Can I Divorce and Remarry?

Question
I am unhappily married and have several small children. My husband comes from an abusive background, and although he has not physically abused me or our children, he is extremely controlling and impossible to please. He has deeply wounded me emotionally, and I have kept it quiet to protect his reputation. Finally, I told him that I could not go on, and that I would be divorcing him. I did not file for divorce, but I was planning to.

Sometime after this, I fell in love with another man and had an affair. This other man loves me and wants to marry me, though I have discontinued sexual relations with him because I recognize it as sin. Feeling guilty and not desiring to divorce, I begged my husband for help and counseling. He declined, told me everything was fine, and suggested that I go myself. I then committed my heart to marrying this other man.

Now my husband says he has changed his mind and wants to save our marriage. I am still living with my husband, but I have no wifely feelings for him. Instead, I am in love with the other man. What should I do?
Answer
Your question is so painful and difficult that I receive it with a heavy heart. I feel terribly for you and for your husband, and especially for your children. I advise you also to solicit the counsel of others — those who know you and your husband, and the details of your circumstances.

I will focus my answer on the theological issues involved. You did not mention whether or not your husband was a believer. For now, I will assume that he is. First I'll just lay out some biblical data, and then I'll try to make sense of it piece by piece.


Before Divorce

To begin, God's ideal for mankind is happy marriage (Gen. 2:18), not unhappy marriage and not divorce. He does not want people to be in unhappy marriages. At the same time, he hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). He hates divorce for at least two reasons: it is a treacherous form of dealing with others (Mal. 2:14-16) and it is a violation or breaking of the marriage vows. God takes treachery very seriously, and he takes vows very seriously (Num. 30). Nevertheless, even God himself is willing to divorce when his wife's sin is great enough (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). On the one hand, then, divorce is generally to be avoided and always involves some form of sin (whether by the one who provokes the divorce, or by the one who pursues the divorce, or by both). On the other hand, it is sometimes justifiable, so that it is not always sinful to seek a divorce.

Second, it is a sin to love what is sinful. For example, Jesus taught that lusting after adultery violates the same commandment that committing adultery violates (Matt. 5:28). To apply this to your situation, it is not praiseworthy to love your other man, and it is not innocent. Wanting to marry him and to sleep with him is not as bad as physically committing adultery, but it is still a sin. Your heart is supposed to belong to your husband.

Consider, for instance, that in the Bible God commonly equates idolatry with adultery. When his people worship other gods, the Lord accuses them of adultery (Jer. 3:6ff.; Ezek. 23:1ff.). And the church is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:25-27). It is not legitimate simply to refrain from worshipping other gods. God demands that we love him with all our heart (Matt. 22:36-38). When we do not, our hearts are unfaithful even if our lips say the right things (Matt. 15:8). In the same way, we are to be committed to our spouses with a true love. When we allow our hearts to be unfaithful, we sin. Until such a time as you are legitimately free from your vows to your husband, you cannot love another just as you cannot sleep with another.

From the sound of it, both you and your husband are guilty of great sin: he of not loving you (Prov. 30:23; Eph. 5:25-33; Col. 3:19), and you of committing adultery (Exod. 20:14) and of not loving him (Tit. 2:4). Theologically speaking, the first step for both of you is to repent of your sins (infidelity, not loving, resenting, lying, etc.). This is something that you should do now, regardless of what you do with regard to your divorce, and regardless of whether or not divorce is warranted.


Warranted Divorce

Deuteronomy 24:1-4

It is my understanding of Scripture that divorce is permissible only in exceptional circumstances. For example, whereas many in Jesus' day appealed to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as proof that divorce was broadly acceptable, Jesus himself refuted this idea (Matt. 19:1ff.). Jesus pointed out that rather than permitting divorce, this text simply regulated it. God knew that divorce/sin was inevitable, so he gave laws regulating it in order to protect its victims. Jesus proved that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was regulation and not permission when he said that Moses gave this law because the Israelites had hard hearts (Mark 10:4-5).

Moses appears to have presented the law on marriage certificates as a defense for women who had been divorced (Deut. 24:1-4). The certificates verified their legal right to remarry. Without such certificates, the women would not have been identifiable as legitimately divorced, making it impossible for them to remarry. Why would this make it impossible for them to remarry? Because to marry a woman who was not divorced was to commit adultery (cf. Jesus' interpretation/application of the Old Testament below).


