Analyzing the Viewpoints: Remarriage for a Divorced Individual? (1)

Does the Bible allow for the remarriage of a divorced individual? This and the companion article in this issue both relate to this question. The purpose of presenting opposing views is not to create controversy but simply to help you understand the two sides of the issue. We recognize this has been a longstanding debate, and we urge God’s people not to show partiality based on one’s beliefs on this issue, nor to use these articles to foment division.

Marriage is intended to be a lifelong bond (Mar 10:9), and the Lord’s desire for a troubled or broken marriage is reconciliation (1Co 7:10-11). But God does recognize the existence of divorce. In a climate of easy and unlawful divorce, the Lord Jesus rebuked people for their casual approach to the marriage covenant, yet also provided grounds for divorce and subsequent remarriage: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Mat 19:9).[1]

Who Is Being Put Away?

The viewpoint that this exception allowed only the putting away of a betrothed partner is untenable. Those being “put away” in Matthew 19:8-9 are referred to as “wives.” There is no textual justification to restrict the meaning in either verse exclusively to betrothed partners. The Lord’s teaching was in response to a question from the Pharisees about divorcing a married woman (Mat 19:3), not divorcing a betrothed woman. The Pharisees seemingly had Deuteronomy 24:1-4 on their minds – a passage that deals with marriage, not betrothal. Lastly, in Matthew 19:10, the disciples do not conclude that “it is not good to betroth,” but “it is not good to marry.” They understood the Lord was greatly restricting the grounds for severing the marriage bond but not eliminating its possibility.

Sexual Unfaithfulness in Marriage

The “betrothal view” requires limiting the meaning of fornication to pre-marital infidelity in Matthew 5 and 19, but this restrictive meaning is not justified by the context. Fornication, then, must maintain its normal sense of all forms of sexual immorality in Matthew. It includes adultery, but is not limited to it. The Lord is not advocating divorce but is making an allowance. Where the marriage bond has been broken by divorce on the basis of a spouse’s sexual unfaithfulness, the subsequent remarriage is not adulterous.

Please note that the Lord did not say sexual immorality automatically breaks the marriage bond – it does not. With God’s grace there is opportunity for repentance and forgiveness – the marriage can and should be saved. But the Lord’s teaching does emphasize the sacredness of the sexual union. Marriage uniquely brings one man and one woman into a “one flesh” relationship. That is not encompassed solely by the sexual union, but the term “one flesh” clearly embraces that physical union and is expressed by it (cf. 1Co 6:16). While the sexual union alone does not make a marriage, it is like signing on to the marriage covenant by physically taking an oath with your body and entire person. Sexual immorality is an egregious violation of that covenant. It is so serious a violation of so sacred a bond that it subjects an individual to God’s personal judgment (Heb 13:4), and in Matthew 19 the Lord cites it as just grounds for divorce.

Considering All Scripture

This does not mean Matthew 19 contradicts Mark 10 (or Luke 16), just as Matthew 16:4 does not contradict Mark 8:12. The question that Matthew 19 records is slightly but vitally different from that in Mark 10. Additionally, the Lord’s statements in Mark and Luke are general statements – they generally hold true, though there are exceptions recorded elsewhere in Scripture. It is not uncommon for Scripture to record a generally true statement to which we know from other Scriptures that there are exceptions. For example, Romans 3:10 states, “there is none righteous” – but the Lord Jesus Himself is an exception to that general truth. Like other subjects in Scripture, divorce and remarriage cannot be fully answered by appealing to isolated passages. We must consider all of God’s revelation on the subject and understand it in a coherent manner. Romans 7 does make reference to the bond of marriage as an analogy in teaching about the believer and the law, but the analogy is not a perfect correlation, and it is not Scripture’s exclusive word on the marriage bond.

Perpetual Adultery?

While God did not create divorce, He did provide instruction to regulate it, to minimize its damage, and prevent it from being taken lightly (cf. Deu 24:1-4). When a divorce has sadly taken place, God recognizes it as such. It is not scriptural to speak of divorced people as “still married in God’s eyes.” In Deuteronomy 24, God refers to the “former husband” (i.e., he is no longer the woman’s husband). The Lord Jesus’ penetrating observation that the Samaritan woman had five previous husbands is further evidence of this point (Joh 4:17-18). Similarly, the Bible does not speak of the sexual union of remarried people as “perpetual adultery.” This has been an unjustified assumption from the present tense in the phrase “committeth adultery.” But consider Luke 16:18: “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery.” The putting away, marrying, and committing adultery are ALL present tenses in this text – but the man is not perpetually divorcing his wife, nor are the second couple perpetually getting married. The phrase “committeth adultery” is a present indicative, meant simply to state as a fact that adultery has occurred in this case. It is the Lord’s pronouncement that the first marriage bond was sinfully severed. But it does not follow that a married couple is constantly committing adultery in their new union, or that they should be counselled to separate or divorce, or that they are automatically ineligible for church fellowship.

Sacred, But Not Indissoluble

The Lord said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mar 10:9). This is a vital point that must not be taken lightly. The Lord could have said, “man cannot put asunder” – but He did not say that. He was giving a command to be obeyed, not a statement of impossibility. The marriage bond is sacred but it is not indissoluble. In some cases, the Bible does allow for the remarriage of a divorced individual.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.