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What Does the Bible Say About Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage?

Frequently Asked Questions

Contents

Background

Institution of Marriage

Dating and Choosing a Spouse

Family

Love

Sex

Remarriage After Death of a Spouse

Divorce and Remarriage

Biblical Grounds for Divorce

Other Reasons for Divorce

Questions

What Is a Marriage?

Should I Be Married in a Church?

Can I Marry Someone of a Different Race?

I Had Sex with My Boyfriend/Girlfriend/Fiancé Before Marriage; Can We Still Get Married?

What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy or Bigamy - Having More Than One Wife or Husband?

Does the Bible Say a Wife Has to Obey and Be Submissive to Her Husband?

Is it Okay For a Couple to Be Separated but Still Legally Married?

Can I Be Forgiven If I Divorced and Remarried?

Does the Bible Say I Cannot Receive Communion in Church If I Remarried After Divorce?

I Remarried After Divorce. Should I Divorce or Separate from My New Spouse? Should I Go Back to My First Spouse?

Does the Bible Say I Should Separate from My Non-Christian Wife/Husband?

Church Doctrine

Roman Catholic

Southern Baptist

United Methodist

Related Articles

Background1,2,3

In Biblical times, marriages were commonly 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.

Institution of Marriage

Marriage was instituted by God as a lifelong commitment (Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 19:3-9, 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).

Family

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 this New Testament passage, 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.

Love

Unselfish love is the "glue" that holds marriages together. In marriage, we must subdue our own egos and selfish pride for the sake of the family. The excitement and romantic feelings of a new relationship fade in time, and the husband and wife will begin to see and resent each other's faults. That is when true "Christian Love" (kindness, respect, benevolence) must take over. True Christian love is not a feeling; it is something we must make the effort to practice every day. The Apostle Paul states it most eloquently in this passage from First Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (TNIV, 1 Corinthians 13:4–7)  

Sex

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:
The husband should fulfill his wife's sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband's needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won't be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (NLT, 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). Of course, that does not imply that an abusive, exploitative or nonconsensual act would be acceptable. Those things are prohibited by other Bible teachings.

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 to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." (TNIV, Matthew 19:3-9) 

Biblical Grounds for Divorce

The word translated in the passage above as "sexual immorality" was porneia in the original Greek Bible text. It means illicit sexual intercourse, including adultery, incest, etc. As quoted in Matthew, sexual immorality by one partner is sufficient reason for divorce, but it does not require divorce. In many cases the husband and wife can be reconciled even after adultery.  As quoted in Mark and Luke (Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18), Jesus did not mention sexual immorality as grounds for divorce.

No other grounds for divorce are mentioned in the New Testament. The New Testament teaches strongly that marriage should be a lifelong commitment. Things such as lack of commitment, different values/beliefs, in-law problems, stress, incompatibility, lack of concern/consideration, sexual problems, growing apart, illness, incapacity, boredom, sexual desires,  desire for happiness or other reasons are not Biblical grounds for divorce.

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, disillusioned and financially poorer. 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.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says4,

Parents should be alert to signs of distress in their child or children. Young children may react to divorce by becoming more aggressive and uncooperative or by withdrawing. Older children may feel deep sadness and loss. Their schoolwork may suffer and behavior problems are common. As teenagers and adults, children of divorce can have trouble with their own relationships and experience problems with self-esteem.

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 true Christian love guide our actions. Professional counseling may help resolve marital problems before the relationship deteriorates beyond repair.

Other Reasons for Divorce

Unfortunately, some marriages cannot be saved. A viable marriage is a contract of mutual support, 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)

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (NIV, 1 Timothy 5:8)

 If an unbeliever abandons the marriage, the other partner is freed from the marriage bond (1 Corinthians 7:15).

The Bible does not have a specific teaching about other intolerable situations. But if one partner seriously violates the marriage contract, as by physical/emotional/sexual abuse, alcohol/drug abuse, illegal activity, financial irresponsibility, etc., the marriage contract has been unilaterally broken. The other partner must take whatever actions are necessary to escape from the situation and to protect self and children. Reconciliation is preferable, but if that is not possible, different church denominations have different procedures for formally ending the marriage.

Questions

People have many and varied questions about what is right or wrong in marriage, divorce and remarriage. As with other topics, the Bible does not specifically address every possible issue. Prayer and consideration of the Bible values involved may help with finding the answers. Most church denominations have specific beliefs and rules that supplement what the Bible says, and a minister, priest or pastor of the denomination is the best source of information.

