[17]   Family (1): Marriage & Divorce

STORY: The most common causes of divorce include: poor communication, financial problems, a lack of commitment to the marriage, a dramatic change in priorities, infidelity. Other causes include: failed expectations or unmet needs, addictions and substance abuse, physical or sexual or emotional abuse, lack of conflict resolution skills.


Presently, there are about 70,000 divorces in Canada each year. The US has the highest divorce rates in the world, closely followed by Sweden and Canada. In these three countries, 40 to 50% of all marriages eventually end in a divorce. The Canadian divorce rate by the 30th anniversary was 51% in 1987 but dropped to 38% in 2000. The decrease is partly due to the decision of many couples not to marry but to live together without marriage.

80% of divorced people remarried and two-thirds of them divorced again.

The Roman Catholic Church does not allow divorce; marriage can only be terminated by annulment.

74.  What is the nature of marriage?

a.   Definition: Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.

b.   Components:

(1)  A divine element:

o        Marriage was established, sanctioned and witnessed by God (Gen 2:18; Mt 19:6).

o        Marriage is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His Church.

o        Marriage is a continuation of the divine work of creation through procreation of the human race (Gen 4:1).

(2)  A human element:

o        Marriage provides for the well being of human beings (Gen 2:20-24; Mk 10:6-9).

o        Marriage is a blessing that provides intimate companionship (Gen 2:18), the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards.

a union or a bond (“one flesh”) (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:4-5). The Bible describes every act of mutually consenting sexual relationship as becoming “one flesh” (1Co 6:16). Moreover, it signifies the bonding or uniting of the two in a life-long relationship. Mt 19:6 emphasizes the divine element in establishing the bond.

o        Marriage is an essential, sacred institution, a cornerstone of society.

o        Marriage is a respectable and honourable institution (Heb 13:4) [note also God’s warning against sexual relations outside marriage].

(3)  Characteristics:

o        Marriage is a life-long commitment; the word “cleave” (Heb. dabaq) means “to cling to, be glued firmly” indicating a permanent relationship intrinsic in dissolubility of marriage.

o        Marriage has priority over all other human relationships. It is the replacement of one relationship (child-parent) with another (husband-wife).

Gen 2:24 states that with marriage, a man leaves his father and mother. The word “leave” (Heb. azab) means more than departure; it means “to forsake or refuse”. Though it does not mean that a husband and wife no longer can have any relationship with their parents, the marriage relationship must.

o        Marriage should be monogamous (Gen 2:24). Although polygamy was sometimes practised in the OT, it is not the divinely ordained norm. [see question below]

o        Marriage is not a requirement for perfection of personhood, and is not a necessity for fulfilment in God’s highest purpose.

o        A Christian should not marry a non-Christian (2Co 6:14; 1Co 7:39).

Biblical priciples on marriage (Free Methodist Church of Canada)

Sexual intercourse is God’s gift to humanity, but only for the intimate union of a man and woman within the marriage covenant. In this relationship, it is to be celebrative (Heb 13:4). Scripture requires purity before marriage and faithfulness within marriage. Likewise, it condemns all unnatural sexual behaviour such as incestuous abuse, child molestation, homosexual activity and prostitution (1Co 6.9; Ro 1:26-27).

Marriage should be formalized with public vows. It is not enough for a couple to live together in private commitment; we believe that they are to covenant before God and the state.

In accordance with the apostle’s command (2Co 6:14), we expect Christians to marry only believers. Ministers who unite believers to unbelievers go contrary to the explicit teachings of the Scriptures.


Healing Troubled Marriages

The church which is alive to God has spiritual resources for marriages in trouble. The chief resources are the renewing power of the Holy Spirit and the Word, prayer and the sacraments, counsel and support. Through the church’s ministry, God can bring healing and reconciliation.

Therefore, if our members find their marriage in crisis, we encourage them to seek the counsel of the pastor and submit to the guidance of the church. Professional Christian counsel may be necessary.

