I was recently contacted by a friend in Pakistan about a court case there where a Muslim judge was allowing a Christian woman to divorce her abusive ‘Christian’ husband. Christian leaders there, however, were responding that she couldn’t, even when faced with ‘extreme cruelty and death’, because of Matthew 5:32 where, they assumed, Jesus was allowing divorce only for immorality.

In this study, therefore, I’ve tried to lay out the whole Biblical basis for divorce and remarriage, from Moses to Jesus and Paul, showing how when all the Scriptures are considered, they dovetail perfectly.

This difficult issue has often caused strong disagreement in the churches of God. Indeed, this study began as a commission in 2004 from some church leaders to respond to two papers with opposing conclusions. To simplify it, I have now retained only one reference to those two papers.

It also presents the conclusions I came to during the 1970’s while studying covenants and having to outwork them in a community of alternative life-stylers, many of whom had complicated relationships which included children of different sets of parents. There were simply no easy answers, yet God’s word needed to become flesh amongst us, ‘full of grace and truth’.1

Let’s begin with some areas of agreement or common ground for most of us:

(i) We accept the Scriptures are given to equip us for ‘every good work’2 and that they, rather than church tradition, are authoritative3
(ii) We agree that God hates divorce4
(iii) We need to establish if divorce can ever be right
(iv) If so, does this include the right to remarry?

Pastoral Situations
Sometimes the best way to find a path forward is to define the outer limits on both sides, to consider the opposing extremes, and then avoid both by passing between them. On one hand, our society today allows divorce for any reason at all, the NZ Government avoiding acrimony by introducing ‘no-fault’ divorce and remarriage after a separation of two years. In Australia, it is only one year. This removed the painful and sometimes farcical gathering of evidence of adultery by private detectives. However, it also avoids the Biblical issues and allows what Jesus described as an adulterous remarriage. I see this as an adulterous act, i.e. in getting wrongly remarried, rather than as a continuing state afterwards but, as King David saw, the consequences may very well be on-going.5

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church forbids all divorce and remarriage, arguing that since ‘the two have become one’, it is quite simply impossible for anyone to ‘divide them asunder’. This defines divorce and remarriage as being only sinful and creates bizarre situations where any Catholic wanting to remarry has to establish reasons why their first marriage was not really legitimate, even though they may have had children who then become illegitimate.

In between, one Protestant view allows divorce but forbids any remarriage; another allows remarriage where there has been adultery, but only for the innocent party. What then are we to make of situations where marriages have been devastated by psychiatric disorders or drug addiction? What about physical abuse and physical disablement? What is God’s will then? What should a wife do who has been severely battered by her husband? What of a husband whose wife has been permanently institutionalised?

We’ll have to apply our Biblical findings to these real-life situations.

We also need to accept there are truly godly people with opposing views on this issue and, at times, as hard as this may be, to wait to see the outcome. We’re called to judge a tree by its fruit and fruit doesn’t always appear overnight. Nor does wisdom. As Jesus taught:

“John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”6

Wisdom often requires our time and patience but it will become apparent, and we will all give an account for what we have taught, how we have lived, and how we have judged others.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘marriage’ as:

 condition of man and woman legally united for purpose of living together and usually procreating lawful offspring

I believe it should be a life-long covenant of friendship in which a man and a woman can become one, romantically, sexually, financially, and legally, living together and usually but not inevitably bearing and raising children in an enduring loving environment.

Our English verb ‘divorce’, from the Latin noun, divortium, originally meant to separate. However, today it means to permanently break the marriage covenant and ‘separation’ means being apart but still married. The Greek verb for divorce as used by Jesus, apoluo, means to set free, let go or release from custody or debt, e.g. in the parable:

“And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released (Gk. apoluo) him and forgave him the debt”7

It means to release some 33 times in the New Testament. In another 19 instances, it has the general meaning of to send away:

About four thousand were there; and He sent them away (Gk. apoluo)8

On that occasion, Jesus had taught and fed them all and it was time for them to go home. Apoluo is also used 10 times in the specialised sense of to divorce:

“I say to you that everyone who divorces (Gk. apoluo) his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery…”9

So apoluo means to free or release from custody or obligation on 33 occasions, to send away on 19 occasions, and to divorce on 10 occasions. This gives us a very clear context for ‘divorce’ among 1st Century Jews. When Paul refers to divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, he uses the Greek verb, aphiemi, to send forth or to forgive, i.e. to release from obligation. We see this illustrated in Peter’s famous question:

 “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive (Gk. aphiemi) him? Up to seven times?”10

The Old Testament’s Hebrew verb as used by Moses, shalach, also means to send away. It refers to divorce 4 times but 70 times to letting people go, free of captivity or obligations, and 57 times to simply sending people away.

We see then that both the Hebrew and the Greek verbs for ‘to divorce’ explicitly include being released, let go, see free from the marriage bond, and both include the right to marry another. Accordingly, Jesus’ original hearers would have been shocked when He spoke of those divorced who were committing adultery when they remarried. How could that be, given the Greek and Hebrew terms? He also referred to those who weren’t, as we will see.

1. Biblical Overview – Covenants
Biblically, marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman but it is also to reveal a mystery, that of Christ as the Bridegroom and His relationship with the church as His bride. 11 The Bible therefore not only carefully defines marriage but itself consists of two covenant books, the Old and the New Testaments or Covenants, i.e. the covenants mediated by Moses and the Lord Jesus; it also describes other inspired covenants such as those made by God with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Levi and David, so we have a wealth of revelation available to us. These covenants describe in great detail how God has historically related to His people, how He will relate to us today and how He wants us to relate to each other. The most reliable way to consider marriage and divorce, therefore, is by looking for the sheer consistency of the mind of God in all of His covenants in the Scriptures.