Matthew 19:1ff. & Leviticus 20:10

Jesus' teachings on this matter are critical in my mind: "anyone who divorces à except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9). I should say four things about this verse from the outset.

First, Jesus' teaching assumes that Genesis 2 establishes the pattern for marriage: "what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matt. 19:6; cf. 19:4-5). This means we should always keep the ideal of stable marriage in mind.

Second, scholars disagree as to the meaning of "marital unfaithfulness." Certainly adultery is included; whether or not other sins fall under this rubric is a matter that is debated. In my opinion, the category is narrow. I'll get into this more later.

Third, Jesus did not seem to mean that divorce itself is an act of adultery. A person who divorces and does not remarry has not committed any sin that the Bible would typically classify as adultery. Rather, it is remarriage after unbiblical divorce that would seem to deserve the charge of adultery.

Fourth, Jesus' teachings regarding what a man may and may not do are equally applicable to what a woman may and may not do.

In any event, according to Jesus, there is only one class of sins that warrants divorce: "marital unfaithfulness," alternatively translated "immorality." This term translates the Greek word porneia. Some commentators believe that this is the first item in an incomplete list. But there is no list in Matthew 19:9 (or in the parallel in Matthew 5:32) — there is just one item. Nothing in this particular text would lead us to think that porneia is just the first item in an unspecified list. The content of such a list would have to be developed elsewhere, and then imported here. The parallels in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 don't even list porneia as an exception to the rule against divorce. In my mind, this makes a weak biblical case for there being more exceptions than porneia.

What, then, is porneia? First, the primary way to be released from a marriage covenant is by the death of one spouse (cf. Rom. 7:1-4). In the Old Testament, adultery was punishable by a maximum penalty of death (Lev. 20:10; legal codes typically present maximum penalties, not mandatory penalties, unless otherwise specified), which would result in the freedom of the surviving party to remarry. By implication, lesser penalties (such as divorce) were also allowed that would also result in the freedom of the surviving party to remarry.

Jesus allowed divorce as a valid alternative to seeking the death of one's spouse (Matt. 19:9). Joseph also demonstrated that this was a valid application of Leviticus 20:10 when the Bible called him "righteous" for wanting to divorce Mary quietly rather than disgrace her or seek her death (Matt. 1:18-19). The rule, then, would seem to be something like "transgressions [against your spouse] that warrant death also warrant divorce." In other words, if you have sinned so greatly that your spouse could be freed by legally seeking your death, your spouse also can be freed by divorcing you instead. Divorce is certainly a more merciful application of Leviticus 20:10 in most cases.

According to most scholars, both the Hebrew word for adultery in Leviticus 20:10 (na'aph) and porneia have very similar ranges of meaning, both encompassing a range of gross sexual sins. The context in Leviticus 20:10 would seem to point primarily to adultery, but other sexual sins also warranted death and might easily fall into this category (e.g., bestiality, incest; cf. Lev. 20).

Moreover, Jesus didn't create new laws or abolish old ones (Matt. 5:17-20). That leads me to believe that Matthew 19:9 is an application of the Old Testament. It seems to me that Leviticus 20:10 is the primary candidate for laws Jesus was applying. This, in turn, leads me to conclude that porneia in Matthew 19:9 refers to adultery and other gross sexual sins that in the Old Testament warrant death. Although we might quibble over shades of meaning in either word, the basic point seems to be that gross sexual sins of infidelity to a spouse are in mind, and that such warrant divorce.

So, in my assessment, the marriage covenant between believers may be legitimately severed by death or by biblical divorce. Divorce is only biblical when it would warrant death in the Old Testament. That may sound like is an extreme view these days, but I think it is biblical, and I will try to explain it more fully.


1 Corinthians 7:10-17

There are also biblical grounds for divorce in cases when an unbeliever leaves a believer (1 Cor. 7:15), but not when a believer leaves an unbeliever. I have written more on this exception elsewhere.

Many churches also permit divorce in the event of abandonment, and some consider things like abuse to be a form of abandonment. This may or may not be warranted, depending on the details. In any event, I don't believe that emotional abuse constitutes grounds for divorce in either the Old or the New Testament.

In the case of the actual abandonment of a believer by an unbeliever, I think we are looking at what the Bible would consider a de facto divorce. This is the type of situation that could reasonably give rise to Moses' instruction concerning certificates of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which I think is probably the grounds for Paul's allowance of remarriage in such an instance (1 Cor. 7:15). The unbeliever should not leave, and the believer should not drive or send away the unbeliever. But if such a sin is committed by the unbeliever, the believer is protected, receiving a de facto certificate of divorce from the unbeliever.