We recognize that domestic violence, emotional and/or physical, does occur in church-related families. It often jeopardizes the safety of a spouse or children and may threaten life itself. These family members need both spiritual and emotional healing (Mal 2:13-16).

When an impossible situation is destroying the home, we advise that Christians may separate. In such cases, the way to reconciliation must be kept open (1Co 7:10-11). Even when a marriage is violated by sexual infidelity, the partners are encouraged to work for restoration of the union.

c.   Common law marriage?

·         In Canada, a couple is deemed to be married after living together for an extended period of time.

·         It is not a proper Christian model and is equivalent to fornication, clearly a sin.

·         Marriage is established through legal contract and pledged vows, not just by living together.

·         Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose a clear danger to the security of women and children. Cohabiting women are twice as likely as married women to be physically abused and three times as likely to be depressed.

75.  Can a Christian divorce?

a.   God hates divorce (Mal 2:16). Divorce is a departure from the purposes of God.

b.   Since marriage involves a permanent bond (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9), divorce is prohibited (1Co 7:10-11).

c.   In the creation ideal, divorce is not recommended nor sanctioned. It is permitted in the Mosaic Law (Dt 24:1-2) only because of man’s “hardness of heart” (Mt 19:8).

d.   A Christian should not marry a non-Christian (2Co 6:14-15). If already married, or if one of the two becomes a Christian, the Christian should not seek divorce from the non-believing spouse (1Co 7:12-13) because Christian love may redeem the unbeliever and unite the home in Christ (1Co 7:16).

e.   Divorce has a heavy toll on children. The many disastrous effects on children can be found in http://www.divorcereform.org/stats.html. Any consideration of a divorce must include the welfare of the children into the decision.

Biblical principles on divorce (Free Methodist Church of Canada)

When one marriage partner is a Christian and the other a non-believer, we believe that the Christian may not for that reason divorce the non-believer spouse (1Co 7:12-13), because Christian love may redeem the unbeliever and unite the home in Christ (1Co 7:16).

Desertion is the abandoning of a marriage without just cause. When a non-believer that deserts a Christian spouse deliberately and for an extended period of time, the deserted partner is no longer bound by the marriage (1Co 7:15).

When a marriage is violated by sexual infidelity, the partners are encouraged to work for restoration of the union. Where reconciliation is impossible, a divorce may be allowed. (Mt 5:32; 19:9)

Though the Scriptures allow divorce on the grounds of adultery (Mt 5:32) and desertion (1Co 7:10-16), it does not mandate divorce and we advise counsel with church leaders to seek other alternatives. One of these may be for both to live celibately.


Recovery After Divorce

Divorce always produces trauma. It is the breaking of a covenant, thus violating God’s intention for faithfulness in marriage (Mal 2:13-16). For this reason divorced persons should be helped to understand and remedy the causes for the divorce. They should seek pastoral counsel. Professional Christian counsel may also be necessary. Repentance and forgiveness are crucial to recovery.


76.  In Biblical view, is the marriage covenant dissoluble?

a.   Arguments for indissolubility of marriage:

(1)  Unlike contracts, a covenant cannot be broken.

(2)  According to Mt 19:6, the marriage bond is indissoluble.

(3)  Marriage is like kinship (Dt 24:1-4) or blood relation (Gen 29:12-14; 37:27; Jdg 9:2; 2Sa 19:13) which cannot be broken.

(4)  The sex act is the most intimate and complete reciprocal self-giving; one’s sexual history cannot be undone.

·         According to this argument, divorce is always contrary to the Biblical view.

b.   Arguments for dissolubility of marriage:

(1)  There are passages that accept the possibility of breaking the marriage bond (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:6); nowhere does the Bible says it is indissoluble.

(2)  In particular situations, the marriage bond is possible to dissolve. The Bible clearly says that death of one partner breaks the bond (Mt 22:23-30; Ro 7:1-3; 1Co 7:39).

