The Permanence of Marriage and the Sin of Remarriage in the Holy Scriptures

In this essay I shall argue from the Holy Scriptures that marriage is a lifelong covenant that is dissolved only by death and that remarriage while one’s spouse is alive is thus always a sin. Call it Providence, or call it a coincidence, but it appears that the Reverend Jared Lovell and I were both writing about this topic at the same time without either of us realizing it. This essay is shorter than Rev. Jared’s and is mostly dedicated to interpreting the two Biblical texts that proponents of remarriage often raise in defense of their position, which are Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. I believe that both essays complement each other well. However, note that Rev. Jared and I differ in our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:15, and while this essay will not delve into the pastoral implications of our position, we do differ on those as well.

Before we turn to the infallible standard of the Holy Scriptures, it is worth noting that the permanence view of marriage was the standard view of the Church of England for many centuries. The 1604 Canons forbade remarriage while one’s spouse was alive, and key Anglican theologians such as Edmund Bunnius and Bishop John Howson wrote in defense of this view. The plain reading of the wedding vows given by the BCP is also that marriage is dissolved only by death, as they end with “till death do us part.” In doing this, the Church of England was only following the example of the large majority of the Church Fathers. In any case, what matters above all else is that we adhere to the teachings of God’s inspired word, and I believe that His word does indeed tell us that marriage is permanent as long as both the man and the woman are alive.

1. The Permanence of Marriage

In the Gospels, our Lord Jesus Christ says that:

From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9).

A man and woman are thus joined together in marriage by God Himself and for them to separate would be to tear asunder that which God has made one, which cannot be done. The Apostle Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans that:

A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive” (Rom. 7:1-3).

St Paul gives no exception in his teaching here. In marriage, a man and woman are bound to each other for as long as they both live. If in fact adultery broke the marriage covenant and allowed one to remarry, then Paul’s point here would fall apart. His point is that for as long as we live, we are bound to obey the Law, and can only escape its demands through death in Christ. But if one could be set free from marriage due to the adultery of their spouse, then that would make marriage an improper parallel for Paul to use, since being unfaithful to the Law would then also allow us to be set free from it. Paul also tells us that marriage is itself a symbol of Christ’s relationship with the Church (Eph. 5:31), which is a relationship that we trust shall never be broken (Rom. 8:38-39). Christ shall never forsake His covenant with His bride (Ps. 89:34). Finally, the Lord God said through His Prophet Malachi that:

The Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Mal. 2:14-16).

Here we again see that marriage between a man and a woman is not a contract that can be broken, but is a covenant that is binding so long as both parties are alive. Moreover, this covenant is not man-made but is brought about by the Holy Spirit Himself.

While some believe that Deuteronomy 24:1-4 provides support for the practice of divorce and remarriage, it in fact does the opposite, since it says that a woman is defiled if she remarries, which suggests that she is in fact still married in God’s eyes to her first husband. It is this passage that the Pharisees refer to when they say that Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife and send her away (Mark 10:4), however, Jesus says that it was “because of your hardness of heart that he wrote you this commandment,” (Mark 10:5) but this was not God’s intention for marriage. Our Lord thus understands Deuteronomy 24:1-4 to allow for divorce as a concession, but not remarriage.

2. The Sin of Remarriage

It is on account of the indissolubility of marriage that we are repeatedly taught that even if we ‘divorce’ our spouses we cannot be joined to someone else without committing adultery, because we are in fact still bound by God’s Law to be faithful to our first (and in fact only) spouse:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife… A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:10-11, 39).

For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive (Rom. 7:1-3).

The reason why remarrying is not just sinful but is specifically adultery (μοιχάω) is because of the fact that one is bound to their spouse as long as they still live. The Lord Jesus makes this point clear when He answers the question of why Moses allowed divorce by saying:

It was because of your hardness of heart that [Moses] wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9).

When Jesus says “let not man separate,” I do not believe this suggests that man can in fact separate or sever the union in an ontological sense. The commandment can be seen as one which creates an ontological reality—similar to how when God said: “let there be light,” there was light (Gen. 1:3)—or as a command for a married couple to not separate from each other in a relational sense. Thus, God does not see divorce as having in fact dissolved the marriage He brought together Himself, which is why Jesus then says:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

It does not matter to God if you have a piece of paper that says you are divorced. It does not matter to God if a judge declares that your marriage has ended. Marriage is not a mere legal contract established by the State, but is a sacred union that is brought about by God’s own Spirit. No man can tear it apart.

