Divorce and Remarriage Are Only Acceptable in Special Circumstances
As everyone who lives in Western countries will be well aware, divorce and remarriage are extremely common today. Increasingly, people view marriage not as a lifelong bond, but as a moderately serious commitment that can quite easily be ended if they wish.
I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that for many Westerners the decision to get married is not seen as much more important than the decision to move house. If someone moves to a house they enjoy living in, they will probably not choose to move again. But if the house fails to live up to expectations, they can easily move somewhere else. I think more than a few people today view marriage as something quite similar to this.
Sadly, Christians in the Western world are often guilty of following the values of society on this issue instead of standing by the teaching of the Bible. However, Scripture is our God-given “Manual for the Human Life,” and we must always follow what it says.
Jesus teaches explicitly about divorce and remarriage in Mark 10:11-12, where He states:
“11 . . . Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
Jesus’ point here is that what the people He is referring to regard as divorce and remarriage are nothing of the sort. In God’s sight, all that is happening is that they are committing adultery, because their original marriages are still ongoing.
In this passage Jesus doesn’t mention any exceptions to the principle that God doesn’t recognize divorce or remarriage. However, first century Jewish culture allowed for unexpressed exceptions to a principle much more than we are used to in modern Western culture. And when we compare this passage with other teaching of Jesus, we find that there are actually exceptions to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in Mark 10:11-12.
In Matt. 5:32 He teaches:
“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality [porneia], makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
And in Matt. 19:9 He says:
“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality [porneia], and marries another, commits adultery.”
These verses teach that it is acceptable for a man to divorce his wife and remarry when his wife is guilty of “sexual immorality.” And the same certainly applies to a woman whose husband is guilty of sexual immorality.
“Sexual immorality” in these verses is a translation of the Greek word porneia, which is a broad term. Porneia was probably chosen instead of moicheia, which means “adultery,” so as to allow for the inclusion of sexual unfaithfulness during the time of betrothal, homosexual acts etc. But porneia should be understood to include adultery.
We should limit “sexual immorality” here to immoral sexual acts. Jesus is surely not including immoral sexual thoughts as a ground for divorce and remarriage. That would be too obscure in the context.
The apostle Paul also teaches on divorce and remarriage in his first letter to the Corinthians.
In 1 Cor. 7:10-11 he writes:
“10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”
In line with what Jesus teaches in Mark 10:11-12, the general principle Paul gives in these verses is that divorce and remarriage are unacceptable. He understands that situations arise when couples will separate and live apart from each other. But he says that those who do so should not remarry.
However, in 1 Cor. 7:15 Paul gives what looks like an exception to his prohibition of remarriage:
“But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”
There is a debate about what exactly Paul means in this verse, but he is probably saying that a Christian becomes free to remarry if their non-Christian husband or wife leaves them.
Apart from cases of sexual immorality, and probably abandonment by a non-Christian, it is possible that there could be other exceptional situations when God would allow a divorce and remarriage.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that the New Testament never explicitly permits remarriage while a previous husband or wife is still alive, except in cases of sexual immorality and probably abandonment. So we would need to be very careful indeed before claiming that a situation permits an exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in Mark 10:11-12.
A general rule
As a general rule, we should think of divorce and remarriage as unacceptable and invalid unless there is a specific reason to allow them. We should not think of them as acceptable and valid unless there is a specific reason to disallow them.
In other words, the ball is firmly in the court of anyone who says that God approves of a certain divorce or remarriage. They need to explain convincingly why this is so.
Modern culture is no excuse
There are some who claim that today it would be a mistake to follow Jesus’ and the early Christians’ teaching on this topic. They point out that first century cultures were very different from our own. And they say that if Jesus were teaching in our culture today, He would take a more relaxed approach to divorce and remarriage.
Crucially, however, Jesus’ teaching on this subject was strikingly counter-cultural in His own day. Large segments of the Jewish population allowed easy divorce and remarriage in a wide variety of circumstances. And the same was true of Greco-Roman culture too.
In the first century, then, when Jesus taught that divorce and remarriage were only acceptable in exceptional circumstances, He wanted people to go against the prevailing morals and customs. And if He wanted people to do that then, we would expect the same to be true today. It is absolutely wrong to try to get round biblical teaching on this issue by appealing to culture.
