Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage


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Key Scriptures from the Old Testament

Let’s begin by reading some of the Old Testament scriptures that shed light on the subject of divorce. The teaching of the New Testament is most important to us; but since some New Testament passages quote from the Old Testament, we will look at those Old Testament passages first.

One Flesh

The first of these passages is right at the beginning in the Book of Genesis, after woman was created and given to man. Genesis 2:24 says,

“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”

This is an interesting statement, since nobody had a father and mother at this point. Adam and Eve were both directly created by God, so the first part of the statement would not have applied to them. Since the words about “leaving father and mother” could not have been instructions to Adam and Eve, they must have been inserted by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of readers through the ages.

If you read Christian books and magazines about marriage, or hear people talk about it, you will likely hear terms such as “partnership,” “the marriage partnership,” or “marriage partner.” However, the Bible never refers to marriage as a partnership; rather, it refers to it as a single entity. The Bible says that in marriage, the two become “one flesh.”

A partnership always involves at least two people. You cannot have a partnership with just one person, “one flesh.” Traditionally, in a partnership, the partners always remain somewhat independent of each other; for example, tax laws have historically required business partners to report their income separately, and to pay taxes as individuals. The Genesis account describes marriage as “one flesh,” not as a joint venture between two partners.

A Certificate of Divorce

The passage above dealt with marriage and what it represents. Let’s move on to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, which deals with divorce.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled. For this is an abomination before the Lord.”

What does this passage tell us about divorce in Old Testament times? Try to study these verses in sequence, without reflecting on what you remember from the New Testament. Let’s study these verses one phrase at a time.

“When a man takes a wife, and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house . . .”

There was a procedure that allowed for divorce in Old Testament times. Remember, we saw nothing in Genesis about divorce; all we read in Genesis was that a husband and wife are to become “one flesh.” Yet Deuteronomy makes allowance for divorce. What are the conditions under which a man may divorce his wife?

“When . . . it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her.”

Note that this verse did not permit a man to divorce his wife for any cause he wished—only if he found “some uncleanness in her” that caused her to find “no favor in his eyes.”

Let’s consider what parts of this statement could be considered ambiguous or confusing, leading to more than one possible interpretation. What about the word “uncleanness”? Does that mean adultery? Does that mean she committed immorality before he married her? Or does it mean something else? The text doesn’t explain it any further here, so we need to note this question and remember it for later. What does it mean to find “uncleanness in her?” Let’s see if other scriptures clarify what this “uncleanness” is referring to.

Another question we could ask is, “Did God make a provision for a wife to divorce her husband?” What does the passage say? It says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her . . . .” Nowhere in this passage does it say anything about a wife divorcing her husband.

According to the passage above, God allowed divorce only in a very narrow situation: if a man found uncleanness in his wife, he could divorce her. It says nothing about her divorcing him. We are prone to read into passages things that are not there, merely because we think they should be there. We need to guard against this tendency, or we can be guilty of adding things to the Bible.

Why would God make an allowance for divorce one-sided, available only to the man? As is often the case with God’s commands, He doesn’t explain it, but it may have to do with the headship order, in which the man is the head of the woman. To illustrate this idea, consider the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. Both are highly honorable, responsible positions. However, under the U.S. constitution, the president has the power to fire the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of State does not have the power to fire the President. The relationship between a husband and wife in the Old Testament seemed to be something like this.

Under Old Testament law, a wife who found herself living in an intolerable situation could flee, perhaps returning to her parents, but God gave her no right to divorce her husband.

Notice how no one is taken to court in the Old Testament divorce; the only formality is the requirement that the husband place a certificate of divorce in his wife’s hand before sending her away. This contrasts sharply with practices in the Western world today, where the wife often sends her husband away and keeps the house, making her, in effect, the head of the home.

At the end of verse 4, we read that the husband cannot take his ex-wife back after she has been married to another man. This rule applies whether the other man divorces her or dies. In this case, she is said to be defiled (a word which may be included in the “uncleanness” referred to earlier in the passage).

God Hates Divorce

In Malachi 2:14–16, we read,

“The Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.”

