Allowing for remarriage in exceptional cases where reconciliation is impossible and where the marriage union truly cannot be remedied by either the church or the civil magistrate—either because the former spouse has already died, already remarried, or perpetually refuses reconciliation even where clear evidence of genuine repentance is present—does not in itself necessarily imply that any divorce apart from exceptional cases such as adultery or desertion are legitimate divorces. And it most certainly does not imply that divorce, which is a form of covenant breaking, is permissible when, say, the husband and wife do not get along. The principle is only relevant to cases where the divorce has already taken place.
Throughout history, the Christian Church has rightly recognized marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman in accordance with Scripture (Romans 7:2). Jesus Himself accordingly teaches that when a man and a woman are joined together in holy matrimony, the two become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Mark 10:9).
Christ is also very clear on the fact that because the marriage union has been instituted and ordained by God, there is no human authority by which a marriage can be dissolved: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:9). Because marriage is a “holy institution” for the purpose of covenantally advancing Christ’s Kingdom through “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:11, 15), divorce is an abomination committed against God—a wicked attempt to overthrow His authority and destroy his Kingdom (Malachi 2:16).
Are you irritated by your spouse? Do you long to be with someone else? Are you longing for the privileges of being single again? God expects you not only to maintain and work on your marriage, but also to produce godly offspring. Under no circumstances may you abandon your spouse for your own sake.
Exceptions for Divorce?
However, it is universally recognized that Scripture does allow for divorce in those exceptional circumstances where sin has caused irreparable damage to the marriage union. Deuteronomy 24:1-3 officially recognizes a certificate of divorce as a legal document disbanding a marriage. Our infallible interpreter, Jesus Christ, however, tells us that this certificate of divorce is only recognized “because of the hardness of your heart” (Mark 10:5), thereby amplifying the divine intention behind marriage as being a lifelong commitment from both parties (Mark 10:6-9).
What is significant about Christ’s explanation of this law is the fact that it shows how even the Mosaic law made certain accommodations for the sake of our weaknesses and our sinfulness, evidently implying that the law of God is not merely some abstract standard of justice, but a very real and practical standard for our moral conduct as Christians. Furthermore, Christ Himself simultaneously confirms both the divine intention behind the institution of marriage as well as the law’s recognition of the permissibility of divorce in exceptional circumstances. Thus, while divorce in principle is forbidden by God, Jesus Himself recognizes sexual immorality as an exceptional circumstance in which divorce would be permissible (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
Restrictive Views on Remarriage After Divorce
Most Christian denominations and theologians recognize the reality that exceptional circumstances do exist in which divorce is permissible. However, a number of denominations completely oppose remarriage after divorce on the grounds of Jesus’ claims recorded in the three synoptic Gospels. In Matthew 19:9 (NKJV), we read the following words of Christ:
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.
In Mark 10:11-12 Jesus says:
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
In Luke 16:18, the words of Jesus is recorded as follows:
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Thus, while recognizing exceptional circumstances for divorce, the Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not recognize remarriage as permissible. The canon law of the Church of England also historically allowed only for separation of husband and wife in the case of adultery, but never for remarriage. There are even some Reformed denominations that share this view, such as the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, while most Presbyterian denominations, in an attempt to follow the Westminster Confession of Faith article 24.5 adhere to the principle that only the innocent party, in the case of adultery, may remarry. The New Testament scholar from Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, Maryland, Thomas R. Edgar, has also referred to this latter position as “the standard Protestant view.” Some scholars have suggested that remarriage may also be permissible for the guilty party once they repent and ask forgiveness, as they then are then transformed by God’s grace into an innocent (or guilt-free) party. However, in such cases there would be no need for remarriage, as repentance from the guilty party and forgiveness from the offended party should of course lead to reconciliation.
Seeing Jesus’ Words More Narrowly
However, it must be taken into consideration that neither the Westminster Confession nor Scripture claims adultery to be the sole legitimate grounds for divorce (see WCF 24.6 and 1 Corinthians 7:15). The reality is also that there are many divorcees who may have been guilty in causing their divorce, but did not commit adultery in the process leading up to the divorce, such as when the divorce was caused by abandonment. There may also be cases in which both parties are equally guilty in terms of causing the divorce, whether or not adultery had occurred. Would there be any circumstances in which remarriage would be biblically permissible in such cases? Another question the Westminster Confession leaves unanswered is whether an adulterer who has repented and come to faith may then marry again.
In addressing these questions, there are a number of Scriptural considerations to be taken into account:
Firstly, it is important to recognize that biblical law itself recognizes the possibility of a legitimate remarriage on the part of even the guilty party and even in cases of sexual immorality (Deuteronomy 24:1-2). If Christ’s commands in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 are taken as injunctions against all remarriage on the part of the guilty party, it would seem to be at odds with His own recognition of the law’s recognition of such marriages in Mark 10:5.
Secondly, biblical law itself, while requiring the death penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 11:20-25), legally distinguishes remarriage after divorce from adultery prior to divorce (Deuteronomy 24:2-4).
Third, the Scottish Presbyterian theologian and professor of Westminster Theological Seminary, John Murray (1898–1975) has convincingly shown how the Greek verb used in Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18, μοιχεύει (moicheuei), modifies both preceding actions together, “divorcing” as well as “remarrying,” as opposed to these actions taken individually.