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jaThe issue of divorce and remarriage is not only a painful reality, personally and pastorally, but is also a very difficult subject exegetically. I was helped several years ago by reading Jay Adams’ Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible. Even if you end up disagreeing with his conclusions, it’s a model of biblical and logical and pastoral reasoning.

I thought it might be helpful for some readers if I reproduced his summary and checklist:


A. Marriage

1. is a divinely ordained institution
2. is the first and most fundamental institution
3. is covenantal and binding
4. is a covenant of companionship
5. is the place for true intimacy
6. is to conform to the model of Christ and His church

B. Divorce

1. always stems from sin
2. is not necessarily sinful
3. always breaks a marriage
4. is never necessary among believers
5. is legitimate on the grounds of sexual sin
6. is legitimate when an unbeliever wishes to divorce a believer
7. is forgivable when sinful

C. Remarriage

1. in general, is desirable
2. is possible for a divorced person
3. is possible for a sinfully divorced person through forgiveness
4. is possible only when all biblical obligations have been met
5. is possible only when parties are prepared for marriage


1. Are all, one, or none of the parties Christians
2. Who wants the divorce?
3. On what grounds?
4. Does this party really want a divorce, or only a change in the situation?
5. Has 1 Corinthians 6 been violated?
6. Has sexual sin been present?
7. Is there acceptable evidence for such sin or only hearsay and/or supposition?
8. Has church discipline been applied? (Matt 18)
9. If so, what was the outcome?
10. Is there repentance/forgiveness?
11. Is reconciliation required?
12. Does an unbeliever want the marriage to continue?
13. Has a former spouse remarried another?
14. Did any church fail to handle a divorce/remarriage properly?
15. If so, how? And what must be done to set this straight?
16. Is the believer in a state where the church may declare him/her free from all obligations and,
therefore, free to remarry?
17. If not, what more needs to be done to bring about this condition?

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19 thoughts on “A Summary and Questions to Ask on Divorce and Remarriage”

  1. Thanks to Justin Taylor and to TGC for posting this summary. Jay Adams’s treatment of this difficult and painful issue has been very helpful to me, both personally and pastorally.

  2. David says:

    Justin, does your pastor or do your friends who pastor and also follow these conclusions conduct remarriages in your/their churches?

    I ask because I wonder how many times these exegetical treatments are given nods to and used as justification for admitting remarried individuals into fellowship after the fact, but I personally do not know of many pastors with high views of scripture who also feel at peace conducting the remarriages themselves. Could you point me in a helpful direction on this one, or maybe a resource or two that deal with this issue for the pastor (dealing with practical handling of it from a perspective that takes into account denominational constitution matters as well as for the local, particular flock?

    Also, do you know of any good resources that provide examples, illustrating how church discipline has been applied in these matters to real individuals, with testimonies to God’s greatness resulting?

  3. Ben says:

    Wondering if this book deals with cases of long term abuse, especially emotional (where there’s often little “hard evidence”), by a believer by a professed believer – when the church does nothing to the abuser. I don’t see it in the “legitimate divorce” list. Wondering because of a dear friend right now.

  4. JohnM says:

    I assume the summary is fleshed out in the book? I wonder:

    How B.1. is the case but B.2. is not. Might be explained, but I’d want to see the explanation before I agree.
    If B.6. is quite correct as stated, i.e., if it is quite correct to say the unbeliever’s choice is “legitimate”.
    How C.1. is explained. Seems to me if you can manage not to it’s desirable not to – from a biblical standpoint and from a practical one.

    1. James says:

      John M. B.1 and B.2 can exist together. All divorce does result from sin, but there are two legitimate reasons Christians can get a divorce. The first exception is in the case of adultery. The second exception is when a believer and an unbeliever are married and the unbeliever abandons the marriage. According to 1 Corinthians 7, the believer is told to let them go. In these two instances, neither divorce is a sin because the Bible allows it, but both result from sin, adultery and abandonment.

      In regards to B.6 he was not stating that it is legitimate for an unbeliever to want out and leave, but when an unbeliever does leave, it is legitimate for the believer to let them leave.

      In regards to C.1, Adams uses 1 Corinthians 7:28 to prove that it is not a sin for divorced people to remarry. And for those who have been biblically released from a marriage and are no longer “bound” it can be good for them to seek a new spouse in the Lord.

      1. JohnM says:

        James, Thanks. With regard to B.1/B.2 it occurred to me that something like what you say might be what was in mind – I wasn’t sure. I don’t disagree but I’m not sure I would like to use the term “legitimate” to describe any circumstance where divorce results. Someone involved had to have made a choice that was not legitimate no matter what and illegitimacy surrounds the circumstances even if one party is innocent.

        Of course in the case of an unbeliever who wants to go we’re not talking about reasons why a Christian can seek a divorce – it’s the unbeliever who does that.

        1 Corinthians 7:28 does not speak to remarriage following divorce, but remarriage following the death of a spouse, and even then see what Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians 7:40 about what is the better choice.

        1. JohnM says:

          Actually I should say 1 Cor. 7:28 does not talk about remarriage at all, but the passage does address widows remarrying.

