A LIBERATING VIEW OF DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE
(A Biblical Response To Traditionalism)
By Gerry W Webb, April 1996.
Revised February 2003.
(Email: email@example.com )
The extreme Traditional (and North American Fundamental) position on divorce sees Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:1-12, and Luke 16:18 as teaching that marriage between one man and one woman is binding for life, and cannot be broken. There is no divorce permitted for any Christian and, hence, no remarriage. There are no exceptions. If a man does divorce his wife for any reason and gets remarried, he commits adultery. Mark 10:11 records Jesus as saying: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her (NASB).” Romans 7:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11,39 are two other passages used as prooftexts.
In addition, by believing that marriages are somehow sanctified by the Church, the Traditional view mistakenly sees marriage as a sacrament similar to the Roman Catholic position. The word “traditional” is used in this paper because it conveys the meaning of the traditions of men, rather than the correct view taught in the Bible. It was from zealously following the false traditions of his own Jewish religious leaders that had caused the Apostle Paul to persecute Christians (cf. Galatians 1:13-14).
This Traditional or sacramental view does not accept the legality of divorce as ultimately valid. An example of this is found in J. Carl Laney's book, The Divorce Myth, published in 1981. On page 106 Laney says: "...while divorce may be legally executed, a marriage in God's eyes is a lifelong union and continues to exist even when divorce has occurred..."1 Although Dr. Charles Ryrie recommends it, I believe this book uses illogical reasoning, and is legalistic.
Based on Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and I Corinthians 7:15, a modified Traditional view accepts divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality and the desertion of an unbelieving spouse, but remarriage is not permitted. Even the so-called "innocent partner" is to remain single the rest of his or her life. A further modification accepts remarriage, but only after a divorce based on these two grounds. Is it any wonder why so many Christians do not know how to relate to fellow believers who are divorced, and often end up treating them as second-class!
There are three basic questions that need to be answered concerning this issue of divorce: (1) Does the Bible allow divorce? (2) If God allows divorce, then what are the acceptable grounds or reasons for divorce? (3) Is remarriage permissible? The approach I take in this paper may seem somewhat radical or liberal, but as an Evangelical Christian, I believe it is the one most consistent with Scripture. I see the New Testament allowing divorce on a number of grounds other than sexual immorality and desertion. Once a person is divorced, he or she is normally free to remarry because the previous marriage has been dissolved. Unless a person had deliberately used the divorce in order to remarry another person, a remarriage is not sin, and does not constitute adultery.
1. The Traditional View and Implications
The Bible gives three main purposes for marriage:
a) Companionship and love (Gen. 2:18; 24:67; 29:31-34; Mal. 2:14; I Cor. 11:9; Eph. 5:22-33).
b) Sexual "one flesh" union, and enjoyment (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4-6; I Cor. 6:16; 7:9; Eph.
c) Procreation (Gen. 1:28; 4:1; Ps. 127:3).
The following, as I see it, are the implications and results of the Traditional Christian view which interprets the biblical statements on divorce and remarriage in an inconsistent, narrow, and legalistic way:
The Traditional view seems to disregard companionship as an important aspect in this discussion of marriage and divorce. Does a real marriage continue to exist after years in which the spouses have slept in separate bedrooms, and one of them refuses to be civil to the other? Is it always best to stay together "for the sake of the kids?" Is this the kind of "abundant life” Jesus would have us continue to live (cf. John 10:10)? A pastor with a legalistic and Traditional approach to a passage such as I Corinthians 7:10-11 may or may not advise an abused wife to leave her husband, but he could never advise her to get divorced or remarried.
Concerning marriage as a sacrament, Olan Hicks (a minister and author) writes: "The most distinct and significant change occurred when men began to think of marriage as a 'sacrament'... Marriage is an earth matter, a basic feature of God's design for man's social well-being. When men reclassified it as a 'sacrament,' they lost sight of its true God-given purposes."2
It is important to note that the word "joined" (yoked together, wedlock, conjugal), used by Jesus in Matthew 19:6, means more than just the "one-flesh" sexual union. In the Hebrew language, the word "joined" (KJV), relates more to a cleaving together in an abiding, faithful, loving, and companionship way (cf. Gen. 29:31-34 with Gen. 2:18, Mal. 2:14). According to Dr. Norman Geisler's Christian-based philosophy of the "hierarchy of ethical principles":
Divorce is not an exception to the biblical ethic, "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6). However, the biblical rule is not: "Divorce is always wrong." The rule is this: "A permanent, abiding, unique, relation is always right." In other words, the Scriptures are concerned with the permanence of marriage. The rule is to keep unique love relation going at all costs as long as it does not mean the perpetuation of an evil or lesser good in favor of a greater good.
The question, then, is not really of "divorce" (separation) but one of whether there really is still a "marriage" (union) of two persons. That is, of course, man should not divide what God has united: the question is: Has God united this couple? If God has not united them in a unique and abiding love, then it can be just as wrong to try to unite what God has not united...3
In discussions with fellow Evangelicals about the issue of divorce, occasionally one has said to me something like: "... Christians make their marriage vows before God; and Scripture says it is always wrong to break a vow."4 What is this statement implying? Are non-Christians any less married than Christians? Do not non-Christians also make their vows before God? We must remember that God instituted marriage for all mankind. William Barclay wrote in this regard:
... But is there anything possible for the Christian beyond separation...Let us remind ourselves of the fact that Jesus laid down principles and not laws, and to make his principles into laws is in fact to de-christianize them. It is sometimes said that the marriage vow is made in the presence of God; let us remember that every promise is made in the presence of God, and no pledge ought to be more or less serious than any other.
