Remarriage 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 text has been so battered and bruised by the arguing and wrangling of Christ-followers that it is easy to miss the main message Jesus presented here. Our text is less about the Law than about grace, grace, all of grace.
According to 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. The innocent can remarry without guilt. Based on this principle of fairness, the early Church looked with favor on a divorcee entering with repentance into another marriage.
Not until the Middle Ages did the Church adopt an immovable, ironclad law absolutely forbidding, on the 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 reflective of God’s love and forgiveness.
Protestants have from the first generally tended to okay divorcees remarrying. This is not universally true. A few hardliners still embrace the ironclad prohibition. Some of the most radical of these groups teach that if you are a remarried divorcee, before you can be saved and join their church, you must divorce your current spouse in order to remarry your first spouse. Bizarre.
Though the radical 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.
For Pastors, this issue can be a major source of professional and personal anxiety. 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, it is every Pastor for himself, to sink or swim alone.
While preparing this sermon series, I read sermons from my similar series 14 years ago, to see if my views had changed. They had not. Much of the rest of this sermon is from one of those earlier sermons. It well fits in this context.
Trying to mix reverence for God’s law with compassion for individuals can be absolute agony. As a matter of conscience and integrity, an honest and conscientious Pastor does not want to condone the guilty. As a matter of compassion he desperately wants to bless and help the innocent (and the guilty). He ever juggles lifting the standard high while dropping the safety net low.
Each Pastor is in a predicament and essentially has three choices. One, he can adopt the rigid, hardline position and refuse to remarry divorcees. This position is consistent, and keeps 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, a Pastor can opt to remarry only those he determines 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 marriage. No outsider can ultimately judge guilt or innocence in a divorce.
Three, instead of remarrying no one, or only those deemed innocent, Pastors can remarry everyone. My dad passed this position down 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 also feel bad about some first marriages I perform, as when bride and/or groom seem flippant about their vows, or one gives evidence of not being a believer). We Pastors who abdicate to the bride and groom the determining of their own guilt or innocence find ourselves remaining quiet in the face of everything, and thus end up feeling guilty of silently blessing a philosophy which 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 terrible 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 Pastor or Deacon (1 Timothy 3:2,12) in a local church.
Some say the restriction in these verses is against not divorce and remarriage, but polygamy, having more than one wife at the same time. Using Scripture to explain Scripture does not seem to support the latter interpretation.
1 Timothy 3:2,12 literally say a Pastor or Deacon must be “a one-woman man.” 1 Tim. 5:9 used the same construction (see below), calling a true widow “a one-man woman.” Paul obviously was not referring here to polygamy. A woman never had more than one husband at a time. I deem it best to interpret all 3 verses the same way, as referring to one who is not divorced and remarried.
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. Many godly leaders fall on different sides in this discussion. Thus, it behooves us to let each local church make its own determination.
The restriction as I interpret it gives a local church a concrete way to hold the standard high. Apart from this one limitation, drop the safety net low.
Loose the 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.
[1 Timothy 3:2,12 read “mias” (one, singular feminine) “gunaikos” (woman or wife) “andra” (man or husband). 1 Timothy 5:9 reads “enos” (one, singular masculine) “andros” (man or husband) “gune” (woman or wife).]