Does a person married to a divorcée need to divorce her if he becomes a believer?

Q. I have a question on marriage and divorce. I am married to a divorcée and I understand that we are both adulterers because of this situation. I also understand that we should repent and legally separate. After separating, would I then, having never been married before, be biblically free to marry another believer as my covenant wife? Thank you in advance for your kind help and I would appreciate any guidance and supporting verses in in order to bring clarity.

I have to read between the lines a bit in order to understand your situation, but it sounds to me as if you have now become a believer after already being married to a woman who was previously married and then divorced, and that she has not yet become a believer herself. You would like to be married to a fellow believer as a “covenant wife.” It also sounds to me as if you are reflecting on biblical statements such as, “Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

My guidance would be that you shouldn’t make any decision, let alone such an important decision, based on a single verse of Scripture. Instead, you should seek to know the “whole counsel of God” by looking at all of the places in the Bible that might address your situation, and you should compare what they say, in order to find a wise way forward.

I think the Scripture passage that applies most directly to your situation, if I’ve understood it correctly, is Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians to people who have become believers after already being married, whose spouses are not yet believers. Here’s what Paul writes:

If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”

What this means, basically, is that you should not seek a divorce from your wife, because your influence on her as her husband may well lead her to become a believer herself. If you have children, this will benefit them as well. However, if she wants to be divorced from you, particularly if that’s because she doesn’t want to be married to you any more now that you are a Christian, then you should consent to the divorce.

The fact that your wife was divorced before you married her does not require you to divorce her now. In this same place in 1 Corinthians, Paul generalizes his counsel about divorce to apply to all situations in life. He says, “Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.” In effect, the clock re-starts when you become a believer. God calls you to live out your new faith starting right in the situation you were in when you came to faith. “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” So not only don’t you need to be governed by your own past life, you and your wife don’t need to be governed by her past life either. A new start for you can be a new start for her as well.

It’s clear from Scripture that God does not like divorce, and so the Bible says many things to discourage divorce, such as the warning that marrying a divorced person can amount to adultery. (This is especially true if someone gets divorced in order to  marry someone else.) But the reason God doesn’t like divorce is that God wants to support and sustain healthy marriages. Though I don’t know your situation first-hand, I’d encourage you to envision how your present marriage can be transformed by the grace of God into a healthy, life-giving relationship for you and your wife. I can’t think of anything that would commend Christ to her more.

One final thought is that if you did divorce your wife, then any woman who married you would be marrying a man who was divorced and, to follow the narrow logic of the single verse we started with, she would be committing adultery and need to divorce you. On the other hand, if the clock could re-start for you if you divorced your current wife, then why couldn’t the clock actually re-start for you, and for her, at the point where you became a believer? So think about your present situation as one in which “the new has come” and you have the freedom to invest in your marriage as one that may ultimately become the covenant partnership you’re hoping for.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Does a person married to a divorcée need to divorce her if he becomes a believer?”

  1. Regarding the claim that marrying someone who is divorced means one is an adulterer, this is false. It is an example of taking text out of context with the result being legalism and bondage. To see this, one should study the works of David Instone-Brewer on this, especially his scholarly Divorce and Remarriage: The Social and Literary Context (in the 1st Century).

    I can give a summary. In Matt 19:3 Jesus is asked whether he agrees with Hillel or Shammai (2 schools of Pharisees) on Hillel’s claim that there is something called an “Any Matter” divorce found in what we call Deu 24:1, while Shammai says there is not. (All this background info is found in the Jewish Mishnah.)

    Jesus responds to correct some other misinterpretations of Torah made by the Pharisees before finally responding in Mat 19:9 with hyperbole that if someone did get a Hillel “Any Matter” divorce, then the divorce is invalid and therefore the couple is still married, so any subsequent marriage invalid and adulterous. However, this can be very hard to figure out without knowing the Mishnah. It is all in DIB’s books or his website, so check there if you want to know more.

    1. It’s a very good point that Jesus made his comment that “anyone who divorces his wife . . . and marries another woman commits adultery” in the context of a question about whether a man could divorce his wife “for any reason”? The most logical inference is that Jesus’ comment means that a man who divorces his wife for “just any reason” does not have a valid divorce and so commits adultery if he remarries.

  2. Once we receive Christ into our life, repent of our sins and turn away from them, we will be a new creation; and the best of all is that God will not only forgive us but He will also forget! Unconditional love! May we be able to show unconditional love in our lives. Blessings, Elfriede

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