May a Believer Initiate Divorce and Remarry?

Question

I was reading your comments on the theology of divorce. I believe you did a good job explaining the idea. However, I have another question. Using the 1 Timothy 5:8 argument, my wife's ex-husband failed to provide for the family. She, a Christian, divorced him for this reason. According to your analysis, the believer can not initiate the divorce, only the "unbeliever" can. Does this mean that my marriage to her is not legitimate? And if so, then what are my options as a Christian?

Answer

Thanks for the question!

We need to draw a clear distinction between an invalid divorce and an invalid/illegitimate marriage. From the sound of it, your wife did not have biblical grounds to leave her ex-husband, and she should not have initiated a divorce. But this does not necessarily mean that your marriage is invalid.

You did not mention whether or not her ex-husband had been condemned/disciplined by the church. In my opinion, this is an important step. The church must rule that the man really has denied the faith by his actions before your wife can justifiably count him as an unbeliever. Otherwise, the judgment may be premature. Any believer can fall into any sin, including failing to provide for his family. If, however, he repents when confronted or disciplined by the church, he proves himself to be a believer.

But even if the church had judged him to be an unbeliever, your wife should not have initiated a divorce. Paul teaches that believers are to remain with unbelieving spouses so long as the unbeliever is willing to remain in the marriage (1 Cor. 7:12-13), barring infidelity of course (Matt. 19:9).

Now, once the divorce has been initiated, the details can change. An unbeliever who is the respondent in a marital dissolution may decide that he/she prefers divorce to reconciliation. When this happens, the unbeliever is no longer "willing to live" with the believer, with the result that the believer is no longer bound. Paul uses the language of the unbeliever "leaving" (1 Cor. 7:15) not to indicate that the unbeliever initiates the divorce, but to indicate that the unbeliever is unwilling to remain in the marriage.

So, even if your wife wrongfully petitioned for divorce from her ex-husband, her divorce is still valid so long as (1) the church has found her ex-husband to be an unbeliever and (2) her ex-husband was unwilling to remain married to her. But if either of these conditions has not been met, then your wife's divorce from her ex-husband was invalid, and when she married you she committed adultery (Matt. 19:9).

But even if her divorce was invalid and your marriage to her was adulterous, this does not necessarily condemn you to a life of perpetual adultery, or invalidate your marriage. Once you consummated your marriage, your wife's ex-husband had biblical grounds to divorce her, even as a believer. So, even if he has not been judged to be an unbeliever, if at some point her adultery caused him no longer to desire reconciliation, then at that point she was released from her covenant obligation to him and her divorce became valid. Alternately, if her ex-husband has been judged an unbeliever, then his unwillingness to be reconciled itself serves as a basis to validate the divorce, even if his unwillingness is not the result of her adultery.

Hypothetically, one can imagine a case in which a believer divorces and remarries over the constant objection of his/her would-be ex-spouse. In such a case, the believer continues in an adulterous relationship with his/her new spouse. Numbers 30:10-15 indicates that in such a case, a wife's new marital vow is nullified by her would-be ex-husband's timely objection, so that while the state may recognize the new marriage, God does not.

(As an aside, if a woman constantly objects to the attempted remarriage of her would-be ex-husband, the principle of Numbers 30 continues to apply. Numbers 30 relies on the husband's headship in the marriage, which the wife does not share in a precisely reciprocal fashion. This gives him veto power over any type of vow. However, the wife does have authority at least over her husband's body in sexual matters [1 Cor. 7:4], and a marital vow pledges, among other things, the husband's body in sexual matters. So, the wife at least has authority to nullify any marital vow made by her would-be ex-husband.)

In conclusion, if your wife's ex-husband meets all the conditions for not having released her from their marriage and for nullifying her vow, then your marriage is invalid — in God's eyes she is still married to her ex-husband. But if he has not met all these conditions (e.g., if he did not desire reconciliation, or if he did not object to your marriage in a timely fashion), then your marriage is valid and in God's eyes she is married to you.

Whether or not she committed adultery when you married her is immaterial to your current marital status. A couple may commit adultery by having premarital sex, but this does not invalidate their marriage when they eventually tie the knot. In a similar way, while any past acts of adultery require repentance and forgiveness, they do not in and of themselves create an impediment to marriage. The only impediment to marriage would be an existing marriage covenant with her (ex-)husband.

If she is still married to her (ex-)husband in God's eyes, her options are to reconcile with him or to remain single (1 Cor. 7:11), and your obligation is to send her away. But if she is not still married to her ex-husband in God's eyes, your obligation is to fulfill your marriage vows to her.

Does this help at all?


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.