Perhaps no topic is more controversial among Evangelical Christians today than the question of whether, or under what circumstances, those who have been divorced may marry again.
Four Different Views
Historically, Christians have taken four positions: 1. For the first fifteen hundred years after Christ, with only one exception, all church fathers and theologians held that remarriage after divorce constitutes a very serious sin, warranting severe church discipline. Since the 1980’s, a growing number of Evangelicals have returned to this strict point of view, for reasons which I shall explain below. 2. In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic humanist Erasmus questioned the Church’s understanding of marriage as a sacrament (along with six others). In the process, he also criticized the Church’s view that divorce was always wrong and that remarriage after divorce was also always wrong. Following his lead, and with compelling political reasons, the Reformers in Germany, Switzerland, and England came to the conclusions that divorce was sometimes permitted and that remarriage after a permissible divorce was not wrong. They listed two grounds for a legitimate divorce: Adultery and desertion of a believer by an unbeliever because of the believer’s faith in Christ. The texts they cited included Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11; 1 Corinthians 7:15. They also concluded that remarriage after divorce in either of these two cases was allowed by the Bible. Most Evangelical denominations held this position until quite recently; some still do. 3. Some denominations have broadened the definition of “desertion” to include habitual actions which indicate a low level of commitment to the marriage, and of “unbeliever” to include a spouse who refuses to accept church discipline. These broadened definitions make divorce permissible for many more reasons than before, and thus remarriage after divorce also becomes allowed under many more circumstances than before. These denominations, however, may still impose church discipline when even these wider limits of “legitimate” divorce and remarriage have been transgressed. 4. In practice, most churches follow the current social trend in America (and the rest of the world) of tolerating divorce and remarriage for almost any reason. There is virtually no church discipline for either of these actions. The Scriptural support given for this practice is usually the promise that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). If our sins, even the sin of wrongful divorce, are forgiven, then we should be free to remarry.
Another Look at the Scriptures
As one of the Evangelicals who has come to appreciate the position held by all church leaders (except one) from the time of Christ to the sixteenth century, I think we need to re-examine what the Bible says on this vital topic. First, let us look again at what the relevant passages say. Let us begin with the teaching of Jesus:
Furthermore, it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality [porneia, fornication] causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32) He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [porneia, fornication], and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9 )(1) Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12) Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18) For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he live… So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress. (Romans 7:2, 3) Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife…A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39)
These six passages, taken either separately or together, make one point very clear: Remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery. The Early Church thought so, and so did the Church up until the sixteenth century. Then why do people say that one can remarry after divorce? Here are a few of the reasons commonly given: 1. In Jesus’ day, a legitimate divorce automatically opened the way for a legal remarriage. That is true. But since when do we take the practice of Jesus’ generation, which He termed wicked and adulterous, as the norm for Christians? He clearly rejected both current views on divorce (not, as often stated, only the “liberal” one). In the plainest possible language, He taught that divorce was not God’s intention; that Moses’ regulations in Deuteronomy 24 were due to hardness of heart (always in the Bible connected with sin so serious it would lead to punishment if not repented of); that man must not separate what God has joined; that remarriage after divorce was adultery. How could we conclude that He granted the false conclusion (divorce makes remarriage possible) when He would not agree to the premise (that divorce was allowable)? And even if you believe He taught that divorce was sometimes legal, how could His further comments on remarriage after divorce be taken in any other way than disallowing such a practice? 2. Jesus allowed divorce for adultery. That may or may not be true, but even if it were, we must state again that remarriage after divorce is ruled out by His words. A careful examination of His grammar shows that the exception for fornication applies only to the divorce, not to the remarriage. But did Jesus permit divorce for adultery? Consider: - He uses the word porneia (fornication), not adultery. In Matthew’s Gospel – the ONLY place where this exception clause is found – the words “fornication” and “adultery” are ALWAYS distinguished. Unlike Paul and other writers, Matthew NEVER confuses the two. Adultery is fornication within marriage; fornication is something else. The primary rule for interpretation of the Bible is respect for context. Context includes the writings of a particular author. How does he use this word? Paul and others use porneia (fornication) in both a wide and a narrow sense; Matthew does not. Thus, all the arguments for taking this exception to refer to adultery are based on faulty reasoning and ill-founded Biblical exegesis. What could Jesus’ words in Matthew refer to, then? There have been several theories. One is that Jesus was talking about marriage “within the bounds of consanguinity.” That is, marrying a blood relative in violation of God’s law. The problem with that is that people would generally know whether a couple were too closely related, and would not marry in the first place. Another possibility fits Matthew’s context perfectly: Post-betrothal, premarital infidelity. Joseph thought Mary to be guilty of this sin, and sought to put her away – divorce her – privately. It is possible that one could discover that the person to whom he was engaged had committed sexual immorality. In that case, one could divorce her. Or, perhaps one found out after the marriage that one’s bride was not a virgin. Divorce then would be allowed – though not demanded. Thus, Jesus’ exception as recorded in Matthew for an essentially Jewish Christian leadership would refer to divorcing someone who had been unfaithful before marriage – thus the word fornication and not adultery was used. But EVEN IN THAT CASE, Jesus clearly ruled out remarriage. - In none of the other passages in the Gospels does Jesus add the “except” clause. Surely, in a matter so vital to daily life, He would have been careful to make an allowance known if He had wanted to. This has to be taken seriously. - In the Old Testament, despite repeated provocations of all sorts, often termed spiritual “adultery” by God, Yahweh did not divorce His unfaithful people. Indeed, the entire book of Hosea powerfully portrays a God who would not forsake His beloved spouse. Would God want His people to do something He refused to do? Would Paul say, “Be imitators of God, ” and intend for us to divorce an unfaithful spouse? 3. Paul says that if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer because of the latter’s faith, then the believer is “not bound,” and may therefore remarry (1 Corinthians 7:15) There are at least two major problems with this view: - Paul does not say that the believer may remarry. In fact, he concludes his lengthy discussion of marriage with the clear statement (quoted above) that “a wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives” (which he repeated in Romans). Would he have made this sweeping statement if he intended to make an exception for desertion? - The Greek word for “bound” in “not bound” (7:15) is different from “bound” in “bound by law as long as her husband lives” (7:39). This is hugely significant. The most natural conclusion is that the “not bound” of 7:15 is different from the “bound” in 7:39. And the most probable interpretation is that the “not bound” in the former case refers to the freedom of the Christian partner to let the unbelieving spouse go, without clinging or resisting. One indication of that probability is the further question, “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” That could mean, “By taking a peaceable stance, perhaps you will help your spouse believe.” (It could mean also, of course, that we shouldn’t insist on staying together in the hope that the unbeliever will believe, but that is less likely, it seems to me.) 4. Jesus affirms the concept of remarriage after divorce by accepting the authority of Moses’ law in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 But a careful examination of both Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question and of the original legislation will not support that view. First, as we saw above (and need not repeat here) Jesus did all He could to distance himself from the conclusion that Moses approved of either divorce or remarriage after divorce. Further, and even more important, we should note what Moses actually wrote. It’s a long and complex sentence. Paraphrased, it says, “IF a man divorces his wife, and IF he gives her a certificate of divorce, and IF she remarries, and IF that man also divorces her, THEN she may not return to her first husband “after she has been defiled”, FOR that would be “an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.” The entire point of this law is to disallow a return to the first husband, because the woman had been defiled by marriage to a second man. That would be an abomination. Now both defiled and abomination are two of the strongest words in the Old Testament for conduct that angers God so much that He will surely punish the offender. (2) Thus, rather than permitting remarriage after divorce, Moses was calling such a marriage a cause for defilement. No wonder Jesus did not want to be trapped into using this passage as an endorsement for a common practice in His day, one which He hated. Regardless of whether you think Christians are still obligated to observe the Mosaic Law, Deuteronomy 24 cannot be used to substantiate any case for the legitimacy of remarriage after divorce by followers of Jesus. 5. Even if divorce is a sin, God forgives our sins when we repent and trust in Christ, so that we are free from the past. If we have repented of the sin of divorce, we may remarry. There is no question that God forgives the sins of those who repent and trust in Christ. The only question is whether our sins have lasting consequences. Sometimes the Apostle Paul is cited as an example: He had persecuted the church and had even handed over believers to prison and death, and yet God had mercy on him and made him a pillar of the church. Paul’s case does not apply here, however, for he broke no laws. According to the Law of Moses as understood in his time, he was innocent. He persecuted Christians for blasphemy, with the full backing of the religious leaders of his time. If – as he supposed – Jesus was accursed because he was hanged on a tree, then Christians were defaming God’s holy name by worshiping Jesus as the Son of God. They deserved blasphemy. Truly, as he said, he had acted in ignorance. Further, he had not violated God’s law. Those who get a divorce are transgressing God’s revealed will, however. The main question, however, is whether sins, though forgiven, have consequences. Clearly, they do. If I drive at eighty miles per hour down a busy road at rush hour, I shall injure myself and others, perhaps even cause death. If I repent of this sin and trust in Christ, I shall surely be forgiven, but the injuries I have caused will not automatically be miraculously healed as a result of my faith. I may have to live as a cripple for the rest of my life (if I survive the accident) and may carry the burden of knowing I caused others to suffer and perhaps even die. Actions have consequences. So it is with divorce. According to Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Apostle Paul, marriage to another person while the first one lives constitutes adultery. Though divorced, a person is not free to remarry. He may repent of his sins in causing a divorce and yet he still has to live with the consequences. 