(3)  Israel broke the covenant of marriage with God (Jer 31:32).

c.   No Divorce View [Roman Catholic Church]

·         This position needs to explain the clauses allowing divorces in Mt 5:31-32; 19:9 (also Mk 10:11 and Lk 16:18) in one of 6 ways:

(1)  inclusivist view: the clause should be read as “not even in the case of porneia”.

(2)  preteritive or “no comment” view: porneia (“marital unfaithfulness” in NIV) actually refers to “something indecent” in Dt 24:1. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about that command, Jesus refused to comment on that issue. Instead, He said the Pharisees had misunderstood the basic point that God’s intention was no divorce. Mt 19:9 can then be paraphrased as: “if anyone divorces his wife – except in the case of porneia about which I shall make no comment – and remarries, he commits adultery.”

(3)  offense view: Mt 5:32 says “but I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery.” The meaning is that if a divorce is not the result of unchastity, the act of divorce makes the woman adulterous. If a divorce is the result of unchastity, then the woman is already adulterous. The objective of the saying is to discourage any divorce.

(4)  betrothal view: Jewish weddings involved 3 stages: betrothal period (live separately but considered married), then the husband takes his bride to his home to live as husband and wife, then the wedding feast. If the bride had sexual relations with some other man during the betrothal period, her act was considered adultery and a divorce would result. The exception clause refers to this special case.

(5)  mixed marriage view: based on the incident in Ezr 9-10, some women married non-Israelites. The exception clause refers to the mandatory divorce in order to attain religious purity of the Israel nation. In early church, some used this example to permit Christians to divorce their non-believing spouses.

(6)  incestuous marriage view: the exception clause refers to incestuous marriage only, as porneia may mean incest in passages such as 1Co 5:1 and Ac 15:20,29.

d.   Divorce but No Remarriage View

·         This position was held by many early church fathers. Mt 19:9 only allows for divorce but not remarriage. [but these verses discuss Dt 24 which talks about both divorce and remarriage]

·         Only the death of a spouse can dissolve a marriage bond.

·         Jesus’ exception allows couples to separate in cases of porneia (adultery) but neither spouse can remarry. The only option is for the couple to reconciliate.

·         Also, the Pauline Privilege (1Co 7:15) does not allow deserted believers to remarry.

·         This argument also uses Dt 24:1-4 and kinship argument to define the indissolubility of marriage.

·         This position can be summed up into:

o        divorce for any cause PLUS remarriage is adultery,

o        divorce because of porneia is acceptable, but no remarriage is allowed,

o        whoever divorces a woman forces her into adultery if she remarries, unless the divorce is because of her porneia, in that case she was already adulterous,

o        whoever marries a divorcée commits adultery.

e.   Divorce and Remarriage Views

(1)  Erasmian view: If a wife commits adultery, her husband may divorce her and remarry without committing any sin himself. [As to why Mk and Lk do not contain the exception clause, the reason is because the audience was the Gentiles who did not know about the Jewish law.]

(2)  Extension of Erasmian view: A second ground of divorce in 1Co 7 allowing the believer to seek a divorce is the non-believing spouse wilfully deserts. As the resulting divorce is morally permissible, so is the remarriage.

f.    Summary:

·         When certain sins are committed, divorce and remarriage are morally permissible.

·         The marriage bond can be broken as death breaks it.

·         Adultery or desertion of non-believing spouse break the bond.

·         Divorce and/or remarriage are never morally obligatory. Reconciliation is the preferable response.

