Mercy, Not Sacrifice: The Bible On Divorce and Remarriage

But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Matt. 12:7


The Bible contains many passages that provide information to how we might answer the following questions:

  • Can a married couple get divorced at all?
  • What are the grounds for a valid divorce?
  • Can a divorced person get remarried?

How you answer these questions will, most likely, place you in one of four camps:

  1. Divorce is not even possible. (“Marriage permanence.”) Therefore, all divorce is sinful. Remarriage is sinful unless one of the spouses dies.
    • Held by Catholics and a small number of Protestants, including David Pawson.
  2. Divorce is possible but is always sinful. Remarriage is sinful unless one of the spouses dies.
    • Held by a small number of Protestants, including John Piper.
  3. Divorce is possible and isn’t always sinful, but remarriage is sinful unless one of the spouses dies.
    • I do not have much information on how many theologians hold to this position.
  4. Divorce is possible and isn’t always sinful. Remarriage is not sinful as long as the divorce was valid.
    • This is the most common position within Protestantism, though disagreements arise over what qualifies as a valid divorce.

In this paper, I will present my case for the following:

  • Any sin, if severe enough, can qualify as unfaithfulness and, therefore, can justify a divorce.
  • As long as the divorce is valid, both spouses may remarry.

Is divorce possible?

  • Claim: The concept of divorce does not even exist in scripture.
    • I am not sure how common this argument is, but I have seen it argued for here. The point is merely a semantic one: the concept of “putting away” does exist, and all of the authors and characters in these books and stories knew exactly what this “putting away” entailed, so quibbling over whether the “putting away” is called “divorce”, “dissolution”, “annulment”, or anything else is arbitrary.
  • Claim: Marriage is a vow, and vows are unbreakable (ontologically indissoluble).
    • Even sacred vows can be broken under certain circumstances. This is no different from any of God’s laws having exceptions, and we see countless unstated exceptions to God’s laws under the principle of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Indeed, the fact that God divorced Israel in Jeremiah 3:8 and then reconciles with her in 3:12 is a double whammy to this position because not only does a divorce happen but also God breaks Deut. 24:1-4 in that he remarries her again.
  • Claim: Since divorce is impossible, subsequent remarriages result in “serial polygamy”.
    • This is an idea perpetuated most famously by David Pawson. Perhaps the simplest refutation is John 4:18, in which Christ acknowledges that the woman the well had (past tense) five husbands, not has (present tense) five husbands. Now, I suppose one could claim that these five husbands all died, but aside from being a far-fetched idea, it doesn’t fit within the context of the passage, in which Jesus is providing an example of how this woman finds her worth in relationships rather than the Messiah.

Is divorce always sinful?