... If we are to think in terms of Christian love rather than in terms of Christian law, then there are cases when divorce is justified. Nor is it right permanently to despoil such people, who have failed once, of the possibility of happiness for ever; it is not right to insist that the child of such a marriage shall be for ever without a father and the partner for ever alone. There may be times when remarriage is right and justified...Law is always easier to administer than love...5
The extreme Traditional and wooden literal view which denies divorce on any ground, is contradicted in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 where Jesus is giving "fornication" (i.e. sexual immorality, unfaithfulness, adultery, unchastity), as an exception allowing for divorce. The Greek word "porneia" is translated "fornication (KJV),” and it means more than just adultery (Gr. moicheia). (In discussions with fellow Evangelical Christians on this subject, I find many of them wrongly assume Jesus is making only one exception, and that is "adultery," not the broader term "fornication.") Strictly speaking, adultery is sexual intercourse between a married person and another human being who is not the spouse (Exod. 20:14; Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22). Adultery is a sin committed against a person's married partner.
Fornication, adultery, and homosexuality are three separate sins listed by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 6:9. In God's sight, for example, when a man has intercourse with a prostitute, he becomes "one flesh" with her (I Cor. 6:16), hence, the marriage vow has been broken with his wife, along with the physical "tie" or union (cf. Heb. 13:4). Biblically speaking, divorce just legally "dissolves" the marriage, whereas such acts as adultery, incest, bestiality (cf. Lev. 18:5-30), homosexuality, spousal abuse, and desertion practically and morally have already destroyed the marriage, especially if there is no repentance, forgiveness,6 and reconciliation.
Fornication is a sexual sin relating to intercourse or genital stimulation with another person, and would include adultery, incest, and homosexuality. Although not mentioned in the Bible, I think pedophilia would be included. The Greek word for fornication is "porneia," but it cannot be expanded from the context of "sexual intercourse" or intimate sexual relations with another being to mean other things like masturbation, looking at pornography, or transvestism. If it did, then "lust of the eyes" would be included, and 99% of wives, if not all of them, would have a reason to divorce their husbands.7 It is sexual intercourse that constitutes becoming "one flesh" with another being.8 Another term for intercourse in the Old Testament is the verb "to know" (Gen. 4:1,17,25; I Sam. 1:19; cf. Luke 1:34 KJV). Since Jesus allowed at least one reason in order to get a divorce, would not this contradict the Traditionalist's absolute position of marriage being "one man and one woman for life?"
extreme Traditional view is contradicted again in I Corinthians 7:12-15 where
However, the legalist will still try to tell you that an abused woman, or even one who is deserted by a "believing" husband, is not biblically allowed to get divorced. In the situation of an abused wife, it is the woman who is forced to flee the marriage for the sake of her life or the physical well-being of herself and her children. Is not a woman's life more important than her marriage? Besides, the abusing husband has already broken trust, and virtually abandoned or forsaken his marriage vows.
4. Released From a Wife
Traditional view is contrary to I Corinthians 7:27-28 where
The phrase, "Are you bound to a wife?" in verse 27 of the New American Standard Bible (1977 ed.) is contrasted with, "Are you released from a wife?" The word "released" is translated from the Greek word "luo" or "lusis", and means: "loosed, free, untie, unbind, destroy, dissolve." The more common word used today is "divorce", which means the legal severance, dissolution, end, or death of a marriage. This has the same meaning as the Greek word "apoluo" used in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 for divorce, which means: "depart, let go, loose, put (send) away, release, set at liberty" (see Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, #630). This is the same verb used in Matthew 1:19 to describe Joseph's intention to "put away" Mary after he found out she was pregnant. This being so, it is meaningless and absurd for the Traditionalists to deduce from the New Testament that the husband is still "bound" to his wife after a divorce; or as Laney says, "Divorce clearly does not dissolve the marriage..."(p.106, cf.pp.87-88). Instead, Scripture teaches that when a man is loosed from a wife and, hence, not bound any more, he is then free to remarry.
The Greek word translated "wife or woman" mentioned in verses 27 and 34 is "gune." The Greek word used for "unmarried" in verses 8, 11, 32, and 34 is "agamos." The Greek word translated "virgin" used in verses 28 and 34 is "parthenos." The Greek word translated "loosed" or "released" in verse 27 is "lusis." The two Greek words "lusis" and "gune" used together in the same phrase in verse 27 ("loosed from a wife") cannot mean "Are you unmarried?" (as in the NIV), in the sense of never having been married; but can only mean, "Are you not married any more?" or, "Are you no longer married?" The New English Bible properly paraphrases this sentence in the following way: "Has your marriage been dissolved?"
In light of verse 27 and the context of the whole chapter, it would not make sense to conclude that the "unmarried" person (agamos) in verse 32 is always a single person who has never been married. Unmarried just means not married. Further, in verse 34, the NASB says: "...And the woman (gune) who is unmarried (agamos), and the virgin (parthenos), is concerned about the things of the Lord..." [Refer to The Nestle's Greek New Testament.] This indicates there are two kinds or groups of single women who are concerned about the things of the Lord.
