- Biblical grounds for divorce (0:40)
- Unfaithfulness, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation (1:24)
- Abandonment and sanctification (6:00)
- When a spouse leaves (10:21)
- Abuse as a form of abandonment (12:25)
- When the abuser is a “believer” (14:40)
- The nature of the divorce answers the question of remarriage (15:52)
- The virtual widow (17:16)
- A word of caution for those who are hurt and vulnerable (18:03)
- Explore the Featured Topic on Divorce
- Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principles and Pastoral Practice
Jim’s recommended resources:
- Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers by Jim Newheiser
- Is It Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims by Darby Strickland
- The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men Who Use Control and Violence in the Home by Chris Moles
- She’s Got The Wrong Guy by Deepak Reju
- Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel by Ray Ortlund
- When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage by Dave Harvey
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Hi, you’re listening to TGC Q&A, a podcast from The Gospel Coalition. And this is the Biblical Counseling Series, featuring hopeful answers to your questions on navigating fear, anxiety, ministry, and marriage, and everything in between. My name is Jim Newheiser. I’m the director of the Christian counseling program at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte and the director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. And today I’m going to be answering some important questions we received from you on remarriage and divorce.
And the first question is the massively broad question of what are the biblical grounds for divorce? And I actually wrote a book about that that came out a few years ago and spent 300 pages trying to answer that question. So in five minutes, I’ll summarize and save you the price of the book.
Basically through history, the primary Orthodox view is represented, for example, in the Westminster Confession of Faith is broadly there are two grounds for divorce. One is adultery or sexual unfaithfulness in marriage. And the second one is abandonment by an unbeliever. And Jesus in the gospels three times references adultery. And he says, for example, in Matthew 19:9, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality and marries another woman commits adultery.” And so the marriage covenant, according to the words of Jesus here and earlier in Matthew in chapter five and in Mark 10, all affirm that when your spouse has been sexually unfaithful, you may have grounds for divorce.
Now Jesus never tells you the divorce is necessary. And this actually gets into the whole issue of divorce. He also, prior to that had quoted from Genesis two, “The two shall become one flesh. What God has joined, let no man separate.” Is in counseling even when there has been adultery, our desire is to bring about repentance on the part of the guilty party and forgiveness, if possible, on the part of the party who was relatively innocent.
And actually my wife and I do quite a bit of counseling together with couples where there has been marital unfaithfulness. Sometimes the wife, sometimes the husband. And in the great majority of cases, there is reconciliation and we’ve even seen cases where the marriage is stronger. I mean, it’s a hard way to get there, but there were issues in the marriage that led up to the unfaithfulness and not just starting with the unfaithfulness but going back. We’ve seen people even come to faith in these situations where they’d been perhaps nominal Christians and realized they’d never really embraced the gospel, even understood the gospel personally until they went through this.
And yet Jesus teaches that marital unfaithfulness gives the right to pursue a divorce, but not necessarily does not mean it has to happen. I’ll just admit from the standpoint, I spent 30 years as a pastor before I came to RTS, is that when I was younger, I never imagined how many cases I would see in the church of professing Christians where there has been unfaithfulness. I never imagined how many cases I would see where people pursued divorce.
So getting into details on this, actually, some things we address more in the book would be one would be, how do you counsel, after a case of adultery, another would be what constitutes adultery. We’ve had situations of homosexuality. We’ve had situations of something falling short of intercourse. And so these are difficult questions. The word used is porneia from which we get the word we use pornography, which is a broader term for sexual unfaithfulness. I don’t think it’s strictly limited to intercourse.
One detailed question sometimes we get is what if someone has looked at pornography? And they’d go to Matthew five, “If you looked at a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed adultery in your heart.” And so, again, complicated question. Basically, I would say that someone having struggled with lost or looking at pornography would not be grounds for divorce necessarily. In the same way you go back to a few more verses Jesus says, “If you’re anger in your heart, you’re a murderer.” And yet, even though the nature of the sin is the same, you don’t execute people for being angry. You don’t put them in prison for being angry. And actually I’ve had cases where a wife said, “Well, I saw my husband looking at another woman.” And I said, “Yes, you’re right. He’s an adulterer, but you screamed at him. You’re a murderer. There’s needs to be some grace.”
I would also say, however, there have been cases where a person, usually the man is completely given over to pornography, not fighting it, but just even going there instead of his wife without repentance, without change. And so I think it could reach the point of heinousness that it could be porneia. This is one reason why it’s important to have your church involved when you’re facing decisions like this and get godly counsel.
Anyway, so in terms of grounds for divorce biblically, the first broad ground is sexual unfaithfulness. And then the second broad ground would be abandonment by an unbeliever. And in First Corinthians seven, Paul goes into some details where he says, “I give you instruction, not the Lord but I.” Where He’s not contradicting what Jesus said, but he’s dealing with the situation or situations that Jesus didn’t address specifically. He’s writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And he is saying in verse 12, the rest is saying, “… not the Lord. But if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, she consents to live with him. He must not divorce her.”