However, the word of God is never purely theoretical – it becomes flesh.12 We therefore have to press on from abstract concepts to real life, looking to be led by the Spirit of truth in every situation in accordance with the Scriptures.

Purpose of the Marriage Covenant
When Jesus was challenged about divorce and remarriage, He replied by quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind His hearers of the original Divinely-stated purpose for the marriage covenant:

“…Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh…”13

So, what does this actually mean? That one ceases to exist? Of course not, because both are required for this to actually be true; if one is gone, there are no longer two to be ‘one’.

“The two become one flesh” when they become sexually intimate. And, as Paul explains, this can be for good, as in marriage, or for evil:

Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her; for He says, ‘The two shall become one flesh’14

In other words, the interlocking intimate contact of sexual intercourse creates a union or bond. This bond is on various levels, not only in sharing physical intimacy but also intellectual and emotional secrets, providing a unique knowledge and enduring memories of each partner by the other. Even casual sexual intimacy with a prostitute, or today’s sex-worker, creates a ‘one flesh’ bond but, obviously, the deeper the commitment, the greater the bond.

To get married is to fully commit to love and live together, ‘for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part’. This necessarily creates great emotional vulnerability but the ideal is that ‘the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed’.15

And here is the point – when a man and a woman have truly become ‘one flesh’ emotionally, intellectually and sexually, the pain caused by one of them being unfaithful or walking away can be like tearing apart living flesh. This is why God “hates divorce”16 He doesn’t hate the tearing up of a legal document; He hates the malicious attitudes and destruction caused by us not remaining loving and together.

The primary purpose of the marriage covenant is therefore twofold for the sake of both individuals: to protect their loving intimacy and to prevent separation so that they can continue to love and live together. Then as Adam famously ‘knew his wife Eve, she conceived and gave birth’17 which made the covenant even more important, now for the sake of the children.

Purpose of the New, Eternal Covenant
In a direct parallel, Paul adds that ‘the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her… But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him’.18 In other words, we are to connect with God in the deepest and most intimate way possible – He takes up residence within us.19

The primary purpose of God’s covenant with us is therefore also loving intimacy: that we might love and live with Him and He with us, eternally.20 When Jesus prayed to the Father, He described eternal life as consisting of us knowing Him, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent”.21

Accordingly, God is willing to take the oath of an eternal covenant with us so that we can be absolutely sure of His love and commitment to us22 and live confidently in His promise, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you”.23

Covenant Conditions
While He will never desert or forsake us, we are also to never desert or forsake Him.24 Every Biblical covenant includes ‘continuing’ conditions, i.e. the recipients all had to remain within the conditions; if they didn’t continue in them, they were considered unfaithful or disloyal.25 For example, Adam was created to live forever, in covenant with God26 but he was warned: “you shall not eat [of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die”.27 He and Eve broke that condition and died.

Abraham’s covenant required circumcision of all males: “but a male who is not circumcised… shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant”28 and Moses almost died because of this.29

Moses spelled out the conditions of the Old Covenant just after Israel had left Egypt: “But if you do not obey Me… and so break My covenant”, they were to lose everything.30 In other words, they were to trust and obey. Moses spelled it out again forty years later.31 The whole Old Testament shows God’s incredible willingness to be patient and to forgive them but every now and again, He had to let a whole generation go their own way and be lost. We see this most obviously in the wilderness generation,32 but also in the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman invasions. Jeremiah’s prophecy is explicit:

 …for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce.33

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God urges Israel to read the divorce certificate to see why He did it:

Thus says the LORD, “Where is the certificate of divorce by which I have sent your mother away? Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you? Behold, you were sold for your iniquities, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away”34 Part of Israel’s restoration in the following generations was to acknowledge that they as a nation had broken the Mosaic covenant and needed to renew it. This is why Deuteronomy was the second giving of the Law after the 40 years in the wilderness.35 See too in the times of Asa,36 Jehoiada37 Hezekiah,38 Josiah,39 and Nehemiah,40 The new covenant was also a renewal but initiated by God and with a new means of Israel’s keeping it.41

The Conditions of the New Covenant
The New Covenant likewise has two continuing conditions. Firstly, we are to have no other gods besides Him42and, secondly, we are to keep relating intimately to Him by faith,43 i.e. to love and live with Him.

These conditions are not only inspired but also common sense. We can only enter this covenant by joining ourselves to Him44 as our God45 and if we don’t remain in this attitude or spirit, we necessarily are no longer “one spirit” with Him, having separated ourselves from Him. This is deserting or forsaking Him. Jesus used the analogy of a vine to describe this:

“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit… If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, andcast them into the fire, and they are burned.”46

He also warned us against having false hopes on the Last Day:

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’.”47

We can be so focussed on Jesus’ quote from Psalm 6 regarding lawlessness that we overlook His previous four words, “I never knew you” – He will reject all whom He does not know. This knowledge is obviously not in regard to His omniscience but in regard to covenants. Biblically, a man is not allowed to ‘know’ a woman before he is married to her; they enter the marriage covenant to begin that intimate knowledge. Knowing the Lord likewise only comes from our continuing in our relationship with Him; the many who will be sent away on that day will be all who may have begun well but then refused to continue in His covenant.