  • Claim: The verses commanding spouses to not divorce are without exception, therefore divorce is always sinful.
    • This hermeneutic is central to the no-divorce camp and sheds light on why this camp tends to be legalistic and law-oriented in general. The proponents of this view take what I call a “lowest common denominator” approach to the numerous passages in scripture on divorce: since certain passages command us not to divorce, any other passages that seem to offer exceptions to this command do not truly offer exceptions, lest scripture contradict itself. Here, for example, is how the no-divorce camp would respond to the alleged exceptions:
      • Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not describing an actual divorce but rather what could be considered an annulment (to use the Catholic term). Basically, no marriage was ended. Rather, a marriage was acknowledged to have never began in the first place. (That raises the question of why at least one of the “partners” wouldn’t be charged with fornication, but I digress.)
        • As I discussed earlier, I consider this kind of argument to be mere semantic quibbling.
      • Matthew 19:9, likewise, is not describing an actual divorce but rather the dissolution of an engagement.
        • The immediate context and the historical context disputes this.
          • The background of the debate concerned a disagreement between two sects of Pharisees (the Shammaites and the Hillelites) regarding Deut. 24:1-4. This disagreement concerned marriage, not engagement.
          • Jesus was talking about marriage, which is why he quoted Gen. 2:24. How confusing for Jesus to quote the “charter verse” of marriage and use the term “marry” repeatedly but actually be referring to engagement. Moreover, the sobering response of the disciples in verse 10 indicates that they were thinking about marriage, not merely engagement.
          • Proponents of this view will point out that Matthew 1:19-20 refers to Joseph and Mary as husband and wife despite them only being betrothed. This is interesting, no doubt, but is also corroborative evidence at best; it, by itself, does not imply that Matt. 19:1-10 concerns engagement only.
        • Southern Seminary has a excellent video featuring Thomas Schreiner that addresses this point.
      • 1 Cor. 7:15 is not describing a spouse being freed from marriage but rather freed from the obligation to sanctify their spouse.
        • As many commentators have noted, if this is Paul’s point, then he’s certainly not the addressing the big question on the mind of a divorcee. No divorcee is wondering whether they’re obligated to sanctify someone who, if we’re going to go by the no-divorce camp’s strictest interpretation of the passage, isn’t even physically present. Rather, they’re wondering whether they’re still maritally bound to that person.
          • “To say that the believer is no longer bound to force himself or herself upon an unwilling partner, would be nothing to the point. No Christian could think it possible that married life could be continued without the consent of the parties. The question, in this sense, was not worth either asking or answering.” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. III)
    • The basic problem of this position is that it rejects Christ’s own hermeneutic towards God’s law. God’s laws do have exceptions. Those exceptions are not necessarily presented when the law is presented. Moreover, those exceptions may not be listed at all. Otherwise, we have Jesus contradicting himself (the gospel passages on divorce differ) and Paul contradicting Jesus. Here are some examples unrelated to the topic of divorce:
      • “Do not bear false witness.” Exceptions:
        • Rahab hid the spies and is listed in the hall of faith (Heb. 11:31).
        • Jael deceived Sisera and is praised for it (Judges 5:24-26).
        • Tamar lied to Judah and is called “righteous” (Gen. 38:26).
        • The Hebrew/Egyptian midwives hid Moses and are blessed (Ex. 1:20).
      • Jesus gives the example of the Levitical priests profaning the Sabbath and David eating the temple showbread (Matt. 12:1-8).
      • Jesus tells us not to resist an evil person in Matt. 5:38-42. Yet, in countless places in the New Testament, Christians are called to rebuke, avoid, or even defend themselves against evil persons. Indeed, the debate regarding what exceptions apply to these verses have raged for ages. Does it apply to legal matters? Warfare? Self-defense? Abuse?
      • Romans 13 commands believers to obey the governing authorities, yet no believer denies that plain exceptions to this rule exist.
      • Hebrews 10:25 commands believers not to forsake assembly, yet no church forbids parishioners from forsaking assembly due to sickness.
    • As Jesus says in Matt. 12:7, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” This is Christ’s principle for applying God’s law. If this principle can be applied to laws as plain as, “Do not bear false witness,” why can it not also apply it to the laws surrounding divorce? This seems to be the simplest explanation for why Paul offers an exception (1 Cor. 7:15) that extends beyond the exception of sexual sin presented by Moses and Jesus. Paul does not stop there, interestingly. As Wayne Grudem notes, Paul’s use of the phrase “in such cases” indicates that he is open to additional exceptions of spousal abandonment. Does this not fit the spirit of New Covenant hermeneutics, which is that we ought to interpret God’s word in the spirit and not the letter?
  • Claim: Matt. 19:8 says that the divorced is caused by hardness of heart. Hardness of heart implies sin. Therefore, divorce is sinful.
    • This argument is a non-sequitur. The conclusion would be that divorce is caused by sin, not that divorce itself is sinful. This concept is by no means unique to divorce. Legal disputes arise out of hardness of heart. Does that mean that Christians are never allowed to raise a legal dispute with another Christian? Of course not. (Though, per 1 Cor. 6:1-11, the dispute should not be settled in a secular court.)
  • Claim: God hates divorce, according to Mal. 2:16. If God hates something then it is sinful. Therefore, divorce is sinful.
    • First, if we are to hold to the hermeneutic described in the last point, in which God’s laws are without exception, then we run into a major problem in light of the fact that God divorced Israel.
    • Second, this is likely a mistranslation. God is not actually the one doing the hating (or “not loving”). The point of the verse is this: divorcing a spouse because you despise them (allegedly due to callousness) is akin to committing violence against them. The ESV translates it better. See Mike Winger’s video on divorce and remarriage for a deep dive on this topic.

