Churches make two very serious errors when it comes to the topic of divorce and remarriage. The first error is to believe divorce and remarriage is never sinful. The second error is to believe divorce and remarriage is always sinful.
The Sin of Adultery in Divorce and Remarriage
We live in a time and place where pornography is rampant even in our news cycles and favorite TV shows, where cohabitation prior to marriage is the norm, and where marriage, divorce, and remarriage are considered some light and inconsequential thing. But from the beginning it was not so.
20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
Jesus quotes from the aforementioned text when answering his enemies on the issue of divorce and remarriage.
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:2-12)
Luke’s terse account says the same.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)
The sin of divorce and remarriage is adultery. The punishment for adultery under the old covenant was death.
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
Far from divorce and remarriage never being sinful, divorce and remarriage constitute adultery, a sin punishable by death in the old covenant.
For this reason, people often believe divorce and remarriage is always sinful.
But is divorce and remarriage always sinful?
The Exceptions of Sexual Immorality and Abandonment in Divorce and Remarriage
First, we need to be careful about saying that divorce and remarriage is always sinful, because God divorced his bride Israel for her spiritual adultery, and God cannot sin.
She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. (Jeremiah 3:8)
Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,
with which I sent her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.” (Isaiah 50:1)
Second, Moses did not believe divorce and remarriage is always sinful.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house… (Deuteronomy 24:1)
Included in a Jewish certificate of divorce, as seen in the Mishnah, is the following statement granting the freedom to remarry.
“Lo, thou art free to marry any man.” (See the PCA’s “Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Divorce and Remarriage,” 206-7.)
Since Jesus says, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment,” people sometimes believe Jesus was saying Moses was wrong, or people requesting divorce and remarriage were in the wrong. But that is not what Jesus means. The writings of Moses are the Word of God, which is never wrong, and following the Word of God is never wrong. Rather, Jesus attributes the cause of divorce and remarriage to the hardness of the human heart. Normally, the adulterer or adulteress would be stoned to death, and the innocent party would be free to remarry. God gives Moses the authority to show grace toward both the offending and offended party by issuing a certificate of divorce so that the offender gets to live and the offended gets to remarry. Thus, the Word of God as communicated to us through the prophet Moses allows for divorce and remarriage.
Third, Jesus teaches that divorce and remarriage is not always sinful.
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. (Matthew 5:32)
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
The “whoever” described in these verses both divorces and remarries. Jesus is clear that the sin of divorce and remarriage is adultery.
However, Jesus is also careful to provide an exception to this rule. If the “whoever” described in these verses divorces and remarries because of sexual immorality on the part of his or her spouse, this person is justified in putting away the offending spouse, just as God put away Israel for her adultery.
When Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” he does not say it is impossible for those so joined to be separated, he simply says man should not do so. However, in the case of sexual immorality just described by Jesus, the same God who joined the couple together also grants the right for the couple to separate.
Fourth, the apostle Paul actually counsels divorce and remarriage in some circumstances.
But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15)
Here, Paul is speaking to a situation where a believer and unbeliever find themselves wed to one another. In such a situation, the believing spouse should not seek to divorce and remarry. However, if the unbelieving spouse separates, Paul’s counsel to the believing spouse is to let him or her go. In such cases, Paul says, the believing spouse, brother or sister, is not enslaved. That is, he or she is free not only to divorce, but to remarry.
So, churches make two very serious errors when it comes to the topic of divorce and remarriage. The first error is to believe divorce and remarriage is never sinful. The second error is to believe divorce and remarriage is always sinful. The truth of the matter is that some divorce and remarriage is sinful, and some divorce and remarriage is not sinful.
Church Ministry and Divorce and Remarriage
Why do I mention churches in particular? Because how we understand divorce and remarriage affects how we do church ministry. We will consider three ministries of the church: widows, church officers, and abuse victims.
James emphasizes the importance of caring for those who have lost their husbands to the grave.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
However, not just any widow qualifies as coming under care of the church. Paul makes this point plain when he provides a list of qualifications for widows who are to be placed upon a care list, two of which are quoted here.
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband. (1 Timothy 5:9)
Some take “the wife of one husband” to mean that a widow can never have been divorced and remarried, and some even take the phrase to mean she cannot have remarried after the death of her husband, as that would make her the wife of more than one husband. This understanding is consistent with taking the phrase numerically, rather than morally. However, this understanding is also unacceptable, as Paul later encourages younger widows to remarry.
So I would have younger widows marry… (1 Timothy 5:14)
If “the wife of one husband” does not refer to a number of husbands, to what does it refer? The Greek phrase in question is ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή, which literally translated is ‘one man woman.’ The NIV (unlike the ESV above) thus helpfully translates this phrase, “has been faithful to her husband.” The point is not how many husbands the woman may have had during her life, but whether or not she was faithful to them. This understanding not only fits the literal Greek of the phrase, it fits the context of the passage, the teachings on divorce and remarriage explained earlier, the majority conservative Protestant interpretation of the passage found in commentaries, and common sense itself.
For example, I have a believing friend who found her husband had been unfaithful to her. Not only did he communicate his adultery to my friend, he said he no longer wanted to be married to her. She responded by telling him she could forgive him, and expressed her desire to remain married to him. But he would not have it. He reemphasized his offense of adultery, his desire to divorce, and professed his unbelief. After the divorce, my friend later remarried. Should the day come when she is widowed by her second husband, must the church exclude her from care? Of course not! Not only is divorce and remarriage not the unpardonable sin, in the instance of my friend, it is no sin at all. She did everything she could, including trying to save her first marriage, even though biblically speaking, she was justified in her divorce upon the grounds of both adultery and abandonment.