Paul also reminded the Roman Christians of the consequences to those in ancient Israel who had broken the Old Covenant:

Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.48

How and why did those Israelites fall? ‘They were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith’.49 We are therefore to ‘continue in His kindness’ through faith, i.e. keep on relating to Him but trusting only in His death as the basis for God’s grace.50 The often-avoided passages of the Book of Hebrews51 spell this out in more detail.

We who are in the New Covenant are supposed to learn from the earlier mistakes of those under the Old Covenant who also were supposed to love and live with Him. If we take up with any other gods to serve them, such as Mammon, or money,52 we are being unfaithful to Him; if we put our hands to the plough but then turn back, we will not be fit for His kingdom.53

If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.54

Notice that if we break either condition, God still loves us so there always remains a way back if we stop denying Him – that’s the reconciliation or atonement at the heart of the gospel. This requires us to properly acknowledge our fall,55 change our attitude and behaviour56 and recommit ourselves to Him.57

2. Two Explicit Conditions
Biblically, marriage covenants have two explicit conditions and four implicit conditions. Beginning with the two explicit conditions, we find that they are identical to the New Covenant’s continuing conditions: the man and the woman are to stay intimately and sexually faithful, ‘forsaking all others’, and to be there, to be present, for the other.

(i) Faithfulness

Jesus was unequivocal on this, tightening up a lax interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1:

“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of immorality [Grk, porneia], makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”58

In Matthew 19:9, He repeats this:

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality [Grk, porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery.”

In other words, any divorce without a valid reason is not a divorce at all, so any remarriage in this instance is therefore adulterous. N.B. the converse is equally true: anyone remarrying after a valid divorce is not being adulterous.

This again is common sense: if one of the marriage partners has been sexually unfaithful, they have broken the covenant and, very importantly, it is broken so completely that the other partner is given the choice as to whether to divorce, or to stay, forgive, recommit and rebuild trust.59

However, we need to understand what this generic term, porneia, immorality, actually meant to Jesus and His 1st Century Jewish audience. While to the Greeks porneia meant prostitution or fornication, to the Jews it meant sexual immorality of any kind, as spelled out by Moses: they were not to have sexual relations with any blood relative,60 neighbour’s spouse,61 same-sex partner,62 male or female prostitute,63 or animal.64 Paul similarly spelled this out to his Graeco-Roman audience.65

Today in English, we incorporate porneia into ‘pornography’ to refer to sexually explicit images. This fits well with Jesus’ teaching:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”66

This means that adultery includes not only visiting prostitutes or being sexually unfaithful but also indulging in pornography. Of course, the ideal remedy is always repentance, forgiveness and rebuilding trust but continuing in this behaviour can be valid grounds for the other partner to divorce and remarry, as the divorce certificate from Masada states.

Also included in the 1st Century Jewish understanding of sexual wrongdoing was any denying of conjugal rights. The Law upheld the rights of even an indentured servant-wife so the husband was forbidden to:

“… reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall be free, without any debt.”67

His failing in any of these set her completely free from her obligation. Paul also wrote of conjugal rights:

The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.68

He concludes in strong language:

Stop depriving [Grk, apostereō] one another, except by agreement for a time…69

Elsewhere, apostereo is translated as to defraud, or keep back by fraud.70

(ii) Presence

Some assume that since Jesus only referred to sexual immorality, that is the only legitimate reason for divorce so this second condition of presence is irrelevant. However, absence necessarily means the denial of conjugal rights so it is implicit in Jesus’ teaching. What are we to make of it not being more explicit? Just that He deliberately left a lot to the Holy Spirit to teach the apostles,71 especially Paul72 who wrote or dictated thirteen of the New Testament’s twenty six books, including almost all applications of the New Covenant. We also need to consider how we are supposed to interpret any Scripture:

Another rule of interpretation, as of common sense, is that we are not to expect in every place the whole circle of Christian truth, and that nothing is proved by the absence of a doctrine from one passage, which is clearly stated in others.73

This rule of interpretation also resolves the apparent contradiction between Matthew’s record of Jesus twice allowing divorce in the case of unfaithfulness74 and Mark’s and Luke’s not mentioning this.75  However, He also admonished us to remember the Divine reasoning for marriage – man is not married just to remain faithful but because, as He said:

It is not good for the man to be alone…76

Another necessary condition for marriage is therefore the presence of both parties. It simply isn’t a marriage if one is permanently absent. This is plainly taught by Paul:

 …if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or sister is not under bondage (Gk. douloo, lit. enslaved) in such cases, but God has called us to peace.77

He is not saying that marriage is slavery but that its covenant is a very strong bond. His point is that the one leaving is breaking the covenant so the deserted partner is no longer bound by it. N.B. Paul is using the concept implicit in both the Hebrew and Greek words for divorce – the brother or sister is not still ‘bound’ or ‘enslaved’ but instead they are released, freed from all the obligations of the broken marriage covenant. They are therefore free to remarry.

And why is this? Because God has called us to peace, shalom, wholeness. I initially assumed this meant ‘let him leave’ rather than fight about it, but if that meant the one left behind could not remarry, that would also mean that being alone has now become good after all! Reading more carefully, we can see that Paul is not relating this peace to the leaving but to the resulting freedom – the one left behind is ‘not under bondage… but God has called us to peace’, i.e. free to remarry.