"unmarried" ones are different from the "virgins" in verse
34, then it must mean they had been married at some time in the past, but are
now single again probably from the results of those mentioned in verses 15 and
27. This concurs with verse 11 where a
woman was called "unmarried" after she left her husband, although,
she was told not to do so. How can a woman be classified as
"unmarried" after leaving her husband, unless she was divorced from
him? It seems this "leaving"
has the same results as desertion mentioned in verse 15, which is "not
under bondage," and it has the same meaning as divorce. If
Concerning I Corinthians 7:2 and 9, Olan Hicks writes:
... There is no possible way to let every woman have a husband and let every man have a wife, when you are dealing with former adulterers, and [at the same time] rule that adulterers must forfeit all future rights to be married. But Paul wrote this command to former adulterers, without any mention of exceptions or conditions, and he gave as the reason, something that applies to mankind in general ‘to avoid fornication’...9
5. All Marriages Not "Made in Heaven"
Although God established marriage for all mankind, all marriages are not necessarily made in heaven. Both men and women can, and too often do, break up marriages. Two people freely choose to get married, but it takes only one person to get a divorce today. It is a fairy-tale world in which all couples "live happily ever after" and don't have to work at keeping their marriages together. Marriage will not exist in heaven, and it is not everlasting as is the human soul (Mark 12:18-27).
The lifelong relationship in marriage is what we should all strive for, but this is the "ideal" standard which was given by God in the Garden of Eden before the Fall (Gen.2). The first marriage in the Garden of Eden could have lasted forever, but because of sin, God brought death and it ended. Jesus said: "What, therefore God has joined together, let no man separate or put asunder" (Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9). This statement would be meaningless if, in reality, men were not able to separate marriages; or if God did not acknowledge the reality of those separations as Laney is saying. The exercise of man's will is involved here, and it results in the actual breakup of marriages. God will ultimately judge those who deliberately break up families.
Adam could not commit adultery in the Garden because there was no other woman around. Although he was created "perfect" and put in a perfect environment, he still sinned (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-24). The effect of the Fall is still with us (cf. Rom. 5:12; 8:18-25), and divorce is just one of the consequences of our sins. Mark 10:5-9 and I Corinthians 7:10-11 state the ideal; but in reality, Christians also separate and get divorced on both so-called “biblical,” and non-biblical grounds.
The most open or
liberal presentation on divorce I have seen was written by the renowned
Christian author John Milton. In 1643 he
wrote a lengthy tract entitled, The
Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. It was addressed to both the British
Parliament and the Westminster Assembly of Divines.
[Refer to the following websites: http://www.brysons.net/miltonweb/divorce.html, and http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/ddd/book_1/index.shtml and http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/ddd/book_2/index.shtml ]
6. The Woman at the Well
The Traditional system of thinking is contradicted by Jesus' recognition of the woman at the well as having had five husbands (John 4:16-18). If Jesus held to their view, He should have said to the woman: "You have had only one husband, and the other four relationships, plus the man you are now living with, have all been adulterous. You need to remarry your first and only husband because a marriage in God's eyes is a lifelong union, and continues to exist even when divorce has occurred."10
This kind of thinking is senseless, besides the fact that Moses forbade remarriage to the first husband after marrying another (Deut. 24:1-4, compare Jer. 3:1, but contrast with I Sam. 25:43-44 and II Sam. 3:12-16). Even though Jesus may not have approved of the woman's other four marriages, as the God-man, He still recognized the fact of those divorces and remarriages. If Jesus did not recognize or accept that marriages are "dissolved by divorce," as Laney is trying to say (p.108), why then did Jesus recognize the legality of the woman's remarriages?
7. Sin and the Grace of God
The Traditional view does not allow for the grace of God to provide "full forgiveness" if a person was divorced after becoming a Christian. Practically speaking, divorced Christians are often treated as though they had committed an "unpardonable sin." At best it tends to treat divorced Christians as "second class."
At this point, I am reminded of two of the seven things the Lord "hates" mentioned in Proverbs 6:16-19: "A proud look...and he that soweth discord among brethren." (Refer also to Psalm 51:1-5; Prov. 20:9; I Cor.1:30; 4:4-5; 10:12; II Cor.5:21; Matt.6:14-15; 7:1-5; Gal.6:1-4; I John 1:7-10 concerning our forgiveness before God, and one Christian's attitude to another who gives in to temptation.) Except for the statement in Malachi 2:16, divorce is never included in any of the sin lists in Scripture such as I Corinthians 6:9-11 and Galatians 5:19-21.
8. Single Again
The extreme Traditional
view expects all divorced Christian singles to remain celibate the rest of
their lives, even if they were divorced on the so-called two
"biblical" grounds. This position is inconsistent, unrealistic,
legalistic, unbiblical, and is also cruel in the way it treats divorced people.
Going through a divorce is devastating enough without being treated this way by
fellow Christians. This view does not line up with such passages as Matt.
19:10-12; I Cor. 7:2,7-9,27-35 and Prov. 18:22 as they relate to those who are
single, and single again because of divorce or the death of a spouse. Some
divorced singles may not have prolonged "self-control" or the
"gift of singleness," so
9. Death and Romans 7:1-6
Traditionalists assume Romans 7:1-4 teaches that marriage of a man and a woman is for life with no possibility for divorce or remarriage because God views the remarriage as an adulterous relationship. But is this the case? What, or whose "law" is being referred to in this passage? According to Romans 7:1-4, what constitutes adultery? Does this passage teach that adultery is the result of divorce and remarriage?
(a) What is the
"law" mentioned in verses 1 and 2?
(b) In his discussion about
the Christian's relationship to the Law (
(i) The Mosaic Law recognized divorce with the right to remarry (Deut. 24:1-4).
