The moral complexity of the divorce and remarriage issue presents, in my opinion, the single greatest pastoral challenge for evangelical Christianity in our time. Evangelicals, theoretically, take a more restrictive position on the issue of divorce than does the dominant culture, though in practice, recent polls suggest that the divorce rate among evangelicals is not much different from that of those who profess no Christian convictions at all. Also, the sheer numbers of divorced and/or remarried persons seeking admission into the church, or desiring counsel from Christians, places a burden of heretofore unknown proportions upon those charged with pastoral care and instruction of the saints and the integrity of the church.
This is not just a problem for pastors, either. Almost every Christian has been called upon to advise some friend or loved one about this issue at one time or another. Those who care for the temporal and eternal well-being of others are increasingly thrust into the position of having to decide what, precisely, the Scriptures teach with reference to 1) couples contemplating a divorce; 2) those already divorced and contemplating remarriage; and 3) those who have already been divorced and remarried prior to presenting themselves as candidates for inclusion into Christian fellowship.
The significance of the problem must not be minimized, since Jesus taught that, at least in some cases, divorce and remarriage are tantamount to adultery (Matt.5:32/19:9), and since Paul wrote that no adulterer will enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:9), that a little leaven (moral compromise), if allowed in the church, will leaven the whole lump (1 Cor.5:6-7), and that Christians should not so much as eat with those professing to be brethren, but who engage in immoral behavior, which would include sinful remarriage (1 Cor.5:11).
At stake are the purity, testimony and unity of the church, the sanctity of the divine institution of marriage, the security of children’s right to be raised by their two original parents, and the stability of society’s most fundamental element: the family—all of which present strong incentives for the Christian not to take lightly an issue like divorce. If vigilance be neglected in this matter and standards be relaxed “in special cases,” we may find to our chagrin that the camel’s nose is inside the tent (and where the camel’s nose is, can the whole camel be far behind?).
In reaction (and possibly overreaction), to the current, loose attitude of the world and the church on the subject of divorce and remarriage, there is a new emphasis in the most conservative sector of the Christian community insisting that divorce and remarriage are never permissible for the Christian. This new emphasis promises to solve one problem, but it creates another, for while it may serve to stem the rising tide of new divorces among Christians, it simultaneously raises new difficulties concerning how the church is to deal with the great multitude of already-divorced-and-remarried persons now in their midst, as well as those who may yet petition the church for admission. Are these remarried people living in adultery in their second (or third, or fourth) marriages? If so, how could we in any way fellowship with them? If they are not living in adultery, what stigma could possibly attached to them? The issue does not allow a third alternative, namely, that we admit them as perpetual second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Divorced-and-remarried people either are guilty of heinous sin, and should be required to repent, or else they are guilty of nothing at all, and should not be stigmatized.
A Sound Approach
If we answer the issues wrongly, we are at risk either of corrupting the testimony of the church by acceptance of unrepentant sinners, or else of compromising the unity of the church by calling “unclean” people whom God has “cleansed.” We may offend God equally by either error. Simplistic answers are inadequate, which is why sophisticated debate has been going on over this issue among many Christian thinkers. At one extreme, there are those set for the defense of the institution of marriage (...a first marriage, that is) to the point of being willing to sacrifice compassion even for those who have divorced for arguably biblical reasons and those who have suffered as innocent victims of a divorce. Discipleship involves bearing our cross, they point out, and the enduring of a perennially unfaithful spouse, or the acceptance of permanent singleness after an unwanted divorce, is not so great a cross as those that others before us have been required to bear. The church must uphold a standard, and is not obliged to compromise in order to accommodate the whining of people whose marriages have failed.
At the other extreme are those who argue for total tolerance of divorce and remarriage, almost removing it from the category of moral judgment, and arguing that Jesus did not come to condemn but to save, that He exhibited astonishing generosity toward the woman taken in adultery and the Samaritan woman at the well, and that (nobody being perfect) we should relax the standards, allowing divorce in cases of human suffering and unhappiness. The Christian has entered his profession upon the admission of his own guilt before God, and there are no stones within our legitimate reach with which to pummel other imperfect souls.
Certainly “the goodness and the severity of God” both enter into the debate—but seldom within the same presentation. If each extreme position is found to be guilty of significant omission of pertinent considerations, the solution is not, as some people think, simply to find the exact middle point between the two. The answer must come from sound exegesis of the relevant biblical texts...but not all participants in the debate will agree as to which texts are most relevant, and how they compare to one another in relative importance to the deciding of the issue.
A common approach is to take all of the texts that speak directly to the subjects of marriage and divorce, and to reach conclusions on the basis of exegesis of these texts alone. In the Old Testament, the most relevant texts would seem to be Gen.2:24; Deut.24:1-4; Ezra 10:1-3; and Mal. 2:6-16. In the New Testament, the most direct statements pertinent to the issue appear to be Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Rom.7:1-6; 1 Cor.7:10-15; and 1 Tim.3:2. The ingenuity with which these verses can be applied to the support of widely differing opinions can be seen, for instance, in the essays included in the book Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, (H. Wayne House, ed., IVP, 1990), in which four Christian authors argue their contrary cases largely from the same biblical data.
The Controlling Factor
The ambiguity and questionable relevance of many of these pivotal verses renders it unlikely that the debate will be resolved to every interpreter’s satisfaction by appeal to these individual passages alone. The settlement of ambiguous moral questions has but one court of final appeal for the Christian, and that is consideration of the character of God Himself. Every individual issue in God’s revealed will (i.e. every biblical doctrine) finds its proper place in the larger picture of God’s unchanging character. No individual teaching of the Bible can be correctly understood without appeal to this larger issue that permeates all of the divine revelation. Therefore, though I intend in this treatment to give individual consideration to every passage relevant to the divorce issue, I prefer first to address the larger context of which this matter is but a small part.
There are some things that even God cannot do. He cannot lie (Tit.1:2). He cannot be tempted with sin (James 1:13). He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim.2:13). It is thus clear that God can neither command nor endorse any moral norms contrary to His own character. We may most reliably settle the divorce/ remarriage dilemma by discovering what it is in the character of God that makes this matter a moral concern to Him, causing Him to issue forth whatever decrees exist on the subject. The character of God can be observed in God’s revealed values and in His own actions.
Moral good and moral evil are such only because of their respective agreement or disagreement with the ultimate standard of God’s own righteous character. I believe that every moral imperative in the Bible can easily be traced to some corresponding moral quality in God Himself. This is why Jesus referred to “justice, mercy and faithfulness” as “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt.23:23)—because God is unchangingly just, merciful and faithful, any course of behavior that is contrary to these principles is contrary to God’s character, and is, therefore, evil.
For example, Scripture observes a moral difference between capital punishment and murder simply because one is an act of justice, while the other is an act of injustice. The justice of God can only countenance just actions and condemn unjust ones. The breaking of oaths is a sin because it is an act of unfaithfulness, incompatible with God’s faithfulness. Unforgiveness is morally wrong because it fails to reflect of the mercy of God. God’s character is love—not a spineless, non-judgmental love, but a holy and jealous love for His creation that requires that He judge and condemn all actions that endanger the ultimate well-being of those whom He loves. Thus every moral issue reduces to the simple test: Is the love of God (His justice, mercy, faithfulness, etc.) reflected in such action?
This is the qualitative difference between commands in the Old Testament which we call “ceremonial law” and those which we call “moral law.” The former category would include the sacrificial, circumcision, dietary and festival practices of Israel. Regulations of this kind are not dictated by issues of innate morality, since God could have commanded differently on such matters without violating His own character. These statutes dictate transient practices symbolic of spiritual things more permanent than themselves. This is why such practices are treated in the New Testament as now having outlived their usefulness. They merely symbolized certain spiritual realities that have since come into clearer focus in Jesus. In the increased light accompanying the arrival of the True Substance (Christ), the shadows anticipating that arrival have disappeared (Col.2:16f).
When Jesus, quoting Hosea 6:6, said, “Go and learn what that means, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’” (Matt.9:13) and when He spoke without condemnation of David’s having violated the law of show-bread (Matt.12:3-7), He was underscoring the fact that moral issues (like mercy) are the “the weightier matters of the law,” whereas ceremonial issues (like sacrifices and show-bread), do not innately embody any enduring moral quality (since even their observance is rendered immoral if done by a morally wicked person—Prov.15:8; 21:27). Love (God’s character reflected in our actions) is the issue of surpassing value, because its proper description subsumes all moral actions (Matt.7:12; 22:37-40/Rom.13:8-10/Gal.5:14). A given course of action is to be regarded as a moral obligation exactly insofar as the doing of it is consistent with God’s love, and the not doing of it is inconsistent with God’s love.
This being the case, we can immediately see why divorce and remarriage fall into the moral category. The dissolution of a marriage involves at least one party in perjury, that is, lying under oath, because, at their wedding, a man and a woman invoke oaths of perpetual fidelity before God and witnesses. This is an act of unfaithfulness, which violates God’s character, and an act of injustice (the Bible uses the word “treachery”) as well.
Married people have made oaths to one another and to God. By mutual agreement, during the lifetime of both parties, neither partner can end the union without becoming a sinful violator of these oaths and a betrayer of his or her trusting spouse. This is true even if the betrayer remains unmarried, since, among the promises made at the wedding, there was one about “dwelling togetherÄuntil death do us part.” The initiating of an unjustified divorce is the breaking of a vow, and is thus regarded by God and all right-minded judges as an act of treachery against a spouse (Jer.3:20/Mal.2:14-16). It may be safely assumed that the spouse thus cheated would not have entered the marriage in the first place, and thus may have had other opportunities to marry more happily, had not both parties taken each other’s honesty for granted at the altar. Such cheating steals from the other party many irreplaceable treasures, including invaluable years of youth, innocence, intimate secrets, virginity, forfeited options for personal happiness, and the natural, legitimate, and deep-seated human hope of sharing life and children with one life-long partner. Additionally, it inflicts incalculable emotional pain, and financial hardship upon the cheated spouse, the children in the family, concerned relatives and sympathetic friends. Such treachery is an atrocity of the first magnitude, and it cannot surprise us to learn that the holy God “hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16). The reason God says that He hates it is because “it covers one’s garment with violence” and is “treacherous dealing.”
While acknowledging the abominable nature of divorce, there are several important factors of which we must not be lose sight:
Consideration #1: A divorce may be unilateral: the will of one party imposed against the will of the other.
In such cases (probably the majority of divorce cases), one party is a criminal, and the other is an innocent victim. Shallow thinkers may glibly claim, “there are no innocent parties in any divorce,” on the assumption that (nobody being perfect), even the apparent victim has contributed to the breakdown of the marriage by his or her own personal imperfections. However, only the naive will fall for this ill-conceived clich?. Even in very successful marriages, the imperfections of both parties render continuance in the marriage a trial at times, but this does not justify, nor necessarily require, that a divorce occur. Bearing the guilt for personal imperfection is not the same as bearing the guilt for a failed marriage. Your spouse’s being moody, ill-tempered, disagreeable, irresponsible, unattractive, unresponsive, unaffectionate, unpleasant, insensitive, controlling, etc., can make your life miserable, but such things do not add up to providing you with grounds for breaking your marriage covenant.
