Free to Remarry

By Craig Keener

Although the Reformers (like most evangelicals today) allowed the innocent party in a divorce to remarry, many church fathers did not. The real issue is: What did the biblical writers' words mean to their readers in their culture? That answer is found in Jesus' stark warning that divorce was not valid in God's sight, and that remarriage was therefore adultery (Mark 10:11-12).As anyone who does not try to break up remarried couples implicitly recognizes, these words employ the ancient practice of rhetorical overstatement. All ancient listeners recognized that wisdom sayings, laws, and other concise, general statements were principles that needed to be qualified, as Jesus also observed when interpreting the Old Testament (Matthew 12:2-4).That Jesus' divorce saying was meant to be qualified is clear from the fact that four of the six New Testament texts addressing the issue explicitly qualify it. Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 both allow divorce for the cause of infidelity. Other current interpretations of these passages provide novel proposals, but most interpret "infidelity" much more narrowly than ancient readers would have done. Some writers see the clause as a redundant overstatement of the obvious ("in the case of infidelity, infidelity has already been committed").But in ancient divorce law, "infidelity" was a legal charge covering any kind of sexual unfaithfulness to the marriage, and this is precisely how Matthew's readers would have understood it.The very meaning of "divorce" in ancient law was freedom to remarry. Everyone (not just Jesus) forbade "remarriage" after an invalid divorce, because one's first marriage would not have been dissolved. If, however, the first marriage was unilaterally dissolved by one partner's choice, the marriage covenant was broken (1 Corinthians 7:16).Paul cites Jesus as forbidding remarriage to the party who "leaves" (1 Corinthians 7:10-11), but then qualifies this to allow the remaining party remarriage (7:12-16). That the abandoned believer is "not under bondage" echoes the exact language of ancient divorce contracts, using the technical designation for freedom to remarry. Following his common practice of digression, Paul allows divorcées the same opportunity for marriage as virgins in 7:17-27. (NIV's "unmarried" in 7:27 is the same Greek word as "divorced" in the preceding line.)Jesus forbade divorce to protect marriage and the innocent party; for us to penalize the innocent party is for us to be as hard of heart as those our Lord opposed.

Article continues below

Why Remarriage Is Wrong

By William A. Heth

The most important reason for believing in lifelong marriage is rooted in Jesus' understanding of how God brought the first couple together (Genesis 1:27; 2:24). Jesus said, "Consequently they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:8-9, NASB). He therefore emphasizes the Genesis 2:24 teaching that marriage partners become closely related, that the marriage union is comparable to the kinship bond that exists between parents and children. Husband and wife, joined -by God (Matthew 19:6), become a single kindred, a new family unit.Sin may disrupt the marital love relationship; but sin does not nullify the marital kinship. Even though marital separation or legal divorce may be advisable under some circumstances (persistent adultery, abuse, incest), Jesus calls remarriage after any divorce adultery. Mark (10:2-12) and Luke (16:18) seem to be unaware of the permission for remarriage after divorce for sexual sins that evangelicals often find in Matthew (5:32; 19:9). Some argue that Jesus spoke in hyperbole and that Matthew makes explicit Mark and Luke's assumption that Jewish and Roman culture permitted divorce and remarriage for adultery.But this assumes that Matthew has not made it clear Jesus is teaching a different kind of "divorce." Yet Matthew notes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees' proof text for their views (Deuteronomy 24:1).Instead, Jesus appeals to Genesis 2:24 with its kinship understanding of marriage. Further, textual studies now confirm that the original text of both Matthew 19:9 and 5:32 contain Jesus' additional unqualified statement that finalizes his teaching on the subject: "And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."Paul's "let them remain unmarried or else be reconciled" (1 Corinthians 7: 1 0-1 1) says the same thing, and recent studies show that the likelihood that Paul's teaching on sexuality, marriage, and singleness in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 stems from the same tradition shown in Matthew. Where Paul specifically mentions the possibility of remarriage, in both instances he notes quite explicitly that one of the spouses has died (1 Corinthians 7:39; Romans 7:2-3).Finally, in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28, Paul is not telling divorced individuals to feel free to remarry. He is telling engaged or formerly engaged couples who have come under the ascetic teaching at Corinth to feel free to marry should they so desire (see vv. 33-38).This article originally appeared in the December 14, 1992 issue of Christianity Today.

Article continues below

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary in Philadelphia and author of … And Marries Another(Hendrickson).

William A. Heth is professor of New Testament and Greek at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and coauthor with Gordon Wenham of Jesus and Divorce (Thomas Nelson).

Related Elsewhere

See another view on this topic by Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. His response appeared in the October 4, 1999, issue of Christianity Today.Other stories from the 1992 CT Institute on divorce and remarriage include:CT Institute: Divorce and Remarriage | An introduction to our 1992 series on what divorce means for families, churches, and our country. A Marriage Counterculture | In addressing divorce, the church must adopt the strategies of the missionary. By David Seamands Sex, Marriage, and Divorce | Results from a 1992 Christianity Today reader's survey. By Haddon Robinson Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli | How Christian understanding about marriage has changed—and stayed the same—through history. By Michael Gorman Can One Become Two? | What Scripture says about Christians and divorce. By H. Wayne House How Not to Fail Hurting Couples | We need a kind of shock therapy to become alert to missed opportunities. By Thomas Needham Becoming a Healing Community | How the church can develop a climate of help to the hurting.