Divorce and Remarriage: Part One

As a pastor, one of the hardest things I deal with on a regular basis is walking with couples who get divorced. And secondarily the challenge of helping a person who is divorced walk through the biblical reality of whether remarriage is morally permissible in his or her situation. This is painful, hard work filled with suffering, guilt and doubt. Most Christians want to follow Christ in their marriage but not many know how to follow Christ in divorce and remarriage.

What I want to do in the next couple of posts is describe what I believe are biblically legitimate reasons for divorce, what aren’t, and explore biblical realities of remarriage. The hope is that this can help you personally or be a resource if you are walking with a couple or person navigating some of the most difficult relational/emotional waters of life.

This first post will consider biblical reasons for divorce. The second post will look at whether the Bible ever endorses remarriage after divorce.


Biblical Reasons for Divorce

There seems to be two biblical reasons for divorce.

  1. Adultery is the clearest and strongest reason for divorce by the aggrieved spouse. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus gives adultery as a reason for divorce. It is the clearest and strongest reason for a divorce but it is a relational concession not a command. Marriages can survive adultery and even become more beautiful on the other side. But some marriages are so broken after the affair and the years of pain that made adultery even possible that divorce is a suitable moral decision. For the sake of putting to death a union that has brought death to the couple and those around them, divorce might offer some kind of relief.

The word used here for adultery is porneia. This word is used in the New Testament for all sexual activity outside of the marital covenant. This of course includes physical, sexual relationships and I believe unrepentant, ongoing pornography use as well.

All this is said with a clear gospel caveat. The ethical framework of love which marriage is to embody (1 Cor 13) should be employed if the sinning spouse is convicted and doing the serious work of repentance. Love forgives all things and keeps no records of wrongs. If the adulterous spouse is seeking to follow Jesus, the aggrieved spouse is mandated by gospel love to follow Jesus by seeking marital reconciliation. No matter the sin, if the sinning spouse is repentant, the faithful spouse should seek to see if the marriage can be salvaged. Remember, marriage is for life.

  1. The second reason for divorce is given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15. There, divorce is possible if an unbelieving spouse leaves one’s married partner. In such a case, the believing spouse need not hold on to a marriage which the other has abandoned. Paul says to live in peace. Divorce might make that possible.

I think this reason by Paul is actually an ethical framework for ending a broken marriage. It would be unthinkable for Paul that a believing spouse would ever leave his believing spouse. This is based upon Paul’s belief, expounded in Ephesians 5, that Christian marriage is a reflection of Christ and the church. Christ is the faithful spouse even when his bride is serially unfaithful. When she returns, he will always accept her without shame or condemnation. This gracious, kind love should always be on display in marriage. Thus, only an unbelieving spouse would leave his partner for no cause. A believing spouse would endure with Christian hope.

Thus, if a spouse leaves his spouse, he is revealing that he is an unbelieving spouse. Paul seems to say as much in 1 Timothy 5:8. There, Paul makes clear that if a “believer “ does not take care of his family, he is worse than an unbeliever. What can be worse than an unbeliever? A hypocrite–one who says one thing but acts contrary to his profession thus revealing no real faith. In marriage, when a spouse professes faith but serially does not keep his commitments to spouse and family, he is a hypocrite and the very act of not living up to one’s vows reveals that he is an unbelieving spouse. Consequently, it is my opinion that if a believer is left by one’s spouse, Paul gives an ethical concession for divorce.

The word for “leave” in the Corinthian’s text has as its connotation the idea of actively distancing yourself from your spouse. This for sure happens in physical abandonment but it can also happen emotionally too. One can be physically present but has left his or her partner in every sense of the word.

Here I think of the husband who gambles his salary against his wife’s wishes and leaves the bills unpaid. When she confronts him, he berates her as judgmental and nothing ever really changes. This lasts for years. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

I think of the verbally abusive wife who for years belittles her husband for every mistake crushing his masculinity and destroying his soul. She always undermines him and he is reduced to a sheepish boy. He seeks to be faithful and loving but she won’t stop. But after years of trying, it is hell to be with her. Her meanness is one thing, her unwillingness to partner with her spouse to change the dynamics of the marriage is another. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

I think of the addicted spouse who won’t get help. Whether drugs or alcohol, her addiction causes great harm to her partner. He tries to love her but she loves the high more than her commitments. She has become her addiction and has nothing relationally for her spouse. For years she lives in the cycle of her addiction and he pays with his very soul. She is acting as an unbeliever and has left her spouse.