(ii) Jesus recognized divorce under certain circumstances, and with it, the right to remarry.
(iii) According to the Bible, divorce legally dissolves the marriage and the spouses are no longer bound to each other (I Cor. 7:15).
(iv) Also, according to civil law, when a person is divorced, he or she is then free to remarry.
Romans 7:1-6 is altogether different than the issue the Apostle is addressing in I Corinthians 7:10-16 concerning "leaving" the marriage. Romans 7:1-4 is referring to the legality of a person being married to two people at the same time. Whether under State law or Mosaic Law, it is still wrong. The second marriage defiles the bed and union of the still-current first marriage (Heb. 13:4; I Cor. 7:39). A second marriage would be both legal and moral, however, after the death of the first husband or the first wife. Death is the main reason for the setting aside of marriage-law obligations. The Apostle implies that the woman in this illustration stands for the believer. Through the death of Christ, we as Christians are free from the law that binds us.
(e) Romans 7:1-6 needs to be
understood in the context of Romans 5:20 to 8:17 where
(f) It is interesting to note that the word "bound" (deo) in Romans 7:2 is the root of the same Greek word used in I Corinthians 7:27 and 39 (douloo); and is related to divorce and the expression "not under bondage" mentioned in I Corinthians 7:15 (KJV). It is also interesting to note that the words "delivered from" (i.e. abolish, cease, destroy, do away, loose, make void) in Romans 7:6 used in the KJV, is the word "released" used in the NASB, and is repeated in I Corinthians 7:27 relating to divorce from a spouse who is still alive.
10. Divorce and Deuteronomy 24:1-4
We know that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife if he fell out of favor with her because of finding some "indecency or uncleanness" in her (cf. Deut.24:1). The man would write a "certificate of divorce" and put it in his wife's hand and send her out of his house. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why Moses "commanded" the man to give his wife a written notice to divorce her (Matt. 19:7), Jesus responded by saying: "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way."11
still hard-hearted. Moses knew what God
had said about the ideal marriage in Genesis 2 because he wrote it down through
divine revelation. God allowed Moses to
"permit" the men of
I do not believe Jesus is contradicting the permission of divorce by Moses. Rather, He is referring to the ideal and original intent of marriage in response to the Pharisees who were trying to test Him. Furthermore, according to Deuteronomy 24:3-4 and Jeremiah 3:1, God forbade remarriage to the first husband after the woman's second husband either divorced her or died. It was the remarriage to the first husband that God considered "an abomination," not the divorce. This shows that God recognized the legality of the Bill of Divorcement, as well as the validity of the second marriage.
11. Under What Circumstances Does God Consider A Legal Second Marriage An Act of Adultery?
How can having sex with your wife in a legal second marriage ever be considered by Jesus as committing adultery? The Traditional view does not properly understand Jesus' response to the hypocritical Pharisees who took license with their misinterpretations and misuse of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus' words in Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12 have caused more problems for interpreters than almost any other passages in Scripture. Mark 10:11 says: "...Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her." If divorce dissolves the first marriage, how can Jesus conclude that a second marriage constitutes adultery?
Traditionalists make a false assumption when they interpret Jesus' words in Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 as: "...and if he marries another woman, he commits adultery." They believe Jesus is teaching that a divorced man commits adultery if he gets remarried to another woman sometime later on.
Jesus' statement in the Gospels about "adultery" resulting from a remarriage needs to be qualified and interpreted properly. It is not sufficient just to say: "Well Jesus said it, so I believe it." Moses, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul all recognized that divorce dissolves a marriage. This being the case, it is ludicrous for us to think Jesus is really saying that all remarriages after divorce constitute "adultery," since adultery is normally defined as an "extra-marital sexual relationship."
Instead, by using the conjunction "and," Jesus is joining two separate aspects or parts of the same situation, and is saying something other than the Traditionalists have imposed upon us. In His example, Jesus is combining two aspects of one situation where a man deliberately divorces his wife in order to marry another woman. In other words, Jesus is speaking of a man who divorces his wife, then almost immediately marries another woman who is waiting "offstage." In this case, divorce is used as the means to accomplish a wrong selfish end. Jesus sees the resulting remarriage as a one-time act of adultery.
This view is brought out more clearly in God's Word translation of the Bible produced by God's Word to the Nations Bible Society (1995). Their version of Luke 16:18a states: "Any man who divorces his wife to marry another woman is committing adultery..."
In fact, this is the same kind of situation in Malachi 2:10-16 where Jewish men were divorcing the wives of their youth in order to remarry a "daughter of a foreign god". As a result, many ex-wives were often left destitute. In this case, God sees the remarriage as the sin of adultery and, hence, this divorce was a sin because it was the means to accomplish the remarriage. In all other cases, divorce is the result of sin, not the cause.
Jesus is actually saying: "In essence, it is adultery when you use divorce in order to (or as the means to) remarry another woman. This is sin in God's sight because it uses divorce as the means to accomplish a wrong end" (cf. Matt. 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). I repeat, this is the kind of divorce God "hates," and it is basically the same example given in the context of Malachi 2:10-16 where Jewish men were divorcing the wives of their youth in order to remarry other women, thereby leaving their first wives destitute. As a result, some women became prostitutes in order to support themselves. (Is not this the same thing some men do today, especially when they go through their so-called "mid-life crisis?") In this case divorce becomes sin. There are other reasons or causes that lead to divorce, however, and it is wrong to assume that all remarriages are sinful and constitute adultery.