God requires a Christian to be one who “swears to his own hurt and changes not” (Ps.15:4)—in other words, one who, finding that a promise he has sworn to uphold will cost him dearly and painfully to honor, will nonetheless fulfill his promise, absorbing the resultant inconvenience and pain, for the sake of preserving his or her integrity. Most brides and grooms at the altar “swear to their own hurt” to some degree, because certain unattractive habits that are not known to them at the time of their making of the vow are generally discovered in their spouses later. Considering the imperfection of human nature, this scenario should be regarded as predictable and (in terms of the imperfections of a fallen world) normal. Nothing of value comes cheaply, and a godly marriage (the most valuable of earthly treasures—Prov.12:4; 18:22; 31:10) generally requires hard work and sacrifice to maintain. Those who cannot make such sacrifices should not indulge in the deception of making false vows (Ecc.5:2-6). Those who have made such vows must be prepared to keep them at any cost. Those who do not keep their vows make victims of their spouses, their children, and all other concerned parties. Thus approximately half of divorced persons are treacherous dealers and half are more-or-less-innocent victims of treachery. For divorce’s innocent victims (as for widows) the church should be a refuge and a surrogate family.
Consideration #2: Biblically, most vows are not unconditionally binding.
There are special circumstances under which a party may be released from the obligation to fulfill the terms of a covenantal vow (see, e.g., Gen.24:8/ Num.30:5, 8. See also Jer.18:7-10). Even the marriage covenant can be renounced upon the discovery of extreme moral violation (Deut.22:13ff; 24:1ff/ Hos.2:2/Matt.5:32). God is certainly the One Party in the universe who could never be charged with unfaithfulness (Rom.3:4), yet there are covenant promises He has made in the past, from which He now considers Himself loosed (1 Sam.2:30). Most notably, because of the treachery of Israel, God has entirely annulled a covenant that He chose to honor for 14 centuries, and has replaced it with a new covenant with a new people (Heb.8:13). Likewise, according to Jesus Christ, a faithful spouse can become free of the covenant obligations to a spouse who has treacherously broken covenant by what Jesus called “fornication” (more on that later).
Consideration #3: Remarriage is a valid option to validly divorced persons.
How could it not be? The only valid reason for forbidding remarriage to a divorced person would be the assumption that their first marriage is still valid. If a person is not bound to an existing marriage, he or she is unmarried and eligible to get married again. Remarriage is thus permissible or not only insofar as the first marriage has or has not been validly terminated in the sight of God.
Those who forbid all divorce and remarriage must demonstrate that marriage is permanently and unconditionally binding before God. This cannot be established from Scripture. The usual argument is that a married couple are declared to be “one flesh” (Gen.2:24), and are therefore bound to one another unconditionally for life. However, this certainly burdens the phrase “one flesh” with more baggage than it will bear, since a tryst with a prostitute constitutes a “one flesh” relationship, according to Paul (1 Cor.6:16), yet not necessarily a permanently binding one.
The fact that Jesus saw fit to forbid the “putting asunder” of what God has joined, demonstrates that such a dissolution is apparently possible, though inappropriate (Matt.19:6). What would be the point of Christ forbidding an act that is humanly impossible to perform? The question upon which a divorced person’s legitimate freedom to remarry must be determined is: “In the sight of God, has ‘what God has joined together’ effectively been ‘put asunder’ by man, and if so, by whom?” If there has been adultery, then it is the adulterer who has effectively put asunder what God has joined. If there has been no adultery, then the person seeking the divorce has put the marriage asunder. Both adultery and divorce (for grounds other than fornication) are forbidden by Christ. The only way a second marriage could be regarded as “adultery” would be when it, like ordinary adultery, is the violation of an existing marriage covenant. If the first marriage covenant has ceased to exist in God’s sight, however, there remains no such covenant to be violated in contracting a second marriage.
Consideration #4: God’s behavior as a husband.
This is directly relevant to the question of divorce and remarriage, since marriage plays a dual role involving moral as well as ceremonial aspects. The moral aspect, discussed above, is the issue of faithfulness to keep one’s vows. The ceremonial aspect is the factor of symbolism whereby marriage depicts the covenantal relationship of God to His people—first Israel, then the Church. God’s conduct in His “marital” relationships provides for Christians a model of moral norms in marriage, divorce and remarriage.
God first entered into a marriage covenant with Israel at Sinai, warning Israel (as His wife) that He was a jealous husband (Ex.20:5) and would regard the worship of other gods as the equivalent of adultery in marriage (Ex.34:15-16). God claimed that such unfaithfulness on Israel’s part would result in a breaking of the covenant between Himself and them (Deut.31:16). When Israel actually did go whoring after other gods, God first exhibited remarkable patience and composure, sending prophets again and again to call the treacherous wife to repentance (Jer.3:20,22). When repentance was not forthcoming, God gave Judah a “trial divorce”—sending her into captivity for 70 years in Babylon. This involved God’s actual divorcing of Judah (Isa.50:1/Jer.3:8), but with the promise of forgiveness and restoration if she would repent (Jer.3:1). In a limited sense, Judah did repent, and (like Hosea’s wife) was restored after the captivity. But she continued to violate the covenant, finally rejecting and crucifying God’s Son. This was the last straw, and for this offense, God bailed entirely out of that first covenant relationship (Zech.11:10).
Did God remain unmarried? In Deuteronomy, God told Israel that if she provoked Him to jealousy by going after other gods (committing spiritual adultery), He would provoke her by taking another people (wife) for Himself (Deut. 32:21). Hosea also records this same threat (Hos.2:16-23), as do other prophets (Isa.65:1, 15). In the New Testament, we find Jesus betrothing Himself, by a new marital covenant, with a new people (Matt.21:43; 26:28-29) who have replaced forever the adulterous wife. Thus God, in Christ, remarried after divorcing his unfaithful wife, after He had endured her harlotry for a great while.
The appeal to God’s behavior in covenant relationships as an example establishing moral norms in the divorce/remarriage controversy is no unnatural stretch, since the institution of marriage was ordained by God for the very purpose of reflecting these very issues in the Divine/human relationship. If the illustration is not exact, it is at least not misleading. God’s own behavior demonstrates that divorce and remarriage may, in specific circumstances, be consistent with His own character—and thus morally righteous. Any position that we take on divorce and remarriage which would render God an offender must be rejected in favor of a view more honoring to Him, and any construction placed upon specific “divorce” texts that would make human marriage more indissoluble than Divine marriage must be rethought, to say the least!
Thus far I have only laid out the larger principles of Scripture which form the context for the interpretation of specific texts on divorce and remarriage. In the next chapter, we will examine, one-by-one, the individual verses on the subject of divorce and remarriage within this larger context of the character of God and of the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles. Any interpretation that ignores this context cannot bring any light to the questions at hand.
The Specific Texts on Divorce and Remarriage
We have yet to deal with the particular verses of Scripture that address the questions of divorce and remarriage most directly. It is to these that we now turn our attention. These texts can be divided into three major categories:
1. Those expressing the Old Testament’s teaching (Gen.2:24/Deut.24:1-4/Ezra 10:2-5/Mal.2:13-16/Mark 6:18 [John the Baptist]);
2.Those in Jesus’ recorded teaching (Matt.5:32/19:9/ Mark 10:11-12/Luke 16:18); and
3. Those in the letters of Paul the apostle (Rom.7:2-3/1 Cor.7:10-15, 26-28, 39/1 Tim.3:2).
It is from a neglect of these passages that an overly-lenient view of divorce comes. And it is, I believe, from a defective exegesis of the same passages that an unscriptural legalism arises. We can best hope to discover the mind of God by pursuing the most responsible and honest exegesis of the biblical record on any given subject. It is just such that I will endeavor to present in this chapter.
Before looking at details, let me summarize the essential content of each passage:
1. Old Testament:
In Gen.2:24, we have the defining comment about marriage (quoted by both Jesus and Paul), stating that marriage occurs when a man and woman, leaving their parents’ homes, form a new union that is described as “one flesh.”
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 legislates that, if a husband has given his wife a certificate of divorce (because of some “uncleanness” he finds in her), and if she remarries and her second marriage also fails, her original husband is not permitted to take her back as his wife. She has been “defiled” for him.
In Ezra 10, many of the Jews who had returned from the exile were found to have contracted unlawful marriages with pagan women. Upon advice from Ezra, they divorced their pagan wives.
In Malachi 2, the situation was similar. Some of the returned exiles had actually divorced their Jewish wives in order to marry (apparently) younger, pagan women. God objects principally to the treachery committed against the first wives, and says that He “hates divorce.”
In Mark 6:18, John the Baptist (an Old Testament prophet) rebukes Herod for having stolen his brother’s wife to be his own. John says that this second marriage is “unlawful.”
2. The teaching of Jesus:
In Matthew 5:32, Jesus teaches that a man divorcing his wife for grounds other than “fornication” actually causes her to commit adultery (assuming her remarriage), and that her second husband, in such a case, is also an adulterer.
Matthew 19:3-9 records a discussion arising when the Pharisees ask Jesus about grounds for divorce. Jesus answers that, prior to the fall, God’s original plan for marriage did not include any provision for divorce. In the following discussion, He points out that the fall (with its attendant “hardness of heart”) led God to allow divorce in the Old Testament law. However, if a man frivolously divorces his wife (“except for the cause of fornication”), and then marries another, he thereby becomes guilty of adultery. He also restates his comment from Matt.5:32, that whoever marries his ex-wife also commits adultery (19:9).
Mark 10:11-12 simply repeats the fact that a man commits adultery against his wife when he divorces her and marries another. In this case, Jesus makes the corresponding statement about a wife as well, namely, that if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery against him. Unlike the passages in Matthew, however, the statements in Mark do not mention the exception (“except for the cause of fornication”).
Luke 16:18 is simply the same statement as that found in Matt.19:9, but with the exception clause (“except for the cause of fornication”) omitted.
3. The teaching of Paul:
In Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Cor.7:39, we find essentially identical statements from Paul, teaching that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives, and will be considered an adulteress if she were to marry another while her husband is still living. Both passages go on to affirm as their principal point that the woman is free to remarry if her husband has died.
1 Corinthians 7:10-15 contains Paul’s most detailed treatment of the subject at hand. He addresses two separate groups of married people with different instructions. His instructions to the first group are not from him but from “the Lord.” Of his instructions to the other group (“to the rest...”) he says, “I speak, not the Lord...” The second group is clearly defined as marriages in which one party is a Christian, while the other is not. This implies that the first group are Christians married to Christians.
Paul teaches that Christians married to other Christians should not divorce, and that, if a separation has occurred (a circumstance for which he does not give permission), they should be reconciled or else “remain unmarried.”
His instructions to the second group are not identical to those for the first. He tells the unequally-yoked Christian to remain in the marriage for the sake of the children and the spouse so long as the latter will permit. If the unsaved spouse abandons the marriage, however, the believing spouse is “not under bondage in such cases.”
A few verses later (vv.26-28), Paul is giving special instructions pertinent to what he calls “the present distress.” He encourages those “bound” to a wife not to seek release from their marriages. He also instructs those who are “loosed” from a wife not to seek a wife. However, he adds that if they were to disregard this suggestion and were to marry anyway, they commit no sin in so doing.
Finally, in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul sets out as a qualification of an elder that he must be “the husband of one wife,” and in 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul sets forth as a qualification for a supported widow, that she must have been the “wife of one man.”
These are the verses. It is the various interpretations and application of these, primarily, that have been the occasion of most of the controversy in today’s church over divorce and remarriage. What are we to make of them?
Is the Marriage Bond Indissoluble?
Perhaps the most logical place to begin is with the one statement that occurs in all three of the above categories. Genesis 2:24 is the first statement on this subject in the Old Testament, and is also quoted by Jesus and Paul as definitive of their ethics of marriage. The verse describes marriage as the breaking-off of one solidarity (e.g. a man leaves his parents’ family) to establish a new solidarity (his own family). This new solidarity is formed by his being “joined” to his wife as “one flesh.”
