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Are All Divorced Persons Eligible to Remarry?

American civilization is experiencing significant moral decay. “Traditional American values,” i.e., values that were drawn from the Bible, are being jettisoned by a sizable portion of the nation’s citizenry. This spiritual and social deterioration is nowhere more evident than in the breakdown and dissolution of the family. Divorce rates have consistently climbed to higher and higher levels. The marriage relationship no longer commands the respect it once did. This God-ordained institution, though originally intended to be held in honor and sanctity, has been significantly undermined and cheapened.

The religious response to this situation generally has been accommodative, as many within the church find their own families adversely affected by divorce. They have been intimidated by two factors: (1) the large numbers of divorced people; and (2) the emotional trauma associated with divorce. “Rethinking” their understanding of Bible teaching, they have decided to relax the high standards that God enjoined. The various viewpoints now available to those who wish to justify their marital decisions are legion.

The clear teaching of the Bible is that God wants one man for one woman for life (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). The only exception to this foundational premise was articulated by Jesus when He said a person is permitted to divorce the original mate only for the specific reason of that mate’s sexual infidelity. Then and only then may the innocent mate form a second marriage with an eligible partner (Matthew 19:9). Consequently, the primary thrust of Scripture as it pertains to marriage is “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). In fact, He permits it on only one ground.

This divine aversion to divorce refers specifically to divorce that occurs between two people who are scripturally married. Men and women who marry for the first time in their youth should so conduct themselves that they remain together. God does not want that first marriage to dissolve. He hates it when these couples unscripturally dissolve their scriptural marriage. Unscriptural divorce is the kind of divorcing that God hates.

However, not all divorce is contrary to God’s will. Jesus said an individual has permission to divorce the mate that commits fornication (Matthew 19:9). So divorce for that innocent marriage partner is not sinful. In Ezra’s day, exiled Jews had formed illicit marriages and were required to sever those marriages (Ezra 10:3,11). Divorce in that instance was likewise not sinful. John the baptizer informed Herod that when he married Herodias, he was sinning, and would have to dissolve the marriage (Mark 6:17-18). Divorce in that case was not sinful. When Paul identified several Corinthian Christians as having previously been adulterers (1 Corinthians 6:9), the putting away (i.e., divorce) that would have been necessary to end their adultery in order to be “washed” and “sanctified” (1 Corinthians 6:11) would not have been sinful. (The same principle would have applied equally to all other forms of fornication mentioned in the context—including homosexuality). These scriptural examples show that not all divorce is wrong in God’s sight.

On the other hand, much of the divorcing that is occurring today is contrary to the will of God. Any person who divorces their scriptural spouse for any reason, other than fornication, is sinning in so doing. They sin when they divorce! They sin on at least two counts. First, they sin because they have divorced for some reason other than fornication. Second, they sin because they violated the vows they took when they married (i.e., “until death do us part”).

In this divorced condition (i.e., having divorced for some reason other than fornication), the individual has placed himself in a predicament that comes under additional divine restrictions. Paul pinpointed those restrictions in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where he insisted that scripturally married couples ought not to divorce. However, should their marriage break up unscripturally, both are to remain unmarried. Some feel this verse does not refer to a technical divorce but merely to a separation. Either way, their breakup (whether by separation or divorce) is contrary to God’s will, and neither of the two is eligible to marry someone else.

People are permitted to participate in marriage only insofar as God says they are eligible to do so. The Hebrews writer insisted that marriage (and the sexual relationship that accompanies marriage) is to be undertaken honorably—i.e., in accordance with God’s regulations. To engage in marriage (and the sexual relations that accompany marriage) out of harmony with God’s regulations is to be guilty of fornication and adultery (Hebrews 13:4). Fornication, by definition, refers to illicit sexual intercourse. Adultery is one type of fornication, and refers to the sexual relations between a man and a woman, at least one of whom has prior marital responsibilities. Adultery, by definition, derives its meaning on the basis of a person’s prior marital connections.

