Remarriage: What the Bible Says about It

Have you ever heard a divorced person wondering if remarriage was an option for them? I mean . . . biblically? I specialize in this area and I seldom hear the question. Usually, I hear people talking about “How long should I wait after my divorce?” or “How will we handle the kids when we remarry?” or “What should I do differently this time?” All very practical and important questions. But it seems to me that to seek God’s face and to get his perspective on the whole thing is also important. Here’s a student paper by Reta Selitta that tackles this touchy issue. I think she handles it well. Once again, my blog doesn’t handle footnotes or endnotes, so Reta isn’t plagerizing; I’ve removed the “funny looking stuff.”

REMARRIAGE

by Reta C. Selitto

March 2008

Remarriage is a prominent topic in Christian circles. The implication of one’s stance on remarriage affects many areas of Christian life. This is especially true for those who are in leadership within the church. How a pastor or counselor understands biblical reasons for remarriage can dramatically alter an individual’s understanding of God and self. Thus, the consideration of such a topic is not to be taken lightly. It is imperative that ministry leaders do a tremendous amount of research on remarriage and come to a conclusion they can defend biblically. With this in mind, the author intends to explore the three positions available on remarriage and will identify the one which most resonates with a comprehensive biblical understanding. In so doing, all major biblical passages will be explored. The three positions to be examined include no permissible reasons for remarriage, two permissible reasons for remarriage identified as adultery and desertion by an unbelieving spouse, and lastly three permissible reasons for remarriage identified as adultery, emotional and physical neglect, and abandonment and abuse.

To begin, the author will investigate the first position that there are no permissible reasons for divorce or remarriage. Adherents to this position believe that the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament supersedes the teaching of Moses in the Old Testament. Furthermore, they have a different understanding of both the exception clause in Matthew 19 and the use of the word “bondage” in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Thus, Old Testament texts on divorce such as Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 24 are refined by Christ in the New Testament and thus have no real bearing on the context of divorce today. The exception clause of Matthew 19 is explained in two ways. The first deals with Christ’s use of the word porneia. “The word “fornication” (Gr. porneia) means “illicit sexual intercourse of unmarried persons.” The word “adultery” (Gr. Moikeia) means “illicit sexual intercourse of two persons when either is married to a third person.” In the exception clause our Lord used the word “fornication.” The word He used had not lost its meaning, and we may be certain He expressed Himself clearly. The exception clause is not dealing with the sin of married persons.”Thus, those individuals being spoken of in these passage are not married but betrothed. Adherents cite that in biblical passages when the engagement is announced the title of husband or wife may be applied (Matthew 1:19).

The second argument against the exception clause in Matthew 19 comes from its absence in other divorce and remarriage passages such as Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18. Luke 16:18 states, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (NET). In no uncertain terms, divorce and remarriage for any reason is considered adultery. The exception clause of Matthew 19 is not relevant because 1) it is not speaking of married individuals and 2) It is not present in other New Testament passages.

As mentioned earlier, adherents of this position also understand the word “bondage” in 1 Corinthians 7:15 to be related to an obligation of servitude and not a permissible reason for divorce and remarriage. “The Greek word translated “bondage” is doulouo and means to serve as a slave. The verse is saying that if the unbelieving partner separates, the believer is not under obligation to the departing unbeliever. There is no responsibility in matters of servitude. A sound exegesis eliminates any reference to the basic marriage relationship.”When an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse that person is not under obligation to serve that person anymore. However, given the context of the passage, which reiterates the permanency of marriage (vs 10-11, 27) such an individual is not given the permission to divorce or remarry. The only concession is for separation. Thus, according to all the relevant biblical passages, adherents of this position believe there is no legitimate reason for either remarriage or divorce.

The second position to be investigated involves two permissible grounds for divorce and remarriage. These two grounds include adultery and desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Unlike position one, adherents of position two believe that Old Testament passages do play a role in understanding permissible reasons for divorce and remarriage. Specifically, supporters most often address Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Deuteronomy 24 refers to grounds or procedures for divorce. However, the main thrust of the passage is not the recommendation of divorce, but the forbidding of marriage to a former spouse.

Furthermore, given that divorce is not encouraged, if it does happen the grounds upon which it is to take place involves a husband who finds something “indecent” in his wife.Historically speaking, a debate occurred between two Jewish schools of thought in relation to the understanding of something “indecent” in this biblical passage. The Shammai school of thought argued for a sexual understanding of the term indecent whereas, the Hillel school understood indecent to be related to anything displeasurable or unlikable. Regardless of the position one takes on indecency, the fact remains that according to this passage divorce and subsequently remarriage is permitted.