6. My divorce took place when I was an unbeliever; now I have found new life in Christ and am free to begin life again and thus to remarry. All things have been made new for me. I am not bound by my past. This view implies that my pre-Christian life has no impact on my Christian life. But surely this is not true. If I have abused alcohol or drugs for years before becoming a Christian, or if I have contracted a sexually-transmitted disease through fornication, or have had an abortion, or have accumulated a mountain of debt, any or all of these actions will have a lasting impact upon me even after I believe in Christ (unless God intervenes with a miracle, which occasionally happens). In the case of marriage, which God intends to be a life-long commitment, a divorce which severs this commitment will leave me obligated to the single life unless and until my previous spouse dies. In both the cases addressed above, we are dealing with a clear teaching of Jesus that whoever marries after divorce commits adultery. Paul enunciates the same general principle. We cannot violate this universal law of God just because we have come to faith in Christ, any more than we can violate other universal moral laws just because we are believers. 7. Jesus said that “Not all can accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matthew 19:11). That means that many people will not have what it takes to obey His teaching on remarriage after divorce; their weakness will make it permissible to remarry. But notice, first, the context of His words: “His disciples said to Him, ‘If such [i.e., the prohibition of remarriage after divorce] is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus’ words about accepting this saying refer, not to His teaching, but to his disciple’s inference from His teaching. Further, notice how Jesus Himself explains His words about accepting the saying: “FOR there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12). He is not talking about His prohibition of remarriage after divorce, but of the disciples’ inference that this prohibition makes a single life preferable to a married life. Jesus merely says what Paul repeats later, that the single life – before any marriage – is for some, but not for all. He and Paul stand as two examples of those who chose to be “eunuchs” – men with no relationship with a woman - for the sake of the Kingdom. 8. “I can’t believe a loving God would want me to live as a single all my life just because I got a divorce.” Why not? Perhaps He wants you to live as an example of God’s power over sexual passion. Or perhaps, as bill Gothard teaches, He wants you to live as an example of someone committed to reconciliation and forgiveness. If you have had no children, perhaps he wants you to focus on the work of the Kingdom [which may have been the case with Paul. As a Pharisee, he was probably married. Some scholars think his wife divorced him when he became a believer in Christ. ] Perhaps, if there are children, He wants you to concentrate on bringing them up. On the other hand, many reasons exist for the prohibition of remarriage after divorce. One of them is that most people get a divorce believing that they will be able to remarry. If they knew they could not, they would probably try harder to make the marriage work. Another reason is that almost all second marriages are unhappy, and less satisfying than people entering them had hoped. Yet another is the confusion and damage caused to children of “blended” families, not to mention the high incidence of child abuse by the second spouse of their nature parent. We must not forget Paul’s requirement for a church elder that he be the husband of one wife, the most probable interpretation of these words being that he must not have remarried after a divorce (1 timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Until very recently, the Church has taught that a man who had remarried after a divorce was unqualified to serve as an Elder or Pastor. Though I have by no means addressed all the reasons why Evangelicals believe remarriage after divorce is allowed, enough has been said to make the general point that these reasons are not strong enough to overcome the clear teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. I hope this brief treatment of a controversial subject will be received, not as condemnation for sinners – we are all sinners standing in the constant need of God’s grace – but as a counter to current ideas, ideas which do not seem biblical to me. May God give us all grace to know and do His will, to His glory, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
1) Quotations are from the New King James Version. The New International Version imposes in interpretation upon these two passages from Matthew by translating the word for “fornication” as “marital unfaithfulness” – a meaning it never carries in Matthew. This is just another instance where the translators of the NIV have departed from a strict rendering of the original to promote their own understanding of the meaning of the passage. The NIV further adds the word “the” before “divorced,” making it unlawful only to marry a woman who had been divorced for “fornication,” whereas the Greek does not thus limit the reference to only a woman divorced for “fornication,” but says “a divorced woman.” 2) Another interpretation of this passage is that the first husband detected “uncleanness” – sexual immorality – in his wife, so he divorced her. Her remarriage was wrong because of her previous sexual misconduct. Thus, - according to this interpretation - the lesson to be drawn is that illegitimate divorce makes remarriage illegal for the divorced party. Even if this is partly correct, the “uncleanness” cannot be adultery, for that would result in the death penalty. It could only refer to pre-marital infidelity ( as Joseph supposed Mary to have committed). That merely makes the passage a support for the first part of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (about the only permissible grounds for divorce being “fornication”). It does not invalidate the second part of His instruction (that remarriage after divorce under any circumstances is a sin). Further, the highly-restricted boundaries of this law about remarriage and divorce removes it as a “permission” to divorce or to remarry, as Jesus’ response to the Jews was clearly intended to emphasize. To cite it as support either for Christians to divorce or to remarry is surely to fall into the same error Jesus was rebuking.