Marrying After Divorce
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 19:9 (Holman) “And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for
sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This famous “exception clause” is difficult to know how to apply. We start by making sure we know the issue here is not divorce, but remarriage after divorce.
The Biblical ideal is for the divorced to remain single and celibate. The second best option, remarriage, is better than the third option, promiscuity. One reason for marriage is to reduce the number of sex sins (I Corinthians 7:2).
Our text has been so battered by the arguing of Christ-followers that it is easy to miss the chief message Jesus presented here. Its main emphasis is grace.
Under Old Testament law, sexual immorality was punishable by death. Jesus commuted this death sentence to divorce. The guilty, though spared from capital punishment, had committed an act equal, under the Old Law, to having died.
Had the guilty one died, the innocent could have married without guilt. Since God’s grace to the guilty should not penalize the innocent, the text extended grace to the innocent, sexually pure, spouse, who can remarry without guilt.
Based on this principle of fairness, the early Church looked with favor on a divorcee entering with humble repentance into a marriage. Not till the Middle Ages did the Church adopt an ironclad law absolutely forbidding, on threat of Hell itself, remarriage after divorce. As the Reformers broke away, they generally rejected this rigid position. They deemed the law too harsh, not reflecting God’s loving grace.
Protestants have from the first generally tended to okay divorcees remarrying. This is not universally true. A few hardliners still embrace the ironclad prohibition. Though the strict beliefs of groups like this, and the firm position of Roman Catholicism, are too severe for most of us Protestants, we are left in a quandary of our making. The lack of a uniform policy among us, especially Baptists, has drawbacks. Trust me. I have learned this by painful experience.
Individual Pastors are essentially left alone on this volatile issue, forced to struggle on their own with how best to handle it. Without a clear-cut Church law to fall back on, every Pastor sinks or swims alone. This can cause huge anxiety.
Trying to mix reverence for God’s law with compassion for individuals can be absolute agony. As a matter of integrity, conscientious Pastors do not want to condone the guilty. Desperately wanting to bless and help the innocent (and the guilty), they ever juggle lifting the standard high while dropping the safety net low.
Pastors, caught in a predicament, essentially have three choices. One, they can adopt the rigid, hardline position and refuse to remarry divorcees. This position is consistent, and does keep a Pastor from having to try to determine guilt or innocence in those wanting to re-marry, but it is harsh and offends many.
Two, Pastors can opt to remarry only those they determine to be innocent victims of divorce. Playing this blame game is dangerous and essentially hopeless.
Only the husband, the wife, and God know all the details about any break-up in a marriage. No outsider can ultimately judge guilt or innocence in a divorce.
It is risky to try to place blame. However obvious a divorce’s cause might appear to be from the outside, only the spouses know all that went on behind closed doors. They alone can determine the level of their own guilt or innocence.
Hear the stories of three preachers I know. In all three cases, the sex sins and divorce appeared to be 100% their fault. They did sin; no doubt about it. I am not justifying, making light of, or condoning their sin, but their level of guilt may not have been bad enough to warrant all the condemnation they received.
One wife’s family convinced her that sex was dirty, and should be done only when trying to conceive. The second’s wife let him be intimate with her twice in the years they were married; he told me the birth of their child was a timing miracle. The third wife had to forego intimacy for years due to cervical cancer.
Three preachers. Guilty. “Brand the scarlet A on their brow” (which is precisely what Christians did). Again, I do not condone their sin. All I’m saying is, we cannot be judge, jury, and executioners in the divorces of others. In responding to a divorce, should we try to determine where most of the blame lies, or write off the guilty by treating them like they committed unpardonable sin? I don’t think so.
Three, instead of remarrying no one or only those deemed innocent, Pastors can remarry everyone. Dad conveyed this position to me. It eliminates harshness, and keeps one from playing the blame game, but I admit I often feel guilty about some remarriages I perform (I feel bad about some first marriages I do, as when bride or groom seems flippant about their vows, or evidences not being a believer).
We Pastors who abdicate to the bride and groom the determining of their guilt or innocence find ourselves staying quiet in the face of everything. We end up feeling guilty of silently blessing a philosophy that essentially says anything goes.
I most fear my leniency could be misconstrued and used to encourage people to be presumptive before God. To presume on God’s forgiveness is a grievous evil. To enter into a sin, as it were, with one’s fist defiantly held high against God is a crime almost too heinous even to mention, much less commit.
Fortunately, the vast majority of Christian divorcees who have come to me seeking remarriage gave no hint of trying to defy God. They know they’re not making an ideal choice, but this is far short of being presumptuous before God. They are usually trying to do the best they can in their current situation.
Whatever our position on remarriage after divorce, we must make sure one message comes through loud and clear. Whenever a person repents, God forgives the past. We are followers of Jesus Christ, One who accepted sinners where they were and who sought to help and encourage, not crush, them.
God wants to meet each of us where we are today. If you are married, do all in your power to stay married. If divorced and unmarried, try to remain single. If you were an innocent victim of divorce who has now remarried, and have nagging fears you erred, ask for and receive God’s forgiveness now.
If you were guilty of sexual immorality in marriage, guilty in divorce, and guilty in remarriage, ask God to forgive you now. Even adultery of this triple magnitude is not an unpardonable sin. It is a serious evil, and we must not minimize it, but never let anyone feel they have sinned themselves beyond the reach of God’s love and forgiveness. If you are guilty, something only you can decide, repent and cast yourself on His mercy. You will find it to be sufficient.
Wherever we are and whatever we have done, if we repent, God meets us there with forgiveness, and wipes our slate clean. The repentant are forgiven by God, and whom God has forgiven, the Church must not discriminate against.
The New Testament gives only one limitation for remarried divorcees. They are not to serve as a Pastor or Deacon (1 Timothy 3:2,12) in a local church.
This restriction concerning Pastors and Deacons is not a statement about a person’s spirituality or about the value or quality of their marriage. Many Pastors and Deacons have terrible marriages; many remarried divorcees have wonderful marriages. The remarried, whether guilty or innocent in their first marriage and/or divorce, can have as much or more of the blessing and smile of God on their second marriage as others can have on their first marriage.
The Pastor/Deacon rule is given to let us have a tangible way to highlight the importance of marital permanence. I do not think this doctrine should be a test of fellowship between churches. Many godly leaders fall on different sides in this discussion. It behooves us to let each local church make its own determination.
Loose the divorced and remarried. Set them free to preach, teach, pray, lead singing, win souls, and whatever else needs to be done. Remarried divorcees can be as spiritual, as holy, and as consecrated as non-divorcees, and are often more so.
When dispensing blessing and power, God does not look on His children and see married once versus married twice, or single once as opposed to single again. He sees forgiven and unforgiven. In the forgiven category, there are no second class citizens. God’s forgiveness includes as a benefit first class status.
The woman at the well had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man (John 4:18), but received forgiveness, and immediately became a world class evangelist for Jesus. To the well she came dirty and guilty. At the well she found herself swimming in an ocean of cleansing, forgiving waters. From the well she went to invite others to come swim with her. Let’s do the same.