Remarriage in church after divorce when the ex-partner is still alive
What we believe affects the way we live. Our presuppositions affect our conclusions.
As a Christian I believe that Scripture is eternal and timeless truth. That is, that it is relevant for everyone throughout time, past, present and future.
Becoming a Christian has meant, and continues to mean, that I stop making the rules about what is good and evil, right and wrong, and accepting that God knows best, and that He is to make the rules. They are good since God is good.
As a Christian I believe that God has laid down rules and principals that are to shape how my life is to be lived. I also believe that when I don't follow them, when I decide the rules, that God is gracious, merciful and forgiving if I am repentant.
In this document I am primarily concerned with answering the question, is a divorcee permitted to remarry in church whilst their ex-partner is still alive. Whilst I will not be focusing on divorce and reasons when divorce may or may not be acceptable it is necessary to look briefly at divorce. Likewise, I am not focusing on remarriage in general, but on whether remarriage in church is permissible or not.
But first a warning to those reading this document!
The following material is of an emotional nature, and so I have tried to look at the principles, and what God's will is rather than try to answer all the questions that inevitably arise from such a topic.
I would hope that in looking at this topic (as in all my studies) that I have read what Scripture is telling me even when I don't like it, and not reading what I want to read.
This is an ongoing temptation for all who study God's word (which should of course be all Christians) to use it to say what we want to hear.
This is now the second revision of this document, and I am grateful to Toni Knuth for questioning some of what I had written and causing me to rethink, and to rework a portion.
I would also like to point out that this article was written to help me to discover God's will in this matter when the topic came up for discussion at a PCC meeting at my Church. And this article was only ever intended to look at God's will concerning remarriage in church after divorce when the ex-partner is still alive.
Obviously, as I have already mentioned, this does entail looking at various aspects of divorce and marriage, although I have not been exhaustive in looking at the practical application of what is taught in the Bible.
I have also looked at this topic from the Christian point of view.
A number of non-Christians have also read this article, and whilst I am happy to discuss what I believe with them (and with you if you are not a Christian), I would say this:
Looking at God's view of divorce and marriage are the least of your problems.
My advice would be to get right with God first before you start trying to follow his rules.
And the reason I say this is because keeping God's rules will not get you into heaven.
Only by believing in His Son Jesus Christ do you get right with God, and once you're right with God then you can start worrying about whether you're living to please Him.
Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage is spelt out in Matthew 19:3-10.
3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"
4 "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female', 5 and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."
7 "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?"
8 Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."
10 The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."
In this passage some Pharisees decide to test Jesus to see which side he would take.
In Jesus' time there were two sides concerning divorce; one said that divorce was allowed for any reason however trivial (Rabbi Hillel); the other was that it was allowed for marital unfaithfulness only (Rabbi Shammai). Both sides taught that where God permits divorce, He permits remarriage also.
The disciples would have been aware of both sides, and presumably are as keen as the Pharisees to know which side Jesus will say is right.
Jesus, however, takes them back to before Moses, to before the Law, to the beginning, and quotes, in verse 5, from Genesis 2:24 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."
When God created man He created him from the earth. Woman was created differently, she was created from man. So marriage can be seen as symbolically representing a reuniting or rejoining into one flesh what was previously separated.
So Jesus is saying that anyone who is married, Christian or not, has been joined by God into a one flesh union. Jesus is saying in verse 6 that divorce (separation by people) does not end the marriage. It may do in the eyes of the State, but not in the eyes of God.
It is interesting to see that the Pharisees are arguing from the exception in Deuteronomy.
Also, Jesus treats men and women equally, whereas Jewish law did not.
Jesus goes on to say that if you do divorce and remarry then you commit adultery. Remarriage is forbidden, not because of the nature of divorce but because of the nature of marriage. Only death, not divorce, can undo the joining to become one flesh.
So God's stance is no to divorce (Malachi 2:16 "I hate divorce" says the LORD God of Israel), and that to remarry should divorce occur when the ex-partner is alive is adultery. Exodus 20:14 "You shall not commit adultery" tells us how God views adultery.
This is made clear in Romans 7:2-3 "For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man."
Why should God view marriage as a special relationship, different say from that of friendship?
God describes His relationship with His people in terms of marriage throughout the Bible, ending in the marriage of Christ to His Church in Revelation 19:7-8. Marriage can therefore be seen as a model of our real relationship with God, just as the exodus from Egypt was a model of the real exodus from the kingdom of sin and death that Jesus brings us. (Although this isn't the only model!)
Matthew does however include an exception.
This exception can be read in two ways. Either remarriage is not allowed under any circumstance or remarriage is not allowed unless there has been marital unfaithfulness.
I can give two reasons for believing it is the former, no remarriage under any circumstance.
The disciples are surprised by this teaching (verse 10, "it is better not to marry"). They clearly were not expecting Jesus to teach such a thing. Surely people would be allowed to remarry, would have been their thoughts.
If Jesus had said that yes people could remarry then that would not have been any surprise since this is what one of the Rabbi's taught.
The Apostle Paul would presumably have been aware of Jesus' words as recorded in Matthew, and so he would know of this exception.
He would certainly have known both of the Rabbinic teachings on this.
