Steve Gregg of http://TheNarrowPath.com explains what marriage & divorce are in God's eyes, the only biblical grounds for divorce, remarriage, adultery, abandonment, whether the spouse is unbeliever or not, whether a divorced Christian should return to their spouse, etc. his series, "Towards a Radically Christian Counterculture"
Also, read 3 articles by Steve Gregg on Divorce & Remarriage. I've copied the 1st one here:
The moral complexity of the divorce and remarriage issue presents, in my opinion, the single greatest pastoral challenge for evangelical Christianity in our time. Evangelicals, theoretically, take a more restrictive position on the issue of divorce than does the dominant culture, though in practice, recent polls suggest that the divorce rate among evangelicals is not much different from that of those who profess no Christian convictions at all. Also, the sheer numbers of divorced and/or remarried persons seeking admission into the church, or desiring counsel from Christians, places a burden of heretofore unknown proportions upon those charged with pastoral care and instruction of the saints and the integrity of the church.
This is not just a problem for pastors, either. Almost every Christian has been called upon to advise some friend or loved one about this issue at one time or another. Those who care for the temporal and eternal well-being of others are increasingly thrust into the position of having to decide what, precisely, the Scriptures teach with reference to 1) couples contemplating a divorce; 2) those already divorced and contemplating remarriage; and 3) those who have already been divorced and remarried prior to presenting themselves as candidates for inclusion into Christian fellowship.
The significance of the problem must not be minimized, since Jesus taught that, at least in some cases, divorce and remarriage are tantamount to adultery (Matt.5:32/19:9), and since Paul wrote that no adulterer will enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:9), that a little leaven (moral compromise), if allowed in the church, will leaven the whole lump (1 Cor.5:6-7), and that Christians should not so much as eat with those professing to be brethren, but who engage in immoral behavior, which would include sinful remarriage (1 Cor.5:11).
At stake are the purity, testimony and unity of the church, the sanctity of the divine institution of marriage, the security of children’s right to be raised by their two original parents, and the stability of society’s most fundamental element: the family—all of which present strong incentives for the Christian not to take lightly an issue like divorce. If vigilance be neglected in this matter and standards be relaxed “in special cases,” we may find to our chagrin that the camel’s nose is inside the tent (and where the camel’s nose is, can the whole camel be far behind?).
In reaction (and possibly overreaction), to the current, loose attitude of the world and the church on the subject of divorce and remarriage, there is a new emphasis in the most conservative sector of the Christian community insisting that divorce and remarriage are never permissible for the Christian. This new emphasis promises to solve one problem, but it creates another, for while it may serve to stem the rising tide of new divorces among Christians, it simultaneously raises new difficulties concerning how the church is to deal with the great multitude of already-divorced-and-remarried persons now in their midst, as well as those who may yet petition the church for admission. Are these remarried people living in adultery in their second (or third, or fourth) marriages? If so, how could we in any way fellowship with them? If they are not living in adultery, what stigma could possibly attached to them? The issue does not allow a third alternative, namely, that we admit them as perpetual second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Divorced-and-remarried people either are guilty of heinous sin, and should be required to repent, or else they are guilty of nothing at all, and should not be stigmatized.
A Sound Approach
If we answer the issues wrongly, we are at risk either of corrupting the testimony of the church by acceptance of unrepentant sinners, or else of compromising the unity of the church by calling “unclean” people whom God has “cleansed.” We may offend God equally by either error. Simplistic answers are inadequate, which is why sophisticated debate has been going on over this issue among many Christian thinkers. At one extreme, there are those set for the defense of the institution of marriage (...a first marriage, that is) to the point of being willing to sacrifice compassion even for those who have divorced for arguably biblical reasons and those who have suffered as innocent victims of a divorce. Discipleship involves bearing our cross, they point out, and the enduring of a perennially unfaithful spouse, or the acceptance of permanent singleness after an unwanted divorce, is not so great a cross as those that others before us have been required to bear. The church must uphold a standard, and is not obliged to compromise in order to accommodate the whining of people whose marriages have failed.
At the other extreme are those who argue for total tolerance of divorce and remarriage, almost removing it from the category of moral judgment, and arguing that Jesus did not come to condemn but to save, that He exhibited astonishing generosity toward the woman taken in adultery and the Samaritan woman at the well, and that (nobody being perfect) we should relax the standards, allowing divorce in cases of human suffering and unhappiness. The Christian has entered his profession upon the admission of his own guilt before God, and there are no stones within our legitimate reach with which to pummel other imperfect souls.
