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Divorce and Remarriage
An Exegetical Study

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
November 1987

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Part I

Scripture quotations in this publication are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible copyrighted 1946,1952, 1971, 1973. Used by permission.



I. Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament

II. The Teaching of Jesus

III. The Teaching of Paul (1 Cor. 7:10-16)

Summary Statements

Excursus I: Remarriage of Persons Divorced for Unscriptural Reasons
Excursus II: Clergy Divorce


Although God intended marriage to be a lifelong relationship, the tragic fact is that divorce has become commonplace in our society. [1] Sadly, the dramatic rise in divorce rates in recent years has also affected the Christian community. Pastors and others providing counsel have become increasingly burdened with problems of divorce and remarriage, even among those regarded as active members of their congregations. Complicating the task of pastoral care and the exercise of Christian discipline in this area is not only the case with which divorce can be obtained and remarriage arranged within this highly mobile society of ours; there are also among Christians conflicting views as to precisely what are the Biblical principles which should guide Christians regarding divorce and remarriage.

In response to a request for a Scriptural study of divorce and remarriage, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations placed this matter on its agenda. In its 1981 report on "Human Sexuality: A Theological Perspective" the Commission discussed the problem of divorce and remarriage in a preliminary way, indicating that it intended to present a more detailed study of the pertinent Scriptural passages in an upcoming report on divorce and remarriage. The Commission has now completed this study and offers it to the members of the Synod for study and guidance as they deal with problems in this area in their ministry of spiritual care.

In carrying out this assignment, the Commission has not understood its task to be the preparation of specific guidelines for Christian counseling, but rather the delineation of Scriptural principles which determine the kind of guidance that should be given regarding God's intention for marriage. In formulating these principles, the Commission is aware of the dangers which reside in interpreting the Biblical texts as a legalistic code that may encourage a casuistry that has as its primary aim the determination of "innocent" and "guilty" parties. It is also cognizant of the opposite hazard whereby the pertinent texts are not regarded as providing specific ethical guidance according to the third use of the law, but are viewed only as a vehicle for pronouncing judgment on all involved in marriage failure, even those whose marriage may have been destroyed at the initiative of another.

In the delicate administration of Law and Gospel to those experiencing marriage crises, the church must be ever mindful of the reality that the will to obey God's commandments is born not of the law but of the Gospel of forgiveness. The Christ who stands in judgment over the evil of divorce is the same Christ who died for all sins, including those which lead to the broken marriage. He is also the Christ who gives specific directions to those who wish to order their lives in accordance with the will of the Creator for this estate.

Before proceeding with a study of this report the reader should note the method being employed in the treatment of the pertinent Biblical texts. An attempt is made to deal with each of the texts in its particular context and to discuss their unique contribution to the composite picture of what the Scriptures have to say on the subject of divorce and remarriage. That composite picture is then presented in a series of summary statements. Moreover, the reader should remember that the focus of this report is on divorce and remarriage, and that the texts dealing with marriage in general are discussed chiefly from this perspective.

Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament

The Christian response to the problem of divorce and remarriage must begin where Christ Himself began, with the institution of marriage. The weight of Jesus' response to contemporary questions concerning divorce and remarriage rested not on what may or may not be justifiable reasons for dissolving the marital union, but on the origin of marriage in creation. The principle "What God has joined together let not man put asunder" holds true according to the Scriptures "from the beginning," when the Creator "made them male and female" (Gen. 1:27) and said, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). At a time when divorce was commonplace and legitimized even on Biblical grounds (Deuteronomy 24), Jesus taught "but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8). Christians, therefore, look first to God's original intent for the estate of marriage and seek to know why it is that God wills this union to remain permanently inviolate.

A. The Institution of Marriage

B. Divorce and Remarriage

The creation of marriage as a permanent union of husband and wife in the one flesh relationship remains the normative principle in the Old Testament. [16] Although the breaking of marriage through divorce is assumed as a present reality of the fallen world, never is divorce and subsequent remarriage sanctioned nor the inviolability of the marriage relationship compromised. Both in the legal code given to Israel for the ordering of its communal and religious life, as well as in later prophetic pronouncements, divorce is judged to be contrary to the will of God.

