This is undoubtedly a controversial issue, but one that is deeply relevant to our culture and deeply significant in Scripture. Â If you’re really interested in this issue, I cannot recommend more highly beginning your study by reading the passages in Scripture that speak to the issue of divorce and remarriage. Â So, let’s start this study there and then I’ll give you my thoughts on it.
Passages on Divorce & Remarriage.
The passages in Scripture that most clearly address the issues of divorce and remarriage are Deuteronomy 22:13â€“30, Deuteronomy 24:1â€“4, Isaiah 50:1â€“3, Jeremiah 3:1â€“4:4, Malachi 2:10â€“16, Matthew 5:31â€“32, Matthew 19:1â€“12, Mark 10:1â€“12, Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7:1â€“40 and Romans 7:1â€“6. That’s a lot of passages, but I’ve made it easier on you in an effort to eliminate the reasons you may be tempted to bypass this section. You can simply click here to go to one page that has all of these passages all ready looked up for your reading enjoyment. So, go for it, and then meet me back here in the next section.
An Effort To Understand The Passages.
1. Are Divorce & Remarriage Allowed In The Case Of “Pornea,” Or Sexual Immorality?
Simply put, â€œYes.â€Â The word Jesus uses in Matthew 19:9 is not the word from which we get our English word â€œadultery.â€Â Jesus uses the word from which get the word â€œimmorality,â€ and refers to a wider range of sexual immorality, including but not limited to sexual immorality prior to marriage, sexual unfaithfulness during marriage, or even pornography.
a. Interpreting Deut. 22 in light of 1 Cor. 7:39 & Rom. 7:1-3 allows for remarriage after divorce in the case of sexual immorality.
Deuteronomy 22:20-22 says, â€œ20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her fatherâ€™s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her fatherâ€™s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 22 â€œIf a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.â€
According to Old Testament law, those who commit adultery are not allowed to remarry because they are stoned to death.Â But what about the offended, living spouse against whom the adultery was committed?Â Is that spouse free to remarry?Â According to 1 Cor. 7:39 and Rom. 7:1-3, remarriage is permitted in the event of the death of oneâ€™s spouse.Â While the New Testament makes no provision for putting oneâ€™s spouse to death for committing adultery, I think it reasonable to assume that the offended spouse may treat the adulterous spouse as if she is dead, leaving the offended spouse free to remarry.Â This is also the official position of the PCA and is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which says:
â€œAdultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, gives just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.â€
It should be noted that the New Testament does not require the offended spouse to divorce his wife, although it does allow for it.Â The next passage weâ€™ll examine, Matthew 19:9, proves this statement well.
b. Matthew 19 expressly allows for remarriage after divorce in the case of sexual immorality.
Matthew 19:9 says, â€œAnd I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.â€
While this is one of the most hotly debated passages regarding remarriage in all of Scripture, it seems that the overall thrust of the sentence reveals most clearly Jesusâ€™ teaching on remarriage in the event of adultery.Â John and Paul Feinberg explain this well:
Heth and Wenham interpret this to mean that â€œwhoever puts away his wife, if it is not for unchastity that he puts her away, and marries another, commits adultery.â€ This means that divorce, except in cases of unchastity, is wrong, and remarriage after any divorce involves one in adultery. This reading is Heth and Wenhamâ€™s view.
