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This blog post is Part 5 of a series entitled "May I Ask A Question?" by Pastor Jeffrey Dean Smith of Donelson First in Nashville, TN. 

Message Date: June 4, 2023

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What does the Bible say about divorce?  

I presume there are many churches, and pastors within such churches, who just avoid this topic altogether. Because many would say, it's easier to avoid it than to potentially cause dissension.  

I understand this dilemma… because there are many within the church who have been divorced. And too, there are many interpretations as to what is right and wrong concerning divorce.  

But I do believe this to be true:

When we follow Scripture, this topic is not a difficult one for us to discuss and dissect as the Church. And so, once again, we are going to allow scripture to lead us.  

Now, I do want to say this… some of what I will share today might not fully be comfortable to you, if, in fact, you have been through a divorce.  

Secondly, I, too, realize that every person who has been through a divorce has a very specific and unique story. I know that there are situations and difficulties and heartbreak and even, tremendously emotional scars accompanying those who have been a part of a broken marriage. If you have been through a divorce, or know someone who has, I implore you to enter into this discussion today realizing it is not my intention to point a finger, to blame anyone, to call anyone out as I answer extremely important and quite intimate questions submitted to us as it relates to divorce.   Again, my intention, as always, is to let Scripture lead us on what has become a very difficult topic of discussion in the Church, and, more importantly, a source of tremendous pain for so very many people.  

I do not know a single person who, when standing before family, friends, a church body, and an about-to-be spouse, says, “I do,” and then also says, “I plan on one day divorcing this person!” Do you? Probably not! I have also yet to meet a man or woman who, after going through a divorce, said to me, “I really like going through a divorce!”

You know... for everyone involved in a divorce, there is pain.  

If you personally have been through a divorce, then you know this is the kind of pain you carry with you for a very long time. And this pain, too, is often accompanied by uncertainty, loneliness, guilt, questioning, financial challenges, and the agonizing and reoccurring feelings of loss over “forever happily ever after.”  

For anyone here today whose parents have gone through a divorce, you fully understand the pain associated with your parent’s decision... no matter the circumstances involved. No matter how long ago it was, you can most likely immediately take yourself back to the moment you heard your momma or daddy say those words, “We are getting a divorce.” In divorce, even the so-called “innocent” parties feel an overwhelming and often suffocating feeling of guilt, often agonizing over thoughts such as... “What did I do wrong?” “What could I have done differently?” “Am I not beautiful enough? Am I not loveable enough? Am I not... enough?”  

In our society today, divorce is all too common. The latest studies reveal staggering news that more than 54% of those who say, “I do,” eventually will say, “It’s over.” More than half!  

Considering the divorce rate in society, even within the Church, it is important the Church chooses to lead the way in offering biblically correct truth to this ever-increasing marriage epidemic.      

Marriage is extremely important to God. You know this. Only 49 verses into the Bible, God makes it clear that a woman is to be joined with a man as his suitable helper. And, it is only 6 verses later, that we read God’s proclamation for marriage: Genesis 2:24  

In Part 2 of the May I Ask A Question series, I made these 2 statements :

God made the main plain in Scripture. In the Bible, the main things God wants us to clearly know, He made clearly known.   

The main is always plan in Scripture. But the main doesn’t have to appear often to be considered main.  

On a plethora of topics, God states what He feels and believes about a said topic in Scripture. However, God does not always speak on every topic important to Him over and again in Scripture. On that note, there are only a few verses on the topic of divorce in the Bible. But what is said is extremely clear.

"The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. Malachi 2:16  

Read how even more specifically, this same verse appears in The Amplified version of the Bible:

“For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel. Malachi 2:16

And then there are these words Jesus spoke: Matthew 19:4-6  

When one considers the totality of the verses in Genesis we just examined, coupled with these words recorded in the book of Malachi and the words of our Savior in the book of Matthew, God’s divine will and expectation are clear:

Marriage is a lifetime commitment. God hates divorce.  

In the book of Deuteronomy, we know that the nation of Israel is settling into their way of life as God’s Holy people. Throughout the book, we read of many laws that God established so that His people would understand what is expected of them as they live their lives.  

Read what is expected of them as detailed in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

Why, when we have already established that God hates divorce, do we read that God has established procedures His people should follow when they do choose to divorce?  

Well... an all-knowing God knows that marriage is a union of not merely two people, rather it is a union of two sinful people. Therefore, God, too, knows that, though He does not approve, divorce will be a part of humanity. Therefore, He is establishing laws to protect the rights of those who go through such.  

Go back to Matthew 19. Jesus makes another critical comment about divorce to make sure we absolutely understand where God stands with it all: Matthew 19:7-9 

Hard /Greek/ sklērokardia = stubborn  

Jesus makes it clear that it is because of the stubbornness of couples that there is divorce, not because God approves or offers an easy way out! Many divorces are unnecessary. Many divorces, if both the man and the woman are desiring to honor God and honor the commitment both made to God and to one another, could be resolved and could lead to reconciliation.  