In his book Taking Sides (1975), David Field states the biblical position I support. He says:
The main theological argument used by those who believe divorce can sometimes be right is that marriage is essentially a relationship...Even Jesus' stern denunciations of divorce and remarriage are understandable (it is suggested), once we recognize that his aim was not to legislate for all situations, but only to expose the iniquities of those who were using the divorce law as a respectable cover in order to get rid of their unwanted partners in a cruel, high-handed way. It was these one-sided dismissals and remarriages--and only these--that Jesus condemned as adulterous."12
Concerning Matthew 19:9, Olan Hicks explains:
... First, the Lord was not speaking to any and every kind of divorce situation. He was speaking of only one kind. "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another." Everything said in the passage is addressed in the first line to this kind of case, the married man who divorces a wife who was faithful to him and marries another. It is not addressed to other situations, such as the case where the man's wife divorces him, nor to the case of the woman justly divorced by her husband, but to the specific case of the man who divorces his faithful wife and marries another. This man commits adultery in the perpetration of that action. It is certainly reasonable to suppose that the same would apply to a woman if she did this same thing. She would commit adultery in so doing.
... We need to notice that the subject being discussed was "Promiscuity", not "Marriage eligibility". Jesus had already mentioned the original intention of God in making the male and female at the beginning, that each man should have a wife and each woman should have a husband...What Jesus said was simply that going from mate to mate, or promiscuity, was to commit adultery.13
One further thing needs to be qualified concerning Jesus' statement about "adultery" resulting from a remarriage: (a) Divorce dissolves a marriage, hence, the man and woman are no longer bound to each other. (b) After a person is divorced, he or she has the legal right to remarry. (c) We know that adultery normally cannot result from a legal remarriage because adultery is defined as "sexual intercourse between a married person and another not the spouse." (d) Moses, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul all recognized the validity of remarriages. (e) Only in the above example given by Jesus does remarriage constitute adultery before God. (f) The resulting remarriage to another person is a one-time act of adultery, it is not continued in the new relationship. The words "shall marry another" or "marries another" (from Greek gamos "to wed"), needs to be explained.
...The most common error seems to be to read this verb as though it were a noun and as if it referred to a state or relationship, instead of to an action... Being a verb, it refers to an action. Being in the aorist tense, it refers to what Greek scholars call "point action" or punctiliar action. It means something that is done at a particular point in time and is completed, not something that is continuing in progress. Why then do we read it as though it were a noun and referred to the state of marriage, that which is produced by the action of marrying? The answer must be traditional influence. The word (a verb) refers to the act of marrying itself, and this is very important in reading the verse correctly.14
As with Carl Laney in his book, The Divorce Myth, the well-known Evangelical radio pastor and author Dr. John MacArthur believes that remarriage after divorce on so-called “nonbiblical grounds” results in a continuous adulterous relationship. In a pamphlet entitled The Biblical Position on Divorce and Remarriage, MacArthur states:
The only biblical grounds for divorce are (1) fornication, or (2) a nonbelieving partner who initiates the divorce due to incompatibility with a Christian…
Believers who pursue divorce on nonbiblical grounds are subject to church discipline because they openly reject the Word of God. The one who obtains a divorce on non-biblical grounds and remarries is living in a state of “adultery” since God did not recognize the validity of the original divorce (Matt. 5:32, Mk. 10:11-12)…
In cases where a believer obtained a divorce on nonbiblical grounds and remarried, the second marriage union is recognized as living in “adultery” (Mk. 10:11-12). If repentance takes place, it is recognized that to obtain a second divorce would disobey Scripture (Deut. 24:1-4). Hence, they are to remain in the second marriage.
As a fellow Evangelical I agree with MacArthur on the essentials of the Christian faith; nevertheless, I have some major problems with his pamphlet on divorce:
(1) I think it verges on arrogance when he uses the word “the” in his title, as if his particular interpretation on the issue of divorce and remarriage is the only credible one. A man with his knowledge should be aware that Christians have differing sincere opinions as to what the biblical view is. Further, if you do not accept his view, MacArthur believes that you “openly reject the Word of God,” and are thus subject to church discipline. What should be obvious to the reader is that MacArthur’s view is already contradicted by Laney’s view that does not allow Christians to divorce and remarry on any ground.
(2) MacArthur’s pamphlet is an exercise in prooftexting rather than in exegesis of the biblical texts referred to. He just states his case or point of view, and then gives the biblical references without explanation.
(3) Other than on his two so-called “biblical grounds,” MacArthur wrongly concludes that God does not recognize the validity of divorce. As I have explained, this is clearly contrary to such passages as Deuteronomy 24, Ezra 10, and John 4.
(4) By referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, MacArthur draws the conclusion that it is a second divorce which disobeys Scripture. But if one properly reads the Deuteronomy passage in context, he will clearly see it is not a second divorce that disobeys the Law of Moses, rather, it is a remarriage to the first husband (v. 4).
(5) By referencing Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:11-12, MacArthur assumes that Jesus is giving only one reason or exception for divorce. If Jesus was declaring that there is only one exception, then the Apostle Paul’s additional reason given in First Corinthians 7:15 would contradict it. Instead, Jesus was likely responding to the common selfish and disgraceful situation in which some of those Jewish men, who holding to the liberal teachings of Hillel, were using any reason they could in order to divorce their wives and marry other women (cf. Matt. 19:3). I find it interesting that the Traditionalists who think Jesus is giving only one reason for divorce are not aware that Moses gave only two reasons for disallowing divorce (cf. Deut. 22:13-30).