The point of the passage is not to make members look down upon widows who may have been divorced and remarried. The point of the passage is to show that those widows who were faithful to their most recent husband, whether the first or the third, should receive care from the church.
The very same Greek phrase, though in different order, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, is used in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες); and Titus 1:6 (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ), this time in the context of qualifications, not for widows, but church officers (overseers and deacons).
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:2)
Let deacons each be the husband of one wife… (1 Timothy 3:12)
if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife… (Titus 1:6)
Here again, the NIV helpfully translates the literal ‘one woman man’ as “faithful to his wife,” denoting the requirement that an overseer or deacon be a one woman kind of man, faithful to his wife, though not necessarily the husband of one and only one wife.
Imagine, if you will, that a man’s wife committed adultery against him, so that the man had biblical grounds to divorce his wife. Or, imagine that a man’s wife abandoned him, so that the man had biblical grounds to divorce his wife. Or, imagine that a man is single, or a widower whether remarried or not. Do these incidents absolutely or necessarily disqualify a man from church office? A brief look at the context leads us to believe the answer is no.
First, if Paul meant to absolutely exclude unmarried, divorced, or remarried men, he could have done so by writing, ‘not unmarried,’ or ‘not divorced,’ or ‘not remarried.’ There are a number of ways to write about these marital states in the Greek, but Paul did not use any of them, even though he discusses them, by name, elsewhere at great length. Instead, Paul wrote ‘one woman man.’
Second, none of the qualifications of an elder or deacon are absolute. The qualifications are all present tense, so that an elder or deacon should currently be above reproach in every qualification that is listed.
Third, ‘one woman man’ is a positive qualification (prescriptive), not a negative one (prohibitive). In other words, “above reproach,” “sober-minded,” “self-controlled,” “respectable,” “hospitable,” and “able to teach” are all things an overseer should be, while “not a drunkard,” “not violent,” “not quarrelsome,” and “not a lover of money” are all things an overseer should not be. So, “one woman man” is something an elder or deacon should be, as it is listed along with the positive qualifications; it is not listed with those things that an elder or deacon should not be, as would be the case if it meant ‘not a bachelor,’ or ‘not divorced,’ or ‘not remarried.’
Fourth, all of the qualifications that are listed, with the exception of being able to teach in the case of an elder, pertain to the moral character of the elder or deacon. These qualifications are not describing amoral situations. This is important, because according to Jesus in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, and according to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, divorce and remarriage are not always sin, nor is remaining unmarried a sin. A parallel qualification may help in understanding this point. One of the moral qualifications for an overseer is that he should keep “his children submissive.” This qualification means that if the elder has children, then he should be faithful in raising his children. It does not mean that an elder must have children. So also, ‘one woman man’ means that if the elder or deacon is married, then he should be faithful to his wife. It does not mean that an elder or deacon absolutely cannot be divorced and/or remarried. Like the other qualifications, the phrase is moral, not situational. The phrase means ‘a one woman kind of man,’ or ‘faithful to one’s wife.’
Fifth, the most conservative and best commentaries on this passage overwhelmingly agree with the interpretation that the phrase means ‘faithful to one’s wife’ and that the phrase does not absolutely disqualify divorced and/or remarried men from church office. In fact, one is hard pressed to find any conservative Protestant commentary that takes this passage to absolutely disqualify divorced and/or remarried men from the offices of elder and deacon. Most commentaries that absolutely disqualify such men are those written by Roman Catholic, Anglican, or liberal theologians.
Finally, how we understand divorce and remarriage in the context of the local church has a great impact upon how we deal with cases of abuse. In the past, otherwise excellent pastors have given bad counsel to men and women in abusive relationships, encouraging them to stay in marriages that could have been biblically broken due to adultery or abandonment. Abuse constitutes abandonment in that one of the parties to the marriage has given up on a spouse or marriage to the point of inflicting harm on the other party. What a tragedy that people who needed help from their pastors and the law could not get it because their pastors dogmatically held onto an incorrect view of divorce and remarriage. Unfortunately, such bad counsel continues to be given today, often because people refuse to take the words of our Savior seriously.
Some divorce and remarriage is sinful. Churches should refuse to enable promiscuous widows. Churches should view men who are unfaithful to their wives, even when they are married, as disqualified from church office. At the same time, since some divorce and remarriage is not sinful, churches must be careful not to look down upon those who are divorced and remarried, whether they are widows in need of support from the church, men desiring and aspiring to the office of overseer or deacon, or victims of abuse. Churches should care for victims of abuse as victims, rather than treating them as offenders, helping with immediate physical separation and following all reporting laws to protect the victim and punish the evildoer.
Of course, not even sinful divorce and remarriage is an unpardonable sin. The grace of God is greater than all our sin. Much more could be said about the forgiveness of God, as well as the need for churches to treat the matter of divorce and remarriage seriously when it comes to church membership and discipline. However, addressing those topics is beyond the scope of this post. The point of the post is to demonstrate that some divorce and remarriage is sinful, some divorce and remarriage is not sinful, and this truth has far reaching implications for the ministries of our churches. My fear is that we as Christians tend to rightly view divorce and remarriage as a serious matter, but wrongly create rules against it in some instances that are not only absent from Scripture, but contradicted by it. Jesus reserved his harshest words of just punishment for those who added what looked like righteous rules to his sufficient Word. (See Matthew 23.) When you are to the ‘right’ of Jesus, you are wrong. Thankfully, God is patient with us as we calibrate our consciences to look less like ourselves, and more like our Savior.