This language speaks of a strong bond, and one that cannot be legitimately dissolved. However, there is no teaching here that suggests the impossibility of the bond being formed or dissolved illegitimately. Commenting on this very verse, Jesus says, “What God has joined [i.e. the man and his wife as one flesh], let not man separate” (Matt.19:6). This command implies that such a separating of what God joined is certainly possible (or else what is the point of forbidding it?), but that it cannot be done legitimately, that is, without violation of God’s purpose, intentions and commands. The fact that people do indeed violate God’s purpose and intentions every day proves that “one flesh” relationships can be dissolved illegitimately. Relationships, once truly dissolved, no longer exist.
By the way, Jesus’ statement only forbids the dissolution of unions which “God has joined.” There is no forbidding of the dissolution of unions of which God never approved. Hence the appropriateness of the Jews divorcing their pagan wives, in Ezra 10. These were “one flesh” relationships of which God did not approve. Their dissolution was appropriate, not being the separation of “what God had joined.” Union with a prostitute also results in a joining into “one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), but this, not being a union approved by God, is one worthy of dissolution. The same principle may apply to a case in which a girl has married without her father’s knowledge or approval, since the Scriptures allow the father to annul any vow of his daughter’s on the day he learns of it (Num.30:3-5).
Such arguments, of course, could easily be abused. For example, any dissatisfied spouse might wish to claim that the Lord never originally approved of his/her marriage, and that it should thus be dissolved. Paul, however, specifically advises Christians married to non-Christians to remain married so long as this promotes “peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15), though the marriage can be considered dissolved if the unbeliever departs (Ibid.). The potential for abuse of a principle should not be made an argument against the validity of the principle itself. Clearly, not all “one flesh” unions can be described as “what God has joined.” Thus the “one flesh” relationship is capable of being entered illegitimately (a sinful union), in which case it can be dissolved legitimately (a justified annulment), or it can be entered legitimately (a valid marriage), in which case it is capable of being dissolved illegitimately (a sinful divorce). It cannot, therefore, be sustained scripturally that “one flesh” is a condition inevitably intact forever (for example, it does not continue in the resurrection—Matt.22:28-30).
Even in cases where there has been legitimate, binding marriage contracted, of which it can be said “God has joined together,” it is possible for a spouse to seek a divorce without being guilty of separating what God has joined. Such is possible in cases where the other spouse has effectively dissolved the bond by certain, biblically-defined misbehavior. In the Old Testament, the grounds are vague—”some uncleanness” (Deut.24:1). Jesus identified “fornication” as a type of uncleanness that rendered His otherwise strict teaching on divorce inapplicable (Matt.5:32/19:9). Paul gave similar status to an unbeliever’s desertion of a believing spouse (1 Cor.7:15). In such cases, the legitimate bond has illegitimately been put asunder (by the fornicator), but not necessarily by the party seeking the divorce (the innocent party). The divorcing party, it may be, is acting legitimately, merely making official what has become a reality by the other’s actions.
But then there are Paul’s statements that “the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives; but if the husband is dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband” (Rom.7:2; cf. 1 Cor.7:39). Doesn’t this teach that the marriage bond is unconditionally binding for life? And isn’t remarriage by the wife forbidden in Paul’s following statement: “So then if, while her husband lives, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress” (Rom.7:3)?
Paul’s point will be missed if we try to take these statements as a teaching forbidding all divorce and remarriage, for three reasons:
1. Paul introduces his comment in Romans 7 by saying, “I speak to those who know the law [of Moses].” In other words, Paul’s statement about husbands and wives (which he actually intends to use as an illustration to make an entirely different point) is a simple restatement of what already was known to be the teaching in the law of Moses. The law of Moses nowhere forbade divorce, and, in fact, explicitly permitted both divorce and remarriage (Deut.24:1-4). Paul should not be understood to be himself forbidding what the law permitted, since he appeals to that very law as the support for his statement.
2. The statements in question both occur in passages where the point is to teach the freedom to remarry after the death of a spouse. In Romans 7, Paul is likening the woman to ourselves, once married to the law and under its authority, but since that “marriage” has ended with the death of one of the parties, we are free to marry another—Christ (v.4). Paul is arguing against any tendency to keep Christians subject to the law of Moses (to which we have “died”), which would be analogous to requiring a widow to remain under the rule of her deceased husband. There is a similar point being made in 1 Cor.7:39. Paul is pointing out that a woman is no longer bound to a husband who has died, and is thus free to remarry, though Paul thinks it good for her to consider remaining single. Thus the intended meaning of both of Paul’s statements is that a woman is bound to her husband only during his lifetime, but not after he has died.
3. Paul says, “A woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives.” It should not need to be pointed out that a legitimately divorced woman does not have a husband. She has an ex-husband. The Samaritan woman had had five husbands serially, but had none at the time of her conversation with Jesus. Jesus agreed with her statement that she currently “had no husband,” even though she had been married five times previously—John 4:18). According to the law, she certainly is not bound to the husband who divorced her for the rest of his life! In fact, she could not even return to him if she had since married another, which she was permitted to do (Deut.24). While her ex-husband is still alive, she can marry another, because an ex-husband is not a husband, and she is thus NOT “a woman that has a husband.”
In the present passages, Paul is not attempting to address every conceivable question about the permanence of marriage. He knows the law and he is not altering it, but he rather cites it in defense of his point. He is not concerning himself with exceptions (as Jesus does in Matthew). He is merely stating the fact (which he considers obvious) that, debarring any circumstance (like divorce) that may deprive a woman of her husband, the woman who still has a husband is bound to him only until he dies—and no longer! This is the only idea relevant to the point Paul is arguing in each passage. To extend his meaning beyond this would place Paul in tension with both Moses and Jesus—and himself, a few verses earlier (1 Cor.7:15)!
Some readers may object to my making so many appeals to the law in Deuteronomy, since Jesus explained that this law was not a reflection of what might be called God’s perfect will, but was only a concession made because of “the hardness of heart.” Jesus’ own standard rose higher than that of the law, one may argue, and it is Jesus’ teaching—not Moses’—that Paul (and we) must represent. All this is, of course, true. But when we seek to understand Jesus’ own remarks about divorce (we will come to those presently), we can not pit Jesus against God in defining morality. If divorce and remarriage (permitted under the law) are universally and without exception violations of moral righteousness, then how could God ever have permitted it—even “because of the hardness of heart”? In the law, which even the New Testament describes as “holy, just and good” (Rom.7:12), we never find God “permitting” murder, adultery, theft or blasphemy “because of the hardness of heart.” If divorce and remarriage are in every case immoral, as these other acts are, then God could never have given such permission, regardless how hard people’s hearts might have been!
What Did Jesus Teach?
This brings us to the vital consideration of Jesus’ statements about divorce. Since the various statements are not identical in content, we must bear in mind that no interpretation of them can be correct which would place Him at odds with His Father, who defined moral standards when He gave the law. The section of the Sermon on the Mount which contains Jesus’ remarks about divorce is introduced with this caveat: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt.5:17). Jesus did not come to alter the moral standards of the law, nor to introduce new standards which were not equally valid in the Old Testament. Every one of the beatitudes is drawn from the Old Testament. Since all morality is merely a reflection of the character of God, which cannot change, it is impossible for morality to change. The unchanging God cannot abhor today what He found respectable in the past. Jesus came to shed light on aspects and dimensions of the law which had been obscured by rabinic tradition. Therefore, when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not murder,’” He did not finish the statement by saying, “but I say to you, ‘Murder!’” Rather, he explained that there are other ways by which one may become a “murderer” in God’s sight without actually killing someone. He did not say, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Commit adultery!’” Rather, He explained that there are ways to become guilty of this sin without actually touching a woman, but by merely looking at a woman to lust after her. In saying these things, he was not creating a new ethic (Job had known this truth thousands of years earlier—Job 31:1). Jesus never changed one moral issue from the law. He merely expounded on the deeper implications of the law that had been neglected by His hearers and their teachers. Thus we must avoid the mistaken notion that Jesus was now making divorce and remarriage universally sinful, though it was not so in the days of Moses. Rather, Jesus’ teaching on this, as on other moral issues of the law, should be seen as an expansion on the meaning of the law in Deuteronomy 24 (the passage that he quotes). What Jesus reveals is that the vague, undefined “uncleanness” that constituted grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy is to be identified with “fornication”— and nothing else (Matt.5:32).
What Paul tells us about Jesus’ Teaching
Jesus’ words on divorce are interpreted, in some degree, by the inspired Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-15. We should examine this passage before deciding on the meaning of Jesus’ words, since Paul tells us a vital fact that is often missed in such considerations.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10, Paul addresses an audience whom he simply refers to as “the married.” In verse 12, he addresses another group, whom he calls “the rest” (i.e. those not included in the first category). Since the first group were called “the married,” we might expect “the rest” to refer to unmarried people. However, as we read on in the passage, we find that “the rest” are also married people. They are Christians who are married to pagans. Thus both groups addressed are groups of married people. Since the second group are Christians married to unbelievers, it follows that the first group are Christians married to Christians. This would seem to be the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the wording. Thus we learn that, in verses 10-11, Paul is addressing only Christians who are married to other Christians, whereas, in verses 12-15, he is speaking to Christians married to unbelievers. This awareness makes a huge difference in our understanding of the applicability of Paul’s teaching.
Another observation is crucial. To the first group (whom we have identified as Christians married to Christians), Paul says, “To the married I command, yet not I but the Lord...” (v.10). To the second group (Christians married to unbelievers), Paul writes, “To the rest I, not the Lord, say...” (v.12). What is the meaning of these expressions “not I, but the Lord...” and “I, not the Lord...”? Commentators are essentially unanimous in their explanation that the first expression means, “Not only I, but also the Lord [Jesus] taught this”—meaning that Paul is not originating these instructions, but they were already familiar from the teachings of Jesus. When he turns around and writes, “I, not the Lord [Jesus]”, he is saying that his present instructions go beyond anything Jesus actually taught during His earthly ministry. As an apostle of Christ, Paul could authoritatively give rulings on subjects that Jesus had never discussed.
The significant thing here is that Paul said that Jesus never addressed the subject of the second group he is addressing. This means that, in Paul’s view (inspired by the Holy Spirit), everything Jesus taught on marriage and divorce was directed toward God’s people who were married to others who were also God’s people. We should not be surprised, since all of the people in Jesus’ audience were, most likely, Jews who were married to Jews. Both parties to the marriage were God’s covenantal people, as in the case of Christians who are married to Christians. If we learned nothing else from Paul here, we learn at least that Paul did not believe that Jesus’ teachings about divorce are relevant to, nor intended for, anyone except covenant people who are married to other covenant people—in our case, Christians married to Christians. Paul indicates that different rules apply in the case of Christians married to unbelievers, and the teachings of Christ on divorce are not applicable without modification to this second category.
The benefit of this observation is that, when we turn to examine the actual teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, we can do so realizing that (according to Paul), Jesus was directing His remarks not to all married people, but to those who have married “within the faith” (as all believers should, of course). Once we have discovered the actual content of Jesus’ teachings, we will now know the limits of the sphere of its application.
Jesus’ Actual Statements
Jesus’ teaching does not take the form of a command (e.g. “Thou shalt nor divorce”), but only of a teaching informing us of situations in which divorce and/or remarriage involve the parties in adultery. There are four passages:
In Matthew 5:32, an invalid divorce initiated by the husband results in an adulterous status of the divorced wife’s second marriage—she and her new husband both are said to “commit adultery.”
