A Study in Pastoral Theology By

Gary Ray Branscome

"The Lord, the God of Israel, says that He hates divorce."

(Malachi 2:16)


Because God instituted marriage as a life long union of one man to one woman, divorce did not even enter the picture until some time after sin had entered the world (Genesis 2:22-24). While divorce undoubtedly took place even before the flood, Scripture makes no mention of it prior to the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However, because Moses did not specify what constituted valid grounds for divorce, the Jews disagreed among themselves on that question.


Because of that disagreement, some of the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. In answer He said, "Haven't you read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they being two shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, do not let man separate what God has joined together" (Matthew 19:4-6).

When the Pharisees then asked Him why Moses had allowed for divorce, He said, "Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts, but it was not so from the beginning… Whoever divorces his wife for any reason other than fornication, and marries another, commits adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 19:8-9).



While the things that Christ said about divorce are clear and easy to understand, Christian pastors are often called upon to deal with some very difficult situations. On one hand they do not want to turn away those who need assurance of forgiveness, at the same time they do not want to condone behavior that the Bible condemns. Therefore, in dealing with such situations, it helps to find out which of the marriage partners filed for divorce, and why. If neither party is guilty of adultery, then the person who filed for divorce is the one being unfaithful to the marriage vow. However, if adultery has taken place, then the person who is guilty is the one being unfaithful.


In dealing with such cases, do not allow yourself to be confused by claims that "there is blame on both sides," or "neither party is blameless." There may well be blame on both sides. Because our very nature is sinful, contention, spiteful statements, and resentment plague many marriages. However, from a Christian point of view that just means that both parties need to work at "forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven" them (Ephesians 4:32). While nasty words and ugly behavior is sinful, that is not grounds for divorce and that is not what breaks the marriage vow. The vow is broken by the party that commits adultery or by the party that would divorce a spouse that has been faithful. Once the guilty party has been identified, then you can follow the steps of Matthew 18:15-18 in dealing with that person.



Addressing those who are married, the Apostle Paul tells us that God commands the wife not "to leave her husband," adding that if she does leave, she should "remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband." And the husband is not to "divorce his wife" (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). However, if an unbelieving spouse ends the marriage, the innocent party in the divorce is free to remarry. Likewise widows are free to remarry, but only in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:15,39).


[NOTE: While the innocent party in a divorce might not be allowed to remarry under the law, because it can be done in a clean conscience they are free to remarry in Christ, for God has called us unto peace (Matthew 5:32, 1 Corinthians 7:15).]



Although Matthew 18:15-18 gives us three steps for dealing with an unrepentant parishioner, that does not mean that we need only meet with the person three times. Since our aim is to see repentance and reconciliation take place, the first step may entail several meetings. Furthermore, the purpose of such meetings is not to be rude or condemning, but to advise the person in question as to the seriousness of the situation, while counseling him as a friend, and showing him his (or her) need to repent. If, after a certain time it becomes clear that repentance is not forthcoming, then the second and third steps can be taken and the unrepentant person delivered unto Satan as God's Word directs (Matthew 18:18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5).

In dealing with cases where one party is clearly guilty of adultery, or guilty of divorcing a spouse who has been faithful, the course of action is fairly clear. However, many cases involve factors that confuse the situation.


For example: Suppose that the husband or wife leaves, making it clear that they consider the marriage over. I am not talking about a temporary separation, but a case in which one partner ends the marriage, yet does not commit adultery or file for divorce. In dealing with such a case, time must be allowed in order to establish the fact that the departure really is something more than a brash action or temporary separation, that the party that left will not return, and that there is no reason that they should fear to return. Once it is clear that the party which left will not be reconciled, we may conclude that he (or she) has in effect divorced his spouse, even though the legal steps necessary to make the divorce official have not been taken. In such a case the innocent party might be allowed to file for divorce as a way of seeking legal recognition of a situation that already exists (1 Corinthians 7:15).


Another example might be a case in which one marriage partner commits adultery and the other commits adultery in retaliation. In such a case there is no innocent party. Because both are guilty, neither has valid grounds to divorce the other. Both must repent or be delivered unto Satan. And if they both repent then they must either live chastely, as unmarried persons, or be reconciled to each other. However, if only one repents, a divorce might be permitted, but remarriage should be cautioned against and certainly should not be entered into hastily (1 Corinthians 5:1-5 and 7:11).


A third example might be a situation in which a person, who has been advised against seeking an unscriptural divorce, says he (or she) intends to go ahead and then ask God's forgiveness. Such a person is clearly unrepentant, and no responsible pastor should allow Christ’s sacrifice to be "trodden under foot" in that way (Hebrews 10:29). If the person goes through with the divorce, that is reason enough to place them under church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5).


Finally, I know of a couple that got a divorce even though they still liked each other, enjoyed being together, and were always doing things together even after the divorce. They simply decided that they wanted their “freedom” whatever that means. Now these people were not church members, but what they were doing was totally evil for several reasons, one being the message that they were giving to their children. Therefore, if they had been church members they would need to be dealt with according to Matthew 18: 15-18.



In dealing with divorce, each case must be carefully studied in the light of God’s Word. The words of Malachi 2:16 make it clear that God does not take the sin of divorce lightly. Furthermore, once a divorce has taken place and one of the original marriage partners has been married to someone else, there is no hope of reconciliation. They can never remarry their original spouse (Deuteronomy 24: 4).