A person does not have to be married in order to please God and go to heaven. All a person has to be is a Christian. He does not have to be an elder, a deacon, or a preacher. He or she does not have to be a father, or a mother, or a parent. These are relationships and roles that God designed to be helpful to the human condition. However, not everyone qualifies to fill these roles, and people can go to heaven without ever occupying these roles. So it is with marriage. All people must meet God’s designated prerequisites before marriage may be had in honor. God nowhere promises anyone unlimited access to the marriage relationship.

Notice, then, that in view of God’s regulations, three categories of divorced persons are ineligible to remarry: (1) the person who committed fornication and was divorced for that act by his or her spouse (Matthew 19:9a); (2) the person who was unscripturally divorced (i.e., put away for some reason other than fornication) by a spouse (Matthew 19:9b); and (3) the person who was deserted by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). In these three instances, the divorced person is ineligible to remarry. Putting the entire matter positively, the only divorced person who is eligible in God’s sight to remarry (while the former mate is still living—Romans 7:3) is the person who divorced his/her original mate for that mate’s sexual unfaithfulness.

Many people feel that such strict limitations are out of harmony with the grace, love, and forgiveness of God. They believe that such high standards make divorce the “unpardonable sin.” But this conclusion does not follow. People can be forgiven of mistakes they make in the realm of divorce and remarriage. Forgiveness is not the issue. The issue is: can they remain in whatever marriage relationship they choose? Can they so sin that they forfeit their right to participate in a future marriage relationship? Jesus made the answers to these questions clear in His discussion in Matthew 19:1-12. All people who divorce their scriptural mates for any reason except fornication continue to commit adultery when they remarry.

However, do we have any indication elsewhere in Scripture that people can so sin that they forfeit their privilege to participate in a state, condition, or relationship that they previously enjoyed—even though they may be forgiven? As a matter of fact, the Bible is replete with such instances! Adam and Eve violated God’s word and were responsible for introducing sin into the Universe. One consequence of their sin was that they were expelled from Eden. Could they be forgiven? Yes! Could they ever return to the garden? No! Their expulsion was permanent. They had so sinned that they forfeited the privilege of enjoying that previous status.

Esau was guilty of profanity when he sold his birthright (Hebrews 12:16). Could he be forgiven for this mistake? Yes! Could he regain his birthright? No, “though he sought it diligently with tears” (Hebrews 12:17)!

Virtually the entire adult population of the nation of Israel sinned when they refused to obey God by proceeding with a military assault against the land of Canaan (Numbers 14:11-12). Could they be forgiven? Yes, and they were (Numbers 14:19-20). Were they then permitted to enter into the Promised Land? Absolutely not! They were doomed to wander in the desert for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34).

Moses allowed himself to be goaded into disobedience on one occasion by the incessant complaining of the nation committed to his keeping (Numbers 20:7-12). Could Moses be forgiven? Yes! In heaven, we will sing the song of Moses and the Lamb (Revelation 15:3)! But was Moses permitted to enter into the Promised Land? No. He was banned permanently from that privilege due to his own sinful choice (Deuteronomy 32:51-52).

Eli failed to manage his family properly, and so brought down upon himself lasting tragedies (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Though Saul acknowledged his own sin, his disobedience evoked God’s permanent rejection of him as king (1 Samuel 15:11,23,26,28). Samuel never visited Saul again. David’s sin, though forgiven, brought several negative consequences that could not be altered (2 Samuel 12:11-14). Solomon’s sin resulted in personal calamity and the division of the nation (1 Kings 11-12).

These biblical examples demonstrate that sin produces lasting consequences, despite the availability of God’s grace and forgiveness. If biblical history teaches us anything, it teaches that people cannot sin and then expect to have things the way they were before. More often than not, much suffering comes upon those who violate God’s will, making it impossible for them to enjoy past privileges—though they can be forgiven and have the hope of heaven.