In Matthew 19:9, the husband that initiates the illegitimate divorce commits adultery when he marries a second wife, and whoever marries his ex-wife also commits adultery.
Mark 10:11-12 is the parallel passage to Matthew 19:9. As in that verse, these verses declare the divorcing and remarrying husband to be guilty of adultery, but turns the situation around by saying the same thing about the woman who initiates the divorce and remarries (i.e., she “commits adultery”).
Luke 16:18 may be the parallel to the passages in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 (just above). In any case, it contains precisely the same information as does Mark 10:12, with the slight modification of speaking of the guilt of the woman’s second husband (rather than her own guilt, as in Mark) and the woman in question is described as “her who is divorced from her husband” (passive, the victim of a husband’s divorce) as opposed to “a woman [who] divorces her husband” (active, the initiator), as in Mark.
If we might summarize everything Jesus said about this (remembering that Paul limits these instructions as applying only to Christians married to Christians): If a Christian man divorces his Christian wife, and remarries, he and his new wife are in a relationship of adultery. If his divorced wife enters a second marriage, this too is adulterous. The same applies to the Christian wife who divorces her Christian husband and remarries—both parties to the second marriage are in an adulterous relationship (though it may be a “legal” marriage in the eyes of the state, it is not a legitimate marriage in God’s sight). By declaring remarriage to be “adultery” in these statements, Jesus can only be assuming that, in God’s sight, the divorced persons are still married to their original mates, regardless of legal divorce papers. Though there has been a legal divorce, no legitimate dissolution of the marriage covenant is recognized by God.
All the above is true. . .with one exception! “Except for the cause of fornication,” which suggests that “fornication” is the one thing that can genuinely dissolve the marriage bond, rendering remarriage a valid option to the innocent party. Two questions are hotly debated over this “exception clause”: 1) Did Jesus really teach it? and 2) What is meant by “fornication”?
The Authenticity of the Exception
The first question arises because, in their quotation of Jesus’ words, neither Mark nor Luke mention the exception, and Paul does not mention it in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (where he summarizes Jesus’ teaching). On the other hand, Matthew includes it in both passages in which he records Jesus’ teaching on the subject. We are left with three options: 1) that Jesus spoke more than once on this topic, sometimes including (as per Matthew), and sometimes omitting (as per Mark, Luke and Paul) the exception clause; 2) that Jesus did not give the exception, but Matthew made it up to modify what Jesus really said; or 3) that Jesus really said it (as per Matthew), but Mark, et al, (for some reason) did not include it.
We may readily rule out the first suggestion, since Matthew 19 (which includes the exception) and Mark 10 (which omits it) are parallel passages, recording the same statement on the same occasion.
The second suggestion is that Matthew modified Jesus’ statement for some reason. If Matthew did take such a liberty, then he either wanted to misrepresent Jesus’ actual teaching (hardly an acceptable option!), or else he was seeking to expound, under inspiration, the nuances of Jesus’ statement, which Jesus intended to imply, but which he did not state explicitly. Matthew was an apostle who wrote Scripture, and thus any exception that he included would be authoritative for the Church of God.
The third option is also plausible. Given the assumption that Jesus actually uttered the exception, as Matthew asserts that He did, there might be reasons for the other writers not to have included this detail. They might think of the occurrence of infidelity among Christian couples to be so rare as barely to warrant mentioning (it is not, after all, polite to suggest to faithful people that, were they to commit adultery, their spouses could then divorce them). Our modern experience may tell us that adultery is not so very uncommon among Christians, but we must not assume that all whom we would regard as Christians would fit the biblical definition of that term. When we remember that no fornicator has any inheritance in the kingdom of God (1 Cor.6:9f/Gal.5:19-21/Eph.5:5), it will be plain that an unrepentant adulterer is no “Christian” in God’s estimation. If we are inclined, against the authority of Scripture, to regard as “Christians” individuals who commit adultery without repentance, so much the worse for our definitions!
When two biblical passages give different degrees of detail, it is safer (and customary) to assume that the briefer account is abbreviated, rather than to accuse the author of the fuller account of creative innovation. It is common in Scripture for one account to leave out detail that appears in other accounts. We always assume that the fuller account is simply more complete. If Mark tells of a man of the tombs who met with Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, whereas Matthew mentions two demoniacs in that place, we conclude that Matthew is giving more detail than is Mark. There are many places in Scripture where God states promises and threats which contain implied, though unspoken, conditions (e.g. Jonah’s message to Ninevah, cf. 1 Sam.2:30; Jer.18:7-10). Sometimes the conditions are stated, and other times they are left unspoken and only implied.
There are also many statements of Jesus which are generalized, without stating exceptions that are admitted elsewhere as valid. For example, in some manuscripts, Jesus is recorded as having said, “Whoever is angry at his brother shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt.5:22). No exception is stated here, though exceptions to this rule are indeed stated elsewhere (e.g. Mark 3:5/Eph.4:26). Similarly, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks of you” (Luke 6:30), though exceptions are certainly implied (must we give our children everything that they request?) and even stated elsewhere (e.g. 2 Thes.3:10). Other examples may be cited as well. In Mark 8:12, Jesus says, “No sign shall be given to this generation” (sounds absolute and without exception, doesn’t it?)—but in the parallel passage in Matthew, He is reported to have said, “No sign shall be given to this generation, except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt.12:39). It is similar with the statements in Mark, Luke and Paul that forbid divorce (seemingly without exception), whereas Matthew gives the additional detail of a peculiar and rare exception.
To suggest that the exception was never uttered, or at least implied, by Jesus is to say that Matthew misrepresented Jesus, where Mark, Luke and Paul quoted Him accurately. If we were to weigh authorities on the words of Jesus, however, we would do well to remember that Matthew (who includes the exception) was actually an eye-witness of the events and a hearer of the words that he records, whereas Mark, Luke and Paul (who do not include it) were not. Of course, no “card-carrying evangelical” would suggest that any of these writers erred. The comment by Professor Thomas Edgar seems entirely reasonable, when he writes: “...if the exception in Matthew 19:9 is regarded, as it claims to be, as an exception to the rule, then the best explanation is that the passages not stating an exception are stating the general rule, and the specific exceptions are allowable exceptions to that rule.” (Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, H. Wayne House, ed., p.140).
The Meaning of Fornication
Now, if we allow that an exception “for the cause of fornication” is actually part and parcel of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, the next difficulty is to reach consensus as to the meaning of “fornication” (Greek: porneia). I am aware of several meanings that have been suggested for this word.
The majority of scholars and lexicons extend the meaning of the Greek word porneia to include any unlawful sexual activity. Since the only lawful sexual activity acknowledged in Scripture is that which occurs between a heterosexual, covenantally married couple, those activities that would fall under the rubric of porneia would include premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, incest, child molestation, beastiality, and other perversions. Because of this, we might conclude that by the use of porneia, Matthew identifies sexual violation of the marriage vows, as the sole ground for divorce. In most cases, this would be a reference to ordinary adultery, though it could as easily be applied to these other sexual sins.
Alternative suggestions have been made as to the meaning of the word porneia. It has been pointed out that, apart from porneia, there is a distinct Greek word for “adultery” (moicheia), which is used in the New Testament passages under consideration in the phrase “commits adultery.” Jesus says, “Whoever divorces for any reason other than fornication (porneia ), and then remarries, commits adultery (moicheia).” Why, it is asked, would not Matthew have used the word moicheia in both instances, if the exception he intended to identify was adultery? A plausible answer would be that, while any kind of sexual deviancy (porneia) constitutes grounds for divorce, yet divorce and remarriage, in the worst case, is tantamount to adultery specifically (i.e., it is not homosexuality, beastiality, etc.) in that it is a straightforward sin of the violation of marriage vows.
One theory of the meaning of porneia in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is that the word refers to unlawful marriages (e.g. incestuous marriages). The implication is that Jesus only allowed divorce in the case of marriages that were unlawful in the first place. Unfortunately for the proponents of this view, there is almost no support for this meaning of the word in the Greek language, while the application of porneia to general sexual misconduct is well established. One suggested case in which the word is said to apply to an incestuous marriage is in 1 Corinthians 5:1, where the relationship of a man to his stepmother is referred to as porneia. However, the passage does not suggest that the man had married the woman. In this case, the word could readily be seen as applicable both to adultery and to incest, but there is no indication of an unlawful marriage.
A more common attempt to limit the meaning of porneia is to restrict its application only to sexual relations between two unmarried people (as we commonly think of the English word “fornication” today). Those taking this position suppose that Jesus envisages the circumstance of a man thinking that his bride is a virgin, but discovering on his wedding night that she is no virgin, and that she has previously committed “fornication” with another man while unmarried. This alone, it is suggested, constitutes grounds for divorce. By limiting the meaning to this narrow scenario, they intend to eliminate adultery in marriage from constituting grounds for divorce. This introduces the strange suggestion that premarital sex is a greater violation of, and more destructive to, the marriage than is an extramarital affair after marriage. Such a valuation is exactly the reverse of the respective estimation of these two offenses in the Scriptures (cf. Ex.22:16-17/Deut.22:22).
Those taking this approach also have argued that Jesus cannot be referring to adultery as the exception, since, under Jewish law, an adulterer or adulteress would not be divorced, but rather stoned to death (Deut.22:22; cf. John 8:4-5). But this argument fails to recognize that the penalty is the same for a woman representing herself as a virgin to a potential spouse, and then being found after the wedding to have had premarital sex with another man (Deut.22:21). The same death penalty applies to a betrothed virgin who violates her betrothal by sleeping with another man (Deut.22:23-24), although, when Mary was suspected of having done this, Joseph planned for a divorce, rather than an execution (Matt.1:18-19). Under Roman law, the Jews were not permitted to carry out the executions that their law required (John 18:31). Thus, common justice (Joseph was called a “just man”) and the teaching of Jesus both permitted the wronged parties to obtain legitimate divorces in situations where a proper execution would have otherwise freed them from their marriages.
Here are the definitions of porneia as given in four of the more respected lexical resources:
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Joseph H.Thayer:
“...illicit sexual intercourse in general...(...all other interpretations of the term, such as of marriages within the prohibited degrees, and the like, are to be rejected)...it is distinguished from [moicheia] in Mt.xv.19; Mk. vii.21; and Gal.v.19...used of adultery [(cf.Hos.ii.2(4), etc.)], Mt.v.32; xix.9...”
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Arndt-Bauer-Gingrich:
“...prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.”
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, Kittel & Friedrich, eds.:
“A. The Non-Jewish World....”porneia means ‘licentiousness’ or ‘fornication’...B. The OT....porneia means ‘fornication’ (sometimes involving adultery)...C. Later Judaism. 1. Later Judaism shows how the use of porneia broadens out to include not only fornication or adultery but incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage, and sexual intercourse in general. 2. Sirach issues warnings against fornicating husbands and unfaithful wives (23:16ff)...E. The Apostolic Fathers. Hermas Mandates 4.1.1 warns against porneia, which differs from but also includes adultery (cf.Mandates 8.3; 4.1.5).”
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, W.E. Vine:
‘illicit sexual intercourse’. . . it stands for, or includes, adultery; it is distinguished from it in [Matt.] 15:19 and Mark 7:21. . . “
The simple truth is that porneia seems to be a word that includes a variety of sexual sins, and that it is not uncommon for it to be used, both inside and outside of Scripture, of adultery. It is regularly used in the Septuagint to refer to Israel’s violation of their marriage covenant with God, which clearly means “adultery.” As pointed out earlier, to understand Jesus’ teaching as allowing divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery (and other grievous sexual sins) is simply to reflect God’s own conduct with reference to His covenants in Scripture.