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 where Paul reiterates Jesus' teaching, by teaching that there should not be divorce, but if there is then there is to be no remarrying, the divorcees are to either remain single or else be reconciled to each other.
This exception is only recorded in Matthew, not in Mark (10:2-12) or Luke (16:18).
Since this exception is recorded in Matthew we need to be wary about jumping to conclusions regarding it.
We need to know why Matthew includes it and the other Gospel writers do not.
It is accepted that Matthew's Gospel was written to Jewish believers, so a reasonable assumption to make is that it is included because of something particular to the Jewish readers.
I am told that the Greek word for adultery is "moichos". The original Greek word used in this passage for marital unfaithfulness is "porneia". "Porneia" refers to unfaithfulness (unchastity) during the betrothal period (engagement we would call it) and discovered during the betrothal period or after marriage has taken place.
If the couple decided not to get married, unlike today, they couldn't just separate but had to get a legal divorce. We see this in action with Joseph and Mary in Matthew 1:18-19 where whilst they were not yet married Joseph seeks to divorce Mary.
They may have been only engaged but they had to go through a legal divorce. Which shows one of the ways in which the Jewish betrothal was different from our idea of being engaged.
Moses permitted divorce, presumably because he knew it would occur even though it displeases God.
The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement knowing that people will divorce. Unlike Moses, who presumably permitted remarriage since that is what the Rabbi's taught, Paul does not permit remarriage. See Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11.
It could be argued that Jesus is on the side of Shammai (remarriage is only permitted for adultery). If so, then that would mean that the disciples comment means that they were on the side of Hillel. That leaves the door open for divorce and remarriage only for adultery, or divorce is acceptable for adultery but remarriage is not, depending on how one interprets verse 9.
I do not feel that this is correct because Paul does not take that view that remarriage is permitted for adultery, and neither is it consistent with the rest of the Bible's teaching on divorce and remarriage.
So Jesus' view of remarriage after divorce whilst the ex-partner is still alive is that it is wrong, a sin, adultery.
This therefore has implications on any minister who marries a divorcee. They are guilty of aiding and abetting in the sins of adultery which the divorcee is committing by getting remarried in church. The minister is then guilty of encouraging adultery.
There are a mass of questions that arise out of all this.
I am making no attempt to answer all of them or to try to provide a template to be applied to every situation. Though whatever situation is encountered it is important to remember:
- Remarriage after divorce where the ex-partner is still alive is adultery.
- God is gracious, merciful and forgiving.
- God is the source of all the strength we need to cope with whatever situation we find ourselves in.
Working it out
In the introduction, I did mention that I would not be looking in depth at divorce or remarriage but I will briefly comment on the following:
- It isn't fair.
- Is separation okay?
- My partner is not a Christian.
It isn't fair.
Jesus challenges us to obey his teachings. This as with all His teachings we can not do in our own strength. As Christians we are to trust in Him, we are to rely on His strength to obey.
If we do not accept this teaching then that can lead to bitterness and self pity and a moving away from God. God makes the rules, precisely because He is God, and they are always for our benefit.
As a Christian I am not free to give into my rebellious instinct and reject God's teaching; rather I am to ask God to change my negative attitude and to provide patience whilst I wait for that to happen.
God knows what you are going through, He went through the same sorts of feelings himself in His Son Jesus.
John 14:23-24 "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me."
Is separation okay?
Divorce means to separate.
The separation of a couple that God has joined together must surely bring great sadness to God's heart.
Whether temporary, or trial, separation more often than not leads to divorce. I do accept that there are situations where separation is advisable. An example would be physical or mental abuse of the partner or children. But separation should only be seen as a temporary solution to an extreme situation.
Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7, that separation for whatever reason does not end the marriage, and reconciliation is to be attempted as much as is possible. It may be that total reconciliation is not possible, but in God's eyes the partners are still married.
Matthew 11:28-29 "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
My partner is not a Christian.
God is the God of all. He is there in the registry office, even though people may not acknowledge Him. So even if both partners are not Christians, in God's eyes they are still married.
If however, one partner is a Christian whilst the other is not, then whilst divorce is permitted, remarriage is not. Paul covers this in 1 Corinthians 7:10-17.
Also, it is the non-Christian who is to initiate the divorce proceedings. The Christian partner is under no obligation to fight it, but must not initiate divorce proceedings themselves. God still considers you both to be married.
Marriage is a model for our relationship with God. If we view marriage in that way then we can see that whilst divorce, or separation, is not pleasing to God we can see why remarriage is called adultery. When we do the same to our relationship with God, when we go after other lovers, we are committing idolatry (spiritual adultery) against Him.
Whilst there are grounds for divorce, or separation, there are no grounds for remarriage. This does not mean that people wont remarry, they will. The Church, however, whilst it must certainly not encourage people to remarry, must make people aware of how God views marriage, divorce and remarriage and so help to bring people into a right relationship with Him. And to remind people that God is a God of Grace and Forgiveness and that He freely provides His strength for us to claim as our own.
The Ten Commandments by William Barclay
Marriage as God Intended by Selwyn Hughes
Questions about Divorce & Remarriage by Andrew Cornes
Till death do us part? by Joseph A. Webb
Site created by Richard Coleman on 1st February 1998.
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All information in this page correct as of 23rd August 2004.