Is remarriage sinful if the former spouse is alive?

  • Claim: The exception presented in Matt. 19:9 is only concerning divorce, not remarriage.
    • Grammatically, this is untenable. Again, refer to Thomas Schreiner in the aforementioned video regarding the issues with this claim.
    • This doesn’t make sense at face value. If a person is divorced then they are no longer married and therefore cannot commit adultery, since adultery presupposes that the adulterer is married.
  • Claim: Rom. 7:2, 1 Cor. 7:11, and 1 Cor. 7:39 indicate that until a person’s former spouse has died, that person cannot remarry.
    • As discussed earlier, just because a law is given without exception at that moment does not mean that no exceptions exist. Indeed, apart from the issue of marriage, in at least two other places in 1 Corinthians 7 we see Paul contradict himself unless we apply the principle of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”:
      • Paul says in verse 9 that the unmarried ought to marry rather than burn with passion. Yet this exhortation cannot be followed if a divorced person cannot remarry.
      • Paul says in verse 20 that each person should remain as they were called, yet just one verse later he says that one ought to embrace freedom if possible: “but if you can be made free, rather use it”.
    • The context of Romans 7:2 is a discussion about the believer’s relationship with the Old Covenant, so using this passage to build a doctrine about marriage when more detailed discussions of remarriage exist elsewhere seems inappropriate.
    • 1 Cor. 7:11 is referring to a situation where a spouse wrongfully departed the marriage and the other spouse is still available. The availability is assumed on the basis of the context: a functioning marriage (which is described in prior verses) ought not to be abandoned. If the departing spouse has repented then he or she should seek to reconcile the marriage. I do not believe that this passage is speaking to situations where reconciliation is rejected or the other spouse has remarried, lest this passage become a permanent punishment for a repentant person, which is not in accordance with the grace entailed by repentance. In those cases, the moral obligation to reconcile the marriage has ended and the departing spouse is free to remarry.
    • 1 Cor. 7:39 is in the context of a passage discussing the superiority of singleness over marriage. Therefore, much like Romans 7:2, it seems inappropriate to use this passage as a prooftext concerning remarriage when Paul already offered more detailed thoughts on that topic earlier in the chapter.

What are the grounds for divorce?

Two types of sins are specifically addressed as grounds for divorce (and therefore remarriage):

  • Sexual immorality
    • Deut. 24:1 – “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, …”
    • Matt. 19:9 – “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery;”
  • Abandonment
    • 1 Cor. 7:15 – “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.”
    • 1 Tim. 5:8 – “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
    • Ex. 21:10-11 – “If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”
      • Note: This is, effectively, the Old Testament parallel to 1 Tim. 5:8.

The spirit of these grounds for divorce is unfaithfulness or dishonoring the marriage. The idea that only specific sins can possibly qualify as grounds for divorce, even if other sins could be just as damaging to the marriage, shows a dangerous overemphasis on the letter rather than the spirit. A proper application of the whole counsel of God, then, is that any sin, if damaging enough to a marriage, can qualify as marital unfaithfulness, and therefore qualify as grounds for divorce. This is seen in Jer. 3:8, where God divorces Israel: “Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce;” Obviously, Israel did not literally commit adultery. The point here is that Israel was unfaithful to God through her rebellion, which justified a divorce.

