Question from a Site Viewer
There is one topic that Jesus talks about that I doubt I will ever hear in my church and that is the subject of divorce. Divorce is a big problem in this country and “Christian” couples seem to be just as likely to get divorced as non-Christian couples even though it should not be this way. What I read and understand from Jesus is that God wants married couples to remain married (Matthew 19:6, Malachi 2:16). Paul also says not to get divorced (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). I also read that if a couple does get divorced for anything other than unfaithfulness and then either the husband or wife remarries, they are committing adultery in the new marriage (Matthew 19:9, Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:11-12). My question to Tim is this: if a Christian couple gets divorced for any reason other than unfaithfulness, and then either or both remarry, are they committing adultery? If they are committing adultery, are they forgiven by God even though they are continually sinning in this new relationship? Since repentance is the turning away from sin and not wanting to do it (a change of heart and mind), I do not understand how a divorced couple that has been remarried is not sinning. In my mind, when Jesus said it’s adultery, I believe it to be adultery. This concerns me for several of my Christian friends because I do not see how their second marriage is a sanctified marriage. I have friends who try to justify their actions but for me sin cannot be justified but can and will be forgiven by God with repentance. I appreciate and thank you for your time in reading this note and hope you have the time to respond with your thoughts on this subject.
I appreciate the question you raise concerning second marriages following divorces. If, as Jesus states in Matthew 5:31; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; and Luke 16:18, a person who remarries following a divorce is committing adultery, should not the person who seeks to follow Jesus stop committing adultery by breaking off the second marriage?
I believe that the answer from the Scripture is that the adulterous nature of the second marriage never justifies a second divorce. I am led to this answer by the words of Jesus and Paul. But I acknowledge that this is a difficult question theologically. Let me explain my understanding of the relevant texts.
Jesus in Matthew 5:32 states that the person who divorces his wife “causes” her to commit adultery. Now, she does not commit adultery unless she remarries or otherwise has sexual relationships with another man. Jesus, however, seems to presume that this will happen, as He states that the divorcing husband causes the divorced wife to commit adultery. I think this is very consistent with Jesus’ statements in Matthew 19:11-12 that not everyone has the ability to live alone. Paul states the same thing in 1 Corinthians 7:2-9. God created humans for relationship, so much so that He said that it was not good for man to be alone. Those who have been married and then divorced do not suddenly obtain a power of singleness that the rest of humanity does not have. It is because there seems in Jesus’ mind to be a presumption that the divorced one will remarry that Jesus places the responsibility back on the divorcing husband.
But what is this second relationship? We know from Jesus’ words that it is adultery. But Jesus sees it as being more than adultery. Jesus uses the word “marries” when he talks about the divorced person entering into another covenant relationship. The second relationship is more than adultery, it is a marriage as well. In Jesus’ view, there is a difference between this covenant relationship and simply shacking up. Jesus addresses the woman at the well and tells her that she has had five husbands and the person with whom she was with at that time was not her husband (John 4:18). Jesus seems to be calling out her moral situation, as well as the hurt in her life. (Given the context, I do not think it is a reasonable answer to presume that the first four husbands all had died.) Each of the first five were marriages. The last one was not. Marriages are sacred before God, whether they are conceived in sin or not. The God who hates divorce does not have an exception for subsequent marriages. It seems to me, if a person were to divorce their second spouse, they would be doing the very thing Jesus is saying not to do in the various passages. They would be divorcing and by this act causing their spouse to commit adultery with someone else. I see the thrust of what Jesus is saying in each of the relevant passages is “do not divorce.” Divorce is not loving to one’s spouse and not loving to the God of the covenant relationship.
What Jesus seems to imply, Paul makes more explicit. He writes to the Corinthian church, a church birthed in a city given to sexual immorality; to a people, some of who were fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals (1 Corinthians 6:9). He tells them that in order to avoid sexual immorality, let each of them have their own wife and husband (1 Corinthians 7:2). He does not except those who have been divorced. He says that it is good if they remain unmarried, but if they cannot exercise self-control they may marry (1 Corinthians 7:9). He also tells them that if they are bound to a wife, they should not seek to be loosed from their wives (1 Corinthians 7:27). If divorce was the answer to adultery, then Paul had a great opportunity to command this action in this sexually active community. He does not. To the contrary, he is with Christ in stating that divorce should not be sought. And in making this statement, Paul like Jesus does not limit what he is saying to those who are on their first marriages. I presume that there were second and subsequent marriages among the Corinthians as divorce and remarriage was a problem throughout the Roman world. Paul simply commands the believers to stay with the spouses that they had. This, I believe is the Biblical command for any marriage, whether it is the first or the thirty-first. One does not rectify the adulterous relationship of a subsequent marriage by divorcing one’s spouse which will then cause that spouse, in the words of Jesus, to enter into another adulterous relationship. The best way to honor God is for a godly spouse to love and serve his/her present spouse.
I further note that in the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 passage, the second and subsequent marriages by the person in whom is found some uncleanness (which I see as sexual uncleanness in light with what Jesus says in Matthew 5:31 and 19:9), are treated as valid marriages. I find it most instructional that the second marriage breaks the first marriage in ways that are irreparable. God says that once the second marriage has been consummated, the first marriage may never be reconstituted. Such would be an abomination before God. Thus, the second marriage even in the Old Testament was more than adultery; it was a covenant that broke the first marriage.
I realize that this creates the theological problem of whether God is condoning sin. My answer to this is that Jesus is not condoning sin. But Jesus is dealing with the human condition. There is a parallel situation in the very passages we are discussing. God’s answer to hard hearts (a sin) in the marriage relationship was to grant divorce (an action God hates) (Matthew 19:8). God allowed divorce even though such fell short of God’s glory and was accordingly sin (Romans 3:23). It is better to divorce than live in bitterness towards your spouse.
If God permits divorce, something that is contrary to God’s expressed will; then it is no surprise to me that God permits marriage, which is something that God created and intended for people to live within. God’s answer to the human condition of humanity’s desire for sexual relationship is marriage. One’s desire to be married and have a family is no different for the 19 year-old divorced person than it is for 19 year-old virgin. As Paul states, young women will desire to be married (1 Timothy 5:11-14). The same is true of young men. Though the remarriage is adultery, Jesus presumes it will happen. Living in an unmarried state is not presumed in Scripture, except for certain people. Paul states that marriage is a better situation than uncontrolled passions. And, though the marriage may be founded in adultery, it can be lived out in a life pleasing to God; just as David’s marriage to Bathsheba, though founded in adultery and murder, was lived out before God honorably.
For these reasons, I say with Paul, if a person is presently married, do not seek to be loosed from the bonds of marriage. If a person is unmarried and does not have the ability to live alone, then let them marry. But if they can live alone, then the better course for those who are divorced is to live for the will of God in their singleness.
I realize many hold different positions on this subject. I provide you my understanding, not as the final solution to the many passages, but because I find it to be the most persuasive solution in my mind to the textual language. I find that other solutions create tensions in the texts that do not exist with the above solution.
I hope this helps.
a fellow sojourner,
Divorce & Remarriage in Scripture