3. The Meaning of Divorce

In the Gospels, the Lord Jesus Christ says that to divorce one’s wife and marry another is to commit adultery (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18). But what did our Lord mean by the word ‘divorce’? The Greek verb which we translate as divorce is ἀπολύω, which is a combination of two other words: ἀπό, which means ‘away from’, and ‘λύω,’ which means to loosen or untie. A literal translation of the verb thus means to release someone and send them away. However, it is often used to simply mean ‘send away.’ For instance, the word is used for sending away the crowds who have followed Jesus (Matt. 14:15, 22-23; 15:32, 39), and for sending away the Canaanite woman who came to Him (Matt. 15:23). Moreover, in Acts 28:25, the word is used for Paul’s listeners departing from him after being offended by his teaching. We could then translate Jesus’ words in Mark 10:11 as “whoever sends away his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her,” which does not imply that the man’s first marriage has been severed or destroyed. In fact, as I said above, since Jesus says remarriage is adultery rather than just mere sexual sin, we see that the man in question is very much still married to his wife, because adultery specifically means sinning against one’s spouse by having sex with another person. Therefore, Jesus could not have used ἀπολύω to mean that the marriage is actually severed. Our Lord’s teaching in the key passages on divorce as a whole (Matthew 19:3-12 and Mark 10:2-12) also reveal that He understands marriage to be indissoluble (see below).

In any case, if the word ἀπολύω was commonly used to mean ‘divorce’ in the sense of ending a marriage so that one can remarry, the fact that Jesus used that word does not mean He in fact agreed that such a thing was possible. For instance, I myself do not believe that a divorce actually ends a marriage, and yet I use the word divorce frequently. Moreover, we would agree that a same-sex ‘marriage’ is not actually a real marriage, and yet many of us will still say ‘gay marriage.’ Jesus’ teaching is against the common practice of divorce and remarriage, and so it is to be expected that He would use the words that commonly refer to that practice. Therefore, I believe that Jesus does not use ἀπολύω to mean that a marriage can be severed, and instead uses it to refer to both the common belief that one could sever a marriage, and to the actual practice of sending away one’s spouse, and I believe He condemns both of those things.

4. Matthew 5:32 and 19:3-9

Some commentators have argued, however, that in Matthew’s Gospel the Lord Jesus gives an exception to the rule that one cannot remarry while their spouse lives, by saying that one may in fact remarry if they divorced their spouse due to their spouse’s adultery. However, a close examination of these texts, with the right hermeneutical principle, reveals this not to be the case. These are the passages in question:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality (πορνεία), makes her commit adultery μοιχάω), and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (μοιχάω)” (Matt. 5:32).

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart 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 sexual immorality (πορνεία), and marries another, commits adultery (μοιχάω)” (Matt. 19:3-9).

I will now explain the two possible readings of these passages that fit with the permanence view of marriage before looking at how either reading is preferable to that which allows for remarriage.

a.

Note first that Matthew 5:32 is unlike any of the other New Testament teachings on divorce and remarriage. Rather than saying “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18), Jesus says that whoever “divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality (πορνεία), makes her commit adultery μοιχάω).” Jesus does not mention the man remarrying, and instead says that he makes his wife commit adultery. The implication is that since a woman in that time and place would essentially be economically forced to remarry, by divorcing her the man himself becomes culpable for her adultery in remarrying. Why else would Jesus say: “except on the ground of sexual immortality”? That exception cannot be stated to excuse the wife’s remarriage, because if the husband divorced her for being sexually immoral then her remarriage cannot be any less adulterous. Instead, the exception is given to excuse the husband from being himself culpable for her adulterous remarriage. The reason why divorcing her for sexual immortality would excuse him is because she already made herself an adulteress before he divorced her. It is essential to bear this in mind when interpreting Matthew 19:9:

Whoever divorces his wife except for sexual immorality (πορνεία), and marries another, commits adultery.

