The issue of divorce and remarriage is a complex one that has been debated extensively among Christian scholars. There are generally two main views on divorce and remarriage – the conservative view which only permits divorce in cases of adultery or abandonment, and the more liberal view which permits divorce and remarriage in other cases as well. This article will focus on explaining the conservative perspective on whether abandonment or desertion constitutes valid grounds for divorce and remarriage.
What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage?
To understand the conservative position on abandonment and divorce, it is helpful to first review what the Bible teaches about divorce overall. There are several key passages that directly address divorce:
- Matthew 5:31-32 – Jesus says “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This implies divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery.
- Matthew 19:3-9 – When asked about divorce, Jesus replied “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” This again specifies adultery as the only grounds for divorce.
- Mark 10:2-12 – Jesus repeats the same teaching, permitting divorce only in cases of adultery.
- 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 – Paul says to believers who are married, “the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband).” This implies separation/divorce should be avoided if possible.
- Romans 7:2-3 – Paul writes “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.” This implies remarriage while one’s spouse is still living is adultery.
Taken together, these passages suggest divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery, and remarriage after divorce generally constitutes adultery, except potentially in cases of adultery.
What is the conservative view on abandonment/desertion and divorce?
Based on these biblical principles, the conservative Christian position holds that the only legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage are:
- Adultery – Cheating on one’s spouse is considered valid grounds for divorce by most Christians.
- Abandonment or desertion – When one spouse completely abandons the marriage, never intending to return, most conservatives hold this constitutes legitimate grounds for the abandoned spouse to pursue divorce and potential remarriage.
Regarding abandonment/desertion, important considerations include:
- The abandonment must be complete – There must be a complete end of cohabitation and severing of the marital bond by the abandoning spouse’s own choice and actions.
- The abandoning spouse left willfully – They made a willful choice to leave and end the marriage, not a separation by mutual consent or for other reasons like work, etc.
- The abandonment must have lasted for a substantial duration – It cannot be simply a short separation, but a true ending of the marriage by one spouse’s willful choice.
- The abandoned spouse should make reasonable efforts at reconciliation – Before pursuing divorce, the abandoned spouse should make genuine, patient efforts to reconcile, unless the abandoning spouse makes clear they have permanently abandoned the marriage.
- The abandonment placed the abandoned spouse in a state of being unmarried – The complete severing of the marital bond leaves the abandoned spouse effectively single again, granting them the right to divorce and potential remarriage.
The principle behind this is that the abandoning spouse has already broken the marriage covenant through their willful desertion, thus freeing the abandoned spouse from the marital bond (1 Corinthians 7:15). The abandoned individual is no longer obligated to remain single and celibate the rest of their life after being deserted in that manner.
Key biblical examples of abandonment
There are several biblical examples that help illustrate situations where conservatives would consider abandonment legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage:
- 1 Corinthians 7:10-16 – Paul addresses believers whose unbelieving spouses have left the marriage. He says if the unbeliever leaves, the believer “is not enslaved” and should let the abandoning spouse leave. The word “not enslaved” implies freedom to remarry.
- Exodus 21:10-11 – Regulations for divorce among Israelites state a man must continue to provide food, clothing and marital rights to his wife. If he fails to do this, “then she shall go out free, without payment of money.” The principle of broken marital obligations freeing a spouse is established here.
- Jeremiah 3:6-8 – God says Israel’s idolatry was like a wife leaving her husband. Rather than remain single forever, God divorces Israel for “her adulteries,” implying justified divorce after abandonment.
- Hosea 2 – Hosea divorces his unfaithful wife Gomer, who abandoned him and their children. Yet he later remarries her, highlighting God’s heart of reconciliation and redemption even after divorce.
These examples indicate that willful, long-term abandonment was considered grounds for justified divorce and remarriage, both among God’s people in the Old Testament and under the New Covenant.
Responding to key arguments against abandonment as grounds for divorce
Some argue the conservative position on abandonment/desertion is unbiblical or too permissive. Here are responses to some key counterarguments:
- Jesus and Paul only permitted divorce for adultery – This is debated. Many believe their teachings imply immorality includes behaviors like abandonment that fundamentally betray the marriage covenant.
- We should reconcile rather than divorce – Conservatives agree reconciliation should be pursued first. But if the abandoning spouse is unwilling and the separation remains permanent, the abandoned individual is not obligated to stay single indefinitely against their will.
- Marriage vows are unconditional – But one spouse abandoning the marriage already breaks the marital covenant. And God himself divorced Israel for her “adulteries” (Jeremiah 3:8). The principle of covenant betrayal permitting divorce is biblical.
- No divorce ensures people take marriage more seriously – But a spouse can still abandon a marriage regardless of restrictions on divorce. Forbidding remarriage after abandonment penalizes the faithful spouse.
- God hates divorce in Malachi 2 – Yes, but Scripture permits divorce in some situations. God himself divorced Israel. He allows divorce in cases where one spouse has already marred the marriage through infidelity or abandonment.
Overall, there are reasonable biblical grounds to consider abandonment legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage when reconciliation attempts have failed and the abandonment proves permanent.
Pastoral considerations in situations of abandonment
For pastors and church leaders, some important considerations in situations of abandonment include:
- Have patience and encourage reconciliation first, if possible. Work to restore the marriage before releasing the abandoned spouse.
- Make sure the abandonment is complete and permanent. Temporary separations to pursue counseling or for other reasons may not constitute true abandonment permitting divorce.
- Consider pastoral counseling or support groups for the abandoned spouse, especially if they seem quick to give up on reconciliation.
- Remind the abandoned spouse of God’s heart to forgive and restore broken relationships.
- Consider a season of singleness and healing before any remarriage, even if grounds for remarriage exist.
- Approach situations gently rather than judgmentally, extending grace and looking for redemption.
- Act as an agent of truth and reconciliation rather than quickly enabling divorce. Yet realize divorce may be permitted if the abandoning spouse remains unrepentant.
Walking through the abandonment process requires great wisdom, compassion, patience and dependence on God’s guidance to pastor people faithfully.
The conservative Christian position holds that willful, long-term abandonment of a marriage constitutes permissible grounds for divorce for the abandoned spouse if reconciliation attempts fail. This view holds there are two biblically valid cases for divorce – adultery and abandonment. If the abandoning spouse severs the marital bond completely through permanent desertion of their own free will, the abandoned individual is released from the marriage and “not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15). Faithful efforts at reconciliation should be made first. But if the abandoning spouse remains unwilling to restore the marriage, most conservatives hold the abandoned person has grounds to pursue divorce and potential remarriage. God hates divorce. Yet in some tragic cases of unrepentant infidelity or desertion, God permits divorce as a just and ethical option according to Scripture.