Admittedly, the sentence would be ambiguous regardless of word order, and the word order Matthew chose does fit Heth and Wenhamâ€™s view. However, the word order also fits other views. Heth and Wenham have concluded too much from Matthewâ€™s placement of the exception clause. They argue that the position of the exception clause makes it qualify only the first verb (â€œdivorcesâ€) in the protasis (the â€œifâ€ clause), but they overlook two very important facts. First, the apodosis (the â€œthenâ€ clause), â€œcommits adultery,â€ qualifies the whole â€œifâ€ clause. Their interpretation seems to relate â€œcommits adulteryâ€ only to the phrase â€œmarries another.â€ Second, they note that the â€œifâ€ clause is compound (â€œdivorces and remarriesâ€), but they do not take that seriously enough. To say that Jesus sometimes allows divorce but never remarriage because it involves one in adultery is to ignore that â€œcommits adulteryâ€ completes the thought of the whole â€œifâ€ clause. That is, adultery results from both divorcing and remarrying, not just from one or the other. This seems the only way to take seriously the compound â€œifâ€ clause and the fact that the â€œthenâ€ clause qualifies the whole â€œifâ€ clause. Those facts of grammar fatally damage the Heth and Wenham proposal.
How does the exception clause relate to this? It grants an exception to the general rule that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. Granted, the exception clause follows only the word â€œdivorces,â€ but if it followed the word â€œremarries,â€ it might give the impression that the way to avoid committing adultery when one divorces and remarries is to be sure that the reason for the remarriage is to commit porneia by remarrying (â€œwhoever divorces and remarries, except when he remarries for the purpose of committing porneia, commits adulteryâ€). Obviously, that is nonsensical, and it is good that Matthew avoided that potential misunderstanding by placing the exception clause elsewhere. It seems that the best way for Matthew and Jesus to make the exception a clear exception to the whole rule contained in the â€œifâ€ and â€œthenâ€ clauses was to place the exception clause exactly where it is. As our discussion in the immediately preceding paragraph shows, however, the real issue of debate with Heth and Wenham is whether â€œcommits adulteryâ€ relates to divorcing and remarrying (the whole â€œifâ€ clause), or whether it applies only to cases of remarriage. Since Heth and Wenham lose that debate (â€œcommits adulteryâ€ qualifies the whole â€œifâ€ clause with or without the exception clause), we conclude that their view is untenable.
In summary, since Jesusâ€™ point in this passage is to say that one commits adultery when he divorces and remarries, the exception would also have to include divorce and remarriage.
Furthermore, Jesus does not contradict Himself in this passage; rather, He points out a legitimate exception to the rule.
Finally, the use of the word â€œimmorality,â€ or pornea, does not exclude the idea of adultery, as many have argued.Â See Kostenberger, p. 233 for explanation.
2. Are Divorce & Remarriage Allowed In The Case Of Abandonment Ifâ€¦
a. A Believer Is Abandoned By An Unbeliever?
Yes.Â Feinberg and Feinberg write:
Verses 10â€“11 offer none, nor do verses 12â€“14. In verses 17â€“24 Paul instructs believers not to undo what happened before they accepted Christ. Paul says (vv. 12â€“13) that this newly found faith is not a ground for divorcing an unbelieving spouse. The advantage of staying married is seen in verses 14 and 16 (if verse 16 is taken with verse 14 instead of with verse 15). Verses 14 and 16 taken together teach the possibility of the unbelieving spouse being converted through the believing mateâ€™s testimony.
None of this permits divorce, but in verse 15 Paul addresses another situation. What if the unbeliever no longer wants to be married to a believer? Paul instructs the believer to let the unbeliever go. While many think the verse talks of desertion alone, we note that the same verb (chÅrizÅ) is used both in verses 10â€“11 and 15. If it means divorce in the earlier verses, we doubt it means only departure (separation without divorce) in verse 15. Whether the idea of desertion in our modern sense is involved in chÅrizÅ is moot. What is clear is that the unbelieverâ€™s actions involve divorcing the believing mate. Paul says the believer is not under bondageâ€”presumably bondage to try to keep the marriage together at all costsâ€”in such cases. God has called believers to peace. This seems to imply that trying to maintain the marriage in such cases would only create or continue a situation of strife. Let the unbeliever depart; God wants his people to be at peace.