Based on what Jesus has already said in Matt. 5:32, it is then possible to interpret this verse to mean that whoever divorces his wife commits adultery unless he divorced her for her sexual immorality, however, if he remarries he commits adultery himself. The “except for” clause thus only modifies the divorce, not the remarriage: whoever divorces his wife (except it be for sexual immortality) and whoever remarries, commits adultery. Some may object that this is a grammatically awkward reading of the verse. However, there are many examples where an exception clause can be made between two statements and only modify the first one. Here are some examples:

– If a man hires a hitman, except it be for yard work around his house, and plots to assassinate someone, he commits criminal conspiracy.[1]

– If a married man visits a prostitute, unless it’s for a reason unrelated to her profession, and sleeps with her, he commits adultery.

– If a man breaks into someone else’s home, unless it’s to save them from a fire or a flood, and steals their belongings, he is a burglar.

Moreover, because early second century Greek texts such as the Shepherd of Hermas interpret Matthew 19:9 to indeed mean that one can divorce for sexual immorality but not remarry, it is reasonable to believe that this was not seen as a grammatically awkward reading for Jesus’ near-contemporaries.[2]

Finally, this interpretation also makes sense given that in Matthew 19, Jesus is answering the question: “is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). The Pharisees are not asking whether one can remarry, but if one can divorce for any reason. Jesus gives them an acceptable reason for divorce—her adultery—but that does not mean one can afterwards remarry. The reason why it is okay to divorce for adultery is not because adultery destroys the marriage covenant—which would actually go against Jesus’ argument in this passage—but because if the wife committed adultery already, then the husband is innocent of making her an adulteress.

b.

It is also possible, however, to interpret Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to simply mean that one can divorce and remarry if their spouse was unfaithful while they were betrothed or is in fact related to them biologically without them realizing it, since the marriage itself would thus be invalid, being made under false pretenses. As above, this argument partially hinges on the fact that Jesus says remarriage is specifically adulterous, which suggests that even after a divorce one is still in fact spiritually united to their spouse since it was God Who covenantally bound them together. However, whereas Jesus says that remarriage is adultery (μοιχάω), he says that one can divorce their spouse for sexual immortality (πορνεία), which some have taken to refer specifically to sexual sins that are not adultery, such as incest or fornication during the betrothal period.

Moreover, in Matthew’s Gospel, it is specifically pointed out that St Joseph, being a “just man” was going to “divorce” (ἀπολύω) St Mary upon discovering that she was pregnant during their betrothal (Matt. 1:19), with ἀπολύω being the same word used in Matthew 19:9. Thus, we see that it is justified to divorce on account of infidelity during the betrothal period. The reason why infidelity during the betrothal period is not adultery is because the person is not yet married. They are thus fornicators, not adulterers, and if their betrothed did not know about this, then the marriage was made falsely. This is also what the Law of Moses explicitly says, for if it turns out that one’s wife was in fact not a virgin before the marriage, then the marriage was made under a false pretense and is therefore voided (Deut. 22:13-24). Under this interpretation, the verse then reads as: whoever divorces his wife (unless it was because, like St Joseph, he discovered that she was unfaithful beforehand) and marries another, commits adultery.

c.

We will now look at how either of these interpretations make more sense of Matthew 19:9 than the view that Jesus permits divorce, due to the flow of Jesus’ argument throughout the passage. Let us go through the passage point by point:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (v.3)

As many commentators have pointed out, this question was a controversial one during Jesus’ life, with some holding to Rabbi Hillel’s view that one could divorce his wife for any cause, and others holding Rabbi Shammai’s belief that one could only divorce for a serious cause like adultery. Not only this passage, but especially the corresponding passages in the other Gospels, clearly read as Jesus saying that neither Hillel nor Shammai is correct. If Jesus actually agreed with Shammai that one could divorce and remarry if their spouse committed adultery, then He chose a very peculiar way of saying it. Since Mark 10 makes no exception at all, the only reading of that text is that Jesus was indeed saying that both rabbis are wrong for there are in fact no grounds for divorce and remarriage, because God made man and woman to be one flesh. If Jesus in fact intended us to agree with Shammai, then for Mark to leave out the exception clause would be to distort, or at least obfuscate, Jesus’ teaching. The only way to avoid a contradiction between Matthew and Mark is to either argue that Mark intended us to understand that one can divorce and remarry on account of adultery, which is an utterly impossible reading of Mark 10, or to interpret Matthew to mean that one cannot in fact divorce and remarry for any cause, save the marriage being voided due to false pretenses or one being able to divorce but not remarry.