Finally, I think of the cold, harsh, abusive husband who is more tyrant than lover. Everywhere in the familial sphere he goes, he brings contempt and criticism. He belittles his spouse and won’t stop, no matter how many times she begs for them to get counseling or pastoral help. After years of this, she has lost her identity and any semblance of joy. He is acting as an unbeliever and has left his spouse.

It seems to me that it is not incidents or even seasons of “separation” that give legitimacy to possible divorce for Paul. But instead, a settled condition over time in the sinning spouse that declares through actions that his or her heart has left the marriage. Where this has happened, divorce might be warranted.

A couple of caveats. First, divorce is never commanded and need not be chosen. There might be good reasons to stay in a marriage where a spouse has “left”. Perhaps God has given the faithful spouse deep hope, or patience in pain or joy in suffering. In such cases, one ought to endure. For as Paul says, your faithful, committed love might bring about salvation for your spouse (see 1 Cor 7:16). But sometimes, this is not possible or healthy.

So where a sinning spouse has “left” the marriage, how does the faithful spouse decide it is time to end the marriage? First, I think there is an obligation to do all one can to awaken the leaving spouse to his or her commitments. I’m thinking of significant time living out patient love. I also think that when crisis hits, it is imperative to bring in wise council long before one begins divorce proceedings. And if one wise person doesn’t make headway, then bring in another. A competent pastor or counselor can bring help to a marriage the two partners can’t imagine. We should fight for our marriage until there is nothing there to fight for.

What I want to make sure I don’t convey is that the next time your spouse is mean or distant or forgets pay the bills, you can get a divorce. No. Divorce is the last option. It is a horrible option. But sometimes, sadly things need to die. Divorce is to name dead what is horribly ill and has no chance at being resuscitated.

One point of necessary clarification: one should always physically leave a serial, abusive relationship until wholesale change in the abusing spouse has happened and has been verified by trustworthy pastors/counselors and proper boundaries have been put in place. A serial abuser is immersed in patterns of behavior and thought that are not easily broken. In such circumstances, clear boundaries must be set with the help of counselors and pastoral help. It is too easy for love to become a sick cycle of dependency and abuse without outside wisdom. Abusive relationships are serious and need serious intervention. But even with all that said, Christ can redeem anyone willing to nail his/her flesh on the cross. I know. I’ve seen it. Don’t give up easily. Christ can do unbelievable things.

When all this work has been done and the leaving spouse has not returned, the decision to divorce is based upon what will bring “peace” according to Paul. Here peace means the cessation of ongoing conflict. There comes a point where seeking faithfulness just brings chaos, bitterness, soul death and pain. No one can live there forever. When a marriage has degraded to the point of a living hell and the leaving spouse won’t live up to his commitments or even try, divorce might bring peace. However painful such peace might be.


I do not think most Christian marriages that end in divorce have legitimate reasons for divorce. Instead, embracing a cultural belief of romantic love or personal happiness as ultimate ends, couples break life long vows. I think most Christians who divorce give up far too easily. I cannot tell you how many times I have been with couples when the aggrieved spouse declares he or she is done (often for good reasons) but then the sinning spouse finally begins the kind of gospel, personal change that would make the marriage beautiful but the aggrieved spouse won’t seek reconciliation. This is sin, it has life-long consequences and tarnishes the name of Christ.

Life-long commitment to one person is hard work. It is not for the faint hearted. There will be suffering and pain. But also joy, laughter and love. It might be the hardest thing one can do but it is well worth it. In marriage, we become mature in the fire of love. It is worth the work. In it you can experience Christ and become like him.

But for some, the work becomes soul crushing. Unrepentant unfaithfulness or abandonment from an unrepentant spouse over a span of years is something no one should endure. In such cases, divorce is an option. There is little good in it but it is better than the alternative. Sometimes, in this world, this is the best we can hope for.