Paul presents, then, a circumstance that allows a marriage to be terminated, but it is a very narrow kind of situation. Believers may not divorce unbelievers just because they are non-believers. However, if an unbeliever rejects a believer because of his faith, the believer is not to fight the divorce. In such cases, the non-believing spouse must initiate the divorce. Paul never allows believers to divorce unbelieving mates just because of their unbelief.
What about remarriage for a believer or unbeliever under the circumstance of verse 15? Even some who think Paul allows divorce in this special case think Paul prohibits remarriage. However, even though Paul does not explicitly allow remarriage in such cases, he does not explicitly forbid it as he does in the case mentioned in verses 10â€“11. Actually, any argument about remarriage based on verse 15 is an argument from silence. On the other hand, what might one expect in this case? Suppose the unbeliever divorces the believer and then remarries. Even if the non-believer commits adultery by this remarriage, would not that act break the marriage bond with the believer and thereby release him or her to remarry as well? No one would expect the believer to attempt a reconciliation with the unbelieving spouse who remarried. Paul says the believer should let that unbeliever depart. We conclude that whenever divorce is morally acceptable, remarriage is permissible, and we think that rule covers this case.
b. A Believer Is Abandoned By Another Believer?
Not if the divorcing spouse is still unmarried.Â If a believer abandons another believer, the two are not permitted to remarry so long as there is any potential for reconciliation (i.e., both spouses are still living and neither has remarried).
c. The Non-Believing Or Believing Spouse Dies?
Yes.Â Both 1 Cor. 7:39 and Rom. 7:1-3 allow a person to remarry if his spouse dies.
d. The Non-Believing Or Believing Spouse Remarries?
Yes.Â In this case, the spouse of the abandoned has committed adultery by permanently severing her first marriage bond by her remarriage, and may be treated as if she is dead.
3. Are Divorce & Remarriage Allowed In The Cases Of Physical Abuse Or Drunkenness?
Possibly, though that is admittedly not much help.Â This is a tough and not clearly defined issue, although one could argue that divorce and remarriage are permissible in this case because the word for â€œdesertionâ€ literally means, â€œagree with, approve of, consent to, or sympathize with.â€Â These words seem to suggest that there is so degree of peaceful coexistence between the believing and unbelieving spouses (Iâ€™m assuming that the drunkard or abusive spouse are not believers).Â In the event that the unbeliever refuses to live peacefully with the believer, the believer is obviously free to divorce the unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:15) if the unbeliever initiates the separation, but it is also possible that the unbelieving spouse has, by de facto, all ready disserted his believing spouse by beating or abusing her, even if he hasnâ€™t physically separated himself from her.Â In such a case, one can argue that the abused spouse may be free to divorce her abuser and remarry if she so chooses.
4. Are Divorce & Remarriage Allowed If A Personâ€™s Divorce Occurred While He Was Himself An Unbeliever?
a. If The Person Becomes A Believer And His Divorced Wife All Ready Remarried, Is He Then Free To Marry Someone Else?
Probably.Â In this case, the believer has essentially been disserted by the unbeliever, freeing the believer to remarry.
b. If The Person Becomes A Believer And His Divorced Wife Never Remarried, Is He Then Responsible To Attempt To Reconcile With Her?
Again, probably.Â Certainly one could argue that their marriage never ended, since the divorce was illegitimate in the first place.Â As such, the believer should seek to be reconciled to his wife, seeking her forgiveness and full restoration of the marriage.Â If she then refuses to be reconciled, then the person falls into the category of being disserted by an unbeliever and is free to remarry.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Â If you’re interested inÂ further study, here is the bibliography of resources I consulted for this study. Â Enjoy.
- God, Marriage & Family, by Adreas J. Kostenberger
- Ethics for a Brave New World, by Feinberg & Feinberg
- Evangelical Ethics, by John Jefferson Davis
- Christian Ethics, by Norm Geisler
- Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper, by John Piper
- On Divorce & Remarriage In The Event Of Adultery, by John Piper
- A Statement On Divorce & Remarriage In The Life Of Bethlehem Baptist Church