Certainly “the goodness and the severity of God” both enter into the debate—but seldom within the same presentation. If each extreme position is found to be guilty of significant omission of pertinent considerations, the solution is not, as some people think, simply to find the exact middle point between the two. The answer must come from sound exegesis of the relevant biblical texts...but not all participants in the debate will agree as to which texts are most relevant, and how they compare to one another in relative importance to the deciding of the issue.
A common approach is to take all of the texts that speak directly to the subjects of marriage and divorce, and to reach conclusions on the basis of exegesis of these texts alone. In the Old Testament, the most relevant texts would seem to be Gen.2:24; Deut.24:1-4; Ezra 10:1-3; and Mal. 2:6-16. In the New Testament, the most direct statements pertinent to the issue appear to be Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Rom.7:1-6; 1 Cor.7:10-15; and 1 Tim.3:2. The ingenuity with which these verses can be applied to the support of widely differing opinions can be seen, for instance, in the essays included in the book Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, (H. Wayne House, ed., IVP, 1990), in which four Christian authors argue their contrary cases largely from the same biblical data.
The Controlling Factor
The ambiguity and questionable relevance of many of these pivotal verses renders it unlikely that the debate will be resolved to every interpreter’s satisfaction by appeal to these individual passages alone. The settlement of ambiguous moral questions has but one court of final appeal for the Christian, and that is consideration of the character of God Himself. Every individual issue in God’s revealed will (i.e. every biblical doctrine) finds its proper place in the larger picture of God’s unchanging character. No individual teaching of the Bible can be correctly understood without appeal to this larger issue that permeates all of the divine revelation. Therefore, though I intend in this treatment to give individual consideration to every passage relevant to the divorce issue, I prefer first to address the larger context of which this matter is but a small part.
There are some things that even God cannot do. He cannot lie (Tit.1:2). He cannot be tempted with sin (James 1:13). He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim.2:13). It is thus clear that God can neither command nor endorse any moral norms contrary to His own character. We may most reliably settle the divorce/ remarriage dilemma by discovering what it is in the character of God that makes this matter a moral concern to Him, causing Him to issue forth whatever decrees exist on the subject. The character of God can be observed in God’s revealed values and in His own actions.
Moral good and moral evil are such only because of their respective agreement or disagreement with the ultimate standard of God’s own righteous character. I believe that every moral imperative in the Bible can easily be traced to some corresponding moral quality in God Himself. This is why Jesus referred to “justice, mercy and faithfulness” as “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt.23:23)—because God is unchangingly just, merciful and faithful, any course of behavior that is contrary to these principles is contrary to God’s character, and is, therefore, evil.
For example, Scripture observes a moral difference between capital punishment and murder simply because one is an act of justice, while the other is an act of injustice. The justice of God can only countenance just actions and condemn unjust ones. The breaking of oaths is a sin because it is an act of unfaithfulness, incompatible with God’s faithfulness. Unforgiveness is morally wrong because it fails to reflect of the mercy of God. God’s character is love—not a spineless, non-judgmental love, but a holy and jealous love for His creation that requires that He judge and condemn all actions that endanger the ultimate well-being of those whom He loves. Thus every moral issue reduces to the simple test: Is the love of God (His justice, mercy, faithfulness, etc.) reflected in such action?
This is the qualitative difference between commands in the Old Testament which we call “ceremonial law” and those which we call “moral law.” The former category would include the sacrificial, circumcision, dietary and festival practices of Israel. Regulations of this kind are not dictated by issues of innate morality, since God could have commanded differently on such matters without violating His own character. These statutes dictate transient practices symbolic of spiritual things more permanent than themselves. This is why such practices are treated in the New Testament as now having outlived their usefulness. They merely symbolized certain spiritual realities that have since come into clearer focus in Jesus. In the increased light accompanying the arrival of the True Substance (Christ), the shadows anticipating that arrival have disappeared (Col.2:16f).
When Jesus, quoting Hosea 6:6, said, “Go and learn what that means, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’” (Matt.9:13) and when He spoke without condemnation of David’s having violated the law of show-bread (Matt.12:3-7), He was underscoring the fact that moral issues (like mercy) are the “the weightier matters of the law,” whereas ceremonial issues (like sacrifices and show-bread), do not innately embody any enduring moral quality (since even their observance is rendered immoral if done by a morally wicked person—Prov.15:8; 21:27). Love (God’s character reflected in our actions) is the issue of surpassing value, because its proper description subsumes all moral actions (Matt.7:12; 22:37-40/Rom.13:8-10/Gal.5:14). A given course of action is to be regarded as a moral obligation exactly insofar as the doing of it is consistent with God’s love, and the not doing of it is inconsistent with God’s love.