This passage has a different twist. If we have been interpreting Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to mean that God approves of a man divorcing his wife, we need to rethink that interpretation in light of this verse, where God says He hates “putting away,” or divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1–4 stated the procedure for divorce and limited the circumstances when it was allowed. From the wording of Malachi 2—“thou hast dealt treacherously”—we might deduce that the husbands of that time were divorcing their wives for reasons other than the “uncleanness” of Deuteronomy 24, perhaps just because they found someone they liked better.

Notice that Malachi, like Deuteronomy, says nothing about wives divorcing their husbands. According to the Old Testament, God allowed divorce in only one circumstance, and only by the husband. He never made any allowance for a wife to divorce her husband.

The Old Testament position is not politically correct or acceptable to modern society, even in most religious settings. However, the purpose of this article is not to make people happy or tickle their ears, but to faithfully present the Scriptures and the early church beliefs and practices on this matter. This article is provided as a resource, and is not intended to dictate what individuals or churches should do. It is the responsibility of each church and its elders to weigh the facts and choose positions that please God and honor His commandments.

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18 Comments

  1. Hello – my best friend is divorced for about 13 years now. Years ago before the Most High began teaching me HIS truth, in error I thought because she was the “innocent party” that there was an exception to all remarriage is adultery, and suggested that she should find a widower and not pursue a marital relationship with men who are also divorced. Ignorance is not bliss and my foolishness has caused so much confusion and chaos… She is currently involved with a man whose wife of 34 years recently passed, that in itself seems too odd for words. Nonetheless, I am concerned for the eternal welfare of my best friend, she says she is a believer but it seems that she does not have ears to hear or eyes to see… Not to mention that her home church pastor is a divorced man remarried with a former (wife of his youth) still living, and he thinks I the one who is in error here. Please if you could provide me with some scripturally sound reference in addition to this article, which is very thorough but quite long, I would appreciate that.
    I am sure that the resounding opinion is that I should probably just mind my business and be happy for my friend – but I just can’t… I am troubled in my spirit about all this and our friendship is suffering horribly also. Please help!

    • @Michelle. Thanks for sharing. Many churches today are caving in on this teaching. I like Eph 5:22 – 33 in this context. Marriage is to be a type of Christ and His bride, the church. Christ would never divorce his bride and look for another one. And when we do that, we break the type God intended marriage to be. Finally, marriage is not the ultimate goal for human beings. Serving God is. And we should be willing to give up marriage in order to obey God.

      • Thank you for replying… I spoke with my best friend and I am going to email this article to her. Please pray with me that she will have eyes to see and ears to hear. My only concern is how disregarding the truth may impact her eternal fate. I love her and I have been trying to keep quiet and “mind my own business”, and I have prayed that the Most High will release me from this burden. However, no matter how I try to study other things and steer clear of this subject – it seems to pop back up.
        Thank you again… Praying that you continue fearlessly in your pursuit to bring your readers to a better understanding of scripture.
        Shalom & Love,
        Michelle

  2. Ok
    Here is my question
    I was for the betrothed argument
    And i don’t know if I’ve really changed it.
    But
    My question is
    If they leave you, the unbeliever…you’re saying you can’t remarry.
    But wouldn’t they probably go start another relationship??
    Then what??
    Then could you remarry?
    Or no still

    Thank you
    And
    God Bless

    • @Fred: They may leave you. They may start another relationship. But that doesn’t change the vows that you made.

      • Thank you for answering.

        I have one more

        If the wife was committing adultery and you tried to work it out but she still decided to leave.
        Would there but a right to remarry then do you believe or should the husband not remarry?

        Thank you for your time

        God Bless
        And a Happy New Year

        • @Fred, I think Ephesians 5:22 – 33 helps to understand some of these questions, even though it doesn’t speak directly about divorce and remarriage. God uses marriage as a parallel of Christ and the Church. I believe that when a person turns their back on Christ, Jesus leaves the door open for them to return, even if they “marry” the world. You should do the same. Read the book of Hosea and meditate on the story of Gomer and the parallel that God drew there between Hosea’s marriage and the children of Israel. I know that these are tough questions and hard answers. But I do know several people who have separated and remained single because their spouses were unfaithful. It is important to find a believer’s fellowship and close Christian friends who will stand by you when the going gets tough (and it will). If you want help to find such people, or just someone to pray with you, feel free to call our toll-free number [855-367-8788]. Note that this only works in North America. If you can’t use the number, leave a note here and I’ll send you and email address.

