There has been some recent discussion about this issue in my part of the woods. As with some other issues, I am open to amending my theology, especially when it is in an area of great controversy such as this. In fact, I have nuanced and refined my stand on this issue since I last wrote on this. I know how much many Christians who love the Lord struggle with great distress concerning divorce, remarriage, and what is expected of the committed Christan.
The question is: Can there be remarriage after divorce for the committed Christian?
This is not an easy question to answer by any means. While I was on pastoral staff at Stonebriar Community Church, I could not dodge this issue by reducing it to some objective theological position as I would have liked. Practically speaking, it was always before me. I performed many marriages while I was at Stonebriar, so much that I was called the “marrying man.” In many of the marriages I performed, at least one of the two people had been through a divorce. Each pastor on staff had a different position concerning the issue of remarriage after divorce; I think mine was one of the most liberal (relatively speaking). Stonebriar gave us some freedom in our decisions of whom we would marry. If another pastor did not feel comfortable performing a ceremony, they would probably just say “I will send you to Michael, he will marry anyone!” (That is not really true, but there was only one1 that I turned down in my six years in the pastorate.)
As briefly as a blog will allow, I want to give you my current position on the matter and hope that you understand what a struggle this is. I am in no way dogmatic about this, but I do have some thoughts. Generally speaking, I believe that people are either too liberal or too rigid when it comes to this issue. I think that there needs to be a middle ground (as I do with many issues). I hesitate while I write this due to the fear that people will find in my view an excuse for divorce, which is the last thing I want or intend. Yet at the same time, I believe that if what I propose is true, it, like all truth, will always undergo the risk of misapplication.
First let me say that the argument is not over whether divorce is bad. Everyone agrees that divorce is a result of sin and that healthy reconciliation is the perfect will of God. Well, let me rephrase. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Let me make this a bit stronger. God always hates divorce. This much is true. We must, however, keep this in perspective: there are a lot of things that are the result of a fallen world that God hates. God hates death (Ez. 18:23). God hates war. I believe that God hates hell, deformities, addiction, and cancer. But God also, to be sure, hated that he had to divorce Israel:
“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; see also Isa. 50:1)
So for God to say “I hate divorce” helps us recognize that divorce, as a part of the fallen order, is a result of sinfulness in the world and it is this that God hates. It also helps us recognize that divorce, like death and war, is sometimes a necessary part of a fallen world due to sinfulness.
Having said that, there are many disagreements about the issue of remarriage after divorce. I think that the primary passage that causes this particular trouble in dealing with divorce is Matt. 5:31-32 (and parallel passages):
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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.”
Christ here uses divorce as an illustration for our consistent inability to live up to the standards of God’s perfection. I say “illustration” because it comes in the context of Christ’s shocking statement, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). What a terrifying statement that must have been. Christ then goes on to demonstrate how the traditional way that people view the law and righteousness is insufficient. “You have heard it said . . . But I say to you” was Christ’s way of telling the people that what was said before needs to be rethought and intensified. Why? Because fulfilling the requirements of what was said before does not make one righteous unless it is understood correctly. Christ shows that just because someone has never committed the act of murder, this does not make them innocent of the principle that prohibits murder; the spirit of the fifth commandment includes a benevolent disposition to others (vv. 21-26). He then does the same thing with adultery, teaching that the commandment prohibiting adultery goes much deeper than the actual act. One must have fidelity in his thoughts as well (vv. 27-30).
By saying these things in such a way, Christ is turning the Jewish people’s worldview upside down. The scribes and the Pharisees were the best-in-show. Surely, if they could not enter the kingdom by their righteousness, everyone is without hope. The Jewish leadership felt at ease with themselves because, according to their estimation, they had lived pretty good lives. They had not broken any of the commandments, so they were safe. Christ seeks to level the playing field by showing that all people are sinners, even the Jewish leaders. Why? Because everyone has broken the principles of the laws, even if they had managed to avoid breaking a particular expression of the law.
What we must realize about this entire section is that Christ’s argument employs much hyperbole and extreme rhetoric. Speaking of how serious it is, Christ says concerning lust, “If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” I don’t know about you, but I have never seen even the most conservative Christian who has followed Christ’s advice here. Why? Because they understand it to be hyperbolic. This is not meant to water down the seriousness of Christ’s admonition, but to show that Christ, like any good teacher, used hyperbole to get a point across. Everything that Christ says in this section must be taken in the spirit of its intent. It is in this context that Christ makes his statement about divorce:
“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5.31-32)
Ouch! These are very shocking and hard words. But, we must realize that they are no less shocking and hard than the two previous admonitions concerning hatred and lust. I believe (albeit very timidly) that Christ’s words that anyone who divorces his wife makes her commit adultery, etc., must be taken in the same vein as the rest of His teaching in this context. In other words, Christ was using the same methodology to bring shock to his listeners so that all would see the drastic need that everyone has, no matter how good they think they are, for God’s mercy. This is not to say that what Christ says about hate, lust, and divorce are wrong and he really did not mean it; it is just to say that we need to keep this in perspective.
