Question: “I remarried after my divorce. I recently noticed that the New Testament repeatedly identified remarriage as adultery (e.g., Mt 5:32, Mt 19:9, Mk 5:32, and Lk 16:18). Should I divorce my remarriage because God considers it adultery?”
For centuries, the Christian Church universally stood by the words of Christ and forbade remarriages. Due to Christ’s teaching on the life-long permanence of the first marital bond, the Church has always viewed remarriage after divorce as the sin of adultery. However, today in the United States, it is now legal to remarry after a divorce. It is also legal for two men to marry each other. Yet, for Christians seeking to honor God with their lives, divorcing either a gay marriage or a remarriage is the proper repentant recourse. Yes, God does hate the divorce of real marriages, but it is vital to keep in mind that both remarriages and gay marriages are not real marriages in the sight God.
The doctrine regarding remarriage is of utmost importance because if remarriage is adultery (Mt 19:9), then Scripture unequivocally declares that adulterers will not enter into heaven (1 Cor 6:9). Adultery is not the unforgivable sin, but one must certainly not continue to live in it.
JESUS DEMANDED DIVORCE
By identifying remarriage as adultery, Jesus was demanding divorce. Divorce is the only way to terminate the adultery known as remarriage. Unequivocally, God expects Christians to terminate adultery.
In no less than four different Gospel passages, Jesus lucidly taught that the marital bond was a permanent one by stating, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6). Due to the permanence of the marital bond, a divorce never actually dissolves a first marriage in the sight of God. According to the Bible, nothing but the death of a spouse could ever dissolve a first marriage. In God’s sight, a lawfully wedded man and woman are husband and wife until death officially terminates their marriage. This is why divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery in the eyes of God.
WHAT TO DO IF ALREADY DIVORCED
Christians who are already divorced are instructed by God to either remain single or be reconciled to their spouses: “To the married I give this command–not I, but the Lord–a wife should not divorce a husband (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Remarriage is not an option because Jesus said that any remarriage after divorce is an adulterous union: “If a woman divorces her husband, and is married to another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12).
Throughout the pages of the Bible, we see that God expects swift termination of all illicit unions:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife….Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (Genesis 20:3, 7)
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. (Hebrews 13:4)
For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mark 6:17-18)
WHAT ABOUT THE “ADULTERY” EXCEPTION?
Opponents bring up two verses, which they claim, serve as “exceptions” for Jesus’ prohibition against remarriage: Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Yet, upon closer examination, we discover that Jesus never gave any exceptions which allow for remarriage.
A normal reading of the texts seem to have Jesus permitting divorce for spousal sexual infidelity. If he was, then He forbade remarriage afterwards. Matthew 5:32 states, “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.” According to Mt 5:32, if a spouse has committed “sexual immorality” (Gk. πορνεία, see definition above), then Jesus allows for divorce. However, Jesus explicitly prohibits remarriage after such a divorce by subsequently stating, “and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Hence, we are certain that Matthew 5:32 does not give an allowance for remarriage. If a person divorces her spouse for the cause of sexual immorality, she cannot subsequently remarry because she is now a divorcee. In such cases, Scripture (which cannot contradict itself) commands the individual to wait for the death of the spouse she divorced in order to remarry: “So then if, while her husband lives, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband dies, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she is married to another man” (Rom 7:3).
If a man divorces his wife because of her infidelity, then he is not responsible for her adultery if his wife subsequently remarries (remember that according to Jesus, anyone who remarries commits adultery). However, if a man divorces his wife for any reason other than adultery, then he bears some of the blame for her adulterous remarriage. The man bears blame except when the divorce was due to the wife’s infidelity.
Those who argue for a remarriage exception are incoherent because it is irrational to say, “You may never marry a divorced woman, except when a woman was divorced due to her sexual infidelity.” Under such logic, the adulteress would actually be rewarded with the ability to remarry. Under such logic, a person simply needs to commit adultery in order to legitimately divorce and remarry. This is certainly not what Jesus taught.
Additionally, it is irrational to say, “After a divorce due to adultery, the innocent party may remarry but the adulterous party may not remarry” (many pastors make this argument). This is legal fiction. If the innocent party could remarry because a divorce actually terminated the marriage, then the guilty party should also be free to remarry because the marriage has been terminated. There is no room for a double-standard fiction.
Matthew 19:9 is really just an abridgment of Matthew 5:32 and thus, it also does not permit remarriage. Matthew 19:9 states, “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, not for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and he who marries one put away commits adultery.” In New Testament Greek, and in Matthean style in particular, the elliptical negated prepostional phrase, “not for fornication”, is intended as a simple limitation of the verbal action that immediately precedes it: “put away.” In other words, Jesus made an exception for divorce but not for remarriage. According to Jesus, divorce is always prohibited–except when sexual immorality occurs. But even in sexual immorality divorce cases, as Augustine rightly believed, remarriage is not permitted afterwards.
The fact that Matthew 19:9 is an abridgment of Matthew 5:32 is powerfully evidenced by the existence of New Testament Greek manuscripts which have the following additional words as part of Matthew 19:9: “except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Suddenly, we see that instead of allowing for remarriage, the full text reveals that Jesus was once again stating that a man who divorces for any reason other than sexual immorality is partially culpable for his wife’s adultery if she remarries. By stating “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” Jesus informs us that although adultery could be a valid reason for divorce, it is not a valid reason for remarriage.
