Beware of Endorsing Invalid Divorces or Remarriages
As everyone who lives in Western countries will be well aware, divorce and remarriage today are extremely common. Increasingly, people view marriage not as a lifelong bond, but more as a moderately serious commitment that can quite easily be ended if so desired.
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. Scripture, however, 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:
‘Whoever “divorces” His wife and “marries” another woman commits adultery against her. And if she “divorces” her husband and “marries” another man, she is committing adultery.’
In my translation I have put the words “divorces” and “marries” in quotation marks. This is because these words are not referring to acts that God recognises as divorce or marriage but only to acts that are wrongly said to be such. Jesus’ point here is that what the people He has in mind regard as divorce and marriage are nothing of the sort. In God’s sight, all that is happening is that they are committing adultery, since their original marriages are still in force.
In this passage Jesus mentions no exceptions to the principle that God doesn’t recognise 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 biblical passages, we find that there are actually exceptions to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in Mark 10:11-12.
Jesus Himself mentions an exception to this principle in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9.
In Matthew 5:32 He teaches:
‘But I tell you that everyone who “divorces” his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever “marries” a “divorced” woman commits adultery.’
And in Matthew 19:9 He says:
‘And I tell you, whoever “divorces” his wife, except for sexual immorality, and “marries” another woman 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 we should not hesitate to read between the lines and say that the same applies to a woman when her husband commits adultery.
Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what He means by ‘sexual immorality’, but we should probably limit this to concrete acts of adultery.
There is also a big debate about whether the apostle Paul allows for another exception to the prohibition of divorce and remarriage.
In 1 Corinthians 7:15, speaking of non-Christians leaving their Christian husbands or wives, he states:
‘But if the unbelieving one leaves, let them leave. The brother or sister is not enslaved in such cases . . .’
What Paul says here might suggest that a Christian is free to remarry simply because their husband or wife has left them.
On the other hand, however, it is not easy to reconcile this interpretation of his words with Matthew 5:32 or Luke 16:18.
Matthew 5:32, which I have already cited above, states:
‘. . . whoever “marries” a “divorced” woman commits adultery.’
And Luke 16:18 says:
‘. . . he who “marries” a woman who is “divorced” from a husband commits adultery.’
In my view, we should probably seek to harmonise these passages by supposing that the non-Christian of 1 Corinthians 7:15, who abandons their Christian wife or husband, is understood to be a person who will go on to have sexual relations with someone else. In this case the person will be guilty of adultery in God’s sight.
Nevertheless, this is not the only possible interpretation. It is conceivable that Paul is allowing divorce and remarriage in the case of simple abandonment.
Apart from cases of sexual immorality, and possibly simple abandonment, it seems reasonable to think that there are probably also other exceptional situations when God will allow a divorce or remarriage.
For example, I think that in His great mercy He will often do this when young children are involved. Sometimes after a ‘divorce’ for an invalid reason, someone will ‘marry’ another person and the new couple will have children. I think that in many situations like this God will then wipe the slate clean by regarding the divorce and remarriage as valid.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that the New Testament never explicitly allows divorce or remarriage except in cases of sexual immorality and possibly abandonment. (Anyone whose husband or wife dies is also free to remarry; see 1 Corinthians 7:39.) So we need to be very careful indeed before claiming that something is a valid 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. The onus is on them to explain why this is so.
Modern culture must not be used as an 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 modern Western culture. 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 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. Suppose that a couple get 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 in force 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. The greatness of God’s mercy would seem to be compatible with this.
That said, I do think that as another general principle, even when there has been a legitimate divorce, we should not 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 the eyes of God. It gives me no pleasure to say it, but, as regards the monarchy in my own country, the United Kingdom, this is the reason why I doubt that the marriage of Prince Charles to Camilla is valid in God’s sight.
It is essential, then, that Christians stand by biblical principles in the matter of divorce and remarriage. We must be determined not to follow the crowd of mainstream Western opinion in this area.
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 original marriage as still in force.
Similarly, we should only endorse a remarriage if there is a specific reason for believing that God regards this remarriage as valid. If we are not aware of a reason, we should refuse to endorse it.
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