Let’s entertain for a moment the propositions that Christ did intend for us to follow this teaching about divorce literally in every case. What would happen? Well, I think we would have to interpret everything in this context the same way (including the gouging out of eyes and cutting off of hands). The outcome would be disastrous in many ways. This is what could conceivably take place: lusting itself would be an excuse for divorce since it is adultery (v. 28). As well, if you were to lust before you are married, and by lusting you have literally had sex with that person, then you are in God’s eyes joined to that person and are required to marry them (by Pauline extension in 1Cor 6:15). So, if this is the case, is it then God’s perfect will for me to find the first girl I lusted after and be “rejoined” to her so that she does not commit adultery? Of course not.
Craig Keener also provides some insight to this passage in Matthew 5:31-32 when he says,
“If He [Christ] intended this statement literally, the new union is adulterous; hence, sin occurs during every act of intercourse (not simply during the remarriage ceremony). In this case, we should not merely forbid divorced church members to remarry; we should regard their remarriages as adulterous unions and thus seek to break them up, even if the remarriages preceded their conversion” (Mark L. Strauss Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 104).
Let me take a brief moment and deal with 1 Corinthians and Paul’s comments on the subject. First Corinthians 7 is unique and deserves a fair amount of attention, but I will be brief. It is hard to understand many of Paul statements concerning the issue since many of the situations seem to be unique. Others are hard to reconcile and find one course of action that is always right. For example:
1 Corinthians 7:15 “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.” What is the bondage here? Does it refer to the bondage of the marriage?
1 Corinthians 7:20 “Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.” Does this represent a universal Pauline stance that a single person should never get married?
1 Corinthians 7:26-27 “I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” Is it because of the “present distress” that this entire passage is written? What is the “present distress” that makes Paul think the unmarried should not be “bound”? If the “present distress” is not present does this mean that the one “released” (divorced?) from his wife can seek to be bound to another? Are we, today, out of the “present distress”? If so, what does that do to the series of admonitions of 1 Cor 7?
1 Corinthians 7:29 “But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none.” What does it mean to be married and live as though you had no spouse? Is it hyperbolic rhetoric to demonstrate the seriousness of our mission?
1 Corinthians 7:11 “But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.” But what if she burns (lusts)? Would this admonishment bend according to 7:9? In other words, Paul says that it is better to be married than to lust for sex (1 Cor 7:9), but that a divorced person must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to their former spouse. What if reconciliation is not possible, yet the person’s sexual drive is difficult to control (i.e. they are “burning”)? Which admonition takes priority? It is like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object!
Divorce itself is bad, but I don’t think that these passages can be used to justify a strict admonition requiring perpetual celibacy in every case. I just don’t believe that the Bible is as clear here as many suppose, and as I have demonstrated.
Forgiveness and grace is something that we can take literally and act upon. For the person who has lusted in the past, we offer forgiveness, not a bride. For the person who has hated his brother, we offer grace, not the death penalty. For the person who has been divorced, shouldn’t we do the same?
This is what it boils down to and what I discuss during marriage counseling: is there any way possible to be reconciled to your former spouse without sacrificing your family’s safety? If so, I believe it is the Lord’s will to pursue this. If not, then grace and forgiveness are offered. At this point the practical issues of responsibility and maturity come into play. I suggest to people to make sure they have worked out the reasons for the previous divorce to be sure that any personal spiritual issues (including commitment) are not unresolved.
If you have been divorced and have remarried, by God’s grace and mercy enjoy the blessing of your marriage and build your family in a godly way. Don’t spend your time second guessing your decision to remarry. It will drive you nuts and create more problems than it might solve. After all, there is no decision that we make that doesn’t have some precursor of sin. As God’s providence finds its realization, we must understand that lives riddled with sin are all he has to work with. If this is not true, then grace is no longer grace.
In the end, I want to reiterate how difficult these issues are. I am not saying that there are no answers or that we should just throw our hands in the air, wipe the sweat off our brow, and opt for moral subjectivism. But we do need to tread these waters with great humility and timidity as the Scriptures present some ambiguity with regard to divorce and remarriage.
1 It was because of obvious unresolved issues of a woman who had been divorced and remarried many times that I did not perform the ceremony. She simply did not take marriage seriously and I could see that. The couple went to the church down the street!