The relevance of the Deuteronomy passage for adherents of position two is in its connection with Matthew 19. Supporters would argue that in Matthew 19, Jesus clarifies the debate between Hillel and Shammai by mandating both the intended permanence of the marriage relationship and the understanding that adultery is the only permissible ground for divorce and remarriage. By using the exceptive clause Jesus delineates that the only remarriage after divorce, which is not adultery, is that of an innocent person whose spouse has had an affair. Other passages which delineate the permanence of the marriage relationship include Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18. According to the teachings of Jesus, God’s plan for marriage involved a permanent one-flesh union, and any grounds outside of sexual adultery do not constitute legitimate reasons for either divorce or remarriage.

In addition to adultery, adherents of position two highlight the possibility of divorce and remarriage in light of Paul’s teaching concerning desertion in 1 Corinthians 7. In verses 10-11 Paul echoes and confirms Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. In these verses he is expressing the general principle that divorce is to be avoided. Furthermore, if separation does occur than both spouses are to remain unmarried. Paul goes on in verses 12-16 to address the marital relationship between a non-believer and a believer. Specifically, he is referring to a marriage where both individuals were unsaved at its consummation and then subsequently one spouse is converted. In regards to divorce and remarriage verse 15 is key. Specifically, it states if the unbelieving spouse leaves, the believing spouse is to let them go and is therefore not under bondage in such cases. “Paul affirms that, the believer is “not bound”- that is, bound to hold on to him or her, indeed bound to the marriage itself.”If the believing spouse is not bound to the marriage, then they are permitted to remarry. According to adherents of position two, the relevant biblical passages mandate that remarriage is only permitted under two circumstances; adultery and desertion of an unbelieving spouse. Remarriage for any other reason constitutes an adulterous relationship.

The third and last position involves three permissible reasons for divorce and remarriage identified as adultery, emotional and physical neglect, and abandonment and abuse. Like the second position, supporters of the third position emphasize the important link between Deuteronomy 24 and Matthew 19. They would agree that Jesus is putting an end to the Hilell vs. Shammai debate concerning causes for divorce. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees question in Matthew 19 is a condemnation of the “any cause” divorce. “Jesus agreed firmly with the second group (Shammai) that the phrase didn’t mean divorce was allowable for “immorality” and for “any cause,” but that Deuteronomy 24:1 referred to no type of divorce “except immorality.”In relation to passages such Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 which state that “any” divorced person who remarried commits adultery, adherents would cite the use of hyperbole not the abolition of rights to remarry.In other words, the author is using language such as “virtually all divorced people” not “every single divorced person.” Adherents of the third position believe that Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament is both an affirmation of Deuteronomy 24 and a rejection of false teaching and interpretation by Jewish leaders.

In addition to adultery, supporters of the third position would point to Exodus 21:10-11 as another source of permissible citation for divorce and remarriage. Specifically, Exodus 21:10-11 states, “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing, and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money. (NIV)” Under these stipulations if the husband did not provide the wife with these three things than she was free to go on the basis of neglect. “These three rights became the basis of Jewish marriage vows- we find them listed in marriage certificates discovered near the Dead Sea. ” Furthermore, Paul’s teachings also align with this understanding. In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, Paul states that married couples owed each other love. In 1 Corinthians 7:33-34, Paul mandates that material support must be provided. “He didn’t say the neglect of these rights was the basis for divorce because he didn’t need to- it was stated on the marriage certificate. Anyone who was neglected in terms of emotional support or physical support could legally claim divorce.”

In terms of abandonment, supporters of the third position turn to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Like adherents of the second position, supporters of the third position believe that Paul is permitting divorce and subsequently remarriage for a believer who has been deserted by an unbelieving spouse. Adherents of the third position would also posit that according to Paul’s teaching an individual is never to abandon their spouse and should they do so they are to return and seek reconciliation (1 Cor. 7:10-11). The notion that abuse is a permissible reason for divorce falls under the heading of neglect as stipulated by Exodus 21:10-11. Anyone who abuses their spouse emotionally or physically has failed to provide this person with marital love and thus, this constitutes neglect on their part. Supporters of the third position believe that according to all relevant biblical passages there are three legitimate reasons for remarriage known as adultery, emotional and physical neglect, and abandonment and abuse.

