House of Shammai say, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity,
B “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything (Dt. 24:).
C And the House of Hillel say, “Even if she spoiled his dish,
D “since it is said, Because he has found in her indecency in anything.
E R. Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she,
F “since it is said, And it shall be if she find no favor in his eyes (Dt. 24:1).”
In reality, Jewish husbands could and did divorce their wives for almost any reason including disobedience and poor cooking (Josephus, Ant. 4.253; Vita 426). This suggests that the laxer view of the Hillel school dominated at the time of the NT. If a woman had a legal certificate of divorce, she could then remarry.
Elsewhere in the OT, the metaphor of divorce is also used in the OT of Yahweh’s exclusive relationship with Israel, something Israel defiled with her idolatry (e.g. Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8). Some argue that this exclusivity of relationship points to monogamy. However, as Amos says in Amos 9:7 points out, God is in relationship with other nations and so these OT texts are ambiguous. It is tenuous to apply them to monogamy.
In the Roman world, by the first century, both men and women could divorce and it was common. Plutarch wrote in the first century that only a coward would fail to divorce a troublesome wife (Plutarch, Virt. mor. 2; Mor. 100E). There was no stigma in divorce and most people remarried after divorce or widowhood.
In Matthew 5:31–32, Jesus endorses the position of the Shammai school on Deut 24 indicating that when a man wishes to divorce, he gives his wife a certificate of divorce if she has committed adultery. If not, divorcing her makes her and anyone she marries adulterers.
More light is shed on Jesus’ view on divorce in Mark 10:1–12 which is take up by Matthew in Matthew 19:2–12. In Mark’s account, Jesus is asked by Pharisees whether it is lawful to divorce one’s wife. Jesus responds by asking what Moses commanded, to which they cite Deut 24:1 which states a man can write a certificate of divorce and send her away. Jesus then goes on to state that this was a concession because of the hardness of people’s hearts. That is, because of human sin which came as a result of the Fall. However, the original intent was that a man and a woman would leave their families, marry, become one flesh. Jesus concludes, “what therefore God has joined together, let no person separate.” Later, the disciples query this. Jesus tells them that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery—no exceptions (Mark 10:10–12). Interestingly Luke excludes the account of this event, but does include the Markan absolute ban on divorce in Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Matthew, however, does use and edit Mark in Matt 19. He adapts Mark’s question making it clearer that the real question is whether Jesus sides with the legalistic Shammai school which advocated divorce for sexual infidelity, or the more liberal Hillel school which advocated divorce for almost anything. Aside from minor differences, the discussion is pretty much the same except that Jesus gives one exception for remarriage, “except for sexual immorality” (porneia). Here, porneia would indicate the general problem of sexual immorality in any form that violates the marriage relationship. There is then a further discussion on marriage in which they ask if it is better not to marry and Jesus answers cryptically of eunuchs.
The difference between the absolute prohibition on divorce in Mark and the sexual immorality clause in Matthew leads to a dilemma in interpretation. Should we follow Mark? Should we follow Matthew? Who has the original words of Jesus? If we follow Matthew’s allowance in the case of sexual immorality we have a further dilemma. What does Jesus mean by porneia? Should it be strictly applied as it usually is to sexual immorality, or is it to be taken more generally of not only sexual immorality but other parallel gross acts of infidelity, e.g. physical abuse. Some Christians apply this legalistically, others more liberally. I am in the latter camp.
In the wider NT there is nothing on divorce except in 1 Cor 7:10–16. Here, Paul, explicitly stating that he is referring to Christ’s teaching (probably his oral knowledge of the encounter of Mark 10/Matt 19 or Luke 16), tells believers married to another believer that neither should separate. And, if either does, they should remain unmarried unless reconciled. Then, in the case of a Christian married to an unbeliever, they should remain married unless the unbelieving spouse wants divorce. If so, the Christian should release them. If a Christian is divorced in this way they are ou dedoulōtai which literally means “not enslaved” or “not bound.” The very best scholars are split at this point as to whether Paul means here that a believer is free to remarry or not.
Those who argue the latter (like Fee, Garland), consider that the language Paul means that a believer is no longer enslaved in a marriage where the spouse wants out but does not go so far as saying they are free to remarry. Rather, the only situation where remarriage is legitimate is death (e.g. Rom 7:2–3; 7:39). Their position would seem to lead to a Christian pastor or church not allowing remarriage. This is not uncommon in conservative churches today.
The former view sees Paul going further and saying that a believer is now free to remarry (e.g. Ciampa and Rosner, Thiselton). I find the latter view much more compelling. As Ciampa and Rosner say quoting Instone-Brewer, “Not bound here refers to freedom to remarry. Instone-Brewer explains: ‘The only freedom that makes any sense in this context is the freedom to remarry.… [A]ll Jewish divorce certificates and most Greco-Roman ones contained the words ‘you are free to marry any man you wish,’ or something very similar.’” If so, a Christian pastor would discuss the situation of a person’s divorce and remarriage and often would marry them. As a Pastor, I have dealt with those situations. I can remember a situation where a woman left her first husband, then attempted to reconcile. The first husband said no. He then remarried himself. I considered that the women was not bound as she was truly repentant and there was no going back.
So then, you can see why Christians are split on this. Some prefer Mark 10 over Matt 19 rejecting any “Jesus privilege” and then interpret 1 Cor 7:15 tightly rejecting any “Pauline privilege.” Others see in Matt 19 and 1 Cor 7 as indicative of situations where Christians will consider that remarriage is appropriate. The two explicit cases are where there is sexual infidelity and where an unbeliever wants out of the marriage.
Others go even further. You see, neither Jesus nor Paul answered questions about other common situations in marriage such as: violence in marriage, rape in marriage, verbal abuse, abuse of the children, the complete absence of affection, neglect, and so on. Some would encourage the victim to leave those situations but would not advocate remarriage. Some, including myself, see in Matthew and Paul situations that we can reflect on analogously. That is, where we find situations analogous with those Matthew and Paul conceive of (sexual immorality/an unbeliever wanting out), then we would see remarriage as permissible. That is, where these sort of things are going on, love would say to a woman or man who is suffering deeply, “get out!” Especially if there are issues of personal safety. Where there is such behavior, one might also ask whether the perpetrator is truly a Christian, despite their claims to faith. In such circumstances, should the person who separates from the chronically failing marriage not be permitted to remarry? At this point it becomes a matter of pastoral judgment.
One more thing can be added. A look at the genealogy of Jesus through which God worked to bring his savior is interesting. It includes sexual infidelities including Judah and Tamar, David and Bathsheba and polygamists like David and Solomon. As such, we can see God is working in the mess, even if these things are not ideal.
All in all, while I uphold rigorously that ideally marriage is loving, faithful, lifelong, monogamous, and heterosexual, and that we should do everything we can to endorse traditional marriage, love say that there are situations where it is better to divorce. If the divorcee find the opportunity to remarry, and there is genuine contrition and repentance, and where reconciliation is out of the question, and the person show a real desire to please God moving forward, as a Pastor I would remarry them. I have yet to encounter a situation where remarriage was on the agenda and the people involved were not truly aware of their failures in the past and would undo them if they could. I would do so also allowing God to be the judge. Only he knows. I sense he is a gracious God. I believe God is a God of second chances.