In the next post we will consider divorce and remarriage.

An Open Letter from Bob Bouwer, Charlie Contreras and Ron Citlau

Dear friends,

Christian community in a broken world with sinful people–ourselves first to admit our sinfulness–is hard! Even among close friends finding the right way to do church is rife with cliffs and chasms. We have learned this first hand.

A few weeks ago Charlie Contreras and Bob Bob Bouwer (& Scott Treadway) representing the Gospel Alliance met with representatives of Room for All and did the hard work of Christian community seeking a way forward for the RCA over issues of the authority of Scriptures and sexuality. It was a hard but good meeting. From that meeting a statement of agreement was worked on and agreed to by both organizations. Ron Citlau read the statement when it became public and wrote a critique of it. Though there was limited communication between the three of us before Ron’s critique, there was not adequate time given to process the original statement or the critique among the three of us. We have been friends a long time and there were hurt feelings, misunderstanding and unneeded wounding. But there is grace and mercy. We have had good conversations, become better friends, and grown deeper in the Lord. We wanted you to know that. We also wanted to share with you learnings and clarifications so our mistakes might serve you in your journey of following Christ:

  1. In Christ, any conflict can be worked through if there is humility on all sides. We experienced this. We saw Matthew 18 work it’s good work.
  2. We all needed to ask for mercy and forgiveness.
  3. Proverbs 15:22 declares, “without counsel plans fail but with many advisors they succeed.” The original joint statement needed more editing before it went public because it doesn’t reflect our views on sexuality and redemption or The Gospel Alliance.
  4. The critique blog post should have been given to GA’s leadership team with time to respond before being published for a chance of doing this all privately and fixing the original joint statement.
  5. All of this hard work needed to be done face-to-face.
  6. We, and the Gospel Alliance, joyfully stand with the traditional Christian view of marriage and redemption. Marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman for life; and Christ redeems sexual sinners. This has never changed for us or GA and won’t, God willing.
  7. Relationships matter. We must not just seek to be right we must treat each other rightly as our master commands. We are more committed to this than ever (Matthew 22:37-40).

Conflicts like this have much to teach us and to grow us if we are willing to learn. We want to grow and learn! We will keep talking, repenting and loving. We deeply care for each other, the local church and our denomination. We will continue standing and fighting for the good. We hope you will join us.

In Brotherly Love,

Bob, Charlie and Ron

What the heck is truth anyway?

One of the interesting realities we now live in is that we cannot agree on what is the basic reality of truth. For some, “truth” is used to ostracize, correct, bully and hurt people. For others “truth” is about what can be described and measured in the physical world. For others, “truth” is a social construct that is a collective consensus about what will make humanity happy. And still others think that truth does not exist at all, or at least its unknowable; they think that truth is a subjective reality and that each person has a right to decide what is true for himself or herself.

And when it comes to religious truth, it is laughed at as not a serious form of inquiry and study. Religious truth for living life and to navigate reality has been marginalized to those poor souls who need an “opiate” for their survival. It is seen as useless as a newspaper horoscope.

Yet, does political truth, scientific truth, postmodern truth, or the truth of utilitarianism actually help us answer the deepest questions of life? At least since the time of Socrates, and I am convinced much earlier than that, humanity has sought to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of human life and why do I exist?
  2. What is goodness and how do I live a good life?
  3. Is there a divine presence that gives order, meaning and purpose to life, and does this divine presence promise life after death?

And for all the good of scientific knowledge, the philosophy of the enlightenment and postmodernity, their answers to these questions leave me fundamentally realizing that they give no compelling answers. At least for me.

At the center of this conversation for two millennia stands Jesus of Nazareth. This marginalized prophet has shaped our culture more than any other man who has ever existed. Hate him or love him, he stands as perhaps the most brilliant thinker humanity has ever had.

Jesus said he embodied truth. One wonders if when Jesus says truth and the folks on tv declare their truth, or the scientist shares the truths from telescopes and microscopes, or the modern or postmodern philosophers share their truths, if everyone is talking about the same thing.