          1. James says:

            There are different views to this, but I was stating the argument Jay makes in the book, if I remember correctly. I’m not trying to convince anyone on this difficult to understand matter; I was just trying to answer your questions about the position presented in Adams’ book.

            Again, if I am presenting Adams’ view correctly, he does believe that 1 Cor. 7:28 is including divorce, based off of 7:27a. “If you are married to a wife, do not seek to be free,” or as Jay interprets it, do not seek to be released. He interprets this “released” as meaning to be freed from your current marriage, no longer being bound to it. Then the second half of verse 27 speaks to those who have already been released from their marriage, which leads into verse 28 that says that it is not a sin if those who have been released from marriage are remarried.

            The key to Jay’s view is understanding the first half of verse 27 to be speaking of being released from a marriage, not death. No one would need to be told, “Stay as you are. Don’t seek to be free from your marriage by having your spouse die.” So the argument goes that he is speaking of divorce here.

          2. James says:

            JohnM. Lastly, I would really suggest reading the book. Jay Adams is one of the best authors/preachers/counselors there are, in my opinion. This book has helped me immensely. Jay presents all of this very clearly and in an easy to understand way. Even if you do disagree with him about his interpretations of 1 Cor. 7 or his conclusions on divorce and remarriage, his position is presented clearly and very well. As Justin stated, it will help you be able to think about this in a more biblical manner, again, even if you disagree.

  5. Ted Turnau says:

    In response to David in the comment above: I’m not sure whether Jay Adams addresses it or not. However, years ago at seminary, I heard Mardi Keyes (wife of L’Abri staffer Dick Keyes) make a convincing case that spousal abuse is a form of abandonment, and so would satisfy a legitimate reason for divorce. If a man abuses his wife (or vica versa), he abandons her in that he removes his protecting presence from her by exposing her to his violence. There are many questions left to answer, but the Christian church has for too long turned a blind eye to domestic violence in the name of “keeping a Christian marriage together.” That doesn’t mean that a divorce is necessary – good things can happen through repentance and counseling, etc. But it makes it lawful.

    1. JohnM says:

      I admit I didn’t hear Mardi Keyes make the case for calling spousal abuse a form of abandonment, but I’m skeptical. Abuse might well be a legitimate reason for divorce (note that I’m not disagreeing there), but abandonment means abandonment and not something else. Again, I didn’t hear the full line of reasoning, but an argument that has it that a man “abandons” his wife by removing “his protecting presence from her by exposing her to his violence” strikes me as specious. The rationalization, and redefining of terms, involved can too easily be applied to all kinds of circumstances for the sake of convenience.

  6. Tony Archer says:

    In case of marital abuse 1 Cor 7:10,11 would seem to permit separation (but not divorce) for the purpose of reconciliation.

  7. Donn R Arms says:

    One phrase you will never read in a Jay Adams book is “a case can be made for . . .” Divorce is a complex issue and much more could have been said in this book but Adams confined himself to only that about which he was sure. When it comes to “abandonment” Adams believes Ex. 21:10-11 suggests three minimum responsibilities for maintaining a marriage but did not bring it up in the book because he could not draw a confident conclusion.

  8. Jon says:

    How does the author square remarriage with Mark 10:11-12? I once struggled with this issue but was convinced by this passage and pastor John Pipers excellent teaching that it can never be permissible while the first spouse lives. This was founded on marriage being what is mentioned in mark re divorce and the seeming permission shown by Jesus in other gospels referring to betrothal.

    1. James says:

      I wholeheartedly agree, John Piper has some excellent teaching on this matter as well. I have listened to his sermons on this topic many times. Piper actually admits in those sermons, though, that his church holds to a different view than he does. So Piper does not hold to a very commonly held view.

      Also, most people who hold to remarriage being allowable look at 1 Corinthians 7:15 when Paul says that the believing partner “is not enslaved.” Most translate that as saying that they are no longer bound to the marriage.

      Divorce and remarriage is a very messy, complicated topic that is difficult to deal with all the layers and different circumstances, and certainly difficult to explain in a comment section, so I would really encourage everyone to read Adams’ book. It is relatively short and very to the point. Whether you agree with his outcome or not, it will be beneficial to you.

  9. John says:

    Jon, Mark 10:11-12 is stating a principle. Matthew is expanding upon that and giving the exception that Jesus obviously included. Mark elsewhere (see Mk 8:12 and Matt 16:4; Matt expands and gives an exception). A principle can be stated without always giving the exceptions. Everyone in the day would have believed that sexual immorality would have been grounds for divorce, in fact they would have had to get a divorce by Jewish law. Sexual immorality in a marriage attacks the very heart of what marriage is: a one flesh union. When a spouse begins a new one flesh relationship with another, that is clear grounds for divorce. To continue on without repentance would be to live in practical polygamy.

    As far as Piper’s view, it is just not hermeneutically sustainable. Sorry, I like Piper, but he is wrong. Two quick things he does: He inserts his view about betrothal in a clear context about marriage. He narrows down Porneia to far tying to make it mean only sex between to unmarried people, the word is a very broad word for sexual immorality (nearly everyone agrees; check the lexicons; some have tried to do the same thing Piper does only they try and make it mean incest). Not only does he narrow it down to far but he does it in a passage that is talking about marriage. I don’t believe he is following good hermeneutical principles with this one.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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