What does the Bible say about Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage?
In Biblical times, marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The parents sometimes allowed their children to have a say in the choice, but frequently they did not (Genesis 21:21, 24:1-4, 38:6, Judges 14:1-2). Dating and courtship did not precede marriage. The negotiations by the parents resulted in a betrothal, a binding agreement pledging the bride and groom to marriage. Once the groom took the bride into his home, they were considered married. Typically, girls were betrothed shortly after puberty, and the marriage was consummated one year later.
Various ceremonies and feasts accompanied the wedding day at different times in history, but the wedding was not performed, sanctioned or blessed by religious officials. As far as is known, there was no exchange of marriage vows, and our commonly used marriage vows do not come from the Bible. The marriage was neither a civil nor a religious matter, but numerous religious obligations came as a result.
Levirate marriage was practiced in Old Testament times. If a man died leaving no male heir, his brother was required to marry his widow and produce children (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This, and other forms of polygamy, were acceptable in Old Testament times, although only wealthy men could afford multiple wives. King Solomon was the most notable polygamist with his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).
Institution of Marriage
Marriage was instituted by God as a lifelong commitment (Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 19:3-61, 1 Timothy 4:1-5). In Old Testament times, everyone was expected to be married and have children (Proverbs 18:22, Jeremiah 29:6). However, Jesus was unmarried and said remaining unmarried (celibacy) was a good choice for those who could accept that life and devote themselves to God (Matthew 19:10-12). The apostle Paul was also unmarried. He said remaining unmarried was a good and holy alternative, but it is better to marry than to be tempted into immorality by passion (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). Peter and many of the other apostles were married (Matthew 8:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5), so marriage is compatible with committed service to God.
Dating and Choosing a Spouse
There are some mentions of courtship in the Bible (Judges 14:7-8, Ruth 3:7-11, Song of Songs 2:8-14). But most marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, and dating as we know it today was not practiced. The Bible does not give any rules or advice about dating practices (but see What does the Bible Say about Premarital Sex?).
The Israelites were prohibited from intermarrying with the pagan peoples who surrounded them (Deuteronomy 7:1-4), and the apostle Paul advised Christians to marry only other believers (1 Corinthians 7:39, 2 Corinthians 6:14). However, an already married Christian should not divorce a nonbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
There is no indication in the Bible that we are predestined to marry a certain person or that there is one special person or "soul mate" that we should find and marry. Except for the preference to marry another Christian, we are free to marry whomever we wish (1 Corinthians 7:39).
The family of Biblical times had the husband as "lord" of the household and the wife as his helper. The husband worked diligently to provide material needs and protection while the wife worked diligently at domestic chores. In these New Testament passages, the need for a strong, healthy marriage is expressed in terms of the idealized family of the ancient world:
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (NIV, 1 Peter 3:1-4, 7)
Contemporary marriages may follow the Biblical model or may be quite different. Regardless of how we divide the roles and responsibilities in our marriages, though, we must be sure the marriage fulfills its essential family functions and provides a loving environment for children to grow into responsible adults.
Unselfish love is the "glue" that holds families together. In marriage, we must subdue our own egos and selfish pride for the sake of the family. The Apostle Paul states it eloquently in this passage from First Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (NAS, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Sex is a wholesome and normal part of a marriage relationship, and it is for pleasure as well as for reproduction (Genesis 2:24, 18:9-12, Proverbs 5:15-19, Song of Songs 4:1-16). The apostle Paul said neither husband nor wife should deny sexual pleasure to the other (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).
The Bible does not give any rules for how sex should be practiced between husband and wife except for a prohibition against sex during menstruation - a woman's period of "uncleanness." (Leviticus 18:19). However, the Old Testament rules about unclean foods and practices are not binding on Christians (Mark 7:1-5, 7:14-23, Romans 14:13-14).
Remarriage after Death of a Spouse
After a husband or wife dies, the Bible permits remarriage to another, and it is even encouraged in some cases (Romans 7:1-3, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 7:39, 1 Timothy 5:14).
