One area of serious disagreement in our brotherhood revolves around the teaching on the subject of marriage and divorce. There is conflict because there are a variety of opinions when it comes to interpreting what the Bible actually teaches about this topic. Like others before me, I offer my own thoughts as to what I sincerely believe the Bible says concerning these things. If you agree, I hope you will continue to pray and study so this issue will become clearer for you. If you disagree, you will be among many sincere people who do. Please recognize that there may be room for growth no matter which position one takes regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage.
For now, let us dig into the most asked and most difficult questions on divorce and remarriage.
A good place to start is by reviewing what most of us can agree upon and what is rather clear in the Bible concerning marriage. Beginning in Genesis and through to the New Testament the Scriptures teach that marriage consists of a union between one man and one woman for life. No separation is permitted except where there is a violation of the marriage vow through sexual sin or in the event of the death of one of the partners. There is general agreement in the church that this is the basic teaching of the Bible about Christian marriage.
Divorce and Remarriage Questions
The disagreement occurs when we discuss the aftermath of a divorce. Can the innocent party remarry? Can the guilty party remarry? What is the proper repentance for the guilty? What do we do with people who are remarried after a divorce and want to be baptized?
One of the causes for disagreement revolves around the question, "Can a marriage be dissolved (in the eyes of God), and if it can, by what?" The passages found in Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; I Corinthians 7:1-40 deal with these questions. Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:9, however, summarize well what is mostly contained in these others, so we will concentrate on these two.
What Dissolves A Marriage?
1When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; 2and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.
3Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?" 4And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." 7They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?" 8He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
- Matthew 19:1-9
In verse 9 of this passage Jesus is not debating whether or not it is possible to dissolve a marriage, He is showing what are the just and unjust reasons for doing so. His point is that a person who dissolves their marriage through divorce without proper cause (fornication by the partner) does so in an unjust manner and thus commits adultery. The difference of opinion comes here: some say that the breaking of the marriage vow without just cause is adultery and the actual sin committed in this case (I agree). Others say that the second marriage, or remarriage is the adultery because there is sexual activity in this new relationship and they refer to this union as an "adulterous marriage." I disagree with this second position for several reasons.
Reason one is that the definition of adultery can include the following actions: sex outside of marriage (Proverbs 6:32), sex with a partner who is not your spouse (Leviticus 20:10), or the breaking of a vow, especially the one made to worship only God (spiritual adultery - Ezekiel 23:37). Each of these actions have been referred to in the Bible as adultery. However, a legally contracted marriage, even if it is a second or third one, is not adultery and has never been called this in the Bible.
Another reason is grammar. Those who claim that the remarriage is the act of adultery do so because of the way they understand the meaning of the words, "commits adultery," in Matthew 19:9. In the original language of the New Testament (Greek), verbs had various tenses, much like they do in English. The proper interpretation of this passage rests mainly on how one assigns the tense to the verb "commits." One of these Greek tenses, point action or punctiliar, describes an action that has been done once (i.e. I went to church Sunday). Another of the tenses used was called linear or durative, and described an on-going or repeated action (i.e. I went to church every Sunday that I was in town). In both of the examples mentioned here, the same verb "went" was used. However, in one sentence the action (went to church) occurred only one time, and in the other was done repeatedly. Even though the same verb was used (went), the context of the sentence itself revealed if the action that the verb described was done only once or continuously.
Many argue that the action "commits adultery" mentioned in Matthew 19:9 is in the linear mode (on-going), and because of this conclude that the adultery is a continuous action. This would mean that the actual sin of adultery is in the remarriage and that every time sex occurs in this union, there is adultery because the verb suggests an on-going action. This same group contends that divorce, for reasons other than fornication, does not dissolve a marriage. This interpretation has created the following positions concerning the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage among these brethren.
- They maintain that the adultery is committed in the remarrying. Since their understanding is that divorce itself cannot dissolve a marriage, and they contend that the adultery is an on-going action, their conclusion is that people who remarry after a divorce are in what is described as an "adulterous marriage" situation (i.e. divorcees are committing adultery every time they have sex because they are still married to their original partners in the eyes of God).