Divorce and remarriage after adultery
I noted above that divorce and remarriage are acceptable in the case of “sexual immorality,” which includes adultery. Because, sadly, adultery is so common today, this does mean that many occasions arise when divorce and remarriage are permissible.
Furthermore, even if couples split up for reasons other than adultery, what God regards as adultery will often follow.
For example, suppose that a couple gets a divorce for what God sees as an invalid reason, so that in His sight they are still married. If then, however, either the man or the woman sleeps with someone else, in God’s sight that would surely count as adultery committed against the wife or husband. And then it would seem to be legitimate to regard the divorce as something that also exists in God’s sight. This in turn would, at least as a general principle, allow remarriage.
Importantly, however, any divorce on the grounds of adultery is only valid if the party who has been sinned against wants it. If the person sinned against wants to remain married to the adulterer, but the adulterer leaves them anyway, we should certainly regard the marriage as still ongoing in God’s eyes. And we should just as certainly regard any supposed remarriage by the adulterer as invalid.
Even if a person who has had adultery committed against them wants a divorce, some Christians would say that we should never endorse remarriages of those who have committed adultery. Standing firm on this, it is said, will discourage future would-be adulterers.
I think there may be occasions when it is right to take this position. But on the other hand, we must remember that the Christian faith is all about forgiveness for sinners. I do think that as a general principle, if we believe that God regards a divorce as valid, then we should see both parties as free to remarry, even if one of them committed grave sins that led to the divorce. This would seem to fit well with the greatness of God’s mercy.
That said, I do think that as another general principle, even when there has been a legitimate divorce, we shouldn’t endorse remarriages of adulterers to the people they committed adultery with. To me, that seems too much of an incentive to sin.
Suppose, for example, that a married man has an affair with a woman, his wife then divorces him because of that adultery, and that the man then wants to marry the woman he had the affair with. I, for one, would not support that remarriage or regard it as valid in God’s eyes.
Not breaking up relationships
In the discussion above, when I have mentioned remarriages, my focus has been on whether or not God regards a remarriage as valid or invalid at the time the new couple gets together.
However, we need to ask if things are any different later on. Are there times when a couple gets together in what God regards as an invalid remarriage, and when He later revises His attitude towards the relationship?
For example, suppose the following happens:
A man divorces his wife for an invalid reason, so that God views the original marriage as still ongoing. This man then “marries” another woman, a relationship that God regards as invalid and adulterous, because in His sight the original marriage still exists. Years pass and this new couple have children.
After all this time, how does God view the second relationship? Does He revise His view of things and now see the marriage of the man and his second partner as valid?
This is a difficult question to answer. However, I think it is probable that God does revise His attitude towards relationships like this one. The fact is that in the first century divorces and remarriages that God viewed as invalid must have been very common, yet nowhere in the New Testament do we find Christians being taught to break off long-standing relationships with people they viewed as their husbands or wives. In his long discussion of marriage in 1 Cor. 7, for example, Paul never says that any of the Corinthians should do this. Yet it seems likely that some of them would have been in relationships that they regarded as marriages and that began for invalid reasons.
In view of the absence of NT instructions to break off relationships, I think it is probably right to say that God, in His mercy, does often revise His attitude to invalid remarriages after time has passed, so that He comes to view the marriages as valid.
The alternative would be to think that God continues to see these remarriages as invalid and adulterous. However, it is then rather strange that there is no biblical teaching instructing that second or third relationships are terminated, given how adultery is such a grievous sin.
Regardless of whether or not God revises His view of invalid marriages, however, there is no biblical warrant for Christians to demand that new Christian converts break off long-standing (heterosexual) relationships with people they regard as their husband or wife.
It is very easy for Christians today in Western countries to allow themselves to be carried along by the tide of popular opinion. Mainstream Western culture has a very free and easy attitude to divorce and remarriage. We must resist being influenced by this thinking.
For a divorce to be valid in God’s sight, there needs to be a specific, biblically based reason why it is valid. If a reason is not apparent, we should regard the divorce as something that He doesn’t recognize.
Similarly, we should only endorse a remarriage if there is a specific reason for believing that God regards that remarriage as valid. If we are not aware of a reason, we should refuse to endorse it.
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