Why would remarriage be peace? Because in the beginning, God could not and did not rest until He had dealt with Adam’s problematic loneliness by creating Eve. The peace we are called, unless we are called to and have the grace to be single,78 is a new marriage covenant. We see this in other ancient Jewish documents – the Babylonian Talmud says, ‘Whoever is without a wife lives without good, without help, without happiness, without blessing and without atonement’, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi adds, ‘and without life and without peace‘.79

 It really is better to marry than to burn,80 which is why Paul also urged young widows to remarry.81 In talking about widowhood, Paul’s description of the marriage covenant is again of a very strong bond:

A wife is bound [Gk, deo] as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to marry whomever she wishes, only in the Lord.82

Deo is commonly translated as being tied, chained and imprisoned.83

How does this apply in the case of desertion? We readily see that a widow is not bound to her dead husband because of the separation caused by death; she is likewise not bound if the separation is caused by her husband leaving her. Of course, under extreme conditions such as war, famine, or hostage-taking, married couples may be forced to separate for a long time which adversely affects their marriages. We will consider this later, as ‘unintentional absence’.

Lastly, if one spouse breaks either condition, the ideal is still reconciliation. As with the new covenant, this requires a proper acknowledgment of the issue, a change in attitude and behaviour, and a recommitment to the original relationship and conditions. However, this is far more easily said than done – I’ll never forget a friend telling me of the depth of her husband’s betrayal and the agony of her fear of a recurrence. When anyone avoids reconciliation, we have to watch for self-righteousness but we also have to beware of sitting in judgement on an innocent party who is unwilling to recommit. 84

These then, faithfulness and presence, are the two explicit conditions of the marriage covenant and soon we will consider the four implicit conditions.

Purpose of the Divorce Certificate
Covenants are always to be recorded or memorialised and so too are divorces, to record any covenant that has been broken and is therefore no longer in force. As we saw above, Jesus summarised the Law on divorce and remarriage:

It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of immorality, makes her commit adultery…85

Was Jesus overturning Moses? Was He forbidding divorce and remarriage? Not at all. Jesus always affirmed the Old Covenant,86 until His death created the New Covenant.87 Moses codified just grounds for divorce and remarriage88 and, as we saw earlier, God divorced the nation of Israel on those grounds, urging the people to read why on the certificate:

Thus says the LORD, “Where is the certificate of divorce by which I have sent your mother away? Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you? Behold, you were sold for your iniquities, and for your transgressions your mother [the nation] was sent away”89

Jesus was affirming that. However, He was also affirming mercy – the unchaste wife was to be given this certificate which allowed her to remarry. In other words, she could be forgiven her immorality and given another chance in another marriage. Compare this to the Law’s usual penalty for adultery which was death90 and thereby freed the husband to remarry. We also see this mercy in David and Bathsheba’s being forgiven, in Joseph wanting to secretly divorce Mary91 and in Jesus rescuing and forgiving the adulterous woman.92

Notice too in the quote above, Jesus presupposed that a divorced woman would remarry – the unjust husband “makes her commit adultery” – as this wouldn’t be the case if she remained unmarried.

Let us be absolutely clear: the Law required divorces to certified so that both parties, even the transgressing spouse, would be free to remarry.93 In an age when women were usually financially dependent on men, this was an essential protection for them and their children. And for any woman tempted to ‘trade up’, He also warned women against initiating an unjust divorce.94

So what was the actual issue to Jesus? Any improper or unjust divorce means both parties are still married, so you must have just cause.

Later on, in Matthew 19, when Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife “for any reason at all” (v. 3), i.e. arbitrarily,[ref]In 1st Century Israel, there were two schools of thought on divorce and remarriage, based on differing interpretations of Deut 24:1: Hillel the Elder (110 B.C.-10 A.D.) taught that it meant ‘for any reason at all’; Shammai (50 B.C.-30 A.D.) taught that it meant only for serious indiscretions. Jesus was therefore agreeing with Shammai on this issue.95 He reminded them that marriage was to create the deeply trusting bond of ‘one flesh’.96 Arbitrariness is thereby ruled out – if there is no proper cause, no betrayal, no porneia, remarriage is adulterous.97 

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to ‘give her a certificate of divorce and send her away’?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way”98

What is this “hardness of heart”? Why would that necessitate a divorce certificate?

Firstly, a soft-hearted man would be looking for ways to keep rather than to reject his wife, even if she was unfaithful. Hosea remained married to Gomer after she was adulterous,99 revealing God’s soft heart and continuing faithfulness to unfaithful Israel. God wants marriage to be redemptive. We therefore see that their question “for any reason at all?” actually revealed hard hearts looking for any excuse to divorce.

Secondly, when Jesus reaffirmed the Law as certifying divorce, He showed that even adulterous husbands and wives should be given another chance in another marriage.

Applying Extremely Carefully
We must be extremely careful in considering and applying what we have found here because we can easily add to what is already a painful situation. However, we do have to respond in order to be faithful both to God and to the Scriptures. Jesus encouraged us to work out these issues as a community of believers:

“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”100

We therefore have to consider every case on its own merits, in the light of “the whole purpose [or, counsel] of God”.101

If we do nothing, we are leaving loop-holes, as our society does today, justifying divorce on any grounds and thereby encouraging adulterous remarriages among our congregations. On the other hand, if we are overly zealous and misapply the Scriptures’ teaching, as we have so often in the past, we may be coercing men and women to remain bound to abusive, unfaithful or absent partners.

The issue is further complicated by our having to decide on the basis of invisible and only occasionally evident attitudes and motives: is the person seeking counsel about divorce actually wanting the will of God, or an easy way out of the hardships every marriage will face?

