Something that nearly every church will have to deal with at some point is the issue of divorce and remarriage. Most Christians agree that in most circumstances divorce is wrong, but most would also say that there are a few exceptions.
Where belief varies quite a bit, however, is whether believers are permitted to re-marry if they have been divorced. I believe the New Testament is absolutely clear on this point: no.
As we will see, Jesus unequivocally equated remarriage with adultery. Adultery is considered in the Old Testament such an egregious sin that it bore the death penalty for both the adulterer and the adulteress (Leviticus 20:10).
What Jesus Says
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’
32 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.
This is the first time we hear Jesus speaking of divorce (or marriage). There are two main points:
- If a man divorces his wife, he makes her commit adultery.
- Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
The first point is interesting. It seems to imply that he is at greater fault; he makes her commit adultery by divorcing her. This implicates him, as well.
The exception here seems to be a bit of a catch. Except for on the ground of sexual immorality. We must be careful to note, however, that this is tied to the rule of divorce, not to remarriage. The exception says that you may divorce because of sexual immorality, but it supplies no premise on which remarriage may be authorised.
In the second point we see that the divorced woman (or man, as we will see later) is forbidden from remarrying, since he who marries the divorced woman also commits adultery, regardless of whether he has been married previously, or not.
18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Here, there are again two main points:
- If a man marries another woman after being divorced, it is adultery.
- If a man marries a woman who was previously divorced, it is adultery.
Here it is easy to see that it doesn’t matter who is divorced—man or woman—it’s still adultery if the marry someone new.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Here at the end (v. 9) we read the same basic proposition, again: He who divorces and marries another commits adultery. This time, though, the seriousness of this act is highlighted in context. Verse 9 comes at the of a conversation that’s been happening since verse 3; the Pharisees are testing Jesus, asking about divorce. Jesus answers wisely—there is no foundation for divorce to be found in the Law of Moses, divorce was only permitted because of the hardness of their hearts (v. 8a), and moreover it was never intended to be permissible at all (v. 8b).
If Jesus shows that divorce was only allowed because of hardness of heart, then how much more is remarrying to another after divorce evidence of a hardened heart? I think this is why he tops off his reply to the Pharisees by affirming that remarrying after divorce is adultery.
10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.
11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,
12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
The same story with the Pharisees in Matthew 19 is related a bit differently in Mark; here we see additional questions from the disciples. He answers:
- Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery.
- If the wife divorces the husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
So in Mark it is shown that the rule is applied both ways, to a woman marrying a man or a man marrying a women.
Jesus equates remarriage with adultery
From these four passages we are left with one conclusion from Jesus: if you’re divorced, you may not marry someone else; it is adultery.
There are no conditions to be found, no special circumstances given; and Jesus’ argument from Genesis 2—that those joined together are one flesh—weighs heavily against a remarriage, as that is joining to another flesh.
What Paul Says
I want to bring in one more passage which may be helpful on the end of what Jesus has said.
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. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
It is evident to me that Paul is here aligning himself precisely with Jesus taught, on two points.
1) Divorce: Paul recommends that husbands and wives ought not to “separate”. It seems that “separate” is here used to represent divorce; based on the reference to marriage in parentheses. Jesus also is against divorce (Matthew 5:32; 19:6,8; Mark 10:9).
2) Remarriage: He commands that if a wife is separated from her husband, she should,
- remain unmarried or
- else be reconciled to her husband.
While Jesus did not teach the latter explicitly in connection with divorce and marriage, it is no stretch to say that he did teach the former, since to either marry a second person in addition to the first or marry after divorce is to commit adultery.
One situation which might be considered “remarriage” in which I think it is permissible to do so is where a man and women are divorced, but are reconciled—they are still one flesh, and their covenant promises, while broken in deed, still apply. Until death do us part.
In such a situation, I don’t see a problem with them being legally remarried.
Death of a spouse
I think it’s worth mentioning that remarriage is allowed after divorce if the spouse dies. Paul recommends this in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9:
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
He also recommends that widows remarry for various reasons in 1 Timothy 5:
14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.
I have shown that Jesus is categorically clear that remarriage after divorce is adultery, without providing any conditions.
As Christians, and especially elders in the Church, I do not believe we should be promoting remarriage as a solution to any crisis; how can we promote adultery? This has some rather difficult implications in more complex situations—what if a woman has children with her new partner while divorced, or even while remaining married to her husband?
As a baseline, though, it is clear where Jesus stood on this issue, and therefore it is clear where we as Christians should stand on the question of remarriage.