Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:32b “. . .causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall
marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”
The issue of remarriage after divorce will continue to give rise to controversy till Jesus comes again, and where many consecrated Bible-believing Christians disagree, humility is ever appropriate. My desire is by God’s Spirit to speak truth from God’s Book as best I can and to convey the love of God’s Son as best I can.
Since a guilty wife who is put away is responsible for her own adultery, our text must refer to divorce’s innocent victim. A husband who divorces an innocent wife “causeth her to commit adultery.” Jesus assumed the innocent wife would remarry, and called the remarriage adultery for her and “whosoever shall marry her.”
Objectively reading our text and other pertinent New Testament passages causes us to believe remarriage is not God’s ideal plan for divorcees. The Biblical ideal is to remain single and celibate. If this lifestyle cannot be maintained, the second option is remarriage, which is better than the third option, promiscuity. One of the reasons for marriage is to reduce the number of sex sins (1 Cor. 7:2).
Early in Church history, based on a pastoral principle of fairness, and maybe based also on Jesus’ underlying assumption in our text that divorcees would remarry, one was allowed to enter with repentance into a second marriage. Not until the Middle Ages did the Church develop an immovable and ironclad law which absolutely forbade divorce and remarriage.
When the Reformers broke away, they generally rejected the Roman Catholic position on divorce and remarriage, deeming the law harsh and opposite to the love and forgiveness of God. Protestants have from the first generally tended to allow innocent victims of divorce to re-marry. John Owen wrote in the 1600s, “This is the constant practice of all Protestant churches in the world.” The Westminster Catechism of Faith (1647 A.D.) reads, “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” (chapter 24, section 5).
Though the dogmatic position of Roman Catholicism may seem too severe to most of us, the lack of a universal law among Protestants in general and Baptists in particular also has its drawbacks. Each individual pastor is in essence left alone, and forced to struggle on his own with this volatile and delicate issue. Without a clear cut Church law to fall back on, the local pastor faces a dilemma.
For loving pastors, this matter of remarriage after divorce is a major source of professional and personal anxiety. 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. He ever juggles holding the standard high while holding the safety net low.
Each pastor is in a predicament and essentially has three basic choices. First, he can adopt the Roman Catholic 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 remarry, but is also harsh and offends many.
Second, a pastor can opt to remarry only those whom he has determined to be the 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.
Third, instead of remarrying no one or only those deemed innocent, a pastor can remarry everyone. This is the position my dad passed down to me. It removes harshness and offense, and keeps one from playing the blame game, but I confess I have felt guilt at some of the remarriages I have performed. We pastors who abdicate to the bride and groom the determining of their own guilt or innocence usually find ourselves remaining quiet in the face of everything, and thus end up feeling guilty for silently blessing a philosophy which essentially says “anything goes.”
My worst fear about this third option is that its leniency could be misconstrued and used to encourage people to be presumptive before God. To presume upon the forgiveness of God is a serious and grievous evil. To enter into a sin, as it were, with one’s fist held high in defiance against God is a crime almost too treacherous even to mention, much less commit. Despite my concern about this option, as a pastor, the overwhelming majority of Christian divorcees who have come to me seeking remarriage have given no hint of trying to defy God. They know they are not making an ideal choice, but that is far short of presuming upon God. They are usually merely trying to do the best they can in their situation.
Whatever position we eventually take on remarriage after divorce, we must make sure one message comes through loud and clear. Whenever we repent, God forgives the past. We are followers of Jesus Christ, One who accepted people where they were and who sought to help and encourage, not crush, them.
God wants to come meet with each of us where we are today. If married, do all within your power to stay married. If divorced and unmarried, try to remain single. If an innocent victim of divorce who remarried, and have nagging fears you erred, ask for and receive God’s forgiveness now. If you were guilty of fornication within marriage, guilty in a divorce, and guilty in a remarriage, ask God to forgive you now. Even adultery of this 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 outside the love and forgiveness of God. If you are guilty, something only you can decide, repent and cast yourself upon His mercy.
Wherever we are and whatever we have done, when we repent, God meets us there with forgiveness, and wipes our slate clean. The repentant are forgiven of God, and whom God forgives, the Church must not discriminate against. Remarried divorcees can not serve as pastors or deacons in a local church, but this restriction 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 divorce, can have as much or more of the blessing and smile of God upon their second marriage as others can have in their first marriage.
The restriction is given to highlight the importance of marital permanence, and thus holds the standard high. Apart from this restriction, hold the safety net low by turning the remarried loose and setting them free to preach, teach, pray, lead singing, win souls, and whatever else needs to be done. Remarried divorcees are as spiritual, as holy, and as consecrated as non-divorcees, and often more so.
When dispensing blessing and power, God does not look upon His children and see married once versus married twice, or single once as opposed to single again. He sees forgiven and unforgiven. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God. Forgiveness from God includes as a benefit first class status.
The Samaritan woman at the well (JN 4) had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man, but received forgiveness, and immediately became a flaming, first class evangelist for Jesus. As the song says, “Jesus gave her water that was not from the well; she went away singing, came back bringing, others to the water that was not from the well.” To the well she came feeling dirty and guilty. At the well she found herself swimming in ocean depths of cleansing waters and forgiveness. From the well she went to invite others to come swim with her.