Divorce and Remarriage
In the Old Testament Law, a man was allowed to divorce his wife if he found something indecent about her (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), but wives did not have the same privilege. Jesus saw the injustice and pain of divorce, though, and said that neither husband nor wife should separate from the other (Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18). Jesus also said that remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' 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'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery." (NRSV, Matthew 19:3-9)
The word translated here as "unchastity" was porneia in the original Greek Bible text. It means illicit sexual intercourse, including adultery, incest, etc. Only Matthew mentions porneia as grounds for divorce. As quoted in Mark and Luke, Jesus did not allow this exception.
The Apostle Paul echoed Jesus' sentiment:
Now, for those who are married I have a command, not just a suggestion. And it is not a command from me, for this is what the Lord himself has said: A wife must not leave her husband. But if she is separated from him, let her remain single or else go back to him. And the husband must not divorce his wife. (TLB, 1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Divorce is a genuine tragedy. It often leaves the marriage partners embittered and disillusioned. It robs the children of the love and security of a healthy family and denies them a good role model for their own future marriages. We need to make an effort each and every day to keep our marriages strong and not let them drift toward divorce. We must put aside our anger, forgive our spouse a million times over, always be faithful, subdue our pride and ego, and always let love guide our actions.
Unfortunately, some marriages cannot and should not be saved. A viable marriage is a contract of mutual love and respect:
However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (NIV, Ephesians 5:33)
When one partner seriously violates the marriage contract, as by emotional, physical or sexual abuse, the marriage cannot endure. No one should feel obligated to endure an abusive relationship.
Christian denominations have different interpretations of the Bible and various beliefs and policies concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage. Most support the Biblical ideal of a marriage that lasts for life, but they must also deal with the reality of marriages that end in divorce for a number of different reasons.
Protestant churches have varying degrees of acceptance of divorce and remarriage. Many allow remarriage in the church under at least some circumstances. Most do not impose sanctions against their members who have divorced and remarried in civil ceremonies. Anyone contemplating divorce or remarriage should find out the policies of his or her own church.
The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize a remarriage after divorce as being valid unless the original marriage has been annulled by a church tribunal. Persons who remarry without annulment are barred from receiving communion in the Church. Frequent grounds for annulment include "lack of due discretion" in choosing a spouse, "defective consent," meaning fraud by one of the parties, "psychic incapacity" to fulfill the obligations of marriage, "defect of form," meaning the original wedding was not performed in the Catholic Church, and "prior bond," meaning one of the partners was married to someone else at the time of the wedding4.
Here is a sampling of official church positions from the three largest Christian denominations in the U.S.:
1660 The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament.
1663 Since marriage establishes the couple in a public state of life in the Church, it is fitting that its celebration be public, in the framework of a liturgical celebration, before the priest (or a witness authorized by the Church), the witnesses, and the assembly of the faithful.
1664 Unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage. Polygamy is incompatible with the unity of marriage; divorce separates what God has joined together; the refusal of fertility turns married life away from its "supreme gift," the child.
1665 The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.
From Catechism of the Catholic Church, (c) 1994, 1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc., http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt2sect2chpt3art7.htm
XVIII. The Family. God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption.
Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God's unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God's pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.
from The Baptist Faith and Message, © 1999-2004, Southern Baptist Convention, http://sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp#xviii
We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that Godís blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. We reject social norms that assume different standards for women than for men in marriage.
When a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes.
Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration.
Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God's grace is shared by all.
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2000. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House. http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1722, http://www.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1723
What does the Bible say about interracial marriage and interracial dating?
What does the Bible say about adultery?
1 Michael R.
Cosby, Sex in the Bible, Prentice-Hall, 1984.
2 Merrill F. Unger, "Marriage," The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Moody Press, 1988.
3 Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., "Marriage," Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
4 John T. Catoir, J.C.D., "Understanding Annulments," St. Anthony Messenger, 1998. http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Sep1998/feature1.asp