Tuesday, January 14, 2014


I might as well start at the beginning. 

As you will recall from the last post, it was my belief about divorce and remarriage that got me started on my personal journey of rethinking my theology in 1980, so I will deal with that issue first.

What DOES the scripture say about it? I have gone the gamut from believing back in 1958, when I first started pastoring, that marriage was nothing more than a legal status and I was simply doing my civic duty when I performed one, to believing there is no scriptural grounds for divorce whatsoever and there is certainly no right for remarriage if a marriage contract was ever broken. It was this latter belief that I held in 1980 when my journey began. 

Now to what I believe today.

It is perfectly clear to all of us, I would think, that according to scripture no one should approach the marriage covenant casually. "What God has joined__no one is to see themselves as having the "power to tear it asunder"__ is serious stuff in the scriptures.  

Having said that, I have found it to be true that in scripture divorce does not turn a person into a leper. That must never be forgotten. In fact, in the sacred text those hurting the most, and divorce does hurt everyone involved generally, are the very ones to whom Jesus gave His greatest attention and the full measure of His genuine abounding love and compassion was experienced by the wounded. So, to see any divorce action as invalidating the worth of an individual and making them an object to be scorned, is certainly contrary to everything that is godly and biblical. 

It is always wise to remember as well that marriage is not intended for every human being as seen in the fact that our Lord Himself was single, Marriage is not God's way of making a person complete as we are complete in Christ whether ever married or not. Then remember too that the marriage covenant is not to be viewed as an eternal covenant as there is no marriage in heaven or in the coming Kingdom of God.

All this said, it is especially needful to remember, as already mentioned above, that biblical marriage is a covenant relationship at heart. We find both Jesus and His instructions concerning adultery and Paul in giving the Corinthians some instructions on desertion of a spouse, reflecting on the covenant nature of the marriage union that is to be lifelong in duration.

Someone pointed out that there are several reasons for this kind of covenant marriage biblically, and I quote.

 "Marriage is intended as a spiritual partnership and the provision of mutual edification for both husband and wife while doing the will of God. [Genesis 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:22-23; 1 Peter 3:1-7]  God intends it for the procreation of children and the nurturing of the family relationships as well. [Genesis. 1:26-28]  Marriage is intended to also be for the development of a couple in intimacy both spiritually and physically. [Genesis 1:18-25] Then there is the New Testament added purpose stated by Paul as a protection against lust, immorality, and sexual temptations. [1 Corinthians 7:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12]"

That's a mouthful!

This is not to say every married couple will be able to reproduce children biologically, But it is to say that children are not to be second class citizens to the marriage covenant whether embraced through birth, adoption or care-giving.

But the question at hand is, can the marriage covenant be legitimately broken, and if it can be, is there a right of remarriage? It seems to me there are only two reasons given biblically for legitimate divorce and the ending of a covenant vow of marriage. These two reasons are clearly set forth by the instructions of Jesus in the gospels and Paul in his Corinthian letter. [Matthew 5, 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 respectively.] Sexual immorality and desertion are those two grounds.

Of course a marriage is ended by death, ipso facto [by that fact alone], but for a marriage to end otherwise, scripturally at least, many believe it to be as A.A. Hodge said years ago, “Divine law about divorce is that marriage is a contract for life between one man and one woman... and the only causes upon which any civil authority can dissolve the union of those whom God has joined together are (a) adultery, (b) willful, causeless, and incurable desertion.”

I want to briefly look at those two reasons for divorce and their implications for marriage and remarriage, by looking at the biblical texts and their teachings in a very simple way. This is not a theological white paper remember, but a blog post.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said the following: “It was also said, ‘whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31–32).

There were two different and distinct Greek words used that show what Jesus was actually saying and are often not seen in English. They are "porneia" and "moichao". "Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of porneia (sexual immorality), makes her moichao (commit adultery)."  That first word, "porneia" expresses ideas about all kinds of illicit sex outside the bounds of a monogamous marriage. It comes from a family of porn-words in Greek that describes all types of illicit sex. The Greek verb porneuo (to fornicate) is related to the Greek words porneo (harlot), pornos (fornicator), and porneia (fornication) that were prevalent in that Roman culture. By implication, incest and a host of other modern sexual activity might apply here as well.

The second word is more specific. Moichao is a verb used for adultery in marriage. It means to “have sex with someone other than the spouse to whom you are married.” The cognate of the verb, moicheia, always referred to adultery and nothing else. This difference is to be understood when teaching about biblical grounds for a marriage ending. That sexual reason is MORE than simply an act of adultery in the popular sense.

