By Dr. Stephen Kim
In Matthew 19:6, Jesus taught that the marital bond was a permanent bond by stating, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Divorce, while it could be attained, evidently does not break a marriage in the sight of God. Because God Himself joined a man and woman together in marriage, nothing but the death of a spouse could ever dissolve a marriage. Even spousal sexual infidelity does not break a marital bond (although Jesus does permit a divorce in such cases). Before God, a lawfully wedded man and woman are husband and wife until death pulls them apart. This is why any remarriage, except the remarriage that occurs after the death of a spouse, is adultery in the eyes of God.
AN ESSENTIAL DOCTRINE
Christians today are splintered into various factions over the biblical doctrine of divorce and remarriage. The disagreements over the doctrine are so strident, and the disparate positions so entrenched, that many have simply decided to “agree to disagree.” The phrase, “agree to disagree,” was first seen in written form in 1770 when John Wesley wrote a sermon in memory of his recently deceased friend, George Whitefield. Whitefield and Wesley notoriously disagreed over the doctrine of election, but by the end of Whitefield’s life, Wesley (rightfully, I believe) wrote, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature…. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials….” Wesley was certainly right, for there are a host of doctrines over which believers could strongly (yet civilly) disagree and yet remain within the strong bonds of Christian unity and charity (e.g., the doctrine of affusion baptism, or the doctrine of pre-millennial eschatology).
Christians the world over will agree that “the essentials” of the Christian faith are those doctrines which determine eternal destinations (i.e., heaven and hell). The undeniable existence of such doctrines is not only evidenced by the gospel message (itself a set of doctrines), but also by the apostle Paul who told Timothy to, “Take heed unto yourself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this you shall both save yourself, and them that hear you” (1 Tim 4:16). Hence, doctrines of the “essential” sort warrant stronger study and firm observance by all Christians. In my sobering perspective, if remarriage truly is adultery (Mt 19:9); and practicing adulterers are not granted entrance into heaven (1 Cor 6:9), then the doctrine of divorce and remarriage is of utmost essentiality.
MULTIPLE WARNINGS AND EXPLICIT PRESCRIPTIONS
Repetition within Scripture often connotes great importance. Four times within the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus patently identifies divorce and remarriage as adultery (cf. Mt 5:32; Mt 19:9; Mk 5:32; and Lk 16:18). Hence, the need for a Christian to terminate a remarriage is indisputable. Divorce of a remarriage is a matter of Christian obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. If remarriage is adultery, then God unequivocally called for the termination of all remarriages by commanding us not to commit adultery. If you are remarried, then in God’s sight, you are presently with someone else’s spouse. It is not lawful for you to have someone else’s wife:
But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife….Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” (Gen 20:3, 7)
For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (Mk 6:17-18)
NO REMARRIAGE FOR THE DIVORCEE
Jesus said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18). The words of Christ are piercingly straight-forward: Christians are prohibited from marrying a divorcee (irrespective of the reason for the divorcee’s divorce). If the divorcee’s former spouse dies, then at that point, the divorcee may freely remarry (1 Cor 7:39).
We know that a man may freely remarry upon the death of his spouse because the Scripture explicitly says so: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Conversely, there is not one verse in the entire New Testament which explicitly permits remarriage for the man who has divorced his wife for the cause of sexual immorality.
THE “ADULTERY EXCEPTION CLAUSE”
Contenders often bring up two verses, which they claim, serve as “exceptions” for Jesus’ prohibition against any remarriage. The two verses that they believe grant implicit allowance for remarriage are Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 (Mark and Luke do not record any exceptions). Yet, upon closer examination of the two verses, we will discover that our Lord never gave any “exceptions” which allow for remarriage.
