Is it right for a divorced Christian to remarry?
John Child, GWC lecturer, Christian Doctrine; Ethics; Pastoral Studies
BA (Rhodes), Dip Th (BISA), BD Hons (London), MTh (UNISA).
I’ve almost taken it for granted that a divorced Christian, whose divorce was for a biblically legitimate reason, and was the innocent partner, that is, not the adulterer, abandoner or abuser, could legitimately remarry with God’s blessing. I thought this was a non-issue.
So it took me by surprise to find some of my first-year Ethics students had strong views against remarriage after divorce. I suspect this is a widely held view in African Christian circles. I do not want to encourage divorce; I believe firmly that marriage is meant to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman. However, the Bible does permit divorce for a number of reasons and, I shall argue, remarriage too. I’m also passionate about justice. Denying the possibility of remarriage to the innocent party can be a grave injustice.
The argument against remarriage is clear and simple and seemingly irrefutable: Jesus said whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18). And if a wife divorces her husband and marries another she commits adultery (Mark 10:12).
It looks like an open and shut case. But there is reason to pause. Consider this typical case. A man in biblical times marries a 16 year old girl. After a year he runs off with another girl. He divorces his wife. She didn’t commit adultery; on the contrary, she was an exemplary wife. But she is divorced, she may not marry again. She cannot go out and find work to support herself as there weren’t jobs for women (this explains Ruth’s desperate situation). Wives were supported by their husbands; if she lost her husband, she went back to her father’s house. As a temporary shelter that cultural practice was compassionate. But if the Bible really said she, the innocent party, may not marry again that to me would seem unjust. She would then, an adult, have to live in her father’s or a male relative’s house the rest of her life. Jesus did not teach that.
In biblical law the guilty person is punished (Ezekiel 18), not an innocent family member. Each person is punished for their own sins. So, in the above hypothetical case, to prevent the innocent young divorced woman from ever marrying again, from being able to have children of her own, and being supported by a loving husband, would be considered unjust.
The Puritan John Owen clearly saw the injustice of not permitting the innocent party to remarry:
- The innocent party is deprived of their freedom by the sin of another. This is against nature. This gives the wicked great power over the righteous for every wicked and unfaithful spouse then has it in their power to deprive their partner of their natural rights and freedoms.
- The innocent party, if not allowed to remarry, is exposed to sin and judgment because of the unfaithfulness of another. Our Saviour allowed divorce in the case of adultery as an option to the innocent party to allow for their liberty, advantage, and relief. But if one is not allowed to remarry, this liberty would be no liberty at all, but would only prove a snare and a yoke to them. For if one does not have the gift of celibacy, then he is exposed to sin and judgment.
Let’s now examine the Scriptures. Deuteronomy 24:1 refers to the husband giving his wife a certificate of divorce. David Instone-Brewer studied the many extant Jewish divorce certificates from biblical and intertestamental times (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, 2002, Eerdmans) and found that they all stated that the divorced woman ‘was free to marry any man she wished’! The marriage was dissolved and she was free to remarry. That was the Jewish understanding of the Old Testament teaching on remarriage.
We’ll now focus on Jesus’ teaching on divorce.
Yes, Jesus does say if you divorce your husband or wife and remarry you’re committing adultery. But he makes a vital qualification: ’except for fornication’! And that qualification makes all the difference.
The qualification means that it was legitimate to divorce your spouse for adultery. This was in line with Deuteronomy 24:1, divorce for ‘something unclean’. The Hebrew word translated ‘unclean’ is very strong i.e. not a minor offence but a major uncleanness, interpreted as ‘fornication’ by Jesus (Matthew 5:32, 19:9), a word covering a wide range of sexual sins.
Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:32: ‘Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery.’ Isn’t that strange? Does a divorced woman become an adultness simply because she’s divorced? Are all single divorcees adulterers? Surely not. Doesn’t adultery involve sex outside marriage? Does her divorced husband make her an adulteress by forcing her to have sex with someone else? Of course not. Then what is Jesus saying? In that societal context a divorced woman often had no one to support her so she would normally seek a husband quickly, get married and, according to Jesus, thereby became an adulteress. The divorce almost forced her to remarry.
But why is she an adulteress? Because in Jesus’ eyes she was still legally married (in terms of biblical law) to her first husband who had divorced her (and polyandry was not permitted). But she’s divorced! No, she wasn’t really divorced (in God’s eyes) because her divorce was illegitimate. Why? Because it was granted on the basis of ‘for any cause’ (Matthew 19:3), not on the biblical basis of uncleanness/fornication. Divorces in Jesus’ day were granted on the basis of ‘any cause’, for any reason. This might be compared to our ‘no fault’ divorces. That meant her second marriage was invalid and so when she had sex with her new husband she was committing adultery.
In Jesus’ day there was a debate about the basis of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. Rabbi Shammai said divorce was permitted for ‘something unclean’; Rabbi Hillel separated the two Hebrew words and said there were two reasons for divorce: ‘a matter’ (something) and ‘uncleanness’. ‘A matter’ meant ‘any matter’, for any reason. Rabbi Hillel’s argument carried the day and so divorce then was ‘for any cause’, hence the Pharisees’ question to Jesus: ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ (Matthew 19:3, my italics). They were asking Jesus who was right: Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Shammai? They were not asking Jesus if divorce was legitimate. That was not in dispute as the Old Testament clearly permitted divorce under certain circumstances.
So Jesus’ forbidding remarriage is not absolute. Remarriage after a biblically legitimate divorce is permitted and not sinful. Like the gospel, it is a sign of forgiveness and grace and offers a new start in life.