A CAREFUL VIEW OF SCRIPTURE with Regard to LGBT Questions
Divorce and Remarriage
Before we get into this discussion about divorce and remarriage I would like to briefly review some historical practices and beliefs with regards to marriage. First I think it’s important to remember that marriage is not a Jewish/Christian invention. Many cultures far removed from Judaism / Christianity had marriage of one form or another (see link). We would likely say that ultimately it is God designed ...however how different cultures have practiced and expressed it … and even how Jewish and Christian cultures practiced and expressed it has varied greatly over the years. I include below a brief overview on marriage before we get into our divorce and remarriage study.
Whatever we might believe about God’s intent for monogamy … Jewish Culture and other cultures practiced polygamy.
The bible says nothing negative against these practices (multiple wives and concubines)… not one verse condemns these practices …. Rather … over time … culture shifted to one husband /one wife and no extra person (woman) on the side.
The bible’s prime concern about virginity seems to center around the women … since men happily had multiple wives and concubines and also slept with prostitutes … (Genesis 25:1-6, Genesis 38, Judges 11:1-3)
Tests for virginity included the wedding bed’s sheets after the marriage was consummated (Deuteronomy 22:12-21).
If a woman was falsely accused of not being a virgin … the husband would have to pay the bride price to the father and be disciplined by the community (see more under Equality below) (Deuteronomy 22:12-21).
If it was determined that she was not a virgin … she was to be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:12-21). The husband however could go off and find someone else to marry (or several someones).
The virginity concerns expressed above seem to be more about whether the property sold (the daughter) was pure or not … or … to put it a bit bluntly … whether she was damaged goods or not. Again … remember that there was no virginity test for the man.
Virginity as a form of purity for both men and women is a concept we do not see until the New Testament. It should be noted… however … that the condemnation of premarital sex for the man is never really spoken of directly but is assumed based on how one defines the word for fornication (see here for further study).
A women could own property but she could not control the property … it was something that the man who married her would have control of (see (Ruth ) This remained true well into the late 1800’s in this country (The United States) and perhaps elsewhere (link).
Marriages were arranged in scripture like a business deal with little to no romance indicated. (Genesis 24 , Ruth )
If a woman’s husband died she did not have to worry about finding another man … the man’s brother was expected and even required to marry her… control her property and inheritance … and provide children in his brother’s name. This remained true even in the first century AD … as is evidenced by this question to Jesus (Luke 20:27-38, Matthew 22:23-32, and Mark 12:18-27).
A man who raped a woman was required to marry her. He could not divorce her as long as he lived. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29, Exodus 22:16-17) (It appears from the Exodus passage that the father of the woman could override this rule … but the man who seduced or raped her would have to pay the bride price for virgins.)
Marriage as a Sacrament
Marriage was not considered a sacrament until many centuries after the bible had been written … Augustine (354-430 AD) appears to be the originator of this doctrine. (see link)
Official Marriage Ceremony
There is no official marriage ceremony in scripture though Jewish people did have a marriage custom that included a marriage contract called a ketubah (this however is not mentioned or defined in scripture) (see this link for more information).
Even in the New Testament there was no official marriage ceremony … Church history shows that people sometimes asked a priest to marry them but it was not an expected practice until the 4th Century A.D. (link).
Marriages have been formed apart from any church intervention all the way up to today.
Divorce and Remarriage per Scripture ...
Now that we have covered some history on marriage let’s move into our discussion on divorce and remarriage.The Old Testament has some clear instructions on divorce… see Deuteronomy 24:1-4
When a man takes a wife and marries her, then it shall be, if she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a certificate of divorce, and put it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 When she has departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. 3 If the latter husband hates her, and write her a certificate of divorce, and puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, who took her to be his wife; 4 her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before Yahweh. You shall not cause the land to sin, which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance.
The rather clear instructions above claim that if a woman does not find favor in her husband’s eyes he can divorce her. As we will soon see the Jewish Rabbis questioned whether a man could divorce his wife for just any reason … or if it had to be for sexual immorality.
This is somewhat evident in the following situation in which Jesus is challenged with a question about divorce. (Matthew 19:2-11)
2 Great multitudes followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Pharisees came to him, testing him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”
4 He answered, “Haven’t you read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,✡ 5 and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’ 6 So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, don’t let man tear apart.”
7 They asked him, “Why then did Moses command us to give her a certificate of divorce, and divorce her?”
8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so. 9 I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries her when she is divorced commits adultery.”