One of the things that I am deeply interested in is to know the truth that Jesus said he represented and to see personally if he answers adequately the big questions of human life. So, I am on a personal crusade to know and challenge the definitions of truth that now flood our minds and compare them to how Jesus defines truth. I want to discern what is the nature of his truth and I want to know how to use “Jesus truth” in the most helpful and appropriate ways. I desire to extract principles for life from what he taught and lived.

First, we need to define truth. I think many of us define truth as objective reality–what can be measured, categorized and dissected. For example when I say, “the moon is up in space, going a certain speed, weighs a certain amount and orbiting around the earth”, I observe the physical world and then make linguistic representations of those observations. This is the truth of modernity. But objective truth (perhaps scientific truth is a better phrase) has its limits. It cannot tell me what is beautiful. It cannot tell me what is the nature of courage, compassion or love. It can describe synoptic firings and sociological stats but it cannot tell me why something is valuable (like why we love Mozart). In other words, it cannot tell me in any adequate way answers to the questions humanity has been asking for millennia. In fact, it has no framework to ask such questions or seek adequate answers.

The philosophers have been seeking truth too. They have been on the journey of defining truth for millennia. To their credit, they have been asking the right questions but their answers have sometimes done more harm than good.

Pre-modern philosophers answered these questions primarily through a deep belief in a metaphysical world. It was a time of myth, magic and mystery. It was also a time of deep human suffering. Everything was a spirit or force and the powerful used the spiritual to do horrendous things. Pre-modernity got many things wrong but it grounded truth in an eternal, spiritual universe. It gave sure answers to the big questions even if it did it at the expense (often but not always) of human dignity.

The modern era brought logic, science and it demystified the world. There weren’t spirits everywhere but atoms and gravity. It was also the rise of individualism, rationalism, and capitalism. And eventually science and rationality usurped truth as a reality and knowledge needed to live well and instead became about observation and individual autonomy. But at some point in the 19th century and surely by the early 20th century, truth as objective reality and a rationalistic endeavor just wasn’t answering the big questions. And this was mostly because our progress in science, rationalism and individual determination had shown (supposedly) that there was no god and we were an accident of accidents and our existence is just a whiff in cosmic time. For all the good of this era (in which we still live), it killed humanity’s eternal soul.

From there postmodernity was born in the quest for truth. Science, rationalism, naturalism and capitalism gave us freedom and a better quality of life but left the big questions unanswered in any compelling way. If god is dead, it must be that each person must answer these questions on her own if it is even worth trying. Truth is relative and unknown. And what might be true for you, might not be true for others. Subjective truth was embraced on a culturally wide scale. If you want to see philosophy in action, try and talk about moral absolutes with a teenager. You might be shocked by what you hear. The results have been catastrophic. There is something in humanity that is driven to find the answers to these questions and if there are no real answers, the only reality is suffering, pain and impending annihilation.

Religion used to give us seemingly good answers, then it was science and rationalism, and then subjectivity. But when these didn’t work, we still kept hunting for the answers. It is as if the questions of existence, meaning and our future is written in the depths of our souls. They demand answers. And so out of profound need, we began to find comfort and grounding by joining groups of those who share a similar truth as we embrace. Gay, straight, conservative, Marxist, atheist, religious, transgender, and the list goes on and on. If you want to understand the current political and ideological groups that permeate culture, you must understand that they are our current answers to the big questions of life. But now the game has changed. Culture has told us that we must make up truth for ourselves. Truth is found not in its universal objectivity but where I can find some comfort, happiness and protection from the winds of nihilism. Ideological groups are the new religion. Here, truth has become synonymous to gaining power for my group, being free to paint truth/reality as I see fit, getting as much happiness as I can grasp in my mortal hands, and protecting myself from other groups who might hurt me or seek to impose their truths on me. The goal is to be among friends like me, enjoying the few decades on this speck of dirt before we are extinguished forever. Hopefully forgetting what we have been told that nothing matters at all except what our imaginations can project as meaning.

This is the best humanity has collectively done in finding truth, in answering the big questions of life.

Depressed yet?


But in the midst of all of this stands Jesus and his truth.

He said things like,
come to me who are heavy burden and I’ll give you rest.

