Marriage is the living union between one man and one woman and it symbolizes the union between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:28-32; SC, Marriage Booklet, 16). God created marriage to be honored by men and women as a relationship where intimacy, love, and nurture are given and received. Consequently, God makes it clear in His word that He hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Yet, divorce and remarriage is rampant among Christians. If the divorce rate among Christians is the same as that of non-Christians, then what does that say about the name and honor of Jesus Christ? As pastors we encounter many people who want to get divorced and we often sympathize with them and do not challenge them for fear of offending them. We encounter people who want to get remarried while they are divorced for unbiblical reasons. Further, we marry them, not understanding that we are often blessing adulterous relationships. God has called us to be faithful to his design and plan for marriage. My prayer is that this paper will guide and strengthen us in order that our pastoral ministries would be pleasing to our God and Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The most common misunderstanding of Scripture I encounter is that Jesus commanded things in the Gospels that are not applicable to us today. They are merely there to show us our sin, and are not to be instructive guidelines for us to attempt to follow. Further, these brothers believe that if someone is sorry for their divorce, they can remarry someone else. They state that the Gospel should dominate our pastoral ministries. My brothers, this is a misapplication of Law and Gospel. God has standards for people when it comes to salvation— namely repentance and faith. Anyone who repents and believes receives the free forgiveness of sins and the promise of the Holy Spirit. If someone confesses their sin to us we are called to give them Absolution. However, God also has standards for marriage and after His resurrection He commanded the apostles “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). If we do not say or do anything about divorce in our congregations and we remarry divorced people to someone else simply because they said they were sorry, are we really being faithful to God’s plan and design for marriage? If pastors are remarrying people who should be seeking to be reconciled with their husbands or wives are they not blessing adulterous relationships? Let me give a few more examples: If someone confesses their sin of fornication to us, would it be okay for us to bless cohabitation before marriage simply because they said sorry? If someone confesses their sin of homosexuality to us are we to bless the cohabitation of same sex couples? Further, when someone is divorced from their spouse for unbiblical reasons, God has not called us to bless remarriage to another person. Jesus states that this is adultery (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18). Rather, God calls on us to promote repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness whenever and wherever possible. If we remarry people under the guise of forgiveness we are not properly applying Law and Gospel.
Let us begin with what we know about marriage. God created marriage when He created Adam and Eve to commit to one another and become one flesh (Gen. 2:18-25; Ap, XIII, 14). Therefore, marriage is for one woman and one man and it occurs when two people commit to one another and become one. God also designed marriage to be a permanent union that is not to be broken (Matt. 19:6; LC, Ten Commandments, 306). When the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, He cited Genesis 2 and stated: “They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). Through living together as one and through sexual union, two people become “one flesh.” Since God ratifies marriage and brings two people together, no one is to separate the marriage. Additionally marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14). Genesis 2:24 says that “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). This particular word, translated as "hold fast" is the language of covenant commitment and is used when describing the covenant commitment of the Israelites to God (Deut. 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20). Marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14) which is comprised of a man and a woman declaring their devotion to one another by binding themselves together through vows before God, family, and friends. A man and a woman enter into this covenant agreeing with God that it is to be a lifelong loyal union to which God is witness (Mal. 2:14). Consequently, because God binds two people together and witnesses the covenant man and woman make with Him and each other, He is opposed to divorce (Mal. 2:16). The principle is that when divorce and remarriage occurs there is a disruption of God’s design and plan for marriage.
Another reason God created marriage is to prevent sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:2-9; AC, XXIII). This purpose of marriage is cited frequently in our Confessions to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to allow priests to be married. Just as in our day, a life of celibacy can often amplify sexual immorality among clergy. Marriage is the rule while the gift of celibacy should be considered rare. People are to marry and use the gift of sex in marriage according to God’s design. Finally, Scripture teaches that the death of a spouse terminates the marriage covenant (Rom. 7:1-3; 1 Cor. 7:39).
Are there other legitimate reasons for terminating a marriage other than the death of a spouse? The answer is yes. Jesus said: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality (pornei,a), makes her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). The word pornei,a is used in the New Testament to describe various kinds of sexual immorality. Therefore, the ESV renders the word “sexual immorality” as it could include illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication (sexual activity before marriage), homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals, and incest. Therefore, sexual immorality, or infidelity, breaks the marriage covenant and is a legitimate reason for the offended spouse to seek a divorce. However, even in this case, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is preferable, as it is God’s will that a husband and wife remain together permanently. Consequently, we as pastors should always seek to reconcile husband and wife even in the case of sexual immorality. Nevertheless, Jesus calls on us to permit our members to divorce when sexual immorality is involved.
Another situation where the Apostle Paul permits divorce is when a non-believer deserts a believer. 1 Cor. 7:15 says: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” Intimacy in its deepest dimension can only occur when husband and wife are united in faith. Therefore, when a couple seeks a divorce and it involves the unbelieving partner desiring separation, God’s will is that the brother or sister in Christ not be “enslaved.” It may be permissible in this case to accept a divorce. However, even in this case, marriage is intended to be permanent and Paul exhorts the believing husband or wife to live with their partner if they will allow it (1 Cor. 7:10-13). The Confessions condemn the Anabaptists because they were encouraging believers to divorce their non-believing partners (Ep, XII, 19).