If you have been through a divorce not involving an unfaithful partner, you might be saying at this moment, “Jeffrey, you don't know because you weren't there. You do not understand how difficult it was to live with this person.” Or... “No, he wasn’t unfaithful.” Or... “She did not cheat on me. But it was impossible for us to live together.”  Or... “I tried everything, and I have finally come to the conclusion that it just cannot work, so I’m out!”  

Again, I understand that every marriage-ending situation is unique. And I want to be careful not to sound detached from the reality of what, I only can imagine, has been a very personal day-to-day nightmare for so very many people.  

However, I also know it is critical to clarify these 2 truths we must each lean into with this discussion: 

Two truths about the biblical parameters for divorce:

1. I cannot allow my personal sympathy to support sin.

2. I cannot allow my personal sympathy to supplant Scripture.

God’s Word is dependably clear on the topic of divorce. So...What is the biblical mandate for divorce?

The Biblical mandate for divorce:

1. Sexual immorality.

Matthew 5:32  

Matthew 19:9 

2. An unbeliever leaving a spouse.  

1 Corinthians 7:15    

Here are 4 important addendums to the Biblical mandates for divorce:

1. No matter how terrible a marriage relationship may be, God offers no other “outs” to the commitment a husband and wife make to one another and to Him in marriage.  

2. Even in these two mandates, divorce is not required by God.  

3. Even in these two mandates, divorce is never encouraged by God.  

Sexual immorality and the desertion of an unbeliever spouse are both allowances offered for divorce. However, God’s ultimate desire in such situations is for reconciliation and restoration.  

4. Divorce is to only be considered as the last recourse.  

So, this leaves us in a difficult place, particularly when there is spousal abuse, a spouse’s addiction to pornography, child abuse, and imprisonment.  

I will pause to say, "Of course!” If you or a child is in an abusive relationship with a spouse, immediately remove yourself and all children from that environment. The next step is a whole lot of prayer with the hope of obtaining help and counsel with the goal of repairing and restoring the marriage commitment.  

Do I wish I could offer more here? Personally, yes! Because I know there are instances that are seemingly impossible for some. However, I have to remember, as we discussed earlier, the two truths about the biblical parameters for divorce: 1. I cannot allow my personal sympathy to support sin. 2. I cannot allow my personal sympathy to supplant Scripture.  

As a matter of fact, Paul warned of exactly this in 1 Corinthians when he said: Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” 1 Corinthians 4:6a      

If one does divorce, is it permissible to get re-married?  

Let’s once again allow Scripture to lead the way here: 1 Corinthians 7:10-11  

Separate / Greek/ chorizo = to divide First, Paul makes this extremely clear: These are the words of the Lord, not the words of man. Let’s remember this.  

Scripture reveals that a wife and a husband must not separate from one another.   

If one does divorce another, there are only 2 options: 1. Remain unmarried. 2. Reconcile. 

There are 2 possible exceptions to God’s mandate for divorce allowing one to remarry: (We have just discussed both.)

1. Sexual immorality.  

In Matthew 5:32, Jesus clearly states that an unfaithful spouse offers permission for one, a faithful spouse, to remarry.  

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:32

2. An unbeliever leaving a spouse.

It is most important that I note that in the case of #2, an unbeliever leaving a spouse, the unbeliever must be the one leaving the marriage, and the believer must be innocent, meaning the Christ-believing spouse, must not have participated in the mandate #1: sexual immorality.  

Therefore, we must too consider the opposite statement God’s Word is making: If one divorce for any reason other than an unfaithful spouse or an unbelieving spouse leaving, then that person commits adultery if he/she remarries.

Again, look at 1 Corinthians 7:10-12.

We learn two things from this passage about one’s options moving forward: 1. Remain single. 2. Reconcile the marriage.

The Bible’s instruction to divorced people is to remain single or be reconciled. 

If one chooses to marry after divorce, he or she can do so if he or she has been, what I would call, a “Biblically innocent party.”  

So... this leads us to the final extremely important question that so very many people, possibly some in this room, want to be answered.

If I have divorced outside of the Biblical mandate, and I then remarry, having committed adultery, what do I do?

If you believe that you are, or possibly could be this person... please, please, please stay with me until you hear everything I have to say as I answer this ever-important question.  

1. Realize the weight (and sin) of my decision.

If I get a divorce outside of the Biblical mandate (sexual immortality, an unbelieving spouse leaving me), and I then remarry, I commit adultery.  

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Luke 16:18  

If this is the case with you, then what I say next is so very important for you to hear!    