3. Implicit Conditions
We have so far identified the two explicit Biblical conditions for legitimately breaking a marriage covenant as immorality and desertion. We now need to consider the four implicit Biblical conditions that, if broken, define desertion by identifying the distinctions between temporary and permanent, intentional and unintentional separations.

(i) Leaving Temporarily

Sometimes a husband or wife may temporarily leave their spouse, not for another relationship but to draw attention to the state of the relationship, in the hope of actually saving the marriage. Ezekiel describes God Himself temporarily leaving his wife, the nation of Israel, expressed as hiding His face:

According to their uncleanness and according to their transgressions I dealt with them, and I hid My face from them… [but] now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel…102

Isaiah explains further:

Behold, the LORD’S hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.103

Paul puts it in the context of our marriages:

…the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.104

This may be because a husband refuses to face his shortcomings, instead insisting that the wife has to repent and submit to whatever he wants. Paul’s saying that a legitimate option for her is to leave, but this too has its risks. I’ve known several Christian women who left, one of whom was successful in getting her husband to look at himself and then was reconciled, but the other was unsuccessful and the separation became a divorce. In another case, the wife insisted the husband leave but then, having made the break, began an affair with another married man, which resulted in two divorces.

Ideally, a Christian leaving should be temporarily leaving a partner in order to save the marriage rather than leaving the marriage permanently.

(ii) Permanent Absence, or Desertion

Now we have to consider the difference between those who choose to permanently leave their spouses (i.e. deserting or forsaking them) and those who permanently leave without making a deliberate choice, e.g. because of an accident, a psychiatric disorder, an addiction or a strong deception. There is a clear Biblical distinction to be made between what we could call ‘intentional absence’ and ‘unintentional absence’ of a covenant or marriage relationship.

For example, consider God’s differing attitudes to Adam and Eve. Both broke His covenant and both suffered consequences but God held Adam responsible in a way He didn’t Eve. Even though Eve initiated the breaking, we’re told that ‘the woman being quite deceived fell into transgression’, whereas Adam was not ‘deceived’105 and so is alone held responsible for ‘sin entering the world, and death through sin’106 and thus the curse on all of creation.107 She left unintentionally, he left intentionally.

Divorce for intentional absence has an element of punishment for sin but divorce for unintentional absence is not punitive, simply formalising an informal permanent separation.

Intentional Absence

Let’s therefore consider the issue where one party chooses to desert the other. We also need to consider ‘absence’ in a number of ways. Ken Chant of Vision Christian College asks:

“Does marriage consist only of two people observing legal forms…? Should a man still be called ‘husband’ if he incessantly abuses his wife and denies her his duty of care, protection, love, intimacy, and fellowship? Should a woman still be called ‘wife’ if she refuses to honour and love her man, and withholds from him intimacy, partnership and joy? Can a marriage that deserves the name be built upon continuing ‘fraud’ (the Greek word used in 1 Cor 7:5 to describe the withholding of sexual relations)?”108

These are perfectly reasonable questions.

Firstly, although we have identified the two explicit conditions for legitimately breaking a marriage covenant, we have already assumed four implicit conditions of a marriage relationship. They are sexual intimacy, having children, personal safety and sharing of possessions.

(i) Sexual intimacy

It is a given that marriage includes sexual intercourse – in order to make a marriage covenant, the relationship must be consummated or the marriage can be declared invalid. Accordingly, if there is no further sexual intimacy after the initial consummation, the partner being ‘defrauded’ can justly claim that there is no marriage. Of course, married couples can choose to suspend or end their sexual relationship but if it’s not ‘by agreement’, as we saw above, the Scriptures describe this behaviour as ‘defrauding one another’109 of their “conjugal rights”.110

(ii) Having children

Another implicit condition of marriage is the agreed expectation of having children. Onan’s sin against Tamar was refusing to give her children and the Lord considered that a capital offence.111 Accordingly, if a woman marries with the expectation of having children and her husband refuses to have sexual intercourse with her in order to accomplish that, he has broken the marriage covenant and she is not bound. Obviously, where a husband or wife is unable to have children, and this is usually not known beforehand, this is an ‘unintentional absence’, as we will consider next. The couple may choose to adopt or remain childless but it must be by mutual agreement.

(iii) Personal safety

Another implicit condition of marriage is that it is a safe environment. Peter commands us:

You husbands… live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honour as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.112

Men being usually physically stronger than women are called to harness their strength to protect them so, in ancient Israel, it was the men who were to wage war when necessary. Husbands who batter their wives are abandoning their posts and God Himself will not listen to them. If they remain unrepentant, they can be legitimately described as deserting their wives.

I have a friend whose husband beat her severely for years. She became a Christian and clung to some verses in 1 Peter:

You wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behaviour of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behaviour.113

She faithfully endured for years, hoping that he would be won, but he wasn’t. Eventually she left him, I believe by the will of God, and they were divorced. I don’t know if she has remarried but I believe she has every right to do so.

Although the Scripture primarily addresses physical abuse as perpetrated by men, women also transgress, of course. Verbal abuse also goes both ways but the issue of women being more readily verbal is addressed in 1 Peter 3:2 above and lamented in Proverbs:

It is better to live in a corner of the roof [or, in a desert land114 ] than in a house shared with a contentious woman.115

Although literal separation is suggested, these wry proverbs imply men should resign themselves to it by creating space rather than by divorce.