A) Matthew 5:32 states, “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.” According to the verse, if a spouse has committed “porneia” (πορνεία, see definition below), then Jesus allows for divorce. However, Jesus explicitly prohibits remarriage after such a divorce by immediately stating, “and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” It is the height of irrationality to say, “You may never marry a divorced woman, EXCEPT only when the woman was divorced by her husband because she committed adultery.” Under such logic, the adulterer would always be rewarded for having committed adultery. Hence, Jesus clearly did not give us an “adultery exception” for remarriage in Matthew 5:32. According to Christ, even if a person divorces his spouse for the cause of adultery, he cannot remarry because the divorce would effectively make him a divorcee and thus, make him ineligible for remarriage. In such a case, he would have to wait for the death of his divorced wife in order to remarry another wife. Lastly, it is worth noting from the verse that the man who divorces his wife for the cause of “sexual immorality,” does not “make” (Gk. ποιεῖ) his wife commit adultery. This is because Jesus permits divorce in such cases. Hence, in the event a woman remarries after such a divorce, then the first husband is completely innocent and guiltless regarding her remarriage which is adulterous in the sight of God. God has undeniably prohibited humanity from being married to anyone other than the first spouse during the first spouse’s lifetime: “So then if, while her husband lives, she is married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband dies, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she is married to another man” (Rom 7:3).
[Definition of the biblical Greek word porneia (πορνεία): “1. Unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication; 2. Participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication; 3. Immorality of a transcendent nature, fornication” (Source: A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2000). The word was used, biblically, to refer to various evils such as prostitution, incest, or adultery (cf. Jer 3:9, Gn 38:24, 1 Cor 6:18, Na 3:4, 1 Cor 5:1, Jn 8:41, and even Sir 23:23).]
B) The other verse of contention is Matthew 19:9. Matthew 19:9 states, “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, not for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and he who marries one put away commits adultery.” [The majority of Greek manuscripts and some early manuscripts record Matthew 19:9 this way. The quoted translation is from the Darby Bible.] Contrary to some translations, the text should not be translated as “except for fornication.” The Greek word is mē (Gk. μὴ) and it appears 1,061 times in the New Testament. In most cases, the word is not translated in English Bibles as ‘except.’ Instead, in most cases, the word is translated in English as the word ‘not.’ The distinction is especially seen when compares the Greek of Matthew 19:9 to the Greek of Matthew 5:32. In Matthew 5:32, the word in the Greek is παρεκτὸς and it is truly the word ‘except.’ In the Greek text, Matthew 19:9 has the word μὴ—not παρεκτὸς. This distinction guides me to prefer the Darby translation given above. Once the proper translation is accepted, there are two possible meanings for the words of Christ:
i) Personally, I believe that Jesus was merely stating a fact. It is likely that Jesus was simply answering the Pharisees’ question in the most direct way possible. Within the context of the chapter, Matthew 19:9 was part of Jesus’ response to a question asked by the Pharisees. The question was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for every cause?” (Mt 19:3). Even the most conservative Jews (cf. Shammai versus Hillel) believed that adultery was proper justification for divorce. Hence, the Pharisees, in their question to Jesus, were not really concerned about cases of adultery. Instead, their question [as demonstrated by their use of the word ‘every’ (Gk. πᾶσαν)], was really concerned with divorces that were not for adultery. In His response, therefore, Jesus was simply and directly answering their intended question. So without commenting on whether or not a man who divorces his wife for sexual immorality could subsequently remarry; Jesus instead, simply and directly declares that a man who divorces his wife not for sexual immorality commits adultery when he remarries. Nothing in the text teaches that a man could remarry after divorcing his wife for her sexual infidelity. On the contrary, the text (just like the Mt 5:32 text) makes a blanket statement (with no exceptions) prohibiting marriages to divorcees by stating, “and he who marries one put away commits adultery.” Again, even if a man divorces his wife for her sexual immorality, the divorce would make him a divorcee and thus, he would be ineligible for remarriage until the death of his adulterous wife.