Remember that Mark and Luke were read by different audiences than Matthew, so it would be strange for them to have Jesus’ teachings without the exception clause if that exception was intended to mean that one can remarry, as this drastically changes what marriage is. If one can remarry, then marriage is dissoluble; if one cannot, then it is indissoluble. These are irreconcilably different understandings, and so it would be very strange for Mark and Luke to leave out Matthew’s exception if it was really that consequential. Returning to the passage, we come now to Jesus’ initial answer to the Pharisees’ question:

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (vv.4-6).

Our Lord’s point is that since God united man and woman in marriage, they cannot in fact sever that union. If the Pharisees had not asked a follow-up question at this point, then Jesus’ answer would be clear: there are no valid reasons for divorce, since man cannot separate what God has joined together.

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so (vv.7-8).

Once again, the plain sense of Jesus’ words here is that there are no good reasons to divorce. It is a common theme in Jesus’ teachings that due to the regeneration of the Holy Spirit that takes place under the New Covenant, the ethical standards the Church must hold her members to are in fact stricter than those laid down in the Law of Moses. Now, even anger is forbidden as murder (Matt. 5:22), and lust forbidden as adultery (Matt. 5:28). Moses said to not break your oath, but Jesus says to not make an oath at all (Matt. 5:34). Moses said “eye for an eye,” but Jesus says “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). Moses said “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but Jesus says “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Nestled within these teachings, Jesus says that while Moses said one can divorce their wife, to do so makes her an adulteress (Matt. 5:32). The meaning is clear: divorce, like polygamy, will no longer be tolerated by God. We now turn to verse 9:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

If Jesus is now saying that in fact one can divorce and remarry, then it quite drastically changes what He has already said and raises several questions that never get answered. Can the union between a man and woman therefore be separated after all? And why does sexual immortality dissolve it? Where is the line? What sexual actions specifically would be an adequate cause, and which would not? Can one only remarry if they were the innocent party? If not, what are the consequences for adultery? If so, then why is the guilty party still held accountable to a marriage that has been dissolved? Etc.

Furthermore, logic and experience show us that allowing remarriage after adultery inevitably leads to allowing remarriage for any and every reason. Suppose a couple divorce for an invalid reason, presumably one of them would then remarry, but since this remarriage would be adultery, the marriage is then dissolved and the other party is free to remarry. What is to stop someone divorcing their spouse in that case? All they need to do is wait for their divorced spouse to remarry and they are then free to remarry themselves. This goes completely against the obvious point that Jesus is making: marriage is permanent and cannot be separated. We move on:

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it (vv.10-12).

Undoubtably, Jesus is here using the word “eunuch” to mean one who is celibate. His point is that since marriage is a very demanding commitment, there are those who should make themselves celibate for the sake of avoiding becoming an adulterer. However, Jesus also says there are those who have been made eunuchs/celibate by others, which I take to mean that if one’s spouse leaves them, they must make themselves celibate from thenceforth. This also reinforces the view that Jesus is not giving any permission to remarry after divorcing a validly married spouse.

The final brief point to make regarding Matthew 19:9 is that the proper method of interpreting the Scriptures (as the Anglican Homilies themselves say, as well as St Augustine and Reformers like John Calvin) is for the clearer texts to interpret the unclear texts, rather than vice versa. Mark 10, Luke 16, Romans 7, and 1 Corinthians 7 are all clear texts, which unequivocally teach that one cannot divorce and remarry, with no exceptions. The logic of Mark 10 and Romans 7 in particular hinge on the fact that marriage is a permanently binding covenant, dissolved only by death. Since Matthew 19:9 can be interpreted in three ways (one can divorce for adultery but cannot remarry; one can divorce and remarry if the marriage was invalid; one can divorce and remarry if their spouse was sexually immoral) it should at least be deemed an unclear text and thus cannot be used to change the meaning of the clearer texts by adding exceptions to their teachings.

5. 1 Corinthians 7:15

Some also appeal to 1 Corinthians 7:15 to argue that one can remarry if an unbelieving spouse divorces them, but this is a significantly weaker appeal than even Matthew 19:9. In 1 Corinthians 7, St Paul already said that:

The wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife (vv. 10-11).

Paul does not say whether the spouse in question is a believer or unbeliever, but simply makes the unequivocal statement that one cannot remarry after being separated from their spouse. Note also that Paul does not suggest that their marriage has actually ended. Importantly, Paul says that this teaching is from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, but does not provide any exception to the rule, as we would have expected him to if he knew that Jesus allowed for remarriage after adultery. Later in the same passage, Paul says again that:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (v. 39).