(6) If MacArthur’s view that a second marriage
constitutes an adulterous relationship because one of the partners obtained a
divorce other than on the two so-called “biblical grounds,” then the newly wed
Christian couple is in a damnable predicament.
According to MacArthur, even if they repent, they are not allowed to get
a second divorce. But if they don’t get
a second divorce, they would continue living in an adulterous
relationship. I thought true repentance
meant to turn your back on a certain sin, and not repeat it? If MacArthur is correct, then the Christian
couple is destined for hell because First Corinthians 6:9-11 declares that an
adulterer will not inherit the
12. Puzzling Words in Matthew 5:32
How are we to understand the puzzling statement by Jesus in Matthew 5:32 where the innocent wife who is the victim of divorce, somehow commits adultery; "and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (NASB)? I find it inconsistent with Jesus' character to declare an innocent woman an adulteress just because her husband divorced her. He treated "sinners" much better than this. In a divorce, many women are left destitute. In his commentary on Matthew, William Hendriksen writes:
... It must be read proleptically: she is called an adulteress because she may easily become one...The Greek, by using the passive voice of the verb, states not what the woman becomes, or what she does but what she undergoes, suffers, is exposed to. She suffers wrong. He does wrong. To be sure, she herself also may become guilty, but that is not the point which Jesus is emphasizing. Far better, it would seem to me, is therefore the translation, "Whoever divorces his wife except on the basis of infidelity exposes her to adultery," or something similar...15
The promiscuous actions of the husband in Matthew 5:32 may very well put his ex-wife in a similar situation to be promiscuous, or be tempted to sin as those single adults mentioned in I Corinthians 7:9. Hendriksen continues:
What Jesus is saying, then, is this: Whoever divorces his wife except on the ground of [her] infidelity must bear the chief responsibility if as a result she, in her deserted state, should immediately yield to the temptation of becoming married to someone else. The erring husband should be given an opportunity to correct his error, that is, to go back to his wife. This also explains the closing clause, according to which anyone who rushes in to marry the deserted wife is involving himself in--hence, is committing--adultery. --It was thus that Jesus counteracted the looseness in morals prevailing in his day.16
It is interesting to note; except on the ground of adultery, our British Columbian government does not grant divorces until after one year.
From a slightly different perspective, the new God's Word translation of verse 32 is also helpful in giving a clearer meaning of what Jesus probably meant:
But I can guarantee that any man who divorces his wife for any reason other than unfaithfulness makes her look as though she has committed adultery. Whoever marries a woman divorced in this way makes himself look as though he has committed adultery.17
13. Literalism is Selective
In such passages as Matthew 5:27-32; 19:24; Mark 9:42-48, and Luke 14:26, Jesus is likely using a figure of speech known as hyperbole in order to get His point across.18 The Traditional view is not consistently literal because it is forced to qualify some of these passages. According to Matthew 5:29, Jesus said: "And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you (NASB)." I don't know of any minister or counsellor today who would advise a Christian to "tear" his right eye out, or "cut off" his right hand if it causes him to stumble. With reference to Luke 14:26, I don't know of any pastor who would advise a Christian to actually "hate" his father and mother in order to be Jesus' disciple. And yet, by referring to such verses as Matthew 5:32; 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12, the Traditionalist would have us believe Jesus is actually teaching that "adultery" is the result of most (or all) remarriages after people are legally divorced, and no longer bound to their first spouses.
Although Jesus interpreted the Law of Moses and spoke about the ideal, we must remember that He laid down principles, not more laws. Another example of this is found in Matthew 18:21-35 where Jesus told Peter that we should forgive those who sin against us "up to seventy times seven." If we took Jesus' statement literally, then we would have every right to strike back or retaliate after a person wronged us 491 times. Instead, Jesus basically gave only one new command: "...that you love one another, even as I have loved you...(John 13:34 NASB)." The Apostle Paul elaborated on this principle in I Corinthians 13:5 when he said: "love...does not keep score of wrongs." (Compare Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14,18.)
14. God Divorces
The Dispensational form
of this Traditional view generally refuses to accept the fact that God divorced
physical Israel (the ten northern tribes) as a nation (cf. Jer. 3:1-11; Isa. 50:1; Hos.
1:2-11; 2:2,23).19 The Lord spoke to Jeremiah saying:
"...And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent
her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did
not fear; but she went and was a harlot also...(Jer. 3:8 NASB)." They do not seem to be aware that many of the
promises given to
Ironically, the literalistic Traditional system inconsistently interprets these Old Testament passages on divorce such as Jeremiah 3:8 in a "metaphorical sense."20 If the divorce is to be understood as a metaphor, so must the "marriage." But, if this "spiritual" divorce did not happen and was not true, then God was not truly "married" to Israel in the Old Testament; and the Church (i.e., faithful spiritual Israel made up of Jew and Gentile, cf. Isa. 65:1; Rom. 9:22-26; Gal. 6:15-16; Eph. 5:22-27; Rev. 21:1-14),21 cannot be the "bride of Christ" now.
If all divorces are
seen as sin, and God divorced
15. Children and Divorce
Children are the innocent victims of divorce, and generally are the most emotionally affected. But does this mean that parents should always stay together for the sake of the children? I do not believe so.