Paul’s Contribution to the Discussion
Based on Jesus’ teaching, then, we may justly conclude that, in cases of Christians married to Christians, the only grounds for divorce allowed in Scripture is the ground of adultery, or comparable sexual violation of the marriage covenant. We must then ask, What is the unique contribution that Paul brings to the discussion of this topic, since he clearly claims to be adding a piece of instruction which, he says, was not taught by Jesus (1 Cor.7:12)? Paul begins his discussion of divorce and remarriage by summarizing what Jesus actually did say, and then he says, “To the rest say I, not the Lord...” Thus he clearly informs us that he is about to address a circumstance to which Jesus never addressed His remarks. When we examine the circumstances that Paul introduces after verse 12, we find three factors that are different from those addressed by Jesus. In the cases that Paul addresses:
1. The marriage is religiously mixed (from which we deduce that Jesus only addressed same-faith marriages);
2. In Christ’s scenario, a believer has initiated the divorce; in Paul’s, the believer’s spouse initiates it;
3. In Jesus’ scenario, she that is separated must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband (v.11), whereas, in Paul’s scenario, the believer is “not under bondage” (v.15);
The first two considerations are fairly self-explanatory. However, debate has raged over the third point. What is the meaning of “not under bondage”? Some argue that this merely means that the believer is not required to continue living with the spouse who has abandoned him/her, but that it does not imply full dissolution of the marriage with the attendant right of remarriage. It would seem very strange for Paul to make such a point. If “not under bondage” means no more than this, why even say it? Does Paul anticipate a questioner asking, “Does God require me to continue living with my husband who has left me and divorced me?”? The matter, in such a case, is out of the believer’s hands. The believer has no option in this case, since the unbelieving spouse has rendered cohabitation impossible. How could anyone wonder whether the believer is duty-bound to do what another’s actions entirely preclude as an option?
The more natural meaning is that the deserted party “in such cases” is not under bondage to the marriage covenant with the spouse who has deserted the marriage. Elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul has described the married person as “bound” to his/her spouse (1 Cor.7:27, 39). The metaphor of being “bound” specifically carries the connotation of “not free to marry another” in verse 39. Similarly, being divorced is spoken of as being “loosed” from one’s spouse (v.27). In the context of such expressions, for Paul to speak of certain formerly-married persons as “not under bondage” would suggest to a normal reader a liberty from the marriage that leaves the affected party “single,” and thus allows remarriage.
I am aware of the difference in the Greek words “bound”(deo—”to bind, tie as with a chain or a cord”), used in verse 39, and “under bondage” (douloo—”to enslave”), used in verse 15, but the words are not dissimilar in meaning. They both are, no doubt, intended to convey the same imagery to the reader. In a passage where Paul has repeatedly used the terms “bound” and “loosed” of the respective states of marriage and divorce, it would introduce confusion for him, without further clarification, to use the near-identical imagery, saying “not under bondage” (v.15) with a meaning different from “loosed” (v.27). Certainly, the burden of proof falls more heavily upon those who wish to establish a significant difference in the meanings of “bound” and “under bondage” in Paul’s discussion. I do not feel that this can be done.
Additionally, we must remember that Paul is distinctly giving a case that he says is different from any of which Jesus spoke. If the deserted brother or sister is required to remain unmarried (as was the case in verse 11, which summarized Jesus’ teaching about Christians married to other Christians), then Paul makes no significant addition to our previous knowledge, though he claims to be doing so. He could have simply cited Jesus’ instructions to the Christians in same-faith marriages, and then said, “ditto for those married to unbelievers.” It seems as if Paul’s whole passage can be paraphrased as follows:
I will remind you that Jesus forbade His disciples to divorce their wives [the exception “except for the cause of fornication” is implied, since it was part of Jesus’ teaching on the subject]. Therefore, you Christians should not divorce your Christian spouses [apart from the aforementioned exception], and if a separation or divorce wrongfully occurs, you are not free to remarry another but must endeavor to reconcile with your spouse (verses 10-11).
On the other hand, some of you are in circumstances that Jesus never addressed—namely, religiously-mixed marriages—and I will have to give instructions for your case that differ from what Jesus said about same-faith unions. If your pagan spouse is willing to keep up the marriage, then you are instructed the same as others: do not initiate a divorce [as in the other case, the exception for fornication would apply]. If your pagan spouse, however, initiates the divorce, without legitimate grounds, you are under no obligation to rescue the marriage. Unlike the previous case, where the divorced parties should remain unmarried or else be reconciled, you are not under such obligation in this latter case [i.e. you can remarry]. (verses 12-15).
If Paul’s meaning was something other than this, then he certainly picked an unfortunate choice of words to express himself. Paul’s instructions to those married to unbelievers may suggest that, since those marriages were contracted without seeking the sanction of the true God, their status is perhaps more tenuous. Since such marriages, though pagan, were entered upon by a good-faith legal contract, believers are not at liberty to simply desert them. This would be to default on a promise. Believers must keep promises that they made, even to unbelievers, and must honor even those contracts entered upon prior to their conversion. If the unbeliever, however, should renege on his/her contract promises, then there is little left to bind the believer to the marriage. Whereas, in the case of Christians who have married other Christians, they have deliberately covenanted before God to honor their vows, and nothing short of fornication, it seems, would constitute a breach sufficient to dissolve the divinely-established union.
Objections can be raised to the interpretations of Scripture that I have presented in this chapter. The next chapter will take these objections one-by-one and seek to give scriptural answers for them.
Objections and Scenarios
There are several objections that may be raised to the view of divorce and remarriage presented here. Some will object to the strictness of the teaching here advocated, while others will think it to be not restrictive enough.
Those that would desire to extend a greater degree of leniency toward those who wish to divorce without grounds, or who have already done so, face an enormous burden of proof, which I do not believe they can even begin to bear, apart from their outright rejection of the Scriptural injunctions, favoring arguments based upon a carnal sentimentality and a sympathy for covenant breakers (who probably happen to be their friends or relatives). The predictable objection is that this view of things does not grant enough room for compassion and grace. Of course, they are only thinking about compassion for the perpetrator of an ungrounded divorce, not its many victims, and they are thinking of "grace" as some vague, amorphous benevolence, rather than that distinctively divine trait that teaches us that, "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age" (Titus 2:11-12). Their position can scarcely be distinguished from that of the false teachers in Jude, who "turn the grace of God into license to sin" and who thereby "deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 4). There are few words sufficiently strong to warn these people off of their pernicious practices. They have contributed much to the destruction of the Christian family and to the degradation of the testimony of Christ's church. Little else needs be said in answer to their rebellion against the Lord Jesus who bought them.
On the other hand, there are those who believe the position presented here to be far too lenient. They take the Scriptures to teach that remarriage is never acceptable after divorce, unless the former spouse is no longer living. From reading their books, I anticipate from this camp the following six objections...
Objection 1. Doesn’t Jesus teach that marriage cannot be dissolved when He says, “What God has joined, let not man separate”?
Though many have taken Jesus’ words to teach the indissolubility of marriage, His statement actually affirms the danger, and thus the possibility, of people dissolving what God has joined. If a mother says to her children, “I spent the whole morning cleaning the living room. Don’t anybody mess it up!”, would the children be justified in taking her words to mean that it is impossible to mess up a room that their mother had cleaned? Jesus’ statement is very misleading if it is not teaching that dissolution of marriage is possible, but not permissible.
Marriage is a covenant. Covenants should never be broken—but they sometimes are. A covenant broken by one party ceases to be binding upon the other party. Thus God Himself is released from His covenantal obligations to Israel because of her violation of her covenant. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the marriage covenant is a unique exception to this rule, and Jesus’ teaching on the topic in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 explicitly confirms that there are extreme conditions under which the general permanence of marriage may legitimately be regarded as optional, i.e., when one spouse commits “fornication,” the other may choose to continue the marriage, or else to end it. In the latter case, the divorcing party is not “putting asunder” what God has joined. The adulterous partner has already done that. The party seeking the divorce is simply formalizing what the other has made a reality.
Objection 2. If divorce and remarriage are permitted, where does that leave the duty to forgive seventy-times-seven times? Is adultery the unforgivable sin?
Adultery is not the unforgivable sin. Neither is drunk driving. But the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian, even if forgiven by the victim’s survivors, is not able to bring back to life the deceased party, and may have to live with legal consequences or unrelenting remorse for the rest of his life. We should not minimize sin by suggesting, “Well, everything can be forgiven”—as if sin has no long-term consequences.
This is especially true of such a heinous crime against marriage as adultery. The breach of a covenant raises serious and legitimate questions about the possibility of trusting the violator in future situations—even if there has been apparent repentance. Once trust has been broken, it is hard to recover, even if “all is forgiven.”
Sin has both private and public consequences. Forgiveness, therefore, also has personal and public dimensions. The former is merely the release of any personal rancor or bitterness toward the perpetrator. The latter involves complete public reconciliation. The first must be automatic and unconditional. The second is conditioned upon repentance, and sometimes restitution. Thus Jesus teaches that we should routinely, personally forgive all offenses against ourselves, whether or not the perpetrator repents (Mark 11:24; also the examples of Jesus, Stephen and Paul confirm this). But Jesus also teaches that the unrepentant perpetrator must be confronted with the demand of repentance, and brought under public discipline if repentance does not occur (Luke 17:3-4/Matt.18:15-17). Reconciliation with full restoration of privileges is the public aspect of forgiveness, and does not occur automatically.
Many offenses occur between married parties in the course of a lifetime, though most do not “rise to the level” of covenant-breaking so as to justify divorce. To suggest that adultery is not sufficiently damaging to a marriage covenant as to justify divorce is to minimize the magnitude of this sin. Such a minimizing occurs in the minds of ethicists who fail to take the record of Scripture on this point with sufficient seriousness, and who, in most cases, have little or no personal experience with adultery in their own marriages.
It is not the position of Scripture that forgiveness should be withheld from adulterers (in fact, Jesus specifically demonstrated such forgiveness), and it is not a mandate of Scripture that the victim of an adulterous spouse must seek a divorce (which is why this author personally would not seek a divorce when in that very circumstance with a former adulterous wife). Personal forgiveness should be automatic. Formal reconciliation, however, can come only with the repentance of the offending party. Restoration of the marriage is left to the discretion of the wronged party. The requirement of forgiveness does not extend to this final stage (i.e., restoration of the marriage), but all Christians would certainly urge the wronged party not to seek a divorce and to actively seek restoration of marriage to a spouse whose adultery had not been perpetual and especially if the offender seemed genuinely to repent. Such restoration is what our most gracious God sought to accomplish with adulterous Israel, though He eventually divorced her for her perennial unfaithfulness.
Objection 3. Doesn’t this view of the subject place a low priority upon the Christian’s obligation to keep his promises and to not break his vows?
No. This view alone acknowledges the magnitude of the sin of breaking one’s covenantal promises. A view that does not view adultery as serious enough to destroy a marriage and to forfeit the perpetrator’s right to claim the continuing benefits of the marriage does not do justice to the biblical mandate of faithfulness to marriage vows. When such a destructive act of unfaithfulness occurs, it is sufficiently devastating to release even God from His covenantal obligations (Isa.50:1). It is incumbent upon Christians to keep their promises in all realms of life, but certain actions on the part of other parties may free the Christian from previously-made commitments. For example, if I agree to pay my neighbor’s son $40 per month to mow my lawn each week, I should not default on this commitment. However, if the boy never shows up to do the work agreed upon, I am under no obligation to give him his money. We may have entered into an agreement, but his failure to keep the agreement frees me from my obligation to fulfill mine.
