Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage
Position Paper (revised May 2021)
Marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. God’s original intent for marriage is seen in the first couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:18ff). Designed by God, this relationship is to be uniquely personal and intimate; a covenant relationship exemplifying a committed, lifelong, loving union. Such faithfulness in a relationship is meant to reflect God’s faithful love for His people, even in the face of extremely difficult realities (Hosea 2:19).
One of the great joys within our church is when a man and woman unite in the covenant of holy matrimony. Much preparation usually occurs where attention is given to the details of the wedding. The couple spends significant time in premarital counseling. The realities of living faithfully to marriage vows go well beyond the celebration of the wedding day, so every effort is given for couples to enter marriage with sober minds and committed hearts.
Biblical Marriage: A God-Ordained Covenant
God-ordained marriage (Genesis 2:24) and the Apostle Paul taught that marriage is a profound mystery (Ephesians 5:33), likened to Jesus Christ’s new covenant relationship to His own bride, the Church (Ephesians 5:23). Marriage vows are so special that even when non-Christians marry, the Bible still refers to their vows as a sacred covenant (Proverbs 2:17).
Scripture affirms the permanence of marriage in many places. Jesus instructed us that what God has joined together, man must not separate (Matthew 19:6). However, marital love between men and women often falters, regardless of God’s clear commands for how married couples are to uphold and treat one another. Grace Fellowship Church recognizes the challenges that occur in marriages so we provide biblical counseling services for married men and women who are struggling in their marriage. Varying degrees of conflict occur within marriages at different times and for different reasons. Biblical counseling helps marriages improve and even thrive when couples get help, seeking to grow and change. By God’s grace and to His glory, countless marriages in our church and community have been restored through this process.
The Bible also speaks about limited grounds for divorce. Grace Fellowship Church believes in taking the entire Bible seriously (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3). The purpose of this paper is to discuss the biblical grounds for divorce and how they apply to a variety of real-life situations. This document will seek to provide overall direction and guidance to help elders and pastors, as well as members of Grace Fellowship Church, understand the topic of divorce. This will not cover every situation or possible outcome. One reason God gave His Church pastoral/elder leaders is for them to prayerfully weigh and arbitrate different cases, seeking to determine how best to apply God’s Word. Though Scripture is sufficient, it is not exhaustive in detailing every possible situation that may arise in the life of a married person. Therefore, this document seeks to lay a foundational pattern of thinking and interpretation of Scripture but will not attempt to address every circumstance where divorce may occur.
Determining Biblical Grounds for Divorce
The Bible describes the role of the church in a variety of ways, including affirming the church’s responsibility to function as a court to arbitrate matters between members (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Our church constitution designates the elders to serve our church family as the leaders determining what discipline should occur when irreconcilable disputes happen within our membership. When it comes to evaluating the grounds for biblical divorce, the elders serve as the designated group responsible for reviewing the case and making determinations when the question arises.
This document seeks to provide a general framework for the pastors and elders of the church. However, the facts in each situation are different and will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and weighed carefully. Our elders take this responsibility very seriously and are committed to spending significant time listening, praying, and searching the Scriptures in each case. Work will be devoted to investigating the claims of each person and seeking to establish what is true. However, there may be times when it is impossible to determine the full extent of what is true (e.g., he said, she said). In cases where it is hard to determine the full extent of truth, the elders may choose to err on the side of protecting the spouse that is in the weaker and more vulnerable position in the marriage¹.
If a man or woman believes the conditions are present for a biblical divorce, he or she should contact one of Grace Fellowship Church’s elders to present the evidence. The person presenting their evidence is welcome to bring an advocate of his or her choice. In accordance with Proverbs 18:17, time will be spent listening to the other spouse and any other appropriate parties. The utmost care will be given to listen carefully, compassionately, and completely. Prayer will be devoted to the process before a decision is reached. Since discussions and prayer takes some time, we believe it is best for members of Grace Fellowship Church to not file for a divorce until the elders are able to come to a decision as to whether there are biblical grounds for divorce.
Must a Person Divorce?
Even if there are biblical grounds that allow for divorce, that does not necessarily mean the divorce must occur. Christ makes it clear that divorce happens because of the hardness of our hearts (Matthew 19:7-8; Mark 10:2-6). On numerous occasions over the years, offended parties have chosen to forgive, reconcile, and remain in the marriage. If that occurs, the offended spouse cannot subsequently use that same issue as grounds for divorce in the future unless new information comes to light. The offended party should seek to make a decision if they wish to pursue a divorce or not. Cases where sexual sin happened many years in the past and the offended party was aware and chose not to divorce will be considered reconciled.