Because of the serious nature of marriage which is intended to be a life-long union, God’s will is that believers only marry believers (1 Cor. 7:39; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14; Ezra 9; 10; Neh. 13:23-27). It is so much God’s will that believers only marry believers that God’s word permits divorce when an unbelieving partner separates. Therefore, we as pastors should not bless the union of a believer and a non-believer. Light has nothing in common with darkness and by marrying couples as such we are putting both partners in a situation that permits divorce.
Are there other reasons besides sexual immorality and non-Christian desertion that may permit a divorce? The answer is no. There are no other legitimate reasons. Divorce causes adultery and is a serious sin and should be treated as such. All other reasons for divorce have imbedded in them hardness of heart in one or both of the parties (Matt. 19:8). Therefore, when Christians who are members of our congregations desire to get a divorce because they are not happy anymore, or they do not agree on how money should be spent, or they do not feel in love anymore, or they feel they are now incompatible, or they have grown apart, pastors should not accept divorce. Rather, the pastor should immediately initiate church discipline, for divorce is adultery and is a serious public sin among God’s people. God’s word says: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Eph. 5:3). God’s word also says: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb. 13:4). Luther says that divorce is not permissible in the New Covenant God has made with His people (LC, Ten Commandments, 306) and pastors are called to be faithful to this covenant. Some pastors initiate church discipline in the case of adultery, homosexuality, or fornication but they do not in the case of divorce. This is not consistent since Jesus considers divorce to be adultery. When one party comes to us and says that they want a divorce for unbiblical reasons then counseling and a mitigation process should be initiated to bring about repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If reconciliation is not achievable because of the hardness of heart of a spouse, then each spouse is expected to remain single until reconciliation is achieved or until the other spouse remarries or dies.
Some commonly ask: Does this mean that a wife must endure an abusive relationship? The answer is no. Husbands are called to love, protect, take care, and nurture their wives just as Christ does the church (Eph. 5:22-31). They are not free to beat their wives as if this were condoned by Scripture. Wives are called to submit to their husbands, but this does not mean they are to submit to being beaten. This is one area that often comes up that may be legitimate grounds for the abused spouse to remove herself from an abusive environment. Although the Scriptures do not discuss physical abuse, abuse is a serious breach of the covenant husband and wife made with one another at the time of marriage. Marriage was created for oneness and abuse damages the oneness that God intends for marriage. Further, domestic violence is prohibited according to state law, and we as pastors are called to honor the law of the land (cf. Rom. 13). Therefore, a pastor may support the abused wife’s decision to remove herself from an abusive relationship. Husband and wife should meet with the pastor for marital counseling with the hope of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. However, if the husband shows an unrepentant pattern of abusive behavior for a long period of time, pastors may allow for divorce.
In the case of sexual immorality is the offended party free to remarry? The implied answer according to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is yes, although this is not directly proscribed. The church fathers and Gratian (d. before 1159), who was the author of the canon law for the Roman Catholic Church, forbade the offended spouse from remarriage. However, the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope considered this position unjust (Tr, 78). Because Jesus Christ makes sexual immorality an exception to the rule, those who are victims of sexual immorality are free to divorce. This implies they can remarry another person. Therefore, if a divorced man or woman who was the offended party in a previous marriage relationship comes to you with their fiancé, Jesus allows you as pastors to marry them. However, on the basis of Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, the sexual immoral offender is committing themselves to a life of singleness. Their options are to repent and hope that their spouse forgives them or remain single. The offenders are not free to divorce and marry the person they were committing adultery with. Sometimes, pastors in the LCMS remarry the sexually immoral offender to the person they were committing adultery with. How can we remarry them and give them our blessing in the Christian Church when we are blessing an adulterous relationship? Jesus says: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). Surely, it would not be God’s will for us to bless an adulterous marriage relationship.
In the case of a Christian who was deserted by their non-Christian partner, is it permissible for them to remarry? On the basis of 1 Cor. 7:15 the implied answer is yes. The Christian is not enslaved to the non-believer who divorces them. They are free to remarry so long as the believer marries a Christian (1 Cor. 7:39; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14; Ezra 9; 10; Neh. 13:23-27) and does not put themselves in the same situation they were in before.
What about someone who had been previously divorced when they were a non-believer? When they become a believer are they free to remarry someone else? Still, even in this case the divorced person is called to seek reconciliation with their husband or wife. If their husband or wife does not want to reconcile or has already married someone else, then the believer is free to remarry. As non-believers we cannot expect them to live lives under the authority of God’s word. When they become believers they are free to remarry so long as they marry a Christian (1 Cor. 7:39; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14; Ezra 9; 10; Neh. 13:23-27).
What about if someone desires to get remarried because they divorced their spouse for domestic violence, or abuse? Again, reconciliation is to be sought and there should be given time for the offender to repent and change his life. However, if the offender will not change and reconciliation is not possible, then remarriage may be permissible.
In conclusion, there are many different situations that we as pastors will encounter in our pastoral ministries. People are always looking to justify sin and are good at making pastors feel sympathetic to their situations. As pastors, we are called to seek wisdom, guidance, and strength from the Holy Scriptures and one another in our application of pastoral theology. I realize that this paper does not discuss every situation that may come our way. However, my hope is that it gives us a framework to work with and to discuss. My hope is that it shows the seriousness of the sin of unbiblical divorce and remarriage among God’s people. My prayer is that we would together seek to be faithful to God’s word so that our pastoral ministries may be pleasing to our God and Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.