divorceWhy Remarriage After Divorce is Never Okay

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce…”
(Malachi 2:16)

As someone whose parents divorced when I was 14, I am all too familiar with the devastating effects of divorce. Not having a father to learn from as a teenager left me to figure many things out on my own. When my car needed fixing, I learned what I needed to know from YouTube. But not even YouTube could fill the void of not having a dad to play catch with or have as my best man on my wedding day.

I don’t say this to earn your pity, but to avoid the misconception that my views on divorce have been unrealistically skewed by a perfect family life. For those facing or fearing divorce, I may not have walked a mile in your shoes, but I’ve walked many miles down my own rocky path.

It’s the Bible that must guide our theology on divorce.

But all of that is somewhat irrelevant. After all, it’s the Bible — not circumstances or personal experience —  that must guide our theology on divorce.

Divorce has never been part of God’s plan for humanity. The priests to whom God was speaking in Malachi 2:16 (above) pretended to be concerned about their relationship with God, even covering the altar with tears (vs. 13). But this didn’t make up for the fact that they neglected the most sacred of earthly unions: marriage.

“But what about that verse that says it’s okay to remarry after adultery?”

Unfortunately, Christ’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 5:32 is frequently misunderstood. Let’s take a look at exactly what Scripture says here:

“Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

While Jesus says divorce is permissible in cases of sexual immorality, this doesn’t actually refer to adultery (i.e. cheating on one’s spouse). In Greek, the word porneia refers to sexual immorality in a broad sense. On the other hand, the word moichaō refers exclusively to marital unfaithfulness.

For those of you who just skimmed over the boring Greek words, here’s a quick summary:

Porneia = sexual immorality in general
Moichaō = cheating on one’s spouse

With this in mind, let’s take another look at these verses and notice Jesus’ exact choice of words:

“Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except porneia causes her to commit moichaō; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits moichaō.”

 God still viewed this divorced couple as husband and wife.

Jesus isn’t saying divorce and remarriage is okay as long as adultery occurred. If so, He would have used the word moichaō as He did in the last half of this verse. In fact, every time Jesus uses the word porneia in Matthew, He lists adultery (moichaō) separately.

Why is this significant? Because it’s clear that two different things are in view. In his article Eleven Reasons Why I Believe All Remarriage After Divorce Is Prohibited While Both Spouses Are Alive, John Piper offers this helpful insight: “The only other place besides Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 where Matthew uses the word porneia is in 15:19 where it is used alongside of moicheia. Therefore, the primary contextual evidence for Matthew’s usage is that he conceives of porneia as something different than adultery.” Obviously, the sexual immorality in view here must be of a different variety.

Interestingly, the latter half of Matthew 5:32 says that “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Because adultery can only occur within the context of marriage, it must be that the first marriage is still considered valid by Christ. You can’t commit adultery when you’re unmarried, meaning Jesus still viewed this divorced couple as husband and wife.

“So when is divorce and remarriage okay?”

If the exception clause of Matthew 5:32 doesn’t justify remarriage after adultery, then what does it actually mean? We needn’t look further than the story of Mary and Joseph to find out.

As you will remember, Joseph suspected Mary of sexual immorality during their betrothal and at first “was minded to put her away secretly” (Matt. 1:19). Unlike modern-day engagements, a betrothal in ancient times was legally binding. Joseph couldn’t simply “break up” with Mary; a formalized divorce would be necessary and, according to Christ, justified — if in fact sexual immorality had occurred prior to their coming together. Because a divorce in this situation would be permissible, the very same verse that describes Joseph’s intent to divorce Mary also calls him “a just man” (Matt. 1:19).

Conclusion

While the provision of Matthew 5:32 held special significance for Christ’s original audience, we live in a culture of very different marriage customs. Today, people end engagements for reasons much smaller than porneia, and formal divorce proceedings are unnecessary in such cases.

Marriage vows are sacred and their weight is undiminishable. The clear message of the New Testament is that a divorced person must not remarry while their first spouse is still living, and Matthew 5:32 actually reaffirms — not contradicts — this teaching (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10-11, Romans 7:2-3). A mere piece of paper or human judicial decree cannot possibly nullify a union God Himself has established.

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8 thoughts

  1. An excellent book on this topic is Divorce and Remarriage by Guy Duty – the appendix was what finally clarified the whole topic for me – and set me FREE!!! It gets into Jewish contracts and law to a degree and makes so much clear.

  2. Jesus was addressing a man choosing to divorce his wife and justify himself based on the law. Jesus retort to him is that, rather than being justified before God, when the inevitable remarriages take place he will be guilty not just of his own adultery, but of the adultery of the woman and her new husband. Guilty 3x over.

    Of course, by the classic “no remarriage” interpretation the divorcing husband is not guilty as long as no one remarries. That is plainly not what Jesus means. The divorcer is guilty at the time of the divorce.

    It seems utterly inconsistent with Jesus teaching on love overcoming law and with the desperate situation of a woman who is kicked out on the street by her husband that she should feel guilt in trying to be anything other than a landless, homeless beggar for the rest of her life. By this standard she would stand accused of violating a “fence” law harsher than the one imposed even by the Pharisees.

    1. These are some interesting thoughts, Andy. I like your observation that the divorcing husband will be guilty “not just of his own adultery, but of the adultery of the woman and her new husband.” Throughout Scripture, the husband — as the head of the home — seems to bear a measure of responsibility for the actions of his collective household.

      It doesn’t appear to me that remarriage after divorce is inevitable. New Testament women like Mary and Martha are examples of unmarried women who didn’t endure a homeless, beggarly existence. I wonder if we sometimes overestimate the extent to which a husband was necessary to a woman’s survival in Bible times. I’m reminded also of Paul’s advice to unmarried believers in 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. I doubt Paul would encourage young women to stay single if that meant living as a vagabond.

      To your last point, I would just add that Christ didn’t overcome the Law by nullifying it, but by paying the penalty it required (Matt. 5:17; Gal. 3:13).

  3. “…whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Jesus uses the word “adultery” to describe the situation after this divorce-and-remarriage case. That’s one of the most compelling points I see that this is wrong. The term “adultery” implies at least one person involved is married. So, it seems God still sees the first marriage as THE marriage, not the secondary one made by man.

    1. Good points! Whenever Jesus says that a person who does [fill in the blank] is committing adultery, we should pay special attention in view of Paul’s strong words on the subject: “do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Daniel. The book you recommended looks interesting also. I thought this was a noteworthy observation in one of the reviews:

      “Sadly, many of us will allow common understandings, though not really found in Scripture, to dictate how we interpret key verses in this discussion.”

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