What Does the Bible Really Say About Divorce? A Family Law Mediator’s Look at “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church”

by Jeremy Masys, Esq.

As a churchgoer and mediator/attorney working in divorce law, I can tell you the most common ongoing conversation I hear among my family law colleagues is about what the Bible actually says about divorce and remarriage. 

Yes, I am 100% kidding. I have never heard this conversation be brought up once among family law attorneys or mediators. I’m sure it’s happened at least once when I wasn’t in earshot, and I’m also sure the conversation is rare.

On the one hand, this makes sense. It’s not the job of a mediator or attorney to tell you whether you should get divorced, much less whether your doing so is in line with the will of the Almighty. It’s also the case that in a big coastal city like Los Angeles, the proportion of people considering how Biblical principles should affect their decision making isn’t as high as it might be in other parts of the country or in bygone eras. And by the time a situation comes in front of an attorney and/or mediator, the decision has often already been made. Finally, in our now half-century-old regime of no-fault divorce in California (signed into law by one Governor Ronald Reagan on January 1, 1970), if one spouse wants a divorce, the law grants the divorce, regardless of whatever decision the other spouse might have made on the issue.   

On the other hand, for a perhaps shrinking but still significant portion of the population, understanding what the Bible actually does say about the grounds for divorce (and for remarriage after a divorce) is an enormously important and relevant issue. It can mean the difference between staying in a toxic, unhealthy, and even dangerous relationship out of a misunderstanding of religious obligation and moving forward to a new chapter of restoration and resurrection (conversely, it can also mean understanding that pursuing a divorce to escape what could be temporary emotional discomfort may not serve you or your spouse spiritually or practically in the long run). 

Odds are that, if you’ve read this far, you’re willing to at least entertain the notion that the Bible does have something meaningful to say about divorce and remarriage, whether as a person contemplating divorce or as a friend, family member, pastor, spiritual advisor, therapist, or legal advisor to someone who is. I would also hazard to say that odds are you are not exactly sure what that something meaningful exactly is. 

I’ve befriended some extremely knowledgeable and well-educated pastors and Christian therapists over the years (and even provided legal counsel to some), and, despite their education, their collective answers to the question of what the Bible says about divorce or remarriage are neither anything approaching consistent nor super helpful. You’ve probably experienced the same (and if you feel confused by what your pastor really thinks about divorce, understand that he or she may be confused as well). And with such controversial theological questions, it seems that people often conclude that the most severe, strict interpretation of Biblical statements on divorce must be the correct one, and that all others are wishy-washy modern heresies intended to tell people what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear. 

Enter “Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities,” a 2003 book authored by Rev. Dr. David Instone-Brewer, a former Baptist minister and research fellow at Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. In short, not a celebrity pastor’s ghostwritten hot takes, but rather a guy who knows his Greek from his Aramaic. I was first referred to this book by a former client, and the sound of it conjured up an impenetrable 600-page tome in the style of NT Wright’s non-mass-market treatises, better suited for treating insomnia than providing practical guidance. 

When I finally ordered it off Amazon and read it, though, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a 212-page user-friendly manual that appears directed at pastors, but presented in a practical and straightforward style that anyone can easily digest and appreciate. Honestly, it was a page-turner in its clear presentation of principles that, as far as I can tell, have been mostly ignored, misunderstood, or at least not discussed openly by the church (I’m guessing you’ve heard dozens of sermons about marriage, singleness, and dating and maybe close to none on divorce). 

And to the extent you have heard divorce openly spoken about by a religious authority, it’s probably better than 50/50 odds that you came away with the understanding that divorce is allowable only in cases of adultery and perhaps abandonment. Meaning – and taking this to the logical extreme – if your spouse had a drunken one-night stand once over the course of a thirty-year marriage, you can leave, but if he’s been unsuccessfully trying to murder you every day for the last year but not cheating on you or leaving, you have to stick by him until he succeeds or gives up. 

Instone-Brewer presents a very different Biblical view on divorce, informed by his deep research into the Old Testament, Rabbinic law, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Church history. I won’t try to encapsulate the entire message of the book as a substitute for reading said book, but the author’s core thesis is that Old Testament law allowed for divorce when the marriage vows were broken and the culpable breaker of the vows is unwilling to rectify the situation when given time and opportunity to do so, and the New Testament does not nullify those principles. And these vows go beyond just sexual fidelity – indeed they include the provision of emotional and material support. As Instone-Brewer puts it, “Divorce is never good, but sometimes it is the only way to end the evil of a broken marriage.” 

Over the course of the book, Instone-Brewer sets forth seven Biblical principles on divorce and remarriage: 

“1. Marriage is a lifetime contract between two partners, and marriage vows are the stipulations of this contract.

2. Both partners vow to provide material support and physical affection and to be sexually faithful to each other.

3. If one partner breaks a marriage vow, the other has the right to decide either to end the marriage with a divorce or to carry on.

4. Divorce should take place only if vows have been broken, and it is always sinful to break those vows.

5. Jesus adds the caveat that we should forgive an erring partner unless they break their vows continuously or without repentance.

6. Pauls adds the caveat that if a divorce takes place without citing broken vows, remarriage to another is allowed only if reconciliation is impossible.

7. The overriding principle in all these is that the wronged partner must be able to choose. They must be able to decide whether to regard the marriage contract as broken or whether to persevere with it.” 

But wait, you say, that’s not what I’ve heard in church all these years (in the rare times the topic is raised)! Isn’t this just a new feel-good theology departing from orthodox teaching? To the contrary, Instone-Brewer argues this was the original theology of the Church, and presents a compelling historical lesson on why it has been in disfavor or simply unknown for all this time. 

Of course, Instone-Brewer’s interpretation is not without its detractors – influential theologian John Piper’s position is that all remarriage after a divorce should be prohibited in the Church while both spouses are alive (Piper’s organization has also asserted that Marvel’s Captain Marvel is problematic because it presents a woman saving men from danger rather than being protected and cherished by men, so there’s that). On the other hand, the Tim Keller-founded Gospel Coalition reviewed Instone-Brewer’s book and deemed it “essential reading for anyone concerned to develop a biblical understanding of divorce and remarriage…the author presents the fruits of many years of research in a clear, gripping and enjoyable way.”

In the end, for me, I return to where I started with this, which is that as a mediator and attorney, it is not my place to tell anyone how to proceed with the life-changing decision to pursue a divorce, and, although I did double-major in Religion and English in undergrad some 20-odd years ago, my Biblical knowledge is far less than Instone-Brewer’s, Keller’s, or Piper’s, so I am not here to say who is right and who is wrong. But I am keenly sensitive to the importance of the issues for clients and their friends, pastors, therapists, and family members, and my hope is that Instone-Brewer’s book can provide insight and guidance on very difficult questions. 

Contact a Los Angeles Divorce Mediator With Further Questions 

At the Mediation and Law Offices of Jeremy Masys, I serve as a mediator between divorcing spouses and attorney to those in mediation, negotiation and litigation. If you have any questions, please contact me at jeremymasyslaw@gmail.com.