ii) The other possibility for Matthew 19:9 is that when Jesus says, “not for porneia,” He is strictly referring to unlawful marriages that are not true marriages. Hence, if you are in a gay marriage (a gay marriage is not a true marriage in the sight of God), then of you must divorce the porneia; and you may subsequently freely marry someone of the opposite sex. This is possible because the first ‘marriage’ was not a real marriage. It was nothing more than sin. This possible understanding of Matthew 19:9 exists because of the word porneia. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul uses the word porneia to describe the relationship of a man who has his father’s wife. (Paul expects the man to end his relationship with his father’s wife.) Elsewhere, although Herod had already “married” Herodias (Mk 6:17), John the Baptist nevertheless declared to Herod that, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mk 6:18). John was essentially telling Herod, “Herod, your marriage to Herodias is not a real marriage in the sight of God. In reality, your marriage is porneia! Therefore, divorce her and release her immediately!” Jesus was related to John the Baptist and he certainly knew why John was killed. It is quite possible that Jesus was thinking of Herod’s ongoing porneia when he taught Matthew 19:9 to the Jews.
iii) *One other possibility is the belief that Jesus was referring to betrothal period sexual infidelity when He used the word porneia in Matthew 19:9. This view, however, is untenable because the context of Matthew 19 (as seen in Mt 19:6) is clearly regarding couples who have already consummated their marriages through sexual intercourse. Hence, this effectively eliminates betrothal period sexual infidelity as being an option. Furthermore, the word porneia never appears in the New Testament as a reference to betrothal period sexual infidelity.
A) For nearly the first 1,500 years, the Christian Church has uniformly taught that:
- A marriage between one man and one woman is a permanent bond that lasts until the death of a spouse.
- If a spouse dies, the marriage bond is broken and the living spouse is free to remarry.
- Divorce (even a divorce for the cause of adultery) does not sever a marital bond; and hence, if one remarries after a divorce, it is always adultery.
- Although God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), He nevertheless, permits it for the cause of spousal sexual infidelity. Joseph (the human father of Jesus) is called “just” for resolving to divorce Mary when he supposed her to have committed adultery (Mt 1:19). God, Himself, “put away” Israel for her adulteries in Jeremiah 3.
B) The writings of Early Church leaders show (with great clarity) their doctrine on divorce and remarriage. The following are just a few excerpts.
You must not have wives whose former husbands are living; nor may you, women, have husbands whose former wives are living. Such marriages are adulterous, not by the law of the courts, but by the law of Heaven. Nor may a woman who by divorce has withdrawn from her husband become your wife while her husband lives. Only because of fornication may one dismiss an adulterous wife; but in her lifetime you may not marry another. Neither to you, O women, is it granted to find husbands in those men whose wives have quitted them by divorce: such are adulterous, not marriages. (Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Sermon 392, c. 2.)
Because it not being lawful for her in her husband’s lifetime to contract a new marriage, sinful desire may gradually prevail against her. Suppose her to marry. The blame of the constraint she lay under is upon you: and what you account to be marriage is adultery. For what does it matter whether one commits that crime with open avowal of it, or as one who is an adulterer under the mask of a husband. Only that it is more grievous to have contrived a law to warrant crime than a secret perpetration of it. (Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Commentary on Luke 16:18, AD 340-397.)
A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another. The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, commits adultery (Mt 5:32). Mark what he says: whosoever shall marry her that is divorced commits adultery. Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer. (Jerome, Letter 55, to Amandus: 3,4. AD 396.)
Those things which were assigned to nature when it was well established in its beginning belong especially to the law of nature. Now the indissolubility of marriage is one of these things according to Matthew 19:4-6. Therefore it is of natural law. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ. ca. 1270.)
