Q&A: Divorce and Remarriage Revisited

Divorce and Remarriage Revisited

Question

Why can't Christians remarry? If they tried to save their marriage but were divorced anyway, What crime must they pay for? Doesn't 1 Corinthians 7:27 teach that if one is loosed from a wife, he doesn't sin in marrying? The context indicates that what is loosed is the marriage bond.

In Matthew 19, the marriage bond was shown to be breakable when Jesus referred to divorce and remarriage as being acceptable. The Pharisees asked a concrete question about the Law of Moses (Deut. 24:1-4) and Jesus replied that the ideal is, and always was, one man and one woman for life.  The Pharisees then asked why Moses "commanded" divorce. Jesus' response was that divorce was "adulterating" the divine plan. Adultery used in this fashion does have a precedent in James 4:4. I seriously doubt that the adultery here is meant in the sexual sense. The adultery is infidelity to God, or to one's vows (which were made before God). If Jesus had spoken of literal adultery, the divorce he mentioned would have been figurative and unreal.

Both Paul and Jesus gave the admonishment not to divorce, but in reality it happens. What is the response then?

Answer


What crime must they pay for?

If a couple tries to save a marriage and fails, the failure is usually manifold. It entails sin on the part of the spouses who have hurt each other and whose hearts are too hard to forgive each other. Sometimes this is rather one-sided, and sometimes one person leaves when the other still wants to try. The biblical obligation is to keep trying, not to give up, although an allowance is made for human frailty such that Christians can separate to escape troubles they cannot solve (1 Cor. 7:11).

That being said, the prohibition against remarriage is not a punishment. Certainly it is not a restriction most people like, but that doesn't make it a punishment. Not every difficult circumstance in life is payment for some wrong we have committed. In reality, the prohibition against remarriage is self-imposed. Marriage is a voluntary covenant, not a compulsory one. It entails vows to remain married and be faithful. Sometimes these are explicitly stated in the ceremony, but always they are implicitly imposed in a Christian marriage because God requires their imposition as a component of the marriage covenant. Unbiblical divorce does not severe the marriage covenant. So, the prohibition on remarriage is not a matter of punishment but of fidelity to the covenant that is still in force. This is why Jesus cast the matter in terms of adultery (Matt. 19:9).


Doesn't 1 Corinthians 7:27 teach that if one is loosed from a wife, he doesn't sin in marrying? The context indicates that what is loosed is the marriage bond.

Actually, that's not what 1 Corinthians 7:27 says. It says that if one is loosed from a wife, one should not marry, not that one is free to marry. And it talks about initial marriage (of virgins) not remarriage. In summary, Paul addressed the matter of people who were engaged but not married, and he told them not to consummate their marriages yet. But he also told them not to break off their engagements. "Loosed" refers to a broken marriage contract (not a broken marriage covenant, as the marriage had not been consummated). In all events, Paul said not to be "loosed" from the contract; he did not permit "loosing" in this matter. See Marriage vs. Celibacy and the article Should Christians Marry? for a detailed explanation of Paul's vocabulary there.


In Matthew 19, the marriage bond was shown to be breakable when Jesus referred to divorce and remarriage as being acceptable.

Yes, the marriage bond is breakable, but only under the condition of infidelity or death. Jesuscondoned remarriage only in these instances (cf. Mark 12:19ff.).


Jesus' response was that divorce was "adulterating" the divine plan.

The Bible commonly speaks of religious unfaithfulness as "adultery." When it does so, it speaks of committing adultery against God, our divine husband, by going after false gods. In James 4:4, the commitment is to the world rather than to specific false gods, but the usage is the same in principle. The New Testament does not use the vocabulary of "adultery" to refer to simple "corruption" as we do in English.

In any event, the meaning of the word "adultery" in the context of marriage and divorce is most naturally sexual, not religious. Moreover, Jesus's argument made was based on the fact that God had joined husband and wife into one flesh (Matt. 19:5). "One flesh" refers to a sexual union, not merely to a marriage covenant (cf. 1 Cor. 6:15). And it is perpetual — it does not require ongoing sexual relations to maintain this union. This is why remarriage constitutes adultery: the remarried spouse has an existing union of flesh with the ex-spouse, as well as a union of flesh with the new spouse. This new union of flesh constitutes adultery because the old union of flesh is still in tact.


If Jesus had spoken of literal adultery, the divorce he mentioned would have been figurative and unreal.

No, it would have been civil but not religious. That is to say, the divorce would be recognized by society but not by God.


Both Paul and Jesus gave the admonishment not to divorce, but in reality it happens. What is the response then?

Jesus and Paul both provided responses: Don't remarry unless you had biblical grounds for your divorce. If you lacked biblical grounds for your divorce, reconcile to your estranged spouse or remain single.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.