Directions: You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
Q: The New Testament seems to support divorce for a narrow range of reasons, but does it support remarriage?
—K.A.Miller, Wheaton, Illinois
A: There are three New Testament passages that bear most directly on the subject of divorce and remarriage. I suggest that when they are carefully considered, they prove to be both more demanding and less restrictive on the question of divorce and remarriage than evangelicals have often acknowledged.
Luke 16:18 is a very bold, straightforward saying that seems to settle the issue quickly: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (all quotations from the NRSV). Both divorce and remarriage are just plain wrong—right?
Almost all New Testament scholars agree that this saying is an abbreviation of a saying of Jesus that appears in its fuller form in Matthew 5:3132 in the Sermon on the Mount. After discussing his views contrasted with those in Judaism, Jesus remarks, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."
It is noteworthy that Jesus clearly sees some circumstances that legitimize divorce. A marriage continues to be valid until one party dissolves the marriage through unfaithfulness. This so-called exception clause appears here in Matthew 5 and again in Matthew 19 but does not occur in either Mark or Luke.
In a similar passage in Mark 10:1112, Jesus widens the scope of the teaching to show that such dissolution may apply to the behavior of either the man or the woman (even though in Jewish custom women could not divorce their husbands, Jesus includes women equally in his charge): "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." A more literal translation of "she commits adultery" reads, "she is adulterized," meaning if a woman is divorced without just cause, she is left in a valid marriage. Remarriage for her would, therefore, be adultery. In saying this, Jesus may very well have had in mind the practice of men discharging their wives without just cause, thereby exploiting them.
But how do we apply the "exception clause" today? Does Jesus only accept divorce as legitimate—but not remarriage for the innocent partner? In the Jewish society of Jesus' day, remarriage was always assumed for the innocent party unless prohibited for some particular reason. Unfaithfulness, therefore, would make a marriage invalid since a valid divorce canceled the marriage bond and allowed the innocent party to remarry exactly like a single person.
Jesus, in his radical kingdom commands, takes divorce very seriously. There is serious judgment for sin, but, at the same time, there is and should be no condemnation for the innocent.
"Why did Moses permit divorce?"
The second crucial passage is Matthew 19:312 (see also Mark 10:212). Here some Pharisees are testing Jesus' reading of divorce law. Jesus defends the permanence of marriage by appealing to Genesis—that the "two shall become one flesh." To answer why Moses permitted divorce, Jesus replies, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."