(iv) Sharing of home, income and possessions

Today, we take for granted that a couple getting married will live in the same home and merge all of their possessions. Pre-nuptial agreements to exempt one party or both were invented to get around this implicit condition if they divorce.116

We also often assume today wives will generate income but, in Biblical days, when family inheritances were almost always passed on through the male line, the men had the responsibility to provide for their wives and widowed mothers.117 As we saw earlier in regard to conjugal rights, Moses spelt out the rights of an indentured servant-wife within polygamy:

If he takes to himself another, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money [i.e. the cost of redemption] 118

We see then that besides the obvious protection and accommodation, men were obliged to provide food, clothing and conjugal rights, especially to produce children.

We still see this today, when children come along and wives stop generating income to focus on the home. In any divorce where a delinquent husband tries to deny that his wife’s working at home is contributing financially, he can be punished by our courts; all their possessions are considered to be owned 50/50.

In conclusion, absence or desertion is much more than simply not being present. Marriage is supposed to be a loving and living together with all that entails – sexual intimacy, the hope of children, personal safety and the sharing of home, income and possessions. The one intentionally withholding any of these can eventually be justly described as being absent, as having deserted or forsaken their partner.

Of course, everything must be done and much time given to preserve the relationship and the marriage, but if there is no change or hope of change, divorce can be a legitimate resolution. How much time must pass has to be a matter of judgment, firstly by the couple themselves, then by counsellors and finally by church leaders 119. In my view, this should be years rather than months, as seen in Jesus’ hope for fruit from Israel.120

Unintentional Absence
What then of those who leave without the same element of choice?

As mentioned earlier, under extreme conditions such as war, famine or hostage-taking, married couples may be forced to separate for a long time, which adversely affects their marriages. This is clearly unintentional and the ideal is obviously that the relationship survives but in the chaos of these situations, such as a husband missing in action, surely God’s personal guidance is essential and grace must be shown towards all good-hearted parties.

A Christian man I knew many years ago was married to a woman who became so psychiatrically unbalanced that she was institutionalised. He initially honoured his vows, ‘for better, for worse, in sickness and in health’, for several years but eventually he divorced her. While much criticised at the time, from what I know he seems to have been clearly unintentionally deserted, physically, emotionally and sexually, so I could accept his remarriage as Biblically legitimate.

On the other hand, in the town where I grew up there was a man whose wife was paralysed either by polio or in a car accident. I don’t know if they were Christians but his love and faithfulness was seen by all as he cared for her in her wheelchair for a lifetime.

Others in our society, Christian and non-Christian, endure their partner’s continual failures through addictions, whether drugs, alcohol or gambling, always hoping for a change of heart. Others may lose a partner to a cult which forbids contact with ‘unbelievers’. As Christians, we are surely to support these folk in their love and faithfulness but also to allow grace for them if they go beyond all reasonable endurance: ‘the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace’.121

As stated earlier, everything must be done and due time given to preserve the relationship and the marriage, but if there is no change or hope of change, even the one unintentionally withholding can eventually be justly described as having deserted or forsaken their partner.

4. Other Issues – The Innocent Party vs. the Guilty

Some insist that only the innocent party can be remarried. However, is any party in a divorce case ever wholly innocent or wholly guilty? For example, what if a clearly guilty adulterer strayed after the apparently innocent party had deliberately with-held sexual intimacy for a sustained period of time? Was Paul off-track or realistic when he noted that “it is better to marry than to burn?”122

There is no possible doubt that adultery is a serious offence; as mentioned earlier, it was a capital offence under the Mosaic Covenant. However, neither adultery nor divorce is the unforgivable sin – refusing to repent is.123 Paul is unambiguous re sexual sin:

Do not be deceived; neither fornicators… nor adulterers… will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.124

These adulterers, like us all, were unfit for the kingdom but we are forgiven anything that we are willing to properly acknowledge, just as King David was. There is nothing in the Scriptures that forbids remarriage by any guilty party who truly repents, just as King David did.

When Jesus accepted and forgave the Samaritan woman, many came to faith through her125 despite her having been divorced five times!

In a more recent example, a godly 85 year old friend of mine whom God has wonderfully used for many decades finally trusted me with her life-story. Raised in a non-Christian family, she became a Christian at age 12 and attended a very conservative church which didn’t allow make-up or dancing, and she liked both. At age 20, she back-slid, married a non-Christian man and then had two children. Within three years, she decided she’d made a terrible mistake so she left her husband, moved back to her parents and three years later was divorced. She then married another non-Christian man who had left his wife, and they had another two children and adopted another.

However, her former Christian leaders always kept in touch and, after years of stricken conscience, she recommitted herself to Jesus and had to face the consequences of her decisions. It was another 40 years before her second husband abandoned his hard heart towards her faith and became a believer, as a result of a vision of the Lord Himself. Throughout these 40 years, the Lord used her to lead others to faith as well as a leader in revivals in a traditional church and several evangelical churches.

What then are we to make of this? She deserted her first husband so, as she readily confesses, she sinned and caused the divorce. Having remarried, she then came back to faith but with an unbelieving husband so she obeyed 1 Cor 7:13. When the Lord began to use her, she was surprised but learned not to talk about her past, for the sake of the uninformed consciences of others. 126 Sometimes it’s simply better for them not to know, as Paul taught:

Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake.127

Personally, I see that the Lord forgave her sin and used her, just as He did with King David. The wisdom of accepting her as forgiven, even if all the saints haven’t known all the details of her story, has been vindicated by her decades of fruitfulness among us.

That said, there remains a clear warning that any of us seeking to deliberately sin and repent later are playing a destructive and potentially disastrous game.128 I’ve seen a few Christians marry against what they believed was the will of God in the hope it would all work out but it didn’t.