10 His disciples said to him, “If this is the case of the man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.”
11 But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
The question asked of Jesus in verse 3 of the above … is likely part of the rabbinical question I mentioned earlier… Re: Can a man divorce his wife for just any reason …( or only for sexual immorality)?
Jesus answers the question by going beyond what they are asking about. He refers them back to God’s original intent for the permanence of marriage. When they object by raising the Law of Moses Jesus responds by saying this law was put in place due to people’s hearts being hard but it was not God’s original intent. In verse 9 Jesus makes an exception for sexual immorality but otherwise says that anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery and a person who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery. Some believe that Christ’s exception here was a late addition to the text … others believe it is original to the text. Many denominations historically saw divorce due to adultery as a biblical exception. But of key interest is what Jesus says regarding remarriage … that it is adultery. The reasoning for this … according to Jesus … is that God (not humans) joins people together in marriage … and man has no right or authority to divide what God has joined. This is a rather airtight theological statement … it is based on what God’s word says … re: that God has joined them together. The leaders were arguing over a point of the law … Jesus takes them back to God’s purpose for marriage and what God does to make it a marriage.
This discussion produces some dismay with the disciples who then make the mistake of saying to the effect that if this is true then it is not good for man to marry. In doing so they call something “not good” or “not expedient” that God has created to be good. Christ’s response in my opinion likely came off as a slight rebuke. He references three situations in which marriage might not be the ideal…
People who are born eunuchs: These would be those who for medical reasons do not fully develop or go through puberty. See links both here and on saris (eunuch) here by Jewish Rabbis. This would likely have been taken as an insult by the disciples as eunuchs did not fit the cultural expectation of producing children. Additionally, eunuchs were not allowed in the temple.
People who are made eunuchs by men: This would have referred to those who were castrated by men. The disciple’s reaction to this in their cultural time frame would have been the same as to born eunuchs.
People who are eunuchs (remain single) for the kingdom of God: Here Jesus gives an alternative to marriage that counters their reason for not marrying. Their reason for not marrying was a self-centered reaction to Christ’s words about divorce and remarriage (re: its too hard.) Christ’s reason for not marrying is a God centered one.
It is good to note the consistency in Christ’s teaching here. Both His proclamation on marriage (what God has joined together let not man separate.) and this third reason for staying single are God centered answers to inappropriate self-centered responses to God’s law. Its important to note that this response is to a specific question. Jesus was not speaking for all who might for one reason or another be single.
Note: I have spent some time on the eunuch portion of this passage because there is a belief among some that eunuchs could also be a term for a gay person. I see this as more allegorical than literal. The allegorical part is important to gay folks and gender variant folks in general because they do seek to find affirmation of their personhood in scripture especially in the face of the discrimination they have experienced. In this case passages such as Acts 8:26-38 are of special importance as they show salvation being extended to those who are sexually different. I would support them in this allegory. However ... support for personhood and being acceptable to God is not equivalent to God approving of everything a person does whether they are gay or straight. This is an important distinction that Christians often fail to make. Christians who are against gay marriage often (erroneously) condemn an lgbt individual's personhood. Coming from the other side of this they may ... by affirming the lgbt individual's personhood ...affirm gay sex / gay marriage as well. This is a nuanced area that needs to be articulated carefully.
Getting back to our discussion on divorce and remarriage we find this condemnation of remarriage is repeated in various ways by Jesus in the following passages…
Matthew 5:31-32 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorce,’✡ 32 but I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery. (World English Bible)
Mark 10:1-12 1 He arose from there and came into the borders of Judea and beyond the Jordan. Multitudes came together to him again. As he usually did, he was again teaching them. 2 Pharisees came to him testing him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart, he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female.✡ 7 For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh,✡ so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 10 In the house, his disciples asked him again about the same matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery against her. 12 If a woman herself divorces her husband, and marries another, she commits adultery.” (World English Bible)
Luke 16:18 18 Everyone who divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery. He who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. (World English Bible)
As can be seen from these passages (above), the teachings of Jesus are consistent. He clearly teaches that remarriage after divorce is equivalent to adultery and also makes clear that divorce is not something God intended (or perhaps even allows).
The Apostle Paul puts out a similar teaching in Romans 7 and I Corinthians 7.