Many people feel that God would be unkind, unfair, or overly harsh if He did not permit divorced and remarried couples to stay together, regardless of their previous marital choices. Undoubtedly, these same people would feel that God was unfair to Adam and Eve for ejecting them from the garden, making it impossible for them to enjoy the condition that they once sustained! That would mean that God was unfair and harsh toward the Israelites as well as Moses! Such thinking betrays an inaccurate and unscriptural grasp of the nature and person of God. It reflects a failure to possess a healthy fear of God (Exodus 20:5; Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Luke 12:5; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; Hebrews 10:31; 12:29; Revelation 6:16-17).

God elevated the marriage relationship to a high plane when, at the beginning of the human race, He laid down the strict standards that govern marriage (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6). Many apparently feel that they have a right to be married regardless of their previous conduct. They feel that God’s high standards ought to be adjusted in order for them to exercise their “right.” Yet, the Bible teaches that the institution of marriage was founded by God to provide cohesion and orientation in life. Unlike one’s spiritual marriage (i.e., to Christ), which will proceed right on into eternity, human marriage is for this life alone (Matthew 22:30). Therefore, marriage is not a right; it is a privilege. People must conform to God’s marriage rules in order for marriage to serve its earthly purpose. Failure to comply neutralizes the ability of the marriage institution to do what it was divinely designed to do. Failure to comply with God’s “directions for use” causes us to forfeit our opportunity to participate in the institution. We must remember: Father knows best.1

Endnotes

1 As American civilization moves further away from its moral moorings, which were historically rooted in Christian principles, we are seeing the negative consequences. One is the “domestic violence” in which women are recipients of physical, sexual, and extreme emotional abuse. This social circumstance inevitably leads to the question: Can a woman scripturally divorce her husband if he is physically abusing her? Further, can a woman who divorces her husband due to abuse scripturally remarry (without sin)? It is suggested that, based on Matthew 19:9, an abused woman would have the following options:

  1. Not divorce, stay in the home and continue to subject herself to abuse, hoping one day he will change.
  2. Not divorce, but leave the home and remain unmarried for the rest of her life.
  3. Not divorce, but leave the home and eventually prove he has committed adultery to have grounds for a scriptural remarriage.
  4. Not divorce, leave the home, wait patiently to see if her husband changes his ways, and seek reconciliation if he does.

It is truly sad and tragic when sin permeates the lives of human beings, since they inevitably hurt themselves while hurting many others in the process. Physical and emotional pain and suffering are the result. The Bible clearly teaches that sin causes people to suffer—even innocent people. [See Dave Miller (2015), Why People Suffer (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press). If we possess any compassion at all, our hearts cannot help but go out to people who are suffering grievously but unjustly due to the wicked behavior of others. If we are not cautious, we will find ourselves wanting to “adjust” God’s directives, thinking that doing so is only right and just, and doing so will help to relieve the unjust suffering of the victim. We must not be guilty of considering ourselves more compassionate than God.

Jesus’ Legislation on Divorce

Jesus could not have spoken more clearly and decisively on the matter of divorce. He was asked the question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matthew 19:3). Straightforward and to the point. By immediately drawing His questioners’ attention to Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, Jesus was essentially answering the question, “no.” His divine commentary on the two verses was direct: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (vs. 6). So, no, you cannot divorce your spouse for just any reason. Well, then, what reason or reasons do permit divorce? After dismissing the quibble raised by His questioners in their misapplication of Deuteronomy 24 [See Dave Miller (2020), “Did Moses Command Divorce? (Deuteronomy 24:1-4),” https://apologeticspress.org/did-moses-command-divorce-deuteronomy-241-4-5880/; Dave Miller (2021), “Did Jesus Disagree with Moses on Divorce?” Reason & Revelation, 41[7]:74-77], Jesus returned to the original question and articulated the one and only grounds for divorce: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (vs. 9). The underlying Greek term translated “sexual immorality” in the NKJV is porneia which refers generically to illicit sexual intercourse. [See William Arndt and F.W. Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), p. 699.]

