This is the second post in a two-part essay. In the first essay I considered when is divorce a biblically viable choice: click here to read. What I want to cover here is the challenging subject of whether remarriage is ever permissible after divorce.
It is a challenging for a number of reasons. First, the five New Testament texts that seem to deal with remarriage seem to be saying different things. It is also challenging because divorce runs rampant in our culture; whatever the statistics, many Christian people do it. And finally it is challenging because most pastoral leaders are simply quiet on the issue because of whom they might offend or hurt.
But these challenges should not stop us from entering into these tumultuous waters. Instead, they remind us to tread carefully and humbly. What I will seek to do below is to consider the texts on divorce in light of one another and then see if we can draw conclusions and a biblically-based ethic framework for remarriage after divorce.
The 5 pertinent New Testament texts are:
“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Matthew 5:32 ESV
“And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,”
Mark 10:11 ESV
“”Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Luke 16:18 ESV
“But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV
“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 7:39 ESV
Some of reflections on these texts:
First, it is clear from these verses that marriage is a nearly insoluble relationship apart from death except in the most dire of circumstances:
Just because marriage is hard, feelings have turned neutral/negative, your partner has changed from whom you committed to or any other of the plethora of reasons people give as reasons for divorce today, we can say biblically that none of them give license to get divorced. Such illigetimate reasons for divorce are sin and simply unthinkable in a Christian framework.
Secondly, one will notice from these texts that it is assumed that it will only be a man who would get a divorce. This is because these texts in their cultural context knew that for the most part only men initiate divorce. That being said, today divorce can be initiated by either spouse and we can rightly interchange husband with wife or vice versa without touching the integrity of the text.
Thirdly, the Matthew, Mark and Luke texts are quite similar in language and construction yet the Matthew text seems to give the possibility for remarriage after divorce. In the Matthew text the husband who divorces for legitimate biblical reasons has no outright restrictions on remarriage. It is by far the most expansive view on divorce from the teachings of Jesus. The other two verses are quite restrictive and seem to say that any remarriage after divorce is an act of committing adultery.
What ought we do with this seeming contradiction between these teachings of Jesus? It seems reasonable to go with the most expansive verse. If as a parent I give several instructions to my child and one of the instructions give more freedom than some other instruction, the child is not at fault in any way for following the more freedom-filled instruction. Something similar seems to be happening here. Also, the Matthew text has within it a pastoral accommodation that need not be ignored even though the other two texts don’t have it. The text does not fully restrict remarriage after divorce and this accommodation has a quality of mercy that seems to me to be authentically from the heart of Jesus. My reading of the gospel texts get greater validity based upon the 1 Corinthians text which I cover below.
My final observation of these texts is based upon a close reading of 1 Corinthians 7. This Pauline text along with the expansive position of the Matthew text seem to give permission for remarriage in specific circumstances and is by far the strongest biblical argument for remarriage after divorce. 1 Cor 7:15, in the case of abandonment, the abandoned spouse is no longer bound to the marriage. This word “bound” is used again in
7:39. In vs. 39, “bound” is used by Paul as the clarifying ethical marker of whether remarriage is permissible. If the husband dies, the spouse is no longer bound and is free to remarry. Following Paul’s own logic, if a person is divorced for abandonment or adultery, they are no longer bound to the marriage, just like in death, and are freed to be remarried. This can be seen as a pastoral accommodation given by Paul similar to Jesus in the Matthew text. Taken together, a clear path is given.
Permission for remarriage for adultery or abandonment is not explicitly declared in any of the NT texts but the ethical framework seems fairly clear. One reason, perhaps, why it is not explicitly spelled out is that for Paul such circumstances, among Christians, will be extremely rare and not a current reality in the Corinth church. For Paul and for us, most couples need to work out their marriage as unto the Lord. The reasons for the textual differences in Jesus’ teaching are less clear. But with the whole New Testament in view, in the cases of adultery or abandonment, a path for remarriage seems to be given.
An ethical framework for remarriage
Assuming my conclusions are correct, below is a biblically based ethical framework for remarriage after divorce.
- Divorce and remarriage are possibilities allowed only in specific circumstances–adultery & abandonment (for a treatment on abandonment read part one).
- Almost all married, Christian couples are biblically required to stay in their first marriage and do the work required to stay together.
- If a couple is in their second marriage for illegitimate reasons they have sinned but since divorce to “fix” the original sin is a sin as well, one must ask which sin causes the least destruction. It seems clear that the couple in their second marriage should repent, accept mercy and seek to have a thriving marriage and not end it. Because God is gracious, we ought to expect God’s goodness to move in this marriage. He regularly does good to sinners. Thank God for that.
- In the case of divorce where the marriage ended for illegitimate reasons (no longer in-love, fight too much, we no longer know each other, etc.), the divorced couple are commanded to embrace singleness. The marriage season is done and now they are singularly with the Lord and his church. In this relationship with God and his church, they will learn his fidelity and love. No doubt it might be a hard road of suffering. It is a long discipline towards holiness.
- A christian couple who have divorced for illegitimate reasons but have not remarried to others should seriously consider getting remarried. This is clear in Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth.
I pray these two posts have been helpful. Please comment below on any questions you have or concerns.