Romans 7:1-5 note verses 2 and 3 … 1 Or don’t you know, brothers* (for I speak to men who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives? 2 For the woman that has a husband is bound by law to the husband while he lives, but if the husband dies, she is discharged from the law of the husband. 3 So then if, while the husband lives, she is joined to another man, she would be called an adulteress. But if the husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is no adulteress, though she is joined to another man. 4 Therefore, my brothers, you also were made dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you would be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead, that we might produce fruit to God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were through the law, worked in our members to bring out fruit to death. 6 But now we have been discharged from the law, having died to that in which we were held; so that we serve in newness of the spirit, and not in oldness of the letter. (World English Bible)
I Corinthians 7:39… 39 A wife is bound by law for as long as her husband lives; but if the husband is dead, she is free to be married to whomever she desires, only in the Lord. (World English Bible)
Paul’s teaching (above) clearly matches up with Christ’s teaching … giving us a total of six passages in scripture that directly say remarriage after divorce while one’s ex-spouse is still living is adultery and emphasizing that divorce is not a Christian option (except perhaps in the case of adultery). No passages or practices in the New Testament affirm a different viewpoint. Note that Paul may be making an exception in the earlier part of I Corinthians 7 (I Cor 7::12-15) in the case of abandonment. Some denominations made similar exceptions based on this passage.
So what did the church do with this teaching? (What follows is a brief historical overview)
The early church typically regarded marriage as unbreakable. Remarriage after divorce was looked on as adultery. Some allowed for the so called Pauline privilege of allowing a non-Christian spouse to depart and allow subsequent remarriage to a Christian
As mentioned earlier, Augustine (354-430 AD) was the first to consider marriage a sacrament and opposed remarriage even for the non-adulterous person. Some churches allowed for remarriage for the one whose spouse committed adultery but eventually the church (Catholic) centered on the idea that divorce was not justified and thus the marriage bond was unbreakable. Somewhere around the thirteenth century the church developed the idea of annulment in which the church could declare that the marriage bond never existed.
The Protestant reformation brought some changes to this but there is no one ideology that covers them all. Briefly …
Luther allowed divorce as a last option for infidelity and some other situations.
John Calvin and Theodore Beza allowed divorce only for adultery and, more hesitantly, for desertion on grounds of irreconcilable religious differences. In 1561, the Calvinist city of Geneva enacted a law permitting divorce, as a last resort, for these two reasons.
Anabaptists and Hutterites, believed divorce was allowable if adultery occurred but did not typically allow for remarriage.
In 1563, at the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church declared as a matter of canon law that a consummated Christian marriage could not be dissolved thus putting further restrictions on divorce but still allowing for annulment.
This is but a very brief overview of the various church policies regarding divorce. Several of the links at the bottom of this page will give you more information.
The 20th Century saw some changes in Church doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage
Though it is impossible to give all the various churchs' changes of doctrine regarding divorce and remarriage I include below my own denomination’s changes as reflected in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene over the years…
In the early 20th century the Nazarene Manual’s instructions concerning divorce and remarriage were quite clear. The following is an excerpt from the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene 1919...
We hold that persons who have been divorced by civil law where scriptural grounds for divorce did not exist and have subsequently remarried are living in adultery and are unworthy of membership in the church; and though there may exist such other causes and conditions as may justify one party in seeking legal separation, yet only the Biblical cause of divorce (namely adultery) will supply such moral grounds as may justify the innocent party in remarrying. The Ministers of this Church are positively forbidden to solemnize the marriage of persons not having the Scriptural right to marry. (From the Manual of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene 1919 page 31 … see link)
As late as 1989 the Manual still claimed that the only biblical grounds for divorce was adultery and that remarriage was only possible for the innocent spouse of such a marriage. (See page 26 section 35.3 of the Manual for the years 1989-1993 link)
The 1993-1997 Manual of the Church of the Nazarene added some other potential causes for divorce and modified the requirements for remarriage. See excerpt below
35.1. In biblical teaching, marriage is the commitment of male and female to each other for life, reflecting Christ's sacrificial love for the Church. As such, marriage is intended to be permanent, and divorce an infraction of the clear teaching of Christ. Such infractions, however, are not beyond the forgiving grace of God when this is sought with repentance, faith and humility. It is recognized that some have divorce thrust upon them against their will or are compelled to resort to it for legal or physical protection.
(Genesis 2:21-24; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 7:36-50, 16:18; John 7:53-8:11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 7:10-16; Ephesians 5:25-33) 35.2.