Not only was Jesus exceedingly specific and precise as to what constitutes grounds for divorce, He also used terminology that indicates that fornication is, in fact, the only grounds for divorce. His use of “except”/“unless” has the logical force of “if and only if.” Jesus was giving the sole basis for terminating one’s scripturally-legitimate marriage, freeing that individual to form a second scriptural marriage. This recognition is not “fallible human interpretation,” but a realization of what Jesus stated explicitly in response to the question—“Can a man divorce his wife for any reason?” (The same principle applies to a woman divorcing her husband in Mark 10:12.) What follows logically from this Bible legislation? Consider this precisely stated syllogism:

  1. If Jesus said fornication is the only (scriptural) grounds for divorce, then neither domestic violence (nor any other behavior) is scriptural grounds for divorce.
  2. Jesus said fornication is the only (scriptural) grounds for divorce (Matthew 19:9).
  3. Therefore, neither domestic violence (nor any other action) is scriptural grounds for divorce.

One final observation regarding Jesus’ treatment of the question posed to Him about divorce. Did domestic violence occur in Palestine while Jesus was on Earth? Most certainly. Was the Son of God unaware or ignorant of domestic violence? Of course not; He is omniscient. Did He give domestic violence as a scriptural reason to divorce? Does Matthew 19:9 read: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for domestic violence, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery”? Or, “divorces his wife, unless he is physically abusing her…”? Jesus could very well have inserted domestic violence or any number of behaviors as legitimate grounds for divorce. But He identified only one and excluded all others. Is it not the case that when a person insists that domestic violence is a suitable ground for divorce, he is arguing with Jesus?

Further Considerations

Though the issue is settled without any need for further analysis, there are additional considerations to contemplate. We humans are not omniscient. When we are faced with a specific situation, like a battered woman who seeks counsel and assistance in coping with an abusive husband, we understandably look at her bruised face and her cowering children and immediately feel contempt for the man who would inflict such violence, anguish, and pain. We rightfully conclude that his action is inexcusable and has no possible justification. He has absolutely no grounds, no extenuating circumstances, whatsoever to justify his actions.

The Time To Get A Divorce

But this proper assessment of the situation does not take into consideration the entire picture. We are not being given all the facts. Being brought into the situation “mid-stream” makes us susceptible to acting hastily and incorrectly. Observe carefully that the Bible goes out of its way to illustrate that there are many circumstances in life in which doing the right thing by conforming to God’s will is inconvenient, difficult, painful, and even seemingly, unfair, cruel, and unbearable. Moses chose “rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). “Affliction”? Surely God would not expect a person to endure affliction! Many women are enduring genuine abuse from evil husbands who ought to be “horse whipped.” Insisting that God’s legislation regarding marriage must not be compromised appears heartless. But obedience to God’s truth often seems heartless to men.

We must not allow our own emotions and our own human perspective to override the eternal God’s instructions. If you and I had been present on that cold, rainy day in Ezra 10, when the nation gathered to bring themselves back into harmony with God’s will by terminating their marriages and sending their wives and children away, any feeling person would have been incredulous and tempted to question God. But our feelings, our sense of justice, would have been flat wrong. Father knows best! It is our responsibility to breathe in His spirit and perceive the world around us through His eyes and through His righteous essence. The temptation to modify His instructions can be great, but to do so is presumptuous and, quite frankly, prideful and rebellious—as if we know more than God or are more compassionate than God.