Later in His ministry Jesus expounded on this viewpoint. [Matthew 19:1–12]  The issue of divorce was raised by the Pharisees who ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

On the occasion of that question Jesus went on to give an overview about marriage. He pointed out that from the beginning of creation, God has always intended a marriage to be between one man and one woman as a lifetime commitment. [Genesis 2:18–25]. Then He showed that Moses did not prescribe divorce as God's desire at all, but rather it was given by Moses because of the “hardness of the heart” of the people. [Deuteronomy 24:1–4.] In fact, the “certificate of divorce” was intended by Moses to make divorce more difficult to obtain, not to facilitate a dissolution of marriage.

Jesus  goes on to say that only porneia or moicheia (sexual activity outside of marriage) are acceptable grounds for divorce. No one is saying that there is a command to dissolve the marriage intended here because of adultery, simply the right to do so if it comes to that. He concludes it all by saying [and here's the thing that is tough for many to swallow] that those who divorce each other for any reason other than for sexual infidelity create a case of moicheia (specific act of adultery) being committed by a both parties in a new marriage. 

There is one other biblical ground for a legitimate divorce as seen by AA Hodge and many others and that is willful desertion that cannot be remedied. Jesus did not speak to this ground for divorce, but the Apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians 7.

Some view this ground as inferior to that of adultery and a few even reject willful desertion as a biblical ground for divorce all together. I would think that one’s view of Scripture will affect their position on this issue. If a person accepts the inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures as a whole, then it cannot stand that what Jesus said in Matthew carries more authority than what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians. Both times instruction was spoken from God (2 Pet. 1:21) and both complement each other’s teaching in reflecting the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

My understanding of Scripture places the statement of Jesus and Paul on equal ground as Truth. Both are the inspired Word of God. For me, this means I accept it when Paul says that willful and impenitent desertion is a ground for divorce equal to that of adultery as Paul clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 7:10–16.

When you read that 1 Corinthians 7 passage at your leisure, I think you will find as I did that Paul’s instructions are pretty straightforward as he sets forth several things concerning marriage, desertion, and divorce.

One is that husbands and wives should not leave (desert) or seek to divorce their spouses (1 Cor. 7:10–11).  But he does show that if a person does leave a spouse for a reason other than adultery, that person should be reconciled to his/her spouse or he/she should remain separated without seeking divorce and remarrying (1 Cor. 7:11).

Another point he makes is if a Christian is married to an unbeliever (non-Christian person), the believer should not leave nor put away the unbelieving spouse if that spouse is content to remain married (1 Cor. 7:12–14, 16). But if an unbelieving spouse does leave and does seek a divorce, then the Christian in that marriage is “not enslaved” (i.e., not bound to remain married), and may consent to the divorce with the right to remarry since that's the only reason being released from the bondage of the marriage vows would be mentioned (1 Cor. 7:15).

In summary, Paul teaches that Christians, even those “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14), should always do all they can to preserve their marriages, both for the honor of Christ and for the spiritual good of spouse and children (1 Cor. 7:14). But if the non-Christian spouse decides either to desert the marriage or to seek divorce, the Christian does not need to work to preserve the marriage.

The believer is free to grant a divorce or seek a divorce on the basis of “willful desertion”; and, having been granted that divorce, is free to remarry—but only to a fellow Christian. The deserted and divorced spouse falls into the same category as a widowed person: free to remarry, but “only in the Lord,” that is, to another Christian (1 Corinthians 7:39–40).

Paul's review in 1 Corinthians 7 is one that covers the entire scope of what is to be the Christian's view of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. He sets forth a very demanding and difficult charge to his fellow Christians: they were to remain married as much as possible and as long as possible, because the gospel of Christ has called us to peace (1 Corinthians. 7:15).

In so doing, Paul sets forth several general guidelines.  One writer I read said it this way, "Paul, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, seeks not to make divorce easier for people, but rather to regulate divorce in this broken world in which we live and certainly does hold Christians to a higher standard while allowing for the fact that human depravity and sin that may often make marriage impossible to sustain, and his teaching, like Christ’s, reflects the beautiful combination of a high view of God’s will, a measure of sympathetic grace, and wisdom in the face of the realistic facts of life."

That writer concludes by saying this, "In a broken world, holiness may be more difficult to find than happiness. But it is holiness that is our calling as Christians in marriage, and not happiness. We may not like that message, but it is biblical." I concur with this wholeheartedly.

