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 ...1
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