2. Repent and ask for God's forgiveness.  

Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Proverbs 28:13  

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And you forgave the guilt of my sin. Psalm 32:5  

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9  

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, Acts 3:19 

I could go on and on. There are 127 verses about God’s forgiveness in the Bible.  

Not in a single one of these verses do we read: “God forgives... unless I commit adultery.”  

It’s just not in the Bible... because it’s not true!  

Now, some may think at this moment... “Well, if one remains married, does not he/she continue to commit adultery?” I personally do not see that to be biblically correct. And let me show you why I believe this to be true:  

Yes, we have already established that one who divorces outside of the 2 biblical mandates, and then remarries, in fact, commits adultery. So then the question is:  

Is remarriage an act of adultery or a state of adultery?  

This is where we have to look at the “tense” in which the passage is written:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:32  

"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:9  

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Luke 16:18

In each of these passages, we find the tense with which these verses are written, indicating an occurrence that happens at “the moment one marries.”  

The Greek word for divorce in each of these passages means:  

Divorce /Greek / apolyo = to release  

The idea “to release” is not a continual one. The “release” happens, and it is then over. The Greek tense here in this verse is a statement of something that happens, something that occurred, and then, it passes. The same is true for the Greek word for “adultery.”  

Adultery /Greek/ moichao = the act of adultery  

Again, the tense of the word adultery in Greek is one referencing a one-time act, not a continual one.  

In the Old Testament, when one committed adultery, he or she was to be put to death: If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. Leviticus 20:10

This same Old Testament law mentions remarriage after divorce but does not do so referencing this act as adultery: If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4  

We read of what God expects in this case of divorce. However, nowhere in this passage do we read that the one remarrying is forever committing adultery, and, nowhere in this passage is the death penalty demanded for the remarried spouse.  

Yes, we have already read and established that God hates divorce: "The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 2:16  

... but nowhere in Scripture do we read explicitly that God hates remarriage. And this is really important:

The Bible does not command one who has committed adultery to once again divorce.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 does not describe the remarriage as invalid. Ending a remarriage through a divorce would be just as sinful as ending a first marriage through divorce. God would not ask, in my opinion, a couple to again break their vows given to one another before Him and in front of witnesses.  

God would not desire that you again divorce. Asking you to divorce would be asking you to do something that is against the will of God... remember, God hates divorce!  

God cannot, and God will not ask me to do something contrary to His will.  

So, the answer to the question:

Is remarriage an act of adultery or a state of adultery? A remarriage is an act of adultery, not a state.  

So...   1. Realize the weight (and sin) of my decision. 2. Repent and ask for God's forgiveness.

3. Live in fidelity and keep Jesus Christ at the center of my marriage.  

Once a couple is married, God does not view the new marriage as spiritually illegal or adulterous. In the eyes of God, the second marriage is just as spiritually binding and legal as the first marriage.  

The key now is to live as a married couple striving to honor Christ before self.    

Now... I want to end by turning the corner and offering this encouragement: If you have been through a divorce, I cannot say that I fully understand the mix of emotions with which you are potentially wrestling. But I can say that it is important that you surround yourself with people who have been through what you are going through and can help.

Lastly, I want to speak to the person or couple who, though still married, is considering a divorce: Again, I know that not every situation is cut and dry and black and white, but I, too, know this:

1. God knows.

God knows exactly what is happening in your marriage, your home, your life, your head, and your heart. This is why God speaks so clearly in the Bible about how we are to treat one another, especially husband and wife.  

Ephesians 5:21-33

This does not mean that God wants me to remain in an unhappy marriage forever. He does not expect me to merely grit my teeth and muscle on through it. No! God desires to help me get to a rewarding, fulfilling, and healthy place in my marriage. However, this truth must be coupled with this reality: I have to do my part. Communication, intimacy, respect, and prayer have to be a part of the equation.

2. God is to be my joy.  

In the midst of problem-solving, or down-right fighting, when I do not see eye-to-eye with my spouse, it can become quite easy to lose my joy if I am not intentional and careful. I have to remember:   

My ability to experience joy cannot and must not rest in the control of my spouse. My spouse does not control my capacity for joy. Actually, my challenges can produce even greater joy in my life... with the help of the Lord.  

You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:3-4  

3. God can do the impossible.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26

I remind you of the power of God’s “possible” amidst life’s seemingly impossible for any couple considering ending it all! I do hope, if this is you, that you will lean hard and fast into these verses. And, if you need to talk, need someone to listen, to pray with you, and hope the best for you, please reach out to me: Pastor Jeffrey Dean Smith

A final reminder from a verse upon which I have leaned for many, many years:

For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. 2 Chronicles 16:9a


Jeffrey Dean Smith is a husband, father to Bailey & Brynnan, author, and the Senior Pastor at Donelson First in Nashville, TN. If you are in Music City, meet Jeffrey and enjoy iced tea on the front lawn each Sunday at 10:30a.