This being the case, we can immediately see why divorce and remarriage fall into the moral category. The dissolution of a marriage involves at least one party in perjury, that is, lying under oath, because, at their wedding, a man and a woman invoke oaths of perpetual fidelity before God and witnesses. This is an act of unfaithfulness, which violates God’s character, and an act of injustice (the Bible uses the word “treachery”) as well.
Married people have made oaths to one another and to God. By mutual agreement, during the lifetime of both parties, neither partner can end the union without becoming a sinful violator of these oaths and a betrayer of his or her trusting spouse. This is true even if the betrayer remains unmarried, since, among the promises made at the wedding, there was one about “dwelling togetherÄuntil death do us part.” The initiating of an unjustified divorce is the breaking of a vow, and is thus regarded by God and all right-minded judges as an act of treachery against a spouse (Jer.3:20/Mal.2:14-16). It may be safely assumed that the spouse thus cheated would not have entered the marriage in the first place, and thus may have had other opportunities to marry more happily, had not both parties taken each other’s honesty for granted at the altar. Such cheating steals from the other party many irreplaceable treasures, including invaluable years of youth, innocence, intimate secrets, virginity, forfeited options for personal happiness, and the natural, legitimate, and deep-seated human hope of sharing life and children with one life-long partner. Additionally, it inflicts incalculable emotional pain, and financial hardship upon the cheated spouse, the children in the family, concerned relatives and sympathetic friends. Such treachery is an atrocity of the first magnitude, and it cannot surprise us to learn that the holy God “hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16). The reason God says that He hates it is because “it covers one’s garment with violence” and is “treacherous dealing.”
While acknowledging the abominable nature of divorce, there are several important factors of which we must not be lose sight:
Consideration #1: A divorce may be unilateral: the will of one party imposed against the will of the other.
In such cases (probably the majority of divorce cases), one party is a criminal, and the other is an innocent victim. Shallow thinkers may glibly claim, “there are no innocent parties in any divorce,” on the assumption that (nobody being perfect), even the apparent victim has contributed to the breakdown of the marriage by his or her own personal imperfections. However, only the naive will fall for this ill-conceived clich?. Even in very successful marriages, the imperfections of both parties render continuance in the marriage a trial at times, but this does not justify, nor necessarily require, that a divorce occur. Bearing the guilt for personal imperfection is not the same as bearing the guilt for a failed marriage. Your spouse’s being moody, ill-tempered, disagreeable, irresponsible, unattractive, unresponsive, unaffectionate, unpleasant, insensitive, controlling, etc., can make your life miserable, but such things do not add up to providing you with grounds for breaking your marriage covenant.
God requires a Christian to be one who “swears to his own hurt and changes not” (Ps.15:4)—in other words, one who, finding that a promise he has sworn to uphold will cost him dearly and painfully to honor, will nonetheless fulfill his promise, absorbing the resultant inconvenience and pain, for the sake of preserving his or her integrity. Most brides and grooms at the altar “swear to their own hurt” to some degree, because certain unattractive habits that are not known to them at the time of their making of the vow are generally discovered in their spouses later. Considering the imperfection of human nature, this scenario should be regarded as predictable and (in terms of the imperfections of a fallen world) normal. Nothing of value comes cheaply, and a godly marriage (the most valuable of earthly treasures—Prov.12:4; 18:22; 31:10) generally requires hard work and sacrifice to maintain. Those who cannot make such sacrifices should not indulge in the deception of making false vows (Ecc.5:2-6). Those who have made such vows must be prepared to keep them at any cost. Those who do not keep their vows make victims of their spouses, their children, and all other concerned parties. Thus approximately half of divorced persons are treacherous dealers and half are more-or-less-innocent victims of treachery. For divorce’s innocent victims (as for widows) the church should be a refuge and a surrogate family.
Consideration #2: Biblically, most vows are not unconditionally binding.
There are special circumstances under which a party may be released from the obligation to fulfill the terms of a covenantal vow (see, e.g., Gen.24:8/ Num.30:5, 8. See also Jer.18:7-10). Even the marriage covenant can be renounced upon the discovery of extreme moral violation (Deut.22:13ff; 24:1ff/ Hos.2:2/Matt.5:32). God is certainly the One Party in the universe who could never be charged with unfaithfulness (Rom.3:4), yet there are covenant promises He has made in the past, from which He now considers Himself loosed (1 Sam.2:30). Most notably, because of the treachery of Israel, God has entirely annulled a covenant that He chose to honor for 14 centuries, and has replaced it with a new covenant with a new people (Heb.8:13). Likewise, according to Jesus Christ, a faithful spouse can become free of the covenant obligations to a spouse who has treacherously broken covenant by what Jesus called “fornication” (more on that later).
Consideration #3: Remarriage is a valid option to validly divorced persons.