“UNMARRIED,” YET STILL HAVING A HUSBAND
This strange tension of “being divorced, yet still having a husband” is perhaps most clearly seen in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 7:11, Paul instructs a divorced woman to remain ‘unmarried’ (Gk. ἄγαμος) or else be reconciled to her ‘husband.’ Evidently, according to Paul, you could be ‘unmarried,’ but still have a husband. How could this be? It is because even a legitimate divorce on the ground of adultery does not (ever) dissolve the permanent marriage bond in the sight of God. You may divorce a spouse for the cause of adultery, but you may not remarry. Why? Because although you are now “divorced,” yet you are still married in the sight of God. Before God, nothing but death severs the marital bond. This teaching usually causes the innocent party to be more inclined to not seek divorce, for the innocent party will bear in mind that a divorce means celibacy until the death of his spouse.
PAUL’S QUOTE OF JESUS
The question of whether or not Christ allowed the innocent party in an adultery divorce case to remarry is definitively answered by the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul explicitly states that what he is about to write is an actual command from the Lord Jesus Christ: “To the married I give this command–not I, but the Lord–a wife should not divorce a husband, but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband, and a husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10-11).
Since Paul explicitly states that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is from the mouth of Jesus, we must conclude that Paul is accurately explaining Matthew 5:32 to us. Paul is not explaining Luke 16:18, nor is he explaining Mark 10:11. Rather, we know that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is an exposition of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 because Paul (like Christ in Matthew 5:32) gives the Christian the permission to initiate a divorce in cases of adultery. (Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 do not contain any allowances for divorce.)
In quoting Jesus, Paul first makes a general statement prohibiting divorce; but then follows it with an allowance for divorce by writing, “but if she does [divorce], then let her remain unmarried.” If this teaching was from the mouth of Jesus (and Paul says that it was), then we must conclude that Paul is speaking about a woman who divorces her husband on the ground of his sexual infidelity because that was the only allowance for divorce given by Christ. [Later, in verse 15, Paul will allow a divorce initiated by an unbeliever to stand (thus, not contradicting Christ), but in verses 10 and 11, Paul firmly stands with Jesus and gives only one allowance for a Christian to initiate a divorce.]
Therefore, we are correct in believing that Jesus did allow divorce for spousal sexual infidelity but that He did not allow remarriage. In the eyes of Christ, what God has joined together is truly permanent for life. According to Paul, Jesus explicitly commanded a spouse who divorced her spouse for the cause of sexual immorality to remain single or to reconcile to her divorced spouse. Remarriage (even for the innocent party) is indisputably prohibited by Christ (1 Cor 7:11). Paul states that Jesus only gave celibacy or reconciliation as the only valid options. Paul prohibits remarriage because His Lord taught that remarriage would be adultery (Mt 5:32).
Perhaps you are reading all this and you are still not convinced. Perhaps, like so many, you believe that a Christian could remarry if he has divorced his spouse for sexual immorality. If you are still unconvinced, then permit me to make an argument that is sort of similar to Pascal’s Wager. Say that your wife cheated on you and you are now a divorced Christian who has decided to follow my instructions: you will not remarry. After death, you get to heaven and discover that you did have to right to remarry after all. What did you lose? I would argue that you’ve lost nothing. In 1 Corinthians 7:8, Paul says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.” According to the New Testament, while marriage is good and holy, celibacy for Christ leaves a person happier. Conversely, say that you decide not to follow my instructions and you later die in a remarriage. After death, you get stand before God and discover that I was right—you were in adultery. What did you lose? I would argue that you’ve lost everything.
The Error of John Calvin
Many Christians erroneously believe that a spouse could remarry if she has divorced her husband on the ground of his sexual infidelity. Many follow the teaching of John Calvin who once said, “Now when Christ excepts the cause of adultery, it is to set the man in the case at free choice and liberty to marry again. For what a thing were it to bar a man from a new match; if he have offered his promise faithfully, and lived in the fear of God, and not been unfaithful towards his wife, if he be constrained to put her away? Must he be punished for the offense of another?”