I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Know the truth and it will set you free”.

He defines truth not as a personal journey of self discovery or measurements about the objective world, or a cultural invention but truth for Jesus is this: the knowledge that the human person needs that enables him or her to flourish in human life; it is the truth that enables humanity to navigate the physical world, our time in it and prepares us for life beyond physical death. Truth is the good and purpose-filled life.

It must be stated that His truth is at the center of every serious quest to answer the big questions whether the inquirers hate him or love him. They all know that though Jesus has been relegated to death and comfort, he spoke much more about this life than anything else. Every philosopher, theologian and thinker in western culture for 2000 years has had to reckon with the words, life and worldview of Jesus. He stands in brilliance because he, the man from Galilee is responsible, more than any other, for the framework of truth that has made our civilization possible.

And he says plainly that his truth is testable. He says we can follow him and experience the very life he had. Trust him, follow him and you will find his truth causing your life to flourish just like he said. The New Testament makes clear that the truth of Jesus can be applied right now and you can see results right now. This enables anyone who is a serious inquirer to see whether Jesus has truth or not.

So from Jesus’ point of view, his truth is the reality that I must know and live to do well in this world and the next.


So here are some working principles that I am seeking to live by as I seek the truth that Jesus offers.

— I define truth as the knowledge I need to experientially live the answers to the big questions of life. I know I am living in truth when my life works, I am experienced as good by others and I find satisfaction in my particular life situation. It must work in real life or I haven’t found the truth.

—Truth can be known and it is essential to be known for human flourishing.

—Jesus asserts his truth as the best information on living life and the best answers for the big questions of existence. This necessarily means other truths are less true than his truth.

—I trust Jesus and trust him as the Lord of truth.

—The Bible is where his truth is found.

—I ought to work hard to know HIS truth and apply it.

—I am a pastor so I am to help others discern the truth that will help them flourish.

—This necessitates that I engage others’ truths to discern what is really true for the flourishing of individuals, families, the church and culture.

—The truth of Jesus and the character of Jesus are inseparable. I must share Jesus’ truth in the way he himself shared it. If I do not, then I am revealing that I don’t, yet, fully know the truth he taught.**


Notice that I intentionally reject a group identity schema that pits groups against one another for the sake of power. It is not about idealogical groups that decide who is in and who is out. Truth is not a commodity of power. It isn’t about winning in some political or cultural sense. It is all about helping people find their way in this life and the next.

It also rejects the postmodern assertion that truth is unknowable. I hear this all the time mostly from compassionate but mistaken Christians. If truth is knowledge needed for human flourishing provided by Jesus, then it can be known and we must find it for the sake of our lives and the world.

Finally, this asserts that truth is much more than what can be seen, measured, categorized and observed. For all the good that such knowledge might produce, it cannot help in answering the biggest questions of human existence. If Jesus is right, truth is rooted in his father’s kingdom.

In these principles I embrace the way of Jesus: I am part of a kingdom community of ragtag nobodies bounded not by race, education, economics, moral strength or politics but instead by the crucified and risen Lord. We are following him and learning to live life in the way he intends. He says that such a life is embracing a cruciform life in hope of spectacular resurrection… it is the way to find out personally and collectively the answers to the deepest questions of existence.

We live such a journey humbly because his truth isn’t truth that merely make us right in arguments but his truth is a gift that truly set us free. It enables us to truly live. We aren’t playing the game of ideologies. We are living a life and helping others to do the same.

But we boldly proclaim his truth. Believing in the depths of our being from experience and what he revealed that his truth is the only truth that can help us flourish as human persons and prepare us for our destinies in the eternal cosmos.

In this kingdom all are welcome. He loves everyone and will start with them wherever they are at. This is what he preached and practiced. He is patient, kind and generous in his love. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to prove he is right. For that I am thankful. But every journey with him is one into truth, reality and human flourishing. His truth is lovingly severe and exacting. It will root out all untruth from our existence or we can’t live his truth. He loves everyone but you can’t know the truth, you can’t know him, until the brightness of reality invades every part of life. And so he says, “follow me” …. “come and die”, “lose your life so that you might find it.”

Sounds like the truth to me.