Deuteronomic law at first glance appears to approve of the practice of divorce, and subsequent remarriage. In Deut. 24:14, the text to which Jesus' opponents appealed (Matthew 19 and Mark 10), Moses wrote: When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the Lord God gives you for an inheritance. " However, as has often been noted, the structure of this lengthy sentence in Hebrew is crucial. If a divorce should occur, Moses prescribes, then the woman cannot return to her first husband should her second husband divorce her or die. Moses does not here institute divorce and the right of subsequent remarriage, but tolerates the behavior because of the refusal of people to conform to the original pattern in creation ("for the hardness of your heart," Matt. 19:8). The union of the divorced woman brings moral defilement and is equal to adultery (Lev. 18-20; Num. 5:14, 20). Nevertheless, Moses does not prohibit the remarriage of a divorced woman. He legislates to mitigate the social evils that accompany this practice by limiting divorce and precluding its abuse. [17] Here, as elsewhere, [18] the Biblical intention is to control, not to sanction. This is precisely the point of Jesus' response to those who argued that Moses "commanded" divorce: "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wife, but from the beginning it was not so." What is "legal" is not necessarily morally right in God's sight. [19]

Indeed, Deuteronomic law attests that the sanctity of the marriage must be carefully guarded. The severity of the law regarding adultery (as well as the vigorous protests against it by the prophets e.g., Jer. 7:9; 23:10; Ex. 16:32; 18:6, 11, 15; 22:11; 33:26) is a poignant reminder of the disfavor with which the Lord looks upon intrusion into the sacred union of husband and wife. The prohibition against adultery in the sixth commandment (Deut. 5:18) is written into civil legislation that to the modern ear sounds unreasonably severe, if not cruel. [20] The penalty for one caught in the act of adultery was death (Deut. 22:22-24; cf. Lev. 20:10).[21] There is little evidence to show that this provision was ever actually enforced to any degree. However, it stands as a reminder of the gravity of marital unfaithfulness, and more importantly for those who have learned to know the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of the enormity of God's grace that He should pardon those who come to him with penitent hearts (John 8).

Prophetic commentary on the sacredness of the divinely established covenant of marriage takes the form of a call for a return to marital faithfulness. In the context of Israel's own unfaithfulness to God and her profanation of the covenant, the prophets of God denounce the practice of divorce (Mal. 2:13-16; cf. Hos. 2-4; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Jer. 3:1; Is. 50:1). Malachi, for instance, who reminded the husband in Judah that his wife is his "companion and ... wife by covenant," prophesies: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord of hosts. So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless." (Mal. 2:16)

What are we to conclude from the Old Testament's treatment of the subject of divorce and remarriage? In keeping with the principle that the union of husband and wife brings into existence some-thing not present prior to the union, viz., oneness, divorce is regarded as something fundamentally aberrant. Though Deuteronomic civil law assumes the practice and attempts to control it, there are no declensions from the primal will of God given in Genesis 1 and 2 that marriage remain a permanent union of one man and one woman. Important for the New Testament's evaluation is the nature of the union established when man and woman enter marriage. The union is described as a oneness of two persons (a biunity), created not by individual human choice but by divine institution. This is true of all marriages according to God's created order, entered by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Christian partners in marriage, we would have reason to hope, will especially recognize that they are not bound merely in a horizontal relationship with one another by their pledge of faithfulness, but by their mutual pledge to God to remain faithful. Moreover, they will recognize that no legal restraint, no matter how stringently applied, can guarantee their fidelity to one another. Only reverence for the Creator and love for His good ordinance can assure permanence of marriage. The Christian's fidelity in marriage derives from and rests in a faithful relationship with God in both His law and His promises.

II. The Teaching of Jesus

A. Jesus and Old Testament Teaching

Jesus' instruction concerning divorce and remarriage was occasioned by a discussion about what the Old Testament Scriptures permitted in this realm. Jesus' contemporaries had shifted the discussion on marriage and its dissolution from an exposition of Genesis 1 and 2, where the primal will of the Creator is given, to a debate about external legalities aimed at interpreting Deuteronomy 24. In response to the prevailing laxity that ensued, our Lord took issue with His interlocutors and instructed His disciples at two levels: 1) the meaning of the sixth commandment; and 2) the implications of the divine institution of marriage. All three of the synoptic Gospels provide us with information which constitutes the Creator's own commentary (cf. Col. 1:16) on His will for the marriage relationship: Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; and Luke 16:18

B. Jesus' Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage

The passages which contain Jesus' specific instruction on divorce and remarriage in the Gospels vary somewhat in precise detail. However, we proceed in this report on the assumption that as God's Word the Gospels do not present contradictory views of what Jesus taught. Rather, the pertinent texts complement one another and provide us with a complete picture of where Jesus stood on this issue. After examining the distinctive elements of Jesus' teaching contained in each of the passages below, we wish to draw together the principles which He has given His church.

III. The Teaching of the Apostle Paul

The spread of the Gospel to the Gentile world and the creation of new Christian congregations on Gentile soil gave rise to questions calling for pastoral care and judgment that were not specifically addressed by Jesus. The existence of mixed marriages, in which a Christian had a non-Christian spouse, was one of those questions. We are fortunate to have in hand a specific pastoral application of the Lord's principles on divorce and remarriage written by the apostle Paul to the church at Corinth. While Paul addresses the topic of marriage elsewhere, it is principally to 1 Cor.7:10-16 that we must look to learn what the apostle taught regarding divorce and remarriage.