So one question that ought to press itself upon us is: Why did she marry an abusive husband in the first place? Did he show any signs of abusiveness before marriage? Did she court him long enough to so determine? Did her mother, father, and friends warn her about marrying the man? The point: when a person makes the decision to enter into an abusive relationship, she has no justification before God to insist on escaping the consequences of her own deliberate decision. Past generations of wise, older folks used to say: “You made your bed, now lie in it.” They did not intend to be cold, cruel, or heartless. They were articulating a fundamental principle of human existence and spiritual life (e.g., Exodus 20:5; Galatians 6:4). There will be consequences to our decisions, and we dare not adjust God’s Word when we make decisions that bring hardship into our lives as if we ought to be exempted from that hardship.

Some years ago David Sain preached a sermon titled, “The Time To Get A Divorce.” [David Sain (2006), “The Time to Get a Divorce” (South San Francisco, CA: Airport Church of Christ), http://airportcoc.org/audio-downloads/.] He told of an abused woman who presented herself in the office of the preacher. She described the horrific suffering she was enduring from an abusive husband who would get drunk, cuss and swear, beat her and the kids, and generally make their lives miserable. She was seeking his blessing and encouragement to leave her scoundrel of a husband. The preacher commenced to ask her a series of questions. Question #1: “Back when you were dating your husband-to-be, did he ever drink alcohol?” Answer: “Yes, he did.” Question #2: “Back when you were dating your husband-to-be, did he ever use foul language and cuss and swear?” Answer: “Yes, he did.” Question #3: “Back when you were dating your husband-to-be, did he ever hit you?” Answer: “Yes, he did.” Question #4: Back when you were dating your husband-to-be, did your parents and/or friends advise you not to marry him?” Answer: “Yes, they did.” The preacher concluded: “That was the time to get a divorce.” In other words, the tell-tale signs of an abusive husband were all present before the woman married him. And yet, now that she is fully immersed in her intolerable, self-inflicted predicament, she wants permission/sanction from a preacher to terminate a marriage relationship that she never should have solidified in the first place, but which she stubbornly—against the wise warnings of people who loved her—insisted on entering into?

Practical Application

Having faced spiritual reality provided by Scripture, consider one additional thought that provides practical application of biblical principles. Three of the four options delineated at the beginning of this article include the phrase “leave the home”—which would be a direct violation of Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and 1 Corinthians 7:1-5,10. There is no such thing as a “legal separation” in the New Testament. The temporary separation of 1 Corinthians 7:5-6 refers to temporary sexual abstinence, not a separation of residence or companionship.

The first option suggests that, apart from leaving the home permanently, the woman’s only other option is to willingly subject herself to physical abuse. But there is another option. First, we must define “abuse.” If by “abuse” one is referring to verbal abuse in which a husband raises his voice, or belittles and speaks disrespectfully, then most women would have the right to divorce! However, if “abuse” is defined as physically striking the wife, then a perfectly scriptural fifth option presents itself.

No wife is under divine obligation to endure a husband’s illegal activity. Suppose a husband were to inform his wife that he intends on robbing a bank. Does she have a moral, legal, and scriptural obligation to inform the police? Absolutely! And in doing so, she is not violating anything regarding the marriage vows or marriage relationship. In fact, she should not “cover” for him. To do so makes her an accessory to criminal behavior. Likewise, if her husband were to go out one night and savagely beat another man, does the wife have a perfect right to inform the police? Again, absolutely. Well then, if the husband strikes his wife, by definition, he is committing the crimes of assault and battery. Assault is defined in some states as merely acting in a threatening manner to put another in fear of immediate harm (which could entail simply a verbal attack). A wife ought to call the police and have her husband arrested for such criminal behavior [It is not within the purview of this short article to discuss the biblical principle of self-defense. A woman has the right to defend herself against an attacker, even as Jesus forthrightly stated to Pilate (John 18:36)]. He most likely will be jailed, which would solve her immediate problem and set into motion the means by which his abuse could be contained. She retains the dwelling quarters and maintains the home; she refrains from altering God’s marriage directives concerning divorce; and she is relieved of the physical abuse perpetrated upon her by her felonious husband who is physically restrained by law enforcement from inflicting any further battery upon her.


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