And anyone marrying an unrepentant adulterer or adulteress is simply asking for trouble.

Complications Caused by N.Z. Law
Another factor that we must consider is, as mentioned earlier, New Zealand’s “no fault” divorce law which was intended to avoid the muck-raking caused by the previous law. The marriage partners are to notify the authorities when they have been separated for two years, no fault is attributed to either and the divorce is finalised. There is good and bad in this law – good in alleviating some of the rancour and resultant fallout on children as well as setting a time limit, but bad in that it has encouraged divorce by making it easier and allowing marriages that by Jesus’ definition are actually adulterous.

It has also complicated matters where there are clear grounds for divorce by inserting a two year delay. During these two years, how should unmarried Christians relate to those separated but not divorced? If the latter start dating, are they being adulterous, at least in thought?129

Each situation here needs to be considered on its own merit.

Getting It Wrong
Lastly, we need to recognise that in our zeal to get it right, we can get it wrong on either side of the path: those holding to a stricter standard than Jesus in Matthew 5 and 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 may be condemning the innocent; those holding to a lesser, may be justifying adultery. Either way, Isaiah warns us:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil!130

Sometimes we may not know enough to judge righteously so we should reserve judgment until we do,131 or even err on the side of mercy:

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.132

We also need to rest in knowing that those who want to justify their own sin will always find a way but they won’t escape God. We can fool each other but God will judge us all on the motives and attitudes of our hearts.133 As Peter says:

In all [of Paul’s] letters… are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.134

Ultimately, all we can do is faithfully communicate and help each other apply the Scriptures to each situation that we are called to work through


  1. Our churches have often been wrong regarding divorce and remarriage, some condemning the innocent and others justifying adultery. We therefore need to carefully consider the issue in the light of the Biblical revelation of God’s covenants, especially the New Covenant between Christ and His bride, and how they were made, broken, and renewed.
  1. Marriage was designed by God to enable a man and a woman to love and live together, that the two should become one. Accordingly, both the marriage covenant and the new covenant have two explicit conditions:

(i) both parties are to be faithful in exclusive intimacy
(ii) both parties must be present.

  1. If either condition is broken, God’s first goal is redemption through reconciliation, through:

(i) proper acknowledgment of the issue
(ii) changing of attitude and behaviour
(iii) rebuilding trust
(iv) recommitting to the relationship and the conditions.

  1. However, complete reconciliation between husbands and wives is not always possible, due to trauma and shattered trust. The two explicit conditions therefore establish two legitimate reasons for divorce:

(i) adultery breaks the condition of faithful, exclusive intimacy
(ii) absence breaks the condition of continuing presence.

  1. The Greek and Hebrew verbs for divorce mean to release, let go or free from sin, debt or obligation. Accordingly, divorce for either reason is such a complete breaking of the marriage covenant bond as to allow remarriage to another.
  1. Jesus reaffirmed the Law’s certificate of divorce as allowing even guilty parties another chance in another marriage because it is still ‘not good for the man, or the woman, to be alone’. We see this mercy in God’s treatment of David and Bathsheba, and in Jesus with both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery.
  1. One party may choose to temporarily leave their spouse to emphasise the seriousness of their distress, in hope that the other will address it and save their marriage. However, if the leaving is permanent, this is a failure to continue or maintain the covenant. There is also a difference between intentional and unintentional desertion and God weighs the motives accordingly:

(i) intentional absence is sin and therefore punishable
(ii) unintentional absence is not punishable but can nevertheless allow the deserted partner to choose divorce, to formalise an informal permanent separation.

  1. Loving and living together implicitly includes:

(i) sexual intimacy
(ii) having children
(iii) personal safety
(iv) sharing of home, income and possessions.

Both parties can therefore have a reasonable expectation of these implicit conditions and any on-going breaches can be identified as absence or desertion. The first two and the last conditions may be waived by mutual agreement.

  1. Absence can also occur unintentionally, whether by accident, psychiatric disorder, addictions or spiritual deceptions. While not deliberate sin, there is still a consequence to be faced, either by the deserted partner accepting the new conditions of their marriage covenant, or by divorce. Divorce for absence is the most easily abused and so requires the most care and heart-searching by all concerned.
  1. None of these sins are unforgivable and reconciliation can be found with God and with each other, sometimes miraculously, through proper acknowledgment, repentance, forgiveness, rebuilding trust and recommitment. Paul wrote of adulterers that ‘such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God’.135
  1. We also have to address complications caused by the laws of our secular society, knowing that God will ultimately hold us all accountable to His words.136
  1. Since every case is different, the best decisions should be sought in a loving Christian community.137 In all of our discussions regarding divorce and remarriage, we should seek to be Biblically accurate and merciful in our decisions.


