by John Holbrook Jr.
A Biblical View, posted March 27, 2017
I wrote this essay many years ago. Its first draft was produced for myself, because I wanted a summary, but still comprehensive expression of the biblical view of this topic. In it I relied heavily on Meredith Kline’s view of the covenant and Ray Sutton’s Second Chance, which is simply the best book on the topic which I have found. Its second draft was produced as my contribution to a discussion of the topic by a ministry committee which had been given the task of formulating a policy on the topic. The latter appears below with minor amendments.
A Biblical covenant has five parts: (1) Transcendence. God is the Sovereign Creator, and so He is the originator of all covenants. (2) Hierarchy. God establishes authorities over us in our covenants with him. (3) Ethics. God demands faithfulness, teaching a cause and effect relationship between a person’s obedience to Him and what happens in this person’s life. (4) Sanctions. The covenant is entered by receiving and making promises under the penalty of death for breaking these promises. (5) Continuity. Faithfulness to the covenant is rewarded with bequeathal and inheritance – i.e. the passing of property from one generation to the next.
The nature of a covenant can be seen in the first covenant – sometimes called the Edenic covenant. As God spoke each aspect of the world into existence, he called it good. God created light or energy and then called it good (Genesis 1:4). God created the dry land and then called it good (Genesis 1:10). God created the flora and then called it good (Genesis 1:12). God created the sun, moon, and stars and then called them good (Genesis 1:18). God created the fish and the fowl and then called them good (Genesis 1:21). God created the animals and then called them good (Genesis 1:25). Finally God created Adam and Eve, gave them responsibility for having children and for subduing and cultivating the earth, and then called everything he had made very good (Genesis 1:31). In each case, there is a creative act and then a judgment by God giving that act a status. God also issued a prohibition against eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and established the sanction for doing so – death (Genesis 2:17). When Adam ate the fruit, he broke the Edenic covenant. According to God’s judgment, which he had expressed prior to Adam’s disobedience, Adam was now covenantally dead – not physically dead, for the corruption that entered the world at that moment took years to kill him. Note that God communicated the prohibition and the sanction to Adam, and Adam’s disobedience, not Eve’s, constituted the fall – “…by one man’s offence death reigned….by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation….by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners…” (KJV Romans 5:17-19).
A covenant is terminated or killed by any offense for which the biblical penalty is death. These offenses can be grouped according to the commandments they break: Idolatry (Deuteronomy 13:10) and blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11-23) break the first and second commandments. Witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10,11) and false prophesy (Deuteronomy 18:20-22) break the third commandment. Sabbath-breaking (Exodus 31:13-17), including preventing a spouse from worshipping God, breaks the fourth commandment. Incorrigibility toward parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) breaks the fifth commandment. Murder (Genesis 9:6), including abortion or infant sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), physical abuse, physical or sexual desertion, and the stubborn failure of a father to provide for his family, breaks the sixth commandment. The sexual sins of adultery (Leviticus 20:10), incest (Leviticus 18:11), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27), homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, 29), and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23) break the seventh commandment. Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16) breaks the eighth commandment. Life-threatening perjury (Leviticus 19:19-20) and contempt of court (Deuteronomy 17:8-12) break the ninth commandment. The breaking of the tenth commandment, of course, can lead to all of the above offenses.
Covental death may involve physical death, but not necessarily. The nature of covenantal death can be seen in what happened in the Garden. God said to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (KJV Genesis 2:16-17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree. On that day, they died covenantally – “…as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (KJV Romans 5:12).
The covenant is the key to understanding marriage. Paul describes marriage in terms of the New Covenant between God and His church.. Paul says, “…Christ is the head of the church…..as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it..” (KJV Ephesians 5:22-25).
God even identifies marriage as a covenant. “…the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth,…she [is] thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant” (KJV Malachi 2:14).
God created the first marital covenant, and it is the model for all subsequent marital covenants. After creating Adam, the first man, “…the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him….And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh ‘ (KJV Gen 2:18-24). Note the following: God declared that Adam’s being alone was not good. This statement established several things: Adam needed a “help meet,” Adam’s having a “help meet” would be good, and God intended Eve to be a “help meet” to Adam. God then created Eve for Adam – this order and purpose of Eve’s creation was later stressed by Paul, who wrote, “…the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Corinthians 11:8-9). At this point, the family consisted of God-the-Father, Adam the first-born son, and Eve the daughter. Adam and Eve were brother and sister. Then the Father gave his daughter to his son to be his son’s wife. Adam, in accepting Eve as his wife, spoke to her Father, not to Eve. He declared his familial independence from his Father, and he acknowledged his responsibility for treating Eve as his own body (loving her, providing for her, and protecting her) and keeping the union together. Eve said nothing. Thus there are three key players in the marital covenant: God the creator, the bride’s father, and the groom.
God creates each individual marriage. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6).
God presents the relationship between himself and his people as the model for the proper relationship between husband and wife. Paul wrote, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church” (KJV Ephesians 5:22-29). Likewise Peter wrote, “…ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing” (KJV 1 Peter 3:1-9). Thus husbands are admonished to treat their wives as the Lord treats His church, as their own bodies, loving them, providing for them, and protecting them, and wives are admonished to honor and submit to their husbands as unto the Lord.