At the outset, Calvin errs in believing that celibacy for the sake of Christ is a “punishment.” In 1 Corinthians 7:8, the apostle Paul says that celibacy is actually “good for” a Christian. But let’s go deeper. If Calvin is right and a marriage bond is legitimately broken when a divorce occurs on the ground of spousal sexual infidelity, then that would also give the guilty party the right to freely remarry. Under Calvin’s teaching, therefore, the guilty party would not be committing adultery when remarrying because his first marriage was effectively dissolved by Calvin’s “exception clause.” If the innocent spouse is not committing adultery when she remarries, then logic compels us to conclude that neither is the guilty spouse wrong in remarrying. Hence, a truly evil person could continue committing adultery in order to move from spouse to spouse. Furthermore, it is absolutely irrational to say: “Yes, you may marry the man who was put away for adultery (because of the exception clause); but you may not marry the man who was put away for some other reason.” Just exactly who are we punishing with such logic?
12 Point Summary:
- Marriage is a life-long, permanent covenantal bond between exclusively one man and exclusively one woman. What God has joined together, no divorce can ever separate.
- Christians may only marry other Christians.
- If a believer marries an unbeliever, the marriage is still valid for life. The faith, or lack thereof, does not impact the establishment of a valid marriage.
- If a spouse commits sexual infidelity, then the innocent spouse may divorce for cause of sexual infidelity, but he/she may not remarry someone else until the death of the divorced spouse. [In Luke 16:18, Jesus uses the word everyone: “Everyone (Gk. Πᾶς) who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18).]
- It is adultery to marry a divorcee if the divorcee’s ex-spouse is still alive.
- Even after a divorce on the ground of adultery, the marriage is still intact in the eyes of God. Therefore, both spouses must not remarry.
- Remarriage is never permitted until the death of a spouse. By prohibiting divorce and remarriage, Jesus also bans polygamy (a practice that was accepted in the Old Testament). Any additional wife after the first wife is now adultery.
- Jesus intended to teach the Jews that marriage was unbreakable for life. In the Old Testament, divorce and remarriage were permitted. In the Old Testament, divorce came with the right to remarry. Jesus abrogates that allowance and prohibits all remarriages. Jesus also generally prohibits divorce but does allow a spouse to divorce on the ground of adultery. After such a divorce however, both spouses are prohibited from remarrying anyone else.
- It does not make any legal sense to say, “After a divorce, the innocent party may remarry but the adulterous party may not remarry.” If the innocent party may remarry because a divorce on the ground of adultery effectively terminates the first marriage, then the guilty party also does not commit adultery if he remarries because the first marriage was truly dissolved. Logic rules.
- If it is conceded that the “exception clause” permits both the innocent and the guilty party to remarry after a divorce due to adultery, then adulterers (and their former spouses) will be the only ones permitted to remarry. One must then ask: “Was this truly what Jesus was intended?” If the purported “exception clause” permits one to only marry the divorcee who was divorced because he committed adultery, then we have established a truly malicious and unjust system. For it is irrational and egregious to say, “Yes, you may marry the man who was divorced for adultery (because of the ‘exception clause’); but you may not marry the man who was divorced for arguing over household chores.”
- Spouses will less likely divorce an adulterous spouse under Jesus’ teaching because they know that after the divorce, they will only have two options: either stay celibate for life, or reconcile with the ex-spouse.
- Mark 6:17-18 conclusively declares that all unlawful marriages must be divorced. In Mark 6:17, the Gospel writer Mark tells us that Herod had unlawfully married Herodias. In Mark 6:18, John the Baptist commands Herod to divorce his marriage to Herodias by using the present tense when declaring, “It is not lawful for you to have [notice the present tense] your brother’s wife.” So whether it is a sinful marriage to your neighbor’s wife, your brother’s wife, your same-sex neighbor, or perhaps your half-sister; the remedy prescribed by John the Baptist for any unlawful marriage is immediate divorce: “For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.'”