Thus, Paul repeats the commandment to not remarry while one’s spouse is alive, because in marriage the two are bound together. However, between these two verses, St Paul says:

12 If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Some believe that in v.15 Paul permits remarriage if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer, or at. However, I do not find this interpretation convincing, and we shall now examine the reasons why.

First, the wider context of this passage shows that Paul is developing a consistent argument against divorce and remarriage. He already said in vv. 10-11 that one should not divorce and remarry, he now says that even if one’s spouse is an unbeliever, they should still not divorce them, and then in v.39 he will once again say that one cannot divorce and remarry. In the midst of this, it would be bizarre for Paul to then claim that in fact one can divorce and remarry and for him to make such an important exception but word it in such a vague way. Moreover, it would also be strange for Paul to provide the exception to what he lays down in v.39 (one is bound to their spouse as long as they both live) before he gives it.

In v.15, when St Paul says one is not “enslaved” to their spouse if they leave, he uses the word δουλόω, which indeed means ‘to enslave,’ but when he later on in v.39 says that “a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives,” and thus cannot remarry, he uses the word δέω, which means ‘to bind.’ If Paul in fact intended v.15 to be an exception to the rule he gives later in v.39, then why did he use two different words? It seems that by being “bound” to their spouse, Paul is referring to the mystical union a husband and wife share, where they are made one flesh, and which cannot be violated by adultery. However, by “enslave,” Paul refers to the duties a husband and wife have to each other in the marriage, such as having authority over each other’s bodies (v.4). Thus, if one’s spouse leaves them, they are freed from having to follow them, submit to them (if they are a woman), provide for them (if they are a man), or sexually satisfy them (vv. 2-5), however, they are nevertheless mystically bound to them and so cannot remarry until they die. Not only is this the preferred reading linguistically, but it also the obvious and most coherent reading of Paul, as it means that he does not contradict himself in vv. 15 and 39. The fact of the matter is that Paul simply does not say that one can remarry if their spouse leaves. The only time in his entire corpus that Paul refers to remarriage is when he explicitly forbids it, and two examples of that appear in this very chapter. It is hermeneutically wrong to take a verse where Paul does not even mention remarriage and use it to contradict two places in the same chapter where Paul does mention it.

In the same verse, after saying that one is not enslaved to their spouse if they leave, Paul then says “God has called you to peace.” If by not being enslaved, Paul meant that the marriage was severed and one was free to remarry, then this would be a strange thing for him to say. The Holy Spirit Who inspired Paul’s words had already said that “the man who does not love his wife but divorces her… covers his garment with violence (Mal. 2:16), and it is indeed hard to see how severing a marital union could have any connection to “peace.” Instead, it makes more sense for Paul to be saying that one is not obligated to fight to keep their spouse with them, but nevertheless, must now remain celibate since they are still bound to their spouse.

Crucially, in the very next verse after St Paul says that one is “not enslaved” if their spouse leaves them, he says: “for how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?” This strongly implies that the couple in question who have separated are still married, since their spouse who has left is still called their husband/wife, which is indeed what I have already argued is the teaching of Christ. However, if Paul is teaching that one’s marriage is severed by their spouse simply leaving them, and they are now free to remarry, it is exceedingly difficult to see how he is not contradicting the Lord Jesus Christ even if we interpret Matthew 19:9 to mean that adultery severs a marriage. To prove this point, I shall assume that our Lord did in fact mean that one can remarry after their spouse commits adultery, even though I do not think He did mean that. Presumably, adultery would sever the marriage because if sexual union consummates the reality that a man and woman become one flesh, and then one of them becomes one flesh with another, then their marital bond is broken, as only one man and one woman can be one flesh. However, if by simply having a spouse leave, the union is now also broken, then the union now appears to be very fragile indeed. In what sense is marriage a mystical union brought about by God if all it takes for it to end is someone leaving the other person? And why would Jesus specify sexual immorality as the sole exception to His rule, if in fact simply being left by one’s spouse is also a sufficient exception.