Thus far, three differing positions for permissible reasons for divorce have been explored. It is the author’s opinion, that the third view fits best with the biblical evidence. Position one, which states that there are no biblical grounds for remarriage uses questionable exegesis and fails to acknowledge any Old Testament teachings as well as any other historically relevant information. Specifically, the identification of the term “fornication” as porneia and its implication to only betrothed couples seems to be unfounded. According to BDAG, the use of porneia in Matthew 19:9 is a direct reference to sexual unfaithfulness of a “married” woman not one who was betrothed. In addition, the exclusion of the exception clause from other various divorce passages in the New Testament does not mean that Matthew 19 has no bearing in the debate. As stated in the third position, the author is using hyperbole in such passages and it must be acknowledged that as Jewish believers the author of these books would be well acquainted with both Jesus’ teaching on divorce and the context of Deuteronomy 24:1.

In terms of position two, there is much to find agreement with. Biblical evidence does seem to support the notion that divorce and remarriage is permissible under the categories of adultery and desertion by an unbelieving spouse. Where position two fails is in its consideration of Exodus 21:10-11. It seems that supporters of this position fail to take this passage into consideration. The reason behind this neglect is unknown. Thus, position three seems to consider both all of the relevant biblical passages as well as historical documentation and literature. According to Scripture there are three permissible reasons for marriage, which include adultery, emotional and physical neglect, and abandonment and abuse.

BIBLIOGRAPY

Danker, Frederick W., and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Instone-Brewer, David. “What God Has Joined.” Christianity Today 51, no. 10 ( 2007): 26-29.

Stott, John R. W., Roy McCloughry, and John Wyatt. Issues Facing Christians Today. 4th ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.

Strauss, Lehman. Marriage, Abortion, and Divorce. March 19, 2008 Accessed. Available from http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=1287.


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13 Responses to Remarriage: What the Bible Says about It

  1. Susan Mast says:

    What a well-written and informative article! It is obviously well researched and your approach is very fair. I am a pproduct of a divorce where emotional and physical neglect was the culprit. I struggled through years of loneliness and questions how I could divorce my then husband without the judgement of God and the “church” being upon me. I stayed until I was in such a weakened state, both emotionallyand spritually speaking that I was tempted, then fell into sexual sin. That woke me up…realized how bad my situation was and I found a way out. It wasn’t easy, mostly becasue of the struggle with understanding what the scriptures had to say. I felt that a lot of Christ followers were missing the point by insisting on their legalist stance described in the Position 1 and Position 2 in your ariticle . It’s beena year now , I’ve worked through a lot. I am at peace with the idea of dating and remarriage. Thank you.

  2. Reta Selitto says:

    Susan,

    Thank you for your comment! I am glad to hear that the Lord has given you guidance and wisdom in this area and that you are at peace. What a treasure. Your story helps prove the point that it truly is necessary to understand the whole of scripture on critical issues such as marriage and divorce. As an aspiring counselor, it helps to know that the interpretive struggles I go through to be truly and biblically informed will be in the best interests of those I serve and counsel.

  3. linda Rivenburg says:

    Reta,
    This is very well written!. I have felt for years that emotional and physical abuse were reasons for separation and/or divorce but could not prove it Biblically. I am thrilled to have learned these facts that further support my thinking.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. Reta,
    This paper was very informative. Very precise and without bias. Thank you for sharing it on your blog.

    Love you,
    Dr. Mom

  5. Gary Miller says:

    Thank you for explaining the 3 positions on Biblical reasons for divorce. I would like to offer three points of clarification to add to a well written paper.

    In 1 Cor 7:10-16, the words “not believe”, “unbelieving”, “unbeliever”, and “save” cannot refer to salvation in Christ (being a Christian) because verse 16 mentions a husband saving his wife or a wife saving her husband. Jesus said “no one comes to the Father except through me”, which would mean that no person can save another person in the sense of becoming a Christian. Those words mentioned above, taken in context, refer to one spouse not believing in their marriage covenant, and demonstrating that unbelief by breaking the vows. That situation leaves the other spouse (who believed in their marriage covenant) with 2 choices — to remain married and “save” the unbelieving spouse from adultery, or to get an official divorce, which returns both parties to single status with the right to remarry.

    The second point is that when Jesus mentioned “any cause except sexual immorality” He was confirming the reason for divorce (sexual immorality), but eliminating a false reason for divorce which the Jews of Jesus’ day had arrived at by twisting a phrase from Moses. Their false reason for divorce was an all-inclusive category called “any cause” which included every other reason they could think of that wasn’t related to sexual immorality. Jesus rejected that wide sweeping category of “any cause except sexual immorality” because that idea was not grounded in Scripture. But Jesus did not reject everything in that huge category. For example Jesus did not reject legitimate reasons for divorce such as emotional and physical neglect, as well as abandonment and abuse. Those are established in other Scriptures as Biblical reasons for divorce because those topics are covered in the Biblical marriage covenant.