For one thing, physical abuse of the wife, and physical and sexual abuse of the children by the father are certainly grounds for divorce. The fact is, the lives of the wife and children are more important than the continued existence of the marriage. For another thing, children are often severely emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives because their mother stayed married to a drunk, violent, and either physically or verbally abusive husband. In some instances, it is the wife who is abusive.
Although the Bible has a number of texts relating to divorce, it is primarily silent when it comes to the issue of children and divorce. There is no mention of children in the major passages such as Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Malachi 2:10-16; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:1-12; John 4:13-18, and I Corinthians 7:1-40. The only mention of children in 1 Corinthians 7:14 relates to a believing spouse staying in a marriage and somehow “sanctifying” the children and unbelieving spouse
There is one passage in the Old Testament, however, that mentions the divorcing of unbelieving foreign women and their children. It is found in Ezra 10:1-44. A Jewish man named Shecaniah came to the prophet Ezra and said:
We have been unfaithful to our God, and have
married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for
Verse 5 states that, as a prophet of
God, Ezra rose up and “made the leading priests, the Levites, and all
As Christians, we are not under the
letter of the Old Mosaic Covenant because the better New Covenant has
superseded and replaced it (cf. Rom. 10:4; II Cor. 3:1-18; Gal. 3:10-27; Heb.
8:6-13).22 The Old Covenant allowed Jewish male believers to leave
or abandon their unbelieving wives and children. However, as Christians under the New
Covenant, the Apostle Paul advised believing spouses to the stay in the
marriages if at all possible (cf. I Cor. 7:10-16). In addition, the laws of the
Statistically speaking, children from broken homes are more disposed to have psychological problems, drop out of school, and/or become juvenile delinquents. Therefore, divorced parents need to be amicable and civil to each other, particularly in front of the children. Unless it directly affects the well being of the child, one parent should never criticize or run down the other parent in front of the child. Parents should never use their children as “pawns” in order to be vindictive against each other. Children need confirmation that they are loved by both parents and not responsible for the break-up of the marriage, as some of them falsely think.
16. Elders and Divorce
The Traditional view
does not allow a person who was divorced after becoming a Christian to become
an elder or overseer in his own local church.
One reason for this view may be because many church leaders inherently
feel that the grace of God somehow does not provide "full
forgiveness" for this kind of single Christian who is forever labeled
"DIVORCED." (Besides, God used the Apostle Paul even though he
had been a murderer. Is divorce worse than murder?) This does not line up with
First Timothy 3:1-7 is
often misquoted in this regard. The
legalistic view holds that an elder or overseer must be married because
it says, "...the husband of one wife (v.2)." If this is the case, then even Timothy,
I believe a more proper interpretation of I Timothy 3:2 sees the principle behind "...the husband of one wife" phrase and, therefore, it could mean at least two things: (a), if a man is married he is faithful to his wife, and is not a womanizer or; (b), he must not be a polygamist. This view is in line with I Timothy 5:9 where it states that in order for a widow to be above reproach, she should have been “the wife of one man” in the sense of a faithful one-man wife, or else it would contradict the rest of Scripture by saying that a widow should never get remarried (cf. I Tim. 5:14 and I Cor. 7:8-9,39).
Although evangelical churches generally do not allow divorced Christian men to be elders, many of them have allowed divorced and remarried ones to be deacons. By doing so, those churches have realized that divorced people are not still married to their first mate. These remarried men are the husbands of only one wife. If they were not, the law of our own land would be charging them with either bigamy, or else polygamy in the case of a third marriage.
I have endeavored to show that even a modified Traditional view of divorce and remarriage is still too narrow and legalistic. Jesus and the Apostle Paul were not just giving fornication and desertion of an unbelieving spouse as the only reasons or situations upon which to morally justify divorce and legally end a marriage. Instead of giving a comprehensive answer on the subject of divorce, Jesus dealt with the ideal, and His basic response was to those people who were deliberately using lax laws on divorce in order to marry someone else. I paraphrase the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:9 in order to get the complete and proper meaning of what He said: “Unless one’s spouse has committed some sort of intimate sexual relations with another being, God considers it an act of adultery if a person deliberately uses divorce as the means to get rid of one person in order to marry another.”
Various immoral acts of sexual intercourse outside of marriage such as adultery, incest, bestiality, and homosexuality are obvious examples given in the Bible as valid biblical grounds (or allowances) for divorce because they violate or desecrate the marriage bed and the “one-flesh” union. Desertion also severs the marriage because both the one-flesh union and the companionship elements of marriage no longer exist, since there is no kind of relationship or communication left. Desertion does not require a divorce certificate unless or until one wants to marry another person.
Chronic addictions relating to such things as drugs and alcohol abuse also lead to divorce, and these can be legitimate biblical reasons to release the partners from their marriage vows (cf. I Corinthians 7:27-28). I believe spousal and child abuse can also be just causes leading to divorce. The destabilization of our patriarchal society, sexual incompatibility, money problems, constant lying by one partner, bitterness, unforgiveness, and holding grudges contrary to I Corinthians 13:5 also contribute to the breakdown of the marriage. In other words, it is pride, selfishness, and sins of the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:19-21) that cause divorce. Instead, Christians need to evidence “the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-26).”
Although sin leads to divorce, not all divorces are sinful. Divorce itself is not a sin except in the case where it is deliberately being used as the means to remarry another person. In this case, Jesus sees the resulting remarriage as a single act of "adultery." Divorce legally and practically ends a marriage, and in all cases except the one mentioned above, with it comes the right to remarry. It saddens me when I see pastors and church elders putting together doctrinal statements on divorce and remarriage when they haven’t a clue how to interpret Jesus’ difficult sayings on divorce. Instead of helping Christians struggling with divorce, these church leaders add false guilt to the already stressful and difficult situations. We must remember that marriage was made for men and women, not vice versa.
