The History of the Issue
All the church fathers except one (Ambrosiaster) agreed that remarriage after divorce, whatever the cause, constitutes adultery. Even in the case of adultery, the faithful spouse did not have permission to remarry. This remained the standard in the church until the 16th century when Erasmus suggested that the “innocent” spouse not only had a right to divorce an unfaithful spouse, but could also contract a new marriage. This view was
accepted by the Reformers and is the standard Protestant evangelical position on divorce and remarriage today. But is this viewpoint consistent with Scripture. There are a number of important questions that must be answered to arrive at a biblical teaching on marriage and divorce.
The Biblical Questions
Does the exception in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 allow for remarriage after divorce in the case of porneia?
No. There are three possible places the exception clause could appear: at the beginning of Jesus’s statement (making separation mandatory in the case of porneia), in the middle (allowing divorce only) and at the end (sanctioning both divorce and remarriage). If the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 applies both to divorce and remarriage, these
are the only two places in the New Testament where such an exception appears in the middle of the sentence and modifies both the preceding and following verbs.
What is the meaning of porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9?
Many evangelicals have mistakenly equated porneia with “adultery.” But there is another word (moicheia) which Jesus would have used if He had intended to allow for divorce and remarriage in the case of adultery. It has been argued that porneia refers to (1) any kind of sexual misconduct, (2) unfaithfulness during betrothal, or (3) incestuous marriage as forbidden in Leviticus 18:6-18. Each of these views is possible. Which would best fit in a
Jewish context in a Jewish gospel? Since porneia does refer to incest in the New Testament (1 Cor. 5:1; Acts 15:20, cf. Lev. 17:8-18:16), and was a serious problem in the lives of the Herods (Archelaus, Antipas and Agrippa II), it is quite possible that Jesus was arguing the permanence of marriage except in the case of an illicit or illegal (e. incestuous) marriage. John the Baptist had recently lost his life due to his condemning the incestuous marriage of Antipas to his brother’s wife who was also his niece. The questioning of Jesus by the Pharisees was probably motivated by a desire to see Jesus get into similar trouble. See my book, The Divorce Myth, pp. 71-78, for complete argumentation.
Why was no exception recorded in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18?
In Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the other Synoptic Gospels no exception to the permanence of marriage is given. There is no “exception” clause. Divorce and remarriage is said to constitute adultery in every circumstance. It has been suggested that Mark is a summary of the more complete record of what is found in Matthew, thus he leaves out the exception. But take a close look. Mark gives us details which are not found in Matthew. Mark’s account is actually the fuller or more complete account. Because the laws of
Leviticus 18:6-18 did not apply to Gentiles, Mark saw no need to include the exception in his gospel to Roman readers. The exception is not found in Mark or Luke because it had no application to Romans or Greek Gentiles.
How did Paul understand the teaching of Jesus regarding marriage and divorce?
Paul definitely regarded marriage as permanent (Rom. 7:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:39). According to Paul, death and death alone could end a marriage. He has a word from Jesus that divorce is not allowed (1 Cor. 7:10-11). Paul, a first century theologian and Greek scholar, interprets the words of Jesus as not allowing for divorce or remarriage. Only two alternatives are presented those who have been divorced: (1) reconciliation to one’s spouse, or (2) the single life. One who has been divorced should seek reconciliation or
actively pursue the single life. A new marriage is simply not an option which Paul recognizes.
What is the meaning of Paul’s words, “not under bondage” (1 Cor. 7:15)?
While many have interpreted these words as allowing for remarriage in the case of desertion, Paul doesn’t mention remarriage in this verse at all. He knows of the concept of remarriage, but sees it as applying only to widows (1 Cor. 7:39). It is quite unlikely that Paul would prohibit divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and then allow it in 7:15. The words “not under bondage” literally means “not enslaved.” A deserted believer is
not so bound to preserve the union that he or she must follow the deserter around like a slave seeking to maintain the marriage. Being enslaved is contrasted with being at peace. Rather than being a slave to an unwilling spouse, the believer can be at peace in the midst of a difficult situation.
What is the meaning of the words, “but if you marry, you have not sinned” (1 Cor. 7:28)?
The key to any verse is its context. Paul is speaking about engaged virgins in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38. He has been arguing the advantages of the single life. Some people who had plans to marry were wondering if it was s sin to go ahead with the marriage. Paul is simply saying that those engaged virgins (parthenoi) who are in a state of marital freedom (lelusai, v. 27) commit no sin should they go ahead and marry.
Marriage was designed by God to be a permanent relationship (Gen. 2:24, “cleave” implies a permanent bonding). Divorce is a sin that God hates (Mal. 2:16). It was regulated in the Old Testament (Deut. 24:1-4), but did not originate with God and never meets with His approval. Both Jesus and Paul forbade divorce (“What God has brought together let no man put asunder” [Matt. 19:6], and “But to the married I give instruction . . .that the wife should not leave her husband . . . and that the husband should not send his wife away” [1 Cor. 7:10-11]).
Should Christians grant their approval to something that Scripture clearly disapproves? To approve divorce and remarriage or regard it as an unimportant issue will actually encourage it. Church approval of divorce and remarriage allows people to anticipate a way out of an unhappy relationship. If there were no loop-holes more people would commit
themselves to working through the problems and making their marriage work.
It is important for Christians to understand that the biblical prohibition against remarriage is not punishment for divorce. The prohibition is simply given in recognition that marriage is designed by God to be permanent and outlasts the legal termination of marriage by divorce. To divorce and remarry is likened to taking another spouse when you are already
married. For that reason, Jesus called it “adultery” (Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18).
It is also important to recognize that divorce and remarriage is not an unpardonable sin. God loves sinners and is always willing to forgive and restore those who acknowledge their wrongdoing (confession) and repent (1 John 1:9). Those who have been divorced and remarried should not be considered outcasts or second class Christians. Rather they should be encouraged to work hard to strengthen and maintain their present marriage and to demonstrate faithfulness to their marriage partner and to God.
As in the case of any sin, divorce and remarriage undermines one’s reputation, integrity and trust. This condition will have an impact on ministry (1 Tim. 3:2, 11-12). For that reason, it wise for someone who has been divorced and remarried to resign from their ministries until credibility, reputation and trust can be restored. While such restoration is
possible, it usually takes years of demonstrated faithfulness in marriage and faithful commitment to the Lord.
According to the Apostle Paul, the marriage relationship is a picture of the believer’s relationship with Christ (Eph. 5:31-33). Is our relationship with Christ temporary or permanent? Can a true believer ever be separated from Christ (Rom. 8:35-39; Jn. 10:28)? If marriage is viewed as a dissoluble relationship, it would be an inaccurate representation of the indissoluble relationship between Christ and His church.
For further study, including application, counseling guidelines and answers to commonly asked questions, see my book The Divorce Myth (Bethany House Publisher).