    That leads us to the third point. If we arrive at either the false conclusion that their are no Biblical reasons for divorce, or the false conclusion that Jesus only allowed one Biblical reason for divorce (sexual immorality) then we are introducing contradictions. We would be saying that destroying the marriage vows through neglect, abandonment or abuse is not a Biblical reason for divorce, and therefore we would be saying the marriage vows mean nothing. (One spouse kept the vows, the other spouse did not keep the vows, sorry about your luck, you’re stuck in that position with no recourse.) Since a covenant is “a contract plus consequences for keeping or breaking that contract”, then we would be saying the marriage vows are not a covenant. But we know better. We make marriage vows because they ARE a covenant, and there ARE consequences of keeping or breaking those vows. If it can be shown that one spouse has obviously broken the marriage covenant, the other spouse has a Biblical right to get a divorce, which returns both parties to single status with the right to remarry.

  6. Thank you for summarising things so well.
    There is lots more on the third viewpoint at http://www.DivorceRemarriage.com, including a link to the article you cite.

  7. Angla says:

    Good Job!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love Angela Selitto!!!!!

  8. mia says:

    nice.iv been reading articles regarding divorce and remarriage for a month now and yeah, most of them tackled only on the new testament.i dunno why they fail to acknowldge the OT when in fact Jesus didnt came to abolish the law bt to fulfill it.He is the same God yesterday, today and tom…and w/ reagrds to ur article..well, well said..well said.
    Godbless

  9. Matt Bell says:

    Hi Rita,  I read your article and would like to propose some ideas to you. As a divorced father if 4, 29 years old, and God willing, 30-40 more years of life, I need to know where the Spirit
    Leads me through the text on this issue if I am to base my next 40 years on some English words. As I have read all positions on the issue I keep coming back to this: what is marriage ultimately a shadow or pointer to? Of course a faithful exegete would say “well of course it’s a picture of Christ and his church. The husband dies for his wife and to his wife just like Christ and she submits to him like we submit to Christ” and the examples could go on. If ultimately a marriage is made holy as it represents the ultimate reality of the Gospel then what is the ultimate hope of the Gospel? The ultimate hope is that we will see our husband forever and He never divorces his bride regardless. His true bride is called to him and is sanctified and will be preserved. With that as the foundation that I think Paul and Jesus would lay for a seeker wanting to know the Lords will I then ask in the whole of the texts where would Christ point me? If I want to see the Gospel as the ultimate reality then I have to ask about Romans 7:1 “1 Or do you not know, brothers-for I am speaking to those who know the law-that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?
    2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.
    3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
    4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” 
    As I read that and ask the meaning, I hear Paul saying to the Romans “hey Romans you know that a wife or husband is bound to each other as long as they live, and can only remarry if one dies, likewise in your salvation Mr law died and your now married to Mr Grace. You’re free to marry mr Grace because mr grace freed you from the law. The law isn’t your husband any longer.” In light of the gospel implications in Ephesians 5, Romans 7, 1st Corinthians 7:10 I don’t think Paul gives grounds for remarriage. I also believe that Paul doesn’t use the word “enslave” in 1 cor 7:15 to refer to being enslaved to remain single for life because he just spent almost the entire chapter extolling and exulting in singleness. Perhaps this may be helpful. Grace and peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ.

  10. Reta says:

    Matt….Thank you for your comments. I can tell you have an active and dedicated walk with the Lord. This post is a twelve to fifteen page paper I wrote for one of my classes while in Seminary. I do not consider this paper as the be all end all on the subject of divorce and remarriage. Nor, do I consider myself a biblical scholar rather a dedicated student of the Word. Dr. David Instone-Brewer is the biblical scholar referenced in relation to the third view presented in this paper. He has a great website dealing with biblical research and debate. You can find it here…http://www.divorce-remarriage.com/ . He has also written two books one which is more pastoral and one academic that are worth reading. May the Lord bless you as you continue to seek Him and His direction for your life.

  11. SL says:

    In Matthew 19:9 is Jesus referring only to extra-marital sexual intercourse with another person? Is this what he means when he says sexual immorality? Is pornography a reason to divorce a spouse or does that fall under Adultery of the heart?

    • Mark says:

      No. There is NO legitimate reason for two believers to everi0 get divorced. It brazenly mil itates against EVERYTHING relevant to the topics “love” “honor” and “respect” that is s-p-e-l-l-e-d out in the New Testiment. Simple answer: NO

  12. online bible says:

    I do not believe I could keep up with maintaining a website like this!
    Wonderful work and I hope you keep on for a long time.

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