Scripture is clear—people must forgive. It is needed and necessary. Lack of forgiveness is often at the heart of problems that lead to bitterness between spouses, even to the demise of the marriage (Mark 10:2ff). New Testament, biblical forgiveness occurring between Christians encompasses two elements; there is a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension emphasizes a readiness to forgive based upon what Christ has done for us (Mark 11:25). It is a God-focused, merciful, tender-hearted attitude toward those that sin against us (Ephesians 4:32). Scripture warns that a lack of a forgiving attitude hinders prayer and is even dangerous (Matthew 6:14ff). It also fails to reflect Christ’s attitude toward those that sinned against him (Luke 23:34; Romans 5:8), which we should seek to emulate.
The horizontal dimension actually emphasizes forgiving a repentant person (Luke 17:3ff). This includes granting forgiveness to spouses that sin in ways that provide biblical grounds for divorce. Even if biblical grounds for divorce are substantiated, believing spouses must forgive, even though they may still choose to divorce.
In cases where forgiveness has occurred and the couple has been restored, there may be a desire for a marriage renewal ceremony. The decision for this ceremony will be made on a case-by-case basis.
One of the defining characteristics and actions of all believers is that they live a life of repentance. The church is not made up of perfect people but individuals who are striving to become more like Christ in their personal holiness (Philippians 3:12-14). It is because a person has been determined by the local church to be unrepentant that a person is disciplined from the body of the local church, not because of one sin, per se (Matthew 18:15-20). Determining if a person is unrepentant falls to the pastors and elders based on some of the criteria listed here as well as later in this document. Examples of the fruit of repentance include things like: confession of sin and not trying to obscure what happened (Psalm 32:5; James 5:16); bringing sin into the light before being caught (Proverbs 28:13); a desire to make things right both in confession and action (Luke 19:8); truly biblically evident repentance (Acts 19:19; 2 Cor. 7: 10ff); patience with those who have been sinned against (Matthew 18:21-35); a willingness to face consequences (Galatians 6:7); a welcoming of accountability (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12); a teachable spirit (Colossians 1: 28).
Understanding the Reality of Degrees of Severity
As will be discussed in greater detail below, the two general categories of grounds for divorce are sexual immorality or desertion on the part of an unbelieving spouse (Matthew 5:32, 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15). All sin is offensive to God, but that does not mean that all sin has the same consequences. Similarly, not all sin is of the same degree. For example, a wife sending a sexually suggestive message to a man who is not her husband is different than her doing so on multiple occasions or having physical sexual relations with him. A man shouting at his wife in sinful anger is different from a pattern of sinfully angry behavior or him physically abusing her.
When evaluating the biblical grounds for divorce, below are some of the issues the elders will take into consideration:
- Has one spouse abandoned the other spouse? Things like physically leaving the home or not paying bills and supporting children will be considered for this question. (1 Corinthians 7:15)
- Has one spouse committed physical adultery with another person (defined by sexual contact with another person—even one time)? (Matthew 5:32; 1 Corinthians 6:16)
- Has a person been unwilling to stop visiting massage parlors or strip clubs, engaging in virtual sexual relationships, or internet pornography?
- Has a person been unwilling to stop developing inappropriate relationships through text, calls, sending suggestive or pornographic pictures, or visits with someone other than their spouse? (1 Corinthians 6:18)
- Has a person been unwilling to stop physical abuse or was the physical abuse such that serious injury either did or could have occurred? (Galatians 5:17-21)
- Have the police or other law enforcement officers been involved?
- How wide and publicly known are the marriage issues that the couple may be experiencing? (Romans 2:22-24)
- Has a person been unwilling to stop using sex (either depriving or demanding) as a weapon to manipulate, control, and oppress their spouse? (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)
- Has a person been guilty of physical confinement, financial cruelty (e.g., cancelling credit card, emptying bank accounts, etc.), or withholding common physical provision such as food, clothing, and basic needs? (Ephesians 5:2, 25)
- Has a person been guilty of extended oppression with behavior like: words that seek to control; repeated non-violent acts of oppression; relational sabotage with children; intimidation regarding relationships; sharing information with others for the purpose or result of tearing down their spouse? (Ephesians 4:29-32)
- Is there a mitigating health condition or previous sexual/physical abuse that is impacting the behavior of a spouse (e.g., an injury that changes sexual relationships, a disease that prevents sex, or a mental condition that impacts a spouse’s ability to think or reason)? (Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3-4; 1 Peter 3:7)
- Is there evidence that the spouse wants to be married and is contributing to a peaceable, amiable marriage² ? (1 Corinthians 7:12-13)
- Are family circumstances simply part of common human suffering (e.g., loss of a job, hurting economy)?