What Is a Marriage?

Marriage traditions in Biblical times were very different from today. Marriage was neither a religious nor a civil matter, and the couple was considered married when the union was consummated. However, once married, the laws and customs of the time strongly prohibited adultery and provided physical and financial protections for the spouses and their children (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, 20:10 Deuteronomy 25:5-6, Proverbs 22:6, Malachi 2:13-16, Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:2-12, Romans 7:2, Hebrews 13:4, Ephesians 5:22-25, 6:4, 1 Timothy 5:8). In today's world, it is the legal marriage that provides similar protections. Merely having sex or living together does not provide the legal protections for spouses and children that the Biblical model of marriage provided.

Should I Be Married in a Church?

There is no requirement in the Bible to marry in a church ceremony or to be married by a minister or priest. However, some churches do not accept civil weddings as valid.

Can I Marry Someone of a Different Race?

Yes. The Bible does not oppose or prohibit interracial marriages. See What Does the Bible Say About Interracial Marriage and Interracial Dating?

I Had Sex with My Boyfriend/Girlfriend/Fiancé Before Marriage; Can We Still Get Married?

Yes, there is nothing in the Bible which would prohibit marriage. In fact, it is recommended by one Old Testament passage (Exodus 22:16). Also see What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex?

What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy or Bigamy - Having More Than One Wife or Husband?

There is no specific teaching about polygamy or bigamy in the Bible.

Levirate marriage was practiced in Old Testament times. If a man died leaving no male heir, his brother was expected to marry his widow and produce children (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). This, and other forms of polygamy, were acceptable in Biblical 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 11:3-4).

Most Christian churches have consistently opposed polygamy as a perversion of God's plan for marriage (Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 19:4-6, 1 Corinthians 6:16). Polygamists were prohibited from holding church offices (1 Timothy 3:2, 3:12).

Does the Bible Say a Wife Has to Obey and Be Submissive to Her Husband?

See What Does the Bible Say About Women's Rights?

Is it Okay For a Couple to Be Separated but Still Legally Married?

The Bible does not say anything specific about this situation.

In Biblical times, couples were temporarily apart due to military service (2 Samuel 11:6-11) or family visits (Luke 1:39-40, 1:56). Jesus' apostles were likely away from their wives for at least part of the time they were serving Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:5, Mark 6:6-10). Similarly couples of today may have to be temporarily apart because of family situations, jobs or military service.

However, if a couple separates because of marital problems, they are no longer living according to the Biblical model of marriage (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, 7:10-11, Ephesians 5:33).

Can I Be Forgiven If I Divorced and Remarried?

Yes. The Bible says all sins will be forgiven if a person repents (turns away from sin) and also forgives other people. There is more information in this article: What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness of Sins? But also see Church Doctrine below.

Does the Bible Say I Cannot Receive Communion in Church If I Remarried After Divorce?

No. That is a rule in some churches, but the only teaching about Communion in the Bible is general in nature (1 Corinthians 11:26-28).

I Remarried After Divorce. Should I Divorce or Separate from My New Spouse? Should I Go Back to My First Spouse?

The Bible does not have a specific teaching on this subject. At first glance that may seem to be what the apostle Paul is saying in this passage:
To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 7:10–11)

However, Paul was writing about the case where a couple has separated but have not divorced and remarried. The sin of yet another divorce and the emotional pain caused to the current spouse and others involved would violate other Bible principles. In most cases, the first marriage could not be restored. When these factors are considered, intentionally breaking up a second marriage seems like an unworkable and unwise choice.

Does the Bible Say I Should Separate from My Non-Christian Wife/Husband?

No. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:
To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 7:12-14)

Church Doctrine

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 Catholic 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 wedding5.

Here is a sampling of official church positions from the three largest Christian denominations in the U.S.:

Roman Catholic

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

Southern Baptist

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

United Methodist

Marriage
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 God's 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.

Divorce
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

Related Articles

What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex?

What Does the Bible Say About Interracial Marriage and Interracial Dating?

What Does the Bible Say About Adultery?

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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 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry , "Children and Divorce ," Facts for Families© , http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/children_and_divorce , 2011.
5 John T. Catoir, J.C.D., "Understanding Annulments," St. Anthony Messenger, 1998. http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Sep1998/feature1.asp