Marriage certificate papyrus: By XXVII Dynasty Aramaic – Brooklyn Museum, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32514783


Recommended Reading:

God’s Covenants and Our Time, Guy Duty (Bethany Press, 1965)

Divorce And Remarriage, Guy Duty (Bethany Press, 1967)

God Is A Matchmaker, Derek & Ruth Prince (Derek Prince Ministries, 1986)

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities, David Instone-Brewer (IVP USA, 2006). Also www.instonebrewer.com/visualSermons/Jesus-Divorce/_Sermon.htm

  1. John 1:14
  2. 2 Tim 3:16
  3. Matt 15:3 & 6
  4. Mal 2:16
  5. 2 Sam 12:9-14
  6. Luke 7:33-35
  7. Matt 18:27
  8. Mark 8:9
  9. Matt 5:32
  10. Matt 18:21
  11. Eph 5:22-33
  12. John 1:1 & 13
  13. Matt 19:4-5
  14. 1 Cor 6:16
  15. Gen 2:25
  16. Mal 2:16
  17. Gen 4:1
  18. 1 Cor 6:16-17
  19. 1 Cor 6:19
  20. John 3:16
  21. John 17:3
  22. Heb 6:13-19
  23. Heb 13:5-6
  24. 2 Tim 2:11-13
  25. Hos 6:6-7
  26. Hos 6:7
  27. Gen 2:17
  28. Gen 17:14
  29. Ex 4:24-26
  30. Lev 25:14ff
  31. Deut 29:1, 28:15ff
  32. Jer 31:32, Heb 3:7-11
  33. Jer 3:8
  34. Isa 50:1
  35. Deut 29:1
  36. 2 Chron 16:12
  37. 2 Kings 11:17
  38. 2 Chron 29:10
  39. 2 Kings 23:1-3, 2 Chron 34:31
  40. Neh 10:28-29
  41. Jer 31:31-34
  42. 1 Cor 10:14
  43. Matt 7:21-23
  44. John 1:12
  45. Rom 10:9
  46. John 15:5-6
  47. Matt 7:22-23
  48. Rom 11:22
  49. Rom 11:20
  50. Gal 5:4
  51. Heb 3:6-4:2, 6:4-12, 10:23-31
  52. Matt 6:24
  53. Luke 9:62
  54. 2 Tim 2:12-13
  55. 1 John 1:9
  56. Matt 21:28-31
  57. Hos 6:1-3
  58. Matt 5:31-32
  59. Some insist this exception only applies to immorality committed during the Jewish betrothal period, i.e. before marriage, or what we today call ‘engagement’. They can validly point to Joseph wanting to ‘send away’ (Grk, apoluo) Mary before they married (Matt 1:18-19), in the light of Deut 22:13-21. However, while this betrothal period was obviously included, this exception was clearly was not limited to it, because Jesus was referring to husbands and wives in general.
  60. Lev 18:6
  61. Lev 18:20
  62. Lev 18:22
  63. Deut 23:17
  64. Lev 18:23
  65. Rom 1:26-27, 1 Cor 6:9
  66. Matt 5:27-28
  67. Ex 21:10-11, emphasis added
  68. 1 Cor 7:3-4
  69. 1 Cor 7:5
  70. Mark 10:19, 1 Cor 6:7 & 8
  71. John 16:12-13
  72. 2 Pet 3:15-16
  73. Archbishop R.C. Trench, Notes On The Parables, p. 41, 1890
  74. Matt 5:32 & 19:9
  75. Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18
  76. Gen 2:18
  77. 1 Cor 7:15
  78. 1 Cor 7:7
  79. The JPS Bible Commentary, Ecclesiastes, p. 64, emphasis added
  80. 1 Cor 7:9
  81. 1 Tim 5:11-14
  82. 1 Cor 7:39
  83. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 148
  84. 1 Cor 4:5
  85. Matt 5:31-32
  86. Matt 5:17
  87. Luke 22:20
  88. Deut 24:1-4
  89. Isa 50:1, emphasis added
  90. Lev 20:10
  91. Matt 1:19
  92. John 8:2-11
  93. For example, a divorce certificate found at Masada and dated to 72 A.D. states: ‘you are free on your part to go and become the wife of any Jewish man that you wish. And this is to be for you from me a writ of divorce and a get of release.’ David Instone-Brewer points out the close similarity to Paul’s expression in 1 Cor 7:39 that a widow is ‘free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord’. www.instonebrewer.com/visualSermons/Jesus-Divorce/_Sermon.htm#sthash.6NbY6JOt.dpuf, accessed 13 Oct, 2013.
  94. Mark 10:12
  95. www.come-and-hear.com/gittin/gittin_90.html, accessed 13 Oct, 2013
  96. Matt 19: 5
  97. Matt 19:9
  98. Matt 19:7-8
  99. Hos 3:1
  100. Matt 18:18
  101. Acts 20:27
  102. Ezek 39:24-25
  103. Isa 59:1-2
  104. 1 Cor 7:10-11
  105. 1 Tim 2:14
  106. Rom 5:12
  107. Gen 3:17-19
  108. Ken Chant, Divorce and Re-marriage (A Survey of Biblical Teaching), 2nd Edition, 1995, p. 39
  109. 1 Cor 7:5
  110. Ex 21:10
  111. Gen 38:8-10
  112. 1 Pet 3:7
  113. 1 Pet 3:1-2
  114. Prov 21:19
  115. Prov 25:24
  116. However, pre-nuptial agreements can be perfectly reasonable where, for example, a large age-difference between the spouses might cause children of an earlier marriage to lose an inheritance.
  117. 1 Tim 5:8
  118. Ex 21:10-11
  119. Matthew 18:18
  120. Luke 13:6-9
  121. 1 Cor 7:15
  122. 1 Cor 7:9
  123. Matt 12:31
  124. 1 Cor 6:9-11
  125. John 4:39
  126. Rom 14:22-23
  127. 1 Cor 10:25
  128. Heb 3:7-14
  129. Matt 5:27-28
  130. Isa 5:20
  131. Prov 18:13
  132. Jas 2:13
  133. 1 Cor 4:5
  134. 2 Pet 3:15-16
  135. 1 Cor 6:11
  136. John 12:47-48
  137. Matt 18:19-19