Ministers of the Church of the Nazarene are instructed to give due care to matters relating to solemnizing marriages. They shall seek, in every manner possible, to convey to their congregations the sacredness of Christian marriage. They shall provide premarital counseling in every instance possible before performing a marriage ceremony including proper spiritual guidance for those who have experienced divorce. They shall only solemnize marriages of persons having the biblical basis for marriage, that is, those who give clear declaration of their commitment to the biblical plan of the permanence of marriage. (107-7.1)
Note that the reasons for divorce (above) are expanded on and that the condition for remarriage is now based on a clear declaration of the couple's commitment to the biblical plan of the permanence of marriage. (See link)
The Nazarene position (above) was similar to the positions of many churches in the early 1900's. Few Pastors in the United States would officiate a remarriage after a divorce. Those that did remarry would often go to a different church so as not to cause a schism in their original church. But, again, as evident from the above quotes ... that changed as we moved into the mid to late 1900's. So ... a valid question is ... What changed in doctrine? or ... What caused this change?
I will first of all say that some churches did not change their viewpoint. The Catholic Church ... for example... changed little from its original position. But other churches changed greatly. It is hard to pin down why various churches changed their attitudes towards divorce and remarriage. Part of it may be due to the women's movements that gave women more autonomy and the ability to own property. THis may have included a greater recognition of women's personhood and rights. But it seems that the main issue was empathy ... a better understanding of the complexities of various family situations ... and realization that some family dynamics were more problematic if the couple stayed together. That is reflected in my denomination's change of position. Another factor was the epiphany of realizing that God still worked in the hearts and minds of divorced people ... and in the hearts and minds of remarried people. This was part of what caused the church to re-think its position with reference to who they would ordain. It was not a theological epiphany but rather a pastoral one recognizing that God was granting ministerial gifts and abilities to divorced and /or remarried people. Once that happened other aspects of biblical teaching came to the forefront to attempt to explain what they were already seeing. The experience of seeing God at work came first ... the theology followed. . One of the discoveries / rediscoveries then made was/is the grace of God. Along with that was the realization that divorce was/ is not the unforgivable sin. If God can forgive one sin than he can forgive another sin ... even the sin of divorce. There was also a better understanding of the ethics of marriage and divorce .... looking at it from a broader context than just a literal read of scripture. The decision to allow the ordination of previously married or remarried persons was due to the realization that God was still gifting these folks for ministry. And if God had not rejected them ... why should the church?
What can we learn from this study of divorce and remarriage?
Its a disputable position. Church positions on Divorce and remarriage vary greatly sometimes even within denominations. We should continue to learn to live with ourselves when our positions do not agree.
Overarching principles are important when considering this and other issues ... In this case the overarching principles are: God's intention for marriage longevity .... the grace of God ... the forgiveness of God .... being made new in Christ.
A literal read of scripture falls short in sorting this out. Every denomination has ideals in their principles on this that are not directly related to a literal interpretation.
An evolution of ideology regarding this is not evil but reflects the Holy Spirit's work of ongoing revelation to the church. Note: there are many things that have evolved over the years such as: the end of polygamy... the end of the requirement for a rapist to marry the person he has raped ...the end of the requirement for the deceased's brother to marry his widow ... are all examples of ongoing revelation through which the church over-rode (what appeared to be) literal biblical instruction.
Recognition of the work of the Spirit in people's lives is a valid reason to re-assess our understanding of scripture. Note: it was this very thing that helped the early church recognize the Gentiles inclusion ... without all the Old Testament law requirements.
The entire family should be considered when we consider divorce and remarriage. Obviously we would not ask a family (remarried) that had been that way for years to break up regardless of what our divorce and remarriage views were.
The above principles should be reflected on and relied on by the church as she continues to face cultural questions and challenges. This will be difficult at times but important as we continue to seek the leading of God's Holy Spirit in understanding just what exactly God wants in different cultural challenges and questions. May the Lord grant us grace and wisdom in this .... and may the Lord help us to deal with these questions in a spirit of peace remembering the (at times) less peaceful discussions of the past and striving to do better in the present and future.
For those interested in researching this further here are some references with notes...
Includes various church's policies on divorce over the years.. note John Wesley’s view under the dissenters … He believed that remarriage while the ex-spouse alive was equivalent to polygamy … adultery !! His only exception to this was divorce due to adultery
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I believe that what I have written on this website is within the boundaries of the theology and beliefs of my denomination. However, homosexuality is a very complex topic with varied viewpoints. Since this is the case, it should be understood that the views expressed by myself and other Christians on this website and in our blog and / or forums (if we have them) may not necessarily reflect the official position of my / their respective denominations. Additionally, when / if I reference various web resources it should not be assumed to be an endorsement of the entirety of that resource.