This paper was prepared by John as part of a study committee at Garden Park Mennonite Brethren Church in Denver in 1988.

Discussion Paper
Divorce and Remarriage
Composite Draft 11/16/88


To adhere to Biblical guidelines on the subject of divorce and remarriage and to clarify the framework from which our church may work when confronted with decisions on these matters.


Any issue of human conduct in the light of Scripture involves several aspects. First, the doctrinal aspect asks "What is God's standard?" Coupled with this must be the pastoral care aspect which asks "How do we deal with this current violation of God's standard?" A third aspect must face the issue of any ongoing effects of past violations of God's standard. In all these, we want our attitude to be redemptive rather than condemning, recognizing our own weakness (Gal. 6:1) while hating the sin ensnaring anyone (Jude 23). Jesus illustrated this with the woman caught in adultery (John 8), forgiving her sin while telling her to sin no more.


From its inception with the first created man and woman, marriage has been intended by God to be a lasting institution. In Genesis 2:23-24 it is written "and the man said, 'this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken out of the side of man'. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh". Three terms ("leave", "cleave", and "one flesh") illustrate God's intent for marriage. "Leave" implies severance from previous relationships and bonds. "Cleave" is the idea of being joined to (or even glued to) another. The "one flesh" phrase expresses the union which two individuals enter when they are joined in marriage. This term includes the sexual union in particular, but is also used of kinship (blood relative) relationships. In God's original intent for marriage, the bond was broken only by the death of one of the spouses (Romans 7:1-3; Matt. 19:5-6). The church is also to hold marriage in high regard as a picture of the church's relationship to Christ (Eph. 5:23-26). The bonds of marriage and the sexual intimacy of marriage are to be "held in honor by all" (Heb. 13:4).

A believer is commanded not to marry an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 1 Cor. 7:39). The Scriptures are quite clear on this subject: "Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or, what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?" (2 Cor. 6:14-15). If a believer violates these Scriptures by marrying an unbeliever, and later repents, the believer is not permitted to initiate divorce or separation (1 Cor. 7:12-13). He or she is to remain in the marriage and behave according to 1 Peter 3:1-7. The outcome of disobedience to God's clear commands on not marrying unbelievers could possibly be separation or divorce. Yet (as earlier stated) it is not to be initiated by the believer; and the believer is to make every effort to reconcile the marriage (1 Cor. 7:11). If one partner of an unbelieving couple is converted, these same Scriptures apply.

Our society draws legal distinctions between divorce and annulment, but both involve the breaking of a marriage bond and seem thereby to be included under "divorce" in Scripture.


Since God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), we as believers must take a like view, and see it as a violation of God's expressed purpose for marriage. In Matt. 19:6-8 Christ tells us that divorce is an accommodation to man's sin and is in violation of God's purpose for marriage. Divorce was a concession to the insensitivity of one or both partners to God which is described Biblically as "hardness of heart".


Many evangelicals hold that Scripture permits divorce only in the case of adultery, or the cases of adultery or desertion, while others believe that even these are not permissible grounds. However, Scripture does permit, but does not encourage, divorce for at least the reasons of sexual immorality (including, but not limited to adultery) (Mt. 19:3ff and parallels) and desertion (1 Cor. 7:10-15). Ezra 10 also presents the case of divorcing an unbeliever because he/she is an unbeliever, and might even seem to encourage divorce in such a case, but 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 explicitly forbids the believer to initiate divorce in such a situation. Genesis 21 presents the "putting away" of Hagar by Abraham because of Ishmael's mocking of God's chosen child, Isaac. The common thread in all of these seems to be unrepentance or "hardness of heart", which ultimately is the "unpardonable" or eternal sin (Mk. 3:29), because it is never repented of. Any sin, such as an abusive spouse, can thus fit this category of "hardness of heart".

With regards to adultery, the common situation, both now and in the Bible (e.g. Mt. 19:3ff), appears to be one of someone divorcing IN ORDER TO marry someone else. This is clearly blatant, deliberate sin. Deliberate sin by a believer is a difficult topic at best, but is further complicated in that a new marriage makes the original situation (the earlier marriage) impossible to restore, even approximately, without further sin. Even after another divorce, Scripture explicitly forbids returning to a former spouse (Dt. 24:1-4).

A little more background is in order on the Matthew 19 passage. Deuteronomy 24 refers to divorce because of some "indecency", and two schools of thought had arisen. One school regarded this as something serious, such as adultery, while the other regarded this as any displeasure on the husband's part, with the modern classical example of "burning the toast" used to illustrate this view. This was the long-standing dispute being presented to Jesus as a respected rabbi for his opinion. Jesus sided squarely with the first school in treating divorce as something very serious indeed, to be permitted only under the gravest of circumstances.

1 Cor. 7:12-15 refers to cases in which an UNbelieving spouse refuses to live with his or her believing partner and leaves. In such cases the believer is told to "let him leave" (vs. 15), and is not to initiate divorce ("let her not send her husband away"--vs. 13). So, while divorce is permitted, the believer is admonished not to take the initiative. Yet, if divorce does occur, "the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases" (vs. 15).

The story of Hosea (Hosea 3:1) presents the ideal of marital reconciliation, and ties it to the picture of God's desire for His people to be reconciled to Him. 1 Cor. 7:10-11 repeats this call for reconciliation, in this case where both partners are believers, since the case of an unbelieving spouse is dealt with separately (1 Cor. 7:12ff). Thus even if "Biblical grounds" exist for divorce, the believer is not to seek divorce, but work for reconciliation.