God expects the husband to be a covering for his wife. God gives a husband/father both authority over the women in his household and responsible for their protection. The operation of this principle can be seen in God’s view of vows. God views a man’s vow in the following terms: “If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (KJV Numbers 30:2). God views a woman’s vows very differently, however. When she is young and unmarried, she lives under the covering of her father. “If a woman also vow a vow unto the LORD, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; And her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the LORD shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her” (KJV Numbers 30:3-5). When she is older and married, however, she lives under the covering of her husband. “And if she had at all an husband, when she vowed, or uttered ought out of her lips, wherewith she bound her soul; And her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it: then her vows shall stand, and her bonds wherewith she bound her soul shall stand. But if her husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, wherewith she bound her soul, of none effect: and the LORD shall forgive her” (KJV Numbers 30:6-8). Thus a man has a duty, not only to fulfill his own vows, but also to protect his wife and daughters from foolish vows or commitments that they make on their own. So that there can be no misunderstanding regarding the source of these determinations, Numbers 30 ends with this verse: “These are the statutes, which the LORD commanded Moses, between a man and his wife, between the father and his daughter, being yet in her youth in her father’s house” (KJV Numbers 30:16).
God commands believers to marry other believers. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (KJV 2 Corinthians 6:14-16).
The covenant is the key to understanding divorce. When the God-to-man covenant is violated, God begins a process called a covenantal lawsuit. He sends His messengers or witnesses of the covenant to prosecute the offending party. If the guilty party does not repent, then He divorces the offender. As in the case of the Laodicean church, Jesus says to them that He is the witness bringing a lawsuit and He will dissolve His covenant with them if they do not repent: “And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” (KJV Revelation 3:14-16). The Laodicean church must not have repented, for it died.
God specifies the only basis for dissolving a marriage: uncleanness or fornication by husband or wife. Moses said, “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house” (KJV Deuteronomy 24:1). Here, the wife’s uncleanness broke the covenant., and the husband may proceed to divorce her. Jesus said, “…I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (KJV Matthew 5:32). Here, in the absence of the wife’s fornication, the covenant remains unbroken, and any attempt by the husband to divorce her is invalid.
Uncleanness and fornication are general terms that refer to capital offenses – i.e. offenses for which the penalty is death. Although uncleanness and fornication connate sexual licentiousness of various sorts, they are also used to cover abhorrent behavior in general, such as murmuring against God (Numbers 14:33), arrogance (Jeremiah 2:20), idolatry (Jeremiah 3:9; Hosea 5:4, 9:1), and witchcraft (2 Kings 9:22). Thus they must be understood in Deuteronomy 24:1 and Matthew 5:32 to refer to the capital offenses of the Bible.
Capital offenses kill the marriage covenant. Any offense for which the biblical penalty is death terminates the marriage covenant, whether or not the death-penalty is actually applied. Where the death-penalty is properly applied, physical death results, and divorce is unnecessary. Where the death-penalty is not properly applied, however, divorce is permissible as a means of freeing the innocent party from being yoked to wickedness.
If a person becomes a believer after marrying an unbelieving spouse, he may not divorce his spouse if the spouse chooses to stay in the marriage. If the spouse chooses to depart, however, then the believer is free to divorce the first spouse and marry another. “…to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife? But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk…” (KJV 1 Corinthians 7:12-17).
If a believer’s spouse commits a capital offense, he is probably obliged to try to restore the spouse before resorting to divorce. God has restored believers through the work of his son. “…if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation…” (KJV 2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Believers must be restorers too. “…he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (KJV James 5:20).
If a believer was divorced from a first spouse, and neither spouse married another, he may remarry the first spouse.
If a believer was divorced from a first spouse, and one of the two married another and then was freed from the other by death or divorce, he may not remarry the first spouse. “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, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD,…” (NKJ Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
Remarriage for the Innocent
If a believer was divorced from a first spouse over a capital offense committed by the spouse, the divorce was valid, and he may marry another. The marriage covenant was killed by the capital offense committed by the guilty spouse. In God sight, the guilty spouse is now dead, and the innocent spouse is now a widow or a widower. Widows and widowers are free to remarry. Indeed, Paul encouraged at least the young widows to remarry. “…I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (NKJ 1 Tim 5:14).
If a believer was divorced from a first spouse over anything other than a capital offense, however, the divorce was invalid, and he may not marry another unless the first spouse died or married another. The marriage covenant has not been killed. The spouses may be separated, but they are still married in God’s sight.
Remarriage for the Guilty
If a person was divorced from a first spouse over a capital offense committed by him before becoming a believer, he may marry another after becoming a believer. At conversion, a person dies in his or her old, sinful nature and is born in a new nature, wholly forgiven of all previous transgressions. “…if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (KJV 2 Corinthians 5:17).
If a person was divorced from a first spouse over a capital offense committed by him after becoming a believer, however, he may marry another only if he repents of his offense, makes restitution to his former spouse, and there are no lasting consequences that would be destructive to the second spouse. Such lasting consequences would be his carrying a fatal, incurable, sexually transmitted disease or alimony payments to his first wife that would prevent him from supporting a new family.
© 2016 John Holbrook Jr.
 Sutton, Ray, Second Chance – Biblical Principles of Divorce and Remarriage, Dominion Press, Fort Worth, TX, 1988.