The contradiction is made even clearer when we consider the fact that Jesus explicitly says that being abandoned by a spouse does not give one the freedom to remarry. In Matthew 5:32, Jesus says that “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Now, what is divorce but separation? When Paul says, “if an unbelieving spouse separates,” that must be the same thing as when Jesus speaks of divorcing and leaving one’s wife. However, Jesus outright says that if a man divorces and separates from his wife, he makes her commit adultery if she remarries, and if anyone marries her, they also commit adultery. In other words, simply divorcing and separating from one’s spouse absolutely does not sever the marriage or make one free to remarry. The only way to avoid a contradiction is therefore to say that Paul’s exception is only true if the spouse who leaves is an unbeliever.

The problem with thinking that an exception can be made if one’s spouse is an unbeliever is that it would seem to go against the point that Paul has just made, which is that “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (v.14). This verse strongly suggests that even if one’s spouse is an unbeliever, the ontological status of their marriage and subsequently the covenantal status of their children is the same as if both spouses were believers. With this being the case, why would a spouse being an unbeliever now make marriage dissoluble, or at least more easily dissolvable (i.e. not dissolved only by adultery)? Moreover, in Jesus Christ’s own teachings on divorce and remarriage, He is addressing a Jewish audience that is not made up of Christians, it would thus seem that His principles still apply to unbelievers as well as believers.

Finally, why then does Paul specify that one is not enslaved if the spouse who leaves them is an unbeliever? I think it is simply because Christians are called to seek reconciliation and forgiveness with one another far more than they are called to do so with unbelievers. While one is still married and bound to their unbelieving spouse, they are not obligated to seek amends if they leave and salvage the relationship.

6. Conclusion

Having now established that Matthew 5 and 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 do not give exceptions to the rule given in Mark 10, Luke 16, and Romans 7, we can once again affirm that marriage is a mystical union brought about by God which joins together a man and a woman, and which is dissolved only by death. If someone leaves their spouse and marries another, they commit adultery, because they are in fact still bound to their first spouse.

Notes

  1. I am indebted to Rev. Jack Shannon for this example, as well as many of the arguments found in this essay.
  2. The Shepherd of Hermas 2.4.1.

 


The Rev. River Devereux

The Rev. River Devereux is a Deacon in the Church of Confessing Anglicans of Aotearoa New Zealand and Curate at St Timothy’s Anglican Church in Auckland. When River’s wife Georgia and son Basil aren’t keeping him too busy, he also talks about Anglicanism on his YouTube channel, New Kingdom Media.


'The Permanence of Marriage and the Sin of Remarriage in the Holy Scriptures' have 7 comments

  1. June 8, 2024 @ 4:05 pm Mack

    The Roman church\’s fanaticism on this topic ought not to be embraced by those calling themselves Anglicans.

    Christ taught that looking on a woman with lust constituted adultery and that a good cure might be cutting out an eyeball (Mt 5:28-29). Of course, nobody takes this literally. Yet they go forward a few lines to verse 32 and suddenly they do take it literally as a new law of Christianity. Yet, continue reading a few more lines and everything is back to a spiritual sense, nobody believing that one must literally give away all one\’s property to any person who asks for it.

    The fundamental misunderstanding of Christ\’s teaching is to think he\’s setting forth any legal rules at all. He\’s not speaking of the civil law that constitutes outward righteousness, but of the inward law of the heart where one\’s righteousness toward God is measured. Outward civil righteousness is attainable by any do-gooder that obeys the procedures required by the Mosaic commandments – and those that Jews that did so felt entitled to view themselves \”righteous\” – failing to understand that they had met a very low bar. They were indeed righteous outwardly, but not inwardly, not before God who sees the true condition of man\’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. So Chris is neither annulling the OT law nor inventing a new law. He\’s instead setting forth tests of inward perfectness, of a purity that is actually so high and noble as to be unattainable. (\”…there is none good but one, that is, God…\” Matthew 19:17). When Christ sets forth this standard of divine righteousness the proper response is to acknowledge that we are sinners and look with faith to Christ to obtain mercy. That the Jews refused to do: \” For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.\” Romans 10:3-4.

    The civil law must freely allow divorce as was permitted by Moses, lest we be under greater bondage than them. But as a rule of Christian conduct, we loath divorce because, despite its legality, it causes a sort of adultery of the heart, and that is displeasing to God as much as looking with lust is also displeasing. But we ought not to think maiming our eyeballs or outlawing divorce will cure either one. Whenever the ex-spouse is seen, old feelings arise of jealousy and strong emotion that cannot be avoided: and that\’s the \”adultery\” that is causes regardless of the legality of the divorce.