- Is each person faithfully attending, serving, and participating in the body life of the church? (Matthew 6: 33; Acts 2:42; Romans 12:1, 11; Hebrews 10:25)
- Has each person been willing to submit to biblical counseling (not just attending, but working to change and grow)? (1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18)
- Are the children old enough to express an opinion? Do the children have a level of spiritual maturity that allows them to connect Scripture with the behavior in their home and render a wise opinion? (Proverbs 18:13, 17)
- Is the person/couple asking the church leadership for prayer and counsel in order to make a decision or are they simply informing the leadership of a decision already made? (Proverbs 12:15; 1 Thessalonians 3:6; Hebrews 13:17)
- Is there ongoing character-defining evidence that either husband or wife is unwilling to live submitted to Scripture with regard to the directives of how husbands and wives are to live with one another? (Ephesians 4-5; Colossians 3:12-18)
Biblical Grounds for Divorce
Both Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 state that if sexual immorality (porneia) has occurred, biblical grounds exist for divorce. This clearly includes a spouse having physical sexual relations with another person outside of marriage even once.
Porneia is a broad word that encompasses any sexual sin outside of God’s will. As discussed above, each situation must be examined on a case-by-case basis. There are other types of sexual sin that the pastors and elders may judge as meeting this biblical test, especially if the questions enumerated above demonstrate clear patterns of unrepentant sin.
There are also cases where a sinning party may say that he or she has repented, but because of the severity, the spouse who has been sinned against would be told she/he has biblical grounds for divorce. In some cases, the sinning party would also be disciplined by Grace Fellowship Church even if they have asked for forgiveness. Granting forgiveness is not the issue, but the purity and the reputation of the Church are crucial, so restoring active fellowship or membership may involve a longer process. True repentance is often a slow process and the fruit of it becomes evident over time.
There are also certain situations where the person who was sinned against would be determined to have biblical grounds, but their spouse would not necessarily be disciplined if the pastors and elders believed there was interest on the part of the sinning person to receive ongoing counsel even after the divorce.
Abandonment (Not Being “pleased to dwell with” – 1 Corinthians 7:12-13)
1 Corinthians 7 teaches that if a person is married to an individual who is not a follower of Jesus Christ, the Christian spouse should remain in the marriage. However, verse 15 explains that if the unbelieving spouse does not want to remain in the marriage, that act of desertion frees the believing spouse to divorce if he/she chooses to do so.
There are some situations where an unbelieving spouse says he or she is “pleased to dwell with”³ their married partner, but their actions indicate otherwise. This includes behavior that is physically abusive (and in some extreme cases, being mentally or verbally abusive), an unwillingness to fulfill basic marital responsibilities, such as providing material support, engaging in sexual intimacy, or not allowing the spouse or children to attend worship services and regular Bible study.
Sometimes the person behaving in this fashion says he or she is a Christian and might even be a member of Grace Fellowship Church. Since “abandonment” only applies to situations where the offending spouse is an unbeliever, the offended spouse should bring his/her evidence to the elders. If their investigation reveals that the person is not “pleased to dwell with” their spouse, there may be biblical grounds for divorce based upon the fruit of the offending spouse contradicting the profession of their belief in Christ.
If the offending party is a member, he/she will be disciplined by Grace Fellowship Church in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17. When that occurs, the church family is making a statement that the offending party is not living as a Christian.
One aspect of desertion is abuse, a word that is used in many different ways in our culture. The pastors and elders will listen carefully to any report of abuse in any form (physical, mental, emotional, etc.). We believe a married person has the right to feel safe and experience an appropriate amount of peace in his/her own home (1 Corinthians 7:15). Care will especially be shown to those who are in the most vulnerable position in the home, often the wife and the children.
When a person has pursued a divorce on biblical grounds, he or she is free to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:15-16). However, there are cases where a person has been involved in an unbiblical divorce, either initiating or being sued for divorce by another person prior to, or even while a member of Grace Fellowship Church. The past can be messy and complex, especially when discerning past marital brokenness and what is pleasing to God going forward. In these cases, the elders desire members of the church to discuss their previous marriages with them prior to remarrying. The elders and pastors intend to come alongside those thinking about remarriage to discern a biblical, redemptive course of action that honors God and His design for marriage.
1 While this is often the wife, that is not always the case. For example, there may be times when the male spouse may be in a weaker state because of a physical, financial, or mental ability.
2 The Greek word συνευδοκέω (NASB: consents to live with, KJV: pleased to dwell) carries the idea that the person heartily agrees (Luke 11:48; Acts 8:1, 22:20; Romans 1:32). This means there is evidence that the person is striving both in word and deed to live peaceably with their spouse. They are working hard to make the marriage work.
3 Examples of this word used elsewhere in Scripture are Acts 8:1 and Romans 1:32 where the picture is of a person giving hearty approval. There is a real desire and outward evidence that what is happening is pleasing to them.