How could it not be? The only valid reason for forbidding remarriage to a divorced person would be the assumption that their first marriage is still valid. If a person is not bound to an existing marriage, he or she is unmarried and eligible to get married again. Remarriage is thus permissible or not only insofar as the first marriage has or has not been validly terminated in the sight of God.
Those who forbid all divorce and remarriage must demonstrate that marriage is permanently and unconditionally binding before God. This cannot be established from Scripture. The usual argument is that a married couple are declared to be “one flesh” (Gen.2:24), and are therefore bound to one another unconditionally for life. However, this certainly burdens the phrase “one flesh” with more baggage than it will bear, since a tryst with a prostitute constitutes a “one flesh” relationship, according to Paul (1 Cor.6:16), yet not necessarily a permanently binding one.
The fact that Jesus saw fit to forbid the “putting asunder” of what God has joined, demonstrates that such a dissolution is apparently possible, though inappropriate (Matt.19:6). What would be the point of Christ forbidding an act that is humanly impossible to perform? The question upon which a divorced person’s legitimate freedom to remarry must be determined is: “In the sight of God, has ‘what God has joined together’ effectively been ‘put asunder’ by man, and if so, by whom?” If there has been adultery, then it is the adulterer who has effectively put asunder what God has joined. If there has been no adultery, then the person seeking the divorce has put the marriage asunder. Both adultery and divorce (for grounds other than fornication) are forbidden by Christ. The only way a second marriage could be regarded as “adultery” would be when it, like ordinary adultery, is the violation of an existing marriage covenant. If the first marriage covenant has ceased to exist in God’s sight, however, there remains no such covenant to be violated in contracting a second marriage.
Consideration #4: God’s behavior as a husband.
This is directly relevant to the question of divorce and remarriage, since marriage plays a dual role involving moral as well as ceremonial aspects. The moral aspect, discussed above, is the issue of faithfulness to keep one’s vows. The ceremonial aspect is the factor of symbolism whereby marriage depicts the covenantal relationship of God to His people—first Israel, then the Church. God’s conduct in His “marital” relationships provides for Christians a model of moral norms in marriage, divorce and remarriage.
God first entered into a marriage covenant with Israel at Sinai, warning Israel (as His wife) that He was a jealous husband (Ex.20:5) and would regard the worship of other gods as the equivalent of adultery in marriage (Ex.34:15-16). God claimed that such unfaithfulness on Israel’s part would result in a breaking of the covenant between Himself and them (Deut.31:16). When Israel actually did go whoring after other gods, God first exhibited remarkable patience and composure, sending prophets again and again to call the treacherous wife to repentance (Jer.3:20,22). When repentance was not forthcoming, God gave Judah a “trial divorce”—sending her into captivity for 70 years in Babylon. This involved God’s actual divorcing of Judah (Isa.50:1/Jer.3:8), but with the promise of forgiveness and restoration if she would repent (Jer.3:1). In a limited sense, Judah did repent, and (like Hosea’s wife) was restored after the captivity. But she continued to violate the covenant, finally rejecting and crucifying God’s Son. This was the last straw, and for this offense, God bailed entirely out of that first covenant relationship (Zech.11:10).
Did God remain unmarried? In Deuteronomy, God told Israel that if she provoked Him to jealousy by going after other gods (committing spiritual adultery), He would provoke her by taking another people (wife) for Himself (Deut. 32:21). Hosea also records this same threat (Hos.2:16-23), as do other prophets (Isa.65:1, 15). In the New Testament, we find Jesus betrothing Himself, by a new marital covenant, with a new people (Matt.21:43; 26:28-29) who have replaced forever the adulterous wife. Thus God, in Christ, remarried after divorcing his unfaithful wife, after He had endured her harlotry for a great while.
The appeal to God’s behavior in covenant relationships as an example establishing moral norms in the divorce/remarriage controversy is no unnatural stretch, since the institution of marriage was ordained by God for the very purpose of reflecting these very issues in the Divine/human relationship. If the illustration is not exact, it is at least not misleading. God’s own behavior demonstrates that divorce and remarriage may, in specific circumstances, be consistent with His own character—and thus morally righteous. Any position that we take on divorce and remarriage which would render God an offender must be rejected in favor of a view more honoring to Him, and any construction placed upon specific “divorce” texts that would make human marriage more indissoluble than Divine marriage must be rethought, to say the least!
Thus far I have only laid out the larger principles of Scripture which form the context for the interpretation of specific texts on divorce and remarriage. In the next chapter, we will examine, one-by-one, the individual verses on the subject of divorce and remarriage within this larger context of the character of God and of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles. Any interpretation that ignores this context cannot bring any light to the questions at hand.