First of all, no matter what view one takes on the issue of divorce, it is important to remember Malachi 2:16: “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” According to the Bible, marriage is a lifetime commitment. “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). God realizes, though, that marriages involve two sinful human beings and that divorces are going to occur. In the Old Testament, He laid down some laws to protect the rights of divorcées (Deuteronomy 24:1–4). Jesus pointed out that these laws were given because of the hardness of people’s hearts, not because such laws were God’s desire (Matthew 19:8).
The issue of remarriage after a divorce is addressed directly in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11: “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” So, the biblical rule is that there should be no divorce and, if a divorce does occur, no remarriage.
We have two possible exceptions to this foundational principle, one of which Paul addresses in the same context: a believer abandoned by an unbelieving spouse “is not bound” (1 Corinthians 7:15). And Jesus says, “Except for sexual immorality” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. So, depending on the exact meaning of bound and sexual immorality, there may be some cases in which remarriage is allowable after divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s argument for the “unbound” condition of the believing spouse is based on who leaves—it is the unbeliever who abandons the marriage, and the believer is an innocent party.
Taking a closer look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, the phrase except for sexual immorality possibly gives God’s permission for divorce and remarriage. Many interpreters understand this “exception clause” in Matthew as referring to marital unfaithfulness during the betrothal period. In Jewish custom, a man and a woman were considered married even while they were still engaged or “betrothed.” According to this view, immorality during this betrothal period would be the only valid reason for a divorce.
However, the Greek word translated “sexual immorality” is a general word that can mean any form of sexual sin. It can refer to fornication, prostitution, adultery, etc. Jesus is possibly saying that divorce is permissible if sexual immorality is committed. Sexual relations are an integral part of the marital bond: “The two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31). Therefore, any breaking of that bond by sexual relations outside of marriage might be a permissible reason for divorce.
Jesus’ teaching seems to be that adultery unties the marriage knot, but the allowance of remarriage is not explicit. In Matthew 5:32, the assumption is that the woman who is divorced will remarry, and Jesus seems to say that, unless her first marriage was dissolved by adultery (on her husband’s part), her second marriage will make her an adulteress. Jesus also has remarriage in mind in Matthew 19:9. In both passages, divorce and remarriage seem to be allowed in the circumstance covered by the exception clause, whatever that is interpreted to be. It is important to note that only the innocent party is allowed to remarry. Although not stated in the text, it would seem the allowance for remarriage after divorce is God’s mercy for the one who was sinned against, not for the one who committed the sexual immorality. There may be instances where the guilty party is allowed to remarry, but they are not evident in this text.
First Corinthians 7:15 may be another biblical “exception,” allowing remarriage if an unbelieving spouse divorces a believer. The verse says, “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” The text is clear that, if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer, the believer is free to accept the separation and move on with life. He or she is “not bound,” indicating full liberty. The Amplified Bible translates the statement as “the [remaining] brother or sister is not [spiritually or morally] bound.” The believing spouse can work for reconciliation (1 Corinthians 7:11), but he or she is not obligated to remain in the marriage.
If desertion dissolves a marriage, then is remarriage permitted? The context of 1 Corinthians 7:15 does not mention remarriage, except in verse 11, which says a divorced person cannot remarry. But, if “the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other” (verse 15, NLT), then it is reasonable to assume that remarriage is allowed. It seems in verse 15 Paul is giving an exception to the rule of verse 11.
Some also claim that abuse (spousal or child) is a valid reason for divorce even though it is not listed as such in the Bible. While this may very well be the case, it is never wise to presume upon the Word of God. In cases of abuse, a separation is definitely in order and should occur immediately.
Sometimes lost in the debate over the exception clause is the fact that, whatever “sexual immorality” means in Matthew 5 and 19, it is an allowance for divorce, not a requirement for it. Even when adultery is committed, a couple can, through God’s grace, learn to forgive and begin rebuilding their marriage. God has forgiven us of so much more. Surely, we can follow His example and even forgive the sin of adultery (Ephesians 4:32). However, in many instances a spouse is unrepentant and continues the immoral behavior. That is when Matthew 19:9 applies.
Looking to quickly remarry after an allowable divorce can also cause problems. It might be God’s desire for the divorced person to remain single, even if he or she can biblically remarry. God sometimes calls people to be single so their attention is not divided (1 Corinthians 7:32–35). Remarriage after a divorce may be an option in some circumstances, but that does not mean it is the only option.
In summary, the Bible makes it clear that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and that reconciliation and forgiveness should mark a believer’s life (Luke 11:4; Ephesians 4:32). However, God recognizes that divorce will occur, even among His children. A divorced and/or remarried believer should not feel any less loved by God, even if the divorce and/or remarriage is not covered under the possible exception clause of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.