The logical conclusion of demanding that only certain sins qualify for divorce is rank Pharisaicalism. For example, imagine saying this to a spouse: “Although your spouse attempted to murder you, this doesn’t qualify as a sexual immorality. Therefore, they cannot be accused of unfaithfulness against you and you must remain married to them. God has called you to sanctify them.” Consider also if we treat 1 Cor. 7:15 as referring only to literal physical abandonment (e.g., packing up one’s bags and leaving) by a professing unbeliever. The wide range of neglect and abuse (which would also fall under the category of 1 Tim. 5:8) gets swept under the rug and the live-in spouse is exonerated.

Frequently, from the no-divorce camp, I will hear something like, “You’re not allowed to divorce, but you are allowed to separate, even indefinitely, in serious circumstances.” This has two significant problems, however:

  1. 1 Cor. 7:10-11 equates separation and divorce. This fits with Roman culture, which did not have a concept of separate-yet-married like we have today, as Pastor Mike Winger points out. If a couple were separated then they were considered divorced.
  2. If the no-divorce camp is willing to offer an exception to 1 Cor. 7:10 on the basis of “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” then why are they not willing to entertain exceptions with other laws? Is the command to not separate any less of a command than “what God has joined together, let not man separate”?

Lastly, an important note is that a spouse who refuses to hear any admonition regarding their sin can qualify as an unbeliever through the disciplinary process laid out in Matthew 18. Likewise, 1 Cor. 5:11 and 1 Tim. 5:8 teach that certain flagrant sins might cause one to immediately regard the offender as an unbeliever. In other words, even professing Christians can be regarded as unbelievers, which is why it is unwise to over-analyze 1 Cor. 7:15’s requirement that the departing spouse be an unbeliever (e.g., whether they explicitly profess unbelief). If they’ve departed from the marriage then it is quite likely that they’re acting like an unbeliever in some way.

Additional Discussion

  • Claim: God has called you to suffer in your dead or abusive marriage.
    • Have a discussion with an no-divorce, no-remarriage proponent and you are almost guaranteed to hear a comment about how those stuck in their marriages are “called to suffer”. While it is true that all Christians will suffer trials and tribulations, this point is of no use by the no-divorce, no-remarriage proponent simply because it begs the question: we are only called to suffer if we have no other option. Yet whether a spouse trapped in a bad marriage has another option is precisely the point being debated.
    • The abandoned spouse is called to peace, not suffering (1 Cor. 7:15). That is the basis for the Pauline exception and contradicts the idea that marriage is a form of sacred slavery. Insisting that an abandoned spouse be at peace with abandonment is ludicrous. Some Christians might be convinced in their own mind that they are called to endure a dead marriage for the sake of ministering to their faithless spouse. If they choose this, may God bless them. But we have no right to demand that someone minister in this way. Again, consider what Paul says a few verses later (1 Cor. 7:21): “Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.”
    • A similar sentiment is that “marriage is designed to make you holy, not to make you happy.” Aside from the questionable deontological ethics at the root of this platitude (since holiness and happiness are inseparable), the truth is that Jesus has already made you holy through his sacrifice. Your loyalty to a marriage will not make you holy.
  • Claim: The vow of marriage trumps the relationship of marriage.
    • One of the implications of the no-divorce position is that the vow of marriage is far more important than the relationship of marriage. In other words, the relationship could be dead, but as long as the vow is in place, the marriage exists as surely as ever. This creates an interesting theological problem: marriage is meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church, yet Revelation says that if a church is not faithful, she will be spit out. Herein is the great irony of the no-divorce position: rather than taking a high view of marriage, it actually takes a low view of marriage, since the essence of the marriage is not the relationship between a man and a woman but rather the mere existence of a marriage certificate.
  • Claim: In any divorce, there is a guilty party and an innocent party. The guilty party may not remarry, but the innocent party may remarry.
    • This is based on certain interpretations of Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:11.
    • As long as a divorce is valid, both parties are free and can remarry. Whether its wise of them to remarry is another matter.
    • The concept of a singular guilty party is largely a myth, anyway. In most divorces, both parties bear guilt regarding the downfall of the marriage. Matt. 19:9 and 1 Cor. 7:15 may state specific reasons for divorce, but in no way can they be used to justify the idea that only one person caused the marriage to fail.
  • Claim: A secular court cannot undo a sacred marriage. A sacred marriage can only be undone by a sacred court.
    • This misunderstands the state’s role in marriage in the first place. The state does not create a marriage or divorce. They simply recognize it for the purpose of financial and parental accountability. (If they claim to create it, rather than merely recognize it, then they are wrong, but that’s another discussion.)
    • There is no precedent in scripture that a church or the state officializes a marriage or divorce. In Deuteronomy 24:1, it is the spouse, not a priest or a magistrate, who issues the writ of divorce.
  • Claim: The principle “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7) could be abused so easily by those wanting to escape unhappy marriages.
    • Some unhappy marriages may be legitimately escaped. Each situation has to be taken on a case-by-case basis using prayer, scripture, and godly counsel.
    • This type of criticism has always been leveled against the doctrine of grace itself. Paul addressed the topic numerous times in Romans and Galatians. Peter addressed it. Simply put, yes, the wonderful reality of grace can be abused, and that risk comes with the territory. Again, whether grace is being abused needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
  • Claim: The church fathers unanimously accepted the no-divorce, no-remarriage viewpoint.
    • No, this is not correct, as Mike Winger discusses here.
    • Even if it were correct, it is interesting, but the church fathers are simply a voice in this debate, not the final word of this debate. The church fathers are not fallible, which is why they contradicted one another and sometimes even contradicted scripture.