Likewise, when two people are married, they promise each other that they will forsake all others and remain faithful to each other for the rest of their natural lives—but this is upon the agreement that they are both making this commitment. When one party commits adultery, that party defaults upon the agreement, and forfeits any right to expect that the cheated spouse will continue in the marriage. Some Christians may commit themselves unconditionally to remain in the marriage, despite the unfaithfulness of their spouse, but the Bible nowhere places this demand upon them, nor are those who opt for divorce under such circumstances the less “faithful” for having exercised this option. Nevertheless, a Christian may sense that the Lord’s personal leading in their situation would be to stay in the marriage and to waive the right of divorce (this was this author's choice).
Objection 4. Though Matt.5:32 and 19:9 may seem to allow an exception to the otherwise universal rule of “no divorce, no remarriage,” yet the majority of passages on the subject of divorce (e.g. Mal.2, Mark, Luke, Rom., 1 Cor.7) do not mention or allow any exception.
The majority of passages about salvation do not mention repentance as a requirement, but it would be folly to conclude from this silence that the passages calling for repentance do not contain a vital element to the whole counsel of God on the subject of salvation.
Likewise, the majority of passages about the fate of the lost do not mention eternal torment, but the few that do are regarded as telling us something valid and vital to the subject.
We do not determine the whole counsel of God by counting up the number of times He mentions something and placing them in tension with the number of times that He says nothing on the subject. “In the mouth of two or more witnesses shall every word be established.” Even if we did not have the whole counsel of the rest of Scripture confirming that adultery is a valid ground for divorce (which I believe we do), yet the exception is mentioned twice by none less than Jesus Himself. This is sufficient testimony. (For more on this, see chapters one and two).
Objection 5. Even if we allow for divorce in the case of sexual infidelity, this does not necessarily prove that remarriage is permissible.
Nor does it prove that remarriage is forbidden. If divorce means anything, it means the end of a marriage (a “separation” is something less than this). If a marriage no longer exists, it would be most natural to assume that the parties to the former marriage are single, and, therefore, free to remarry, unless otherwise explicitly forbidden to do so or advised against it in Scripture (as in certain cases like 1 Cor.7:11). Some may disagree with this last observation. They would suggest that there is no a priori assumption of freedom to remarry after a divorce. To such as think this way, let me encourage you to think more clearly. An inappropriate second marriage, according to Jesus, is “adultery.” However, such remarriage is inappropriate for the simple reason that the antecedent divorce was invalid (i.e., it was not “for the cause of fornication”). Since the divorce was not valid before God, the first marriage remains intact, rendering the second marriage an act of adultery against an existing, intact marriage covenant.
But suppose the divorce is legitimate in the sight of God, because it was “for the cause of fornication.” The first marriage is therefore no longer in existence in God’s sight. A second marriage cannot be “adultery” if neither party is married to anyone else. If a given second marriage is not adultery, then what can be said against it? The only second marriages that the New Testament condemns are those that are adulterous and those in which a believer marries an unbeliever. Apart from these scenarios, no stigma attaches to second marriages in Scripture. “What God has cleansed, call not thou unclean.” When the heart of God is misapprehended by religious persons, they inevitably fall into the same error as the Pharisees, namely, they “condemn the guiltless” (Matt.12:7).
Objection 6. Even though the Bible might allow men to divorce adulterous wives and to remarry, under the law, only the man could initiate a divorce. A woman could not divorce her husband. Therefore, we can only approve of this liberty for men, but not for women.
Fortunately for women, the New Testament extends greater liberties to them than does the Old Testament. Does the New Testament allow only men to initiate the divorce from an adulterous partner, but not allow wives the same permission? While I do believe that the Bible differentiates between the roles of men and of women in many respects, I do not see any evidence of distinctions in the present concern. No distinction is made between the rights of men and those of women in the relevant passages. Jesus raises the issue of a woman divorcing her husband in Mark 10:12, suggesting that the idea of this happening may not have been as foreign to the Jews as we have been told. The teaching of Jesus about divorce and remarriage is applied equally to men and to women (i.e. neither are permitted to divorce and remarry without the grounds of fornication) in Mark 10:11-12 and 1 Cor.7:10-11 (where Paul cites Jesus’ position). Paul additionally extends full liberty from a first marriage to both “a brother or a sister” in the case of abandonment by a pagan spouse (1 Cor.7:15). Whenever the subject is raised, the same teaching is applied to both genders.
The attitude of the Old Testament Jews was that men had exclusive rights to their wives bodies, though wives did not have exclusive rights to the bodies of their husbands—reflected in the fact that polygamy was only permitted to men, and not to women. Thus, a man could have multiple women without being charged with adultery, so long as those women were his wives or concubines. Women had no corresponding options. If a woman slept with a man other than her husband, she was an adulteress and subject to divorce or death. Not so with the Jewish man.
Paul abolishes this double standard in 1 Cor.7:4. When he writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does,” Paul was stating only what every Jewish male (and female) knew to be true. However, Paul went scandalously beyond the Jewish ideas by extending exactly the same privileges to the wife: “And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This would seem to rule out polygamy for the male as well as for the female, so that extramarital sex on the part of either spouse is thus rendered equally adulterous—a violation of the other’s rights.
Thus whatever the New Testament may teach about divorce and remarriage, it apparently makes no distinction between the rights of the male and those of the female.
(if your favorite objection has been omitted, please send it in for our consideration and response)
Five Typical Scenarios:
I have selected several typical scenarios that occur only too often in the church, where the leadership and other believers must make some response and often must give counsel of a godly sort. I have given the counsel in each scenario that I believe to be biblical. Many, of course, will disagree with my recommendations. Some will think them too severe, and others will think them too lenient. My goal in each case has not been to be either “sufficiently severe” (so as to adequately punish wrongdoers) nor “sufficiently lenient” (so as to keep people happy who ought to repent and make restitution). My only desire has been to be thoroughly biblical, since God’s word, though sometimes difficult to obey, always provides the best and most beneficial course that an ever-gracious and all-holy God can offer to mankind. Whether I have achieved this objective I leave to the reader to judge, since no one should be expected to make hard decisions on the advice of one man. We will answer to God not only for the decisions we make in our own lives, but also for the counsel we give to others (Matt.12:36). Since we will either enjoy eternal rewards or else suffer eternal regret for our choices in these matters, it is incumbent upon each of us to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to form our own convictions.
I wish first to identify the basis for my understanding of the ethical obligations accruing to the respective parties in a divorce. My judgment, in each case, proceeds from my conviction that God’s principal concern in the issue of marriage and divorce does not arise from mere sentimentality or arbitrary fiat. His requirements for married (and divorced) Christians are of one piece with His universally expressed insistence upon justice and faithfulness in every area of life (Mic.6:8/Matt.23:23). It is the injustice and the unfaithfulness involved in every divorce that causes God to express His hatred for it. But not every party in a divorce is necessarily guilty either of injustice or unfaithfulness in the matter. Thus, the requirements of justice and faithfulness, though universal, call for different forms of redress, depending upon the respective guilt or innocence of particular parties in particular situations.
In the following cases, some may feel that I am advocating a meticulous legalism, and that an appreciation for the grace of God would eliminate the need to consider these matters so exactly. However, it is not with a mind to be legalistic that I have gone to the pains of laying out the following biblical counsel for each scenario. I do this for the sake of those who, though saved by grace, are mindful of their obligation to do what is right in the sight of God. In a situation as devastating as a divorce, there are great injustices done and many injuries inflicted. To cause such damage, then to claim justification by grace, and continue living in such a way as to perpetuate the injustice and the continuing injury of the other parties, can hardly be an acceptable option for the Christian. In the counsel given below, I have attempted to discern the “justice issues” that inform God’s actual, specific commands, so as to apply them faithfully even in such cases where no specific instruction is recorded. The reader is encouraged to follow the Scriptures to different conclusions than mine, if faithfulness to the text so dictates.
Unjustified divorce and the remarriage of the guilty party:
“Spouse A” (a professing Christian) divorces “Spouse B” without justification and remarries. What should “Spouse A” do, if repentant? Can “Spouse B” remarry?
My understanding of Scripture would be that “Spouse B” can remarry. “Spouse A” has wrongfully remarried, which is adultery. Thus “Spouse B” has biblical grounds for freedom from that marriage and for remarriage.
“Spouse A’s” situation is more complex. “Spouse A’s” second marriage is not recognized as valid by God, since Jesus referred to such a union as “adultery.” No legal document from a civil magistrate can transform what God calls “adultery” into a legitimate marriage (notwithstanding the frequent complicity of certain churches in this crime). If “Spouse A” comes to realize this, and repents, what must he/she do then?
The Scripture teaches the duty of restitution. This simply means that the repentant party, if possible, must make good to the injured party whatever damage was inflicted by the crime. Thus a thief, if caught, must return the stolen goods, with interest (Ex.22:1, 3-4/Luke 19:8-9). If “Spouse A” has committed the crime of violating wedding vows, then “Spouse B” has suffered damage by this act, and remains injured so long as the situation continues unchanged.
“Spouse A” must discover whether there is any restitution that can be made. If “Spouse B”, since the time of the break-up, has remained faithful to “Spouse A”, and desires the restoration of the marriage, then the only restitution that could possibly be made would be for “Spouse A” to abandon the second “spouse” (“partner in adultery” would be a more biblical term), and return to “Spouse B” to live out the terms of the original vows.
If the original separation of “Spouse A” from “Spouse B” was occasioned by some circumstance of “Spouse B’s” behavior (like severe physical abuse) that would justify a separation (but not divorce), then the restitution would require only abandonment of the second partner, and possibly the continuing separation from “Spouse B” until the original issues occasioning separation have been resolved, allowing for reconciliation.
Has “Spouse B” subsequently abandoned the marriage vows?
If “Spouse B” has died, legitimately remarried, or sought other partners, or refuses to forgive and take “Spouse A” back, then there would appear to be no possibility (and therefore no responsibility) of “Spouse A” making the full restitution of coming back into the original marriage. In such a case, in my judgment, if “Spouse A” and his/her second “spouse” are both repentant of their adultery, and are both Christians, they can seek God’s forgiveness and enter into a valid marriage with each other.
These principles are illustrated in David’s life. His wife Michal was legally taken from him and given to another man (1 Sam.25:44). Later, David required her to return to him, since her second marriage was not legitimate before God, and restitution would require David, the cheated partner, to have his stolen wife restored to him (2 Sam.3:14-16). Was this emotionally difficult for Michal’s second husband? It sure was! But it was his own fault for having committed adultery in marrying another man’s wife. Sin has consequences. Those who truly repent must be willing to accept the emotional (and other) consequences of their misdeeds.
However, David’s later marriage to Bathsheba was also displeasing to God, having its foundation in adultery (2 Sam.11:26-27). When David repented, he was not required to forsake the marriage, and Solomon (and eventually Jesus) later were produced by that (apparently blessed) union. Why was this different? Simply because Bathsheba’s husband was now dead, rendering restitution impossible. Had Uriah been still living when David repented, he would certainly have had to return Bathsheba to her rightful husband, as David had required Michal to be restored to himself.