    Paul is drawing from three sources to summarize the rules Christians ought to follow: Moses civil law, Christ\’s spiritual admonitions, and Roman customary law. He harmonizes them carefully to avoid extremes of legalism or license, while maximizing both freedom and piety. And St Paul specifically permits re-marriage for the divorced man, \” …Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned…\” 1 Corinthians 7:27-28. He does not explicitly allow the ex-wife the same liberty on account of the differences between men (who sometimes were allowed polygamy) and women (who never were).

    Also, it should be mentioned that expositions that rely upon re-interpreting the underlying Greek are improper because we are all prohibited from privately interpreting scripture, which is rewriting verses to suit our own fancy (\”roll your own\” version): the work of translation is a unique supernatural spiritual gift reserved for those translators whom God has specially ordained for that work for the edification of the body of Christ:

    \” Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?\” 1 Corinthians 12:30; \”…no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.\” 2 Peter 1:20-21; \” But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church….\” 1 Corinthians 14:28; \” What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?\” 1 Corinthians 14:36; \” Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me…\” 2 Timothy 1:13; \” Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.\” 1 Corinthians 2:13

    King James\’ translators were not a collection of learned laymen and bible salesmen, but rather bishops, archbishops, and ordained scholars who gave us the words of God in English.

    Reply

  2. June 9, 2024 @ 8:13 am JT

    Missing from both this and Lovell’s analysis is any treatment of the death penalty for adultery. Which, it turns out, frees the innocent spouse to remarry because the adulterer is dead, even by the strict standards of these essays.

    We’re doing our exegesis in an age of tyranny where the magistrate refuses to obey God. Thus, we tie ourselves into knots like this.

    Reply

    • June 10, 2024 @ 3:09 pm Jesse

      I was thinking as I read this article how the death penalty for adultery makes so much sense, in part because it frees the innocent. And just as we have denied this justice to the aggrieved, we also live in an age of no fault divorce, where one need not have even the mildest reason to divorce. The state has made it exceedingly easy for adulterers to get away with it, and this necessarily puts the victims of divorce and adultery under even greater injustice. This does not overthrow the exegesis of the article, but it makes marriage much more fraught for people and churches.

      Reply

  3. June 9, 2024 @ 6:56 pm Bob

    The Anglican Church is refuge for divorced Roman Catholics who remarry. No where in the canons does it say divorced people who remarry are to be denied Holy Communion.

    Reply

  4. June 12, 2024 @ 12:03 pm Bruce

    Thank you Rev. Devereux, this is a great analysis of the passages that address remarriage after divorce. I have noticed a hesitation of pastors who discuss what the Bible has to say on the topic to tackle the thorny pastoral implications. I hope you will follow up on this essay with one that does address the implications. What should church pastors in 2024 do when parishioners approach them with failed marriages? What should they do about parishioners who have already remarried while their former spouses are still alive? Are there ever situations where the church can or should declare a marriage annulled as the Roman Church does? Should sinfully remarried persons be denied communion? How does one manage enforcement of these Biblical teachings when there is so much disagreement among clergy on the topic? As a layman I am myself at a loss as to what to say or do when I encounter situations with Christian friends whose marriages have failed and who plan to remarry. If I were to advise them not to do it I would be going out on a limb since there are very few Protestant Churches that would back up that position, and they could easily find clergy to make a Biblical case for remarriage for them that would give them the reassurance that they need to go through with it, regardless of whether that case is the best Biblical case. The church is also full of seemingly sincere Christians who pray and read their Bibles regularly and seem to display fruits of the Spirit who have gotten divorced and remarried and believe that they have done nothing wrong because they were told that they are an innocent party. A discussion of how this interpretation of scripture would apply to these types of circumstances in the church would be helpful.

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  5. June 13, 2024 @ 8:25 pm Ralph W. Davis

    The Puritans were right on this:
    5. Adultery or fornication, committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.
    6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments, unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage; yet nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage; wherein a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it, not left to their own wills and discretion in their own case.
    Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 24: 5, 6. From 1648.

    Reply

  6. June 14, 2024 @ 9:45 pm Ralph W. Davis

    I surely hope too, that an abused spouse…has the moral right to be separated from their abuser. I’m not at all sure this interpretation makes room for that.

    Reply


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