While this is true, I think it bears repeating what I said earlier in this post and those previous words I give here as a quote, may even be a good ending word to this whole issue.

"I have found it to be true that in scripture divorce does not turn a person into a leper. In fact, in the sacred text those hurting the most, and divorce does hurt everyone involved generally, are the very ones to whom Jesus gave His greatest attention and the full measure of His genuine abounding love and compassion was experienced. So, to see any divorce action as invalidating the worth of an individual and making them an object to be scorned, is certainly contrary to everything that is godly and biblical."

May those who've been wounded by divorce experience from ALL BELIEVERS nothing less than the full measure of His love and compassion as well.

Paul B. 


Victorious said...

Yikes! Me thinks this topic is as prickly as a porcupine! :)

Because of a lack of time, let me say just a couple things. I have worn the big "D" on my chest for almost 40 yrs. Wearing it has been the cause of 2 interesting outcomes. 1) I'm actually proud of myself for having the courage to leave a very dysfunctional marriage and being able to maintain a decent relationship with my boy's father all these years; and 2) I've come to see Christians as the most critical, judgmental and unforgiving people in the world.

Again, in the interest of time, I'd like to present the fact that the words "Certificate of Divorce" mentioned some 20 times or so in scripture with one even relating to God's "divorce" from His own people. I'm convinced that it's the component that reflects God's mercy in the event of a failed marriage. It enables each party to remarry without committing adultery. Without the Certificate (proof of divorce) one is committing adultery as he/she is still legally bound to another party.

And above all, we need to recognize that marriage is the only area (apparently) where one is not given a second chance in all of scripture. Even though multiple marriages/relationships are replete throughout scripture, we continue to impose guilt on even one failed marriage for whatever the cause. I'm not holding the polygamous marriage as an excuse for divorce, but I see no serious repercussions imposed on those who practiced "sending wives away" for any reason...other than a restriction designed to curb the practice. And that restriction was the Certificate of Divorce which mercifully allowed the "sent away" woman to legally remarry without committing adultery.

Big subject....so little time. :)

Paul Burleson said...


I appreciate you comment and your honest personal view added as well. Thanks for that.

Not having had to deal with your first outcome personally, though our son and ex daughter-in-law [They are both remarried to others now.] have both experienced it, I'm proud of you, as I am of them, for doing a wonderful job with things that are a reality.

I could not agree more with with your second outcome having faced it in more ways than I can count as I've come to view things differently than do many traditional Christians and facing that same spirit as they try to correct [or condemn] my views.

It is EXACTLY the reason for my constant reminder in the post that just because someone doesn't achieve what someone else considers to be a standard of action set in scripture, there is no cause, reason or grace, in creating a second-class citizenship in the Kingdom of God. It doesn't exist.

As to guilt, I'll leave those decisions to the One who is far above my pay-grade and if I DO understand scripture correctly, He has already taken ALL OUR GUILT to the Cross. So I'm sure not going to stir those ashes toward myself or anyone else.

Thanks for adding so much to these posts.

By the way, I don't know whether you've wondered or not, but others have, and I say it now as I have many times before, for whatever it's worth.

I believe second, third marriages, whatever, share the blessings and grace of God because God graces us WHERE WE ARE, [Where sin abounds grace does much more abound] and I DON'T believe in a "state of adultery" at all. It is, as all our acts of sin are, only actions.

It is our nature that has been made new in Christ. It is that new nature in Christ that is our identity and not any action we perform.

Doing a good thing doesn't get us holy and headed for heaven and doing a bad thing doesn't get anyone lost and headed for hell. We're all beasts to begin with and Christians are simply beasts made new in Christ. Good and bad actions can BOTH follow, but neither are the real question. It's the nature of the beast that makes the difference. But that's another post. ;)

Paul Burleson said...

I said..."I could not agree more with with your second outcome having faced it in more ways than I can count as I've come to view things differently than do many traditional Christians and facing that same spirit as they try to correct [or condemn] my views. "

I should have said..."as some of them try to correct..."

No way all of them do that. Forgive my poor choice of words.

Aussie John said...


Top marks: 100%!

Brings back memories of struggles regarding the matter, during my formative years in pastoral ministry. During the first week, in the first church in which I ministered, a young deserted ex-husband was asking me to marry he and his fiancee.

I married them: labelled sinner by some, saint by others :)

Your reply to Victorious actually expressed what I had in mind to add, especially where God's great grace comes in to the matter,"WHERE WE ARE".