In 1 Cor. 7:10-16 the apostle states:

In 1 Cor. 7:1 Paul makes known his intention to respond to a number of specific questions addressed to him by the Corinthians in a letter. [67] While we can only conjecture regarding the situation in Corinth that prompted these inquiries, one gets the impression in this chapter that an ascetic tendency may have deprecated marriage as belonging to a lower spiritual estate and urged freedom from the obligations of marriage, especially to the pagan spouses. [68] In any case, the apostle addresses those in Christian marriage (10-11) and in mixed marriages (in which one spouse has evidently been converted subsequent to the marriage) (12-16) regarding the permanence of the marital bond. With the authority of an apostle, [69] St. Paul presents to Christian spouses an express word from the Lord prohibiting divorce, and to Christians in mixed marriages his own application of the Scriptural principle that marriage was created to be a lifelong union.

"To the married" Christian spouses, the Lord says through the apostle: "that the wife [70] should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) and that the husband should not divorce his wife"(10-11). In keeping with the dominical principle that there should be no divorce among those who want to be Christians, the apostle charges that neither the wife nor the husbands is to take action to dissolve their marriage, whether that be some form of separation or actual divorce. [72] If due to their fallen condition they have parted, or in the event such a case should arisen the Lord teaches that they should either remain unmarried or reconcile. [74] The apostle discusses neither the matter of fornication nor spousal abandonment in these verses, for among Christians such conduct should not be found. (Eph. 5:3)

"To the rest," Christians in mixed marriages who had been reached by the gospel preached to the Gentiles, the apostle offers counsel not specifically treated by the Lord (vv. 12-16). Consistent with the principle that God wills marriage to be an indissoluble union for life, Paul does not advise Christians to initiate divorce in those cases where a non-Christian Spouse [75] is willing [76] to maintain the marriage. [77] To someone who would argue that a believer cannot continue to cohabit with an unbeliever without in some way incurring contamination and thus consenting to a union less than sacred, the apostle responds that the mixed marriage is in itself God-pleasing. If this were not true, how does one explain the fact that the unbelieving spouse and children of the union are brought into the sphere of holiness by virtue of their relationship to the believer (though, of course, by virtue of their relationship to the Lord). [78]

What should the believer do, however, if the unbeliever refuses to continue the marriage and departs? The apostle's answer: "But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace." The crux of interpretation in this verse is this: In cases of definitive abandonment, is the believer free to secure a legal divorce and subsequently to remarry? Textually, the question is posed, what does Paul mean by "is not bound?"

Commentators usually proceed in two directions in their interpretation of this expression. Some hold that the apostle frees the abandoned believer from the bond of marriage, and thus for remarriages. [79] Others argue that he allows no more than freedom from the obligation to seek restoration of the broken relationship. [80]

We note, first of all, that the apostle has in mind the dissolution of the marriage and liberty to remarry another in the expression he uses in Rom. 7:2 and 1 Cor. 7:27, 39. The wife is bound (dedetai) in marriage to the husband while he lives, but death brings freedom (eleuthera) to marry again. In 1 Cor. 7:15 the apostle uses the verb which he uses elsewhere to denote a state of slavery, not the weaker verb deo, which is not his word to express what it means to be under the ownership of someone else. The stronger expression "is not bound" suggests that the believing spouse is no longer tied to the obligation to preserve the marriage, since the unbelieving party has already withdrawn consent to maintain the union.

Admittedly, Paul does not expressly state that the Christian may remarry. However, neither does he expressly forbid remarriage as he did explicitly in verse 11 of the Christian spouse who departs. The apostle recognizes that when one who does not submit to Christ's teaching (particularly His teaching regarding marriage) departs, the union is terminated. [81] The believer is under no constraint of conscience to preserve a union that has suffered dissolution by one who does not recognize the authority of Christ's Word. "God has called us to peace" [82] not to fight for a marriage that has already been broken by one who has no desire or intention of returning. The prospect of converting one's spouse is not certain, [83] although of course Paul does desire this. If, therefore, the Christian spouse is no longer bound, such a one is free to secure a civil divorce and remarry. [84]

The pastoral question as to what may realistically be regarded as a definitive or final break and who may be the deserter has given rise to extended discussions of casuistry. While maintaining the principle that genuine cases of desertion can and do occur also today (see considerations on pages 28 and 29), and that the apostle's counsel applies, caution should be exercised in pastoral care and in the exercise of church discipline that the apostle's instruction not be interpreted by believers as a license to put away their spouses for any and every cause. 1 Cor. 7:15 must indeed not be summoned to do service for those who wish to be free of their spouse for reasons the Scriptures never sanction. [85]


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
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