After Divorce

After a divorce with biblical warrant, both parties may remarry. I do not see Scripture prohibiting remarriage from a guilty party who brings about a divorce. Rather, the Bible seems to say that a married couple is in covenant, and that this covenant can only be severed in certain cases. Once it is severed, both parties are free. One person cannot have covenantal obligations to another without that other person having reciprocal covenant obligations. Either two people are in covenant or they are not; there is no middle ground where only one is in covenant.

However, many divorces do not have biblical warrant. In these cases, the divorced parties may not remarry because the covenant has not been severed. They are held accountable to their spouses, and are treated as merely separated (1 Cor. 7:11).

Separation is not a sinless option in most cases, although Paul concedes that it will happen on occasion. As Paul describes this scenario, it appears to be a case in which a couple essentially divorces without biblical grounds. Because they lack biblical grounds, they are not truly divorced. Therefore, their only options are perpetual separation (pseudo-singleness) or reconciliation with one another. Today, this could happen either by actual mere separation, or by a legal divorce without biblical warrant.

Further, since adultery warrants divorce, and since illegitimate remarriage is adultery, if one party remarries after an unwarranted divorce, the other party can release that person from the covenant by severing the covenant on the grounds of adultery. Clearly this is not a sinless option because it is provoked by the adulterous remarriage.


The Hard Part

Now we come to the part where I try to help you figure out how these principles apply to your own situation. As I have already mentioned, the first step should be repentance, both on your part and on your husband's part.

If your husband is willing to work things out with you, I think you have a biblical obligation to try. Scripture calls husbands to love wives (Eph. 5:25) and wives to love husbands (Tit. 2:4). You are his wife, so you are obligated to love him. I know that seems like an impossible rule, but it is what Scripture teaches. Hopefully, it isn't as hard as loving our enemies, which we are also instructed to do (Matt. 5:44).

Practically speaking, while it may feel impossible to love your husband, it is true that other couples have fallen back into love (I know some of them myself). If they have done it, you can do it too. The fact is, since loving your husband is biblical required, it is also something that you can accomplish with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 10:13; Gal. 5:22).

Also practically speaking, working things out with your husband would be much better for your children. And although you may not value your husband's perspective much at this point in time, as a father my strong suspicion is that not living under the same roof with his children would devastate him.

The big question in working things out with your husband is whether or not you tell him of your affair. If you do, he may want to divorce you with biblical warrant. Of course, at this point, that is probably what you want. If you do tell him, make sure that your motives are pure. If you tell him simply in the hopes that he will divorce you, and if you do not seek his forgiveness for your infidelity toward him, then even though you may ultimately get the divorce you want, you will have compounded your own sin in the process.

With regard to your lover, you must not love him any more, either physically or in your heart. This also might seem impossible, but as with all things God commands, the Holy Spirit can empower us to comply. If you are ultimately divorced and have not stopped loving your lover, my guess is that you will marry him. You will have biblical grounds to do this if your husband divorces you over your adultery. But you will not be able to do it without sin because you will still need to repent of loving him until you are divorced.

Generally speaking, people figure it is easier to obtain forgiveness than to avoid sin, so they do what they want and they rely on forgiveness. But it is important to remember that this is not the way the Bible advocates, and that true forgiveness requires true repentance. The Bible teaches us that we are to love God, and that if we love him we will obey him. In a very real sense, then, the issue before you is whether you will sacrifice your current desires for the sake of your love for God, or sacrifice obedience to God for the sake of your current desires.

And of course, your choice will have eternal consequences. Believers lay up treasures in heaven when they obey (Matt. 6:18-21), and do not lay up treasures when they disobey. It is for this reason that Paul and many others in Scripture were willing to live such miserable lives (1 Cor. 9:14ff.; 15:19). I am not suggesting that you should resign yourself to misery — far from it. I am saying that you should give the Holy Spirit a chance to make your marriage a happy one, and that if there is any misery along the way, you will be rewarded for enduring it.

I would add that God is more inclined to bless his children when they obey him than when they disobey him (Ps. 1). If you truly want to be happy in life, your best bet is to follow God's instructions on how to be happy. Seeking happiness in a different marriage may seem like an innocent desire, but it is not what God instructs. To put it another way, following the advice of the world may make you happy for a season (Heb. 11:25), but it will not fulfill you in the long run.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.