If persons are divorced prior to their salvation, it is inconsistent with the doctrine of justification to hold to their account the sin of adultery or any other sin (Col. 2:13-14; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:17). Similarly, 1 John 1:9 presents the same picture for confessed sin after conversion. Divorce is not the "unpardonable sin". However, if reconciliation with the original spouse is possible, it should be sought.


Believers who pursue divorce rather than reconciliation are subject to church discipline because they openly reject the Word of God (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 5:32; Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). That person is subject to the steps of church discipline as outlined in Matt. 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:14-15, and as illustrated in 1 Cor. 5:1-13. The goal of church discipline is not punishment, but reconciliation and restoral.


There is surprisingly little in Scripture on remarriage (marriage to someone else by someone who is divorced.) 1 Cor. 7:15 refers to the believer deserted by an unbelieving spouse as "not bound", and this may refer to their freedom to remarry. Mt. 19:3ff and parallels refer to divorcing one spouse to marry another as adultery. 1 Cor. 7:10-11 tells a believer separated from another believer to either remain unmarried or be reconciled.

More of our understanding of remarriage comes from secular sources, such as study of the customs of both Old Testament and New Testament times. The purpose of a "bill of divorce" was to free the parties to remarry. There was thus no need to specifically mention remarriage in discussing divorce, as it was assumed.

Because of the lack of Biblical detail, reasonable approaches have been developed. One such approach separates the "innocent party" from the "guilty party" and regards the "innocent party" as free to remarry, but the "guilty party" as not free UNTIL the "innocent party" has remarried or died, precluding any possibility of reconciliation, AND repentance by the "guilty party" has taken place. The "guilty party" is the one who has, for example, committed adultery, breaking up the original marriage.

An 1883 MB General Conference resolution is interesting in this regard. It held "that even the seemingly innocent party be barred from membership until God has revealed the innocency by the death of the guilty party." This was reaffirmed in a resolution passed in 1939.

Another approach holds that remarriage is never allowed. Based on Matthew 5 and 19 and parallels, even the "innocent party" remarrying is seen as committing adultery thereby. Sometimes along with this, divorce is seen as indicative of problems in both person's lives, and thus is another reason for forbidding remarriage.

Another approach distinguishes between divorce before conversion, and after conversion. The person divorced before conversion is free to remarry, but the one divorced after conversion is not so free. This view holds that conversion cleanses us of all sin, but is flawed in its disregard of the same principle presented in 1 John 1:9 for sin after conversion.

A fourth approach seeks evidence that the divorced person has had sufficient time for healing and growth before remarriage is permitted.


The marriage of two Christians when one or both parties have been divorced with no possibility of reconciliation to the original spouse (such as when the spouse remarries), can be held in the church with the consent of and blessing of the church. Sufficient time must have elapsed since the divorce for healing and growth to have taken place. The pastor shall upon interviewing the couple determine the propriety of such a union and report his findings to the Board of Elders. After reporting his findings, the Pastor may then proceed with the wedding plans, as long as no Scriptural reason can be given by the Board for forbidding the marriage.


Numerous Scriptures affirm the church's responsibility to uphold the Biblical ideal of marriage. This is especially true regarding its leadership (1 Tim. 3:2, 5, 12; Titus 1:6), where "husband of one wife" is a qualification for male leaders. (Scripture is not as detailed on female leadership, using analogy instead, as in 1 Timothy 3:11 "Similarly, the women .". The rendering of "wives" here is a mistranslation.)

Several possibilities exist as to the meaning of this phrase "husband of one wife". One possibility is that in the polygamous culture of Paul's day, it referred to a monogamous marriage, that is, to one wife rather than many. If so, past divorces are not in view.

Another view holds that this requires that a leader be married, not single. This has often been presented in opposition to the Roman Catholic practice of unmarried priests.

Another possibility, reflected in an MB General Conference resolution passed in 1969, is that one of the consequences of divorce by a Christian is permanent disqualification from the office of elder or deacon. Such Christians are completely forgiven by Christ when they repent, and Christ's body also is to forgive them. Yet, because elders and deacons are the highest offices in the church, not every Christian is qualified to occupy them (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6). The portion of this 1969 resolution that is relevant here is " We believe that a member who has been divorced, or divorced and remarried, should not be eligible to serve on the deaconate or in the ministry."

One of the problems with this view is that if this means "married only once", it also precludes the widower who has remarried. 1 Timothy 5:14 specifically advises younger widows to remarry.

Another possibility also exists. Grammatically, these references may be seen as qualitative, that is, as descriptions of one's present character. The other qualifications there are also of this type - "blameless" and "above reproach" by no means suggest perfection, and "uncontentious" did not cause Paul to be disqualified over his quarrel with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Seen in this way, the reference is to marital faithfulness now, not to past unfaithfulness, whether adultery, fornication, or divorce/annulment, assuming there has been honest repentance and time for spiritual maturity. Certainly such past unfaithfulness should be carefully considered as indicative of possible continuing or future sin, however.


"Persons who have experienced divorce face many spiritual, social and emotional needs. The healing ministry of the church is urgently needed. But, there is also a future that must be faced. The church is responsible to marry "only in the Lord". Is the couple living in Christian faith? Are they sufficiently mature to establish a sound relationship? These questions must be answered before the church can conscientiously perform the marriage ceremony". (John R. Martin, Divorce and Remarriage, Herald Press 1976.)