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.”
by Reta C. Selitto
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.
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.