An Alternate Consideration
Under an alternate consideration, Jesus was making an exception to permit the divorce of prohibited marriages (e.g., Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias, or the “porneia” marriage described in 1 Corinthians 5:1). Contrary to popular thought, there is no actual exception for adultery in the Matthew passages. Jesus does not use the word adultery (Gk., moicheia (μοιχεία)). Instead, the Greek word used is porneia (see definition below).
Porneia, here, could be a reference to a prohibited (i.e., false) marriage. Under this view, Jesus is teaching that divorce is prohibited except for remarriages, incestual marriages, gay marriages, or any other form of porneia. Such illicit unions are to be swiftly divorced. The New Testament also used the word porneia in 1 Corinthians 5:1 when referring to the illicit marriage of a man and his father’s former wife; and the apostle Paul expected the porneia to be terminated immediately (see the insightful excerpt from Ellicott’s Commentary below). As in our society today, such “fake” marriages existed but were not the norm. Therefore, it makes sense that both the Gospels of Mark and Luke do not have any exceptions to the divorce prohibition.
Definition: The biblical Greek word porneia (πορνεία): “1. Unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication; 2. Participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication; 3. Immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication” (Source: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
1 Corinthians 5:1: “One should have his father’s wife.”— The word “have” here used always implies in the New Testament actual marriage. It is, therefore, probable that she had been divorced from his father. The word for “his father’s wife” is the Hebrew form of expression for stepmother. St. Chrysostom suggests “he said not his ‘stepmother,’ but ‘his father’s wife,’ so as to strike much more severely;” but probably St. Paul used the Hebrew phrase instead of the ordinary Greek word for “stepmother,” as it was in this phraseology that such a union was forbidden by the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:8). (Source: Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers.)
WHAT ABOUT ABANDONMENT?
Some claim that 1 Corinthians 7:15 permits a person to remarry if he/she has been abandoned. However, we know with certainty that no such allowance was ever made by the verse. We know with certainty because just four verses earlier, the Bible explicitly prohibited divorcees from remarrying by stating: “To the married I give this command–not I, but the Lord–a wife should not divorce a husband (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11). Plainly, the biblical text does not give remarriage as an option. The divorcee has only two valid options: either remain unmarried or be reconciled.
So what does 1 Corinthians 7:15 really say? 1 Corinthians 7:15 states: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.” The words “under bondage” represent the Greek word δεδούλωται and it is not a reference to the marital bond. Marriage is not bondage.
The apostle is not saying that the marriage bond is broken. The word δεδούλωται means “in slavery;” and Paul is referring to the feelings akin to harsh enslavement that come with constantly trying to prevent a divorce from happening with an unwilling unbeliever. Instead of living in a “δεδούλωται” of a marriage, the apostle tells us that we are free to let the unbelieving spouse depart so that we could live in “peace” (Gk. εἰρήνῃ, found in 1 Cor 7:15). However, if such a divorce occurs, 1 Corinthians 7:11 already explicitly warned the Christian to remain unmarried. Remarriage is not permitted.
CHURCH HISTORY SPEAKS
Centuries prior to skyrocketing American divorce rates, the writings of Early Church leaders, for hundreds of years, were virtually unanimous in their stance against divorce and remarriage. Certainly, with their intimate knowledge of the texts, these leaders could not all be wrong:
- You must not have wives whose former husbands are living; nor may you, women, have husbands whose former wives are living. Such marriages are adulterous, not by the law of the courts, but by the law of Heaven. Nor may a woman who by divorce has withdrawn from her husband become your wife while her husband lives. Only because of fornication may one dismiss an adulterous wife; but in her lifetime you may not marry another. Neither to you, O women, is it granted to find husbands in those men whose wives have quitted them by divorce: such are adulterous, not marriages. (Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Sermon 392, c. 2.)
- Because it not being lawful for her in her husband’s lifetime to contract a new marriage, sinful desire may gradually prevail against her. Suppose her to marry. The blame of the constraint she lay under is upon you: and what you account to be marriage is adultery. For what does it matter whether one commits that crime with open avowal of it, or as one who is an adulterer under the mask of a husband. Only that it is more grievous to have contrived a law to warrant crime than a secret perpetration of it. (Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Commentary on Luke 16:18, AD 340-397.)
- A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery (Mt 5:32). Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. (Jerome, Letter 55, to Amandus: 3,4. AD 396.)
- Those things which were assigned to nature when it was well established in its beginning belong especially to the law of nature. Now the indissolubility of marriage is one of these things according to Matthew 19:4-6. Therefore it is of natural law. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ. ca. 1270.)
Marriage is a permanent union that is broken only by death. As such, remarriage is adultery. Christ might have permitted divorce due to a spouse’s sexual immorality; but if He did, He banned remarriage after such divorces. Alternatively, Christ might have permitted the divorce of porneia because porneia could mean “a prohibited, unlawful marriage.” Through verses such as Matthew 19:9, both remarriage and polygamy are prohibited by God in the New Testament era. Remarriages must be divorced upon coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor 6:9-10).
What it comes down to:
What God has joined together, divorce cannot separate.
What God prohibited from coming together, must always be divorced.
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