        • Thank you for your quick response and your insight.
          I have read them
          And understand the seriousness of marriage 100%

          From reading the article
          To be ok with remarriage at all the husband would have had to put away the wife for sexual immorality before she left to be able to remarry?

          Last question I promise

          I’m just trying to make sense of it

          Thank you for your time

        • @Fred. Throughout church history, there have been various interpretations. Edersheim, a converted Jewish scholar, promoted the viewpoint that Jesus was speaking about a betrothal agreement when he gave the exception clause. According to that, there would be no way out for a married person. Other leaders, even conservative ones like Menno Simons, did leave room for a man to put away his wife because of adultery. These leaders tended to leave more room for a man to put away his wife than the other way around, even though men tend to be unfaithful more than women do. I feel that when we start opening doors for divorce and remarriage, we start down a slippery slope that has no end. Like I said in my last post, marriage is a figure of Christ and his bride, the church. Divorce and remarriage destroys this picture. I feel that we are better off to take the “no remarriage” position rather than take chances. I feel that for me to break my vows to my wife, even if she breaks her vows to me, would be wrong for me. That also is the position of most of the groups sponsoring this site and the church I am part of. I realize that this isn’t what you were hoping to hear from me, probably. But I think it is the only safe position. Thanks again for your comments and questions, and God bless you in 2019.

  3. I am currently separated from my husband due to his continued use of prostitutes. We attempted counseling, but he did not repent and he continued to seek out prostitutes. He says he wants to reconcile, yet does not provide me access to this email and text messages. Nor does he adequately financially provide for our children and for me, even the minimum Mount the state would require for child support. We are currently entangled I’m the legal process.

    I want to be obedient to Christ, above all things. And I believe that God led me to as much information as I needed to leave in good conscience. I have no desire to remarry, or even to consider remarriage. Much of my church leadership encourages me to consider reconciliation, since God hates divorce. They do not condone his use of prostitutes, and they encourage him to repent. However, nothing in his provision or behavior leads me to believe there is true repentance.

    I am continuing to search scripture for my answers, but I am left confused by my leadership as to how to move forward. What does Scripture teach about living in continual sin and whether I should initiate reconciliation under those circumstances?

    • Hi Tammy. Have you read this whole article? I think it answers some of your questions. I know its long and perhaps a bit tedious, but its worth reading all the way through (all seven pages!) For more discussion, call the toll free number at the beginning of this comments section.

  4. My husband was killed. We have 2 small children. 7 and 8. A few weeks later after my husbands death, I’m with his older brother. We’ve fallen in love. He wants to marry me and raise his brothers children. He has left his wife, they neither have any children. He is divorcing her. Neither one of us understand this because before my husbands passing, his brother and I could not stand each other. Are we to question this? Is this Gods plan? Are we wrong to have fallen in love? I must say after 3 months we are still together. His wife and him were having problems way before my husbands death. She had an affair and he never forgot it. She “was” also my friend for years.

    • Do you think it is safer to go by your feelings than by God’s word? The Bible is clear that someone who divorces their partner and marries another is committing adultery. I can see that your husband’s death left you very vulnerable, but that still doesn’t change what the Bible states about such a situation.

      • Are you sure that someone should value the lord above their own feelings? Because I feel that if this were true, then He would tell us who to love in the first place, and not wait until we’ve made a wrong decision to tell us what to do. I believe that we are living our own lives with god simply watching over us, not disapproving of our every action.

        • @Shannon, The problem too often is that we don’t pay any attention when God tries to warn us of a wrong choice. And of course, there are situations where the other person makes bad choices after the fact.

  5. kimberley taylor

    i remarried before coming to this knowledge can i return to my first spouse with Gods approval or must i LEAVE?

    • Hi Kimberly. This is a tough question and better answered by your local church if you have one. Feel free to call our toll free number at 855.367.8788 for more discussion or reply here if you want to continue the discussion off line by e-mail.

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