- They also hold the idea that in order to become Christians or for Christians in such situations to repent, they must dissolve existing marriages and return to their original spouses, or if this is not possible, remain celibate for life.
There are others* who argue that the verb in the passage that we are discussing is in the punctiliar mode which means it is a one-time action (I agree with this interpretation). The point that they make is that if what the verb is describing is a singular action, then the verb must match. This is how the action is determined and how the rules of grammar decide the mode. In the verse that we are examining, the conditional verbs are clearly punctiliar: "anyone who divorces" is a one-time action (you do not divorce a person continuously, you only do it once), "and marries another" is also a one-time action (you do not repeatedly marry someone, even if it is a second or third marriage, the marriage only happens once). According to the rules of grammar, if both of the actions in this sentence are one-time events, then the concluding verb also needs to be interpreted in the one-time mode as well (commits adultery - one time). If this is so, and adultery is a one time thing that happens when a person dissolves a marriage without just cause, then other conclusions can be drawn:
- Divorce, for any reason, dissolves a marriage. Doing this is not righteous or pleasing to God, but it is the end of that marriage. Jesus did not say that it was impossible to dissolve a marriage, He said that men should not destroy what God created, but they could if they chose to. In Romans 7:1-10, Paul explains that only death dissolves a marriage in a righteous way (where no sin is committed by either party). Divorce also dissolves a marriage but does it in an unrighteous way (where one or both partners can be guilty of the sin of adultery).
- The breaking of the vow is called adultery. The adultery is not in remarrying, it is in the dissolving of the marriage without just cause (a violation of the vow). There can be other sins like abuse, neglect, dishonesty, abandonment that lead or cause the divorce, but the sin charged to the person who dissolves the marriage is called adultery.
- Divorce without just cause is the sin (and will be punished if not repented of and forgiven), remarriage is not the sin. The grammar demonstrates that it is a one-time event. The sin occurs when one divorces, not when either party remarries. The context also makes the same point. Jesus says that the person remarries, He does not say that the person goes into fornication or harlotry. The person who has sinned (the sin of adultery) has remarried and that marriage is legitimate before God and man.
The final and most important outcome is how we deal with both guilty and innocent parties in a failed marriage.
The Guilty Party
The guilty party is the one who dissolves the marriage for no just reason. This person is guilty of adultery. For those who mistakenly believe that the remarriage is the adultery, I offer the following hypothetical situation to make my point:
Imagine a married couple who live in New York City and the man is offered a great job with many advantages but must move to London, England, to secure his new position. He discusses this with his wife and she refuses to move, wanting to stay close to her job and family. The man eventually concludes that he has a better future in London, and decides to divorce his wife and take the new job. Now, let us say that this man is consumed with his career and never remarries, being quite satisfied with his new life and work. What sin, therefore, is he guilty of before God? Those who maintain that the adultery is committed in the remarriage would have no charge against this man until he remarries. As far as they are concerned, so long as he does not remarry, he has not sinned. The fact that there is no sexual sin in this story helps us to see that the real offense here was that the man broke his vow of marriage in order to take a better job. His actions may have been caused by selfishness, greed or a simple lack of love for his wife, but the sin he is guilty of is adultery, dissolving his marriage without just cause, exactly the type of offense Jesus was getting at in Matthew 19:9.
According to the Bible, to remove this sin the man must acknowledge his guilt and repent (I John 1:7-9) and be baptized if he is not a Christian (Acts 2:38). With forgiveness comes restoration with God but not necessarily with the victim against whom the sin was committed. Some believe that for true repentance to happen, the guilty person needs to dissolve his existing marriage and return to his first spouse or remain celibate if that is not possible. I do not agree with this requirement for repentance in the case of divorce because I believe it is not biblically based. Here are several reasons why:
- Grammatically the passage does not support the idea that remarriage is adultery. As I have stated, the adultery is the divorcing without just cause. This is the sin one needs forgiveness for (it is damnable if not forgiven), but remarriage is not the sin and needs no forgiveness.