Now actually my personal Bible reading, working my way through the Old Testament. The last week I’ve been in Ezra, Nehemiah. And in Ezra and Nehemiah, you have cases where the Israelites married foreign pagan women, and they were forced under the old covenant to divorce these pagan women because they’d married outsiders, unbelievers. And a believer in the new covenant might think, and maybe it’s a woman who came to faith after she had already been married. And her husband’s a idol worshiper. Does that mean I should divorce him like they did in the old covenant? And Paul is saying, “No under the new covenant, don’t leave. Don’t give up on this marriage that you’re unbelieving husband is sanctified through you, your children.” I don’t think it means the husband will be converted or necessarily saved. He says, “You can’t know what you’re going to save your spouse.” But he says, “Don’t divorce. Try to live and honor God within that marriage.”
But he then gets to a question that he says in verse 15, “If the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave. The brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” And so he’s giving another scenario, says, “If the unbeliever will live with you, stay in the marriage.” And this is an example of what we might be a harder disappointing marriage, which is part of the general principle as well is that when we make valves for better or for worse, et cetera, that some people may have… It may be God’s will for them to stay in a difficult marriage, like being married to an unbeliever.
My dad was not a believer. My mom was a believer and I saw her until his death several years ago faithful to God, faithful to him. And she did the right thing. The world might say, “Hey, go find somebody easier to live with.” Well, Paul says you stick with it. But if the unbelieving one leaves… We dealt recently with the case where the wife was converted and the husband basically said, “You’re no fun anymore. We used to go to drinking parties. We used watch certain movies, and now you don’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t sign up for this.” And there can be cases even because the believing spouse is no longer desirable and the unbelieving one is the one who leaves the marriage, who files for divorce, who leaves the home. In that case, Paul says the believer is free, which also relates to the second question in there. They’re so interrelated. I’m not going to deal with them that much separately.
Can you remarry after divorce? In the book, I go into some of the Greek, which is actually drawing on people like John Murray from the 60s when he wrote about this, that free doesn’t just mean free from that marriage. But divorced by its very nature means set free to marry someone else. And this goes back to Deuteronomy 24 when we had the example of if a man would give his wife a certificate of divorce and it was just assumed she’d go with that certificate. Now she’s free. And she just assumed she’d marry somebody else. In the Bible, as in the culture then, divorce wasn’t just you’re free from that marriage. You’re free to marry somebody else. And so I would say both in the case of if you’re the innocent party where your spouse is divorced you because they’ve abandoned you or you’re the innocent party where your spouse has committed adultery and you’ve chosen to go the route of divorce that you are free to remarry. Now, whether that’s going to be the wise thing is the second question.
A couple of the things I need to bring up because there are complexities here that are pretty important. And that is that what does it mean for a spouse to leave? For example, I had a case where a woman who was working as a nurse and making a good living was married to an unbeliever. He was actually chose to live in the garage instead of the bedroom. He took her earnings and would buy drugs and he would smoke his pot or do his meth, sit in the garage, plays music, hang out with his friends and was totally disengaged from the marriage. Now he did not want to leave because he was on the gravy train. She was earning $100,000 a year in today’s dollars and he’s doing nothing. And so I think abandonment can be more than merely filing for divorce or physically leaving the premises.
In Exodus 21, it talks about a woman in marriage that her basic rights included food, clothing and conjugal rights. And she would be free to leave if those were not supplied. And so I think abandonment can be a case, not merely a filing for divorce, but you can abandon the marriage by refusing to fulfill your responsibilities, not making any effort for provision. Now there are getting controversies about this and marriages where I had a situation one time where a couple got married and they had sex on their honeymoon. She had a baby shortly thereafter and she says, “I only want one child. We’re done with sex.” And I think that could be a form of abandonment, but again, by the way, you don’t just rush off and get a lawyer. That’s where all of these cases, you try to get counsel, you seek reconciliation, you get work with your church.
But I want to deal with the most controversial aspects of this and that is in recent days of most of us, I have concluded that abuse can be a form of abandonment. Recently, Wayne Grudem wrote a paper that got a lot of publicity saying that he thought that abuse was a third ground of divorce. And I agree that abuse can be grounds for divorce. It’s actually similar to me to adultery. It doesn’t mean the first time anything abusive happens you give up. You try to save the marriage. But I think a persistent pattern of oppression can be rather than saying it’s a third ground, which is really on tenuous exegetical grounds in my opinion. Just the language here that this can be a form of abandoning the marriage. That God has called us to peace he says in the same verse.
And so the husband who makes it unsafe for his wife to live in peace with him, a husband who makes it unsafe for the children, in my view, that can be a form of abandonment. We believe passionately that a wife who is in danger physically has the right to get out. It’s been pointed out by many people. Chris Moles has written about this. There’s a wonderful book by Darby Strickland that’s going to talk about this in terms of understanding abuse. That abuse is not merely blood and broken bones and bruises. There can be horrible oppression emotionally, economically, sexually. That is not necessarily hospitalization. And so I think that I would take not an outburst of anger.