The ideal for marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman. Yet, we do not live in the ideal, because sin happens. Sometimes, sin happens in a marriage that is so consistent or so severe that the marital relationship is deeply damaged. In this situation, spouses should pursue reconciliation if repentance is present, though even in that situation, the damage might still be too deep for one or both spouses to believe that a healthy marriage can exist between them. If reconciliation does not occur then a marriage may be dissolved. As long as this dissolution occurred for legitimate reasons, neither party is committing adultery by remarrying.

Elders should encourage and facilitate reconciliation, if possible, but also not arrogantly demand it, as though they know for certain whether a marriage can be “saved”. God does not promise to save every marriage. Ultimately, whether a spouse gave reconciliation an honest effort is between them and God. Nor will wise elders attempt to prevent divorce at all costs. Shaming people into remaining with unfaithful spouses will usually lead to a worse situation. God did not create marriage as a form of “sacred slavery”, though some elders seem to delight in foisting this notion upon hurting parishioners. This is spiritual abuse.

If a spouse has abandoned the marriage, they ought not to try to manipulate the situation so as to make their spouse look like the ‘bad guy’. Future arrangements for both spouses should be made with Christian mediators and a settlement devised. Taking the matter before secular judges is condemned by Paul: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? … Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated?” (1 Cor. 6:1,7)

As I have stated already, those who shame Christians into remaining in dead or abusive marriages are acting like Pharisees. They insist that we must read the passages on divorce and remarriage in the letter and not the spirit. They pit the words of Moses, Jesus, and Paul against one another. They demand sacrifice over mercy with their pseudo-pious proclamations that trapped spouses are called to “suffer for the Lord”. Moreover, they often apply their doctrine inconsistently: how many churches preach “no-divorce, no-remarriage” from the pulpit and yet won’t excommunicate the unrepentant “serial polygamists” sitting in their pews?

Why the delight in turning marriage into a yoke around the neck of some believers? Aside from the satisfaction that comes with controlling others, I believe that a major part of the anti-divorce sentiment within Christendom stems from the fact that we, as modern-day Western Christians obsessed with our role in a “culture ware”, are simply uncomfortable with seeing failure in our ranks. We want to be part of a TRIUMPHANT Christianity: one that flexes its muscles, tears down its enemies, and proudly plants the flag of God’s dominion on the conquered battlefield. Broken, weak, failed people can’t do that, and that scares us. We want the grown-up version of Philippians 4:13 quoted over a soccer goal: “No power of hell nor scheme of man can break down OUR marriages!”

But sometimes, we’re not champions. Sometimes, we’re failures. Can our theology of marriage handle that?