I am sure that the requirement of restitution will be found to be “a hard saying” to some who have sinned against their husbands or wives in divorcing them, because such an action usually occurs after all love for and desire to be with that person has vanished. In such cases, the repentant spouse must learn what God instructs, namely, that the wives learn to love their husbands (Tit.2:4) and that husbands learn to love their wives (Eph.5:25). In a society like ours, in which people have been conditioned to believe that love and loss of love for one another are simply phenomena that “happen,” partners need to be discipled to know how to choose what is right in the sight of God and to cultivate love where none exists.
Unjustified divorce, followed by singleness of guilty party:
“Spouse A” divorces “Spouse B” without justification. “Spouse A” remains unmarried. Can “Spouse B” remarry?
Not automatically. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus has provided an option which “Spouse B” should have followed before the divorce was initiated, but may yet follow belatedly after the divorce has occurred. According to Jesus, when “Spouse A” began to move in the direction of seeking an unjustified divorce, “Spouse B” should have protested to “Spouse A” that this was a sin against God, against spouse, against children (if applicable), against the church and against society. If “Spouse A” refused to repent upon being thus confronted, then “Spouse B” should have taken one or two other faithful witnesses to repeat the confrontation. This failing, the matter should have been taken before the church. If “Spouse A” had repented at any point during this procedure, “Spouse B” should have forgiven and the marriage should have been restored. If these three steps, however, failed to elicit repentance from “Spouse A”, then he/she should have been regarded thereafter (as Jesus put it) as “a pagan or a tax collector.”
The reclassification of “Spouse A” as a pagan (formerly a professing Christian) shifts the ethical options into a different sphere, since Paul taught that a Christian (“Spouse B” in this case) who is abandoned by a nonchristian spouse (“Spouse A” at this point) is “not under bondage” (1 Cor.7:15) which implies, in my judgment, freedom to remarry.
Unjustified divorce and the remarriage of the innocent party:
“Spouse A” (a professing Christian) divorces “Spouse B” without justification. “Spouse A” remains unmarried and sexually pure. Eventually “Spouse B” remarries. What should “Spouse A” do, if repentant? What should “Spouse B” do?
“Spouse A” has sinned in divorcing “Spouse B,” but has not yet sinned in any way that would automatically free “Spouse B” to remarry, thus “Spouse B” has also sinned in remarrying (this seems to be the scenario depicted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—Matt.5:32). Though “Spouse A” has not committed adultery, his/her actions have caused “Spouse B” to commit adultery (in remarrying). What should be done?
If Both “Spouse A” and “Spouse B” repent:
First, “Spouse A” should repent of sinning against the original marriage, and offer to return to “Spouse B,” who should leave his/her illegitimate marriage to reconcile with “Spouse A.” Is this likely to be painful? Very! I would never wish to give this counsel, if faithfulness to the Word of God did not require it. Getting involved in an ongoing adulterous relationship (like the illegitimate second marriage) can hurt many people, including children born to the adulterous couple. Would to God that people would follow God’s commands in the first place! The way of the transgressor is hard!
If only “Spouse A” repents:
What if “Spouse A” repents, but “Spouse B” does not? In such a case, “Spouse A” has sought to make restitution, but “Spouse B” has refused to comply. “Spouse B” is in adultery, freeing “Spouse A” to remarry.
If only “Spouse B” repents:
What if “Spouse B” repents, but “Spouse A” does not? Must “Spouse B” permanently abandon the illegitimate second marriage and wait indefinitely for “Spouse A” to repent? Not necessarily.
After “Spouse B” has separated from his/her illegitimate second partner, he/she should express to “Spouse A” repentance for having entered a second relationship without justification. Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 should then be followed (see above, under Scenario 2), seeking reconciliation (i.e., “Spouse B” should confront “Spouse A” about the latter’s sin in the original divorce).
If the Matthew 18 procedure is followed without bringing “Spouse A” to repentance, then “Spouse B” is a believer who has been abandoned by an unbelieving spouse, and is “not under bondage.” He/she and the second spouse should acknowledge the wrongness of their having married when they did, and, if both are Christians, they may enter into legitimate marriage to each other.
Justifiable divorce and remarriage.
Subsequent repentance of the adulterous party:
“Spouse A” commits adultery. “Spouse B” divorces “Spouse A” and remarries. “Spouse A” later repents. What must “Spouse A” do? Can “Spouse A” remarry?
“Spouse B” has divorced and remarried with biblical justification, and no one should disturb the second marriage.
Upon repentance, it is important that “Spouse A” make known the fact that he/she has repented, and should humbly seek forgiveness. “Spouse B” must forgive “Spouse A”, though restoration of their marriage is impossible, since a valid second marriage exists. “Spouse A” should leave “Spouse B” alone and seek a new life in Christ. As in the case of David and Bathsheba, since reconciliation is not an option, I can see no possible restitution that “Spouse A” can make, and I can find no biblical reason to forbid him/her to remarry after genuine repentance.
Hasty remarriage of innocent party after justifiable divorce:
“Spouse A” commits adultery against “Spouse B”. “Spouse B” divorces “Spouse A” and, one month later, “Spouse B” announces engagement to “Spouse C”. Within the year, “Spouse B” marries “Spouse C”.
The rapid remarriage of “Spouse B” to “Spouse C” may be technically allowable, but it is not advisable, in my judgment. There are several reasons that immediately come to mind:
—Adultery can be forgiven, and “Spouse B” ought not rush to divorce on a first offense. Repentance should be sought from “Spouse A”. If “Spouse A” does not repent, and especially if he/she establishes a pattern of ongoing adultery, then the propriety of “Spouse B’s” remarriage seems more evident. This resembles God’s dealing with adulterous Israel. He endured a long time and continually sought to elicit Israel’s repentance. When the pattern of adultery was unmistakenly established, God divorced national Israel, and sought another people.
—Even if a divorce is justified, hasty remarriage seems very unwise. Immediate plans to remarry after a divorce may be objected to for the following reasons: 1) It may raise questions among observers as to whether the second relationship may have been “brewing” even before the first marriage ended in divorce; 2) immediately after a broken marriage, the jilted party is not likely to possess great objectivity concerning the advisability of entering a particular second relationship. Loneliness, sexual frustration, or the embarrassment of rejection and the need to prove to oneself that he/she is still attractive to the opposite sex may lead a divorced person to establish an unwise and hasty “rebound” relationship.
—If there are children from the first marriage, the selection of a step-parent for those children requires discernment arising from considerations besides the single parent’s desire to find another mate. Such a choice of a step-parent should never be made in haste.
However, the marriage between “Spouse B” and “Spouse C”, even if entered into hastily, is binding and valid before God, and, just like first marriages, cannot be ditched later on the grounds that it was entered into unwisely. It does not take very long to enter a marriage, but the regrets over a bad decision can last a lifetime. As the saying goes: “Marry in haste; repent at leisure.”
Additional Pertinent Questions:
1. Does the passage of time affect moral responsibility?
If a wrong has been done, requiring redress, then there is nothing about the passage of time alone that alters one’s moral obligations in a matter. Reuben slept one time with his father’s concubine, and, without further infraction, found that the matter still carried lifelong consequences for him decades later (Gen. 35:22/49:4). Moses disobeyed God by not circumcizing his son in Midian. Time passed and he may have begun to feel that the matter had become a non-issue. However, when God called him to go back to Egypt, the unfinished business of obedience to God was brought up as a prerequisite to being used of God in ministry (Ex.4:24-26). The passage of time may tend to relieve the conscience of felt guilt or responsibility, but this change in sensitivity does not alter the objective moral facts. If a man borrows a car and never returns it to its owner as agreed upon, he may feel more guilty about it in the first few weeks than he does after the passage of years—yet so long as he wrongfully retains possession of the “borrowed” vehicle, his moral obligation to return it remains unchanged.
In the case of one’s obligations to right the wrongs committed in connection with a divorce, these duties do not go away by ignoring them, and may indeed become more complicated and painful by them delay (e.g. by the birth of children to an illegitimate second marriage!).
Of course, with the passage of time may also come changes in circumstances that would alter one’s obligation (e.g. the death of a former spouse to whom one should have become reconciled), but to put off the doing of what one knows to be right in hopes of such a change occurring would be flagrant disobedience and rejection of the will of God, and cannot be thought to carry no adverse consequences. “Be not deceived. God is not mocked.”
2. If there are children from a second, illegitimate marriage, does that affect the moral responsibility of the guilty parents?
We live in an age of great sympathy for the plight of unhappy children, and none is more moved by such sentiments than am I. However, while this is an improvement over an attitude of careless indifference to their well-being, it needs to be tempered by the sentiments expressed by Jesus in passages like Matthew 10:37 and Mark 10:29-30.
As important as it is to guard our children from unnecessary trauma, it should be noted that one’s obligation to one’s spouse takes priority over obligation to children (marriage is a lifelong, covenanted relationship, whereas children are only lent to the couple by the Lord for a short time, after which they leave and form their own covenantal associations [Gen.2:24]). If one must choose between jilting a spouse or offending children, it would seem that the former is the greater infraction (both are bad, though the offense to the children is morally unavoidable. The greatest wrong done to the children was bringing them into the world into an adulterous relationship. Once having done that, there’s no smooth way out of sin without hurting many parties). It is possible for the children to recover from their trauma, but it is not possible for the original marriage to be healed without the abandoning of the second marriage (or, more properly, “adulterous relationship”).
It may not be necessary for the repenting adulterer to utterly abandon the children of adultery. His/her spouse, if magnanimous, may permit them to be brought into the family, or may at least allow some contact or visitation. After all, if both parties to the second marriage have first marriages to return to, as may easily be the case, then someone will have to take care of the children of the adulterous marriage. Working out the details of custody or adoption would have to be worked out according to the specifics of the case.
This situation only arises in scenarios where one is obligated to return to a first marriage from a second marriage that was never valid before God (e.g., scenarios #1 and #3, above). Clearly, it does not apply to situations where no such obligation exists (see scenarios #2, #4, and #5, above). An invalid second marriage is not simply an unideal situation, it is adultery (Matt.19:9). If there were no legal documents defining it as a marriage, would anyone argue that a divorced person should stay away from his/her faithful spouse, in an adulterous relationship, for the sake of the children? If so, then sentimentality has clearly numbed the moral sensibilities of that person.
What I find amazing is the ease with which we permit departing spouses to abandon the spouse and legitimate children of a valid marriage, without consequences, but we are reluctant to require them to traumatize the children of their adultery. The sentimental reason for this inconsistency is no doubt our assessment that the latter are the product of an intact relationship between partners who “love” each other, whereas one cannot expect to preserve the interests of children whose parents no longer “love” each other (i.e. the children of the first marriage). Our culture’s deification of romantic “love” has thus adversely affected our moral judgment. By such a standard, the happiness and well-being of legitimate children must be sacrificed to the goddess Venus, but the feelings of illegitimate children can not be sacrificed to Jehovah.
3. If a person has been converted since the offenses took place, does that affect the moral responsibility?
If an unbeliever has cheated his/her spouse, and brought about a circumstance in which restitution and restoration of the marriage would ordinarily be required, does the fact that this person has now become a Christian have any impact upon his/her obligations to restore the former marriage?
Valid moral obligations do not cease to exist when one becomes a believer. If a person comes to Christ, all past sin is forgiven by God (Eph.1:7), old things are passed away and all things are become new (2 Cor.5:17). However, this does not mean that there remain no residual obligations or “unfinished business” to attend to. For example, monthly payments on a mortgage incurred prior to conversion must still be made after one has become a Christian. A marriage contracted prior to conversion must still be honored by a spouse who afterward becomes a Christian (1 Cor.7:12-13). Robbery commited prior to conversion still requires that restitution be made, even if the robber has since become a believer (Luke 19:8). An unsaved slave that ran away from his master was obligated, once converted, to return to the master he had thus wronged (Philemon 10-14). Thus, wrongs done to a spouse prior to conversion, which would ordinarily require redress, continue to be wrongs requiring redress after one has been converted.