Many seem to regard grace in the same category of existence as sin; existing, and tainting individuals who are embraced in a nebulous bubble surrounding them.

Grace is God's attitude/action towards sinners like me, sin is my weak betrayal attitude/action towards God.

Paul Burleson said...

Aussie J,

"Grace is God's attitude/action towards sinners like me, sin is my weak betrayal attitude/action towards God." CLASSIC my friend.

Paul Burleson said...

I just read this and thought it worth sharing in view of my previous comment.

"Just like a lost person’s “good” actions cannot change their sin nature before conversion, neither can a born-again believer’s “sinful actions” change their righteous nature after conversion."

That says it better than I did.

Geeman said...


Your reference to "traditional Christians" caught my eye and got me to wondering exactly what you meant by that term. Perhaps, I would not question the meaning if I had been following your blog longer.

Does this refer to Christians that embrace and endorse some level of authority in "sacred/holy tradition" as opposed to scriptural authority alone?

Or, does "traditional Christians" refer to those holding to long standing, well established, handed down interpretations of scripture?

Or, something else?

And, depending upon your definition, would you have a term for a Christian who is not traditional; other than "non-traditional Christian"? You know, we traditionally [;-)] like to label things.

Paul Burleson said...


Great question.

I probably am using it with the second of your suggestions in mind. But the wisdom of using at all is in question in my mind after reading your comment.

It makes about as much sense to use it as the sense seen in this statement I read somewhere, "Half the people I know are below average."

I probably have in mind a difference that is hard to categorize. Possibly "traditional" and "Berean minded" best describes my thinking about the difference. But I know that's totally inadequate.

Bella said...

My husband was previosly married to a woman who committed adultery and then sought to divorce him! He tried very hard to work a reconciliation but she was determined to end it. Neither of them were christian when they married, they were very young and it lasted just over a year.

We have been happily married for 25 years, and I have to say that before we married the pastor who married us was very concerned about me because I think he felt I was a little naieve, never even having had a boyfriend. Yet, we are still together through much pain and heartache.

Most of that pain and heartache came from a church (cult) we attended for 15 years which was very abusive and held a rare distinction amongst churches. The elders believed they had the right to separate married couples, because they thought one of the couples wasn't 'submitted' to the elders (themselves). They had such control that they managed to get hold of one of the partners and convince them to divorce their spouse, often of longstanding, and, wait for it, marry another that the elders decided was far more suitable. What they really meant was far more pliable. This happened on dozens of occasions. It will not surprise you to learn that they also controlled and manipulated the young adults in the church in deciding who was to marry whom.

We left this church 10 years ago, but they are still doing what they truly believe is their right to do. The wake of their machinations has brought nervous breakdowns, suicide and serious mental disorders.

I might also add that for the marriages that didn't succumb to this wickedness, there was a great deal of abuse, both physical and psychological. My husband has had to repent of a great deal, and I to forgive him, but we have ridden the tide of pain and suffering and can now exist side by side with joy and peace and love. God is merciful and can restore.

I suppose I wrote this comment with abused wives in mind. Obviously, there are marriages where abuse is common and frequent, even in christian marriages. There are men and women with personality disorders and often there is a big question mark over whether these people were even born again to start with judging by their terribly destructive actions.

I think a great many pastors and church leaders can learn much from taking a compassionate stand on divorce, especially when dealing with situations which are not strictly covered by scripture. I do not believe God condones abuse or expects women to stay in abusive marriages. Sometimes divorce is the only option here, espcially when the husband is violent or predatory and will not leave his wife and children be.

The church we left was run by a man who publicly wrote that when husbands and wives stood against him together he could not fight them. Clearly his agenda was to separate married couples in order to gain control over the whole church. My husband and I have learned through this that standing together in prayer and fasting will not only protect us from the enemy of our souls, but reinforces the principle of the threefold cord.

I believe much of what comes against married couples is spiritual in nature, and divorce, which God hates, is a significant victory of the enemy.

Paul Burleson said...


Thank you for your honesty, courage and willingness to share a portion of your journey. Many will be blessed by it.

I completely agree that what comes against marriages is spiritual in nature. The enemy IS at work.

There are a couple of things that keep me hopeful.

One is that God is in the salvage business, and aren't we glad! He can do more with the pieces of the wrecks we sometimes create than we can ever imagine when we give those pieces to Him.

The other thing is, while it is true that God hates divorce, it is also true that He divorced Israel because of the broken covenant and made a New Covenant which included not just Jews but Gentiles as well. Even that was a miraculous act of Grace.

Thanks again for your honest words.