Divorce and Remarriage

Question

Is it a sin for a divorced Christian to remarry?

Answer

Whether or not a divorced Christian can remarry depends upon the circumstances of the divorce, and to some degree upon the conduct of both ex-spouses after the divorce.

In general, Christians are not free to remarry (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11). This is because God considers marriage to be a sacred covenant, and he considers marriage vows to be binding. He does not release us from our covenant or vows simply because we don't want to keep them anymore. A divorced couple may be divorced in the eyes of the civil law, but not in the eyes of God (Matt. 19:3-7; Mark 10:6-9). Therefore, if either of the divorced spouses remarries, that person is committing adultery.

However, there are some exceptions to this. First, if spouse A divorces spouse B because spouse B has been unfaithful, then the marriage covenant can be legitimately dissolved (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Second, if the marriage is between a believer and an unbeliever, the marriage covenant may be legitimately dissolved if the unbeliever divorces the believer (1 Cor. 7:15). This does not work both ways -- the believer may not leave the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12-13).

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 indicates that marriages between unbelievers are not bound in this way. If a person divorces before coming to faith, that person is free to remarry as a Christian.

Some people also argue that a Christian divorce may legitimately take place in the event of abandonment by the husband, and some argue that it may take place in the event of abuse. They defend the exception of abandonment on the basis of 1 Timothy 5:8, which states that a person who fails to provide for his family has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. In the case of one who fails to provide for his family, regardless of his profession of faith, his actions obligate the church to assume that he is an unbeliever. Thus, if he leaves his wife, she is free to remarry according to 1 Corinthians 7:12-13. Abuse is sometimes included as a form of "abandonment" on the basis that the husband has effectively abandoned his family even though he may still be present in the household.

Personally, while I think the argument regarding abandonment is sound, I have a harder time grounding the abuse exception in Scripture. I feel great compassion for the victims of abuse, and would certainly support the wisdom of seeking a divorce (1 Cor. 7:11). I also think it may be possible to argue on the basis of the 1 Timothy 5:8 that the abuser is "worse than an unbeliever," depending on the level and definition of "abuse." Nevertheless, even if we consider the abuser to be an unbeliever, the Bible does not teach that a believer may leave an unbeliever and then remarry.

With regard to post-divorce actions that may lead to the legitimacy of remarriage, a couple that has divorced illegitimately is really still married. Therefore, if either spouse remarries or engages in sexual relations with anyone other than his/her estranged spouse, that person has committed adultery. On that basis, the other spouse may legitimately opt to dissolve the marriage covenant.

Once a marriage covenant has been legitimately dissolved, it is my conviction that both parties are free to remarry. Even the spouse who committed adultery or abandoned the other is free to remarry once the victimized spouse releases him/her from the covenant bond and obligations. It takes two parties to be in covenant. Party A cannot be in covenant with party B if party B is not also in covenant with party A.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

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