77.  Are there any special circumstances which justify divorce?

a.   Divorce is allowed only when the bond of marriage is broken. However, divorce is not mandatory even if the bond is broken. All efforts should be given to reconciliation.

b.   There are two circumstances where the marriage bond is broken:

(1)  Marital unfaithfulness or adultery (Mt 5:31-32; 19:9).

o        “Marital unfaithfulness” (NIV) or “fornication” (KJV): The Greek word used for “fornication” (porneias) refers to habitual sexual immorality and has the same root as “prostitute” (porne), implying all kinds of sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexuality, incest, etc.) which desecrates the marriage relationship. [This is different from moicheia (adultery) in Mt 15:19.]

o        Yet, where reconciliation is impossible, the partners are encouraged to work for restoration of the union.

o        It is important, therefore, that a believer accepts divorce only as a last resort and never as a reason to marry someone else. When one partner of a divorce has become involved in adultery, the offended spouse is permitted, though not required, to get a divorce.

o        The word “indecent” in Dt 24:1-2 refers to indecency or impropriety of behaviour short of adultery as adultery in the Old Testament was punishable by death.

o        God divorced His bride (Israel) because of adultery (unfaithfulness, idolatry) (Jer 3:8).

(2)  Desertion by non-believing spouse (1Co 7:15), but only if initiated by the non-believer.

o        Desertion is the abandoning of a marriage without just cause.

o        If a non-believing spouse desert the family for an extended period of time, the believer may agree to a divorce and will not be “under bondage”. The believer is then guilty of no wrong. However, such decision should only be made after attempts at forgiveness and reconciliation have been rejected.

o        “Desertion” may also mean persistence of physical abuse, drunkenness, lack of financial support.

c.   There should be no divorce for any other reasons. Incompatibility is not an acceptable reason for divorce.

·         If a Christian couple is truly incompatible and if all attempts of reconciliation fail, legal separation (not divorce) may be the solution.

78.  Can a person remarry?

a.   A widowed person, no longer in the bond of marriage (which is dissolved by death, Ro 7:2-3), can remarry, but only to a Christian (1Co 7:39; 1Ti 5:14).

C&MA Manual on Remarriage

Remarriage is never commanded; it is in some cases only permitted. Divorced persons who have scriptural grounds for remarriage should enter into such remarriage only with the greatest caution. Seldom is there a marriage failure for any cause in which one of the partners is “completely innocent.” The applicant for remarriage should demonstrate an attitude of repentance for any part he may have had in the original failure. He should receive counselling from the church so as to avoid repeating destructive attitudes and action.

b.   A divorced person who is considering remarriage, while the former spouse is still alive, must submit to and follow the counsel and guidance of the church.

c.   Two unavoidable situations must be considered in formulation the position of the local church:

(1)  If a person is already requesting for the pastor to solemnize a remarriage, it is probably to late to stop the remarriage. If the local church insists on stopping the remarriage, it would only cause the couple to move away.

(2)  If the remarriage proceeds with the objection of the church, the church will still need to accept the remarried couple afterwards, though with some disciplining. If the church will eventually accept the couple and recognize the remarriage, it will be better if the problem is solved beforehand.

d.   The following guideline is based on the teaching of the Bible:

(1)  A person who was the innocent party in a divorce caused by adultery: can remarry because the bond of marriage is broken.

(2)  A person who was the guilty party in a divorce caused by adultery: similar to above; but because of the adultery that the guilty party committed, public repentence before the remarriage is required (possibly before the congregation or before church leaders). However, C&MA Manual specifies that the guilty party cannot remarry.

C&MA Manual on Divorce

When an adulterous relationship has brought about a divorce, the party who is innocent of adultery has a right to remarry. The words of Jesus, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication,” implies the right of remarriage. When He adds, “And whosoever shall marry her that is divorced (the guilty party) committeth adultery” (Mt 5:32), the right to marry anyone guilty of adultery is denied and also to marry anyone who obtained a divorce for the express purpose of remarriage (Mk 10:11-12).

[Kwing Hung: Such analysis appears illogical for the following reason.It cannot be argued that the non-guilty party can remarry because the bond is broken, yet for the guilty party the marriage bond still exists so that remarriage is equal to adultery. The verses quoted above refers to a different situation: If the marriage bond is not broken by fornication, whoever marries (both spouses), even after formal divorce, commits adultery; but if the marriage contract is broken, the act of remarriage does not mean adultery.]