One thing I liked about Darby’s book was that she says there are things that happen in all marriages in terms of conflict or saying things you shouldn’t say or pressuring each other in certain ways that are not a pattern of oppression that you would call abuse. But when there is a persistent pattern of oppression, I think, again, this is where you want your church involved and you want your church also to understand these things, have them read Bobby’s book and Chris Moles book. I think that a persistent pattern of oppression can be a form of abandonment leading to grounds for divorce.
A couple of the things to tie up some loose. One of the most typical problems though, is the person who is abusing is calling himself a believer. He’s a member of a church. You could even be an officer in the church. And the verse says, “If your unbelieving spouse leaves, you let him leave.” But what if your spouse is a church member? And the answer would be that she obviously needs to safely confront him, which may be with other people present about his sin. And now you’re jumping into Matthew 18 in terms of the process potentially of church discipline, and a man who continues in a pattern of coercion and oppression and abuse who will not repent, the final stage of church discipline would be you put him out, which is you consider him an unbeliever in which case this verse would apply. And now at least in terms of the church, God alone knows the heart, but the church has disciplined him. Matthew 18 says, “Who you bind on earth has been bound in heaven.” And so she would then be authorized to divorce him on the grounds of abandonment through abuse.
So the related question about remarriage would be that as I’ve already said, the very nature of divorce allows for remarriage. There can be situations in which someone wants to remarry, and yet, because they’ve not been legitimately divorced biblically, they maybe legally divorced. But then they may have a responsibility to seek reconciliation. So if you abandoned your spouse without biblical grounds, actually Paul addresses that in First Corinthians seven as well. In verse 10, he says, “The wife should not leave her husband, but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” So if you leave without biblical grounds, option A is stay single. Option B is be reconciled. Again, there are lots of complicated situations that can happen in terms of whether they’re remarried, but the general principle would be you have to be biblically eligible for remarriage, and yet remarriage can be an option.
And I’ve known many cases in which people have been abandoned. They’ve been so badly hurt by someone they trusted, and God in years to come provided someone else. In First Timothy five, Paul talks about how young widows should remarry. And I would regard a woman who has been abandoned by a husband who was unfaithful, who went and married somebody else is being a virtual widow and defined a godly man who would care for her and possibly her children could be… It’s allowed by scripture. And it can be a blessing from God.
I know that there are wonderful people, some of whom have spoken perhaps for Gospel Coalition Conferences who take what’s called the permanence view saying that there should never be remarriage until the spouse is dead. Again, I’d try to present that view in my book in a kind and sympathetic way of all showing why I think the view of the confessions, the view that I take is more biblical.
I would give a couple of words of caution though in terms of someone who has been hurt in marriage through abuse, through adultery, through abandonment. I think it’s so important for them to, first of all, restore their soul to God. I think when you’ve been hurt… I mean, even if you go back to high school, one girl dumps you, you want to find another girl so you won’t feel dumped and lonely or something. And I think sometimes the rebound effect can be dangerous where you feel so hurt and broken, that you’re vulnerable to making a bad decision.
A woman that divorces a bad man, for example, an abuser. Then she marries another man just like that guy. So I think that there’s a lot of wisdom when someone has gone through a divorce to just make up their minds that you need to spend some time recovering spiritually to grow in the Lord and even to learn what can I do to make sure this never happens again. What needs to happen to me? What made me susceptible perhaps to a person of bad character? Or what did I not see that I should have seen?
I like Deepak Raju’s book called She’s Got The Wrong Guy that kind of goes through the kinds of bad men, the good women sometimes are tempted to marry. In the introductory chapters of my book I talk about are you ready for marriage? Are you eligible for marriage? What do you need to be before you’re married? What does this other person need to be? And so I think someone considering remarriage should go about it very slowly and cautiously. Get people who will ask the hard questions of your potential spouse.
I’ve actually been in a position before where I acted like the dad in the old movies where there wasn’t a dad to do the job and asking a young man about his… Are you struggling with porn? What are the relationships you’ve been in? Trying to discover does this person had an issue with anger.
And so I think just, yes, you asked the question, “Well, how do you examine a family history of divorce and avoid the patterns that led to it?” You need to be around people with great marriages and learn what’s happening there. If you don’t have a family that has that example for you to follow in your own immediate family. And so I think that in the church, even couples discipling couples or singles seeing couples who are transparent and have healthy marriages, and then probably ultimately like Jeremiah 17 describes, if you put your ultimate trust in men, it’s going to go badly. It’ll be like the bush in the desert, Jeremiah 17:5-6. And we need to put our ultimate trust in God. So we don’t need some other person ultimately to fulfill us. And then under God, a marriage can be an amazing blessing.
I’ve been married for over 40 years to Caroline who I’ve known since high school. She wasn’t interested in me then. We tried again in college and that worked a lot better. And it’s been the greatest earthly joy I’ve had. And it’s drawn me closer to Christ. And I’m thankful for that blessing. And that’s one reason I’m thankful to get to talk about marriage. And I would love to see the truths of scripture centered in the gospel enable other people to experience the blessing that God has for us in marriage.
Even though we’ve talked about the hard things, there are great and wonderful blessings that God has where marriage helps us to understand the gospel. The gospel helps us to understand marriage. As there’s grace in marriage, we grow.