A Christian is commanded to make right any offense he/she has given another as a prerequisite for approaching and worshiping God (Matt.5:23-24)—how much more so if the injured party is one to whom covenantal vows had been made and violated!
4. Since Jesus said that for a man to look upon a woman to lust after her is “adultery” in the heart, would this sin constitute grounds for divorce?
Though Jesus did say that looking at a woman in order to lust is indeed “adultery in the heart,” he never suggested that sins of the heart are punishable by man (just as anger and hatred are equated with “murder” in the heart, but no one will suggest that angry haters should be executed as murderers). Sins of the heart are grievous in the sight of God, but they are His province alone, and He alone punishes them. Though Jesus did identify this mental sin as a form of “adultery,” He never named “adultery” as grounds for divorce. The word He used was “fornication” (Gr. porneia ), a word that, throughout all Greek literature, speaks exclusively of physical acts of sexual misconduct—never what goes on in the mind merely.
5. What if there is no adultery in the marriage, but there is physical or emotional abuse of spouse or children...would this constitute legitimate grounds for divorce?
If the abusive partner does not claim to be a Christian and the abused partner does, the matter may fall into the category discussed by Paul in 1 Cor.7:12-15. The believer is to be regarded as “not under bondage” to this marriage if a) the unbeliever is not content to dwell with the believer, or b) the unbeliever abandons the marriage. There are those who feel that these two conditions are in fact one, and that the only instance of the unbeliever being not “content to dwell” that can qualify the believer for this freedom is in the case of the unbeliever’s actual physical departure from the home. This may be correct, but not all would judge of the matter the same way.
For an unbeliever to be “content to dwell” in a marriage might be thought to imply more than simply a willingness to share the same roof and bed. It may refer to a willingness to dwell in a marriage according to the covenantal agreement made by both partners on the occasion of the marriage being first contracted. It is not likely that physical or sexual abuse was an agreed upon part of any couple’s wedding vows. The fact that a partner resorts to such behavior is thought by some to constitute a rejection of the marriage relationship, thus exhibiting a frame of mind that is not “content to dwell” in the sense that Paul had in mind. Deciding this question must be done under the judicious counsel of cautious, spiritual persons determined to honor God’s standards and capable of resisting the tyranny of their own sentiments.
What if the abuser is a professing Christian? One might justly question whether a genuinely abusive spouse can really be a Christian, even if he/she claims to be, since the evidence would seem to be against it (1 John 2:4/Tit.1:16). If the abuser professes to be a Christian, then Matthew 18:15-17 should be followed. If repentance occurs and the abuse thereby is ended, all is well (unless the abused party is harboring resentment and not desiring to forgive, in which case, discipleship and possible discipline is needed for the unforgiving party). If the abuser is not repentant, then the process will ultimately brand him/her a pagan, and will then move the matter to the category of 1 Cor.7:12-15 (a believer married to an unbeliever). Thereafter, an assessment must be made as to whether the abusive behavior rises to the level of the abuser’s being not “content to dwell” with the believing spouse (those involved in this decision-making process must make a genuine effort to find the mind of God on this matter). If so, then “the brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.”
It should be pointed out that persons unhappily married are capable of interpreting many unpleasant behaviors on the part of their spouses as “abusive.” “Verbal abuse” and “emotional abuse” are sometimes appealed to as grounds for separation and/or divorce in cases known to this writer. The question arises as to just what degree of unpleasantness in a marriage God may expect a Christian graciously to endure for the sake of keeping sacred vows. The Christian wife is urged to exhibit the same submissiveness to an unbelieving husband as she would were he a believer (1 Pet.3:1-2). Every Christian must be prepared to endure some degree of “abuse” from the world (John 15:18-21/16:33/1 Thess.3:4). Even some degree of domestic violence (Gen.16:6-9/1 Pet.2:18-21) or tormenting temptation from one in authority in the home (Gen.39:7-9) is sometimes to be endured for the sake of godly duty.
Marriage is not for cowards, and neither is Christianity. Both require covenantal faithfulness on the part of all participants, even when such faithfulness proves to be painful, costly or disappointing. Though divorce is permissible in certain cases defined in Scripture, the church and the individual Christian spouse must be careful not to let it become a “coward’s way out” of a situation in which God is testing covenantal loyalty and is desirous to bring maturity through difficulty and affliction—a concept almost entirely lost to the modern western church.
6. Even if a person has divorced his or her spouse without biblical grounds, shouldn’t we show compassion to them, since they often have been driven to do what they did because of great pain and suffering?
There is no person whose compassion is purer or more perfect than God’s. When God gives commands to his people, these commands spring from his heart of infinite mercy and justice. We sometimes attempt to be “wise above what is written.” We are often inclined to show “compassion” to those whose actions God condemns. Though doing so may sometimes seem like the loving approach to take, it suggests that God is himself not as loving as we are, since he commands us not to tolerate such sin (Eph.5:11), to confront sinners with their obligation to repent (Gal.6:1/Luke 17:3), and to shun those who refuse to do what he commands (Matt.18:15-17; 2 Thes.3:14). Whenever we circumvent obedience to the Scriptures in an attempt to be compassionate, we do violence to the true compassion that God has for the sinner—which is his desire for the sinner to repent and get back onto the path that leads to life.
Again, all Christians are called upon to pass various tests of their faith. Some are tested by imprisonment and torture, others by painful illness, or by the loss of property or loved ones. Certainly the endurance of hardship in an “intolerable” marriage, from which God has provided no legitimate release, should be seen as a test that God has imposed upon many of his children. Many have passed such tests with flying colors. If someone is on the verge of failing the test by bailing out of their marriage, we show them no true compassion by helping them to fail.
God certainly knows the pain and temptation that leads some people to wrongfully abandon their marriages, but he also knows the pain and temptation that their doing the wrong thing imposes upon others. “God is merciful toward all,” and even as he understands the pressures that led to the sinner’s wrong choices, he cares about the innocent victims of the sinner’s sin, as well. To water-down God’s commands in favor of sentimental sympathies toward the perpetrator of a wrongful divorce is to rebel against the living God, and is, at best, a “selective kindness,” that favors the transgressor at the expense of the transgressed-against (i.e., the innocent members of the household victimized by the sinner’s ungrounded desertion). How we deceive ourselves when we allow our feelings to trump the authority of God’s word! “There is a way that seems right to a man (and to a woman), the end thereof are the ways of death.”
7. Isn’t “separation” a biblical option for some who may not have grounds for actual divorce?
Many Christians have concluded, from 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, that Paul recognizes a third option to “marriage” and “divorce.” Some go so far as to describe this condition as “unmarried, but unavailable.” The verses actually read: “Let not the wife depart from the husband. But and if she departs, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.”
Some see Paul, in these verses, as giving unhappy wives two options: 1) do not depart from your husband; or, if you prefer, 2) go ahead and depart from your husband, but remain “unmarried.” This, they present as a third category, where the wife is “unmarried” (apparently free from her husband’s authority for all practical purposes), but not allowed to remarry (not so entirely free from the marriage bond as she would be if divorced).
This is a strange reading of Paul’s intentions. There are not two commands to the unhappy wife in the home, but only one: “Let not the wife depart from her husband.” Paul does not follow-up by giving permission to break this command. He does not say, “Or else, let her depart and stay single.” He says, “But if she does depart....” In other words, if she violates this command (thereby sinning, as some Christians do)—or if she, prior to receiving this letter, had already made this error—she is obligated to return to her husband, if he will have her back. If it is not in her power immediately to return (e.g., if her husband, understandably, will not trust her or be reconciled to her right away), then she must remain “unmarried” 
until either reconciliation is possible or her husband gives her grounds for divorce.
Thus, with Paul, this so-called “third category” (separation without proper grounds for full divorce) is treated as a state of disobedience to be remedied as soon as reconciliation is possible! If she remarries, she thereby commits adultery (Mark 10:12). The wishful thinking of a million discontented wives will not change Paul’s words into permission to depart from one’s husband without biblical grounds. In fact, is it not significant, that, if Paul really had intended to identify a third legitimate category (free from marital responsibilities, but lacking grounds for complete divorce), he never mentions what the grounds might be for choosing such an option? What a significant omission this would be! When Christians take this unbiblical position, they are left to make-up their own arbitrary standards of whether a wife has adequate “grounds for separation” even if she has no “grounds for divorce.” God has not left us in such a fog of subjectivity, since He never acknowledged a legitimate category of “separated, but not divorced.”
8. If a spouse has committed adultery, but has professed to have repented, does his or her partner still have grounds for divorce?
When Jesus said that “fornication” constitutes grounds for divorce, he did not indicate whether he meant a single act of sexual misconduct or a perennial habit. Knowing God’s hatred for divorce and his own patient endurance of Israel’s adulteries against himself, one is inclined to think that the heart of God favors forgiveness and restoration of the repentant adulterer by the injured party. This does not mean that I am unaware of the intense, enduring pain that comes upon the cheated spouse, nor the enormous difficulties in restoring trust toward the adulterer (the author has also, in the past, had to forgive a previous, adulterous spouse), but we must remember that we are not called as Christians to take the path that affords the least pain, but that which most exhibits the character of Christ, who endured on our behalf far more than we are likely ever to suffer on His behalf.
Many who are unhappy in their marriages are looking for any “legal” excuse to seek a divorce. As with many who profess to be Christians, they are merely seeking a biblical sanction for them to do what they selfishly want to do, rather than seeking to know the will of God and to do it. If they learn that their spouse has once committed adultery, such people may at times be almost jubilant because they now have an excuse to escape from their unfulfilling marriages.
But one must not be too hasty. A spouse who is otherwise very committed to being faithful might fall in a very weak moment to an overwhelming temptation. This is no attempt to excuse their moral failure, since God can deliver his children from every temptation (1 Cor.10:13), but it may mean that the fall does not in any sense reflect a deliberate renunciation of his or her commitment to being faithful to the marriage. If there is genuine and immediate repentance, I believe that a strong case can be made for the cheated spouse to being required by God to forgive and seek the grace to continue in the marriage.
There are cases, however, where adultery is perennial or frequently repeated. In such cases, there is no evidence of true repentance, and it would be difficult to make a biblical case for requiring the cheated spouse to stay in such a marriage.
9. If the case be such between a man and his wife, is it better not to marry—or, for the unhappily married unbeliever, is it better to avoid becoming a Christian, so as not to put oneself under the restrictive standards of marital faithfulness?
There are easier paths than the Christian path...but those who take the long view of things would rather take the narrow path, which leads through the narrow gate, and to life, than to take any other, since all others lead to ruin and death. If one has the power to remain celibate while unmarried, then Paul suggests that this may indeed be the preferable choice (1 Cor.7:32-35). If God does not give such grace as to remain celibate perpetually without great distraction, then He is most likely leading to the other option, which is marriage. For some, marriage is the easier lifestyle, and for others, singleness and celibacy are easier. But ease is a poor criterion for judging the rightness or wrongness of life choices.
Character and discipleship require that we take not the easiest, but the most fruitful path in seeking the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. We are in a warfare and a race, not a kindergarten playground. We must choose that which pleases God over all our preferences. A million years from now (or even a mere fifty or sixty), we will have no regrets for having inconvenienced ourselves for righteousness’ sake.
 That is, unmarried to anyone else—she is clearly still married to her estranged husband, else she would be free to remarry, which Paul clearly says she is not.