Whatever the situation, Christian counsellors need to display the loving attitude of Jesus. They should also consider the words of Bernard Ramm: "The Christian pastor who thinks that the New Testament contains an exhaustive ethics of marriage and divorce is at a loss to handle the kinds of problems he now faces in society..."23 Such things as repentance, forgiveness, commitment to the marriage vow, and reconciliation need to be emphasized. However, if all available methods of reconciliation have failed, divorce may be the means of grace in providing for some a second chance to get on with one's life. Gerry. W. Webb.
1. J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1981), p. 106.
2. Olan Hicks, Divorce and Remarriage: The Bible vs. Tradition (Nashville: Christian Family Books, 1978, 1987, 3rd. ed.), pages 18-19. (Cf. also Matt.22:23-30.)
3. Norman L. Geisler, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), p. 207.
4. Refer to Num. 30:1-16; Deut. 23:21-23; Eccles. 5:5; Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12.
5. William Barclay, The Plain Man's Guide to Ethics, Thoughts on the Ten Commandments (Collins Fontana Books, 1973), pages 143-144.
6. Compare Matt. 5:43-44; 6:14-16; and I John 4:19-21.
7. Compare Matt. 5:27-30; I Thess.4:5; II Tim.2:22.
8. Compare Gen. 2:24; 4:1; Exod. 20:14; Lev. 18:20-24; Matt.19:9; I Cor.6:9-20.
9. Hicks, Ibid., p. 39. (Compare I Cor.6:9-12)
10. Refer to Laney, Ibid., pages 106-108.
11. Compare Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:20-23; Gal. 5:19-21; Matt. 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12.
12. David Field, Taking Sides (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975), pages 70,72.
13. Hicks, Ibid., pages 25-27.
14. Ibid., pages 27-29.
15. William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew: New Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), pages 305-306.
16. Ibid., p. 306.
17. God's Word to the Nations Bible Society, God's Word translation (Grand Rapids: World Publishing, 1995)
18. Craig S. Keener, ...And Marries Another, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1991), pages 12-37,105-108.
19. Jay E. Adams, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), pp.71-73. [Compare Isa. 65:1-2; II Kings 23:27; II Chron. 36:16; Amos 8:2; Rom. 10:19-21. Refer also to Matt. 21:33-45 & I Thess. 2:14-16.]
20. Laney, Ibid., pages 104-105.
21. See also Eph. 2:11-22; Phil. 3:2-3; I Pet. 2:4-10.
22. See also Matt. 5:38-39; Luke 10:25-37; John 13:34; Rom. 12:9-21; Eph. 4:28-32, and the writer’s paper entitled “Law And Grace, or Law Versus Grace?” (Revised March 1999).
23. Bernard L. Ramm, The Right, The Good, and The Happy, The Christian in a World of Distorted Values (Waco: Word Book Publishers, 1971), pages 84-90.
Atkinson, David. To Have and to Hold,
The Marriage Covenant and the Discipline of Divorce. (
Barclay, William. The Plain Man's Guide to Ethics, Thoughts on the Ten Commandments. (Collins Fontana Books, 1973, pp. 94-117, 137-145.)
Braun, Michael A. Second-Class Christians? A New Approach to the Dilemma of Divorced People in the Church. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989.)
Buswell, J. Oliver. A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Two volumes in one. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962, Vol. 1, pp.385-395.)
DeHaan, Richard W. Marriage, Divorce, and Re-Marriage. How God Looks at the Marital Relationship. (Grand Rapids, MI: Radio Bible Class, 1979.) [Booklet]
Duty, Guy. Divorce & Remarriage. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1967.)
Ewald, George R. Jesus and Divorce, A Biblical Guide for Ministry to Divorced Persons. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991.)
Geisler, Norman L. Ethics: Alternatives and Issues. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971.)
Hendriksen, William. The Gospel of Matthew: New Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973.)
Hicks, Olan. Divorce and Remarriage: The Bible vs. Tradition. (Nashville, TN: Christian Family Books, 1978, 1987. 3rd. edition.)
Hocking, David. Marrying Again, A Guide for Christians. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1983.)
House, H. Wayne. ed. Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.)
Keener, Craig S. …And Marries Another. (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.)
Laney, J. Carl. The Divorce Myth. A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1981.)
Murray, John. Divorce. (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972.)
Ramm, Bernard L. The RIGHT, The GOOD and The HAPPY, The Christian in a World of Distorted Values. (Waco, Texas: Word Books Publishers, 1971.)
Richards, Larry. Remarriage: A Healing Gift From God. (Waco, Texas: Word Inc., 1981, 1990.)
Small, Dwight H. Remarriage and God's Renewing Grace. (Baker Book House, 1986.)
Stein, Robert H. “Divorce” article in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Editor Joel B. Green. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992, pp. 192-199.)
Stott, John. Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today. (Revell, 1990.)
Vander Lugt, Herb. Divorce & Remarriage: What Does The Bible Teach? (Grand Rapids, MI: Radio Bible Class, 1994.) [Booklet]
Woodrow, Ralph. Divorce and Remarriage: What Does the Bible Really Say? (Palm Springs, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1982, 2002.)
[Copyright 2003 by Gerry W. Webb. All rights reserved.]