- What makes restitution to God for the destruction of the marriage (or any other sin for that matter) is the cross of Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:24). Jesus pays the moral debt for our sins owed to God through His death on the cross. This restitution is made for all sins, including the sin of adultery that we are discussing here. God does not require that we make restitution for any of our sins, Jesus has done this on our behalf and in this we see the grace of God at work for sinful mankind.
- There is no teaching or example in the New Testament of a requirement to dissolve second marriages and a return to original partners in order to meet the requirements of repentance. In Acts 2:38-42, we read that 3000 people were baptized on the day of Pentecost in response to Peter's preaching. It is a fair assumption that in such a large number of people there were surely many who were divorced and remarried, however, there is no indication that any of them were forced to change their marital status in order to meet the demands of repentance before being baptized on that day.
- Aside from the Scriptures themselves, there are no historical records from early church writers which show that this was ever a requirement practiced by any church at that time.
Guilty people need to repent and ask for forgiveness, and then go on with their lives. The fact that God's grace is so great does not provoke these people to more divorce. On the contrary, it motivates them to greater fidelity and love for God as well as their current partners in marriage. God's grace in forgiving one who has stolen, for example, does not provoke him to more theft!
The Innocent Party
31"It was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; 32but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
- Matthew 5:31-32
The debate over this issue also includes the predicament of the innocent party or victim in a divorce. Matthew 5:32 contains the same basic scene and information as Matthew 19:1-9, but focuses on the victim and not the instigator of the divorce. Here, the argument is not about linear or point action but whether the verb is in the active or passive form (voice). The same group that does not accept that divorce for any reason dissolves a marriage and holds to the idea that "commits adultery" is in the linear mode thus making remarriage the sin and not the unjustified divorce, also interprets the verb "commit adultery" in Matthew 5:32 in the active voice form rather than the passive voice form. This produces the following variety of positions:
- The innocent party in a divorce is considered an adulterer because they have been divorced (even if they have done nothing wrong).
- The innocent party commits adultery if they remarry because they are still bound to the first marriage before God since a divorce, for any reason other than fornication (sexual sin), does not actually dissolve a marriage.
- Anyone who marries them in any circumstance is also guilty of adultery.
There are other scholars** who teach that the voice form of this verb, "commit adultery," is in the passive sense and the burden of the passage is directed towards the guilty party in order to reveal the extent of the damage being done to the innocent party by divorcing without just cause. In other words, if you translate the verb in the "active" voice, you put the burden of guilt on the innocent party. If, however, you translate it in the "passive" voice, you then put the burden of responsibility for the sin on the guilty party where it belongs.
When the verb is in the passive mode the sense is that, "everyone who divorces his wife except for the cause of unchastity, adulterates her." The idea is that the victim is scandalized and stigmatized by being put away unjustly. In the Jewish society of the first century, the only reason for putting away justly was fornication. One who was put away was assumed to have been unfaithful (whether true or not). Note that only men could instigate a legal divorce in that society. To divorce unjustly, therefore, was to taint your partner with the stigma of sexual immorality, and in the same way, anyone who married her would also be tainted.
Jesus is exposing the triple damage done by the perpetrator of an unjust divorce: he commits adultery, destroys the marriage and stigmatizes the innocent party as well as anyone who would marry them in the future. I believe that this is an accurate interpretation for several reasons:
- It agrees with the general principle of grace seen in the gospel. Jesus does not victimize the victims. If the guilty can be forgiven and restored, surely the innocent can have a chance to start over as well.
- It agrees with Paul's teaching in I Corinthians 7:15; 28 where he says that those released from spouses (either by desertion or death) were free to remarry.
The gospel of grace offers forgiveness to the guilty, and with forgiveness comes the opportunity to begin again. Grace also protects the victim and puts the responsibility for the shame brought about by divorce at the feet of the guilty, permitting the innocent to love themselves and get on with their lives as well.
* Dr. Jack McKinney, Harding University; Dr. C. Osborne, Pepperdine University; A.T. Robertson, Greek Commentary; Dr. R. Kelcy (D) Professor of Greek, Oklahoma Christian University.
** John Edwards, H.R. Lenski