(3)  A person who was the innocent party in a divorce caused by desertion by a non-believing spouse: can remarry because 1Co 7:15 clearly specifies that the believer is “not bound” in this situation. However, C&MA Manual specified that the believer cannot remarry until the death of the remarriage of the former non-believing spouse.

C&MA Manual on Remarriage

Remarriage on grounds of desertion alone is not permitted (1Co 7:11) “But if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.” In other words, if the unbelieving, deserting party is not deceased and does not remarry, neither should the one who has been deserted remarry.

[Kwing Hung: 1Co 7:11 is about separation between believers, v.12-15 is about non-believing spouse; v.15 clearly specifies that “a believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.” If the divorced believer is not allowed to remarry, he/she will then be bound by what happened to the non-believing spouse, that is, the believer can only remarry when the non-believing spouse dies or remarries. Such restriction does not follow Paul’s instruction of “not bound”.]

(4)  A person who had a divorce not on scriptural grounds (that is, not based on the two reasons above): the remarriage will be equivalent to an adultery (Mt 5:32). However, the act of remarriage is regarded as an act of adultery, not a continuing state of adultery.

C&MA Manual on Remarriage

Persons who remarry after being divorced on other than scriptural grounds are guilty before God of adultery. Such marriages should not be performed by a Christian clergyman.

The remarriage that was entered into wrongly constituted an act of adultery that broke the former marriage. With his former marriage, then, having been dissolved, the remarried person is responsible to be faithful to his new contract. Having broken the former marriage, he is “living in adultery” only if he is unfaithful to his present marriage contract.

[Kwing Hung: that is, the remarriage is an act of adultery, not a continuous condition of adultery.]

o        If remarriage is held under these circumstances, some form of discipline should be included, such as public repentence. C&MA Manual does not allow such remarriage to be solemnized by a pastor.

(5)  A person who had a divorce not on scriptural grounds as a non-believer but has become a Christian: similar to (4), should seek reconciliation with the former spouse if possible (1Co 7:11).

79.  How should Christians treat divorced and remarried persons in church?

a.   If divorced on scriptural grounds, there is no reason to bar divorced and remarried persons from serving as leaders.

b.   1Ti 3:2  “Husband of one wife” condition for elders and deacons is used to prohibit polygamy, not against divorced or remarried persons.

c.   A person who had a divorce or a remarriage not based on Biblical principles should be disciplined by the church. Discipline may include removal from leadership, suspension or expulsion from membership, public repentence. The person should then be accepted as full members after genuine repentence.

C&MA Manual on Divorce

A believer who knowingly secures a divorce on other than scriptural grounds, or a believer who knowingly marries someone who was divorced on other than scriptural grounds, or a believer whose divorce was granted on other than scriptural grounds and who remarries, should be disciplined by the church and be granted full privileges of Christian fellowship only after a demonstration of genuine repentance for deliberate departure from scriptural standards.

d.   Discretion, however, must be exercised in the choice of allowing divorced and remarried persons to serve as leaders in the church. While all believers are equal members of the Body of Christ, not all members are qualified equally for every office in the church. Leaders need to be above reproach and marital stability is crucial to effective ministry.

80.  Is the Bible neutral to polygamy?

a.   The Bible assumes monogamy is the proper way in marriage:

(1)  Gen 2:24  Union of two

(2)  Pr 18:22; 19:14; Ecc 9:9  One wife (singular)

(3)  1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:6  Qualification of church leaders: one wife

(4)  Eph 5:31-32  Husband-wife as a simile of God-church relationship

b.   The Bible describes bad consequences of polygamy:

(1)  jealousy and conflict among wives: Abraham, David

(2)  loss of faith: Solomon (1Ki 11:4)

c.   Polygamy was accepted in the OT for special reasons:

(1)  continuation of the clan in the case Abraham

(2)  diplomacy in the case of Solomon (1Ki 11:3) [questionable]